2017-09-04-20 John Muir Trail Thru-Hike

Distance: 172 mi.
Elevation Gain/Loss: 42353 ft./-42641 ft.

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Finder’s Trail Journal

9/4/17 to Toulomne Meadows to Upper Upper Lyell Camp

Off we start! We saw a surprise folk band concert of park rangers last night. It was moving and delightful! We passed lots of pretty fields and meadows this morning and took a break at a neat river cascade, then moved into the high alpine. The 10,000 foot altitude made it a tough day! We stopped at Upper Lyell Camp where we had planned to camp, but ended up going a bit higher and found a secret site out of the wind just under Donohue Pass a.k.a. “Upper Upper Lyell Camp”.

9/5/17 Upper Upper Lyell Camp to Garnet Lake

Saw two bucks prancing around this morning. We crossed Donahue and Island Passes and marvelled at Thousand Island Lake over lunch. Jim saw his first Mountain Bluebird and Craig caught his first Brook Trout. I also helped Jim and Melissa spot an as yet undetermined woodpecker. It’s been fun learning new plant and animal names from my knowledgeable crew! We stopped at the north side of Garnet lake around 4 pm and spent all evening reading and taking in the spectacular views.

9/6/17 Garnet Lake to Reds Meadow

Craig and I woke up at 5 am and sat on the lake watching the moon set and the sun rise. I’ve been reading a good book about a guy adventuring during WWII, so I sat with that in my lap while I swatted away a few mosquitos. We got started at 8:30 am and spent most of the day going downhill while passing a few more lakes and some old burn areas. We’ve seen gobs of northbound hikers but have only really been leapfrogging with one other southbounder, a nice Australian guy named James. We stopped at Minaret Creek where we had originally planned to camp, but still had plenty of energy since it was only 3:30 pm, and decided to head to a fee campsite in the Devil’s Pile National Monument area. James had told us he was headed there, too. Unfortunately we forgot that the weather called for T-storms, and they started up just as we reached the Devil’s Pile park. Melissa decided to wait there for Jim since he had stayed behind to do some birding. Craig and I went off to find the campsite as the skies continued to darken. We did eventually find the site, as well as the sign in front of it saying “Campsite Closed”. We rushed back to meet Jim and Melissa and needed to make a new game plan. The rain was getting harder and the thunder claps were getting closer together. We decided to take a chance on Reds Meadow, another fee campsite that could potentially be full. Luckily, there were a couple sites remaining when we arrived, and the thunderstorm passed over in time to enjoy a vibrant sunset over the hill behind the camp.

9/7/17 Reds Meadow to Duck Lake Outlet

Started off with a leisurely day, eating a diner breakfast, gathering supplies, and even grabbing showers at Reds Meadow. We met several other JMT thru-hikers headed in either direction, handing out extra food and advice. We got intel on a couple of the upcoming passes as we charged our phones. We also saw James again, who informed us that he had indeed camped at Devil’s Pile, and the ranger had let him stay for free! A spindly Russian guy, who was apparently running the JMT over the course of several days, had too much food and offered me some fancy power bars. Seeing as he had stumbled on and set up on our paid campsite after dark, we considered it a fair trade.

Finally we got back to our hike around 11 am. The beginning of the hike was hot and dry and almost every tree was decimated by some past fire. The trail was filled in with either sand or soft pumice for most of the day, giving the old calves quite the workout. We stopped at a shaded creek crossing, threw down our packs, and decided to run up a side peak called Red Cone. It was tough to go up but fun to go down the soft piles of scree. We moved quickly from there to the Deer Creek camp. We hemmed and hawed for a bit about whether to stay there. It was a perfectly nice campsite – if this was the Appalachian Trail it would have been top notch – but we thought we could do better. Only problem was we’d have to go another 5.3 miles for the next water source and it was 4 pm. We eventually decided to filter some water and move on. It was a long, slow climb through more dusty forest, until suddenly we found ourselves on a ridge with gorgeous views to our west. The shadows on the mountains shifted as the sun began to set. We hoped against odds that we would still have views at our campsite. About halfway between Deer and Duck Creeks, a graying man, bent forward with wide eyes and cracked, chapped lips, started descending toward us. Just as I stepped aside to let him pass, he said, “Can I get some help?”. Alarmed, I asked what I could do, worried he was in some sort of medical trouble. He said, “Can you grab the water out of that pocket and pour it into this container? I realized a few days ago that my arms don’t stretch that way.” Relieved, I quickly grabbed the water bottle and did as he asked. I said, “Did you notice if the Duck Lake Outlet campsite is nice?” He said, “Oh, Duck Lake Outlet is spectacular… The REST of it is spectacular!!”

When I finally arrived at Duck Lake Outlet, I admired the orange heather dotted with slabs of rock beside a rushing creek and, yes, views of the mountains behind us! We greedily set up camp in a couple of the wind-sheltered spots and then Melissa revealed that she had carried a beer all the way from Reds Meadow. We cheered to her heroism and our beautiful campsite for the night.

9/8/17 Duck Lake Outlet to Lake Virginia

We got a late start today as Craig and I dried out our dewy rainfly and I finished up my WWII book. We stopped for a bit at Purple Lake, a big, deep, blue lake flanked by tall gray slopes of scree. Craig caught and released a small rainbow trout. After a total of 4.5 miles we promptly decided to spend the day (and night) at Lake Virginia. It’s a long lake, partially truncated by marshy patches of grass. The wind was blowing enough to create sizable waves over the length of the lake. Jim and Melissa sniffed out prime campsites while I read on my Kindle and Craig fished. After a couple hours he brought back two fillets from a 12 inch rainbow trout, and quickly went about cooking them using a Jetboil… not the easiest feat. In the end we shared the fish between us four. It was light and flakey. Yum!

9/9/17 Lake Virginia to Mono Pass Trail

We had another slow start to the day due to the frosty conditions this morning. We had to wait for the sun to reach our hillside and dry out our damp gear. Meanwhile, Melissa did my hair into french braid pigtails. Eventually, I got a head start so that I could walk to the north end of the lake and snap some photos. As I walked over, there were dozens of cutie little rodents scurrying to and fro. Every time I got close enough to one to take a picture, it would dive into a secret hole in the ground. We made quick time on the ascent to Fish Creek. Craig decided to lazily toss his fishing line into the creek while we had a snack. Within minutes he had caught his first Golden Trout. He let the little guy go again. Afterward we had another good climb to Squaw Lake. I filled up some water at the lake outlet and then let my gravity filter do its work while we had lunch. Melissa decided to take a dip in the lake, so of course the sky immediately clouded over (this has been a running theme). I got so chilled that I hurried to pack up and start hiking after I distributed filtered water to the crew. The views up and over Silver Pass were incredible. Small lakes dotted the landscape, which alternated between granite slab and alpine meadows. The sun peeked through the clouds from time to time, helping us shrug off the stiff winds. I was in such a great mood after so many lovely views that I softly sang to myself as we made the steady descent from the pass. Suddenly, for no particular reason, I became certain that I had left my water filter in the tree next to Squaw Lake. I took off my pack and confirmed my suspicion. We had a group huddle. Craig considered running all the way back, but it was 1,000 feet and over 3 miles each way, and there was no guarantee the filter would even still be there. If only I had realized sooner. Well, it’s not the end of the world. Jim and Melissa have sanitizing drops. I decided to write a little note describing where I left the filter and where we plan to camp the next few days, plus my contact info. Soon after I saw a guy sitting on a rock and asked what way he was headed. He said north, so I explained my situation and asked him to give the filter and the note to another Southbounder if he found it.

As I left him, the group was feeling more cheerful and hopeful again. But minutes later, Melissa twisted her ankle, badly. After a few minutes of rest and taking some ibuprofen, she was ready to try hiking again. Jim took her bear canister while Craig and I took some other loose items. Just then, we heard a rumble of thunder. Melissa summed up the mood with a, “Really?!” A few minutes later the rain started to come down steadily. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself until I realized that the rain was unleashing the herbaceous fragrances from the valley floor. I was transported to a wet day hiking with Fatty on the Appalachian Trail, somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. Scents are funny that way. The happy memories carried me the rest of the way to the campsite, and Melissa made it without incident despite the downhill on wet, loose rocks.

When we got to camp we set up our tents and then Melissa inspired us to look for firewood. It seemed like a bit of a fool’s errand with the recent rain, but we managed to find some dry twigs under dense trees and overhanging rocks. Craig got the fire going with his Jetboil, and against all odds we got the fire going pretty good! It was such a treat to warm up and dry out while we chatted around our little campfire. Despite some literal and figurative ups and downs, day 6 was a damn good day. And I’m still hoping that filter finds its way back to me.

9/10/17 Mono Pass Trail to Marie Lake

We got up a little earlier today but still started kind of late because we were trying our best to dry the tent and fly before packing them away. Seems like we’ve fallen into a rhythm of starting late and hiking fast to make up for it. We did the first half of our day in 3 hours, including a 2,000 foot climb. From there we descended toward Bear Creek. The creek was flowing down broad rock slabs in gentle cascades, and it looked awfully inviting on this warm, sunny day. The four of us decided to clean off in the creek. That water was brisk! Melissa even convinced me to wash my hair by laying across a rock slab and dipping my head backwards into a shallow pool. Invigorating! Feeling renewed, we climbed to Marie Lake quickly. Craig caught a small trout and we had that for dinner along with a medley of other items that Jim and Melissa had left over. So goes the last night before a resupply. We enjoyed the ever evolving color scheme on the peaks surrounding us as the sun went down, then jumped into bed early as the wind picked up.

9/11/17 Marie Lake to South Fork San Joaquin River

The night on Marie Lake was ridiculously windy. It seemed like I rarely got more than 5 minutes of sleep at a time with how vigorously the tent was flapping. We had a long (really long) descent to Muir Trail Ranch to grab our resupply buckets. I was chanting to Craig about the bag of Terra Chips we had waiting for us. We definitely underestimated our cravings for salty snacks on this trip. We gorged on the chips and Oreos we had sent ourselves as we sorted through the resupply. We tried to lay everything in the bear canister according to when we’ll eat it, but kept losing track of our place. In any case, we have plenty of food. We left a few things in the “hiker box” – actually an assortment of very well organized buckets – and took a few things as well. We noted that the sky had begun to darken, but decided to move on nevertheless. The rain started after about 10 minutes on trail, and lasted about 45 minutes. It was enough to get us soaked, but luckily the sun returned and we were at least able to dry out our clothing. After entering Kings Canyon National Park, we climbed up with the San Joaquin River on our right. It was a punishing climb with our newly reloaded packs, but the river gorge with its countless cascades and waterfalls proved a welcome distraction. We found a couple small campsites, set up, and cooked dinner. Craig and I each got about two bites of our couscous in before the rain started again, in big juicy drops. We covered our dinner and ran back into the tent. When the rain died down we ventured back out. We each got about four more bites of couscous before the big juicy drops returned. We ran for cover yet again! The next respite from the rain allowed us to finish dinner and clean up before calling it a night with more dark clouds on the horizon.

9/12/17 South Fork San Joaquin River to Wanda Lake

Last night was about the closest I’ve ever been to a lightning strike. The strike lit up the entire tent and the long, freakishly loud rumble started less than a second later. Surprisingly, I slept like a rock afterward. This morning everything we owned was somewhere on the scale from damp to soaked. There was no sun or wind to help dry things out, so we ate breakfast quick and then hiked 2 miles to a patch of sun at Evolution Meadow, then dried out and had second coffee! The hike along Evolution Creak, which then “evolved” into Evolution Lakes, was quite lovely. We had lunch at the northern end of the lake and then had to decide whether to move on. The concern was that everything ahead would be above treeline and therefore not great in a thunderstorm. But we looked toward the pass and the clouds looked more threatening than innocuous, less threatening than ominous. With the ambiguous sky, and the fact we were already in an area sparsely covered by trees, we decided to continue on. Evolution Lake became Sapphire Lake, and Sapphire Lake became Wanda Lake – all four alpine lakes were literally connected by rivulettes. Between the lakes, the giant scree slopes encircling us, and the alternatively more and less threatening sky, the terrain was quite fascinating to move through. Just as we reached Wanda Lake, a storm seemed imminent. We found a couple spots somewhat sheltered from the wind and set up quickly. The rain came in waves, but we had brief moments of sunshine in between. We looked back down the valley we had just escaped. It looked completely engulfed in rain. We were feeling quite pleased with our choices as we had dinner with the sun on our backs. When the clouds returned we got back in our tents, just in the nick of time because then it started hailing! I watched in horror as little balls of slush rolled down the fly of my tent, convinced that the hail would soon pierce the thin sheet of fabric protecting me from the elements. Luckily the precipitation returned to rain… for now.

9/13/17 Wanda Lake to Palisade Creek

The storm died down yesterday evening and afterward it was exciting to see several thunderstorms happening at a distance all around our basin. It was very chilly and windy in the morning but at least the tent was dry. Craig realized that some little critter had chewed half of his water tube mouthpiece off. He’s still using it though, so he’s basically been making out with a marmot all day. When we reached Muir Pass we were surrounded by a desolate moonscape. Looking back on Wanda Lake, its deep blue looked out of place among the shades of white and gray. We took a peek inside the stone, domed Muir Hut, built as a refuge for hikers caught in bad weather. I was tickled by the idea that the sizable structure must be deep under snow for much of the year.

The hike down from Muir Pass was long, slow, and tedious. The whole team got pretty pooped. At least there were some bursting waterfalls to gape at along the way. By the time we made it to our low point, I wasn’t up for much more hiking. We were able to find an inviting campsite along Palisade Creek and had a little campfire. This time it was a breeze to find firewood, and there was even a small stack by the pit to get us started. The crackling fire helped restore us after our longest day yet.

9/14/17 Palisade Creek to Taboose Pass Trail

Although we started the day with a 2,500 foot climb over Mather Pass, we were all feeling really strong today. We stopped briefly at Palisade Lake and Craig caught a few rainbow trout. I washed and laid out some of my clothes, which are looking pretty mangy these days. From the lake, the route up the pass looked completely improbable with giant boulders jumbled everywhere. But sure enough, the trail remained wide, flat, and low-angle as it curved around countless rock walls.

We had a quick lunch at the pass. When we crossed to the other side, it looked like no place I’ve ever been, but in an indescribable way. It was like we had crossed a secret portal into another world, where the scale is so large us humans are like tiny dots. Before long we descended into a forest and returned to earth, albeit a very pretty version of it with a few leaves changing color for Fall and a babbling brook off to the side.

We were all in good hiking shape so we decided to continue past the low point and hike up toward Pinchot Pass a ways. We reached the South Fork of the Kings River, which required a ford, but we all wanted to be clever and try to rock hop across. Craig tried first by crawling across an overly flexible log before dropping his trekking pole in the water. I was downstream and rushed forward but he managed to nab it with the other pole. As he gave up and took off his shoes, I convinced Melissa to help me push a log in the river, trying to close one of the gaps in an otherwise passable rock hop. Instead the log floated a bit downstream and got stuck on a rock slab, creating a hazard for future river forders. I felt terrible and tried to nudge it off with my trekking pole, but only lodged it better. Hopefully it stays put while other hikers cross. I found a rock hop farther upstream that required me to sacrifice the dryness of one shoe, while Jim and Melissa forded the river without issue. We climbed for another mile or two until we found some lovely (but windy) campsites on a meadow overlooking The Palisades. Hopefully we’ll be warm enough with the amazing rock wall Craig built around our tent!

9/15/17 Taboose Pass Trail to Dollar Lake

It was a very chilly night and we woke up to frost over everything. We took a while to dry out (and search for Jim’s mysteriously vanished sock without luck) and then climbed Pinchot Pass. We passed three trail crews adding steps to the steeper sections of trail. At the pass we met up with a couple other southbounders and chatted with them for a bit, then hiked ahead. The descent was long and steep in sections with lots of rolly socks. I managed to roll my left ankle a handful of times. We crossed a terrifyingly wobbly suspension bridge. It’s normally meant for one person at a time but a crew was replacing the planks and letting people through in bulk. The decaying planks did not inspire confidence. Then we took our time climbing to Dollar Lake. It was a beautiful setting for dinner and Craig caught a golden trout to add to our curry. Craig and I looked through photos for a bit and when I stepped outside around 8 pm I think I saw the most stars of my life!

9/16/17 Dollar Lake to Independence, CA

Update: Jim found his lost sock! It was stuck in his jacket sleeve. I still haven’t heard about my water filter though. We actually broke down camp pretty quickly so that we could hike to Rae Lakes and dry out our damp tents there. The lakes were magnificent and Craig caught almost ten hungry trout. From below, the ascent up Glen Pass looked daunting, and indeed it was one of the steepest climbs of our trip. But it felt good to get the blood pumping. Jim and Melissa were hoping to get over Kearsarge Pass today to make our day into Onion Valley tomorrow an easy one. The Kearsarge Pass side trail was one of the prettiest sections of the Sierras yet! We hiked on a cliff high above a half dozen alpine lakes. By the time we reached our second pass for the day, town – and food and showers and beds – seemed awfully close. When we finally got cell signal at Flower Lake, Melissa gave our hotel for tomorrow a call and they had an extra room available! She booked it hastily and then we continued our 3,000 foot descent. By the end we all had a hiker hobble, but it was worth it. Melissa approached another hiker about a ride into town. He asked if we’d be okay with a dirty van… no problem there! We were excited to all ride together, but when we opened the back door of the van we were worried that things would topple out! It was filled to the brim with a mattress, clothes, and hangers. We weren’t exactly in a position to complain and after we piled in, we had one extremely soft ride down a windy mountain road. The gentleman driving the van took each turn very gently, which kept us from rolling around like pinballs. We thanked him profusely and congratulated him on his hike, which we learned was his first ever! We walked the last few blocks to the hotel and basked in the glory of trail town luxury.

9/18/17 Independence, CA to Bubbs Creek

We had a zero in Independence and picked up two stragglers – Brian and Rodrigo! They helped us with our car shuttle and are going to finish up the hike with us. I didn’t sleep so well last night so I spent the whole first half of the day with tunnel vision, focused on the two feet of trail in front of me and missing a lot of the magnificent scenery around me. It was unusual for me but luckily I snapped out of it as we reached new territory on the Bullfrog Creek Trail. We spent a long lunch at Bullfrog Creek and Craig and Brian both caught trout which made them happy. As a group we got our wires crossed a bit as far as camping and food storage plans, so Craig and I spent the night at a campsite about 2 miles back from the rest. The others wanted to cover more ground but we only had enough bear canisters for four, so Craig and I stopped at this Bubbs Creek site which has a bear locker. For all this hoopla, none of us has seen a bear or even bear scat. I spent a couple hours reading until it got too chilly and then tucked in for another 11 hours without daylight.

9/19/17 Bubbs Creek to Crabtree Ranger Station

We actually got started at a reasonable time this morning, trying to catch up to the rest of the crew. We were climbing quickly to try to shake off the cold and met them en route to Forrester Pass. We also saw a couple southbounders we’ve been leapfrogging with since MTR, two retired physicians from Winthrop. We gave them all the information we had about upcoming weather on the trail as well as wildfires happening in Washington. They hope to summit Whitney on Thursday, so we said goodbye for probably the last time.

One of my favorite parts of backpacking is watching for subtle changes in the landscape, and today didn’t disappoint. It had a lot of the features we’ve come to expect – shrubby desert, craggy mountains, alpine ponds, and looming pine trees – but assorted in a way that felt new and unexpected. We also got our first glimpse of Whitney! We completed the rest of our long, winding day at the Crabtree Ranger Station. We asked the ranger about the updated weather forecast and he said it will be cold and windy tomorrow, but precipitation should hold off til the evening. Sounds like it’s a go! We stuffed our faces at dinner and enjoyed the glow of the sunset over Mount Whitney with Whitney Creek cutting through the meadow below.

9/20/17 Crabtree Ranger Station to Whitney Portal

I woke up a bit earlier than usual and made coffee with Rodrigo while we watched the glow of sunrise from behind Mount Whitney. As we got started hiking for the day it was actually really warm, but as we climbed two thousand feet above Guitar Lake the wind really picked up and it got quite chilly. We dropped a few things off at the tail junction to the top of Mount Whitney. With a light pack and two and a half weeks of acclimating to altitude behind me, I felt like a rocket shooting to the top of the tallest mountain in the lower 48. It was an amazingly bright and clear day from the top of Whitney, with 360 degree views of mountain peaks surrounding us. Brian, who only had three days to acclimate, rocketed up the mountain just behind us. It was quite the victory!! We found a bivy site to hide out of the wind and had lunch while we shared one of Brian’s cellared beers. What a treat.

We had planned to camp on the south side of Whitney but it was incredibly windy and chilly even at 4pm. We decided to dip a bit lower in elevation for some warmth. By the time we got to the next lower camp, we were only 4 miles from the trailhead and we were all feeling the effects from 45 miles of hiking in 3 days. Although it required some night hiking, we decided to head back to civilization. It was an amazingly beautiful, invigorating, fun, and challenging 16 days in the mountains and I would do it again in a heartbeat!

Gear Used:

  • Backpacking tent
  • Bear canister
  • Fishing pole
  • GPS
  • Sleeping pad
  • Summer sleeping bag – Craig and Vanessa
  • Stove
  • Trail runners
  • Trekking poles
  • Water drops/filter
  • Winter sleeping bag – Jim and Melissa

One thought on “2017-09-04-20 John Muir Trail Thru-Hike

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