Scott on Life

Ramblings and Other Blathering Ons

Our 2007 John Muir Trail Attempt (Day 0 and 1)

Shortly after spending a week backpacking in the High Sierras last August, my wife and I decided that we'd like to tackle the John Muir Trail (JMT), a 211 mile trail from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. Tackling the JMT requires a fair amount of planning. There's a limited time window for all but the most hardcore backpackers (people usually start sometime between the start of July and the end of August); you need a permit and there is a limited number of them handed out each year; you need to plan for and purchase supplies for a multi-week trip in the wilderness; and unless you don't mind carrying over 60 pounds on your back for the entire trip, you need to carefully partition those supplies and mail or drop them off at specific resupply points along (or close by) the trail. Fortunately, my wife is a world class planner and organizer; she had everything taken care of with the utmost precision and attention to detail.

In last year's seven day tour of the High Sierras we were joined by my in-laws and a family friend. For our JMT trip, these same three were planning on hiking with us from Yosemite to the South Lake trailhead, which is near Bishop, California and constitutes about 2/3rds of the total distance of the JMT. Our plan was to drive up from Southern California to Yosemite on August 12th and stay the night at a campground there. The following day we'd start our trek from the Happy Isles trail head and, assuming everything went well, would be standing on the summit of Whitney 23 days later (spending 21 days hiking and two days resting).

To Be Lightweight, Or Not to Be Lightweight
There are two types of backpackers: lightweight and traditional. As the name implies, lightweight backpackers go to extremes to lessen the load they have to carry. They usually forgo tents, for example, choosing instead to sleep under a tarp or under the stars (along with mosquitoes and other biting bugs). They'll wear trail running shoes instead of hiking boots. Some even go as far as passing on bear canisters. A bear cannister is a hard, plastic drum in which backpackers store food, toiletries, and other scented items that a bear might otherwise confiscate. Prior to the proliferation of bear cannisters, people had to place such items in a bag and hang it high up in a tree. Today, many areas require that hikers use bear cannisters, but some of the lightweight people are old school and continue to hang their food. For example, we met one guy last year who travels sans bear canister and bear bag - he said he sticks to sleeping above the tree line where bears are far less likely to roam. Traditional backpackers, on the other hand, carry tents and wear heavy hiking boots, and tote along bear cannisters.

To put things in perspective, a traditional backpacker might have 35 to 50 pounds on his back, depending on how long he'll be in the wilderness before resupplying. That weight includes food and a liter or two of water. A lightweight backpacker might only be carrying 20-30 pounds, or about 33% less than what a traditional backpacker is carrying. Lightweight backpackers can be a little overzealous about their weight and what they choose to carry, and often travel much faster and cover more ground per day than traditional backpackers due to their lighter load. There is a certain sect of lightweight backpackers that seem to concentrate more on their daily mileage and the time it takes to complete a trail rather than enjoying nature and the scenery. We met one guy who had scheduled to do the JMT in seven days, meaning he was averaging more than 30 miles per day! He admitted that this schedule required him to get up well before sunrise and that most times he was setting up camp in the dark. To me, such stringent hiking seems to defeat the whole purpose of going out into the back country, although a lightweight backpacker will insist that they are able to enjoy the experience more because they're not laboring under a 50 pound load. Traditional backpackers usually have mixed feels of envy and pity for lightweight hikers. On one hand, they envy their light load; on the other, they pity them for missing the scenery. One traditional backpacker we met on the trail this year summed up this sentiment by saying, "The one good thing about lightweight backpackers is that they're gone soon after you see them."

In any event, my wife and I (and my in-laws and the family friend) are what you'd consider traditional backpackers, although the more I hike the more I strive to lessen my load. On our first backpacking trip together, I lugged a little over 45 pounds on my back for a three-day trip. For this trip my pack weighed in at a hair under 40 pounds. Part of the reason for the decrease in weight is because on that first trip we rented standard gear from REI. Since then, we've enjoyed several backpacking trips and have slowly replaced rented gear with purchasing lighter, higher-end supplies: a titanium pot for cooking instead of an aluminum one; down sleeping bags instead of synthetic ones; smaller, lighter tents. Also, after the first trip I pared down my pack list to only essentials: no entertainment items like a book and only two pairs or clothes, instead of three. I think if it were just myself hiking, I'd go lightweight. I'd rather put up with bug bites in the night and ditch the four pound tent. I could drop down to a single pair of clothes. But my wife is pretty stubborn on having a tent and me having two pairs of clothes so I can wash them every so often and not stink up the place as badly.

Day 0: Getting to Yosemite Valley
Driving directly from Southern California to Yosemite National Park takes between 6 and 8 hours depending on where you're coming from and traffic. You just go north on Highway 5 until Bakersfield, where it splits into the 5 and 99. Continue north on the 99 until you reach Fresno, where the 41 forks off from the 99. The 41 takes you straight into the park. This route takes you up the west side of the Sierra Nevadas. However, we needed to drop off a car at the South Lake, which is on the east side of the mountains. To top it off, there are few highways connecting the east and west sides of the Sierra Nevadas. Fortunately, there is one that cuts through Yosemite, but still it's a long trip. We left at 4:00 AM on Day 0, dropped off the car at the South Lake trail head, and arrived at Yosemite Valley around 3:00 PM.

This was my first visit to Yosemite. My overall impression of the park is one that I'm sure is shared by many: it's scenic, but grotesquely overpopulated. We stayed the night at the tent cabins in Curry Village. Essentially there are rows and rows of these 10x12 foot tent cabins, each with some cots, a dresser, and a light. They pack the cabins in like they do condos in a beach community, with usually just a few feet between each cabin. Since the cabin walls are simply canvas, you end up hearing virtually any noise, be it the tent occupants next door, the group of guys sitting out and drinking down by the bathroom, or the baby crying across the aisle. My wife had warned me about this beforehand, so I brought sleeping pills and ear plugs. No one else in our party brought these sleeping aids, though, so I was the only one that got a good nights rest that first night.


Day 1: Happy Isles Trail Head to a Campsite Just Past the Half Dome Junction [Pictures]
Distance: 5.4 Miles
Elevation Changes: 4,035 - 7,020

At 4,035 feet, Yosemite Valley is the lowest point on the entire JMT. The vast majority of the JMT is situated between 8,000 and 12,000 feet, meaning that our first few days were going to be particular tough as we climbed out of the valley and into the High Sierras. Compounding the challenge was the fact that my wife and I were sorely out of shape having spent most of our summer sitting behind the windshield of a car. While you can definitely hike yourself back into trail shape, it takes a few days. It wasn't until Day 5 or so that I felt like I had my legs back under me. Needless to say, even though today was a short day it was hard as we trudged out of the valley. Also, the weather this year was very, very dry, which resulted in less than ideal scenery: the mountains had far less snow on them, the meadows were brown instead of green, Yosemite's spectacular falls were either dry or muted, and there were few wildflowers along the way. The weather was also a lot hotter than last year's trek into the High Sierras.

The day started at around 5:30 AM, when we woke up, got dressed, got a bite to eat, and caught the shuttle from Curry Village to the Happy Isles trail head. We started our way on the trail around 7:30 AM. Shortly after the trail head is the following sign, which shows distances to various landmarks. At the bottom you can see that Mt. Whitney is just 211 miles away!


Today's trek started up toward Vernal Falls. After a mile and a half of pretty constant uphill, a bridge is reached where Vernal Falls is crossed. My wife, whose family visited Yosemite many times in her youth, reminisced how Vernal Falls is usually a roaring wave of water cascading down the rocks. Due to the dry winter, the fall was pretty tame. After crossing Vernal Falls, the trail forks into two branches that, eventually, meet up above Nevada Falls. One branch takes hikers along Vernal Falls and is known as the Mist Trail due to the mist from the falls. This mist coats the rocks and can make them slippery, so backpackers usually take the other fork, which is less scenic but drier and not as steep. We opted for the drier and steeper route since, technically, the JMT follows that fork rather than the Mist Trail (and it is also the safer choice for those lugging heavy backpacks).

After another two miles of fairly constant uphill, Nevada Falls is reached. Like Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls is usually quite impressive (check out some of the pictures at its Wikipedia entry), but this season it was just a trickle. At the top of Nevada Falls we took a 45 minute snack/lunch break. Yosemite is notorious for its animal population that has habituated to humans. Yosemite is especially known for its bears, which boldly enter populated campsites and break into cars in their quest for food, but virtually all animals in the park have learned that people equals food. As we rested at Nevada Falls, six ground squirrels decided to see what food we had to offer. We kept chasing them off, but they were pretty brazen. A couple times we'd be talking or not paying close attention, and the next thing you knew you'd have two squirrels sitting motionless just six inches from you, staring at the trail mix in your hand.

After our break, we continued up to Little Yosemite Valley, the first campground outside of the valley. Some backpackers have a real easy first day and stop at this campsite. Our goal was more aggressive, however: we had planned to hike another two miles, set up camp, and then hike sans backpacks to the Half Dome summit and back. By the time we reached our campsite (about 200 yards past the Half Dome junction), it was only 2:30 PM, but we were too exhausted to contemplate tackling Half Dome (which was another 5 miles and 5,000 feet total elevation change round trip from our campsite). We did, however, have a great view of Half Dome from our campsite that night.


Day 2 involved hiking from our campsite at 7,020 ft. to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp situated at 9,320 ft. and 7.6 miles away. I'll continue with that day and the rest of our time in the Yosemite Wilderness in a future posting...

UPDATE [2007-09-17]: Read about Day 2.