John Muir Trail, Part 2 -- Trip Report

Part 1 (which was mostly just about the gear) can be found here.

Sometimes I feel that we have lost our connection to the land. We need to get outside more, push ourselves in nature, connect to the beauty through hardship, surviving without the technology, traveling with the things you can carry on your back. There are no excuses, and it doesn't need to be a 200+ mile journey. I saw a woman in what looked to be her late 70s carrying a 40+ pound pack, smiling a and joking with us as we passed her. We saw a family with 5 young kids, 3 sons out a few miles ahead of the mom, dad, younger brother and sister, and two horses. The boys were confident, fishing poles bouncing above their packs, probably looking for a nice place to stop and catch some of the family's dinner, and I thought of my own son, and the other boys in the neighborhood and how we won't even let them walk to school without a parent accompanying them.

The wilderness is important to us, and it is important to protect, not just for future generations, but for us.  It is that untethered place in our soul, the free, crazy, impulsive that makes you want to yell at the top of a mountain, climb a tree, swim in a river, runslide down a hill, mouth open and breathing hard, not thinking about what if, what if I fall, what if I run into a bear, what if I don't have enough gear, what if I'm spending all my energy, what if I have nothing left?

My soul is cleansed for now. I held the gaze of a fawn who wasn't frightened by the loud, clumsy animal carrying itself on two legs. There were a number of those calm moments, before the sun rose, staring at the stars, or resting on the top of a mountain, but when you hold that gaze with neither the intent to harm or the desire to possess, there is a calm that stays with you outside of the wilderness, a feeling of peace and connection that no number of tailgaters, long lines at the grocery store, or cell phone alerts can take away.

Sometimes it's just necessary, imperative, to get out from behind the desk (even the standing ones), and sleep in the open, yell at coyotes, run from a protective mother bear, hold the gaze of a baby deer, scrape away the decades of stress, and the layers of protection that cloud all of our interactions.

As you struggle in the wilderness, with blisters on your feet, dirt under your fingernails, snot in your nose, grease in your hair, grit in your teeth, and as you soak your tired, bloody feet in a cold stream, or sit in silence under the last stars as the pink and orange sky colors the cold morning mountains, or sit at the shore of a lake hungrily licking the last calories from the inside of a foil dinner, joking with a couple of good friends, and dealing with the raw emotions that come with making this journey with others, you scrape away those layers and your soul becomes clean.

That piece of the wilderness stays with you, it finds its way into your soul, and the only way to keep it there is to protect it, to revisit and refresh, to cultivate that feeling of freedom and wildness, to move beyond the drive-up tourist spots, to explore the trails that lead to the top of mountains, or just the intimacy of a sunset watched alone, a few hundred yards from a large RV “camp” filled with people who have forgotten to stop talking and just look up.

I didn't take many notes (I was usually too damn tired at the end of the night), so what follows is our itinerary based on memory, and I have tried to include a few highlights from each day.

Day 1 -- Happy Isles (Yosemite Valley) to Ireland Creek Jct. 29.5 miles.

We left the park and split off from the main trail to the JMT, watched the sun bounce against Half Dome, and finally felt the solitude after passing the groups hiking to Half Dome. The pools and rivers along Tuolomne Meadows were amazing, and we ran into Injinji runner, Marc Laveson, who did very well at the San Diego 100, and who I spent some time talking with a few weeks ago in Tahoe. He was running fast in the opposite direction, doing a High Sierra loop, and he inspired me to finish out the day running. That night, we camped down by a riverbed and it was probably the coldest night of the trip. The next morning we woke up to frost on the ground.

Day 2 -- Ireland Creek Jct. to Rosalie Lake to some small site off-trail with no bears near Trinity Lakes. 18.6 miles.

This was a tough day for me. I think the altitude hit me hard, and I struggled the entire day. Even with the shorter distance, it was tough going, and as we passed some beautiful scenery, especially Garnet Lake, I had a hard time appreciating how beautiful it actually was. I didn't feel that connection I usually feel with the trail, I felt more like I was watching one of those fly-over videos of the Grand Canyon from my couch, just watching the scenery pass without really experiencing it.

I was happy to be done and we found a beautiful campsite on Rosalie Lake. As the sun went down and we started to get into our sleeping bags, we heard a loud huffing sound. Paul said it might be a horse, then we heard it again along with what I thought was a low growl and the loud snap of a branch breaking. We all grabbed our trekking poles and stared hard into the trees, trying to see what caused the loud noises. Paul pointed out what looked to be two trees on a group of rocks about a hundred yards away. It was too dark to make out what they were, but when one of them craned its neck looking for mama, we knew exactly what they were. We had set up camp near a bear den, and mama bear was now protecting her territory. We broke camp in less than two minutes and were back on the trail for some night hiking.

We hiked a mile or two and found a nice, flat spot right off the trail. That night, the stars were absolutely amazing. I have never seen such a blanket, or counted so many shooting stars. We woke up a couple hours later to a howling coyote near our camp, which we yelled at, and didn't hear from again.

Pre-bear dinner at Rosalie Lake

I did a lot of thinking out on the trail. These are some of my deep thoughts. 
Top 5 Things I Thought About on the JMT 
  1. The immense power and beauty of nature, and my simultaneous connectedness to, and insignificance in the face of, this massive force.
  2. Sex
  3. Food
  4. Sex
  5. Foodsex

Day 3 -- Trinity Lakes to Lake Virginia. 22.2 miles.

Got some good running in on this day, especially the long stretch down to the Red's Meadow resupply area. It was great to see Ric, who was supporting us on this trip. We were so lucky to have him out there.

We also ran into Erin and Matt on the trail who were nice enough to hike in and bring us some apples, and after eating processed and freeze-dried food for the last couple of days, these apples were amazing, and now I get the whole Adam and Eve thing. Of course Eve ate the apple. Apples are the best.

Erin and Matt, trail angels

Day 4 -- Lake Virginia to Marie Lake. 25.1 miles.

I don't remember much of this day. I think we climbed a long stretch and it took a lot out of me. I realized that pushing too hard up the passes could really put me in a hole for the rest of the day. It was a good lesson to learn.

I was very happy with my gear choices and pack weight. At its heaviest (with four days of food and water) the total weight was 20 pounds, and at its lightest (with just some snacks and water), the total weight was 13 pounds. You can find my entire gear list (with weights) in Part 1. I liked some of the gear more than others, and the following are my favorites. 
5 Favorite Pieces of Gear 
  1. Patagonia Down Sweater. This puffy jacket was so nice when the temps dropped in the evening, and was the first thing I put on in the morning. I also used it as a pillow (inside a stuff sack). It packed tight and only weighed 280 grams, so no size and weight sacrifice.
  2. Expedition Foods Freeze-Dried Meals. Around noon every day I would start talking about dinner. These dinners are designed for people who do stage racing through the dessert, contained whole food with simple ingredients, packed 800 calories with 50 grams or so of fat, and tasted delicious on the trail.
  3. Patagonia Trail Chaser running shorts/ Asics runderwear combo. This was a great combo for me. No chaffing at all, which amazed me because I am prone. As a bonus I was able to wake Paul and Toby up wearing my runderwear and nothing else.
  4. Steripen. This is a no-brainer, light, fast way to treat water on the trail. I would definitely carry spare batteries, and water treatment tabs as a backup. The water on the trail was plentiful and delicious.
  5. Injinji socks. I started the trip with a brand of socks that I was comfortable with. I didn't bring Injinjis because I didn't think they were durable enough for the 221 mile trip. Unfortunately, I developed a pretty bad blister on the inside of my pinky toe on the first day, and it proceeded to get worse as the trip went on. Luckily, when we re-supplied at Muir Trail Ranch on day 5, I was able to buy a pair of Injinjis. They saved my trip, and I wish I would have started with them. On a side note, Paul used the Injinji Trail 2.0 socks for the duration of the trip and had zero blister problems.

Day 5 -- Marie Lake to Evolution Lake. 26.6 miles (including 3 bonus miles to Muir Trail Ranch).

This was a really tough morning. It started great, ran through a beautiful meadow and talked to Jack Chan, an ultrarunner from L.A. We ran right past the turnoff to our second re-supply, Muir Trail Ranch, so we had to backtrack, adding about 3 miles to the route. Muir Trail Ranch was nice, too nice, and I wanted to just stop and stay there for the night, especially when I saw the dinner menu featuring tri-tip. It was tough to leave, and when we did, I felt really low. We pushed on and hit a very beautiful section of the JMT, along the San Joaquin River and climbed up alongside an amazing series of waterfalls that led to Evolution Meadow and eventually to the absolutely gorgeous Evolution Lake. This was my favorite camp of the trip, and we arrived in time to soak in the lake, wash out our nasty clothes, and eat dinner as the sun set, bouncing its warm glow on the white granite mountains that surrounded the lake.

Day 6 -- Evolution Lake to Lower Palisade Lake. 27.4 miles.

The hike up to Muir Pass was amazing, past multiple alpine lakes, and ending in a strong push to the top of Muir Pass. Day 6 was also the day of the climb up the Golden Staircase. I did this climb with Toby, and it was great talking to him for the length of the climb. It made it go so much faster, and when I think back to my favorite moments on the trail, most of them were when we hiked or ran together, cracking jokes, or just talking. This was one of those moments.

Muir Pass

Our storm set-up at Lower Palisade Lake

Both Paul and Toby kept me laughing pretty hard on the trip, and when you're laughing, you really don't notice how hard you are working. Toby made up some great words on the trip (I was a big fan of Sniglets when I was a kid, so I thought these were great). Here are a few of the better ones that I can remember. 
Top 5 Funny Words that Toby Made Up
  1. Bearanoid -- Being paranoid about bears. "Is that bear canister too close to the campsite?" "Dude, don't be bearanoid."
  2. Altitoots -- The propensity to build up and release more gas at higher altitudes (or maybe just having the freedom to do so).
  3. Deuce miles per hour -- A slowed pace as to not get too far ahead of the person who is taking care of their business off trail (dropping a deuce). Not to be confused with two miles per hour.
  4. Runderwear -- Running underwear. For example, when I greeted Paul and Toby in the morning with nothing but an exquisitely wrapped package, and announced, "Let's hit the trail, bitches." The usual response was a disgusted groan and "nice runderwear."
  5. Blisception -- This is a Toby classic, but was very applicable to this trip. It refers to a blister within a blister within a blister (see: Inception).

Day 7 -- Lower Palisade Lake to Rae Lakes. 26.5 miles.

This was a very difficult day for me, especially the morning. I felt very homesick and thought about my wife and kids quite a bit. This was the first day I broke out the iPod, as I ran down the trail, singing Deer Tick at the top of my lungs. It made me feel better, and I hope that I didn't frighten any wildlife along the way.

We met this old cowboy on the way up to Rae Lakes. He was letting his mule train graze in a grassy meadow off the trail, and we spent some time talking to him about his trip and ours. He gave us some tips on camping at Rae Lakes, which he said was full of "jellyheads," and he told us about a nice, solitary spot. Jellyheads is my new favorite word.

Pinchot Pass

From the top of Pinchot Pass, these clouds just came pouring over the 12-13,000 foot peaks

Day 8 -- Rae Lakes to Wallace Creek. 24.6 miles.

We were hoping to see Ric again at about 8 AM, so we were in high spirits. Unfortunately, Ric wasn't at the meeting point and we started to really stress as the minutes turned into hours, and he had still not shown up. I wasn't worried about our trip (we could hike into the night), but I was worried that something had happened to him because he is about the most dependable person I know. We were all so relieved when he finally showed up, carrying a huge pack full of goodies for us (including more apples), and we all thanked him and started up again. Turns out that the wait turned out for the best as we followed a pretty bad storm for the rest of the day, walking on a soaked trail and seeing the thunder and thick rain clouds ahead and on one of the highest passes, Forester Pass. There is no way we would have attempted to do that pass in a thunderstorm and would have probably been huddled up in our ponchos in a storm if Ric had been on time.

There were so many instances like that on our trip, everything from the weather, which was beautiful for us all week, to the fire and smoke situation, led me to really think that someone was taking care of us. Of course I thought of Ben, who would most likely have been out there with us, and maybe he was.

We pushed to Wallace Creek, and found a great site near the creek. It was so nice to sleep on soft ground after many nights of sleeping on granite, and even with the 3 hour delay, we were in our bags by about 9 and we set our alarms for 2:30 AM.

Paul, running down Forester Pass

Another thing that kept us entertained on the trail were movie and TV quotes. Luckily, we all have similar tastes, and when it got really tough I resisted the urge to quote Requiem for a Dream
Top 5 Quoted Movies
  1. I Love You, Man
  2. Super Troopers
  3. Nacho Libre
  4. The Other Guys
  5. Role Models

Day 9 -- Wallace Creek to Mt. Whitney (official end of the JMT) to Whitney Portal. 24.6 miles.

It was nice getting the early miles in during the dark of the night, and watching the sunrise from the climb up Mt. Whitney.

We reached the summit, and the official end of the John Muir Trail in 8 days, 2 hours, 35 minutes. The summit was beautiful, and again, what looked like thunderclouds on the way up, cleared to a beautiful, blue sky at the top. The summit came with a major outpouring of emotion. It had been a very difficult and beautiful 8 days. I hugged Toby and Paul, and told them how happy and grateful I was to do this with them. It felt like we were finished, but we still had to run the 11 miles down to Whitney Portal, bacon cheeseburgers, and beer.

This was probably the toughest part of the trip, even though it was downhill, it was technical for about the first 7 miles, so it was really slow-going. It was also the hottest section we had experienced the entire trip. Once the trail became runnable, Paul and Toby took off. I didn't want to get too far behind, so I chased, much faster than I should have been running at that point. Sub-7 minute miles after 220 miles probably wasn't the smartest thing, but I really wanted us to run the last few miles, and to finish, together, which we were able to do, but I think I may still be paying the price, but all of that didn't matter at the time. We finished and headed to the store for the burger that I thought of at least once every hour over the previous 8 days.

Some trail love on the way up Whitney

At the summit of Whitney

Total mileage: 225.1, Total Elevation Gain: 46,000 feet. Total Time: 8 days, 2 hours, 35 minutes.

As we sat at Whitney Portal, inhaling a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and drinking water, coke, and Sierra Nevadas, I remembered the last time I was there, three years ago. I had just climbed Mt. Whitney, and had a great run down from the ascent. There were three kids at the next table over, they couldn't have been over 20 years old, two boys and a girl, celebrating, laughing with bright eyes. I could smell them from my table and kept hearing the three letters JMT repeated over and over. They asked me about my day and I proudly told them about my Whitney ascent, half-bragging about my time. I asked about their day, and they said they were also up at Whitney, but came up from the other side. I was curious about it, and I listened in awe about their journey from Yosemite. That was the start of my JMT journey.

As Paul, Toby and I finished our burgers and beers, and started packing up our stuff to head into Lone Pine for much-needed showers, a guy walked up to us, asking about our gear and saying he overheard us talking about something called the JMT, his eyes widened as we told him about the trail, and as we walked away he said he'd like to do that someday, just parts of it, but nothing as crazy as the whole thing, but there was this shine in his eyes, like maybe he was really considering it, or maybe it was just his eyes watering from our smell.

Dropping everything for ten days to play in the wilderness is a selfish act, and I want to thank the people who made it possible for me, especially my wife and kids, who are so patient with my adventures. Ric really helped make this trip run smoothly by driving us to Yosemite, and also re-supplying us at Red's Meadow and Kearsarge Pass. I also want to thank my mom, who helped so much with the kids, and my brother and business partner, Zak, who held things down while I was away.

I also want to thank Skinfit for providing some great gear for the trip, along with USANA for keeping me healthy enough to complete this adventure.

Finally, I want to thank Paul and Toby for sharing this adventure with me. May our tips gingerly touch, forever.

Thank you for reading.

In God's wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.
--John Muir

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