Tuesday, December 16, 2014

John Muir Trail: Planning My Itinerary

I haven't even lived in Wisconsin for five months and already I'm jonesing for my California mountains so bad I could practically go crazy. I'm headed back to San Diego over winter break, but I need more. So I'm planning to hike the John Muir Trail.

In case anyone else is interested in how one goes about planning a 220 mile hike, I'll share my plans here.

Step one: Figure out the basics - start, end, and resupply points.
Step two: Figure out everything else in between.

Easy, right?

The start, end, and resupply bit is easy. Most people start at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park and end at Whitney Portal. I've visited both places and hiked the last few miles of the John Muir Trail, so that helps with that. You can hike it in the opposite direction, south to north, but I want to go with the flow. I am hiking alone and I'd like to meet and hike with people along the way. Also, going south to north means you have to summit Mt Whitney on your first day. I want to start off easy and work up to longer, harder days.

Resupply options are ample and easy for the first half of the trail, and non-existent/complicated/expensive on the last half. Since I'm poor, I'm opting for "non-existent" (I'm not paying someone to come over the mountains via donkey with extra food for me. I'll be my own donkey.) The one possible exception is exiting the trail at Kearsage Pass to go for food then. It would involve hitchhiking. Don't tell my mother.

You can join a Yahoo! group for the John Muir Trail that provides a spreadsheet with every single detail and GPS coordinate for the entire trail, courtesy of Elizabeth Wenk. It would be kind to purchase her book if you are going to use her data. Fortunately, the Hanukkah Fairy will be delivering my copy of the book soon.

So here's my plan as of now:
  • Day 1: Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley. 4.5 mi, 2090 ft elevation gain. Ideally, once my tent is pitched, I'll go hike up Clouds Rest. Also, I plan to take the Mist Trail instead of the JMT when they diverge, which will make this initial segment a bit shorter and a bit steeper.
  • Day 2: Half Dome. Not strictly on the trail but I'm dying to do it. 7.1 mi. Camp at Little Yosemite again.
  • Day 3: Little Yosemite Valley to Sunrise High Sierra. 8.7 mi, 3600 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 4: Sunrise High Sierra to Tuolumne Meadows. $5/person to camp. 9.6 mi, 590 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 5: Tuolomne Meadows to Tuolumne High Sierra Camp. Resupply, relax. 1.1 mi, 90 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 6: Tuolumne High Sierra Camp to Lyell Fork bridge. 9.6 mi, 1030 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 7: Lyell Fork Bridge to Garnet Lake. 11.6 mi, 2120 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 8: Garnet Lake to Minaret Creek. 10.8 mi, 1270 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 9: Minaret Creek to Reds Meadow Resort. 3.3 mi, 280 ft elevation gain. Rest and resupply.
  • Day 10: Reds Meadow Resort to just before Duck Pass junction. 10.9 mi, 2380 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 11: Duck Pass junction to Squaw Lake. 9.8 mi, 1730 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 12: Squaw Lake to VVR: 8.1 mi, 450 ft elevation gain. $12 one-way ferry ticket to VVR if resupply is necessary.
  • Day 13: VVR to Hilgard Fork junction. 9.9 mi, 2840 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 14: Hilgard Fork junction to Muir Trail Ranch. 10.0 mi, 1420 ft elevation gain. Resupply.
  • Day 15: Muir Trail Ranch to McClure Meadow. 11.3 mi, 1985 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 16: McClure Meadow to Helen Lake. 11.3 mi, 2440 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 17: Helen Lake to past Middle Fork Kings junction. 11.3 mi, 430 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 18: Past Middle Fork Kings jct to Upper Basin. 10.5 mi, 3670 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 19: Upper Basin to after Pinchot Pass. 11.7 mi, 2120 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 20: After Pinchot Pass to Woods Creek. 4.7 mi, 20 ft elevation gain. Rest day.
  • Day 21: Woods Creek to Charlotte Lake. 11.2 mi, 3840 ft. elevation gain.
  • Day 22: Charlotte Lake to Tyndall Creek. 14.5 mi, 3630 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 23: Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake. 12.4 mi, 3360 ft elevation gain.
  • Day 24: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal. 14.3 ft, 2595 gain.
I might add more rest days in there. I might cut the resupply at VVR since it seems unnecessary, and I might add a resupply at Kearsage Pass. But, in general, this looks like a good plan. If I can get the permits for it.

Up next: Watching the weather, picking the date to do it, applying for permits, and lots of training.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: The Wild Wisdom of Weeds

I'm a big fan of The Wild Wisdom of Weeds by Katrina Blair - with a few caveats. This is a subject that I feel passionately about, because Americans devote an absurd amount of resources to removing helpful, edible, and medicinal plants (a.k.a. weeds) from our useless monocultures (a.k.a. lawns) every year. And then we use more resources to grow, harvest, process, transport, and buy other foods - in some cases the very same weeds we want to kill in our lawns (i.e. dandelion greens). Therefore, this book is a breath of fresh air because it lends some much needed perspective to the usefulness of the weeds we overlook and waste.

Blair establishes herself as an expert on the subject early in the text, telling how she spent an entire summer living off of wild plants. The book is organized around 13 extremely common weeds that you can find no matter where you live in the world, give or take Antarctica: dandelion, mallow, purslane, plantain, thistle, amaranth, dock, mustard, grass, chickweed, clover, lambsquarter, and knotweed. I've personally found all 13 here in Wisconsin, and all but two in San Diego (although it's possible I just wasn't looking hard enough).

For each weed, Blair tells how to recognize it, why it's useful, and what to do with it. She provides recipes too.

This is where the caveats come in. It appears Blair is a raw vegan, or at least her recipes are. This type of cuisine can be delicious, but if you are not a raw vegan yourself it can be limiting. You might personally find it more useful to have a recipe for dandelion pesto with dairy cheese in it and instructions to cook it, rather than recipes for raw foods, which often call for dehydrating foods and never bringing temperatures above 114F or so. On the other hand, if you ARE a raw vegan or you enjoy that type of cuisine, then this book is for you.

My other caveat is that Blair is a spiritual person, and her spirituality comes through in her writing. If that's for you - and a lot of people will find it very appealing - then that's great. If it isn't for you, I fear it might turn some people off. That would be a shame too, because there are not too many books out there covering such a crucial topic, and this one is full of valuable info.

My recommendation is to get the book, and if you aren't into Blair's flavor of spirituality and raw veganism, just let that stuff go. Read the book, and learn what you can from it. You'll almost certainly find a wealth of healthy food growing in your own lawn. Then look online for non-raw, non-vegan recipes using these delicious plants.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Best Way to Hike Mt. Whitney

This past week, I hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney. Depending on who you talk to, it is either 14,496 ft, 14,497 ft, 14,505 ft, or 14,508 ft. No matter what, it's the highest peak in the lower 48 states. And it requires no technical climbing or mountaineering skills to get to the top. Which is why people come from all over the world to hike it.

I think that's the wrong reason to do the trail. Don't hike it because it's the tallest; hike it because it is GORGEOUS. It's an incredibly pleasant, relatively easy trail (with the exception of a part near the top), and it's a really worthwhile hike even if you don't plan to go to the top.

Read on to find out why most people hike Whitney the wrong way (in my opinion) and how to do it right.

Mt. Whitney
Whitney's summit is smack in the middle of this pic.

Most people who hike up Mt. Whitney do it one of two ways. Some get day permits and they day hike. Typically that means starting anywhere between midnight and 4am, summiting in the morning, and hiking back down by evening. Unless you're in such good shape that a 22 mile hike with 6100 feet of elevation gain doesn't phase you and you're already acclimated well to high altitude, this option is grueling.

Everyone I spoke to who did it said, "Don't do it." Some added, "It's a beautiful trail. Enjoy it." When I did the hike, I ran into plenty of day hikers on their way down. With few exceptions, they all looked miserable. I hiked part-way with one day hiker at a spot toward the end. He was dead tired and not happy about having a few more miles left to go at that point.

Why turn one of the most enjoyable hikes in the country into a grueling marathon? Besides, the lower altitudes are so beautiful, and if you day hike, you pass them in the dark on your way up and when you're too tired to care on the way down.

An option, if you are really set on a dayhike, is to hike up to Lone Pine Lake, which is 2.8 miles up the trail, the day before to take pictures, see the trail, and acclimate to the altitude. You do not need a permit to go to Lone Pine Lake.

Here are some photos of what you miss if you do this section of the trail in the dark:

Steller's Jay
Steller's Jay

Anderson's Thistle
Anderson's Thistle

Mountain Monkeyflower
Monkeyflower

Glaucous Willow Herb

Scarlet Monkeyflower
Scarlet Monkeyflower

Poison Angelica
Poison Angelica

Bitter Dogbane
Bitter Dogbane

Scenic View
The View

DSC_4873

Western Monkshood
Western Monkshood

Scarlet Gilia
Scarlet Gilia

DSC_4935

"Hmm...humans"
Mule Deer

Shooting Star
Shooting Star

Elephant's Head
A flower called Elephant's Head. Can you see the elephant's heads in there?

Larkspur
Larkspur

DSC_5076

Waterfall and Wildflowers

Fireweed
Fireweed

Lone Pine Lake
Lone Pine Lake

That's just a few photos of the first 2.8 miles of the trail, from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake. See why it's a dumb idea to hike it in the dark and miss all of that?

The other way that people do the hike is better, but I still wouldn't like it myself. They hike 6.3 miles up the trail and camp at Trail Camp. Then they get up early in the morning (sometimes VERY early, like 2am) and hike to the summit, and then backpack out that same day. The trail is 22 miles total, so they only have to hike about 16 miles in one day. And at least they see all the beauty on the trail. But they have another problem:

Marmot Attempting Food Theft

That is a yellow-bellied marmot, and it is more than happy to chew its way into your pack or your tent to see if you have food in there. And if you were responsible and put all your food in a bear-proof canister, oh well. Now you've got a hole chewed in your pack or tent. Someone I met on the trail had that happen to him. Another person followed the advice we got in advance and left her tent open to save the marmots the trouble of chewing it. The marmots got in her tent and peed and pooped all over, even on her sleeping bag.

I don't know what your stuff cost, but I know what mine cost. Tent, $259. Sleeping bag valued at $420 (I paid much less but that's what it would cost to replace it). Backpack valued at $275 (again, I paid way less). I don't want my gear damaged by a marmot.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot
Marmot at Trail Camp, looking for goodies

Trail Camp is at 12,040 feet and it is rather crowded. It's above the tree-line so it's very exposed and windy. It can also be cold.

Here's what I did. I hiked in only 3.8 miles to Outpost Camp at 10,360 ft and I stayed there two nights. On day 1 I hiked in and took my sweet time, taking as many photos as I liked. You already saw the trail up to Lone Pine Lake (2.8 mi). Here the next mile, between Lone Pine Lake and Outpost Camp.

Mountain Heather
Mountain Heather

The View Just Above Lone Pine Lake

Looking Down on Lone Pine Lake
Looking down on Lone Pine Lake

Crimson Columbines
Crimson Columbines

Bighorn Park
Bighorn Park, near Outpost Camp

Bighorn Park
Bighorn Park, near Outpost Camp

Here's the view from my campsite at Outpost Camp:

Outpost Camp

Waterfall at Outpost Camp
Waterfall at Outpost Camp

When I arrived in Outpost Camp, my first thought was "Wow! I get to sleep here???" I was so excited! Sure, I would wake up in the dark the next morning and leave very early, but I was staying two nights - so I'd get all the opportunity I wanted to poke around on day 3.

The advice I got to stay at Outpost Camp was mainly that it's warmer, less exposed, and less crowded than Trail Camp. Plus, some people don't sleep well at altitude (I sleep fine) and it's 2000 feet lower than Trail Camp so you might get more sleep. After the fact, I'd say my main reasons for staying there are that my feet are prone to injury and don't do well carrying weight, so backpacking 3.8 mi is better than 6.3 mi for me, even if it means a longer way to the summit; it's beautiful; and there isn't a big marmot problem. I had zero marmot trouble. I did keep all of my food, trash, and cosmetics in my bear canister, which I left about 20 feet from my tent, so there was nothing interesting in my tent at all.

So my first day, I hiked those 3.8 miles to Outpost Camp. The next morning I got up at 3:15am and by 3.48am I was on the trail to the summit, in the dark, with a head lamp. I never even saw Mirror Lake (about 4.0 mi into the trail). By the time I reached Trailside Meadow about a mile later, it was light enough to see.

I saw some cute little pikas:

Pika
Pika, related to rabbits

Got some water:

Water

And passed by Trail Camp. It was already light, and Trail Camp had nearly emptied out by then. After passing Trail Camp, I started on the Infamous Switchbacks. It's a 2 mile section of the trail with 99 switchbacks. You're above the treeline, and the view is nice... but otherwise it's pretty boring.

Looking Down at the Lake
Looking down on Trail Camp Pond from the Switchbacks

Your last place to get water before the summit is a spring at switchback #23. Make sure you have at least 3 liters to take to the summit. Your only other option from here on is eating snow - if there is any.

The View Down on Trail Camp
The view from a little further up

Snow near the cables section of the switchbacks
Section of switchbacks with cables. At this point, you are 6.7 mi into the 11 mi trail

DSC_5281
A few of the plants from this section

Sky Pilot
A type of Polemonium known as Skypilot. You'll see lots of this and not much else from here on up.

DSC_5305
The view yet a little higher up

View from the Top of the Switchbacks
The view when you are nearly at the top of the switchbacks

Finally, finally, you hit Trail Crest. At this point you have completed 8.2 miles of the trail and you are at 13,700 feet up. You now enter Sequoia National Park (you were in Inyo National Forest). You cross over to the other side of the mountain, and remain there for the balance of the hike. Here's the view from the other side, looking down on Sequoia National Park:

Entering Sequioa National Park

View of Sequioa National Park

DSC_5400

DSC_5412

What I read before going was roughly "once you reach Trail Crest, the work is basically done, and you're basically there. It's just an easy 2.5 miles to the summit."

I disagree. I hated this part of the trail. Admittedly, I had a monster migraine (it wasn't altitude sickness, it was an out of control horrible migraine, the worst of the decade, that began the moment I woke up that day). But I think I'd hate it anyway. Here's the trail:

The Scary Part of the Trail

The Scary Part of the Trail

Yup. One wrong move and off you go over a cliff. The trail is really rocky for about a mile or two, which means it's not comfortable on your feet, and you have to watch what you're doing to avoid tripping and/or breaking an ankle. The way down was as bad as the way up (or worse), and I'm just grateful it wasn't wet and slippery.

From Trail Crest, you descend a bit and - about a half mile in - you unite with the John Muir Trail at 13,480 in altitude. Then you start going up again. At about 9.0 miles in, you see cairns marking the route up Mt Muir. Shortly thereafter, you come to the "Whitney Windows" - rock formations that allow you to peak through and see the summit.

This is the view of the ridge leading to the summit, taken of the side of the mountain facing Lone Pine. So the trail to the summit is on the back side of what you're seeing here. The last bit on the right side of the photo that is sticking up and out is the summit:

A View of the Summit

Don't underestimate the time it takes to go these last few miles. It's not a major elevation gain, but it's challenging hiking because of all the damn rocks on the trail.

Finally, finally, you get to the summit:

Me on Mt. Whitney

See all those clouds? They had just rolled in, in between when I reached Trail Crest and when I got to the summit. It was 12pm, and it was lightly hailing while I was on the summit. Afternoon storms are common, and I was relatively lucky on weather. It was cold at the summit, but it cleared up pretty quickly and never really rained. The day before I summitted, it snowed. I met some people who hiked nearly the whole trail and turned around because of the cold. I met others who kept going despite the cold - and they were dressed in shorts. I packed several layers, including a down jacket and a space bag. I didn't need the down jacket but I wanted to be prepared to be stuck on the mountain overnight, should a disaster occur. Thankfully, it didn't.

That day, another hiker broke her ankle near the summit. Fortunately, she got cell reception at the summit, and they airlifted her out:

Helicopter Landing on Mt. Whitney

So, now it was time to go down. My migraine was in full swing at this point, and hiking was not even fun anymore. I just wanted to get below Trail Crest, to get off that exposed ridge at the top of the mountain. At long last, I did. As I hiked down, I met more people who were still going up. Some of them looked like they were in bad shape.

I felt better once I reached the switchbacks again, and still better once I reached Trail Camp. As I reached Trailside Meadow on the way down, I stopped and threw up everything in my stomach, which wasn't much. I had tried to eat a sandwich at Trail Crest and had only succeeded in eating a bite. The only other thing I'd been able to eat was dried mango. And lots and lots of ice cold water.

Some people get sick from the altitude on Mt. Whitney. If you live in the U.S. you don't have too many opportunities to find out how your body reacts to being at 14,000 feet. But I'm lucky because I've spent plenty of time in Bolivia, where normal life takes place at 14,000 feet. I know exactly how I react to 14,000 feet. When I go from sea level to 9000 or above, I suffer from a minor headache and slight nausea the first day. After that, I feel fine. What happened to me on Mt. Whitney wasn't altitude sickness. It was a migraine - and one of the two worst migraines I've had in my entire life.

Fortunately, when I arrived back at Outpost Camp, my tent was already set up and ready for me. My stuff was all there. I sat with a hiker who was setting up camp next to me and we chatted as he had dinner. I ate an apple. Then I changed into clean(er) clothes, got in my sleeping bag, and was asleep by 7:30pm. And I slept for 14 hours.

During the night, I heard hikers going past me starting around 12:30pm. I woke up then and again at 3am and 7am. I got up two of those times to go to the bathroom. All three times I woke up, my head still hurt. But when I got up at 9am, my head felt fine. I got up, ate breakfast, packed up, and had an enjoyable 3.8 mile hike back to my car.

If I had to do it over again, I'd do it exactly the way I did. But now that I've done it once, I don't plan to do it again. I hike because it's fun, and the rocky top part of the trail was not my idea of fun. I really preferred the beauty of the lower altitudes over the part of the trail above 12,000 feet. I also like steeper trails than the Mt. Whitney Trail. It's not a steep trail at all. If I go back, I'll hike it as far as Lone Pine Lake or Outpost Camp or Trail Camp and then head back down. And then I'll explore the other trails in the area, because there are plenty of them, and they are no doubt gorgeous, just as this one was.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Yosemite Wildflowers

I'm told that this was a lousy year for wildflowers thanks to the drought. It was certainly a lousy year for waterfalls. On the flipside, there were fewer mosquitoes than usual (don't worry, there were still plenty and they ate well this weekend).

Lousy or not, the wildflower display was spectacular. Here are my photos. They are mostly taken at altitudes ranging between 7000-8000 feet, although a few come from lower altitudes as I descended the Yosemite Falls Trail. We backpacked from Porcupine Flats at Tioga Rd, past Yosemite Falls toward Eagle Peak, and then backtracked to the Yosemite Falls Trail, taking that down to Yosemite Lodge in the valley. I also did a day hike to North Dome and hiked along Indian Ridge and on the trail toward Eagle Peak.

Trip 2 Group Photo
Here we all are, ready to go!

We saw a TON of different kinds of penstemon, also called beardtongues. There are over 50 varieties in California. Penstemon is in the Plantain family. I did not get a photo or even identify every single type of penstemon I saw.

Azure Penstemon
Azure Penstemon, Penstemon azureus

Azure Penstemon
Azure Penstemon, Penstemon azureus

In which I get photobombed by a bee...
Same plant. A bee snuck in there... can you see?

Closely related are Keckiella. Here is some Gaping Keckiella on the Yosemite Falls Trail.

Gaping Keckiella

Gaping Keckiella

Gaping Keckiella

I also saw a wide variety of monkeyflowers, which are in the Lopseed family (Phrymaceae). We have monkeyflowers in San Diego, but the ones I saw in Yosemite were all new to me.

Common Monkeyflower
Common Monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus

Layne's Monkeyflower
Layne's Monkeyflower, Mimulus layneae

Crimson Monkeyflower
Crimson Monkeyflower, Mimulus cardinalis

Crimson Monkeyflower
Crimson Monkeyflower, Mimulus cardinalis

From the Asparagus Family, I saw several brodiaeas:

Elegant Brodiaea
Elegant Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans. Seen on the Yosemite Falls Trail, around 5000 feet.

Alpine Gold Brodiaea
Alpine Gold Brodiaea, Brodiaea gracilis. Seen near the Porcupine Flats trailhead at Tioga Road, around 8000 feet.

Alpine Gold Brodiaea
Alpine Gold Brodiaea, Brodiaea gracilis. Seen near the Porcupine Flats trailhead at Tioga Road, around 8000 feet.

My favorite flowers might have been the lilies:

Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily
Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii. Seen between 7000 and 8000 feet.

Small Leopard Lily
Small Leopard Lily, Lilium parvum. Seen along creeks around 7000 feet.

Small Leopard Lily
Small Leopard Lily, Lilium parvum.

Small Leopard Lily
Small Leopard Lily, Lilium parvum.

Small Leopard Lily
Small Leopard Lily, Lilium parvum.

In the Violet family:

Macloskey's Violet
Macloskey's Violet, Viola macloskeyi. Seen on the trail to Eagle Peak.

In the Buttercup family:

Some Happy "Little Frogs"
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa. Seen on the trail to North Dome.

In the Heather Family:

Western Azaleas
Western Azalea, Rhododendron occidentale. Seen by the sides of streams around 7000 feet.

Western Azaleas
Western Azalea, Rhododendron occidentale.

In the Purslane Family:

Pussypaws
Pussypaws, Calyptridium umbellatum. Seen everywhere when we were at 7000-8000 feet.

In the Phlox Family:
Skyrocket (a.k.a Scarlet Gilia)
Skyrocket, also known as Scarlet Gilia. Ipomopsis aggregata subspecies bridgesii.

And then there are the gooseberries. These were flowers, but now they are unripe fruit. And before long, they will become bear food. Particularly because I'm probably one of the few people who hike past them that knows they are edible.

Sierra Gooseberry
Sierra Gooseberry, Ribes roezlii. Seen on the Yosemite Falls Trail.

Seen but not pictured:
  • Blue elderberry: Sambucus caerulea (Adoxa family)
  • Yarrow (Aster family)
  • Yosemite Aster: Aster occidentalis (Aster family)
  • Arnica (Aster family)
  • Bull Thistle: Cirsium vulgare (Aster family)
  • Lots of random yellow stuff in the Aster Family that I was too lazy to identify because the zillions of yellow asters out there just aren't that interesting.
  • Baby Blue Eyes: Nemophila menziesii (Borage family)
  • Cow Parsnip (Carrot family)
  • Zillions of different lupine species (Legume family)
  • Corn Lily: Veratrum californicum (Lily family)
  • Mountain Pennyroyal: Monardella odoratissima (Mint family)
  • Scarlet Penstemon: Penstemon bridgesii (Plantain family)
  • Mountain Pride Penstemon: Penstemon newberryi (Plantain family)
  • Spiraea: Spiraea densiflora (Rose family)
  • Blackcap Raspberry: Rubus leucodermis (Rose Family) - fruit, not flowers, and they were delicious!
  • Currants (Saxifrage family)
  • Mountain Violet: Viola Purpurea (Violet family)
  • Snow plant: Scardoes sanguinea (Wintergreen family)
  • Candystick: Allotropa virgata (Wintergreen family)
  • ... and more I did not bother to identify.