Saturday, July 18, 2015

JMT Day 5: Lyell Canyon Out and Back

Day 5 was the day my plan to thru-hike the entire JMT from start to finish this summer went to hell. And I was not the only one.

My friends and I woke up in our nice, warm room at the lodge to bad weather. It was raining cats and dogs. They wanted to hit the trail ASAP, and I wanted to pick up fuel from the store and ship a box of stuff home at the post office. The post office opened at 9am so I was in no hurry to get up early. Their itinerary determined that they had to hike 10 or so miles to Upper Lyell that day so they could go over Donahue Pass the following day. They needed to reach Red's Meadow Resort in Mammoth on time because their husbands were meeting them there with their resupply boxes. My itinerary was more conservative, with only a 5 mile hike that day. But I liked my new friends and hoped to keep up with them if I could. I figured I'd just hike as far as I could get in Lyell Canyon that day.

We split up that morning. They got breakfast burritos to go from the lodge, whereas I sat down in the lodge's restaurant for breakfast (a fruit cup has never tasted so good!). They set off in the rain around 9 a.m. while I was eating. Then I caught a shuttle over to the post office to mail off a box of stuff and pick up fuel, and caught the shuttle back to the lodge to leave from there, cutting a few miles off the trail. I hit the trail around noon, or maybe 12:30.

When I started hiking, it had just stopped raining. It was very nice out - briefly. And the hike was flat and pretty.

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Wild Onion
Wild onion

Wild Onions
Wild onions

Wild Onion
Wild onion

Clouds began building up again soon.

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After a few hours of hiking, the sky opened up. I kept hiking, hoping to reach my friends and camp together with them. I wore my rain jacket, but it was leaking (I didn't realize the seams had not been sealed when I got it, and I did not seal them either). I put on my wool gloves, which got wet, but found that they kept me warm even when wet. Still, it was cold.

Miles into the canyon, I began meeting JMT hikers who were turning around. I still kept going. Finally, I met a group from Las Vegas who had spent the previous night at Lyell Forks Bridge. They told me that 13 people had camped there the previous night, and every single one of them had turned around and gone back to Tuolumne Meadows. They had a cold, miserable night and they woke up in snow. One person had a GPS with weather reports on it, and it was going to be the same bad weather again tonight. A new group of people was setting up camp at the bridge, hoping to wait out the storm and go over Donahue Pass in the morning.

I was already 5.6 miles in, with 4 more miles to go until the bridge. My rain gear was failing. I thought about hiking up 2000 feet in snow, over several miles. I remembered snow shoeing just one mile the previous winter, and how much that sucked. Then I remembered walking in snow without snowshoes, and how much that sucked even more. I thought about doing that while going up a mountain and carrying a pack. And then I thought about my leaking rain jacket, and about how 100 percent of the people who spent the previous night at the bridge had bailed. Why did I think I knew something they didn't about backpacking in bad weather? Odds were, I could either turn around immediately, or camp at the bridge, have a terrible night, and then turn around. So I turned around.

I hiked the 5.6 miles back to Tuolumne Meadows with the Las Vegas group. They'd met a couple from Sonoma who had a car and had offered them a ride to Mammoth. The group - five people in total - planned to spend the weekend in Mammoth waiting out the weather. Then they'd get back on the trail from there. Doing so skipped a sizable chunk of the trail, but it seemed to be the only option. Unless you wanted to hike up Donahue in the snow.

We reached Tuolumne Meadows around 6 p.m. I began looking into my options - staying at the lodge again, getting a bus to Mammoth, or even getting a bus to Yosemite Valley to spend the night there. Nothing was possible that night. My new friends from Vegas told me to come with them to meet the couple from Sonoma who were driving them to Mammoth. It would be a tight squeeze in the car, but there was no way they'd leave me behind to camp in this weather. And they didn't.

With four of us squeezed in the back seat, we drove to Mammoth. We found a hotel, got 2 rooms, and began engaging in the most wonderful, comforting things ever: eating real food, showering in hot showers, and sleeping in real beds. The next day, we visited a gear store (Mammoth Mountaineering) because we'd all experienced gear failures of various sorts. Some folks realized that wool outperformed synthetic fabrics in bad weather and they wanted to buy wool clothing. Others had broken equipment they needed to fix or replace. I needed seam sealer for my rain jacket.

Everyone who was on the trail when we were hit the same bad weather, and I met folks who needed to make even bigger purchases than we did - like one guy who mailed his tent home to Puerto Rico and bought a new one for $350, and someone else who had to buy a warmer sleeping bag. Thank goodness I only needed seam sealer.

After a full day off in Mammoth (and a wonderful night at the brewery), we planned to hit the trail again the next morning. We would take the $7 shuttle from Mammoth to Red's Meadow Resort, where I had another resupply box waiting and where we all planned to rejoin our trail.

Day 5 miles hiked: 11.2
Day 5 elevation gain: 250 ft
Total distance hiked overall to date: 39.6 mi
Total JMT distance hiked to date: 26.9 mi

All of my JMT photos can be seen here.

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