Normally, I hike alone because I am slow. I prefer hiking with a friend, but usually when I attempt to go with others, they speed past me and leave me alone anyway. If I set out alone in the first place, I'm still alone - but at least I don't feel rejected. Maybe it's not true that when others ditch me because I am slow, they are being unkind. Maybe I should not feel hurt. But I always do.
The John Muir Trail was perfect for me, because I could set my own pace and hike alone, but there were so many nice people on the trail that I always had people to camp with at night. I can do as many miles per day as they can... just slower.
The hiccup for my hiking alone plan is grizzly country. I don't think it's a good idea to go out alone when you might meet a mama grizzly protecting her cubs. So I found a group going to the Grand Tetons on Meetup.com and decided to sign up. I'd hiked with them before on a short day hike and I was able to keep up just fine. Prior to the trip, they said to one another that we should always stay together on this trip, and nobody should ever go anywhere alone because of the grizzlies. We bought 2 cans of bear spray, and off we went.
The trail was the Death Canyon Loop. The Death Canyon trailhead is down a bumpy one-lane but two-direction dirt road that is labeled as 4-wheel-drive only. My poor little Prius does not have 4 wheel drive, but I drove it down that road anyway until it became so bumpy that I refused to go one more inch. I parked about a quarter mile from the trailhead.
By the time we reached the trailhead, my group had already left me in the dust. I met them at the trailhead, where they had stopped at the bathroom. Then we set off again, and they sped ahead of me again. Apparently "sticking together" only applied if you could hike fast enough. Otherwise, it was out the window - grizzlies or no. I loudly asked them to either have someone stay with me or give me one of our two cans of bear spray. They gave me the bear spray and then hiked on without me.
My photos aren't what they might have been on a different day, because the entire park is thick with smoke from wildfires out west. It looked like Los Angeles smog was somehow transported to Wyoming. Still, the hike was beautiful.
The trail starts at the Death Canyon trailhead, which is below 7000 feet, and goes up 0.9 miles to the Phelps Lake overlook (7200 feet above sea level).
Phelps Lake from the overlook
Then the trail drops down about 500 feet to Phelps Lake and hits a junction at 1.7 miles. One direction takes you to Phelps Lake, and the other into Death Canyon. On the way down, I nearly ran into a grouse on the trail. She did not want to move either, but finally - slowly - she did. I was worried that she was injured but she seemed fine.
Grouse in the trail
After the drop down toward Phelps Lake, the trail begins to climb again. There were more switchbacks than I wish to recount.
At 3.9 miles you reach a log cabin and another junction, which is around 8000 feet above sea level. This is where you will return at the end of the loop. You can go right toward Alaska Basin if you enjoy pain, switchbacks, and rapid elevation gain. Otherwise, go left toward the Death Canyon camping area, which begins another mile in. We went left.
That junction is 5.5 miles from Fox Creek Pass (9600 feet), and the Death Canyon camping zone encompasses a large area along those miles of trail. We spent our first night at the Group Camp Site, a spacious camp site with a bear box. It was about 7 miles into the trail. The trail from the log cabin to the group camp site went along a river and alternated between open and forested areas. There were flowers everywhere - asters, daisies, larkspur, monkshood, fireweed, paintbrushes, gentian, and more. Truly, flower heaven.
I had one wildlife sighting that first day. It was this guy:
The buck was right in the trail, but he quickly fled when I showed up. This was the best shot I got of him, unfortunately.
The campsite was nice, although it got cold even before the sun set. I followed my normal backpacking routine of going to bed once it got cold, which the people I was with seemed to think was nuts. And I did not care a bit, because at least I was warm.
All in all, between the trail head and Fox Creek pass, you hike 9.4 miles and gain at least 3000 feet in elevation, probably a little more. We did about 7 miles of that the first day and about 2000 feet of elevation gain.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Saturday, August 8, 2015
After all is said and done, I learned a TON from my hike on the JMT. Here's what I learned, and what I wish I knew before I went.
- Yes, it DOES rain, snow, and hail in the Sierras. It even snows in July, generally at the higher altitudes. While you don't need a 4-season tent or crampons, you DO need to be prepared for all kinds of weather.
- Make sure your tent and rain jacket are seam sealed.
- Have a rain cover for your pack, or a garbage bag to line the inside with. (The bummer of the latter option is that the outside of your pack will get wet, and water is heavy to carry.)
- A 30 degree sleeping bag is not warm enough. I brought a 15 degree sleeping bag with a silk liner and it was fine. (The liner was more for keeping my bag clean than for warmth.)
- If you can, go hiking in the rain in advance to test out your rain gear and make sure it works.
- I did fine with a rain jacket (no kilt or pants), the aforementioned sleeping bag, a very warm sleeping pad that I loved (NeoAir XTherm 3/4 length), and a hooded down jacket that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a down jacket (Marmot Quasar).
- Extra uses for this gear on the trail were: wearing my rain jacket in areas with lots of mosquitoes to keep the bugs off, wearing my rain jacket while washing my other clothes, using my sleeping bag liner as a blanket while eating breakfast on cold mornings, and wrapping my camera in my rain jacket at night to keep the camera safe from condensation.
- Unless you are really strong and fast and experienced in backpacking, doing a resupply between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney Portal is a very good idea. It's either expensive, or a pain, or both. But it's a great idea. I found that I really benefit from being back in civilization every 5 days or so, so hiking out Kearsarge Pass and going into Independence to spend a night eating real food and showering could have been a good idea. It's a drag to hike out Kearsarge because it adds 15 miles to the trail, but it's actually a very pretty hike. Or you can hire a mule. Either way, planning for a resupply at Kearsarge in advance might mean the difference between finishing your hike or not finishing. Or running out of food, as many, MANY people did. It appeared that about half of the people I was hiking with, if not more, ran out of food toward the end of the hike. Some had days without dinner, some got food from other people who had extra, and several had to hike longer miles each day to finish before they ran out of food.
- Make sure you LIKE your food. I packed healthy food, but it was not stuff I necessarily enjoyed eating on the trail. If you can, do as much backpacking in advance and bring along the food you plan to eat on the JMT.
- I found that, while trail mix is healthy in theory, I never wanted to eat it. But cheese on the other hand - I could gobble that up during the day no problem. Since I packed lots of trail mix and dried fruit to eat during the day, I ended up hardly eating anything at all - and I bonked twice. That was bad.
- For my dinners, I packed Mary Jane's Farm organic meals. I tasted two of them in advance and I did like them - initially. But then I got sick of them by about the third night. I had not realized that the "variety" of foods I selected were actually just different permutations of the same ingredients. The Chilimac and the Cheesy Noodle Casserole were almost identical, and after two nights of eating them, the cheese made me want to gag. The Curry in a Hurry and Lentils, Rice, and Indian Spice were basically identical, but the Curry had the same cheese that I was already sick of added to it.
- I later discovered Good To-Go meals, and the Herbed Mushroom Risotto was delicious. I was less crazy about the Three Bean Chili.
- On a related note, make sure you have enough salty and sugary foods to prevent electrolyte loss and bonking.
- In normal life, I try not to eat too much sugar. So I did not pack very much. Bad idea. That led to bonking. When I went home to get better food, I picked up a small bag of gummy worms. Later, someone gave me some jelly beans on the trail. They were immensely helpful. I was then able to complete longer and harder days of hiking without any trouble. Well, aside from blisters and sore muscles, but that's another story.
- For the second half of my trip, I also brought salami and aged cheese. They were delicious! I looked forward to eating them every day for lunch. They were also nice and salty. I don't know if they helped because of the salt, but they at least helped make me happier on the trail.
- When people talk about needing to replace electrolytes, they basically mean sodium and potassium. There are foods that have these nutrients, so bringing some sort of electrolyte drink is not technically necessary. I did without that. I don't like putting anything but water into my water bladder, to keep from having to wash it later.
- Land navigation training is a good idea. It's one thing to be able to find a spot on your map, but it's another thing to find it in real life when there are no signs. The trail is well-marked in general, and you can count on seeing a clear sign at every junction. You won't necessarily find a sign on every single stream or creek you cross.
- Whatever method of land nav you use, make sure you know how to use it. A GPS device won't help you if you don't know how to use it. I use a watch with an altimeter that is based on barometric pressure, which means it's always a few hundred feet off. I would use my map to figure out how many hundred feet my watch was off by, and then used the altimeter to help with navigation. It was a HUGE help. The watch is solar powered, so I didn't have to worry about running out of batteries ever. Together with my topo and my compass (which I knew how to use), I was always confident in knowing where I was on the trail.
- Going solo is OK. You will never be alone. You'll meet friends immediately. If you want to be alone, no doubt you can find ways to hike and camp alone. But I did not want to camp alone, and I never did. Not even once. And I met wonderful, wonderful people.
- Wear wool! Unlike synthetic fabrics, wool is anti-microbial and it really keeps the stink down. After a full day of hiking, my wool shirts would have a very slight odor in the pits. It was more pronounced after two days of wear. After a full day, my wool socks did not smell at all. I wore Icebreakers T-shirts, REI brand socks, an Icebreakers bra, Icebreakers long underwear, SmartWool gloves, and a SmartWool hoodie. I would bring them all again except for the bra (I'd go without).
- Most days, I would wash my extra pair of underwear and shirt in the morning and then hang them on my pack to dry. They would be dry by the time I got to camp for the night. Then I would wash myself if need be, and change into my clean shirt and undies. And repeat again the next day.
- The people who wore synthetic fabrics had big problems with stinking. One friend brought her smelly clothes home after the hike and could not get the stink out after 2 washes. She said she was going to burn them.
- Wool also keeps you warm even when it gets wet. On a long, cold hike in the rain, I wore my wool gloves and they kept my hands warm even though they got wet. After we hit bad weather, several people I was with bought wool clothing in Mammoth to wear for the rest of the hike.
- There's no rule that you have to finish the entire JMT. As everyone says, hike your own hike. Yeah, you won't be able to say you did the entire thing in one go... but you WILL be able to say you had a good time. Personally, I did not really care for the scenery of the last 37 miles of the trail compared to everything north of it. I would have probably had the best time if I thru-hiked everything from Happy Isles to Charlotte Lake and then hiked out through Kearsarge Pass and ended my hike there.
- Yes, the critters really will steal your food. Everything that isn't nailed down. This is more the case in the high tourist areas - Little Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Mt Whitney - than anywhere else. But in those places, if you leave a pack or a tent lying around with food in it, expect a squirrel or marmot to chew a hole in it to steal your food. Even your trash. It's not just the bears who are the problem.
- Yes, you should spend a night at VVR.
- Plan zero days and be flexible. You might end up having unexpectedly short days due to weather, or get delayed going over a pass because of lightening, and the zeros built into your schedule will give you flexibility. Plus, it's good to have room in your schedule to let your blisters heal or to change your plans so you can hike and camp with new friends.
- Use OmniFix for your blisters.
- If you need to exit the trail, you often can. Aside from the common resupply points (Tuolumne Meadows, Red's Meadow, VVR, and MTR), you can also leave the trail by going over Duck Pass (near Duck Creek), McGee Pass (near Tully Hole), Bishop Pass, Kearsarge Pass, and the Rae Lakes Loop (which takes you out to the west at either Wood's Creek or Bubb's Creek). If you aren't having fun, remember that you aren't stuck. There are also a lot of ranger stations around in the King's Canyon section, so if you aren't sure how to get out, you can ask them.
Posted by Jill Richardson at 12:52 PM