Trip Report: John Muir Trail Backpack (Part 1)

John Muir Trail Backpack (Part 1)
By Michael Budig
HIKE 08/10/2010 MOD+

The John Muir Trail is considered one of the classic hikes of the world. It is nearly 220 miles long and involves over 40,000 feet of elevation while traversing from Yosemite to Mt Whitney through some of the most spectacular scenery of the High Sierras. So, when I posted the trip, I expected to receive some interest and found that I had as many as 12 on the pre-trip list at one time. But as the reality and difficulty of the trip got closer, this whittled down to three participants, a much more manageable number.

I hiked with the remaining two, Larry Hall and Dennis Goreham on my Desolation Trail hike a week before the JMT and found they were both in better shape than I was. And I fully expected I would complete the hike, so I was reassured.

We met on Sunday, August 8 early in the morning for a great breakfast thanks to Dennis and his spouse, Shelly before leaving for California. We arrived at Tuolumne Meadows the next day and were able to obtain a new permit allowing us to start the hike the next day, two days earlier than the original permit. We would be starting the hike from Tuolumne Meadows rather than Yosemite Valley, clipping about 20 miles from the trip. So we dayhiked and camped that night in Tuolumne Meadows. And we observed a black bear and cub running through the shrubbery near our campsite. The Ranger told me this bear was fairly bold and has a history of grabbing food and packs when when people are near. But we had no problem.

The next morning we started out hike up Lyell Canyon to Donohue Pass- a very challenging uphill in hot weather. Larry and Dennis wanted to increase the daily milage at the start of the trip to shorten the days later in the trip. I noticed two marmots on the trail- both pretty scraggly looking- and both eating horse crap. I figured perhaps the late snowmelt made them somewhat desperate.

We hiked about 35 miles to Red's Meadow, where we had thermal showers and shuttled into Mammoth to restock. Pizza in Mammoth and a big breakfast at Red's Meadow Lodge allowed us to avoid trail food for a day.

Day six began with Larry telling me that due to inadequate padding in his shoes, his foot pain had increased to the point that he would leave the trip if it were not for Vitamin I (Ibuprofen). Later, explaining the the vitamin I wasn't working well enough, he told us he needed to leave the trail- and would drive back to Utah before coming back to pick us up at the end of our backpack. This was bad news, but he clearly had made up his mind. Larry said the hike was the hardest thing he had ever done- and I didn't disagree.

We continued on and three days later reached our last resupply- at the John Muir Ranch where we picked up parcels we had sent to ourselves. So, we would be carrying about 9 days worth of food- stuffed into our bear cannisters. At Muir Ranch, we met and talked to several other hikers who were on a similar pace and we would encounter a lot of the rest of the trip. We camped nearby and hiked across the river to soak in natural hot springs - quite a treat.

One twosome we encountered was "the hippies" - two young longhaired men who we sometimes saw smoking an unknown substance and were a bit undersupplied. At one point, they requested food from a ranger- and one hiked with tree branches instead of walking poles. They were quite funny and interesting to interact with.

One day we found a special treat. Shortly after crossing a major pass we found a gallon plastic bottle of whiskey, still about 3/4 full, along the trail. Apparently someone decided it was not worth its weight going up the pass and choose to share it. I thanked the hiking gods and appropriated a half liter for later use. Later, I was concerned when Dennis told the hippies that I had some whiskey as I thought they might want it more than I did. We joked with them about it, but they had also acquired some of the hooch when they hiked by the bottle.

We also ran into a group of three Germans who consisted of a husband and wife and their young son. The couple had apparently hiked the trail over 20 years ago shortly after their marriage- and they were quite nice and enthusiastic. Their son was a bit less energetic. They also had two daughters who choose to drive around California rather than backpack. The Germans started the hike at Red's Meadow and planned to go back to Red's Meadow and hike the rest of the trail back to Yosemite. But, about 35 miles before Mt Whitney, the woman reinjured her knee and could barely walk. And we heard they all cried as they planned to leave the trail early, exiting through the Onion Valley. Unfortunate, but injuries can happen any time, anywhere on the trail, as we would later discover.

Another hiker we socialized with a lot was Gregg from Seattle. He was going with some interesting lightweight gear and was hiking at about the same pace. So he joined us for several days- I helped him lighten up by acquiring the book he had finished.

We saw some wildlife- healthy deer, and even healthy looking marmots as we hiked on the eastside of the Sierras where the snow melted earlier. The pikas looked rather meager however.

Dennis is an experienced climber and was always stronger and was very anxious to do Whitney. So, when we arrived at Guitar Lake at 11:30 AM on day 15, he wanted to continue on to do Whitney that day- as the weather was still great - and who knew what the next day might bring. I was easily persuaded and on we went, reaching the peak (along with the hippies) at about 4:00 PM. We found a good campsite down the canyon and then hiked out the next day, one day ahead of schedule. The weather turned ugly later, so we were lucky to have summitted the previous day.

We had beer and great huge burgers at a shop near the trailhead, then hitched a ride to Lone Pine with a German man traveling by himself throughout the Western US. We tried (probably unsuccessfully) to dissuade him from spending any time in Death Valley and concentrating on Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon.

We had a day and a half to spend in Lone Pine- I stayed at the hostel while Dennis stayed at a hotel. I met several other people in the hostel planning to hike Whitney or beyond. Meanwhile, Dennis looked for Gregg and found out that he had been injured and was at the hospital. So we walked over to visit- he had fractured one elbow and broken the wrist on his other hand when he fell on the trail and went over about a six-foot ledge. He would be released later- so we carried his pack and poles to his hotel- and his wife and son flew to Fresno and rented a car to meet him the next day. He would require surgery later.

Larry was on time to pick us up- and the adventure came to an end. We had 16 very challenging days on the trail- with no rain and only two cloudy days. I lost over 10 pounds and gained a thicker beard.

It was great to hike with Dennis and Larry- they added a lot to the enjoyment of the trip- and made it easier for me.

Next year: maybe the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail, the Colorado Trail or a trip to the northwest to hike in the North Cascades and the West Coast Trail.