Who: Ryan Faye, Ethan Faye, Christie Collins
When: August 20-September 6
What: 205 miles of hiking along the John Muir Trail
August 20th, Day 0
From the get go, we were very fortunate to have our Aunt Melanie drive us south to the Whitney Portal trailhead, which saved us a lot of transportation hassles. I dropped a car off at Tuolumne Meadows that morning (and prayed it would still be there in 3 weeks) before hitch-hiking back down to Highway 395. We made a quick detour west up to the Onion Valley trailhead in order to drop off a food resupply (while crossing our fingers it would be there in 5 days). After picking up our permit in the town of Lone Pine, we were treated to our last real food at a place advertising "the best burger in town". Although it may not have lived up to the hype, it was still a great send-off before living off dehydrated food for the next 3 weeks. We spent our first night at the Whitney Portal campground at 8,300' in order to acclimate a little and adjust to sleeping on the ground for a while.
Day 1 (6 miles, +3900')
The first day was to be a warm up, and after a late start we quickly cruised up the steep Whitney Trail to a crowded area they call "Trail Camp". A convenient scale at the base notified us that our loaded packs each weighed around 40 pounds- a far cry from any sort of "ultra-light" set up. Both our SteriPens decided to crap out here- foreshadowing future water purification issues. More on that later.
Day 2 (15.5 miles, +3600'/-5000')
After a restless night, we "woke up" at 1:45 AM to begin the infamous 99 Switchbacks up to Trail Crest (I only counted 96 though). As we ascended, Christie began to show early symptoms of altitude sickness and made the wise decision to remain at Trail Crest, while Ethan and I ran up to the summit to catch the sunrise. We arrived at the highest point in the lower 48 states (14,505' !) just after 5 AM and waited while the sun began to paint the landscape surrounding us. Shorts were not the smartest call; however, as we endured sub-40 degree temps and howling winds. After soaking in the incredible views, we descended to collect Christie and continued descending into Sequoia National Park. After a very nice Park Ranger at Crabtree Meadow gave us 4 more batteries for the SteriPen, we decided to keep pushing on to Wallace Creek. During this period, Ethan's knee began to flare up, a problem that would continue to haunt us later on.
Day 3 (17 miles, +3350'/-4450')
In an attempt to cut a day from our itinerary, I pushed ahead solo for a mega day. After crossing Bighorn Plateau, I began the long ascent up and over Forester Pass where I passed into Kings Canyon National Park. Incredibly dramatic views on both sides made for a memorable day, but long descent along Bubbs Creek took its toll on my rapidly deteriorating shoes.
Day 4 (17 miles, +5300'/-4400')
After dropping some of my sleeping supplies, I pushed over Kearsarge Pass and down into Onion Valley to pickup our first food resupply. I sorely underestimated how much food we had, and my pack must have been 50+ pounds as I retraced my steps back up and over Kearsarge Pass. Around this time, my knee also began to flare up, but luckily I met with the team again to redistribute food weight. After descending to the beautiful Charlotte Lake, we were treated to a full moon rise over the mountains beyond.
Day 5 (12 miles, +2000'/-3900')
Another day, another pass. Glen Pass was a tough climb, but the views were, again, amazing on all sides. As we descended the north side of the pass, the Rae Lakes area stood out with crystal clear, sparkling water surround by towering peaks like Fin Dome and the Painted Lady. One huge plus side was Ethan finding a rogue trekking pole, which greatly reduced his knee pain on long descents.
Day 6 (11 miles, +3800'/-2250')
A long ascent led to Pinchot Pass, with great views of some tasty looking chutes and couloirs above Marjorie Lake. Another nice ranger at Bench Lake provided us some more batteries for our dead SteriPens, and we set camp low at the South Fork of the Kern River.
Day 7 (11.5 miles, +2350'/-3400')
Another big up to Mather Pass as we leapfrogged with another northbound group of four. One girl studying PT taught Ethan and I how to wrap our knees and secure our menisci to reduce pain on the often rocky downhills. Still, we were gassed by the time we hit Palisade Lake, but the striking views of Middle Palisade and Normal Clyde Peak more than made up for it. The decision was made to push on down the Golden Staircase, a short and very steep section of trail overlooking a huge valley below. Needless to say, our knees were not feeling great by the bottom.
Day 8 (12 miles, +3100'/-1300')
Rolling downhill through a wooded ravine, before turning north into LeConte Canyon which featured beautiful soaring walls of granite to the left and a river with frequent pools and waterfalls. We set camp high, and Ethan and I had ourselves a 5 minute ice bath to soothe our aching joints and ligaments.
Day 9 (13 miles, +1800'/-2950') and Day 10 (11 miles, +850'/-2800')
After hitting Muir Pass (the view was slightly marred by high clouds and distant haze), we briefly checked out the Muir Hut that was erected back in 1930 by the Sierra Club. Over the next 36 hours we descended our way down to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), the trail's halfway point. Evolution Valley sported huge peaks to the right, appropriately named Mt. Darwin and Mendel, and numerous high alpine lakes. We soon passed from a rugged alpine environment back to the wooded forest, reminding us of home in Tahoe. Finally making it MTR the next day felt like entering a Haven for Hungry Hikers, as many JMTers before us had left so much extra food that we were able to raid several tasty snacks for the days to come. We made camp at the adjacent hot springs, but a new problem began to rear its head: a growing, ugly blister on the ball of my left foot.
Day 11 (9 miles, +3600'/-1250') and day 12 (13 miles, +2250'/-3350')
A full 24 hours of rest at MTR allowed for some minor healing, but we were soon on the trail again heading up the steep path to Selden Pass. No respite till Sallie Keyes Lake left us huffing and puffing, but the pass was uniquely lined with trees and shrubs. The next day featured another steep climb over Bear Ridge, with a seemingly vertical descent down the back with an endless line of switchbacks.
Day 13 (12.5 miles, +3750'/-2650') and Day 14 (13.8 miles, +1250'/-3600')
Day 13 featured another high mountain pass- Silver Pass. One might begin to sense a theme here to our days- a large climb followed by a punishing downhill. Some slight smoke and haze in the distance, but nothing major to worry about. Notable highlights were the brutal climb out of Tully Hole meadow, the large and gorgeous Virginia Lake, and running low on food for lunch! The next day changed everything; however, as we cruised past the aptly named Red Cones down to Reds Meadow Resort, aka Haven for Hungry Hikers #2. Running water, toilets, hot springs, and all the free backpacking food we could get our hands on! Unfortunately, at this point my foot blister had spread in between my toes and become slightly infected and angry, a painful and potentially dangerous combo.
Day 15 (8 miles, +2750'/-1000') and day 16 (11.6 miles, +3250'/-2300')
Reluctantly we left Reds Meadow, but were quickly treated to the interesting geologic formations composing the Devil's Postpile. After a short day, we encountered a brief period of very light rain, our first and only precipitation of the trip which was an anomaly considering the High Sierra's propensity for thunderstorms in the late summer. The day after was easily one of the most beautiful sections of the trail- we were treated to sunrise views at Shadow Lake followed by the stunning peaks of Mt. Banner and Ritter looming over Garnet Lake. Soon after we cruised by Ruby Lake and Thousand Island Lake before making camp shortly before Donahue Pass.
Day 17 (14.2 miles, +1150'/-2850')
Our last day on the trail, a bittersweet one for sure. Christie took off early, as she was continuing her journey to Yosemite. Ethan and I had decided to jump off the trail 25 miles early at Tuolumne Meadows for a few reasons: the remaining miles consisted of 6000 feet of downhill, not an enticing proposition considering the state of Ethan's knee; we had already hiked a large portion of that trail doing Half Dome; my foot blister was still slightly infected; and our car was already at Tuolumne. The decision was easy and I feel confident it was the right one, but I couldn't help but feel a little reluctant to leave the trail early after having come so far already. One final climb over Donahue Pass led to the repetitive 8 mile stroll out Lyell Canyon. Our first stop on the way back home: In N Out Burger. Civilization never tasted so good.
Realizing a dream such as this was an experience I won't soon forget, and I can't help but feel thankful toward all of our family and friends that supported us and made this all possible. The trail was a supremely meditative experience, yet also intensely thought-provoking. The epitome of thinking about everything, yet nothing all at the same time. Although I'm ready for an extended break from backpacking, this trip reaffirmed my belief in the healing power of nature and its ability to encourage self growth.