Last August we ventured out to hike the John Muir Trail, 220 miles through the Eastern Sierras crossing from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. We encountered many unexpected obstacles, including a bear encounter the first night (she came back 3 times), threat of the plague and wild fires. The Rough Fire became the biggest threat and with the amount of smoke and ash in the sky we made the tough decision to exit over Bishop Pass.
This year things were looking up! Here’s a comparison shot of Sarah in the same spot in 2015 vs 2016. Looking back I’m very glad we waited to finish the hike. We wouldn’t have been able to see any of the beautiful landscapes around us (not to mention breathing would have been difficult).
LET THE TRIP BEGIN! Countdown the final 100 miles.
(Special thank you to Sarah for all of her planning, from obtaining the permit to detailing out our daily trek, which I’m including below.)
Each day the elevation profile is more or less up a few thousand feet, down a few thousand feet, toggling between 9,000′ and 14,494′. This year we planned for 8-9 days, no resupplies. Everything you need has to come with you. No stores, cell reception, bathrooms or running water. Starting pack weight was around 39lbs without water, which adds another 4-6lbs. It’s difficult to get enough calories during the day between suppressed appetite and burning 5,000 calories a day.
Day 1– Leave Bishop for South Lake Trailhead over Bishop Pass (11,972′), camping at Dusy Basin.
Everyone was feeling surprisingly good! It was nice to be able to get to camp early, fish and relax. The air was still, which made for beautiful reflections on the lake. Some of the guys saw a bear run across the trail. It was a good time to think back on last year’s trip, since this was the same trail we left on. The morale was high and felt great.
The Perseid Meteor Shower was happening the first two nights of our trip. It’s hard to stay awake once the sun goes down, you’re exhausted and cold, but I tried my best to stay up til 9:30pm to watch the sky. I was lucky to catch one in a long exposure shot.
Day 2– Dusy Basin, up the Golden Staircase to Lower Palisades Lake (10,600′)
This day was all about traversing. We started with a steep climb down to connect back with the JMT. This was where we hit the bad smoke last year. It felt like a completely new hike now that we could see everything around us. This was also the first day I realized how intense the afternoon heat was going to be. I struggled through the section between 12:30-3pm. But somehow got a massive energy kick climbing the “Golden Staircase” (climbs about 1500′ in 2 miles) late in the day. I arrived at Lower Palisades Lake in good spirits, sadly for others it wasn’t the case between open wounds from backpacks digging into hips and getting sick. This turned out to be the last night I stayed up past dark. I only saw about 10 shooting stars total but the sky is so vibrant with stars (perks of clean air) that just laying back and staring up at the Milky Way was well worth the cold.
Day 3– Lower Palisades Lake, over Mather Pass (12,100′) to Lake Marjorie
Superwoman Melinda caught up with us around 11pm the previous night, she hiked all the way from Bishop Pass in one day. Today we climbed Mather Pass (many more switchbacks to come) which gave us great views looking back on Lower and Upper Palisades Lakes. Again, struggled with the exposed heat in the afternoon through a long downhill section. We had one last climb for the day through the treeline past Taboose Creek Trailhead and Bench Lake to Lake Marjorie. The colors of the rocks ranged from white to red and purple. We could hear a rock slide on the other side of the mountain as we setup camp.
Day 4– Lake Marjorie, over Pinchot Pass (12,130′) to Woods Creek
With a couple people battling colds, myself included, we split up the next two days, which still felt like full hiking days. The climb up Pinchot Pass was gorgeous as expected, but the long 8 mile downhill descent was brutal (my least favorite day). Thankfully we pitched camp next to a cool suspension bridge at Woods Creek and soaked in the refreshing river.
Day 5– Woods Creek to Rae Lakes
Today was a relatively easy day hiking to Rae Lakes. There was a climb in the morning but we arrived at the lakes around 3pm. Just in time to do some cannonballs into the lake and take a nice swim! This was my favorite lake of the trip. It’s a long lake with little islands and deep clear water. The night was windy which led to restless sleep along with coughing. We tried to get a good night’s rest for a big climb the next day over Glen Pass.
Day 6– Rae Lakes, over Glen Pass (11,970′) to Center Basin
Woke up with a mission this morning! Kept a good pace over Glen Pass. We arrived at the summit around noon. This was one of those passes where you think you see the top, then you come over the highest point and see you still have a lot to climb to actually get to the top. It felt like a different planet up there. On the descent there were gem colored pools that stood out against the light colored stone. The afternoon was mainly all downhill back into the tree line. We picked a campsite off a shallow creek. I was impressed with the fish the group caught in such shallow water.
Day 7– Center Basin, over Forester Pass (13,200′) to Tyndall Frog Ponds
Forester Pass was my favorite of the trip. Our bodies had become more adjusted for the altitude and it was a gorgeous climb, some of it over a ridge with 360 degree views. By this time was I was craving real food…anything other than dehydrated backpacking food and bars. Specifically I was thinking about criss-cut fries with ranch dressing when all of a sudden a big boom shook us from the inside out. We saw a jet zoom by. A sonic boom was the last thing I was expecting out there. Woke me up for the last park of the ascent to 13,200′. We ate lunch at the top and crossed over to the other side of the pass. Sarah pointed out the backside of Mt. Whitney. It made it feel like we were really going to finish this trek!
We opted to stay at the Tyndall Frog Ponds because the winds had been picking up at night. Originally we planned to stay on the Bighorn Plateau but had second thoughts about it being overly exposed at night. We discovered tiny frogs of a wide range of colors. Mosquitos came out at dusk, which totally made sense in hindsight as to why it was a popular place for frogs…
2 more days to go!
Day 8– Tyndall Frog Ponds to Guitar Lake (11,480′)
Today there was not a high pass to climb, but there were a few notable elevation gains and losses that made for a full day of hiking. The landscape really changed and we had a long stretch of exposed high desert trail. After making the last climb of the day we arrived at Guitar Lake, below the backside of Mt. Whitney. The engineers setup the water filter station with the trekking poles and spent the late afternoon fishing. The temperature dropped quickly once the sun started to set. We called it a night and got some sleep before our biggest hike and our final day.
Day 9– Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney Summit (14,494′) and return to Lone Pine
Final day! And a long one….18+ miles. Woke up to a marmot waiting for the sunlight to warm up his chubby body. We started the initial ascent, a 2,000′ gain in 2 miles, dropped our packs for the final climb to the summit, which was an additional 1,000′ in 2 miles. The terrain was rocky and uneven, some hikers (not in our group) were having a tough time.
We arrived at the Mt. Whitney summit around 12:30pm. It was surreal to be on top of all the surrounding mountains and overlook the Owens Valley. After about 20 mins we started the descent, it was cold and a little windy at the top. This was also the first day we saw more than a couple clouds.
We had fulfilled the official JMT milage but still had a lengthy descent to get to our final destination– the Mt. Whitney Portal where we could get picked up to go get a burger and beer.
I counted the switchbacks on the initial descent…I got to 99. Jason let me know that was just the beginning, which set me up for a more realistic vision of the next 5 hours. It was a beautiful hike down, the scenery and terrain constantly changed. I could smell the laundry detergent on the day hikers coming up. They smelled so clean! Other hikers were very friendly and by the questions they were asking I could tell I looked like I had been in the wilderness for 9 days. And loved it!
THANK YOU so much to my dad for picking us up at the Whitney Portal and hosting us at the house. That first shower felt amazing. It looked like I was made of chocolate with all the dirt that rinsed off. We had delicious food at Bishop’s Mountain Rambler brewery. It was heavenly to eat real food! And to sleep in a bed. And have a bathroom. And clean running water to drink.
This trip was fulfilling and extra gratifying after all the incidents last year. It was valuable time and space to think about life, friends, love, losses, successes, and the future. As physically demanding as hiking can be, it’s a perfect way to recharge and tap into who you really are as a human. Break down and build back up with what matters most.
When’s the next trip? I’m ready.