I departed Austin around noon on a Friday in August. I had with me my gear, a reservation for both a motel in Bishop, California and a campground in Yosemite National Park, and a wilderness permit secured several months before which was supposed to enable me to stroll from the Happy Isles trail head in Yosemite, through wilderness areas in national forests and two other national parks, and arrive at the summit of Mt. Whitney, 211 miles to the south. In addition, I had secured a promise from my brother to meet me at the Bishop motel, follow me to Whitney Portal to drop my truck off, then ferry me to Yosemite.
I had been planning the trip for a couple of years, and had spent the previous year acquiring gear, maps and knowledge that afforded me the least likelihood of a premature exit from the trail. During the drive out west, I kept going over trip and equipment details and fighting off the nagging feeling I had forgotten something. (Something I’m sure every backpacker deals with.)
This was probably the first time I’d driven to El Paso since they’d increased the speed limits; I was surprised to find even though I had left late (around noon) I still got plenty of miles in that day. I spent the night in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The next day I made a logistical mistake; owing to my dislike of Interstate driving (with a capital “I”) I tried a shortcut from southwestern New Mexico to eastern Arizona. It *looked* like a shortcut on the map, but ended up going pretty slowly, so I probably lost some time there. I made it to Boulder Dam by sunset, after a brief security check to make sure I wasn’t going to blow it up. It was the first time I’d been there since I was a kid in the 1960’s, and it actually looks pretty cool—a monument to 1930’s WPA engineering and retro design.
Anyway, I spent that night in a motel in Vegas-didn’t feel like gambling, so I was pretty out of place there. Left early the next morning, past Nellis AFB and bombing range, and then across Death Valley. I had last visited there in 1986 when it was a mere “National Monument”. I had enjoyed that time there, but that had been in October, with highs in the 90s. Average Death Valley high temperatures are around 115 degree in August, and when I passed through they had been experiencing unusually hot days, even for them, with highs over 120 degrees. Driving through at 9:00 a.m. I didn’t need a thermometer to tell me the temperature was already well over 100 degrees. After a few hours, I was on 395 heading up the east side of the Sierra Nevada. I took a quick detour at Lone Pine to the Whitney Portal trail head and parking area, so I’d know what to expect and not have any unexpected surprises. It was actually pretty well packed, and I made a note of where the “overflow” parking was.
I continued on up the highway to Bishop, found my hotel, and my brother showed up a few hours later. I treated him to a nice steak dinner at a local restaurant, figuring I might not have another good meal for quite some time.
We got up the next morning and drove to Yosemite, stopping at a gas station/grill at the turnoff near Mono Lake for a pretty good cheeseburger.Got to the Crane Flat campground, where I’d already reserved a camping spot, later that afternoon. I spent the evening sorting out my gear and food, and we ran down to some bear boxes at Tuolumne Meadows to stash some stuff I wouldn’t need for the first two days of the trip.
Got up early at the Crane Flat campground; actually, not so much “early” as I never really got to sleep. Turns out my brother has developed into a professional snorer. So I was up early, and loaded my pack into the car. Vic got me down to the parking lot near Happy Isles (4,035′) in the Valley at 7:00 a.m. I got out to put my boots on and strap on my pack. For a moment I had a sinking feeling as I staggered under the weight, probably about 60 lbs. or more, including water. Although I had stashed quite a bit of food and other goodies ahead at Tuolumne Meadows, I still felt overloaded (for good reason, as shown here:
(The Texan in me refused to believe one could hike in the mountains without carrying a gallon or more of water; something I would later learn to accept.) At about 7:20 we walked from the trail head up to the crossing of the Merced River, where Vic snapped a couple of photos of me and bade me farewell.
A little bit up the trail I came to the famous trail head/mileage sign, the one that lists trail distances including “Mt. Whitney – 210 miles.” I reflected on the fact that I had already been in this spot, some sixteen years previous, when my brother (shown here) and I had hiked to Nevada Falls.
The trail actually is split here. One track, the “Mist Trail,” ascends steeply up the side of the cascading Merced River, hugging close to the sides of the canyon and waterfalls on the way up. In fact when the water is high the spray from the falls will soak you. The other track, the John Muir Trail proper, swings a bit to the south and is a more gradual ascent to Nevada Falls, where it meets the Mist Trail again.
In 1986 we had gone for about a half mile down the JMT from Nevada Falls in order to get a better view of the falls. As we had returned to the falls, Victor said, “See, if we keep on going on this trail, you know where we end up? The summit of Mt. Whitney, over 200 miles away.” I had been impressed with that at the time, imagining all the aspects of (what seemed) an immensely long hike.
So now, in 2002, I continued up the John Muir Trail on the way to Nevada Falls. The weather was clear and cool, perfect for hiking uphill. I met a couple of hikers along the way, some passed me and I passed some. About a mile short of the falls I had a deja vu experience as I remembered the same view from years before. I got to Nevada Falls (~6,000′) at 9:30, which surprised me. I had thought it would take longer. I had climbed about 2,000′ in 3.4 miles in about two hours. Considering the full pack and my out of shape condition, I was ahead of schedule. Hubris.
After a break at the falls, I started on into uncharted territory. Through Little Yosemite Valley, mostly flat trail, and then up again out of the Valley. This began to get painful. Although the trail junction to Half Dome was only about a mile ahead, the climb was steep (about 1,000′) and my feet began to get sore. I stopped for several rests. Although I had realized all along that the first couple of days would be the most difficult, I still was in a dark mood as I struggled up the trail. A Ranger came the opposite way, and we chatted briefly. I was curious about water and camping ahead and he mentioned good camping at a trail junction near a creek not too far away. He looked somewhat pained when he asked tentatively, “You hanging your food?” “No, I’ve got a canister in my pack.” An obvious look of relief showed on his face as he related the story of bear depredations on a couple’s food the night before. He told me it was virtually impossible to get by with hanging food around there.
I got to the Half Dome trail junction around noon. Half Dome seemed to be the destination of most of the hikers I’d seen so far. A little later I stopped at the Cloud’s Rest junction, where there was some decent camping available. I considered stopping because I was tired and sore, but calculated that it would make arriving at Tuolumne Meadows the following day next to impossible. I determined to try to get to the Sunrise camp, at Long Meadow, about seven miles away.
The trail plunged into rather deep forest at this point, basically following Sunrise Creek and ascending (of course!) another thousand feet. At yet another break a mile or so up the trail, a few other JMT thru-hikers stopped and chatted. One was on his way north, nearly finished. Another southbounder was trying to finish in twelve days, had just gotten off the plane from Virginia, and was obviously pushing hard. It didn’t sound like there were a lot of camping choices before Sunrise, so I decided to camp at the first promising site I found.
This turned out to be an area near the Tenaya Lake trail junction. At the junction, I looked around and spied a flat clearing a couple of hundred yards away. I made for the flat spot and took off my pack. Here, I began to figure out what would eventually become my nightly routine. The clearing was rather large and very flat; in fact, it looked almost as if it had been bulldozed (it hadn’t of course). Scattered throughout the flat sandy area were some large smooth granite boulders, suitable for sitting on. I took off some of my sweat-soaked clothes and laid them on the boulders to dry. Then I took my boots off–oh, my! The pleasure of taking one’s boots off after a very hard, long day of backpacking is something not taken lightly. In fact the ecstatic afterglow after removing 1) pack then 2) boots is usually enjoyed in a mindless, motionless stupor, lasting up to a half-hour (depending on one’s fitness and soreness levels).
First camp, and a visitor
It was only 3:15 p.m. and it’s possible I could have made it all the way to Sunrise Camp before, or just at, dark. But I knew for a fact it would have been pure misery. I figured I’d gone just under nine miles, about 8.7 according to a sign nearby. That meant day two would have to be about fifteen miles in order to reach Tuolumne Meadows.
Surveying my little kingdom from my little stuporific throne, I noticed that among the large trees surrounding the area, one in particular had been dead a few years, and was listing at an angle less than alarming but more than enough to merit concern. (I have to digress here: About an hour previous as I was hiking along, I had heard a strange, loud noise, which seemed to come out of nowhere. As the noise culminated in an earth-shaking *whoomp* I realized it was a tree falling. I never saw it, but I sure did remember it.) Anyway, I calculated various free-fall paths for this “widow maker” and moved my sleeping bag accordingly. As I poked around the area, I found a few indications this campsite had frequently been used before: an old pair of spectacle frames, the wrapper from a band-aid. Also, I looked around for potential bear-hang trees. Not that I needed one with my canister (bear can), but just out of curiosity. I spied a pair of trees at the edge of the clearing that seemed ideally suited for a bear hang.
After a dinner of just gorp (I was not in the mood to cook) I had to figure where to stow my bear can. At first I thought I’d want it near my sleeping bag, but then one imagines mean old Mr. Bear stomping on top of me on his way to the prize. So I put it under a tree, actually more of a clump of bushes, about thirty yards away. I propped it up against some deadwood. (All of the literature warns of letting your canister roll away after a bear-swipe.) Not long after determining my can was safe, and treating a hot spot on my left heel with a “blister block” bandage, I popped a couple of pain pills (I was very sore) and tucked myself into bed. I put my Yaschica camera in my boot near my head, because I anticipated a good chance at night-time wildlife. Hey, this is Yosemite with all the “problem” bears, right?
Well, as it turned out, the bears had read the literature. I had a hard time getting to sleep. The moon was obscenely full, and with the clear sky the area was brightly lit and the glare was in my face. Also, I was a bit apprehensive about nocturnal visitors. Every pine cone falling or bird noise made me sit up with a start. Finally, I began to drift off to sleep around midnight. And just at that time came a crashing sound from directly behind me. A loud noise, so loud at first I thought it was a human because it was marching so directly into my campsite and so without care for the noise he made. I sat up and turned around, and saw a (as we say in Texas) “big ol’ bear come out the woods”, marching to the opposite end of my campsite. I said “hey!” loudly, and fished out my flashlight, but he just looked my way a briefly then went on to the trees I had earlier pegged as possible bear hang trees. I guess they were, because he spent some time looking up at them—I guess he was disappointed I had nothing hung there. I yelled at him again, and this time he took off around the perimeter of my site toward my bear canister, which took him about twenty feet from the foot of my sleeping bag. I pulled my camera out and snapped a picture. The flash went off, and I hoped I had caught him (obviously not). He went by my bear can, and was gone.
Second day–a stumble, some skepticism, and Tuolumne
I was eating my dehydrated scrambled eggs breakfast by 6:30 and was out of camp by 7:00 a.m. It was pretty chilly; I figured well below freezing. (I later found out it was 24° at Tuolumne Meadows.) I started with heavy over garments and a heavy hat, but fairly quickly stripped down to lighter gear as the sun and temperature rose. The trail climbed pretty steadily towards the Sunrise High Sierra Camp and I was glad I had waited until today to tackle it.
I was happy to take a break along the east-facing slope of Sunrise Mountain, taking off my pack and snapping several pictures of the canyon and mountains to the east. Another fellow came by and we chatted for a while; he had also started in the Valley but was only going as far as Red’s Meadow on this excursion, although he planned to complete the JMT in future stages. I would meet up with “Red” several more times before Red’s Meadow six days hence. While discussing trail distances and elevations, he pulled out a spreadsheet he had made up in advance which had all the trail mileages and elevations-I thought it a bit overkill, as I could retrieve the same data from my guidebooks and maps. Later on in the hike, however, I came to realize that it would have saved me a lot of effort to have done the same. Instead, I ended up spending time each night calculating those figures for the next stretch of trail and writing them down on the back of my maps, since I didn’t want to get the book out of my pack every time I needed that information.
A couple of miles further along the trail, although the map told me Sunrise High Camp (and water) should be near, I nevertheless dropped down to a small stream to get more water. I was getting thirsty (had camped at a dry site the night before) and wasn’t exactly sure when I’d end up getting to more water. As I was pumping my filter, a hiker came by the other direction and informed me the High Camp was just a half mile or so ahead, with plenty of water. I thanked him, and continued on, burdened by a bit more water weight. Somewhere along here I misstepped, I slipped, and with the extra weight of my pack I fell very hard. I banged my right knee upon a granite boulder on the side of the trail, and opened up quite a gash.
I was starting to get a bit discouraged. I doctored the knee the best I could and stuck a bandage on it. I was tired already even though it wasn’t yet noon. I was sore, and now my knee was bleeding and my pack felt heavy and gee whiz, I wasn’t even to Sunrise Camp yet which was ten miles away from my ultimate destination, Tuolumne Meadows. I toyed briefly with the temptation of staying that night somewhere short of Tuolumne, but nixed that idea because I wasn’t carrying food for the extra night. I had stashed most of my supplies in a bear box near Tuolumne Meadows, so making it in two days was pretty much required of me.
Finally, I reached the top of a large meadow. I could see some structures on the other side, so I made my way there. This had to be Sunrise Camp, but the sign was a bit confusing and I couldn’t tell where exactly the trail led; it seemed to just climb into some rocks and go through a few sites where there were people camping. I wandered through a site where a couple of guys were camped, and asked where the water was: They pointed “over there” and indicated there was a faucet. I tried to go “over there” but couldn’t find the trail through the boulders and came back and asked again. They showed me more carefully, and one of them asked me, “Now, where are you going?” To Whitney, at the end of the JMT, I replied. “By yourself?” Yeah. I was a bit ticked at this, but realized where he was coming from. He was looking at my knee, which had a few red rivulets streaming down to my ankle. I obviously looked tired and a bit frustrated, and now couldn’t even find my way to a water faucet. They looked at each other with a knowing look: I’m sure they saw a huge “T” for “Trail newbie” emblazoned upon my forehead.
I ignored the skepticism, and made my way to the faucet, where I unloaded my pack and spent some time doctoring and cleaning my knee. After a while, as I walked around the place a bit, I came upon Red enjoying his lunch. We chatted a bit, he offered some encouragement, and I loaded up and began the leg to Tuolumne. Leaving Sunrise Camp, I made good time for a while because the trail winds through a very long meadow (named “Long Meadow”). I passed a couple of women leading a horse packing outfit full of goods for Sunrise Camp. After leaving the meadow, the trail climbed to wind around the side of Tressider Peak, which beat me up a bit. I finally made the rise there, then passed Cathedral Peak and Cathedral Lakes. It was beautiful, and I was thinking it was all downhill from there to Tuolumne.
Well, it didn’t seem like it. Where the map indicated (or I thought indicated) long gradual descent was actually a continuing series of ascents followed by descents followed by ascents. They weren’t that steep, nor that long. But for my second full day of hiking they were enough to make me miserable. Add to that the fact that it was getting rather hot, and add to that the fact that the pack train I had passed back in Long Meadow had now passed me once, stopped for water, then passed me again. Pack trains aren’t fun to pass or be passed by; they stink and you end up covered with dust.
But finally I got to a sign pointing to the Tuolumne Meadows visitor center. I thought that from this point the trail would run roughly parallel to the road, and level, until it reached the campground. Wrong again; it had to go up a few more ascent/descents, hills that I wouldn’t even give a second thought to in later days but which were killing me today, my second full day of hiking. Sometime after 5:00 p.m. I arrived at the edge of the campground. Unfortunately, the signs at the campground aren’t designed for folks arriving from the backcountry, so I wandered around lost for a while longer, grumbling until I ran into a camp host who gave me a campground map. The map showed a “backpacker’s campsite” designated by a cloud shape, somewhere beneath the rest room. I hiked a few hundred yards more, found the restroom, went below it and saw a handful of tents set up there deep in the woods. Hmm, I thought, not much of a campsite, but I took off my pack and boots and laid my bag out, then went off to reconnoiter and see about getting my resupply.
A couple of days earlier I had left most of my food and a lot of the rest of my gear in a bear box there in Tuolumne Meadows at the “Silver Springs” trail head. I would have to pick that up later and then sort out some of the food and gear. As I wandered around, I began to realize that where I was camped was not the actual backpacker’s campground but a “bootleg” one; one where hikers who didn’t want to pay the nominal camping fee would camp. I located the real site, which was much nicer with tables. The tables would come in handy when I was ready to sort my gear and food from my cache, so I grabbed my stuff and began to tote it to the officially consecrated backpacker’s campsite. As I walked, I came upon a young French couple who asked about the campsite. I told them and they came with me to the backpacker’s campsite while we talked about hiking. They had already spent one night in the backcountry, and were going to do a multi-day trip and he was a bit concerned that he hadn’t enough food, and that they had gotten cold the previous night.
I staked out my site in the campground, paid my fee, and decided to go get my cached gear. As I walked down the campground drive, it really hit me how many people were there and how much noise and activity there was. Cars were lined up at the entrance/permit station to the campground, and for the couple of hundred yards I walked along the highway cars buzzed constantly. I crossed the highway, found the bear box and my goods inside untouched, and returned to my campsite where I put the goodies in the bear box for later division. But now was time (it was getting near 8:00 p.m.) for some hedonistic pleasures. I returned to the highway and walked a bit to the Tuolumne Meadows store. The place was a beehive of activity—people, parents and kids streaming in and out, rock climbers hanging out in front waiting for the shuttle, novice backpackers in the store picking up items they’d forgotten or had broken (the store is quite well stocked with backpacking gear).
I had a craving that wouldn’t quit, so I got a bag of nacho flavored Doritos, and looked everywhere for a quart of chocolate milk but could only find “low-fat” chocolate milk. Great. California strikes again, probably in the guise of some northern California “anti-fat” proposition. Disgruntled somewhat, I went to the counter to check out (somewhat abashed at my two-day funkiness) and mentioned to the nice girl behind the counter my disappointment in the lack of fat-full chocolate milk. “Oh, we’ve got that,” she said and disappeared behind the cooler and returned with a quart of real chocolate milk. Despite being tiny and attractive and obviously Californian, she displayed not one whit of disapproval of my choice. I went outside to a picnic table and consumed the food and drink with gusto and finally began to forget my sore feet, aching bones, and general fatigue. Walking back to camp, I passed the “Ranger talk” at the amphitheater and saw huge flames leap up. I think the topic was “Forest Fires.” After a brief time checking maps (but mainly relaxing and resting my feet), I tucked myself into my sleeping bag and nodded off listening to the two women camped nearby read selections from a novel to each other. I had done almost fifteen miles that day.
I awoke the next morning, made some coffee, and immediately began sorting out my goods. I had already started the night before, and this morning was just a confirmation of the previous evening’s checklist. I chunked out a bunch of coffee, instant oatmeal, and some other food; I ripped out not only the covers of my “John Muir Trail Guide” but also the pages which focused on the south to north trip. I tossed anything from my pack, and from my cached goods, which seemed in any way excessive. After the pain of the previous two days I knew this was only reasonable. Sometime in the morning the young Frenchman came by to chat and bid adieu; I offered him the leavings in the bear box, which now included coffee and instant oatmeal and a few other food goodies. He refused the coffee (maybe he wasn’t really French?) but gratefully accepted the oatmeal. I wished him well, and never saw him again.
Finally, around 10:00 a.m., I got on the trail. Quite a bit of traffic near the campground, but as I headed up Lyell Canyon, it began to spread out. I guess the name “Canyon” had given me the impression this section of trail would be in some sort of deep valley, but actually it was a gorgeous wide meadow the entire way. I snapped a few pictures, and I passed and was passed by several groups of varying size and of varying age. One or two pack trains. Some folks had little more than a water bottle, and I realized I was still quite close to the Tuolumne Meadows trail head. Around 3:00 p.m. I looked ahead and saw Donohue Pass; I didn’t feel like searching around for some potentially iffy campsites. The guidebook indicated that where I was, the head of Lyell Canyon, was a very popular camping area (although completely infested with “marauding bears.”) Right at the foot of the beginning of the ascent up Donohue Pass I found (with some difficulty) a crossing of Lyell Fork and slogged my way to the far (East) side of the meadow. I began to find good campsites, but unfortunately they had all been used and overused by horse outfits. I finally picked one, with a somewhat elaborate “kitchen” area set up about a hundred feet from where I threw my sleeping bag down. Obviously a pack train site, heavily used; the horse crap was everywhere. I was a bit disgusted by that, and by the fact that horse crap was lining the ad hoc trail to the meadow stream where I got my water. But anyway I pump/filtered about 2.5 liters and made my way back to my campsite.
This would become pretty standard operating procedure—pumping about 2.5 liters at camp. You didn’t want to have to go fetch more after you’d made camp, and you wanted all you could possibly need for dinner, cleaning up, nighttime drinks and breakfast. Usually the last thing you’d do in the morning before hitting the trail was to fill up your water bottles.
I got my water, set up my kitchen, and after eating dinner (which most likely was beef stroganoff, since 90% of my dinners were stroganoff) proceeded to consider the bear situation. (Something else which would become standard campsite procedure.) I had some degree of concern, led primarily by the fact that the guidebooks and web sites had all referred to Lyell Canyon as one of the worst spots in Yosemite for bear raids at night. That’s why I had originally planned to camp well beyond the meadow and up closer to Donohue Pass that night, but owing to my relatively late start out of Tuolumne and to the fact I wasn’t sure I could pick a campsite up on the valley side towards the pass, I chose to stop where I did.
So being careful to load all my smellables and food in my bear canister, and keeping my canister well away from my sleeping bag, I got into my bag, watched the sun set, made some notes for the next leg of the journey and read for a while, then tried to go to sleep. (I had noticed another hiker pass my site around 6:00 and take a site a hundred yards or so away.) But I had a hard time sleeping; due to the absolute stillness, the incredibly bright full moon (I ended up sleeping with my pile hat pulled over my eyes), and a nagging worry about the bears I only got a few hours sleep that night.