John Muir Trail take two; part one

Why on earth I found myself on the John Muir Trail (JMT) on a multi-day hiking trip just over a month after competing in my last Olympics was a question uttered more than once last week.  My husband Peter and I decided on a whim to go to California in search of adventure.  What better a way to step into the next phase of life than a walk in the splendor the Eastern Sierra Nevada.  I wanted to revisit the time and place I first strapped on a backpack some fourteen years ago for the very same 150 mile hike.


The trail proper runs about 220 miles from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.  It’s named after Scottish outdoorsman and first president of the Sierra Club John Muir.  He’s known as the ‘lover of the range of light’ and I can’t imagine a better namesake for him than this trail.



Back in 1998 it took us ten days to span the bulk of it from the ski town of Mammoth Lakes to Whitney, some 150 miles away.  This time around we thought eight would suffice.  It’s always easy to plan how far to walk each day from the comfort of the living room.  Still, we knew it was a stretch to travel so far over the rugged trail in such a short time.  The reason for the few days was a good one, however, and offered some entertaining moments along the way.  In short, it’s all Peter’s fault that we had so little time to walk so very far.


But first you must understand that Peter is a walking machine.  He’s not only completed the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in it’s entirety, he’s finished the Continental Divide Trail solo in a year when only three people managed the same.  Did I mention he walked the desert peninsula of Baja California, Mexico, as well?  And yes, he did it by himself.  He is to say the least a maniac when it comes to distance hikes.


Which brings me to our eight days in the Sierra.  We were on a time constraint not for having to be somewhere but because of the amount of gear, food and stuff we could carry.  With an injured AC joint in his shoulder, Peter is currently unable to carry a proper backpack.  It’s too much for the painful area to have the weight he’s used to lugging.  It took some imagination and a lot of patience to figure out how we could pull the hike off.


A trip to REI and a tip from a friend brought us to a section of the store yet unknown to us: the lumbar pack section.  I’m talking ‘fanny-pack’, and a big one at that.  We packed the thing up with a pillows marked five pounds each and decided in the air-conditioned, gear filled warehouse store that it would actually work quite well.  With a strap over his uninjured shoulder it seemed like a good fit.  Combined with his lightweight blue day pack that weighs less than half a pound, we figured Peter could carry a whopping twenty -two pounds.  Total.


the lumbar aka fanny pack….



I suppose it’s time to mention how much our packs weighed at the start of the hike fourteen years ago.  I remember hauling at least 65 pounds the first few days and Peter much more.  Light weight hiking seemed like a joke.  To the point where we made fun of all the geeks weighing their gear and obsessing about every ounce they could cut.  Most of these guys ran out of food and froze their butts off each night because of too much skimming of the essentials.  It was now funny to now see ourselves doing the same.  We were determined to do the hike whatever it took (or should I say I was determined…) and decided we’d create our own version of light weight hiking.


The goal was to have my pack no more than 45 pounds to start.  With two pounds of food allotted for each of us per day, the idea of dropping four pounds of day of weight from eating sounded good.  As our load lightened, we’d take weight out of my monster pack and stuff it in Peter’s above mentioned fanny version.


All of my ‘stuff’ for 8 days…including the hiking clothes I would wear!



Like I said, it all seems good in the comfort of a friend’s living room.  I calculated calories, weight, menus and gear.  To my delight I got my clothing down to 2.6lbs, stuff sack included.  All the clothes I thought I needed to the bare minimum, not including those I wore for the hike, were stuffed in the small black nylon bag.  Which means that, yes, I did wear the same clothes day in and out.  One set for hiking and another for camp.  The only luxury I had was an extra set of hiking socks and underwear to switch to on day number five.  Living big in the great outdoors.


All of Peter’s stuff for the trip…



Because we were heading into the most problem of bear country it was crucial to bring a bear-proof storage container.  Or two.  My main backpack is a Gregory ‘Massif’ that I bought fourteen years ago just after finishing that first JMT hike.  I’d used a pack from a friend for that first hike and it about ground a hole in my back.  I wanted one that fit and didn’t hurt so much.  The Gregory has never let me down.  Even today when years go by between hikes I can strap it on and it just fits.  Perfect.  Problem is the thing weighs over seven pounds.  And the bear canisters?  2.5lbs each.  This light weight hiking thing was harder than we thought.


But where there is a will there most certainly is some form of a way.  On the seventh of September we set out for this epic adventure with 68 pounds total between us.  Knowing that we’d encounter some of the most trying terrain for backpacking and long, long days, with an amount of food putting us at least 1500 calories in deficit for the latter half of each hiking day, we made it happen and oh was it worth it.  How easy it was not to try and now that we’re done, I’m so glad our stubbornness prevailed.


With so much to share I’m going to write this in segments.  I’ll end this, segment one, with feelings and visions left after completing so hard a trip.


The feeling of beautiful satisfaction and utter joy after eight days walking in the High Sierra.  That we took the time to do something epic for ourselves and are left with a feeling that indeed, anything is possible.  With the pain in my swollen feet still there after three days of rest not mattering because each and every step of the way was worth it.


The vision of Peter’s fanny pack sliding down each step of the way because he lacks the fanny to hold the pack up; the comments from male hikers alone and in groups like ‘hey, how’d you get this set-up with her carrying all the weight?!?’ and then the inevitable ‘my shoulder hurts, too!’ when we explained the injury situation.


Only someone who’s walked thousands of miles could laugh those comments off.  Only Peter.


He’s taken me into the back country time and again and i’m the richer for it.  I can’t imagine a better way to take that first big step into the rest of my life than walking the JMT.  I look forward to sharing the adventures we had along the way.

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