John Muir Trail Take Two: Part Three

The lightweight gear for our trip did not end with the tarp instead of tent, the sleeping bags or the clothing.  It continued with the food choices we made.  Deciding what the eat for the following eight days was not an easy task from the comforts of a friend’s living room.  I know first hand how good things can seem and how nauseating they can become after days on the trail.  For instance, I can no longer eat Trader Joe’s chili lime cashews.  It was over ten years ago we maxed out on those nuts.  The thought of them makes me want to barf.


So there we were, on day two, with our choices du jour.  It started with the coffee.  Peter and I both agreed it was a priority and worth it’s weight.  Not this time.  We went for the lightest weight and biggest bang mixed with potable flavor.  Enter Starbucks Via Italian Roast.  I laugh when I think of a coffee empire marketing instant coffee but have to admit it wasn’t that bad.  What blew me away was the coffee buzz taking effect almost immediately.  Because we would wait to eat our breakfast granola, it was about an hour and a half from a double dose of Via with powdered milk to any food.  After the first morning we agreed to hold off on the evening’s hot chocolate so that at least there would be some calories to go stave off the Via buzz.


Getting up early with no source of heat, immediately getting out of the sleeping bags and camp clothes into the dirty hiking clothes from the day before made the second warm beverage most enjoyable.  I realized the necessity of packing up before doing anything else that first day.  It’s too easy to stay in the comforts of the sleeping bag, warm and toasty even if we were essentially sleeping out because of the tarp set-up for our tent.


Just like it’s so easy to stay in the warmth of home and not live in the outdoors for a week or so.  Getting rid of these comforts I can say from experience, time again, leads to beautiful moments.  The utter appreciation for not only what you have, but moreso the clarity of mind when it’s free of clutter the sense of awe with all the surrounds you.


Which is a bit poetic for the reality of just how cold it is to wake up at 430am and get rolling.  Head lamps on, stuff sacks stuffed, water heated to the temperature hot enough for coffee but not so hot it scalds your lips, all in the name of fuel conservation.  Fuel, after all, has to be carried as well.  With the minimal amount for the entire eight days, we had to be careful with how much we used daily.


Early morning start…


With camp broke we set out on the trail.  Up and over Goodale and then Silver Pass, both easy grades, as the sun warmed our backs.  A break at one of many High Sierra lakes we passed, water was filtered and rehydration was made by chugging over a liter of each.  A small amount was taken to quench our thirst over the coming hours.  Peter’s gravity filer set up never ceases to amaze me with it’s ease.  Fresh, clean water never tasted so good as up in the mountains.  Our last hiking trip being a desert mountain traverse with no water save for patches of snow we melted, usually over a fire, led to a smokey, debris filled version of the crystal clear sierra brew.


gravity filter…



Views of peaks past sat up in the horizon.  Banner Peak in particular is a special one that showed itself throughout the first two days.  This was one beauty Peter and I climbed on my 25th Birthday.  I remember hiking up to the Thousand Island Lakes with beer and carrot cake in tow.  We went up and down Banner in a day and were almost back at camp when I tripped on a rock and did a face plant.  Better there than up on the icefield, melted just enough to get over and back with the fast setting autumn sun.


Yes, Peter and I have quite a history with the Sierra.  With this John Muir hike once again we were reminded of the endless opportunities for adventure waiting for those willing to make the time.


This second day I insisted on taking more weight than Peter.  It was painful to watch him struggle with the fanny pack and small backpack.  I thought by taking the bulk it would ease his discomfort.  For some reason I thought I could carry it all.  At least most of it.  Without him knowing, I took some things out of his pack and shouldered the heavy load.


big pack!!



Halfway into the day the pain began.  Like a vice grip around my torso, specifically around the kidneys, it felt like the pack was compressing all my organs.  With all the weight around my hips because of the two bear canisters, it was the worst weight distribution possible with a backpack.  But there was no choice because I couldn’t put the canister on top of the sleeping bags and pads, as well as clothing, with so much down filled items they would be squished and all loft-providing warmth would be lost.  That and the two of them would not work on top of the pack.  One had to go in the bottom section and one right on top, at the bottom of the top.


It started with having to stop every hour, then every half hour, then soon enough I couldn’t walk more than ten minutes without breaking and letting my back and inner organs recover.  I seriously felt like my kidneys were going to explode.



up the climb to Bear Ridge

up into the aspen grove…



So, in the end, my attempt to help Peter out backfired and he ended up carrying the pack.  And I, well, I got to try the fanny pack combination.  The funny thing was it actually worked quite well on me.  I didn’t even need the shoulder strap to hold it up.  My skating butt was coming in handy for something.


For the last two hours we raced up and over Bear Ridge, all 53 switchbacks, going fast because of the discomfort for Peter with my pack.  Carrying it with only one shoulder strap in place was obviously uncomfortable.  I was certainly guilty of enjoying the lighter load of the fanny pack combo.


Rain began to fall and my Sil nylon poncho came out.  The sprinkle felt good as we continued to move.  Another descent down to the Bear Creek and camp was made.  Instead of going that extra few miles like the night before to Squaw Lake, we stopped early enough to enjoy a bit of camp with some daylight.  Good thing because as soon as we stopped and cleared a spot of rocks and pine needles, set up the tarp, the sprinkle turned to downpour.  Two young guys camped near us and we heard their loud conversation and laughter from inside their tent.


Even in the deluge of rain our tarp set-up kept us dry and comfortable.  A simple roof over our heads made for an enjoyable hour in the storm.  Before dusk the sky cleared and we set out to Bear Creek for a quick rinse in the cold flowing water.  Then water was boiled for the freeze dried meal, bear canisters packed and excess food hung over a high limb with the counter balance technique that left us praying to the forest gods that a bear would not find.  Next was instant sleep at an early night due to sheer exhaustion.  A good exhaustion but extreme fatigue nonetheless.


The next morning we heard our neighbors as we woke at 430am.  They were up and getting ready to go.  No matter we were behind their breaking camp pace because we knew the pace we held hiking would bring us at least another 30kms further south on the trail.


This was day 3 and the goal was still to keep things relatively short (30kms!) and hold back for the three consecutive days of 40+ kilometers we banked on to get us to the end of the John Muir Trail just as we’d run out of food.  Not an easy feat.  With the difficulty of the shorter days under our belts, though neither of us said it, we both wondered how the hell we were going to make it all the way to the end with the schedule we set.


A reminder of not starting too hard became apparent when we saw one of our neighbors leave well before the other.  The younger of the two was hanging back, in no rush.  Hmm, we thought, that’s odd….two guys on a hiking trip and one is well ahead.  Soon enough the younger guy left as well.  Though it was only 615am, we felt like late starters after finally leaving our spot, at least 45 minutes after the guys.  It wasn’t long when we passed neighbor #2 on the trail.  His snails pace showed obvious fatigue.  We found out that he and his friend had started from the beginning of the JMT back in Yosemite, 6 days earlier.  That put them at about 18 miles a day.  Not that much but too much for this young guy.  Ahead we passed his buddy washing dirty socks in the stream.  He asked how far behind his friend was and looked impatient.  His buddy was hurting, he said, and wasn’t sure how much further he’d make it.


We continued and when well out of earshot, Peter said, you see, they started too fast.  No way that younger guys going to make it.  And if he does, somehow, make it, he’ll be miserable.  That’s what happens when you start too fast.  There’s no recovery from it and they might as well bail.


what a place!



Which made me grateful for Peter’s experience and prudence in our own approach.  Because we took time for short but refreshing breaks, stopped early enough to enjoy at least an hour of daylight in camp instead of stopping in the dark, setting camp with headlamps, waking early in the dark and leaving in the cold only to do it all over again day after day….we had these simple pleasures that, although very fatigued, we still could enjoy and appreciate our surrounds.  Which is really the most important aspect of any hiking or biking trip.  Getting from point A to B without this appreciation seems pretty meaningless to me.


And so we continued, Peter and his shadow (me) along the trail, through the 3rd day bringing us through more glorious high sierra landscape.  Rocks and ridges polished by glaciers, the odd deer or two and just us, moving along, loving every new section of sierra the JMT took us through.

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