Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

September 13, 2016

Backpacking the John Muir Trail, Part 3

Part 1 - Tuolumne to Red's Meadow

Part 2 - Red's Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch

Part 3 - DAYS 8-14 Muir Trail Ranch to Mount Whitney

Cue the drumroll, the easiest half of our hike on the John Muir Trail was now done.   In seven days, we' spent 2 nights in cabins, eaten 5 meals in restaurants, had two resupplies, and hiked 90 miles.    In the next seven days, we would need to hike 110 miles, while carrying all of our food for the week, as the passes and the elevation got higher and higher.   But we were feeling strong, rejuvenated from our night at the Muir Trail Ranch, and ready for some big days.

But we couldn't leave the Ranch without a last big meal of breakfast burritos and oatmeal.  I skipped the oatmeal (bleh), but the burritos were delicious.  We also could make sandwiches for lunch, and I snagged a bag of Cheetos!    Those sandwiches weren't going to make it until noon...that's for sure...

Day 8
With breakfast, it was 8 am when we finally straggled out of the Ranch, with backpacks that now weighed 28 pounds.  Yikes.  We were carrying about 1.5 pounds of food per day for 7 days, plus about 2 pounds of water.   And a couple of delicious sandwiches.  And a book.  I need to read.

Today we set our sights on Wanda Lake, which was about 18 miles up the trail, and a lot higher at 11,500 feet.   But our first five miles were flat, along the very scenic San Joaquin River.  Our sandwiches disappeared quickly at the first place I could find to stop and soak my feet.   I didn't have any blisters from walking, but I did have very dry feet and legs from the dust, dirt, and hard water.   I applied a bit of duct tape to the backs of my heels to keep my shoes from cutting through my skin.

The climbing started in earnest near Evolution Creek.  Up. Up. Up.  The dreaded creek crossing of Evolution was a piece of cake, given how late it was in the season.  We swapped to our flip-slops and it was only calf deep and pretty mellow.   Then more up, alongside a big meadow and lots more creek. The day is passing quickly and we have miles to go.   We are efficient at our stops, purifying water, slathering on sunscreen, dabbing a bit of chapstick, drinking more water, dumping electrolytes in so we drink even more, and grabbing easy snacks to eat while walking.

A steeper ascent and we are at Evolution Lake.  Tempting to stop and camp here, it's 4 pm but we have miles to go.  Fabian is here, has just taken a freezing swim in the lake, and he promises to be right behind us.   We push hard now, through the rocky high terrain, can we make Wanda lake by 6:30 so we still have time to cook and set up camp in daylight?     We do, but barely.  We meet Foreman, walking the wrong way, he had sussed out the other end of the lake but camping was sparse.  We joined a raft of other people, and we put our tents in any flat bare spot we could find in the area.  Fabian showed up soon and found a spot too.   Nobody had seen Ron all day, and we figured he was back a ways fishing.

Tonight we were cowboy camping, with just our bivy bags.  The stars should be out at and this high, there are no bugs.   The group gathered round for dinner, which for us was ramen and salami, some new flavors to keep our taste buds entertained.  A nice sunset gave us a sendoff and we crawled in our bivys and waited for the stars.  They were slow to come out, but mesmerizing, and I couldn't stop staring at them.  We eventually saw a satellite pass overhead, and Jim fell asleep, but I couldn't close my eyes.    Sleeping at 11,500 ft is difficult at best anyway.

The Muir Hut at Muir Pass 
Day 9

I woke up to ice from condensation on my sleeping bag inside my bivy bag.  Cold.  But so dry there was no dew at all. Muir Pass awaited us in the morning, but at under 12000 feet we didn't have far to go.   We ducked inside Muir Hut to get out of the stiff wind for a while, and found Foreman waiting there.   The three of us stuck together for a very long descent, almost 4000 feet down.   It was beautiful, but I'd seen so much beauty.   I focused on one step at a time down the sometimes very high rock steps.  And pitied the people coming up them the other way.

The Bear

Down in Le Conte canyon, we stopped for a photo with the Rock Monster, and saw a girl sitting by it reading a book.  She was contemplating quitting the trail for the third time.   These huge ascents and descents are no joke. We continued on only a few minutes, when in the lead, I croaked "BEAR!"  just leaving the trail was a pretty large black bear.  He was on a mission, didn't seem to care we were there, and went around us and then back on the trail heading uphill.    We did like all good tourists would and reached for our cameras.  Then we suddenly thought about the girl at the rock monster.  Foreman gallantly offered to go back and warn her.  Lucky he did because the bear went straight to her camp, and it turns out she is partially blind and had no peripheral vision.  She never saw the bear coming, and Foreman was able to scare it away across the stream.   Fabian behind us, would later see the bear with its' head in a tree eating honey from a beehive.

In the meantime, Jim and I followed obvious bear prints for almost 2 miles down the trail.   We got really good at spotting the prints even when we hadn't seen them for a while.   We were happy it was going the other way!

The deep valley was hot, and our pace got really slow.  At a break, we saw someone's bear canister left behind....we wanted to steal the tortillas but didn't know if the owner would return.  We met the owner days later...the can may still be sitting there and he is borrowing food from everyone!

Finally we started the uphill again with Foreman, and in the front, I adopted the "walk fast in the sun, slow in the shade" philosophy.  Even so, we could see that we weren't going to make our mileage goal for the day, which would had required us to ascend the dreaded "Golden Staircase" in the full heat of the afternoon sun.  Instead, we found one of the last campsites at the base of the climb and called it a day.   Still 16 miles but we could feel the pressure of needing to go further.

At the camp, we found Ron (!) who had been ahead of us all this time.  And he calls himself slow.   Fabian showed up too, so everyone was together, and the campsite was perfect.  Deep in the woods with a gurgling stream and a fire pit.  None of us had lit a fire due to all the restrictions, but with a perfect circle of trees around us, we gathered pine cones and soon had a nice blaze going.  We laughed like crazy and had a nice evening before pouring water on the coals.  We were still in bed before hiker midnight (9pm).

Day 10
In the morning we said goodbye to all our new friends.  Ron was slowing up to meet his family in a few days.   Fabian was slowing up to beg a little extra food and continue down the High Sierra Trail.  Foreman was meeting his cousin at Rae Lakes and hoped to see us on the final day, but he never showed.

We would pay for our weariness and slow pace of the yesterday, with the monster hike we had in store for us today.   First up was the Golden Staircase,  a series of switchbacks up somewhat steep cliffs.    Then we had not one but two 12,000 foot passes to summit before we could stop for the day.   Unfortunately my knee started hurting early on in the day, which made going down hill difficult.

Nevertheless, we were up the staircase in just a couple of hours and heading to Mather Pass.   Our rest breaks were short and efficient as we knew we needed to go far and fast today.   Despite knee pain, I could really power up the hills, but going downhill was another matter.  I finally gave in and took some Ibuprofen on top of the first pass, but the switchbacks down were agony.  I wondered how I was going to make it over 20 miles that day, and if I could even continue to finish the whole trail.   So I taught myself to favor my left knee and found ways to lean on my poles, use my other leg, and get by.  Luckily the trail flattened out, and we were back to 3 mph on a steady even trail across a rock meadow and down into the trees.   For 5 whole miles we had a fast trail, gradual decent, and no big rock steps.  We looked back later in the day and realized this saved our day...if it had been a slow difficult section we wouldn't have made the second pass.

I for one was happy to get to the bottom and start back up again, as uphills hurt less than downhills.   From 10000 feet we slowly climbed up to Pinchot Pass at 12000.   The lakes along the way were beautiful but we had places to be.  Aside from passing three hikers all wearing pink raincoats on our ascent, we didn't see anyone else.  At 5 pm most people prefer not to be starting the descend from a pass!  So we figured we were the last ones over for the day, until we met two men an hour later still heading up.  We figured it would be full dark just after they reached the summit of the trail.   Guess they are into night hiking.

I limped down the other side and we started looking for places to camp.  But given how badly we sleep at high elevations, we wanted to get lower first.  It would be another 4 miles until we found a tiny place to put the tent...camping spots were somewhat scarce.   After 21 miles, 5000 feet of climbing, and almost 12 hours of hiking, we hurried through the evening routine....put up tent, purify water, wash socks, soak feet, cook dinner, make tea, arrange air mattress, gather breakfast items, move bear canisters away, fall in bed and sleep.

Day 11
After 3 tough days it was hard to get moving in the morning, and we knew we had another 17 miles to do today.   Luckily we only had one pass waiting for us.  We started off with a downhill, and my knee felt ok to start the hike down.  It would hurt later but at least it didn't hurt now.   Still, we would drop down another couple thousand feet, knowing we would turn right around and go back up again to Glen Pass.  Today, that was disheartening.

I took point on the uphill and kept a steady pace, but we were both a little tired.  At the start of a string of lakes, I really wanted a break, and got grumpy that there were no rocks to sit on along the lakes, just weeds and grass and rushes.  I grumpily hiked another couple of miles to Rae Lakes, which were beautiful, just amazingly blue.  We stopped at the first available rock and took a decent break.  Jim was having a tough day too, and when we stopped, he just sat down and didn't move for about 10 minutes.   I was determined to wash my clothes, and put on my rain gear while I waded out in the lake to soak feet, give myself a hankie bath, and rinse my stinky t-shirt.   Jim eventually came around, and we purified more water, ate, drank, and enjoyed not moving for a while.    I really wanted him to say we should camp at these lakes, but alas, no.

Rae Lakes just got more beautiful as we hiked around them, and I could have stopped a dozen times along the way.  It's a popular backpacking destination, as long as you are willing to hike over a 12,000 foot pass to get here!   After walking along them for miles, and finishing across a narrow isthmus, the climb to Glen Pass began.  It's known as a nasty, rocky, high-stepping difficult ascent.   We were glad when it was over, and found the other side much more palatable.  Except for my knee.  I found myself almost coming to a stop to lower myself down the big steps, and our speed faltered.   The rest of the day passed in a haze.  My knee hurt, we kept going down and down.   The campsites at the bottom had no water.  We kept going down.  Finally Jim went ahead and found a really cool large camping area next to a river.  I dumped my pack and went to soak in the river.  I really wasn't capable of much more.

Day 12
Our reward for 4 days of hard hiking were several shorter days before our final ascent of Mount Whitney.  Today, we just needed to go 12 miles and get over a 13,000 foot pass.  That's all.   We made a new friend, Rich, as he was going our speed up the hills and left his hiking group behind.  Until he took off like a rabbit up the pass and left us behind too!    We found ourselves hiking faster and further while talking to Rich, until the pass began in earnest.  Then we dropped back to our favorite game of "take a breather" each time we climbed 100 ft in elevation.   But Forester Pass was very gently graded with few steps, and we ascended fairly easily.  The pass isn't much more than a notch in the ridge, with great views on both sides.  We found Rich waiting there, along with several other hiking groups.

The switchback descent felt fairly easily, and then it was a long walk along a high plateau.  Stunted trees appeared in the distance, but we were very high and not much else could grow.   I suddenly felt very weary as we sped along the flatish trail.   I repeated like a mantra, 4 miles to camp, just 4 miles.  It took forever.  My knee hurt.  It was WINDY, and the windy annoyed me and I couldn't get warm.  We finally reached a sparse bunch of trees and I needed a break.   The first campground was only about 1/2 mile away but I had to stop.  I sent Jim ahead to find a good place and sunk onto a rock.  I stayed there for a while in the sun trying to get warm and comfy.  Finally I struggled onward and found the tent already set up, in my favorite camp of the whole trip.   Next to a river running over flat rocks, they were free of anything slimy, with clear, warmish (read: not freezing) water.   Better yet, it was only 3 pm.  Camping at 3 pm...what a novel idea.

First again was a soak for my feet and knee.   Still cold, I put on all my waterproof clothes, grabbed my sit pad, and laid down on the rocks in the sunshine.  When the shadows moved, I switched to the other side of the stream and lay motionless again.  For hours.  I may have slept, or maybe just laid there in a fog of exhaustion.    When shade came for good I was finally warm, and could move enough to drink, eat and function again.  Rich and his group camped next to us, and we would see them the next night too.

I should mention that the skin on of the back my legs was getting really painful and sometimes would start bleeding?   Some of it was sunburn (I only wore shorts), but for the rest, I could only conclude that my dusty, dirty socks (which I washed and rotated every night) were wearing away the skin on my sock line.  My heels were dry, cracked, and painful too.  I used bandaids and chapstick on them occasionally (about the only first aid I had besides duct tape), which helped, but day by day they were getting dry, callused, bleeding, and sore.   Luckily I only had 2 days more to go, or I would have had to take further measures to stay healthy.

Day 13
After eating oatmeal every morning so far, we were more than sick of it.  By now we were just glad if we could choke it down.  So we put this morning's ration in a bag for Fabian, and Jim had ramen instead.  I mixed up a ration of creme brule from a Mountain House packet.   It tastes like vanilla pudding and it was surprisingly good.

Today would be the shortest day of this week, 11 miles with NO passes to cross at all.  Hallelujah.   All we had to do was get ourselves to Guitar Lake, the staging area for the final ascent of Mount Whitney and the finish down in Whitney Portal.   It was only about 10 miles, and rather flat, but it would be the hardest day of the whole hike for me.   After a nice walk across a high plateau, empty except for some stubborn twisted Bristlecone Pine trees, we had a short descent.  A tiny descent.   It set my knee screaming again, worse than ever.   I struggled to Crabtree Junction, where we left our extra food for Fabian in the bear box.

Grumpy and in pain, I sent Jim ahead so I could slow down and limp.  It was less than 3 miles to Guitar Lake, but it took forever.   All I could think of was the fact that tomorrow I would need to descent 6,000 feet to the finish of the trail.  How could I do that feeling like this?    So I struggled, rested, limped and finally made it to camp, where Rich and Jim were waiting for me on huge rocks.  People would camp everywhere around here, and a passing ranger estimated that there were 50-90 people camped at this lake and the one above us.  Everyone was spread out enough that it wasn't obvious, though.

Our tent is looking up at Mt. Whitney
The wind was strong.  We chose a tent spot sheltered by an L of two huge boulders.  The corner made a nice spot to cook dinner, too.   The wind died by the evening and it became calm and cool.  I put on all my clothes and tried to stay awake until it got dark.  I managed to finish my book, too!

Day 14
My hiking socks, as usual of late, were frozen solid at the end of my trekking poles in the morning.  (Why did I wash my socks on the last night?  I have no idea).   I wore my clean dry pair washed two nights ago instead, and finally for the first time put on my gloves to make breakfast.  It was cold.  We had an abbreviated breakfast.   I made hot drinks and Jim had mashed potatoes.   I had found a homemade packet of chocolate drink in the MTR buckets, and mixed it up to drink on the trail.  It had a shot of coffee in it, which actually didn't taste bad.   Did I mention it was still dark?  We started hiking at about 5 am, headlamps making a ribbon of light zigzagging up the mountain.

We didn't have far up to go, only about 2000 feet to the junction, and we took it very steady.  The trail was pretty smooth and not too steep, and we wondered how the trail crew kept it maintained amid the steep cliffs at this elevation.    As we climbed, the light grew until we could see a film of ice on the lakes below us.  It was cold, and windy, and at sunrise I felt sorry for everyone who had tried to get to the summit to see that magical moment in this freezing air.

At 13,600 feet we had to make a decision, to the summit of Mt. Whitney, or down to the finish.  Plenty of abandoned packs here said that many people had chosen the summit. We had kind of made our decision already...if my knee pain returned, then the trip to the summit would just add agony to the day.  The biting cold and wind made the choice easier.   As we stood at the junction, three day runners passed us going to the summit wearing shorts and tiny packs.  Arghh.

Mt. Whitney is the rightmost flat-ish summit
Finally around the corner of the wind, in the sun, and looking down on the eastern Sierra for the first time since we started the trail, it was calm and warm.  We stopped to snack and I took some Ibuprofen.  This was our summit for the day.  It was also a very short-lived warm spot.  Back on the trail heading down now, the wind was brutal and cold.  We hurried down, my knee feeling perfectly fine as if I had willed and begged it not to hurt today.   Passing us going up were myriads of day hikers, braving 22 miles round trip to the summit with 6,000 feet of ascent and descent.  They must have started at 1 or 2 in the morning to be so far up the trail at 7 in the morning.   I didn't envy them the headache they were going to get later from the altitude.

Down we went.  Down. Down. Down.  The trail never ended.  Rocks, lakes, rivers, views.  All I wanted was that bacon cheeseburger Jim promised me at Whitney Portal.   Step down, down, down.  More people going up.   It's late now, almost too late to be going up.  And finally, "that guy" going up while wearing blue jeans.  He may not make it, Jim says.

Finally, a view of a road.  Civilization!  Bacon cheeseburgers!   But we are still thousands of feet above it.   Now it's warm.   We pass more people, these with heavier packs going up to camp before ascending Whitney.  Finally we pass a few just starting the John Muir Trail.   This steep 6,000 feet of ascent is a hell of a way to start, loaded up with a weeks worth of food.  We are light.  We eat our final candy bar, drink a bit of water, and our bear cans are almost empty.

The switchbacks continue, now across a hot, sunbaked hillside.  We are going so fast we are flying down the trail.  My knee doesn't hurt at all.   14 miles today, and at the final switchback, we've done it in 5 hours 45 minutes.   Jim finishes the John Muir Trail for the 3rd time, swears "never again" for the 3rd time, and we go to the cafe to enjoy a soda and burger.   And it's good, really good.   Even better, a lady and her family immediately pick us up to take us to Lone Pine and our vehicle, rearranging the whole family and dog to fit us and our packs into a crowded SUV.   It's nice to travel so effortlessly, driving further in 20 minutes than our whole day of hiking.

We shower, sleep, eat again, and wash every filthy piece of clothing we had.  And vow not to hike that far ever again.   Until maybe next year.  The end.

Day 1 Tuolumne to Marie Lakes Trail  17 miles  8 hours
Day 2 Marie Lakes Trail to Rosalie Lake   12 Miles  6 hours
Day 3 Rosalie Lake to Reds Meadow 9 miles  3 hours
Day 4 Reds Meadow to Lake Virginia 15.5 miles  8 hours
Day 5 Lake Virginia to Lake Edison Trail 13 miles  7 hours
Day 6 Lake Edison Trail to Sallie Keyes Lakes 16 miles 8 hours
Day 7 Sallie Keyes Lakes to Muir Trail Ranch 5 miles 2 hours
Day 8 Muir Trail Ranch to Wanda Lake 18 miles 10 hours
Day 9 Wanda Lake to Deer Meadow 16 miles 8 hours
Day 10 Deer Meadow to Sawmill Pass Trail 21 miles 12 hours
Day 11 Sawmill Pass Trail to Vidette Meadow 17 miles 9 hours
Day 12 Vidette Meadow to Shepherd Pass Trail 12 miles 6 hours
Day 13 Shepherd Pass Trail to Guitar Lake 11 Miles 6 hours
Day 14 Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal 11.5 miles 6 hours
Cowboy camping at Wanda Lake
Muir Hut
Foreman warming up in the hut
This guy passing Jim has HUGE front bag(S) as well as a backpack!
More bear paws
A Pica on the rocks

Couldn't take enough photos of Rae Lakes

A pack train coming off a rough 12,000 foot pass

Forester Pass
My favorite campsite by an awesome creek
Bristlecone Pines

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