"Show off!" said the man as I overtook him. I turned around to retort something, saw his tired face and decided to stay silent: his crankiness was only coming from exhaustion.
We were about a kilometer away from the summit of Mt Whitney, and he most likely had started his day hike around 2am, tackling an insane 35Km round trip with an elevation gain of 1860m. I could understand that watching a young woman step lightly passed you, with no pack on and seemingly unaffected by the brutal climb, can spark that kind of comment.
What he didn't know was that I had started from the other side of Mt Whitney at Crabtree Meadows. It was a shorter distance, and even though still a rough track, no way near as ardous as the one he had just done. I also had been acclimated to high altitude for almost three weeks and fit from 18 days of continous hiking.
I was finishing the John Muir Trail.
The JMT is a 338Km long Trail in California, starting from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and ending at the summit of Mt Whitney, 4421m, the highest peak in the lower 48 States.
My First Through-hike
I discovered the JMT during a road-trip around California in 2009, where I crossed its pass while on a day hike in Yosemite, and browsed through the guide book in a library.
My partner of the time William and I travelled to California again in 2010, with Burning Man as the highlight of that trip. As we returned in 2011, we wanted to do something different, something special. The little seed of the John Muir Trail that had been planted in my mind a couple of years earlier bloomed: We would hike the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The longest hike I had ever done by then was a five-day long walk around the Grande Casse in the Vanoise National Park in the French Alps, where I enjoyed the comfort of a mountain hut every night. Undertaking the John Muir Trail was a much longer experience, in total self-reliance and in remote wilderness. It was the perfect challenge.
It was the beginning of a life's passion.
For permit reasons, we started from Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows) and not the traditional starting point in the valley, Happy Isles. Permits are indeed required to hike the JMT and are in high demand. Make sure you plan well ahead as wilderness permits are under a quota system limiting the number of hikers on the trail (to 45 people per day exiting Yosemite via Donahue Pass) and thus preserving the environment.
"If I die now, at least I'd die in the arms of the man I love, in a stunning and wild place, doing something I'm passionate about."
This was my thought as the lightnings striked the nearby peaks and the thunder resonated as much in our stomachs as in the valleys around Evolution Lake. Our little emergency tarp was barely big enough to hold the two of us. The rain was pounding hard against its thin walls, just like my heart in my chest. We had set up camp in a hurry, seeing the cumulonimbus growing rapidly. I absolutely love being close to Nature. But enduring a thunderstorm at 3300m of altitude with just a piece of plastic for shelter is maybe being a little too close.
It was the same pretty much everyday after that.
The optimal time to hike the JMT is from July to September. We started on the 30th of August and reached Mt Whitney the 16th of September 2011.
The first nine days of our hike were blessed with perfect conditions. But from the 8th to the 14th, thunderstorms developped inexorably every day. We would start at sunrise, and reach our intended camp spot by early afternoon before the storm, so we had time to put our tarp up and get shelter.
We experienced rain, hail, sleet and snow, and cold temperatures at night. The morning of the 14th at Rae Lakes, we woke up to a thick layer of ice covering the lower sides of our tarp.
Bad weather stopped us from walking once. The 11th of September, just a few miles away from Mather Pass, we spent the day confined under our little tarp, drinking hot tea, playing "baccalauréat" games. Mather Pass appeared at times through the clouds, dusted with fresh snow.
We never let that kind of weather bring us down, and by being "storm smart", we always hiked in the best conditions.
We didn't take a tent, but opted for a ground sheet with a tarp. This saved a lot of weight and was a cheap option. During the first 9 days, we just put our ground sheet on the floor and slept under the stars.
The nights were cold, but good sleeping bags, long underwears and beanies efficiently kept us warm. The tarp was just enough to protect the both of us from rain and wind during the thunderstorms. The first time we had to use it, at Evolution Lake, we kept it as it was: a small tunnel barely fitting the two of us. By the end of the Trail, William had devised a very efficient way to put it up.
"This is our little Hilton tarp" he said, arranging rocks on each side to keep it down and digging trenches around so the rain would drain away.
Food and Resupply
A hot shower and a cold beer. These are for the through-hiker what a nugget of gold is for a miner: something precious because it's rare.
Vermillion Valley Resort was our only resupply stop during the hike. A small and wonderful hiker-friendly resort in the high Sierras, providing services such as restaurant, grocery store, tent cabins, backpacking supplies hot showers, telephone, and high-speed Internet access. And the gold nugget: they also offer long distance PCT Thru-Hikers the first cold beverage free (cold beer!) and for PCT or JMT hikers two nights free camping in the Thru-Hiker camping area.
From the trail, the resort is accessible by water-taxi across the Edison lake.
you will find all the information you need on their website:
We sent our resupply box there. Our food consisted mostly of dehydrated noodles, muesli bars and peanut butter and honey wraps for lunch.
Remember: bear canisters are required on the trail.
I opened my eyes. The last bright stars shone in a light blue sky, and in the East the horizon was painted peach colour. The cold bit my cheeks and nose, contrasting with the warmth inside my sleeping bag. A whiff of tea rose from the steaming cup set on the rock next to me. I smiled, another beautiful day was about to start.
We always woke up at dawn with no alarm clock. Our bodies adjusted quickly to a much more natural rhythm: going to sleep with sundown, getting up with sunrise. We had a cup of tea and a muesli bar, packed our gear and started walking in the fresh, envigorating morning air, around 7 or 7.15 am.
For almost every pass on the Trail, we decided to set up camp a few miles before the summit. That way we would climb in the morning when the weather was best, and reach the summit well before the thunderstorms hit.
We took two zero days. The first one was on the 3rd of September, 4 days into the hike. We took a small detour from the original route to reach the Fish Creek Hot Springs, and enjoyed a zero day there. I must say that a natural hot spring is to me a much bigger gold nugget than a shower in a resort.
The second zero day was not intended, forced by bad weather, as I have narrated earlier.
Flora Fauna Vista
We were about to set the tarp between two pines trees in the Leconte Valley, when William whispered: "look over there, we've got visitors". I turned and discovered a doe with her two fawns walking trustfully towards our camp. They looked around for something to graze, glancing curiously at us with no sign of alarm. Two squirrels chased each other around the trunk of a nearby tree. Chipmunks ran around and red tailed hawks soared high in the sky. We respectfully borrowed a little piece of their land to spend the night, leaving no trace of our passage in the morning.
The John Muir Trail gave me the strongest, most intimate relationship I have ever had with the Wilderness. We hiked through the most stunning landscapes, with no sign of human presence for days except the odd ranger station or the notorious Muir Hut at the top of Muir Pass.
With a mixed feeling of disappointment and relief from my part, we saw no bears. But we did witness evidences of their presence in the woods. Rich wildlife, particularly deers, is frequently spotted along the trail. I was amazed to find frogs living at 3500m of altitude at Wanda Lake: there are the endangered Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog. I'm quite happy to know that to ensure the survival of the frogs the National Park Service is eliminating trout from certain high altitude lakes.
The JMT is 338Km of constant wonder through alpine and high mountain scenery. It felt as if I was propulsed strait into the pictures of Ansel Adams.
Arriving at Whitney Portal, I felt a bit stunned. The brutal way down from the summit was one reason for feeling that way, but the sudden realization that I had just finished the John Muir Trail was another. It was time to go back to civilisation.
I was stunned, but also thrilled: I had fallen in love with through-hiking.