One hundred and fourteen miles over 14 days. That’s how far my buddy Tom McFarling and I hiked on the John Muir Trail recently.
We carried backpacks between 35 and 40 pounds, spent three nights above 10,500 feet, and went over two passes, Muir and Bishop, that were just shy of 12,000 feet in elevation.
On the last full day of our epic trip, we left LeConte Canyon (8,750 feet) and hiked for more than seven hours just to get to Dusy Basin, 6 miles away and at an elevation of 11,388 feet. Bishop Pass was a climb of an additional 584 feet, at 11,972 feet.
At the end of that day, we found a campsite at Saddlerock Lake, after climbing 3,220 feet and descending 850 feet.
It was a tough trip and we spent between eight and nine hours hiking every day, except for one day when we stopped at 3 p.m. at Virginia Lake after hiking only 5 miles and going up just 838 feet.
We used the U.S. Postal Service to send two small plastic buckets of dried food to two resupply locations: Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch, the first three days in, the second nine days in. That way, we could carry just enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for ourselves.
At one point, I calculated that we would gain and lose 16,000 feet of elevation during the two-week trip. I’m certain that’s really true — we did go up one day, down the next, only to go up again on the third day. Over and over again.
Tom and I started on the June Lake Loop at Silver Lake, which is some 7 miles south of Lee Vining on Route 395. We began on Monday, July 27, and walked out at South Lake, near Bishop, on Sunday, Aug. 9.
In between, we spent 13 nights in our separate, one-person tents. Either two or three nights I remember wearing nearly all the clothes I brought: a short-sleeve shirt, a long-sleeve shirt and a down jacket; a pair of hiking pants and a pair of long underwear underneath those; socks; a woolen hat and gloves; and then clamoring into my down sleeping bag. Like I said, it was cold at night, as low as 33 degrees, even in early August.
We saw numerous lakes surrounded by high mountain peaks and several rushing waterfalls; waded across the cold San Joaquin River, with water halfway up our legs; and crossed lots of streams and creeks on rocks, boulders and fallen trees. The trail could be a nice, crushed pumice – which made our progress fairly swift, although I suspect we were nearly the slowest of the hikers out on the trail — or it could be made up of granite boulders. One day, we hiked 9.9 miles down 3,200 feet to a campsite in Le Conte Canyon. It took us many, many hours because of the roughness of the trail.
The names of the places we camped — Duck Lake, Virginia Lake, Silver Pass near Pocket Meadow, Marie Lake, Evolution Meadow, Wanda Lake and finally Saddlerock Lake — bring forth fond memories and promised bold adventures. You may find those places and many more on maps by Tom Harrison. (The elevations I quote are his; I didn’t take a GPS device, nor a solar pack to recharge it, although we saw many people carrying solar arrays to charge their cameras or their cellphones, although there was only cell reception at one place: Red’s Meadow.)
Tom and I saw a lot of people during our two weeks. He claims that 3,500 people a year hike the JMT. Many of those people were hiking the whole trail, from Yosemite to Mount Whitney. One of those was a 70-year-old Japanese man, Douglas, who lives in Los Angeles. Douglas said he hikes the whole trail, 210.4 miles, every year, starting either in the north or the south. Douglas is a small man, less than 5 feet tall, and his pack was 65 pounds, which is the amount of weight both Tom and I carried combined. Douglas said he didn’t cook anything — all he did was eat dehydrated, powdered vegetables and shellfish. He estimated he hiked between 5 and 9 miles a day, depending on terrain, and said it would take him 30 days to hike the whole JMT.
In contrast was Greg, an emergency room doctor from San Diego, who was a drill sergeant on the trail. He said he isn’t the fastest hiker, so he had to leave early and hike late to make his 15 to 16 miles a day. He was bound and determined to do the whole JMT and had to meet a mule packer, who was bringing food for him in Onion Valley, at a certain time on a certain day. His schedule was so tight that he “fired” his brother from the backpacking trip, because he wanted to hang out in camp a little longer in the morning and didn’t want to hike 15 or 16 miles a day.
We met Greg when he stumbled into our camp, exhausted at about 6:30 p.m. one evening.
Others we met included Brooke and Nick, from New Zealand, who are geology students waiting for their graduation paperwork to get done; the four men from Florida, who were camping together and pooled their resources to create gourmet meals each night; and the two older men, one 71 and the other 76, who are members of a hiking and drinking society based at one man’s vineyard in Healdsburg.
Why am I telling you this tale? Because once in a while, it is good to get out of town, to get into the wilderness, to take a leap of faith and travel a path you’ve never been on before, to go without the technology that is so prevalent today: cellphones, Internet access, computers and all the other electronic gear that make up today’s life. To be able to put all you need on your back and carry it for 14 days is a rare pleasure in today’s world. Hard, yes, but a pleasure nonetheless.
Once you do that, you get down to the basics and find out what’s really important — how do I go from one place to the next? — and it doesn’t matter if the Giants win or lose, or if school is starting again, or if your mortgage or car payment is due, because those things are of this world, not of the world that makes up the wilderness.
And it’s good to spend time in the wilderness.
For a good guide to explore your own adventure, turn to Elizabeth Wenk’s “John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail.” The fifth edition was published last year and it is available from Wilderness Press.