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John Muir Trail, the days after

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in SF, the day before we left for the JMT.

For whatever reason, once Jennifer and I wrote all 20 days of the JMT, adding this final “follow-up” post didn’t seem as urgent. I mean, it’s been over a year since this trip happened. But then I thought about it – this is the post that closes it all up. The post that wraps our adventure up with a nice, pretty bow. So let’s get this shit done already….

[Just as some insight here – I wrote this a few months ago so now we had to go back and update it all over again. ha ha ha ]

As you might recall from Day 20, we finished up the JMT 1 day early. At the end, I was glad we did. The final miles to the end were pretty treacherous, and not because they were harder than anything else but because we were so close to the goal – I wanted to run, but couldn’t. And showers and beer and pizza were beckoning.

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we made it to Whitney in 1 piece!

Once we downed our beer and french fries, we made our way to the car. There was a family next to our car who was celebrating the end of their adventure, and they had all sorts of fresh vegetables. Normally I don’t get super excited about carrots and spinach and tomatoes. I mean, I like them, but I get much more excited about beer and pizza. But this was different – we’d been eating dehydrated food for days. They offered us some veggies and I think the Jennifer and I tried our best to look dainty but it was pretty much impossible. Anyway, it was certainly a treat and just one more reason this experience was so amazing – people are just awesome.

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We were lucky enough to find some space at the hostel we’d originally booked for the following night. Jennifer and I were in a girls’ room and Chris in a guys’ room – sorta weird and it felt like a dorm with bunk beds and all, but there was a shower! But first – FOOD. There was a pizza place nearby so we decided that was way more important than a shower. We had a couple of pitchers of beer and plenty of pizza that at the time tasted like the most amazing thing I’d ever eaten. There of course were plenty of co-hikers eating pizza so it was fun to chat with people before heading back to the hostel.

Meanwhile, we’d texted with Courtney and Brittany – they’d finished the JMT earlier in the day, and we’d all decided to meet with them first thing in the morning for a nice big breakfast.

It felt good to shower and get dressed in some normal clothes that weren’t covered in dirt. I didn’t realize how much I missed deodorant, and the soapy smells of freshness. And let’s not even talk about running a brush through clean hair – man, I’d taken a lot of stuff for granted! It all felt so luxurious, and the irony was that we were in a freaking hostel sleeping in bunk beds with strangers.

The next morning, we figured out where to meet up with our buddies. We saw Andrew for a brief second because the girls shacked up with him and his parents the night before. It was pretty funny hearing about that experience, and picturing the look of shock on Andrew’s parents’ faces as he walks off the JMT with two chicks at his side and says, “hi mom and dad. these are my new friends and they are staying with us tonight”. ha ha ha ha. Anyway, they dropped Brittany and Courtney off at the restaurant and went on their way. We spent a good hour eating all the carbs and other yummy things that we could. Brittany and Courtney had relatives picking them up who lived in a town relatively close by, so they joined us for breakfast as well. It was fun to hang out in the real world and chat about some of the fun times on the trail with new people. We eventually made our way outside, took a quick group picture of us all nice and showered, and said goodbye.

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post JMT group shot!

After that, we made our way home to San Francisco – Chris drove the whole way and it was awesome to just sit and sit and sit.

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Going home was completely surreal. Showing up in SF was such a crazy contrast to our lives over the past 3 weeks. Cars everywhere! Bikes! Pedestrians without backpacks! And all sorts of food choices, booze, and familiar faces. We spent the weekend catching up with friends at a backyard barbecue/housewarming party a friend was throwing that weekend. On Sunday, before taking Jennifer to the airport, we spent some time in Dolores Park where Chris had miraculously arranged a surprise party for us before he’d left for the trail. There were balloons and cake and a giant sign and lots of friends. It was pretty spectacular.

Meanwhile, our bodies were sore, our feet were severely swollen, and Jennifer’s toes were barely recognizable as toes. The physical aftermath was starting to materialize and it was not pretty. My ankles had been hurting for days. Fortunately the morning and evening doses of Ibuprofen had helped on the trail, but I didn’t want to continue doing that every day. It would be months (months!) before my ankles would feel stable upon getting out of bed each morning. I got used to hobbling out of bed like an old gimpy lady, hoping that wouldn’t become the norm, and feeling very thankful when it eventually dissipated, but again, it was seriously months.

Jennifer had similar foot issues in that it took quite a while for them to get back to normal but I can guarantee all nastiness did eventually disappear and her feet are more or less normal again. Ok, they are back at baseline, let’s leave it at that ;).

As you’d imagine, Jennifer was ready to get back home to her life – her trip was longer than mine since she had flights from Seattle on both ends of it, and she was really really needing some Jon time. I know she was happy to be hanging with us in SF (she has lots of friends there too!), but if I were her I would have felt the same way – that my journey was still going. It was really hard to drop her off at the airport knowing we’d spent over 3 weeks together, mostly within each other’s sight the entire time. We knew the adventure we’d just completed together would be something we’d never ever forget. And while it wasn’t rainbows and sunshine every day, we left the JMT with a stronger bond than when we’d started, we’d become closer despite our differences (and tent-cleaning philosophies), and we were already thinking about what hike we wanted to tackle next – but that would have to wait a while.

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the longest day ever on the JMT (at least for me)

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one of my favorite Jennifer/Heather selfies because it so nicely showcases 1) chapped lips 2) duct tape and 3) those sexy buffs. Oh, and scenery.

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you can’t do a recap without a picture of one of our very best JMT moments 😉

We commemorated our adventure by getting tattoos together over Thanksgiving (we spend every T-day together along with another couple). We wanted something small and simple, nothing too crazy, but something that would be meaningful to us. We ended up going with a tracing of the elevation of the trail, similar to the picture we used on all of our daily posts. I love mine – it’s a subtle daily reminder of the journey and a great conversation piece about something I always LOVE talking about.

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this took all of 5 seconds to scribble on.

Would I do the JMT again? Absolutely. We had an email thread going for a few weeks between Jennifer, myself, and the rest of our trail family that was titled “Who’s ready to go Northbound”? I think we all were ready to turn around and do it again that year.

But this year has taken a different turn, and we have other focuses in our lives right now. For one of us, that just means a new job, a few small hikes here and there, and nursing a cat back to health after surgery. For the other, it means something bigger – like a miniature Carter that will soon be tearing up the streets of Seattle. I for one could not be happier about that. And who knows? Maybe there’s a family JMT hike in our futures. Or maybe it’ll just be a good excuse to leave rugrats at home. Time will tell.

So much so that I had to re-write that paragraph up there. That little miniature future Carter is now a real life human menace to society and is now about 3 whole months old. I can vouch for his cuteness as I got to cuddle him and squeeze him some over Thanksgiving in Seattle this year. All in all, Jennifer’s 2016 was exactly what she wanted it to be – 2015 was for hiking, and 2016 was for baby-making. I’d say that turned out as planned!

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the adorable Clark Spencer Carter

And while 2016 was very different for me, which did involve nursing our cat back to health after double knee surgery and getting a new job, Chris and I also ended the year with a much welcomed surprise ourselves – a future Wetzel who will be terrorizing San Francisco in May! Now we will have to plan a family hiking trip sometime in the next few years – although a NorthBound JMT hike will probably not be what ends up happening after all! Maybe a long weekend somewhere? Let’s play that by ear….

No matter how different this summer year (2016) was from the last one (2015), I continue to carry this adventure with me everywhere I go. It might sound like a bunch of hippie dippy shit, but it’s true. That trail – those 20 days of ups and downs, the gorgeous scenery, the connectedness you feel to the world while ironically being in the middle of nowhere, the things you put your body through to see those amazing vistas, all 250+ miles of carrying myself and the weight of a freaking toddler aka backpack (practice?), realizing that you are capable of so much more than you ever thought and that not even a giant mountain (or mountains) can stand in your way. It’s all those things, and so many more that I can’t put into words.

But yes, it was totally worth it.

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John Muir Trail, Day 20: Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal

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J:  Hardest part of the whole hike was the “99 switchbacks” going down, down, down to Whitney Portal, but let’s back up a minute….

I hope you’re all ready for a lot of pictures, because our final day is easier to describe that way, because words are just plain hard. But we’ll try.

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sleepy, but so excited!

Our alarms went off nice and early on Day 20. While we knew we didn’t want to hike to the summit at sunrise, we did want to be hiking when the sun came up on our final day. We got packed up rather quickly, making sure we had our snacks close, our headlamps on, and our ‘day packs’ easy to access for the final couple of miles (more on this later).

J:  My alarm went off at 3:30 am…I wanted to get up early enough to see the meteor shower (and to get the WAG bag situation out of the way early enough to find some privacy in the dark, behind a rock, on top of a marmot’s house).  The only cool thing about shitting into a bag was being distracted by one of the most amazing starry skies.  The milky way was gone by then, but there were a bunch of shooting stars/meteorites.  It was one of those skies that makes you dizzy if you stare too long – also making it a little harder to balance over a bag.

Then we noticed the headlamps of hikers that were heading up the mountain to make it up to the top before sunrise.  We finally knew where the trail was which was awesome and terrifying all at the same time.  Ignorance is bliss.

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the ascent has started, and Guitar Lake is in the distance

By 5:00, we were on our way. We had about 4.5 miles to hike to get to the summit, and slightly more than 3,000 feet to rise. No big deal, right? It wasn’t long before the darkness faded and the light came through – the stars were beautiful while hiking, but the sunrise over the area was something I will never forget.

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We stopped after a few hundred feet of climbing for a short break and a snack. Oh, and to take in some of the views. Do any of you watch Survivor? Chris and I might be the only people on earth who still watch it, but the final miles to Whitney reminded me of the part of the show where they used to drop all the torches of the ‘fallen’ and reminisce about the adventure. I felt like this section was just that, and I felt as cool as those people at the end of Survivor probably feel – without the chance of all the monies.

J:  I’m not sure about the Survivor reference (sorry, H), but do agree that the whole climb up to Whitney was not that bad simply because my brain was preoccupied replaying the whole hike leading up to this point.  I still couldn’t believe that we were on our final climb and were actually going to make it (unless a giant mountain goat pummeled us off a cliff).

You were replaying the hike like those Survivor people replay their game. See? Same thing ;).

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we didn’t look tired at all, did we?!

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Guitar Lake to the right, Kaweah Peaks in the back

The only part we could really see for the first while was the view west down to Guitar Lake and the Kaweah Peaks that we lunched at the day before. While we weren’t really able to appreciate the ‘guitar-ness’ of the lake while we were camping right at the base of it, you could really see the actual guitar shape when higher and looking down. It was also pretty cool to see the changing colors of the same view as the sun slowly made its way over the massive boulders on the east, and over to the west.

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making our way towards Whitney!

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After some steady climbing for about 2,000 feet and 2.5 miles, we came to a destination that was almost as exciting as getting to Whitney itself. Ok, not really, but it was still a big accomplishment. The Whitney Trail Junction was the fork in the trail where you could go one way and reach Whitney in a couple of miles, or you could continue the other way and reach Trail Crest and eventually after a lot of descent, Whitney Portal, the end of the road. This meant we’d be coming back to this spot after reaching Whitney – which translates to we didn’t have to carry our entire backpacks over the final 2 miles. YES!

The final stretch wasn’t easy without our packs, but it felt a whole hell of a lot lighter – in weight and in breathing. Chris didn’t have a day pack, but he moved most of his stuff into my pack, so we all had significantly less weight for the final haul.

J:  Dumping our heavy packs felt great!  I remembered worrying about leaving our packs on the side of the trail a few weeks earlier to hike up Half Dome.  We (or maybe just me) were worried about someone or something taking our packs while we were hiking.  This time, I did not care.  I was so happy to have a lighter load, especially with the extra trouble breathing at such a high altitude.

As we were getting ready to climb the last 1.7 miles to the top, we ran into the girls who had camped next to us the night before.  They were in the group that hiked up for sunrise (left around 1 am).  While they said it was one of the most spectacular views they’d ever seen, they also confirmed that it was freezing cold.  It confirmed for me that we had made the right choice to skip the sunrise. I think the cold would have ruined it for me.  

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By this point, other hikers had certainly started to arrive on the trail – those coming from the South who had stayed overnight at Trail Camp, and those like us who’d stayed at various points along Guitar Lake. The difference today though, was that we all had one united goal at this point – getting to Whitney.

The section of trail here was really rocky, full of pinnacles and gorgeous views to the mountains, but also on the other side, to Lone Pine. We tried not to rush it – as excited as we were to get to the summit, we also wanted to soak it all in. We also didn’t want to rush because some parts of this trail were rather narrow, and we weren’t looking to make it all this way just to fall down the mountain. That would have really sucked.

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Jennifer had hiked ahead of Chris and I a little bit during this last jaunt. I hiked a little ahead of Chris as well, but would stop to take pictures pretty often, so we were never too far apart from one another.

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Whitney Trail selfie!

I kept looking ahead at the trail, feeling like these last 2 miles to the summit were never going to end. Not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, but geez, for 20 days (and months before we even started!), we’d talked about making our way to Whitney. We were so close at this point we could feel it, but I still couldn’t see it.

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J:  I was on a mission.  I kept going and didn’t realize I was pretty far ahead of Heather and Chris.  I was forced to stop at one point as I came around a corner and the view just took my breath away. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it was pretty spectacular up there.  I had a feeling we were pretty close to the top so I wanted to wait for Heather and finish this thing together.  As I stood there waiting, staring out over the world, I sort of lost it a little and started tearing up.  It was at that moment that Heather came up to me and laughed at me a little for getting emotional, then she did too.  Chris had told us earlier not to wait up for him, so we sucked it up and were off to climb the final stretch.

Jennifer stopped probably about 1/4 of a mile from the summit to wait for me, and I was so glad. I know we weren’t hiking together every second of this journey, and we were both completely ok with that, but this last section was something that seemed appropriate to do together. We finally made it those last few feet to the summit, and when I saw the building at the summit, a gush of happiness came over us both – we had made it to Mt Whitney!

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we wanted to run at this point, but the thin air just wouldn’t allow it

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J:  WE DID IT!!!!  Hell yeah!

We had a few minutes to walk around before Chris made it to the summit as well. He was feeling much better today, but the last bit of the ascent slowed him down a tad, and he was more than fine with us getting there before him – he knew we were excited!

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view from the edge!

Once Chris got to Whitney, we took a ton of pictures. We knew pizza and beer was down below, but we didn’t want to rush our time at the summit – not at all.

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this is where the picture above this one was taken from

Don’t worry – we were totally careful.

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Wild Turkey still life 😉

Jennifer had this idea for us to each pack a travel-sized bottle of whiskey to drink when we made it to the top. I remember thinking, “do I want that extra weight”? It was only a few ounces, but remember, I’d left behind my 1 oz. headphones, so it all mattered. I ultimately decided to carry it, and I was so glad I did. It was a perfect way to top off an already amazing trek. Also, there were plenty of people around us who’d wished they’d done the same.

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The funny thing about it was that we only took a couple of baby sips from the bottles. Our tolerance had significantly decreased throughout these past 3 weeks, and being at 14,500 feet wasn’t making that any better. We took the mature, responsible route and decided to play it safe. Aren’t you proud?!

(Also, I just checked, and that same bottle is sitting on our bar cart. Maybe it was just one ultra baby sip that I took….)

J:  It felt like we might need something to commemorate our journey once we got to the top of Mt. Whitney. I’m so glad we had something to toast with at the end (even if we only had a few sips).

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Victory hug! I know I already said this, but damn, we are badass. The cool part was that since we both smelled super funky by this point (I think we were on 10 days without a shower), neither of us noticed.

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Rumor had it that Mt Whitney had some cell service, and it did! After we took a bunch of photos, we all sat down to give Jon a quick call. We all agreed that it felt weird having this huge accomplishment without him there, so before long we brought him in on the excitement. Jennifer was especially happy to hear his voice – though they’d talked briefly at VVR, the connection was horrible there and this was much more clear. Hard to believe we were up 14,500 feet in the air and essentially in the middle of nowhere.

J:  I’ll admit, I lost it a little when I got to call Jon. I’m not sure why it bothered me so much not to have any contact with him the last couple of weeks, but it was great to hear his voice and share this moment with him.  I also got to call my parents for a brief minute.  They had been following our progress with our Spot GPS tracking device and knew we’d made it…finally!

We also made a few quick calls to family members, soaked in the view a little longer, signed the register, and made our way back to our packs. We had tried to get in touch with the hotel we had our reservations at for the following night, but didn’t have any luck there. So at this point, we weren’t sure if we’d get to stay at the same place or not, but we’d just have to figure it out on the other side.

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the register at Mt Whitney

It was hard to believe that we had to get all the way down to the bottom of this view (below). You’d think they’d just build some ski-lift situation to take you down or something. I mean, seriously. 😉

J:  zip line.  that is what needs to happen.

Before long, we’d made our way back to the trail junction and picked up our heavy heavy packs. We had a tiny climb up to Trail Crest, which some consider another ‘pass’, but it isn’t actually part of the JMT, so I never think to count it. The JMT essentially ends at Mt. Whitney (hence the final point in our daily mileage picture at the top of each post), and the rest of this is just the way down, in my brain.

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After Trail Crest (elevation ~13,700), we headed out of Sequoia National Park and back into the John Muir Wilderness, beginning the final and most unrelenting descent of our trip – the dreaded ’99 switchbacks’. There were times when the switchbacks were a little too steep for my liking – we wanted to hike quicker but we just couldn’t! We finally made it down the 2.2 miles to Trail Camp, the first campsite on the other side of Mt Whitney, at ~12,000 feet. I didn’t count the switchbacks, but it felt like there were 1,000 instead of 99. Trail Camp was definitely full of people, poop, and as expected, general all-around gross-ness. I don’t think we would have stayed at Trail Camp anyway (we’d planned for Outpost Camp, another couple of miles away), but since it was early in the day, I was very very happy to be heading to the end at this point.

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we finally knew where the top was…on our way down

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a taste of the ’99 switchbacks’

In case anyone was wondering, all three of our WAG bags had to get used. We were all hiking at different paces after the stop for lunch, which was shortly after Trail Camp, and I honestly thought I was going to make it all the way out without using that thing, since my morning routine was nonexistent due to the early start. Unfortunately, the urge hit me an hour or so after lunch, probably at the worst time on the trail as there was really nowhere to hide. I had to get Jennifer to watch the trail so I could duck around some little rock and figure out the bag situation. It was not cool, but whatever.

Chris, meanwhile, literally disappeared. We knew he was hiking a little slower than we were, but at one point I had stopped to see how far back he was, and he was completely out of view. I had a feeling he was getting pretty uncomfortable by that point (this was, after all, 4 days of no poop action for him), so I had an idea of what was going down. We just waited for a few minutes, and he eventually showed up and just hiked on by. There was no major conversation about his experience, but just an affirmative that it had happened.

I should have wagered some money on that bet. ha!

J:  I was pretty glad that the WAG bag situation had taken care of itself early in the morning for me. It wasn’t the most ideal of situations, but the alternative that H+C had to deal with on this busy trail seemed like it sucked. 

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The area around Outpost Camp was actually really nice – a wooded area with nice streams/creeks nearby and free of ‘riff raff’ – probably because it was relatively close to the trailhead. And there was honestly still a (very small) part of me that wanted to camp one more night. The final jaunt at this point was only about 4 miles and about 2,000 feet of descending, so it would have made for a very easy morning and pizza for lunch. But our decision had been made and we all really really wanted to finish this – we just kept right on truckin’.

J: We had all split up a bit on the descent down so I got to the Outpost Camp a few minutes before H+C.  I stopped to talk with a few hikers, but when I saw Heather round a corner, I practically ran out of there. I didn’t want to have any discussion about whether or not we would stop there for the night.  At this point, I was SO ready to get that victory beer.

Eventually, we made it to the final section of trail and the last few hundred feet of down. At one point you could see the parking lot – and while it still looked far away, it brought a HUGE smile to my face. We also started seeing families out on day hikes, and a couple of people walking their dogs – all obvious signs we were almost there. And then we were – after about 240 miles of hiking, most of which was on the JMT, we had reached our destination at Whitney Portal. I can’t describe how I felt, other than to say I was happy, sad, tired, excited, and really really fucking hungry. Turns out, the Whitney Portal Store was open, and the ‘Grille’ smelled like heaven.

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But first, we dumped our shit!  There was a special ‘biohazard’ bin for the WAG bags.  Glad Jennifer captured this!

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Jennifer and I found a nice outdoor table, where we practically threw our packs down, and we proceeded to find a nice cold beer and ordered a giant plate of fries. We scarfed them down while we waited for Chris, feeling pretty satisfied about life and this major accomplishment.

After hundreds of faxes, 8 months of planning, 20 days of actual hiking, pounds of Snickers Bars and sports beans, drops and drops of liquid magic, lots of throwback tunes, dozens of blisters, mornings and nights of throbbing ankles, and countless smiles and memories later – the JMT was complete.

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demolished a plate of fries and of course, Sierra Nevada beers

J:  If you want to have the best damn beer of your life, all you have to do is hike 240 miles.  For some reason, it makes any beer 100 times more satisfying.  What a day and what an epic adventure!  I am so glad I got to share it with one of my best friends and the best hiking partners a girl could ask for.  

And with that, this job is complete! Well, almost – stay tuned for one more write-up – our “post JMT” re-cap, starting with the rest of the night (pizza!), the next day, and the few days after.


Day 20 details (August 13, 2015):

Start-finish: Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal
Daily miles: 15.1
Mileage tally: 237.9
Camp elevation: Lone Pine, CA in a REAL BED – ~4,000 ft
Hiking elevation: Elevation: 2,545 ft gain; 6,108 ft loss

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John Muir Trail, Day 19: Tyndall Frog Ponds to Guitar Lake

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Our 19th morning was frigid. So frigid that it was really hard to get moving, even though we knew it would help to warm us up! Courtney and Brittany started off before the rest of us; we had one of our latest starts yet – around 9AM. It felt nice to not have a major pass to ascend, but instead 11 miles or so with not too bad of an ascent or descent (not too bad by this point meant <2,000 feet).

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coffee for three

Eventually, we knew it was time to go, so we said goodbye to Andrew (who was doing his usual leave last/finish first thing) and started through the forest, ascending ever so gently.

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ready to roll out…

Following a short ascent upon our departure from the Tyndall Frog Ponds area, we came upon the vast, expansive Bighorn Plateau. It was beautiful, but eerie all the same – we’d hiked for miles upon miles in forests and up and down mountains, and all of a sudden we were hiking through what looked like a giant, barren field, just one small trail guiding our way to the other side.

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the trail through Bighorn Plateau

J:  Bighorn Plateau was a different landscape than what we’d gotten used to hiking through, but I thought it was beautiful in it’s own way.  There were these really interesting, sculptural looking trees along the trail. I kept taking photos of them as we passed.  I’m sure H+C thought I was weird at this point for taking so many photos of dead trees, but look how cool they are…

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dead tree #119

We took our time going through the plateau, admiring the view from every direction. It was at this point that we could supposedly see Whitney to the Southeast, but it was difficult to appreciate since it didn’t necessarily look as high as it was.

J:  It was difficult to appreciate because we couldn’t figure out which mountain peak it was! Or maybe that was just me?  I kept pointing to different mountains and taking photos with the idea that I’d just look it up later.  The jagged peaks in the background (below) looked like they had the most potential to be Mt. Whitney, so we went with that assumption.  

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Is that Whitney?  or the one next to it?

J:  Mt. Whitney was over there somewhere and we were going to find it and climb the shit out of it like ‘real’ thru-hikers do! 

Good point, Simpson. We have another “possible Whitney” picture on the day we were actually almost at Whitney, and I still don’t know if that was it….

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almost through Bighorn Plateau

On the other side of the plateau was the start of our descent down into the Wright Creek area, the last of the heavily forested areas we’d hike through. It was getting warmer by this point, and we started seeing quite a bit more foot traffic from the other direction – people hiking Northbound on the JMT, and people entering the JMT through the High Sierra Trail, which was nearby. I remember feeling so proud at this point – remembering how different I felt at the start of our hike, and wondering if those we passed felt the same as we did almost 3 weeks ago.

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the Kaweah Peaks, I think…

For lunch, we stopped off under a shaded area where we had one of the most impressive views of the day (above). At this point, we probably had about 6 miles to go, which didn’t seem too bad, so we got on our way.

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someone was feeling very happy – we were almost there!

J:  I was full of adrenaline on Day 19.  I was anxious about climbing Mt. Whitney, sad about leaving the trail life and all of the friends we’d met along the way, but also extremely excited to get back to my husband, my own bed, and get some face kisses from my dog.  It was hard to believe we had hiked so far and only had a few more days/miles to go and we’d actually complete our goal of hiking the entire JMT!

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It wasn’t long before we’d started back after lunch that Chris really started losing steam. I mean – let me be clear – we were all tired, but tired today didn’t feel different to me than tired any other day. For Chris though, this was his third day of hiking, and all have been at high elevation. While today’s hike from an intensity standpoint wasn’t that bad, it was still long and constant, and 3 full days of hiking was definitely more miles and elevation than our typical weekend hikes back home. I know he was happy with each and every break we took, but we also wanted to get to camp at a decent time today, given that the next day was ‘summit day’.

We continued on, slowly but surely, and began to see more signs for Whitney as we did. It was worth a stop for a picture at every one of them!

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Ok. So it’s been a couple of days (maybe?) since we’ve had a conversation about poop. I’m sure those of you reading regularly are perhaps sad? Upset? Confused? Let there be no doubt that we talked about it plenty on the trail – against Chris’ strongest wishes, no less – but there haven’t really been any important stories in that regard – until now.

You see, it was today that we came across the wonderful ‘WAG bag’ bin. If you’re planning to hike, or have already hiked the JMT or at a minimum, the area around Whitney (or other areas like Mt Rainier or in Denali), you know what a WAG bag is. But if you haven’t, here’s the gist: the ‘Whitney Zone’ as it’s called is extremely overcrowded with backpackers as well as hikers summitting Whitney as a day trip. Once you get away from Crabtree Meadows (where we are in the picture picking up the WAG bag – below), the area is primarily granite, or very hard packed earth. The result? Pooping is against the rules. Clearly, you can’t forbid a human being to actually poop…but you can force (or strongly encourage) them to poop in a bag that has been designed by NASA (I don’t know if that’s true but that’s what I was told). The bags have this special stuff in them that hardens the poop instantly, and then there’s a sealable bag IN the bag. You hang your bag outside of your pack and you discard it when you’re officially outta the ‘zone’ – at Whitney Portal, the end of the hike for us. Let’s just say no one looks forward to pooping in a bag. It’s just not natural.

J:  Ahhhh….the WAG bag.  I’d been dreading the WAG bag since reading about it in our initial planning of this hike, but once the moment was upon us it didn’t seem so terrible. Of course, there’s nothing natural about pooping into a bag (especially one full of space-age technology), but if I was able to overcome my fear of shitting in the woods then surely, when the moment came, I’d be ok using the WAG bag.  I was more worried about using the bag in the super crowded Guitar Lake camp area with no trees or hiding spots.  I wrote in my journal:  “I might just poop in the bag in my tent and hope I don’t miss?  We’ll see…that might be a little gross even for me”.  At least I had options.

I’d also like to make a strong plea to anyone hiking in the Whitney Zone (or any wilderness) …please please take your shit (literally) out with you.  The Whitney Zone had so many WAG bags just scattered around because people couldn’t be bothered to pack it out.  Really?  If you are badass enough to hike up through this area, then you are badass enough to add a little extra weight and carry out your own shit.  Now back to the poop talk…

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The other poop story is about Chris, and he’ll hate me for telling this to the entire world (I mean let’s be honest, everyone reads this blog, right?!). Chris does not like pooping outdoors. I had made a, um, prediction, that he’d be ok for a few days, but he probably wouldn’t make it all the way to the end, which for him was 4-5 days depending on when we were to finish up – still undetermined at this point. What I predicted was that he’d make it until the worst possible time to not make it – WAG bag time. Let’s just say that I was right so far, despite a 30-minute stop at the last ‘toilet’ at the Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station that he actually never found.

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last of the trees before heading up to Guitar Lake

J:  There wasn’t a lot of shade after we passed the Crabtree ranger station, so we took our time heading up to Guitar Lake to soak in the last of the trees and take some extra breaks as needed.  I sure didn’t mind going a little slower up to our last campsite before Whitney.  It was hard to believe we had actually made it (almost) to the end. 

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me, Andrew, Courtney, Brittany, Jennifer at Guitar Lake

Ultimately, we were all tired by the time we got to Crabtree Meadows, especially Chris, and he had extra weight to carry, so to speak (muah ha ha ha). We trudged ahead and made it to Guitar Lake right before 5PM – just in time to catch our friends before they made their journey up to the ‘bivvy site’ near the Mt Whitney trail junction (~13,500 feet) – the spot they’d decided on for their sunrise summit where they’d all hover together and barely sleep because it was going to be so damn cold up there! I didn’t envy this choice at all, if you can’t tell!

We hung out with them for a few minutes and said our goodbyes, exchanging phone numbers in the event that we’d have a chance to meet up ‘on the other side’ in Lone Pine, before we all went home. Chris took one final picture of the 5 of us, and we said goodbye to 3 people who helped to make this such an amazing adventure. We were sad to see them go, sad to know we were almost finished, but so happy to have had the experience with them.

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Jennifer, me, and the “Tallahassee Lassies”

While Chris, Jennifer, and I had planned to hike another half mile or so to the other side of Guitar Lake to get past a little bit of tomorrow’s final ascent, we decided that we’d be just fine stopping right where we were (and honestly, not sure Chris would have agreed to go one step further!). The campsite we had in mind could have very well been full by that time anyway, and we definitely didn’t want to backtrack. So we found a nice spot overlooking Guitar Lake and settled in, right next to our Tallahassee friends that we’d been leap frogging and camping alongside most nights since we left VVR. They were also part of our giant trail family, and we got one good group shot with them, too. We knew we’d never see or hear from these guys again, but we were so happy to have met them – they inspired us every day.

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Guitar Lake, our ‘official’ final campsite

While we’d been talking about it for the last day or so, tonight was the night where we felt like we really needed to come to a decision about when we finished our hike. Our original plan was to hike the JMT in 21 days – we’d finish relatively early on 8/14, a Friday, and stay the night at a place we’d reserved in Lone Pine, then drive home to SF on Saturday, then Jennifer would fly back home to Seattle on Sunday. But we’d started to get the feeling that after summitting Whitney tomorrow, we’d probably be ready to finish this adventure and get to beer and pizza lickety split. We’d also not heard anything great about any of the trail camps on the other side – there was talk of WAG bags all over the place, a lot of litter from people doing weekend trips to summit Whitney, and just a ton of general nastiness and noise.

All that said, a big part of me wanted to stretch this journey out as long as I could – what was the point in hurrying? I could get pizza and beer the next day, and SF wasn’t going anywhere. But as much as I wanted to stay one more night in my heart, I knew in my head that it was best to descend Whitney, and descend altogether. Whitney was the goal, and Whitney was the end of the JMT. The rest was just the way out – all 10 miles or so of it.

So that’s what we all three decided – tonight would be our final night camping, and tomorrow would be our final day on the trail. Those 6,000 feet we’d have to descend from Mt Whitney to get to Whitney Portal, our car, and real food and beer would be long and arduous, but we’d make it there tomorrow  – at some point.

J:  Somehow we all agreed that getting up early for the meteorite shower, summiting Mt. Whitney, AND heading all the way down to Whitney Portal in the same day (about 12 miles of extreme up and down for the day) was a fantastic idea.  I had a feeling that after finishing the JMT on top of Mt. Whitney, all that would be on my mind was talking with my husband for the first time in weeks.  There were rumors of having cell service on top of the mountain, but I didn’t want to count on that.  I was definitely going to miss being out on the trail, but I was also ready to get home.

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do you see the trail??? we couldn’t either…

And with that major decision made, we had our final trail dinner, packed up most of our things, and went to sleep as early as possible with plans to be up around 4:15, planning to hit the trail by 5:00 for our final ascent to Mt Whitney – the final stop to tick off before heading home.


Day 19 details (August 12, 2015):

Start-finish: Tyndall Frog Ponds to Guitar Lake
Daily miles: 11.0
Mileage tally: 222.8
Camp elevation: 11,470
Hiking elevation: 1,539 ft gain; 1,252 ft loss

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John Muir Trail, Day 18: Upper Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Frog Ponds

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The morning of our biggest and final ‘official’ pass, Forester, was upon us. I knew this one was gonna be a doozy, but we’d been hiking for 16 days at this point – how much more prepared could we be, really?! The story was different for Chris though – he’d started his adventure in high elevation, carried in our shit along with his own supplies, and now his second day on the trail was going to be this? Poor guy.

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We got started later than usual – around 8:15 today. Jennifer and I had our own routine when it was just the two of us, but it was little slower going with one more person in our group – Chris likes to take his time in the morning, and I think we were all procrastinating because of the ~2k of climbing we had to do. Nonetheless, we finally got going.

Since Chris wasn’t sure how he’d fare on this giant climb up to Forester, we’d made a deal to meet up at the top, assuming we’d be hiking differently. He was worried about ‘dragging us down’ (his words), so he made it clear that he didn’t want us to wait for him if he got too far behind. Turns out, that never really happened. We started out at a nice leisurely pace, and while we did eventually separate out during the last half, we were actually only separated by maybe 10 minutes. We were all able to see each other for most of the ascent, which was sorta fun – I was in the middle, so I could look up to see Jennifer a couple of switchbacks ahead, and I could look back to see Chris making his way too.

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the pole felt so. far. away.

The views of the forest behind us reminded us how far down we were when camping the night before (which was still over 11,000 feet!). Even though I’d obviously never hiked this area before, in a way I felt like I was showing Chris my home. We’d been out here for so long and become so used to the expansive views, the towering mountains, the trees that looked so tiny at times, and the sparkling sapphire blue lakes – it was interesting to see a newcomer, and to watch his reaction to seeing this beautiful place for the first time.

J:  Every time we passed a north bound hiker on the JMT, we were warned about Forester Pass. I’d been dreading this climb almost more than Mt. Whitney, but was also looking forward to kicking it’s ass.  

The beginning of the climb was a gradual uphill and wasn’t too terrible.  Once we got up higher, the wind picked up and almost blew me over in some spots.  I was a little further ahead of Heather and Chris (don’t know how this happened) and kept hopscotching another hiker from Germany the whole way up.  Having some music on, soaking up the sun and the expansive views, trying not to blow off the mountain, and chatting with my new German friend made the never-ending switchbacks go by a little faster.  Then, all of a sudden (or 2+ hours later), there was the top of Forester Pass! 

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The journey up to Forester Pass was long and winding. While the ascent seemed to never let up, I still felt that Glen Pass, the day before, had been more difficult. There were enough people standing around at Forester that a round of applause ensued every time someone made it to the top. It made it feel like even more of an accomplishment! It was fun to cheer Chris on as he rounded the final switchback – Jennifer and I were waiting, feeling pretty proud of him for conquering the pass in the time that he did. Once he caught his breath, he admitted that he felt ok until the last 700 feet or so – around 12,500 feet was when he really seemed to noticed the change in elevation, and the sparse air.

J:  I still can’t believe Chris made it up Forester as fast as he did. I understand why all the north bound hikers were warning us about Forester. They hadn’t had any time to acclimate to the elevation. Hiking southbound, we were able to “practice” on all the climbs leading up to this point. The higher elevation definitely takes a toll on your breathing and if you aren’t used to it, then it’s especially tough on day 2 or 3 of your journey.  

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one brave mother fucker…marmot tried to eat everyone’s food at the top of Forester

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two chapped smiles, but smiles nonetheless!

So unfortunately, while Chris originally reported that he had chapstick with him, when we stopped to look for it in his pack yesterday, we came up empty-handed. As it turns out, he’d left his chapstick in the car, and we were now all 3 without any. Awesome, right? Of course, for all the horrible things that could happen to someone on a 3 week trip in the wilderness, not having chapstick probably wasn’t that big of a deal, even though I remember thinking it was pretty miserable with every gust of wind and every big smile (of which there were many – of both).

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Forester Pass celebratory Snickers toast. View looking south, towards our destination.

Chris was a HUGE fan of our celebratory Snickers Bars. What’s not to love about it, other than having to wait to eat it?! I know there are people who literally live off of these things when backpacking – I was starting to understand why. Snickers definitely satisfies.

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Chris and me on Forester right before we started the descent

It is always pretty chilly at the top of the passes, and by this point we’d learned that the descents aren’t usually that much better until you really get into the swing of it. This was no different, and in my opinion, worse than most. The south side of Forester was really windy, and really steep. So much so that I had written “day of wind” at the top page of my journal entry. I’d also written that this section of the trail was my 2nd least favorite, after the trip down into Red’s Meadow, which felt like so long ago. Once we’d gotten down a little over 1,200 feet, it wasn’t as steep, but it was still quite barren, very desert-like, and still really really windy – an awesome combo for the chapped.

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north side of Forester…no treeline until waaaay in the distance

Lunch that day was uneventful – we found an area that allowed a slight break from the wind that doubled as an area to fill up our water.

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One of the highlights of the day was our first sign for Mt. Whitney – we were SO CLOSE! It was hard to believe we were only a couple of days away from being finished.

We finished our day shortly after we passed the sign (above), ending the day at Tyndall Frog Ponds, shortly after the Shepherd Pass Junction, and right after the start of the first ascent for the morning.

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last campsite with our trail family (and with trees)

Brittany, Courtney, and Andrew had by this point decided that they were going to try their damnedest to summit Whitney at sunrise after tomorrow, which the three of us had absolutely no interest in doing. That said, this would be our last night camping with them, as they were going to head up as far as possible for tomorrow night. We celebrated our journey together by dividing up the bottle of wine that Chris had brought in (nothing says class like a nice bottle of Broc Cellars Cab Franc out of a plastic collapsible bottle!) paired with our best dehydrated dinners and some amazing dessert, which was either a chocolate pudding or key lime pie – or both? I can’t remember…

J:  We had been debating how to finish up the hike for a few days.  There was supposed to be a meteor shower the night before we summited Whitney so I wanted to get up early (around 3 am) and start hiking under the stars.  I had zero desire to hike up any earlier in order to catch the sunrise on top of Mt. Whitney since I knew it would be way too cold for me to actually enjoy it. Luckily H+C were both on board with the no-sunrise plan, but I still had some convincing to do on the 3am start.

We still had to figure out our exit plan, but we knew it was our last night with our trail family so like Heather mentioned, we stayed up a little later (around 8pm!), ate some chocolate mousse, drank some wine, and fantasized about all of the “real” food options in Lone Pine.  I wasn’t sure if I would eat pizza or burgers first but one thing was certain,  there would definitely be beer…

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look at all that color!

Before closing out for the night, we all walked over to the Frog Ponds, where we met up with our favorite group from Tallahassee. They were happy to take a group photo of our trail family, which was a perfect way to end the night.

Next up – the journey to Guitar Lake, and the discussion about whether we finish in 20 days or the originally planned 21.


Day 18 details (August 11, 2015):

Start-finish: Upper Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Frog Ponds
Daily miles: 11.4
Mileage tally: 211.8
Camp elevation: 11,100 ft
Hiking elevation: 2,632 ft gain; 2,056 ft loss

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John Muir Trail, Day 17: Rae Lakes to Upper Bubbs Creek

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Alrighty! The start of Day 17, to me, was so very different than the other days. I knew we had a lot of climbing to do, and I was actually excited about getting to Glen Pass, if only to see the beautiful Rae Lakes from a different angle. But I also knew that our hiking routines would change drastically when we met up with Chris, so this was the last morning that Jennifer and I had to stick with our normal routine. Jennifer on the other hand, was probably glad of this, as it meant she’d get that pristine tent all to herself ;).

It was also crazy to think that after 16 full days of hiking, I’d reunite with my husband in a matter of hours if all went according to plan. He’d show up like our knight in shining armor – a fresh smile and a pack full of food, duct tape, apple cider powder, whiskey, and wine! This was all very very exciting. The least exciting part was that he’d written a sentence in my journal the night before that said, “This is your last chance to talk about poop”. I’m sure he knew this really wasn’t going to happen, but he sure did try to clean us up!

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Rae Lakes and the Painted Lady were just as stunning in the morning as they were the night before. It was really hard to walk away from this beautiful spot – it really was the best campsite ever.

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Rae Lakes selfie!

We were happy to have an extra mile out of the way since we’d stayed at Rae Lakes, but since Brittany and Courtney usually hit the trail earlier than we do, we felt pretty certain we’d run into them shortly after we started. Sure enough, about 30 minutes into our hike, we heard them coming up behind us! We all hiked together for a good part of the ascent up to Glen Pass, but eventually they went ahead of us, while Jennifer and I stayed back and took a few more pictures here and there.

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J:  On the way out of Rae Lakes, we stopped to take about 50 million photos.  I’m so glad we stopped to camp there the night before.  Since we had estimated we wouldn’t meet Chris until later in the afternoon, we knew we had plenty of time to get to the meeting point so I had no issues taking my time heading out of Rae Lakes and getting up that mountain.

The morning was pretty chilly, as usual, but not as bad as it had been on the prior two mornings. We had about 3 miles and 1,500 feet to climb – it didn’t sound like it was going to be that hard, but it seemed to go on forever. I think the tricky part with Glen Pass is that you can see so much of the pass while you’re hiking, and you can see so many people up ahead of you as you go up each switchback. But the views – man, the views! Amazing – it was worth stopping often just to stare. We’d get there eventually.

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J:  This view (above) looking up to the top of Glen sort of sums it up…climbing mountains is hard work.  Glen Pass was probably one of my least favorites.  It was a rocky trail that just kept winding up and up through multiple switchbacks.  When you thought you saw the end in sight, the trail would take another turn.  Once you finally get to the top, the trail follows the ridge of the mountain, which is pretty cool as long as it isn’t too windy.

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the final jaunt along the ridge, with Brittany and Courtney in the background

Once we got to the top, we met a really friendly, chatty girl who was solo-hiking the Rae Lakes Loop. We’d come across a few people here and there who were hiking various sections of the JMT, and not the entire trail. We learned a little about the loop she was doing (~40 miles or so), and both Jennifer and I immediately made a mental note to come back to do this in a few years – it was by far our favorite part of the trail, and a place we both knew we’d want to revisit.

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the usual celebratory Snickers bar! And this is a great picture to really illustrate the use of duct tape on both of our pairs of sunglasses. go us!

Brittany and Courtney were waiting for Andrew (he’d done his usual – taking his time and starting after everyone, since he was able to hop on up the trails pretty quickly), so we stayed up there for a bit too and took the opportunity to get a group photo since there were people at the pass. Plus – we had plenty of time to go before we thought Chris would show up at our meet up spot, so why not?

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Jennifer, Heather, Courtney, Brittany – looking North

After a few more minutes of admiring the views and letting the wind continue to chap our lips, the 5 of us started the descent into the Bubbs Creek area. The views down looking south to Charlotte Lake weren’t too shabby either, and we’d heard the lake itself was really nice. We’d run into Samuel one last time, and he’d mentioned he was going to check it out possibly.

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view from the JMT of Charlotte Lake  with smoky skies in the distance

We eventually separated from the rest of the group and made our way to the junction where we’d turn off the JMT and meet up with Chris. It was hard to believe that we were just hours away from seeing him! We turned off at the Bullfrog Lake Junction and made our way to Bullfrog Lake, which was not quite a mile off the trail.

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pretty sure this is the view East from Bullfrog Lake, and the dip in the back mountains was Kearsarge Pass, where Chris came from.

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It was a nice place to chill out for a while – we had lunch and just lounged around. But for Chris to make it to us, a lot of pieces on his end had to come together, too. We were happy we’d kept to our end of the deal and were where we were supposed to be with plenty of time to spare!

Chris’ plan: Drive down from San Francisco to Lone Pine on Saturday where he’d pick up his section permit and rent a small bear canister. He had a night down in Lone Pine in case he needed the next day to get those things accomplished (the drive was over 6 hours) and was to meet Paul with East Side Sierra Shuttle mid morning on Sunday down at Whitney Portal, where he’d leave the car for the week. Paul was to drive him up to Independence (30 minutes or so) where he’d check in at the Mt Williamson Hotel, then the plan was a breakfast the following morning (today/Monday), a courtesy drive from Stryder to the Onion Valley Trailhead at which point he’d likely be hitting the trail around 10AM.

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The hike from Onion Valley to the JMT via Bullfrog Lake was about 7.5 miles, and probably a little under 7 miles to the actual meet-up point – Bullfrog Lake. So I’d figured the absolute earliest he’d be at the lake if he left at 10 was 1:30 that afternoon, since the hike in required a trip over Kearsarge Pass which wasn’t easy by any stretch – a gain of about 2,600 feet, and then the descent to the lake and the JMT – and he hadn’t been hiking for 2 weeks in elevation. I’d allowed a grace period after 1:30 until about 4 – which was the point I felt like I should worry if we didn’t see him. I’m sure it sounds silly, but it was just a lot of pieces that needed to work out!

The good part of that is that we had a decent amount of time to just hang out without thinking about it, but once 1:30 hit, it was hard to not look up every minute or two! Jennifer told me to chill but it was really hard – I knew he was fine, but of all the things we’d planned, this was the one thing I had absolutely no control over once we started the JMT – I just had to know it would work.

J:  Oh man…Heather did not “know it would work” and was kinda freaking out a little.  I knew this day, this moment, would be tough for her since she had zero control over this situation.  

While Heather went and put up signs along the trail and asked anyone that passed by if they’d passed a hiker in a green shirt, I tried to get her to relax and eat some lunch and just WAIT…It was hard work.

Oh shit. I completely forgot that I put signs up. Thanks for trying to reassure me, Jennifer! I really did try not to be a total nutcase.

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duo becomes a trio! Chris didn’t warn me that he’d bought a really dorky Rush bandana ;).

I knew what he’d be wearing (his green shirt) so I knew I’d be able to spot him pretty easily. Surely enough, around 2:30, I saw a green shirt on the other side of the lake. Jennifer and I both stood up to look closer and I saw him raise his hiking poles in the air – confirmation that it was him and he knew it was us, too! It took another few minutes to get around to our entrance to the lake, but man, were we excited. I of course was all weepy with happiness, relief, and admiration for him – he was carrying 5 days of food for 3 people, after all! I think Jennifer was pretty happy too – I mean, they aren’t married or anything, but it was still nice to see a familiar face, AND it meant we had made it to the final ‘stretch’. We were all so badass is what it meant – clearly.

J:  He made it!!! It was so good to see another familiar face and hear stories from the “real world”, about Jon (my husband), and about Chris’ adventure in to meet up with us.  I was especially excited that he’d brought us wine, whiskey, and more duct tape!

Chris had a hiking buddy he’d met on the shuttle in, and they had hiked together up to this point, and even stopped at Kearsarge Pass for lunch. They really hit it off, so I was glad to know he had a good adventure in. We said goodbye to his friend, stayed at the lake for a little longer, and eventually got moving since we had about 5 miles to go before meeting up with the rest of the group.

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[I should mention here, since we haven’t talked about it too much, that our little GPS Spot tracker that I carried on my pack was what looked to be low on battery at this point (and other times along the trail). So we didn’t waste batteries, we’d usually wait until the battery died before replacing it so we could ensure we didn’t run out of supplies – it used more battery than expected, and we’d already bought more at VVR. I later learned that when the ‘low battery’ light was on, it actually wasn’t transmitting – so there was basically no tracking us the day before while we hiked with the low battery AND while we waited for Chris. I know this was difficult for people at home who were tracking us, knowing this meet-up was taking place but not knowing where we were – it later remedied itself as we changed the batteries right when we learned from Chris that there were times it wasn’t working – and we learned later this was one of them. This was one of the reasons I had voted against (and lost) even having this device – I didn’t want people to worry if it malfunctioned! At the end of the day though – it gave more comfort (and fun!) to people than worry, so it was probably worth it.]

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not too shabby…trail after scooping up Chris at Bullfrog Lake

Ok, so with that – most of the rest of the day was downhill until the last little bit, but as usual the last section of the day never seems to end! It took us quite a while to get there, but we took a lot of breaks along the way, readjusted our supplies, and we eventually met up with Brittany, Courtney, and Andrew at yet another awesome campsite long Bubbs Creek. It was fun introducing everyone and exchanging stories. Chris quickly learned that he’d have to hear poop stories from us all. And one of the best parts aside from him being there? He’d also brought in some booze – something we hadn’t really wanted until recently. So we all had a nice cup of whiskey + apple cider powder (thanks, Safeway! and Chris!) that night before hitting the sack.

J:  We also shared this amazing oreo pudding concoction that I’d been carrying.  It was like a little dinner party…almost.  Drinks, dinner, and dessert.  Then, the best part, I got a tent all to myself for the final few days…so luxurious.

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view from our campsite at Bubbs Creek

As much as Jennifer wanted me to stay in the tent with her, I didn’t. I heard her crying a little that night, but it didn’t last long ;).

Tomorrow? The biggest pass of them all – Forester. What a day…


Day 17 details (August 10, 2015):

Start-finish: Rae Lakes to Bullfrog Lake to Upper Bubbs Creek
Daily miles: 10.0
Mileage tally: 200.4
Camp elevation:10,000 ft
Hiking elevation: 1,439 ft gain; 1,831 ft loss

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John Muir Trail, Day 15: Lower Palisade Lake to Marjorie Lake

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I hate to start the post by complaining, but damn, Day 15 was a really rough morning. So I’m going to.  For starters, there were so many hikers at camp the night before that there was practically nowhere to poop this morning without someone either 1) watching you or 2) running into you while you were mid-poop. We expected the campsite to be relatively full due to it being the closest one to Mather Pass, but geez, it was like every person hiking the JMT decided to stop at Lower Palisade Lakes. And it wasn’t even right on the lake!

J:  Either we had jambalaya for dinner the night before or I was just nervous about having zero privacy, but somehow I woke up at 5:30 am (about half an hour before almost everyone else) and practically ran out of the tent.  I beat the crowd and found a spot behind a huge rock far enough from the rest of the camp sites to take care of things pretty quickly.  

Once my ‘bizniss’ was taken care of (in case you were wondering, I was only seen by 1 person – that I know of), we moved relatively quickly to get out of camp, and if I recall correctly, this meant I didn’t have any morning coffee (I didn’t write that down in my journal, probably because I wanted to forget it, but I do recall this happening which added to said unhappiness). Also, it was the coldest morning we’d had, and my cheap ass cotton gloves were simply not doing the trick. Despite the fact that we were ascending, it took a good 30 minutes to warm up, and then, of course, we had to stop and shed a layer or two since we were just going up and up.

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shady, freezing north side of the pass with Palisade Lake in the background

On top of all that nonsense, this pass was really fucking hard. Or maybe it was hard because of those things? I don’t know – I just didn’t have my A game with me. More like a B-. It was a loooong 3.8 miles to the top, which was an elevation gain of 1,500 feet. It felt like it just kept going and going; you’d round one corner only to have another – it felt like we were hiking all around the pass, but never close to it. I remember looking up once and seeing Brittany and Courtney – they seemed so. far. away (probably because they were). They waved once, and I just wanted to shoot a harpoon at them. I’m only half-kidding here.

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mather pass sandles

view of the sunny, but steep south side of the pass

In case you’re dying of suspense – we finally made it to the top and it only took about 1.5 hours, which isn’t too shabby I suppose. Notice there are no pictures until then. We putzed around a little and left pretty soon because 1) there was not much room there and 2) we got cold again.

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And as the world turns here in JMT land, we started our descent, which was a little steeper than the trip up, and the wind really knocks you around on the way down. I think this is the descent where Jennifer opted for hiking sandals instead of her boots to see if that helped with going down, since that seems worse on the blisters and blisters in blisters. I’ll let her elaborate here though…

J:  I DID put my Chacos on to hike down the steep side of the pass.  I probably should have just hiked in my Chacos the whole time since my feet were still so swollen, but I was worried about getting too much dirt and debris in my open blisters causing infection.   So, I just tested it out on the downhill.  Which was awesome…until I stubbed my toe on a huge rock.  

This is what the downhill full of rocky switchbacks looked like (below).  See those ants at the bottom?  That’s probably Brittany and Courtney.  Most people are way faster going downhill, but that was probably my slowest part with my new blister friends.  The Chacos were definitely a good temporary solution though.

swtchbacks heading down mather

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Once you get a decent ways down, it starts looking pretty barren. But pretty quickly you get back into some trees and streams. We stopped at a nice little spot for lunch, meeting up with the rest of the group. I would have LOVED to have taken a nap at this quiet little place where we had lunch, but I was quickly outnumbered because everyone wanted a head start from the crowd for getting to our next stop in case it was as crowded as last night.

So – away we went.

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J:  We always started out hiking as a group from the top of the pass or from our lunch spot, but I pretty quickly typically ended up hiking by myself for most of the day.  I didn’t mind at all.  I could go at my own pace with my gimpy feet and not worry about anyone else. AND I could sing along to my tunes while I got lost in thought or in the crazy beautiful scenery.

to marjarie

I don’t think I ever really got my groove back on Day 15, because the second part of the day was pretty hard too. I wasn’t ready for the incline already, and we had to ascend a couple thousand feet over the next two miles – it just never stops! Luckily, it was really pretty, which is what I said, and felt often. And also, I had the trail to myself, so I turned on the tunes, which certainly helped.

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I stopped at this spot (above) for a little snack (probably some Goldfish) and chilled out for a good 10 minutes, which felt nice. Jennifer and I were hiking separately at this point, and she came up a few minutes into my pit stop, but since we were so close to camp she trucked right on ahead and I met her there. This was just one of those times that I felt like I needed to sit and reflect on all the miles and the gorgeous scenery. And have a snack – duh.

lake marjorie

Marjorie Lake, with possibly Pinchot Pass in the back…

Needless to say, Marjorie Lake was drop dead gorgeous. We’d come to expect nothing but gorgeous campsites, and were never disappointed. It felt good to “let” our friends hike ahead of us, as we had full trust in them to find a beautiful vista to settle in at. 😉

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We’d gotten to camp early again (maybe not 2PM, but close), which gave us plenty of time to lounge around. Since we had nice, freshly ‘laundered’ clothes, we didn’t even have laundry to do! Andrew had found a leak in his sleeping pad, so he used it as a raft in the lake to try to locate the hole (well, and to float around – briefly).

J:  Don’t be fooled by the crystal clear blue water and sunshine.  That shit was freeeezzzing!  I think Heather was the only one who was smart enough not to get all the way in, but I thought it was worth it.  

At some point in the day, Samuel had sauntered past us and hiked with our group until camp. He stuck around and “sunned” (as he called it) for a while, then went on his way up and over Pinchot Pass – he was shooting for a free day at Rae Lakes, and wanted a head start to make sure that happened.

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In addition to bringing Love Letters, Brittany had also brought some dice, so we played Farkle, which was pretty fun, but it involved a lot of math that I hadn’t prepared for (math is hard when hiking). I probably lost count of my score after my first round but I tried to play it off ;).

J:  My score at Farkle was a consistent zero, so that math was pretty easy to keep track of.  It was nice but sort of weird having so much free time at camp.  Heather and I were used to hiking all day with longer breaks in between and then getting to camp with just enough time to set up, eat, and go to bed.  It was awesome to hang out and relax for a while, but I think we both decided we liked our hiking routine better with our breaks spread throughout the day.  

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At some point on this trail, our hiking friends turned into senior citizens and were eating dinner at like 5PM or earlier. I couldn’t bring myself to eat that early, but it was fun watching Brittany and Andrew have a race with their Jetboils. It’s the little things that keep you entertained at camp!

Fortunately our site was rather small, and it didn’t get nearly as crowded as we thought. There were a few people scattered here and there, but it was much quieter than the night before, which meant the next morning would be a breeze!

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Up next – Pinchot Pass, the Woods Creek suspension bridge, and liquid energy!


Day 15 details (August 8, 2015):

Start-finish: Lower Palisade Lake to Marjorie Lake
Daily miles: 10.8
Mileage tally: 174.8
Camp elevation: 11,050 ft
Hiking elevation: 1,984 ft gain; 1876 ft loss

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John Muir Trail, Day 14: Grouse Meadow to Lower Palisade Lakes

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Jennifer’s commentary on the last post reminded me that I also didn’t sleep well the night before Day 14 because I was 99.5% sure I was about to get killed by a bear because I left my sunscreen in my tent. We’d just gotten back into official bear territory – the first 50 miles or so after VVR was the only section we weren’t required to carry food inside the bear canister, which was a good thing since we had overflow for a couple of days – so that also meant that we’d gotten a little lax with our toiletries at night. I had unscented things in my tent, but then I heard this giant rustle outside and immediately had this paranoid thought that my sunscreen would attract a bear in, so I tossed it out of my tent like a crazy lady, and just sat there staring into the dark. The next morning, I think we all realized it was probably a deer, and I went and found my (unscented and safe) sunscreen.

Jennifer and I had originally written down that today, Day 14, we would tackle both the Golden Staircase AND Mather Pass. Let me just say here that, while that isn’t the dumbest plan ever, it certainly doesn’t make for a short and easy day. By this point, we were more or less ready for something relatively short (although they were never easy). Plus, if we did Mather Pass today, we would have needed to go quite a ways further to set ourselves up for doing the next pass (Pinchot) the following morning, which we preferred to instead starting a trend of doing passes at the end of the day. We also realized that if we kept going according to our tentative schedule, which included a few long days starting today so that we’d have a ‘zero’ or ‘near zero’ day when Chris showed up, we’d be parting ways with our hiking group.

Ultimately, we decided we’d rather spread out the miles and be able to hike/camp with friends as opposed to pushing long days to have a day off and maybe meet up with them in a few days. That said, Day 14 quickly turned into a much-needed short day, and we were ready to get it started.

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We quickly realized that, although we were going easy on the mileage today, tackling the Golden Staircase was no fucking joke. The total climb of the ‘staircase’ is about 1,600-2,000 ft over the course of about a mile and a half, so while it’s a lot of elevation, it isn’t actually horribly steep (at least not as steep as I expected) – just a lot of constant switchbacks.

The start of the day was harder for me – I’d woken up with a nice headache for some reason, but after a few miles and some electrolytes (sports beans!), I was feeling alright – just in time for the staircase, thank goodness.

J:   Heather’s headache probably got scared out of her.  Today was the day we almost died from a deer attack.   The beginning section of the hike headed out through the meadow and into a more wooded area before getting to the rocky, dreaded “Golden Staircase”.  The rest of our trail buddies were ahead of us (per the usual) when we crossed paths with a family of deer.  The mom and dad bounced across the trail in front of us, but the silly baby deer went the opposite way.  At that moment, Heather and I were standing right in between the parents and the baby.  Heather was hiking in front of me and I don’t think she noticed that we were about to walk right between a mama and her baby.  The mama and papa deer had a look of attack in their eyes (as deer do), so I quickly warned her to stop and we waited a few minutes until the baby made it’s way back across to it’s parents.  We averted a quick and sudden death by deer that day…now on to the staircase! 

Umm…how did I forget to write about this? I can’t believe I was almost attacked by a deer. A deer! Yes, we survived the “bear” at camp only to get pummeled by Bambi. Except we escaped. Thanks, Jennifer, for rescuing me!

deer attack

right after (or maybe before?) the almost deer attack

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it sucks when you can’t see the top…

Fortunately, we’d gotten started pretty early in the morning, so we were able to get to the “staircase” and start the climb before the sun started blaring through – there wasn’t a lot of shade in this section, so that was key!

We all stopped often to take pictures, but the 5 of us (Samuel surprisingly did not hike with us the next morning), gradually made our way up and up, staying relatively close to one another until the final section up.

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after a while, you get used to it (yes, my glasses are still crooked – laugh it up)

This is one of those sections of the trail where you absolutely need to look behind you – it’s amazing to see all the ground you’ve covered – the views here look back on Kings Canyon National Park and on the other side of the mountains, the John Muir Wilderness. It was hard to believe we’d already covered 150+ miles, and every day seemed to be more and more breathtaking – breathtaking in the “this is gorgeous and I can’t stand it” way, not the “I can’t breathe anymore and hiking sucks” way.

J:  A northbound hiker we met at VVR had mentioned the views on the staircase heading north (opposite of us) were spectacular and that we needed to make sure to turn around as we made the climb.  He was not wrong.  Of course, I took any excuse to take breaks along the way, but it was really worthwhile to stop on those climbs and soak it all in. This was what we were here for!

north view

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Brittany on the golden stairs!

The cool part about getting started early is that we often times had these sections of the trail to ourselves – the staircase was no different. Though a few people passed by us from the other direction, we had just a couple of people here and there going in our direction. There was some construction going on here though, so we hiked past a big ‘trail crew’ – it wasn’t something I’d really thought about before – but yeah, people have to hike out here to work… not just to hike. Now that’s a rough commute, eh? It also made me realize and appreciate that people built this trail, and that it needs maintaining regularly (in fact, this section was the last part to get built – the prior route was way less direct).

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At some points, you can’t even really see the start of the ‘staircase’, since it winds around the mountains. I tried to capture that (above) by taking a trail shot of Jennifer – the trail winds down to the right and just disappears, continuing down waaaaay below.

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There was a really great stopping point about midway up where we took a few photos. The view beyond was amazing at this point – hard to imagine we’d been hiking through those mountains way way back in the background!

J:  As you climb (this or any other ascent) I tried to keep in mind that “the top is never the top”.  I looked up at one point and saw people celebrating and taking photos on this rock so I thought, ‘damn, that wasn’t too bad if that’s the top’.  Nope.  It wasn’t too bad, but that was not the top.  It was only about halfway up.  Shiiiit….and I was out of jelly beans.

Shortly after this point, I started losing a little steam (those sports beans were long gone!) so I needed to spread out a little and turn some tunes on (remember – I’d decided at the last minute that I didn’t need the added weight of my headphones – all 1 oz of them! ha ha). I relied pretty heavily on the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways album for this part of the trail, but Jennifer tended towards her country music and probably some Mariah Carey (hey, I don’t love her for her music choices…), so in this case it was better to spread out a little. We’d put together a “trail mix” thinking we’d want music more often to get us through the difficult sections, but we hadn’t busted that out quite yet – but stay tuned!

J:  Hey, don’t look down on Mariah….voice of an angel.  That “trail mix” was a collaborative collection of tunes.  I don’t think there was a Mariah song on there, but that was a mistake on my part, for sure.  

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the Watermelon Fairy

When we had about 2oo feet of elevation to go, Jennifer and I joined back up and decided to tackle it together, since the sports beans and the tunes weren’t working any longer! It was at this exact moment that this magical lady (above) rounded the switchback ahead, hopping happily down the staircase. We started chatting her up for a minute and learned that she often hiked into the area (which at this point was a day long adventure at least, since we were nowhere near civilization) to bring fresh fruit to the trail crew, and oh my goodness, she had a giant bowl of FRESH WATERMELON. We must have looked so completely ragged at this point (and were probably drooling at the watermelon), because she was about to start walking away and then turned to give both Jennifer and I a piece of it. Fucking splendid! At this point, I was so glad that our friends had hiked ahead of us, because there was no way she’d given us watermelon if there were 5 of us! Jennifer and I thanked her profusely, took her picture, and then giddily hiked those final 200 feet with a nice juicy hunk of watermelon in our hands.

Note: When you hear about the existence of trail fairies, know that they are real. We’d met two already – Duct Tape Fairy, and now Watermelon Fairy. Also, know that most of the time when you are literally at the end of your rope and done for the day (or the whole trip!), something amazing will happen – be it a lady with watermelon or a beautiful stream or lake – motivation is everywhere.

J:  best. watermelon. ever.

lower pallisades

Once to the top of the Golden Staircase, we met up with the rest of our crew who were waiting patiently for us (ok, it sounds like we were eons behind – it was really less than 5 minutes). After bragging about the watermelon, we all stuck around at the top to have lunch, realizing that if we didn’t take our time, we’d be at camp before noon.

Instead, we rolled into camp at 2PM, a time that would be our record for the trip. It was nice to get there early because it meant we could claim a spot before the rest of the crowds came though. Since Lower Palisade Lake was the last main stop with legal camping before Mather Pass, it would become pretty crowded as people stopped for the night.

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In addition to getting a campsite, it gave us plenty of time to relax and do our only real housekeeping chore of the JMT – laundry. We weren’t right on the lake here (I know! wtf!), so we had to hike down a little ways, but it was worth it! The lake was beautiful and secluded since there wasn’t a trail taking you down to it. We hung out, washed the majority of our clothes, and I even gave my hair a good rinse while I was at it – the closest I’d come to actually getting IN any of these cold ass lakes.

J:  This was “day 3” of the duct tape experiment, so I had planned to finally unwrap my feet and see what damage had been done (or repaired?).  So while everyone was getting ready to hike down to the lake, I took some time to unwrap my feet.  Hot damn, did they smell great.  The blisters were not healed by any means, but at least they weren’t getting any worse.  

Every toe was swollen, so it was good to give them some air and head down to the soak my feet in the ice cold lake water for a bit.  

glacier water

not a bad view, eh?  camp was up the “hill” to the right


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is this the John Muir Trail or the streets of Naples? I’m confused…

After the hike back up, we hung up all of our clothes and proceeded to chill, which meant yet another few games of Love Letters. We met up with Samuel again at camp, and apparently we didn’t scare him away with our talk of poop the night before, because he stayed around and played cards with us.

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me, Courtney, Brittany, Samuel, and Andrew (Jennifer was the photographer)

We were here so long that we ran into all sorts of fellow hikers. Our favorite group of Tallahassee hikers camped here and we talked to them some that evening, and we also met a woman (Debbie?) who brought hair washing supplies. All in all, Day 14 was a pretty good day, with plenty of socializing and relaxing.  People wandered in all throughout the afternoon and evening, which was an interesting change for us, as we were typically the ones coming in later.

Next up, Mather Pass – my least favorite pass of the whole trip!


Day 14 Details (August 7, 2015):

Start-Finish: Grouse Meadow to Lower Palisade Lakes
Daily Miles: 9.0
Mileage Tally: 164.0
Camp elevation: 11,000 ft
Hiking Elevation: 2,473 ft gain; 221 ft loss