Failing Upwards on the John Muir Trail

    After a demanding 5 months of planning, stressing, and preparation, I was finally at the trailhead in Yosemite National Park and ready to start the John Muir Trail with one of my closest friends, Sandy. The time to talk about it was over, and it was time to actually hit the trail and go for it. The nerves were high but I couldn’t have been more excited for what the next 15 days and 215 miles of adventure would entail. After a quick afternoon hike of 4 miles, we pitched our tent for the first night looking over the meadows of Tuolumne and had a dinner of dehydrated rice and chicken in a plastic bag before heading to bed with a mind full of excitement and nervousness.  

    Day two would prove to be an interesting, testing day for the two of us, as our legs and shoulders were still getting adjusted to the weight, yet we had a strict pace to keep up with in order to stay on track. Our goal for the day was to hike around 16 miles and ideally get up and over our first big obstacle, Donohue Pass. Donohue Pass sits at 11,073 feet so we had quite a while to go before reaching the top. Soon after heading out of Tuolumne, we transitioned from the nice gentle, and most importantly, flat terrain to a section of 6.8 miles strictly uphill to go up and over Donohue Pass. The hiking was slow, hot, and not that great, at first, but soon enough we were in the middle of a beautiful valley with a stream running through it where we got to take a dip into the freezing water. It was a nice mid day break from the brutality of uphill hiking at elevation, with some snacks and lunch involved. Morning turned to afternoon, and afternoon turned to night and at 6:30 we were tired, thirsty, and hungry, with a little over 2 and a half miles to go before we would be up and over Donohue. We debated what our best option would be and after some discussion we decided to call it quits for the day and hit the hay. Sleep was much needed after 15 miles of hiking and 40,000 steps.

    Day three was yet another battle, as a late start put us behind pace before we even started hiking, but we were determined to get up and over Donohue Pass. After traversing some gentle snow fields, it was time to start climbing, so we got out the ice axes and tried to scope out the route. A misread of the route caused us to end up climbing up a very steep snow chute, causing us to have to rock climb up the rest of that section. A very scary moment for both us, but we hiked on, determined to get over the pass! After that tough section we encountered another uphill snow field which was the last bit before the top of the pass. We slugged along for another half mile before finally reaching the top of the pass at 12:30 in the afternoon. After reaching the top of the pass the day was far from over, as we still had 10 more miles to go before reaching camp. The views through this part of the hike were the most beautiful yet, as we passed many snow surrounded lakes and ice melts. We even ran into a man who was from Israel and was hiking the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, he had some great advice to give us and had some very interesting stories as well. After a long day of hiking, we finally reached our destination of Garnet Lake and pitched our tent at the most beautiful camping site that I had ever seen. We were exhausted after a long day of hiking and elevation, so we didn’t get to enjoy that much as there was no delay with going to sleep.

    Day Four was where things took a turn for the worse. Sandy woke up in the middle of the night complaining of stomach pain and nausea. We had about 18 miles to hike that day, so that news was not great for either of us. We started off the day with 300 yards on a straight uphill snow field. After that it was more of an enjoyable downhill 10 miles through forests filled with beautiful Sequoia trees, deer, marmots, and other animals and creatures. After 7 hours of hiking we reached our destination, a small resupply ranch, where we were able to get cell service and decide whether or not we would be able to continue. After much thought and discussion, we decided that the best course of action to take would be to pull off the trail to avoid serious danger if Sandy was no longer able to hike. It was very hard to accept defeat as we had been planning this hike for 5 months, but it was the right thing to do. From there we headed to Mammoth, California with the sour taste of defeat in our mouths to decide what to do next. After a great few rest days in Mammoth, we had devised a whole new plan to continue hiking near the end of the trail and still go and try to climb Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States. We got dropped off at Shepherd’s Pass trailhead, a notoriously difficult hike, and one of the hardest passes in the whole Sierra Nevada range.

    After 10 miles of hiking and 6000 feet of elevation gain, we were on the final stretch of the pass, a 100 yard high snow field, angled at around 70 degrees. We strapped on the crampons and got out the ice axes for this brutal ascent, and after about an hour of tedious, scary, step by step, climbing up this snow face, we reached the top of Shepherd’s Pass, with an incredible view and 3.4 simple miles left to get back onto the John Muir Trail, 16 miles away from Mount Whitney. We broke those up over the afternoon and the next morning before reaching our Mount Whitney base camp, Guitar Lake. Guitar Lake sits at 11,400 feet, a little over 3000 feet and 4.5 miles below the summit of Mount Whitney. We arrived at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and took a nice 3- hour nap since we would be waking up at midnight to go hike to the summit for the sunrise. After a relaxing afternoon at Guitar Lake, we got our packs ready to leave, ate some food, and slept for another hour before heading out for the summit at 12:40 AM. Headlamp hiking has its pros and cons, as you cannot see the drop-offs below you, but then again all you can see is the terrain around your feet, shielding you from possible danger. We hiked 4.5 miles in the dark from 12:45AM until 5:00AM, until we reached the summit of the highest point in the continental U.S. It was a very surreal moment, as we had gone from failure to complete success in the span of a week, and got to spend an hour and a half as the highest people in the entire lower 48 of the United States. Even though we hadn’t completed our initial goal of hiking the whole trail, the sense of accomplishment for the 100 miles that we did do was real, and it was great to relay to friends and family that we had successfully made it the top.   

    This rush of euphoria did not block out the pain that 11 miles and 6500 feet of descent brought upon my knees and body however. Regardless, the Sierra Nevada is one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, and I highly recommend exploring and hiking there if you are ever presented the opportunity.