What I Learned Hiking the John Muir Trail

Maybe you’ve read Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild” and you are thinking of taking an epic hike.  I grew up visiting the southern Sierra Nevada with my family, and always enjoyed day hikes with the occasional overnight trip.  In fact, my father had a cabin in Sequoia National Park near Mineral King for 30 years.  It was easy to go up, stay in the “wooden tent” with running water, a nice bed, and stocked refrigerator, and just do day hikes.  When he sold it, I took the opportunity to venture out way beyond Sequoia and discover the real High Sierra.IMG_3762

In fall 2014, I finally committed to hiking the 225 miles of the John Muir Trail, North to South.  Here’s what I learned:

  1. Commit. The JMT is a big undertaking… 200+ Miles of rough terrain. You can research it, dream about it, train for it… but it won’t hike itself! You have to commit to it.
  2. You will hurt. Blisters. Some of them seem to penetrate down to the bone. Soreness in quads, calves, glutes, shoulders & neck. This soreness will continue for days, maybe even a week or so. No amount of training & prep you do at home can equal the punishment of the JMT, unless your home is Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS) and you are training with Navy SEALs. Your lungs will burn for days. Sunburn if you’re not careful. Windburn. Scrapes. Cuts. Twisted ankles, jammed knees. Frozen fingers and toes. These are just some of the possibilities of physical pain. Mental and Spiritual agony may occur also.
  3. Go lighter. Go as light as your budget will afford. My old pack (an older model external frame) comes in at over 5lbs… My sleeping bag and pad could are also 5 lbs. If I had a more efficient cooking system like a Jet boil, I could have carried less fuel and saved another 2lbs.   Of course lightweight gear costs money, so those investments would have cost me about $1k, but if you can afford it, I’d recommend it.
  4. The nicer the name, the rougher the trail. Take the “Golden Staircase” for example. Sounds like a nice way to climb up to a place like Heaven. In reality, it’s switchbacks designed by sadists for masochists. The staircase climbs up an exposed west facing mountain with no shade. It seems to go on forever. One author of a popular JMT guidebook describes the climb as “Magnificent.” The best thing about the “Golden Staircase” is that it ends.
  5. Not all obstacles have names. There are many passes along the trail. Having a name helps you keep track of where you are as you progress along the trail. Some passes are harder, tougher, longer, hotter or colder than others. But sometimes you just end up climbing 2,000+ feet and there is no pass. It’s just a climb and a grind. I don’t know whether it’s better to have a passed named after someone or something, but if it’s a rough climb; it’s nice to be able to curse it as in: “Forrester Pass (13,200 ft) is a damn tough climb. It sure kicked my ass! Damn Forrester.” Or “Pinchot Pass wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it sure was a windy sonofabitch.” So if the climb doesn’t have a name, you’re just stuck with: “That climb out of Tully Hole seemed to go on forever, it seriously messed with my head.”
  6. The people who run the store at Reds Meadow Resort are kinda douchey. I don’t mean they are unpleasant or mean. I just saw evidence of some douche-baggery.   If hiking North to South, Red’s Meadow Resort is the first opportunity to re-supply, get a shower, and ditch gear you don’t think you need into a “Hiker’s bin.” Generally you see some good grub: Assorted granola & Clif Bars, peanut butter packets, trail mix, maybe even a package of tuna or salmon… and if you’re really lucky, a full entrée like a freeze dried Backpacker’s Pantry Stew. Personally, I dropped a stainless steel REI Sierra Cup and a clean North Face synthetic t-shirt into the box. I then did a food inventory to see if I needed anything to make the next 4-5 days down to my official resupply at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). I realized I was a couple dinner entrees short, so I picked up a few from Red’s Store. One had the name “Danny” on it; as if “Danny” had abandoned it into the hiker’s box, and the store owner / manager grabbed it out of the hiker’s box, put a price tag on it, and set it on the shelf. I think that’s kinda douchey. If I ran the store and saw a $10 sitting in the hiker’s box, I’d grab it too. But I might see if I had some nail polish remover to wipe Danny’s name off it so people might not think I was a douche.IMG_3782
  7. Prepare for extreme weather. Again, limited by my budget, I took exactly what I took the previous year on a 10 day trip.   However, there were several mornings and nights I was cold. I would have liked a sleeping bag rated to 0 degrees vs. 20 degrees… warmer gloves, a warmer hat, and a down jacket. Being cold sucks.
  8. Choose your date, choose your fate. The challenges of the trail vary during the traditional hiking season of Memorial Day– Labor Day (Late May – Early September.) Early season hikers may encounter snow on high passes making trail finding more difficult, along with swollen rivers as the snow rapidly melts.   Early season hikers may be getting wet daily to ford streams and rivers. Mid Season hikers (Late June-Late July) will encounter more people, and I’ve heard that sometimes good campsites get crowded. Also mosquitos. Mosquitos swarm during the peak summer, and you will often see people doing the “mosquito dance” as they hike. Post Labor Day, the crowds thin out, but depending on how late you go, you may have an early snow storm at higher elevations. This happened to me: 3-days of snow had me hunkered down in the tent for a full day, crossing my fingers to hope the storm cleared before I ran out of food.
  9. The Trail will provide.  Low on food after the storm, I encountered a couple gentlemen from Rhode Island who had to cut their hike short due to time. They were about to turn off the JMT to hike up a pass, and had their extra food in their hands. They asked me if I wanted the extra food, and I said “Heck yeah!” – and scored some great calories. They wanted to get rid of 4 lbs of food just as much as I wanted to eat it! That’s how the trail works. Trust in your fellow travellers. Another time, low on food I met a fella that also had too much food to carry, and he gave me some great stuff: Mozzeralla Cheese sticks, crackers, beef jerky, mashed potatoes, potato soup, and even a nip of 12 year old scotch.   I shared some fresh Golden trout with him, and taught him how to fly fish one day. We hiked together for a few days and summited Mt. Whitney together. He got a trail name: “Food Truck.” And I’m eternally grateful for meeting him.
  10. Downhill sucks too. There’s an old adage: What goes up, must come down. One embittered hiker I met called the JMT the “Jerk Me Around Trail…” Up & Down, averaging 2,000-3,000 ft of gain a day, and usually about the same in loss. Over the course of the trail, it’s something like 50,000 ft. gain/loss. If you’re smart (like me,) You will make your climbs in the morning while you’re fresh and have energy from your big dinner meal, and perhaps with an extra boost of a caffeinated beverage. After you’re done with the climb, of course you must descend. And some of those long descents with a 50lb pack on your back can be a grind. Especially when the knee joints are constantly jammed, and your feet feel like someone is beating on them with a ballpeen hammer.IMG_3802

There you have it; real lessons from a JMT first timer.  I hope you can learn from my experience and make your hike a little more enjoyable!


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