I’ve been looking forward to hiking the entire JMT for years. Somehow the trip managed to surpass my wildest expectations despite the years of buildup. It was worth every second I had to wait.
The trip began on August 8 with a mad dash around California. JMT hikers typically mail their resupply packages directly to the supply points. However, I’d arrived back in the States from South America just a couple days earlier. By the time I’d pulled my resupply packages together, mail wouldn’t get the packages there in time. That meant I’d need to hand deliver my resupplies.
The first stop was Costa Mesa for a quick tete-a-tete with Taylor Foss, the voluntary pack mule for my third resupply package. We agreed to meet on August 19 between noon and 4:00pm at the Taboose Pass junction near Bench Lake. This would push my schedule back two days but I was flexible. How could I complain about two extra days on trail?
Next, a series of stops at Florence Lake in the western Sierras (to drop my second resupply package off for delivery to Muir Trail Ranch), Red’s Meadow in the eastern Sierra (first resupply package), and finally Mt. Whitney (to drop my car off so I’d have ride home once it was all over).
Conveniently, my parents were spending a few days with my aunt and uncle at their annual visit to Silver Lake in the eastern Sierras. I had enlisted them to pick me up at Mt. Whitney as they were passing by and to deliver me to Yosemite. They picked me up at Whitney Portal right on time on August 9.
We arrived on the valley floor in Yosemite National Park at 7:30am the next morning following a fun overnight stop at Silver Lake. Finally, after racking up over 1,000 miles driving around the state, all that was left was to grab my permit and hit the trail. I was in line at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center by 8am, and by 11am had my permit in hand. My fully loaded pack (all gear plus DSLR, GoPro, 2.5 liters of water, 8+lbs of food) weighed in at just under 40lbs. I grabbed the shuttle over to the Backpackers’ Camp and then spent the day exploring the nature’s cathedral.
The first day of the JMT is a beast for anyone doing big miles and not just because you’re covering it with a full load of food. Happy Isles is located on the valley floor at 4,000 ft. From there, the trail climbs right past Vernal and Nevada Falls toward the Half Dome Trail junction. In all, the trail rises over 3,000 ft in the first 6.5 miles. Past Half Dome, the trail is not nearly as steep but continues its long climb until it reaches Cathedral Pass at 9,700 ft. Finally, there is a reprieve as the trail heads downhill to the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows way back down at 8,580 ft.
I wouldn’t hit the trail until 7:30 after hiking the 1.5 miles from the backpackers camp to the trailhead. That put me on the spot to make the 28+ miles I needed to get to the Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers Camp before dark. I powered through though and was able to make good time past the falls and over Cathedral Pass.
That’s where I ran into one of the more interesting challenges of the hike. I normally try to average at least one liter of water every two hours while on trail. I’ve also been focusing on keeping my pack weight light. Balancing these two goals, I decided to carry as little water as possible as I tackled the massive altitude gain leading out of Little Yosemite Valley. The Harrisons map showed at least three streams that would allow me to refill once I’d made it through the worst of the incline so I figured I’d be fine.
As expected, I went dry before I reached Sunrise Camp. I pushed on for the first stream to refill, only to find that the creek was bone dry. California’s severe drought had completely dried up a stream that wasn’t listed as seasonal on the map. No big deal, though, the second stream was close. Yet when I got there, it too was nothing but a memory. Same with the third.
Ultimately, my experiment was instructive. There were some lakes several miles ahead so I wasn’t very concerned, however, the extreme drought conditions had rendered the normally reliable maps suspect. Going forward, I’d be sure to allow a bit more of a cushion when deciding how much water to carry.
After refilling at the Cathedral Lakes, I pushed on through the late afternoon and made it to Tuolumne as the sun was setting. I set up camp in the zoo that is the Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers Camp and called it a day.
My goal for the trip was to pack up camp and be on trail each morning by 7am. That would prove to be ambitious. After the beating I took on Day 1, I wasn’t on trail until well after 8am. Luckily, the trail out of Tuolumne is a long, steady climb through Lyell Canyon toward Donahue Pass and I was able to make good time.
Just on the other side of the pass, I connected with Crosby, a hiker that I’d been leapfrogging most of the day. We hiked together the rest of the day. As we talked, I discovered that prior to spending the last four months in New Zealand, he had worked the last harvest at his cousin’s winery. Oddly enough, the winery was located on Industrial Avenue, just a stone’s throw from my parent’s home in tiny Buellton, CA. Small world.
We decided to call it a night when we reached Thousand Island Lake, a stunning lake about 7 miles beyond the pass. This made for only a 17+ mile day, but one of my goals for the hike was to camp in the prettiest places possible. This fit the bill.
The third day flew by as Crosby and I raced for Red’s Meadow and the bacon cheeseburgers awaiting us at the Mulehouse Cafe. We made a quick stop at the Devil’s Postpile and arrived at Red’s around 1:00pm. We made straight for the counter at the cafe. After wolfing down the delicious burger, I headed to the general store to collect my first food drop.
While organizing my food drop, I made two key decisions that would make the rest of the hike much easier. First, I ditched about half the food in my package. I’d been planning on 3,000 calories/day (based on training hikes) but just couldn’t take in that many calories on trail. Second, I ditched the GoPro and all the supporting electronics, dropping it back into the food bin to pick up after the hike. All told, I shaved well over 10 lbs off my pack weight.
I was off again with a bounce in my step around 3:00pm. Since Crosby was on a 16-day schedule, he opted to stay behind at Red’s to clean up and enjoy the small slice of civilization for a bit longer. I made good time and camped below Duck Lake after racking up a solid 28-mile day.
What a roller coaster! Day 4 began with a steep drop from Duck Lake (10,1500 ft) into Tully Hole (8,520 ft), climbed up over Silver Pass (10,695 ft) and then dropped again into Quail Meadows (7,870 ft). Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I kept going to follow that up with the 2,000 ft climb out of the meadow so I could shave mileage off next day’s hike into Muir Trail Ranch. I made a secluded but dry camp that evening at the Bear Trail Junction (9,880 ft).
Continue to Part 2