Sunday, 19 August 2012

Life on the John Muir Trail

Walking by Thousand island Lake, Day 8
250 miles of mountains, rivers, forests, wild camping, and an awful lot of walking. In other words a whole month of many of our favourite things. Would we get tired of waking up to another day of hiking? Fed up of eating the same dried food cooked on our camping stove? Would it get boring? Can you have too much of a good thing?
For us, the answer on the JMT was an emphatic no. It really couldn't have been any better, there wasn't a single boring day, and although on many occasions it was hard to heave backpacks onto aching shoulders and lace up our walking boots over sore feet, there was never a time when we wished to be anywhere else.

On the cables up Half Dome
We set off amongst the huge granite domes of Yosemite, where waterfalls plunge over cliffs sending up rainbows in their spray. The first couple of days we climbed to some of Yosemite's high points. Half Dome is one of America's most iconic mountains and a mecca for rock climbing. Even the 'easy side' which we went up involves hauling yourself up smooth, steep granite- impossible without the aid of the metal cables put up every season for the many people who come to climb the mountain. It's pretty nerve racking on the cables but a lot of fun, and if the ascent hasn't taken your breath away the view certainly does. Far below Yosemite valley weaves between massive slabs; a scene of rock, forest, water, and more rock stretching to the horizon. From the neighbouring and higher peak of Clouds Rest it gets even better, a perfect 360 degree panorama of the Sierra Nevada.

Half Dome and Yosemite valley viewed from Clouds Rest

Alpine meadow below Cathedral Peak
The trail in Yosemite winds through forests full of gnarled trees in tones of silver, copper and bronze, with lightning struck forks dramatically silhouetted against blue skies. Occasionally the dry, golden forest scene would be broken by a verdant oasis of greenery surrounding a small creek, with wild orange lilies, purple daisies carpeting the forest floor and beautiful blue flowers lining the path. Higher up there were alpine meadows- gardens of delicate mountain flowers and miniature conifers interspersed with babbling brooks. The effect was very similar to the carefully manicured zen gardens of Japan, but without the team of gardeners- it just seemed too pretty to be wild. Here inquisitive ground squirrels live, standing to attention like meerkats by their sandy burrows.

A ground squirrel watches us pass
 As we climbed higher and camped by one of these beautiful meadows we felt a real sense of space. Leaving our camp for an evening wander over land that felt like it might never been walked on, the whole place seemed to belong just to us. Climbing onto a rock to watch the sunset colours over Cathedral Pass, we looked down into one of many valleys in the Sierra with no trails, no buildings, no people. Just the evening chorus of birds in the forest as the light faded off the cliffs and coloured the sky pink.

Cooking by the campfire
Our first resupply point was at Tuolomne meadows in Yosemite, where a box with our name on it containing our next 5 days of food waited for us in the tiny post office. Although we appreciated restocking, including a few extra luxuries like wine and chocolate digestives, we didn't really want to break the rhythm we were establishing on the trail, and so headed straight back up into the hills. We were getting into a pretty efficient routine of walking, setting up camp, collecting water and fire wood, and cooking, each taking turns with these jobs, and were really enjoying life on the trail.
Cold water jacuzzi

The next few days we travelled into a high mountain country of peaks, lakes and meadows. Here were some of the best wild swimming spots I've ever experienced, and day after day we found ourselves compelled to stop and swim in another beautiful lake, tarn, river, or waterfall. This became one of the unexpected highlights of the JMT- it could be marketed as the ultimate wild swimming trail. At one spot we camped beside a small canyon where each waterfall plunge pool tried to beat the next as they cascaded down the mountainside. We spent a fantastic 'rest day' scrambling up over waterfalls from pool to pool, sliding down slippery rocks and getting power showers and jacuzzis in the powerful flow. It was freezing, but we'd soon warm up and dry off lying on the smooth, hot rocks in the sun. This was close to Mammoth Lakes, our second resupply point, so we'd been into town to collect our food parcel, but also took the opportunity to pick up some beer and fresh food so we could feast for our day by the river, including kebabs cooked over the camp fire. It was hard to leave this spot and start walking in the heat the next day- every step was a challenge after a day's rest.

Marie Lake, one of our most beautiful swimming spots

Flaked out after a hard morning's walk
At roughly the halfway point of the trail we spent a day at a friendly campsite, cafe and bar which caters mainly to long distance hikers. This was our final resupply point and we were anticipating the next section, with heavily laden packs and a lot of climbing to do, was going to be the hardest. It was good to refuel there, drinking beer and toasting marshmallows round the fire as we got to know some of our fellow JMT hikers. From here we headed off with 2 fully packed bear canisters containing 13 days worth of food- our packs weighing in at 17kg (mine) and 20kg (Karl's). It was hard work and the climbing was slow, but we were excited about this section of the walk, which was really entering the wilderness now.

One of the highest camps of the trail at 3500 metres
As the days turned into weeks, we'd started to realise that it was all going to be over too soon. We were taking our time and savouring every camp, every valley and every pass,which would bring a new set of mountains into view each day. Walking about 10-12 miles a day doesn't sound that much, but as the trek moved into its southern half we were crossing a mountain pass nearly every day, with a lot of ascent and descent. Most days we were up at 6.30am, breaking camp to be walking by 8am. Stopping for maybe 2 hours of rest over the course of the day, we'd start  looking for our next campsite around 5pm. So it was akin to a full time job in hours spent walking, although it didn't often feel like work.

A stunning view of Evolution Lake
We frequently camped high, just below a pass to spread the big ascents over 2 days. This led to some beautiful camp sites with expansive views above the treeline. Evolution lake in particular sticks in my memory as one of the best sunset spots and camps I've ever had. It was a clear night and when the full moon rose it lit up the whole scene of lake, mountains and glacier. At another high camp we had a brilliant sighting of a coyote. He ran across the plateau we were on, pausing to stare straight at us before continuing on his way.

For a high mountain range the climate was incredibly kind to us, although it wasn't always sunny. Our first high pass was climbed in persistent rain on a day when our waterproofs hardly came off, but that was an exception. Every day we'd wake to blue skies, then sometimes in the afternoon clouds would start to roll in, occasionally turning to an evening thunderstorm. One was pretty dramatic, with hail battering the tent. Safe and dry playing cards inside and even able to cook in our porch, we didn't envy the ultra-lightweight trekkers we'd met who were carrying only a small tarp or sleeping out with no shelter at all.

Hungry hiker
As we came towards the end we were feeling fit and strong, the passes were getting higher but weren't posing any problems, and our backpacks were feeling lighter as we ate our way through the contents. Food cravings had well and truly set in by now though. We were on pretty basic, lightweight food rations. Trying to get the required daily calories was a challenge as you just can't carry enough, and although we were enjoying our rations of oatmeal, pasta, instant mash and granola bars (literally licking the bowls clean, not letting a crumb go to waste) we were always on the edge of hunger, and Karl's clothes were getting looser by the day. Unlike the first part of the trek where we had less days of food to carry, now there wasn't room in our bear barrels for any treats- no hot drinks, 1 square of chocolate each every other day and a handful of dried cranberries if we were feeling indulgent. Food was our main topic of conversation, although no doubt questions like 'If you could have one item of food right now what would it be?' didn't really help matters. We were even dreaming about food- for some reason I had a recurring dream about eating crab, which I don't even like!

Improvised birthday cake complete with 'candle'
The trail ended on the summit of Mount Whitney, which we'd timed to coincide with Karl's 35th birthday. I'd managed to smuggle a chocolate muffin (now looking more like a chocolate pancake) in my bear barrel for the last 2 weeks, which served as a very welcome birthday cake that morning.

It was a steep climb up to the highest point in the Lower 48, and we were racing the clouds as we traversed an exciting ridge path for the final couple of miles. The rocky plateau of the summit was a dramatic end to the trail. Eating our final lunch and posing for summit pictures, we could hardly believe it was all over. As we feared, even after 28 days walking the end had come around too fast and we weren't quite ready for the long descent to civilization. The conversations quickly turned from what we wanted to eat to where we want to go trekking next!

On the trail just below Mount Whitney

A final note on bears. We had two fantastic sightings of bears in Yosemite valley before we set off. One ran across the river where we were wading, before climbing a tree to eat berries. We were awe struck, although I'm glad to say he didn't grace us with a second look. Although bears were never far from our minds as we packed and unpacked our bear-proof food canisters, the only one we actually saw on our trek was our little mascot 'Bear Grylls'. He came along to remind us of our fundraising quest for Animals Asia. We're very grateful to friends and family who have kindly helped us to raise money for this charity.
If you've enjoyed reading this, please help us to get a little closer to our target at

'Bear Grylls'

1 comment:

  1. wow! I'm awe struck just reading this! what an incredible adventure. your photos are stunning. Each adventure just seems to get better. I can see why you're not rushing back! :) Loving the mountain trekking, wild swimming and beautiful scenery. very impressed with your rationing. loved Karls birthday cake- not sure I'd have the will power to hide it for that long! ;-) keep having fun guys. xxx