What I’ve Learned While Backpacking the John Muir Trail

November 10, 2017

Backpacking the John Muir Trail (JMT). A hiker traverses snow approaching Glen Pass
Every single time I venture out into the wilderness, I learn something new. I believe there’s always something to be learned from every experience, whether I’ve done it for the first time or done it a thousand times. I’m continually looking to others for advice, tips, and tricks, and have gained a lot of valuable knowledge by doing so. In return, I post what I learned so that I may be able to help somebody else avoid backpacking pitfalls along the way on their journey to discover something new.

This past summer, my husband and I ventured out on the John Muir Trail (JMT) to attempt a thru-hike of the entire 211-mile trail…we didn’t succeed. The record snow dumped on the Sierras over the winter contributed to extraordinary circumstances that ultimately led to our demise; however, there were some other contributing factors that I regard as ‘lessons learned.’ While some of the items written about here led directly to our failure, others are just things that are good-to-know.​ Here’s my list of anecdotes as well as a few interesting bits of information that may be helpful for your next backpacking adventure:

Pack weight DOES matter

You hear this over and over again, the age-old question, “What does your pack weigh?” I’ve always endeavored to have a lighter pack, but never strived to go ultralight. Although there’s no official definition, the general rule is that a ‘lightweight’ backpacker carries a base weight under 20 pounds, an ‘ultralight’ backpacker carries a base weight under 10 pounds (base weight is everything you’re carrying, minus food, fuel, and water aka ‘consumables’).

On this particular trip, I fell into the category of ‘damn your shit is heavy’ with a base weight of 25 lbs (and that’s with my husband carrying the tent!).

Our pack weights directly contributed to our downfall. When you’re climbing mountains, all over 10,000 ft, pack weight considerably adds to the ‘oh f&*k’ factor. Even if you think you’re strong, just don’t do it—lighten the load! It’s not worth it, you can’t cover long distances without significant wear and tear on your body, it just makes you miserable. Due to the snow, our heavy packs prevented us from being nimble and safely traversing the steep slopes. Every step we took required monumental effort and made us feel like we were going to careen down the mountainside to our deaths at any moment.

What contributed to the unmanageable weights of our backpacks? Food. Although our base weights were not ideal, we brought so much food that our packs weighed more than a 6-year old child. Has anyone ever seen someone hiking the JMT with a first-grader on their backs? No. I think not.

Age makes a difference

Perhaps many will disagree with this, and it may even piss a few people off. Some of you may just tell me to shut the hell up, but I’m only stating what I’ve come to know as a fact: a 45-year old backpacker does not approach hiking the same way as a 25-year old backpacker does.

As we grow older, I think that some of us lose our false belief of invincibility. When I was younger, I would take risks that I never would even think of attempting now. Now, I find myself a little wiser (I’d like to think it’s astuteness) and look at obstacles with my caution goggles on.

When I see that slender, overused vestige of timber, fallen from its previous glory into its now sorry state, strewn across that raging torrent that is grossly mislabeled a ‘stream,’ do I say, “Yes! Let’s cross here”? Hell NO! I’d sooner walk another hundred miles than cross that toothpick. Let’s face it, I’m not a member of some high-wire act from a traveling circus and would most likely just topple over with an entertaining, weeble-wobble effect; however, I would fall down.

When I see that sharp embankment of snow, pitched angrily downward toward an icy glacial lake of oblivion from which there is no return, do I say, “Whoopie! Let’s run across it. This is fun!”? (yes, I actually saw two young females do this on Glen Pass) Hell NO! I plant each foot, plodding step by plodding step, with methodical precision as if I were walking a minefield.

Also, as much as I think I may be in reasonable shape, my body continually insists on defying me, smacking me down to a lowly, humble level. This bag of bones just starts breaking down, and it doesn’t work like it used to, as much as I don’t want to admit it, it’s a fact. I just can’t go as hard or as long as someone who is in their twenties.

After a certain number of miles, my body would initiate a revolt…fatigue would start to set in and there were occasions where I’d start to get ornery. You can hike for 15-20 miles every day and roll into camp with a smile on your face, laughing like a bunch of schoolchildren? Well, f-you! I’m a curmudgeon, and I wear it like a badge of honor. I never understood why old people could be so cranky, but I can now commiserate. I ache in places that I never knew could ache. Seriously, it’s contemptible.

Weight training would have been better

As with my previous point, we all age and there WILL come a time when we will perform at a fraction of the level that we once used to, regardless of the activity. For some, it will come sooner than later.

Just a couple of years ago, I was at the peak of my physical fitness. I was doing Crossfit, and I was the strongest I ever was in my entire life. I’ve since suffered some injuries that have prevented me from doing Crossfit, and my strength has dwindled to that of a week-old baby.

I did train…a lot. I hiked countless miles to prepare for the JMT and with a fully-loaded pack even. It wasn’t enough. As much as I was building up endurance (or thought I was), my legs just didn’t seem strong enough. The altitude did have an effect on the function of my muscles, but it appeared that the strength needed in my legs to carry that behemoth backpack just wasn’t there.

Next time, my preparation will include more weight training, specifically squats, leg presses, and lots of step-ups.

Shipping Sealed Jars + High Altitude = Disaster

In addition to carbohydrates, fat and protein intake on the trail is essential. Protein is crucial to building and repairing body tissues that get broken down over the course of a long hike. Neglecting to replenish those components may increase the risk of ailments like repetitive stress injuries and chronic fatigue.

My solution to this was to bring foods like jerky and peanut butter, which keep well during long hikes and are loaded with calories and protein (a plentiful source of both per ounce weight).

I thought I was being slick when I packed whole jars of organic natural peanut butter—the kind with that attractive oily layer—in our resupply packages. Although the plastic containers of nutty goodness weighed a lot, they would last us an entire segment and would be a quick, tasty go-to snack. Little did I know that when those packages went from almost sea-level to an elevation up and over 10,000 feet, those convenient jars of peanut butter would explode leaving a lovely greasy, bear-attracting residue all over everything else in our package. Yay.

When planning on traveling to high altitudes, do not pack items in anything containing air that is pressurized at sea-level. After having this happen, I now noticed that potato chip bags or anything that was sealed air-tight take on a bulbous bloated appearance and release a satisfying hiss of air when opened. Too bad I didn’t consider the science of packaging before prepping our food for the trip.

Perhaps if I had packed Skippy® brand, I would have had better luck since the oil doesn’t break down into a separate layer? I don’t know, but I’m never shipping an entire jar of peanut butter again. I’ll either use little packets or will wait to buy it when I get there (hoping that whatever resupply locations I encounter along the way has some).

Redundant planning has its advantages

In an effort to keep their pack weight down, most people will not pack double of anything (as far as gear goes). However, as a result of watching one-too-many episodes of Les Stroud’s ‘Survivorman,’ my fear of enduring a survival situation in the wilderness forces me to pack some things that others may deem unnecessary. There’s a saying in the hiking community, “you carry what you fear,”…it’s true.

Redundant planning has its advantages though, as was proven on this trip. My husband and I both carried our own cook sets, each with their respective igniters. In addition, my husband had a fancy Klipp™ Lighter, while I had packed a BIC® lighter—something that I felt the need to do.

I tested both cook sets at home, including the igniters that came with them, as well as both of the superfluous lighters. They all worked just fine as if they were brand new. However, our first night at 10,000 ft, we discovered that neither of the two stove igniters worked, nor did the Klipp™ Lighter.  Luckily, I had my trusty back up—the old-fashioned BIC® lighter— that worked. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to cook any meals! We would have been dining on cold, crunchy, desiccated bits of uncooked pasta and rice for about eight days until we could reach a resupply location.

Of all the blogs and all the articles about backpacking, not one of them that I read before heading out mentioned anything about lighters or ignition systems not working at altitude. Of course, now that I’m home, a Google search regarding the topic yields a plethora of articles that shed light on this issue. Apparently, piezo and butane have complications at higher altitudes, while good ‘ole flint systems that hearken back to the cavemen days are the most reliable. In retrospect, I should have known that elevation would play a role in combustion (after all, the higher up you go, the less oxygen there is.)

Butt Chafing

I’ve heard of this phenomena, but of all my backpacking/hiking trips, I never encountered it. I didn’t feel a thing, I wasn’t even aware that I had it. It was not until after I looked in the mirror at my rear end, that I noticed it.

Why was I looking at my rear end in the mirror? Well, I like the way it looks. Just kidding, not at all. The truth is that we had a terrible ordeal on Shepherd pass in which we ended up shuffling over some talus (a sloping mass of rocky fragments) on our backsides. I had ripped the entire rear right-side of my pants, leaving a huge gaping hole that exposed my whole ass-cheek.  I then proceeded to glissade the remainder of the way down the pass, trying to avoid using the buttcheek, but alas, my buttock ended up frozen and reddened. I was inspecting my derriere to see what damage was done.

I saw it creeping out of the crevasse in between my flesh muffins…a dark, dirty looking smear that made me think, “Did I not wash my ass properly?”  I’ve finally seen the elusive butt chafe. It was not a pleasant encounter, although, as I said, it didn’t hurt at all. It was just a bit unsettling.

Distressed, I showed my husband who, although disgusted, then caringly offered to rub some Joshua Tree Hiker’s Salve on it (you should try this stuff, it’s wondrous!). It went away quickly enough, and that was the last time I was inconvenienced by Mr. Butt Chafe for the rest of the trip.

There are a number of ways to prevent a showdown with Mr. Butt Chafe¹ that range from wearing synthetic underwear that dries quickly (which I did) to lubing up those muffins before you go hiking. I prefer not to have a greasy mess in my ass-crack myself since I sweat like an animal and I don’t like the squishy feeling.

Failure is Sometimes the Only Option

I spent 6 months planning this trip, from the permits required, determining the food we would need, packaging the meals, buying and testing gear, arranging the logistics, and doing shakedown hikes. Before we even stepped foot on the trail, significant effort went into just preparing for the excursion. I prepped so that we could be successful in our endeavor; however, sometimes things just don’t work out as planned. What I did not prepare for was a failure.

One of the far-reaching consequences I contended with this trip, which also happens to be one of my biggest fears, was regret. Bailing out of our JMT hike is one of the most grievous disappointments that I have endured in my life. Of all the things that I’ve done, of all my mistakes I’ve made throughout my life, they are just that…mistakes. I’ve made choices, and they turned out to be the wrong ones; I’ve learned from them. However, this decision, I struggled for quite a while to come to terms with it.

I’ve finally accepted that the circumstances were indeed extraordinary this year in particular. The Sierra had seen record-breaking precipitation in 2017, storm after storm piling more snow upon snow left from the previous storm. It blanketed the higher elevations and remained straight through the summer. Phenomenal levels of snowpack sent creeks and streams down mountains in deluges, creating hazardous water crossing conditions. Our safety became the paramount objective, and we had no choice but to end the endeavor if we wanted to emerge unscathed.

All the preparation still can’t prepare you

No matter what you do, sometimes all the preparation can’t prepare you for what is to come. Sometimes you end up making the best of a series of horrible choices (as we did in ‘The Shepherd Pass Ordeal’). Sometimes you just have to take whatever obstacles that may come your way, apply any knowledge possessed, and use your best judgment to overcome them.

And…not advice, but amusing nonetheless…Why the snow is pink in the Sierra Nevada

Many places we encountered this summer were still covered with snow. Much more baffling than that was the fact that it was pink. At first, I thought that it was from rock dust, after all, there were a lot of rocks, and there was a lot of fine, powdery, rock dust and sand. The particles coated everything—clothing, hair, skin, gear—creating that not-washed-in-weeks vagabond look.

As it turned out, the snow is pink not because it likes to be girly…it’s called ‘watermelon snow.’ I was completely unaware of this enigma until I came home and saw a question about the rosy, frozen precipitation posted in one of my Sierra hiking Facebook groups. In short, it’s caused by a species of algae that thrives in freezing water and is prevalent in the high altitudes of the Sierra Nevada. I found this tidbit of information interesting enough to share, mainly because many of my pictures contain the pink snow and I personally, have received some questions about it. You can read more about this at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watermelon_snow.

Watermelon Snow on Glen Pass on the John Muir Trail (JMT)
‘Watermelon Snow’ on the John Muir Trail. Image taken on the approach to Glen Pass.

I hope you found this article informative and consider some of these factors when planning your next adventure. Send me a message or comment on your own experiences, I love to hear from my readers.


¹For your convenience, here are some articles regarding chafing while hiking and what to do about it:

 

 

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