The JMT 2018 Series – Story 4 – Cloudy with a Chance of Breakdown

June 22, 2019

A storm approaches as we rest at the summit of Muir Pass

This story, the fourth in a series, starts on day seven of our John Muir Trail (JMT) hike of 2018. The account spans a few days and recounts pleasant surprises (and some unpleasant), unfounded expectations, fear, sheer panic, and an almost epic breakdown. 

After spending a day leisurely performing housekeeping duties and relaxing by Lake Marjorie, my husband Joe and I felt refreshed and even more invigorating, clean! ‘Clean’ takes on a whole new meaning on the trail. I was able to wash my hair and ‘launder’ our clothes using some Dr. Bronner’s soap we always carry, and a waterproof river bag that serves as a multipurpose tool: washtub, water receptacle, & tent sack. 

Encounters of the Human Kind

We started hiking around 7:30 am and not too long afterward, we ran into Patrick Stewart. Yes, Captain Picard in the flesh! Not really, he wasn’t actually the man himself; however, the resemblance was uncanny, and the encounter provided us some amusement, which can be beneficial to break up the monotony of constant steady marching. I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and the prospect of meeting Captain Picard (aka Patrick Stewart) thrills me. Although he’s a fit man, even now in his late seventies, would he be walking along the JMT? It’s possible, right? OK, maybe not, but daydreaming is also part of endeavoring to complete one of America’s most iconic trails, so I allow myself such delights.

Encounters with others on the trail is inevitable, and sometimes those chance meetings are some of the most memorable moments when all is said and done. 

Somewhere on the way to Mather Pass
Somewhere on the way to Mather Pass

We also ran into a young woman named Rose, who was hiking northbound on the JMT solo. That fact in itself isn’t particularly uncommon on this trail, not anymore anyway. Throughout my entire hike last year, I encountered a large number of women hiking alone, more than solo men hikers, but what was noteworthy in this particular case was the pace in which she was covering distance.

We aren’t notably fast hikers, by thru-hiker standards, so it amazed us when we learned that Rose had covered the same number miles in five days what took us seven to achieve. To us, she was practically running. She was on a mission and had good reason to be blazing through the landscape. Rose was visiting California to attend a wedding, and she decided that she would hike the JMT beforehand since she was there in the area. We walked with her a little bit, enjoying the human connection until we urged her to go on so we wouldn’t slow her down. It seemed to me that she appreciated the distracting chit-chat, but considering she had places to go and other people to see, she took off like a rabbit and left us in the dust. 

Facing Mather

Our encounter with Rose happened somewhere before Mather Pass, we could actually see in the far distance what we suspected was the saddle that we would need to tread over. We were supposed to camp before summiting the pass that was described as “one of the most fear-inducing due to the steep headwall on the south side of the pass.” The prospect of finally encountering this hyped up obstacle stirred up some anxiety within us. The prior year (2017), the year of dismal failure, we didn’t even make it this far to traverse the dreaded pass. However, this time, we were feeling energetic, and there we were, preparing to ascend the proclaimed monster. 

I’m not sure if it was the encounter with a young, vibrant super-person that energized us, or if we were just having a good day. Whatever the case, we decided to go ahead and do it, we were going to go over this pass and go as far as our feet would carry us this day. 

One misstep could have you hurtling down over a rocky precipice that would tear flesh to shreds before obliterating your bones and organs in one abrupt thump when crashing to the bottom.

We approached Mather, and as we’ve seen, it was the case with many of the Sierra passes, we couldn’t quite tell where the trail went up what started to look precariously steep. We crept closer and then proceeded to head up the numerous switchbacks. The climb was indeed pretty steep, but neither Joe nor I were particularly frightened. We wondered which side the ‘fear-inducing’ side was. Was there a typo in the description in the app that described this passage? Perhaps the other side was the ‘bad’ side? I could see though if you were heading southbound and had to descend those sharp switchbacks, especially if there was any snow on the path, you could end up with your heart in your throat. One misstep could have you hurtling down over a rocky precipice that would tear flesh to shreds before obliterating your bones and organs in one abrupt thump when crashing to the bottom.   

Without any drama, we made it to the summit early (by our standards), around 1:45 pm, we didn’t think we would make it until 3 pm. To our astonishment, we climbed all the way up almost without stopping, with the exception to take a few obligatory pictures and admire the views. 

Descending the other side of Mather Pass (the north side) wasn’t bad at all. The only part of the whole thing that was a little unsettling was when starting to leave the summit, you had to climb up a little bit more on a rocky and a narrow ledge. Although the rest of the way down wasn’t especially steep, there was a bunch of talus and steps that slowed us down a bit.

We eventually reached the bottom, and I still felt in pretty good shape, my feet didn’t hurt as much as they usually would after a descending a pass. While taking an extended break at the summit, I had taken my shoes off to massage my feet, and that had helped a great deal.

Nonexistence of Privacy

We proceeded to Palisade Lakes to find a campsite, but we met a couple who said that there were only a few sites along the way (they were coming from the other direction) and there were already some people there. As we approached the lakes, we discovered that the couple wasn’t wrong, all of the immediately visible campsites we came across were already occupied. 

That’s one thing that never did cease to amaze me, the fact that no matter how far out into the wilderness you go, there always seems to be some sign of human presence in one way or another. 

We started searching for an area where we could divert off the trail and find a campsite that wasn’t yet established but yet would not result in breaking the principles of Leave No Trace (LNT). We looked up the hill above the trail and found a place where we thought we could camp. Walking a short distance, we found this perfect spot upon a rocky outcrop nearby a waterfall, out of view of other hikers. It was absolutely beautiful, with panoramic views of mountains, the lakes, a refreshing waterfall, and best of all, privacy! 

Privacy. The resounding topic highlighted throughout all of the tales I tell. It’s hard to come by out there on the JMT, which has become one of the most hiked trails in America. Many people go out into the wilderness expecting to be alone and ‘become one with nature,’ but to fully accomplish this goal, one needs to go out into the backcountry, off the trail. After multiple visits to the Sierra Nevada, this is one aspect that I did not expect and found to be surprising.  

Our campsite near Palisade Lakes was a hidden gem.
Our campsite near Palisade Lakes was a hidden gem.

Here Comes the Sun

This day was the first day since we started the hike where the weather worked in our favor. It did not rain or hail, it was perfect. The air seemed a little bit warmer on the north side of Mather, or perhaps it was the intensity of the afternoon sun. The campsite we had chosen offered no shade, so we felt like eggs cooking on hot rocks, but it was better than being cold and wet. We welcomed the change after the daily bombardment of water and ice we had been experiencing up until this point. 

It was also the first day that Joe wore shorts, and he ended up getting sunburned all over the back of his legs. I had experienced sunburn in the same areas on my legs in 2017, and Joe had criticized me when I complained about it, so when he started whining, I had no sympathy whatsoever. 

The next day, our hike started with a gentle descent, then progressively got worse and worse. There were stones, talus, steps, and this ‘staircase’ that seemed to be going into the pits of hell. It was steep, there were seemingly endless switchbacks, the descent was just plain painful. This was the infamous ‘Golden Staircase,’ a route completed in 1938 that would allow horses to navigate using a more direct route but doesn’t necessarily make the trek any easier for two-legged beasts. We descended into a deep canyon and were discouraged by the fact that going down means only having to go back up again; however, we were thankful that we weren’t heading southbound and, unlike the other hikers we encountered this day, had to climb up those fifty switchbacks.

The sun was blazing, and the air was like a hot oven, the whole ordeal was grueling. My feet hurt so badly, but Joe didn’t seem too bothered by it. Downhill trekking doesn’t bother him like it does me, thanks to my asshole Frankenstein feet. I had surgeries in 2016 on both of my feet to correct multiple issues that have left me with enduring discomfort, especially when having to bear the majority of my weight (plus pack) on the balls of my feet.

 Trouble is Brewing

As we kept descending and were nearing where we thought our campsite was, we started to wonder about the amount of haze in the air. As time went on and we progressed closer to where we were going to camp, it became apparent that the haze was actually smoke, thickening as the day wore on. I started to get worried and hoped we weren’t walking into a wildfire. 

There’s really no way out in the wilderness to discern what’s going on miles away unless you have a two-way satellite communication device, which we didn’t have. The only means we had for alerting anyone that we had an emergency was a one-way personal locator beacon. However, we did have the ‘pipeline,’ a system that involves actually speaking to other human beings that we pass going the other direction.

We questioned a few hikers about what they knew, and they said they had passed a ranger station and there were no signs, or anything posted that would indicate we were approaching danger. However, they suspected the smoke was from the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite that had been burning since before we left for California. The group said that the authorities had evacuated Yosemite Valley. We thought they said the evacuation started a week prior, but with the roar of the rushing water nearby we weren’t quite sure what they said was a week, whether it was a week ago or for a week. I’m assumed a week ago since I thought there was no way to predict when a fire (especially the size of the Ferguson Fire) would end.

One thing was for sure, as of the time that they received the information, Tuolumne was still open, but the Valley was evacuated. This presented a potential kink in our plans. If Yosemite Valley were closed, then we would not be able to continue our hike to the end at Happy Isles as planned. Was this going to be another year, the second in a row, where we would have to cut our trek short again? 

We sojourned on despite the concern. After all, there are only two ways you can proceed in these instances, move on or turn back. 

Joe found a great campsite, again near a waterfall. It was mostly private, nestled in between a small grove of Sequoias. The stately trees encircled us like giants gathering for a conclave. The views from the site would have been even grander if it weren’t for the smoke that was almost wholly obscuring the nearby mountains towering over us. 

Although we had washed up the day before, we performed a more thorough ‘bathing’ this day thanks to the security from spying eyes provided by a slope between us and the trail. We stripped down to our underwear, collected water from the stream, washed our faces, and all other vital parts. We also rinsed off our sweat-soaked shirts again and allowed them to dry on a downed tree adjacent to our tent. 

‘Clean’ takes on a whole new meaning on the trail.

The evening was uneventful, and fortunately, the smoke had cleared up during the night, so we were finally able to see the mountains that were hidden from our view the day before. The morning sun caressed the mountaintops, giving them a warm orange glow that contrasted against the icy blue sky. As we sat in our tent, preparing for another day of wandering, we listened to the water rushing nearby, contemplating whether or not our feet would take us to the mountains in view from the door of our abode, rising majestically almost as if greeting the sky to say “it’s an honor to meet you.” 

As a Pendulum Swings

We packed up our gear and started our day. As it is on any significant backpacking trip, the days come and go, sometimes tediously and monotonously, climbing up mountains, and traveling down, over and over. 

The ascent out of LeConte Canyon was, for the most part, uneventful. The previous day’s trek down the Golden Staircase did me in, and my calves were burning right out of the campsite and continued all day long. I was suffering all the way up and out of the canyon. Luckily, a lot of the route was a mostly non-beastly incline, but the parts that were steep were wickedly arduous. We actually accomplished the first part of the hike, which was a not-so-awful incline in one shot without taking a break. However, we weren’t setting any records, we covered about 4.5 miles, with a 1,000 ascent, in 2 hours 45 minutes. Joe seemed to be faring much better than I was. Usually, I do much better on the uphill, but on this day, he pushed through them with what appeared to be less effort than usual. I detested him for that. 

The view looking back (southbound) in LeConte Canyon before we start the ascent up and out.
The view looking back (southbound) in LeConte Canyon before we start the ascent up and out.

Plodding on, one foot in front of the other, we advanced with the repetitiveness of a metronome. The only thing that broke up the tedium was a hiker approaching from the other direction asking what day it was. This is an example of how one day can start to blend into the other. What was genuinely diverting was the fact that we couldn’t answer his question! I had to retrieve my phone from my hipbelt to take a look to see what day it was.    

The early part of this particular segment of the trail was a very scenic hike advertising towering mountains dwarfing evergreen spires, roaming wildlife, and panoramic vistas. The trail then paralleled the Middle Fork Kings River, which offered some fabulous glimpses of rushing waterfalls and water flowing over rocks creating white ribbons that cascaded through the forest; however, we took only a few pictures, most of which were snapped between the jaws of the ‘rock monster’ that served as a popular trail-side attraction. Then the eventual uphill grind took most of our concentration; we probably could have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t so grueling.

Plodding on, one foot in front of the other, we advanced with the repetitiveness of a metronome.

To add to the feeling of fatigue, it had gotten scorching around 10:00 am and continued on until about 2:00 pm on when the air all of a sudden turned frigidly cold, a telltale sign that a storm was brewing. 

We were going to continue on, but we feared the coming storm and decided to set up camp near the top of the canyon. We weren’t the only ones. There were several sites here, and the place was pretty full and offered not much privacy at all. There was one strike of lightning in the distance, some thunder, and very little rain. We could have continued on, but we had already set up our tent. Oh well. 

Inconveniences

To add to our disappointment, we stunk. We had washed the day before near the river by the campsite, but we could smell ourselves already. This condition is something that you have to learn to endure, there’s not much you can do about it without a shower and washing machine. So, we ate our dinner and went to bed, trying to ignore the stench.  

The next morning started with us packing up without eating because we had camped at a such a high traffic camping area and there was no privacy to go to the bathroom. Privy spots were limited due to both visibility and rocky ground. However, we were so slow in packing up that everyone else had gone by the time we finished, so Joe was finally able to find one of the few spots where he could dig to make a proper cathole…we ended up sharing it. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Don’t judge. Actually, is it a better LNT practice to not have multiple catholes strewn all over the wilderness? I think so. Yeah, let’s go with that excuse. 

Again, leaving camp, we started out climbing. We regularly seem to camp in a location where it is always an uphill climb out of there, mostly because of the fact that we are lazy hikers and don’t push for the miles. My calves were once again cramping up, and I significantly slowed down our pace due to having to stop and stretch several times.

Muir Pass

We were to go over Muir Pass on this day. The approach was long and, in some areas, very steep, which made it slow going, but the path was snow-free for the majority of the hike, unlike in 2017 where we would have encountered miles and miles of post-holing snow and suncups. If we had made it to this point during that hike, we probably would have given ‘slow’ a whole new meaning. We did end up encountering a small snowfield and trod across a swath of snow that was only about 30 feet wide, hardly the terrifying experience that we had on Shepherd Pass the previous year.

The morning sky usually was clear, but on this day, some clouds had lingered from the night before and were starting to build over the pass. We put on our pack covers, bright orange ones that shined like beacons, and got our rain jackets ready as we stopped to what we thought was the last lake before the pass to get some water. After filling our drinking bottles, we continued our climb and found another lake, and yet another lake! We weren’t as close to the top as we thought, but as we neared the summit hikers following a significant distance behind were able to see where the trail was by spotting at our pack covers. 

One of the many aquamarine lakes on the way up to Muir Pass.
One of the many aquamarine lakes on the way up to Muir Pass.

Eventually, we finally made it to the crest and the John Muir Shelter (aka Muir Hut), a stone hut that was erected in 1931 by the Sierra Club that serves as an emergency shelter for backpackers caught in a storm, but also a memorial to John Muir. Reaching this point on the trail was a significant milestone because it symbolically represents the mid-point of a John Muir Trail thru-hike, and I was excited. We had officially hiked half of the JMT (not technically though, because the hut stands at the 81-mile mark and the JMT in its entirety is 211-miles long). 

The shelter is an octagonal granite structure with a tapered dome that when viewed from the inside, is reminiscent of the spiraling effect in the intro to the Twilight Zone. Inside of the hut, a simple info-plaque is hung over a fireplace mantel, depicting an image of John Muir and the Sierra Club logo. There’s a bench made of stone that encircles the interior of the structure where weary hikers can rest their feet. A small window allows you to peer out and witness the blitz of any unforgiving storms that have you trapped inside. The heavy original oak Dutch door seals you in, offering some security from mayhem. 

We put on our pack covers, bright orange ones that shined like beacons…

There was supposed have been a 110-pound bronze commemorative plaque installed in the summer of 2017 that depicts a bias relief of John Muir (America’s leading conservationist) and William Colby (first president of the Sierra Club). It memorialized the men’s efforts and the shelter, and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Act establishing the National Park Service as an agency within the Department of the Interior by Woodrow Wilson; however, during our visit, the simple plaque was there, and I’m not quite sure what happened to it.

We took our pictures on the steps of the doorway and rested a little while we ate our snacks. There is no overnight camping allowed in the hut, but I was feeling like staying inside for a while to take a nap. However, we heard thunder in the distance, and when looking ahead along our route, the clouds looked ominous. 

While we took our break on top of Muir Pass, the ‘pipeline’ offered some good news; we were informed that Yosemite was still closed due to the Ferguson Fire, but there was a possibility that it would be reopened by Friday, which was a few days away. 

Hail Hath Fury

We heard thunder growing in intensity, and the clouds started to look ominous. It was time for us to leave and get off the top of the pass before the storm arrived. 

Down we went, and when reaching the bottom, all hell broke loose. No, not the storm, not yet…it was me; I threw a tantrum because my feet were hurting so bad. While I was protesting like a 5-year old child, Joe decided he was going to refill our water bottles so he could leave me to my business without incurring my wrath. To add to the production, it had started to rain. Grumbling, we donned our raincoats and started to hike after only filling one of the water bottles halfway and mid-outburst.

As we continued, the rain, which had started lightly, increased to fiercely. After what only seemed a few moments, it began to hail. Ice balls started quickly accumulating on the ground, and the wind had picked up, blowing straight at us. It was freezing, and we did the best we could to keep our heads down in a futile effort to stop the projectiles from hitting our faces. The volley of ice pelted my bare legs and felt like thousands of stinging needles. The pain became unbearable, and I started to cry, and then scream.

 This day felt like I was participating in an episode of ‘Naked and Afraid’…

We had nowhere to go, there were no rocks or trees to take any shelter under, there we were in the great wide open, targets for mother nature taking her aim. We had no choice but to keep going. Then lightning flashed above the mountain in front of us, and its crack echoed through the area, her fury was now upon us. Fear instantly propelled us to walk as swiftly as was possible. I wasn’t sure which was worse, the abuse we suffered from the elements or the prospect of being struck down, resulting in our untimely death. Fortunately, the hail had diminished slightly, which allowed us to quicken the pace.  

We finally reached a place where there were some big boulders that we could hide behind just as the hail started to come down with the vengeance that it did just moments ago. The wind was relentless, we crouched behind the boulders as if we were taking fire from some enemy combatant. After what we felt was the worst of the onslaught, we decided to push on and hike just to keep warm. 

This day felt like I was participating in an episode of ‘Naked and Afraid,’ my legs were red from either being cold or a result of being pelted by icy bullets, or both. My face was frozen, the same type of sensation you feel when walking through a blizzard in winter. I’m sure the emotional theatrics I displayed throughout this ordeal would have made for some darn good television.

We hiked for a few miles despite our feet reaching their limit. We needed to keep from becoming hypothermic, and we were pushing to reach our target location. The rain and hail had subsided, but thunder lingered and kept reminding us that it probably was not yet entirely over. Our pace was slowed by the pools of water that had collected on the trail; however, we persevered, determined to find a suitable campsite. Unfortunately, we were in an area where you could not camp without trampling fragile plants that resided there, although we had seen a few hikers camped upon the meadow grasses, sadly breaking a fundamental LNT practice. 

Just a mile shy of our target campsite near the north end of Evolution Lake, it started raining again. We found a spot where we could pitch our tent, and it started raining even harder. Shortly after, we had barely gotten the tent up when the rain bordered on being a deluge, and the fierce wind began to blow. We huddled inside the tent, clinging to each other, while the wind pushed the walls inward, caving them in as if someone had sat on top of it. Water flowed underneath our little refuge, here we were again, adrift in a lake of lamentation.

Eventually, after two hours, the rain subsided, and the sun came out. We stepped outside to admire the beauty of our surroundings and bask in its glory as the sun warmed our chilled bodies. Calm descended upon the domain, and all was right with the world again. 

An ideal end to a not-so-perfect day at Evolution Lake...Storms cut our hike short on July 31st, 2018, but the sun finally came out, and it was breath-taking.
An ideal end to a not-so-perfect day at Evolution Lake…Storms cut our hike short on July 31st, 2018, but the sun finally came out, and it was breath-taking.

Read the entire series:
The JMT 2018 – The Series – An Unexpected Adventure


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