This short story, the first in a series, starts on Day 1 of our John Muir Trail (JMT) hike of 2018. It’s a tale of danger and stupidity with a little splash of humor.
After being thwarted by snow during last year’s John Muir Trail hike, my husband and I decided this past year to attempt to finish what we started in 2017. We started our hike at Onion Valley Trailhead, dropped off in our now customary ritual by Strider at Mt. Williamson Motel and Basecamp; and after a night of sleeping at Onion Valley Campground, we started our ascent up Kearsarge Pass trail to embark on our northbound hike of the JMT.
The Ascent up to Kearsarge Pass
The trail up to Kearsarge Pass isn’t particularly difficult; however, we were sucking wind seemingly more than usual perhaps due to it being our first day on the trail and burdened with heavy packs. With the trail name of ‘Trail Snail,’ the trek to the pass was as slow as you would expect; it took us 5 hours of hiking to reach the summit after 4.3 miles, a pace to set a world record of the slowest hiking ever. About half the way up, we decided to take a break and were greeted by the aforementioned sprightly Strider, who again for the second year in a row, had blown by us on the ascent as if we were standing still and was already on her way back down.
“…we started our descent without donning our rain gear, we assumed the storm would let us get down the pass. We were wrong.”
Upon reaching the summit, we wanted to take a nice long rest, but storm clouds were rolling in far in the distance. They were ominous black clouds that clearly spelled impending doom, so we resigned to keeping our break brief. The thunder shortly followed the presence of the oppressive blanket of precipitous nebulae, so we started to head down the other side of the pass out of fear of getting struck by lightning. The clouds still appeared far enough off in the distance, so we started our descent without donning our rain gear, we assumed the storm would let us get down the pass. We were wrong.
The Descent from Kearsarge Pass
It first started with a few drops of rain by the time we only made it maybe 1/8 mile down and then the hail ensued. Then the skies opened up, the barrage of mini ice pellets streamed down, unrelentingly pelting us like a thousand birds pecking at our bodies, and then the lightning started striking. We took cover under the only tree that offered any shelter, a stunted pine of some sort—no bigger than a bush¬— underneath Joe’s (my husband) hastily-removed pack cover that provided very little protection for two people. We were at least able to protect our heads and faces from the battering while our legs took the brunt of the onslaught. We got soaked and were continuously pelted by the hail as we watched the lightning striking above our heads, I was sure we were going to be hit. Lightning safety procedures dictate that you squat down in a tight crouch, at least 50-feet away from the next person, with your gear 100-feet away. Needless to say, we did everything that you’re not supposed to do; it all happened so quickly that we really didn’t have time to react (which is why you need to anticipate these things happening and take preventative measures, lesson learned). The deluge of water released from the skies streamed down the trail taking with it currents of icy stones. The trail became a highway for the frozen white balls, gushing by with the fury of a flash flood. We just sat for what seemed like an eternity, hoping that we wouldn’t have a tale of survival to tell after all was done.
“We hiked, fingers frozen, feet drenched and cold…”
After the blitz started to let up a little, we decided we needed to get out of there, the temperature had dropped so drastically that we were now freezing and starting to get hypothermic. We put our rain gear on over our already soaked bodies and equipment and hiked on so we could warm up before we got too cold. The drop in temperature was overwhelming, one minute you’re sweating from exertion, the next you feel like winter has unseasonably arrived. We hiked, fingers frozen, feet drenched and cold, and as time went on our bodies at least started warming up. My wide-brimmed hat offered some protection from the elements; however, it began dropping in front of my field of vision, forcing me to continuously adjust it so I could see where I was going. (Note to self…get a new hat.) My clawed hands had trouble gripping onto my trekking poles, my fingers felt like stiff sausages; luckily, the pole straps provided assistance with holding onto them without having to grasp the handles with much effort. With each step, my feet, corrupt with surgical remnants, would send sharp signals of pain up my legs while at the same time felt numb and lifeless.
At the Campsite
After what felt like an agonizingly long time, we finally reached the campsite and proceeded to set up the tent. The site we chose had no water, and none close nearby. We knew this would be a good possibility beforehand as this year’s snowpack was nowhere near what it was last year; however, we did not want to walk the extra stretch down to Charlotte Lake only to have to lumber back up with our weighty packs the next morning. Joe went to get water while I inflated the sleeping pads and prepared to have the tent ready for him to warm up when he returned. I stripped off all my clothing and hung them on the clothesline I fashioned in our tent in an attempt to dry off and once relatively dry, put on my camp clothes. I shivered violently and was worried about how Joe was doing. At least he was moving, which would provide some relief from the cold; however, he too was water-logged, and I’m sure was feeling the effects. A disturbing amount of time had passed, Joe had still not returned to the tent, and I started to worry. I wasn’t sure where he went to get water, but I knew it was in the direction of Charlotte Lake. I had hoped that there would be an inlet that flowed into the lake where Joe could retrieve water without having to trek all the way down .7 miles to the lake itself. The thoughts that go through your head while you’re waiting for a partner to return and does not during the anticipated amount of time, it’s maddening: Did he get lost? Did he fall down the hill? Did he trip and break something? Did a bear eat him? After a good long while, he returned, unharmed although agitated and cold.
A Perfect End to a Not-So-Perfect Day
In an attempt to raise our spirits, we cooked a nice hot meal to soothe our souls. I had Chili Mac with Beef while Joe had Spicy Thai Rice with Peanut Sauce, and for dessert, hot Apple Crisp, some consolation to what we had endured that day.
In another effort to provide comic relief, I displayed one of my infamous Lisaesque foibles. I had my knife in the tent pocket above where we sleep and somehow, determined to break free from its confinement, the knife had gotten stuck in my hair. I turned around, feeling a heavy tug on my mane-like locks, and mystified, asked Joe what the heck was in my hair, he laughed and said “YOUR KNIFE! [Hahaha!]”
After briefly reminiscing about our first day on the trail, we finished our dessert and went right to bed.
Read the entire series:
The JMT 2018 – The Series – An Unexpected Adventure
JGJanuary 14, 2019
Excellent pics! Your vivid descriptions really creat a picture of the hike for me.