Roaring waterfalls, swollen streams, sketchy snow bridges, fat marmots, green meadows, acres of snow fields, frozen lakes and everywhere you looked, a colorful array of wildflowers! That pretty much sums ups my trek back to the JMT last July. So if you are short on time just skip the text and scroll through the pics. But if you have time (and the interest) for the back story, what follows is the setting and an overview of each day.
Last year (summer of 2016) I had intended to hike the entire John Muir Trail (JMT) with a couple of friends. The JMT is a 220 mile trail in the Sierra’s. This is a short trail by through-hiker standards but it is epic when it comes to beauty. About half way through our trip (mile 116) a member of our party sustained an injury so we hiked out and did not finish. You can find that story and the pics to go with it here: http://www.trailrunningpastor.com/category/john-muir-trail/ This year my goal was to go back and finish the trail. The plan was for me to start the trek with my friend Sarah and her friend Rachel. They had permits for the North Lake, South Lake Loop (also known as Evolution Loop). On day six they were going to head home over Bishop Pass and I was going to continue down the JMT until I finished at Whitney. I was hoping to finish the entire piece in about 12 days but I packed food for 13 days just in case. I also packed my micro-spikes as I expected snow in the passes. I should have looked at things a little more closely and prepared a little differently as it was a 200% snow pack year. Let’s just say I could have used a little winter experience training despite it being July. With all of my gear and food my pack weighed in at 46 lbs–never again! If you are reading this and planning a trip of your own, pack food for 7 days and spend the extra time hiking out at Kearsarge to resupply your food or pay a mule pack to bring it to you. My pack was way too heavy, especially considering the conditions and my size!
DAY ONE: NORTH LAKE TO LOWER GOLDEN TROUT LAKE
Having dropped my car at Whitney Portal the day before and Rachel’s car at South Lake, we drove Sarah’s car to our trailhead–North Lake. The weather was perfect but it became apparent quite quickly that the trail conditions would be very different this year. There was water everywhere! We had packed water sandals for stream crossings but the stream crossings were too numerous to count and often the trail was under water. So we saved our water sandals to wear as dry footwear at camp and hiked through all the stream crossings in our trail shoes. I was concerned that having wet feet all day would lead to blisters but I didn’t have any problems with my feet the entire time I was out there.
It is five miles from North Lake to Piute Pass. About half way up we encountered our first patch of snow so I put on my spikes. The section was still icy and my spikes would not bite so I ended up sliding down a short section. I was not injured but it was a wake-up call that perhaps I was not as prepared as I needed to be.
The summit was beautiful and after taking a break we hiked down 3-4 miles to our first camping spot not far from Lower Golden Trout Lake. There were very few people in this section so we had our camp and a small stream all to ourselves. We set up camp and soaked in the icy cold snow melt.
DAY TWO: LOWER GOLDEN TROUT LAKE TO JMT
The next day we continued our trek to the JMT. Water and wildflowers were in abundance. We found it safer to do the deeper stream crossings by hiking farther upstream and crossing over the tributaries which were more narrow.
The rushing streams brought to mind the lyrics of an old Rich Mullins song, “and the streams were all swollen with winter, winter unfrozen free to run away now…”
We also came across evidence of how violent the winter storms had been as we climbed over fields of dead trees which had been snapped at their base by snow and rock avalanches.
The trail followed along the Piute which roared beside us and at one point disappeared under an epic snow bridge.
The last mile of the trail was very technical and exhausting. As we came around a corner a hiker met us going the other way. After greeting him he asked if this was the way to get the mail. At first it sounded ridiculous and then I realized he was looking for Muir Trail Ranch (a place where you can mail a resupply of food and pick it up while hiking). Not only was he nowhere near it, he was on the wrong trail. We escorted him back down the trail and I overheard him murmuring something about not being able to read the map and people telling him the wrong directions and being lost the last four days. Once we connected with the JMT we sent him the right direction to MTR which was 3 miles away. It was crazy to think someone would be out in the wilderness without proper navigation and without researching the route.
We crossed the bridge over the Piute and found a beautiful place to camp. We quickly set up, bathed, ate dinner and, since we were under 10,000 feet and had a fire permit, we lit a campfire. The cool thing was the previous campers had already gathered the wood and set it up. All we had to do was light it. A little trail magic!
DAY THREE: PIUTE BRIDGE TO MC CLURE MEADOW
This day was nostalgic as I had hiked the opening miles the previous year before doubling back and hiking out when my friend became injured. I didn’t mind hiking it again though as it was stunning! It was a relatively easy day as the trail followed the San Joaquin River for a couple of miles, crossing back over it on a bridge to the only real switchbacks of the day.
The switchbacks climbed along the side of Evolution Falls which roared past. It became the perfect lunch spot.
About a mile past the Falls was the Evolution Creek crossing which, due to the snow run off was considered very dangerous this year. Last year when we crossed here it was at mid-thigh height. This year it would have been up to our neck so we hiked up river to a safer alternative crossing which was mellow with water just below our waist.
After another 1.5 miles we made it to McClure Meadows which was peaceful and serene. It was only 2pm so we set up camp and had time to do our laundry and bathe.
At McClure Meadow we had some strange encounters with deer. Apparently they were salt deprived and were attracted to the salt in our urine. So when nature called so did the deer. Honestly it was a bit unnerving as they seemed a bit impatient imposing on our privacy. So be deer aware in deer country! We ended the night with a campfire.
DAY 4: MCCLURE MEADOW TO SAPPHIRE LAKE
The hike through the remainder of Evolution Valley was stunning–especially the climb up to Evolution Lake! WOW! Words fail to express how beautiful it was! Imagine a green carpet with numerous gently flowing streams all edged with a colorful array of wildflowers.
While eating lunch at Evolution Lake a group of five young men passed by with heavy backpacks filled with camera gear. Apparently they were filming a documentary. We watched for a while as a couple of them took turns diving off a cliff into ice cold (literally) Evolution Lake. Their screams when they came up out of the water made it very clear the water was more than refreshing! CRAZY!
As we rounded Evolution Lake we began to encounter large snow patches.
Our plan that day was to hike to Wanda Lake so we could be closer to Muir Pass in the morning. But when we got to Sapphire Lake we found it still partially frozen (in the third week of July!). We were also confronted with a huge snow field which would stay with us until the other side of Muir Pass.
We found one of the last snow free spots at Sapphire and set up camp. A little while later a dad, his college age son and a young guy from the Mt Baldy area came up the trail. Seeing the snow field ahead they decided to stop as well and became our neighbors. It was nice to have company so we invited them to have dinner with us and from here on banded together as one big group.
That night was pretty cold. Fires were prohibited in this section due to our elevation. It was the only night during the trip when I slept in my wools and puffy’s.
DAY FIVE: SAPPHIRE LAKE TO PETE’S MEADOW
We waited long enough in the morning for the ice on the snow to melt and then we began the trek up and over Muir Pass which required traversing seven miles of snow! It was beautiful! The footpath took us though an expanse of sun cups and meandered along the edge of frozen lakes all while climbing to almost 13,000 feet..
Occasionally we scrambled over boulders and crossed fast-moving streams. To avoid sunburn we did our best to cover our skin with clothing and slathered sunscreen on our face, neck and inside our nostrils. That probably seems strange but the glare from the sun off the snow can come up and burn the inside of your nostrils–a situation we were all eager to avoid!
I wore my micro-spikes which I had used before but never in conditions like this. As long as I stayed in the boot path I was okay. About half way up I stepped off the boot path and into a sun cup and fell. I was not injured but my trekking pole had wedged into a rock buried in the snow and it broke. I was shocked. I had no idea a pole could break so easily. In a normal year (aka not a 200% snow pack year) a broken pole would not be that big of a deal. But since I was a novice in snow travel and I needed both poles for stream crossings I knew I was in trouble.
We finally made it to the Muir Hut at the top of the pass where we ate lunch.
While there we tried to splint my pole using the broken piece, the long tube from my lighter, duct tape and zip ties but it would not hold. Sarah and Rachel had far more experience on snow than I did so they took turns letting me use one of their poles. Dell, the dad we had met the day before, worked with me on how to dig my heel into the snow which helped tremendously. But now the snow was getting soft and mushy and holes were suddenly appearing revealing buried rocks and trees–a perfect place to break an ankle.
Sarah stayed with me on the steeper descents. As we readied ourselves to go down the steepest one of the day we watched four trail runners come zipping past us. They were wearing running gear and had day packs. We were surprised to see them. It turns out there is an elite running group in the Bishop area and they were running in one day what was taking us a week to backpack! They were agile like mountain goats and floated down the descent, sometimes in a controlled slide. It was amazing to watch and I was humbled! Once they went past I slowly made my way down. There was a sketchy spot with a menacing hole where I fell and accidentally did my first ever glissade (butt slide) down the hill. Thanks to the soft snow I was able to dig in, stop and traverse back to the trail.
Along the way we crossed a fast moving swollen stream and I tried to take it with just one pole but got stuck. Rachel tossed me her pole and as I finally got myself out I realized I had a decision to make. If I continued on to Whitney I would have four more passes higher than Muir Pass to cross plus swollen streams. If I borrowed one of my friends poles it would leave them without a pole and in these conditions there was no way I was going to do that. My left knee was swollen as the tendonitis I had been nursing all spring had flared up. In the late afternoons my knee often felt like it could give out completely. I also knew I did not have the winter skills I needed for the conditions. I realized if I continued I would be a liability to myself and others so that evening I made the choice to hike out early at Bishop Pass. I also committed to finding a winter skills course so I could get more training and return on another day to finish the JMT.
DAY SIX: PETE”S MEADOW TO DUSY BASIN
In the morning I let the others know of my decision to hike out. The cool thing was Rachel had an open schedule and she had winter skills so we swapped permits and she continued on to Whitney and I headed out with Sarah toward the junction to Bishop Pass. Our first couple of miles were flat with one unnerving snow bridge which we crossed carefully. At the junction we began a very steep climb up to Dusy Basin. The view was amazing and the waterfall was spectacular.
Dusy Basin was insanely beautiful! The snow had just melted out and the meadows were a dazzling green with small streams meandering slowly as they made their way to the lake. Everywhere you looked wildflowers were bursting forth in brilliant colors. It was like walking through a resort but none of it manmade; all of it crafted by the hand of God. We found a beautiful camp site and called it a day.
DAY SEVEN: DUSY BASIN TO SOUTH LAKE
The sunrise at our private little resort of Dusy Basin was peaceful and soothing to the soul.
We were on the trail by 8am with 1,000 feet to climb to the top of Bishop Pass which measures in at 11,980 feet.
The entire hike out was beautiful but then that was how this entire trip had been. Thankfully the snow going over the pass was not too bad and the switchbacks were snow free. There is no way I would ever want to do those switchbacks in snow!
Our feet stayed wet the entire day with continuous stream crossings. One of the crossings was sketchy as we balanced on rocks that moved as we pushed off them.
As we neared the end a storm was blowing in (the only one we encountered the entire week) and we raced it to the car. We won, but barely. As soon as we closed the door the rain began to fall but, other than our feet, we were dry. And while we were tired we felt especially blessed for having spent a week in paradise.