Trip Report: The John Muir Trail

July 3-9, 2018

“If you are gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.”


Introduction

This is a trip report for my thru-hike of most of the JMT from July 3-9, 2018. I’ll try to focus more on pictures than verbose monologues, as I tend to find those much more interesting and effective at storytelling.

The JMT is one of those must-dos for any California backpacker and it has been on my radar for a while. For the past 3 or 4 years, it’s been one of those things I would do when circumstances lined up. In the mid summer of 2018, those circumstances finally lined up.


The Plan

Not wanting to deal with all of the regulations imposed on JMT hikers in Yosemite (trailhead quotas, Donohue Pass exit quotas, lectures from ranger, etc.), I secured a permit to start at the Rush Creek trailhead on Tuesday, July 3 finishing at Whitney Portal about ten days later. This is the northernmost trailhead that connects directly to the JMT without passing through Yosemite National Park, leaving it free from the Donohue Pass exit quota. My hike would be about 190 miles, 170 of which were on the JMT. The reservation wasn’t hard to obtain, I think I reserved my permit four weeks in advance. I would imagine walk-ups aren’t a problem, except perhaps on the busiest Saturdays.

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Three weeks in advance, I mailed a 12 pound bucket of food to myself at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). It was 80 miles from Rush Creek to MTR and then 100 more to Whitney Portal. I planned it out pretty meticulously: 4,000 calories a day for 9 days. I would start with 4 days of food, and pick up 5 more days worth at MTR. If I went slower than that (20 miles a day), I would just bail early. For the abundantly curious, here’s my food planning doc. I would be happy to provide comments on what worked and what didn’t if anyone is interested.

I wasn’t really too concerned about running into trouble due to injury, gear failure, or other cause. The JMT/PCT sees dozens (if not hundreds) of hikers pass through any given stretch in a day. Most of them are carrying some kind of PLB/Satellite Phone, at least a basic first aid kit, and probably too much food. On top of that, there are options to bail over a pass back to the Owens Valley every 10 or 15 miles. I counted 12 different opportunities to exit, and that’s only the ones with maintained trails. That’s why some folks call the JMT “The Highway.”



Training

I didn’t do much training specifically for this trip, relying instead on my general fitness. That said, many would consider my baseline level of activity to be training. I usually run 50-70 miles a week and do backpacking trips twice a month, usually around 20 miles.

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That said, I did take two weekend trips in the lead up to the JMT that were a bit bigger than my usuals: in March I did a 50 mile loop out to the Orestimba Wilderness in Henry Coe, and in June a 40 mile out-and-back to Benson Lake in Yosemite. Neither of these really indicated I would be able finish this JMT route in under 8 days, so I planned my food and timing for 8-9 days, thinking that to be a reasonable goal.




Gear

I have a fair bit of backpacking experience and through trial and error have dialed in what works for me. I wasn’t super careful about my pack weight for this trip, my baseweight was probably 20 or 22 pounds and I carried a few ultralight no-nos such as a DSLR camera and five batteries, a full mummy bag, and a freestanding tent (and fly). Full laden, I was about 38 pounds.

Rather than act as a shill for my preferred brands (that’s super boring anyways), let me know if you care about the specific gear I brought and I can try to provide advice.

Okay, enough of my yammering, let’s get down to it.

 

Day 1: Rush Creek to Rosalie Lake

20.7 miles, +5,300’

I got a bit of a late start on my first day. I hung around Mammoth to say bye to some friends who I had crashed with the night before and then had to drive up to June Lake. I think I hit the trail around 10. The nearby Lions Fire was blowing smoke into both Mammoth and June Lake that morning. There was a slight taste of smoke in the air, and fairly reduced visibility, it was also hot, my pack was fairly heavy, and my route started with a 3,000’ climb from Silver Lake to Island Pass. All of those factors combined to make for a tough first day on the trail.

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The scenery on the Rush Creek Trail was underwhelming. The trail passed by a series of unnatural, dammed up lakes with ugly bathtub rings. The uppermost of which, Waugh Lake, was drained (although it didn’t appear this was for restoration). The bugs were really awful in some of the meadows as well.

I got caught behind this mule train for a few miles. At one point, one of them kicked a bag, so I had to stop and wait for them to sort that out. While this was the only time I would get stuck behind mules, they had left their mark (or their poop, rather) all over the trail I would walk on for the next seven days.

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When I cleared Island Pass (10,205’) I got my first views of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter. The smoke was blowing more or less east of the fire now, so the sky cleared up a bit.

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Overlooking one of the classic JMT vistas, Thousand Island Lake with Banner Peak in the background.

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I’m not much of a botanist, and I don’t know the name of this flower, but it’s pretty.

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As I continued south, the smoke picked up a bit more. Here’s Garnet Lake, under a little bit of haze. From here, I continued another five or so miles south past Shadow Lake to Rosalie Lake and camped there for the night. The mosquitoes were out in force in this area, so it was a quick dinner and then to bed in the tent.

 

Day 2: Rosalie Lake to Silver Pass Lake

31.4 miles, +6,300’

Today’s goal was somewhere between Purple Lake and Silver Pass. I got an early start, around 6:30 or so, and planned to hike most of the day. The scenery for the first half of the day was pretty dull, so I just put my head down and hiked. It was mostly just a stroll through the forest until the gorgeous Lake Virginia, where the scenery improved significantly.

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A smokey view through the trees back to the Minarets.

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After climbing from Devil’s Postpile, the trail passes through the area ravaged by the Rainbow Fire 25 years ago.

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After slogging for a few more hours, the trail hits the beautiful Virginia Lake which sits on a high bench with a backdrop of the high mountains of the Silver Pass and Mono Divide areas.

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Shortly after Virginia Lake, the trail drops 1,000’ down to Tully Hole before climbing 1,700’ back up to Silver Pass. I went through Tully Hole a couple of hours before sunset, peak mosquito hour.

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Beautiful, alpine Chief Lake is the last high lake before crossing Silver Pass (10,754’).

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Looking south from Silver Pass over Silver Pass Lake and the Mono Divide. The high peak on the left is Recess Peak. I would camp down near the lake in the foreground, Silver Pass Lake.

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Sunset from my campsite at Silver Lake. It was a bit cooler tonight, but that meant no mosquitoes!

 

Day 3: Silver Pass Lake to San Joaquin River Valley

31.4 miles, +4,900’

I got a nice and early start today just before 6 because I was eager to get to MTR before they closed at 5 PM. I was able to get some momentum continuing downhill from Silver Pass, but then had to slog up Selden Pass before dropping back to MTR. The scenery continued to improve today, and I managed to get going downhill during the hottest part of the day.

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Sunrise over the Mono Divide during the first steps of another 30+ mile day.

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From here, the trail drops back below 8,000’ before climbing to Selden Pass (10,900’). At the lowest point, it crosses Mono Creek before a stiff 1,000’ climb to Bear Ridge. This climb is steep and sustained, and I found it to be one of the tougher climbs of the whole trail I hiked, right up there with the Golden Staircase.

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As the trail nears the top of Selden Pass, it goes by Marie Lake, a gorgeous alpine lake surrounded by the high peaks of the Mono Divide.

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After Muir Trail Ranch, the trail gradually ascends the South Fork of the San Joaquin River towards Evolution Valley and the high peaks and passes that lie beyond. In this section, the trail re-enters National Park Land, at the crossing of Piute Creek, I crossed into King’s Canyon National Park. This section of the trail was surprisingly pretty, with some sections carved into the walls of a steep river valley.

 

Day 4: San Joaquin River Valley to Palisade Lakes

35.1 miles, +6,700’

The scenery really picked up today. I got another early start, with a goal to make it to the Palisade Creek valley below the Golden Staircase. This would mean clearing another high pass, Muir Pass (11,990’), which was a pretty gradual climb up before a steep descent into LeConte Canyon.

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Looking back down the San Joaquin River Valley.

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The view just out the front door of the McClure Meadow Ranger Station. Here, the Evolution River winds lazily through a meadow in a valley of high peaks, with The Hermit and the path up to Muir Pass at the head of the valley.

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Wild Lupine flowers with Mount Spencer and Mount Huxley behind.

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The next lake up the climb towards Muir Pass: Sapphire Lake with Mount Huxley standing tall in the background.

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Wanda Lake. The vegetation thinned approaching the crest of Muir Pass.

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The view north from Muir Pass. The larger lake is Wanda Lake. For some reason, the peaks to the west of this area (the Mount Goddard area) were composed of much darker rock than the granite peaks all around, which provides a nice contrast.

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The hut at the crest of Muir Pass. They didn’t serve beer.

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The view down to LeConte Canyon. Another drop from almost 12,000’ down to almost 8,000’ at the confluence of Palisade Creek and the Middle Fork of the Kings River.

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Descending Muir Pass, I starting thinking I was getting close to the famous dinosaur rock, just based on having read too many trip reports. Sure enough, I stumbled upon it about 20 miles into the day.

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As the trail dropped deeper and deeper into LeConte Canyon, the surrounding peaks seemed to rise higher and higher. The peaks to the west had particularly dramatic faces dropping thousands of feet down to the valley.

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When the valley began to flatten, the river slowed and oxbowed out in places, which formed these deep swimming holes in alpine meadows. This seemed like a great place to camp, but with a seven day finish in sight, I decided to keep pushing.

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The Golden Staircase is a somewhat infamous section of the trail just below Palisade Lakes where the trail climbs over 1,500’ in a bit under 3 miles. The trail is mostly stone stairs here, and passes through a few narrow gaps in the rock with very tight switchbacks. Many find this to be one of the tougher sections of trail. After hiking over 32 miles, it was pretty brutal. But there aren’t any places to camp along this section, so my options were to descend back to the river valley and deal with the mosquitoes and climb this section tomorrow, or to push on to Palisade Lakes. I opted for the latter, making it to the lakes just before sunset. Here’s a view looking back down the Palisade Creek Canyon during the peak of the golden hour.

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The Palisades are one of the highest sub-ranges of the Sierra, with six peaks higher than 14,000’. Here are Norman Clyde Peak, Middle Palisade, and Disappointment Peak bathed in evening alpenglow. Being able to catch sunset over my favourite sub-range of the Sierra was a real pick-me-up after a long day.

 

Day 5: Palisade Lakes to Rae Lakes

28 miles, +5,700’

After pushing a little bit farther than expected yesterday, I wasn’t exactly sure what goal I should set for today. I knew I had about 60 miles to Guitar Lake, and if I could get there in 2 days, that would make an easy 16 mile last day for a seven day finish. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to cut up that 60 mile section. Rae Lakes was about 28 miles away, so I could camp there and then push to Crabtree Meadow or Guitar Lake the next day, but that would include Forester Pass (13,100’) for a pretty big day. I had to clear at least two passes today: Mather Pass (12,100’) and Pinchot Pass (12,100’). To continue past Rae Lakes would add Glen Pass (11,900’), a distance that most hikers would spend 3-5 days covering.

Eventually I figured I should just hike and see how I was feeling later in the day. The scenery was fantastic today, so I was taking many more pictures, just like yesterday.

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The view back to sunrise on Middle Palisade (14,019’) while ascending Mather Pass.

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Morning light playing over the upper Palisade Lake with the Palisade Crest and Mount Sill behind.

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The view south from the basin south of Mather Pass as the trail descended back into the trees. Pinchot Pass lies behind the very pointy mountain on the left (White Mountain), to the left of the shorter, reddish mountain (O’Burley Peak).

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The red rock of O’Burley Peak contrasted nicely with the blue waters of the tarn below. The climb from the low point between Mather and Pinchot Passes was quite steep and hot for almost a mile. This was probably the third most difficult climb going southbound, in my opinion, behind the Golden Staircase, and the climb to Bear Ridge.

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The view back to the north from Lake Marjorie. The tall, dark peaks on the right-ish side are the Palisades, and the low pass in the lighter colored rock in front of them is Mather Pass.

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The sky was kind of dotted with clouds in the late morning, which started to bunch and darken in the early afternoon. I figured there could be a storm or rain, but I would down below treeline for the next several hours, so I wasn’t too worried.

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The red rocks of Crater Mountain provided a nice contrast to the surrounding granite. Some PCTers I ran into headed north were very excited as these were the first mountains they had seen that weren’t white granite.

The descent from Pinchot Pass was brutal. The trail just dropped and dropped and dropped, from 12,100’ to 8,500’ over 8 miles or so of rough trail. My feet were beginning to get really sore, and I knew that every step down was a step up that I would have to take later.

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At the Woods Creek junction, there’s an enormous suspension bridge, it probably spans 50 feet. It didn’t really seem necessary at this time of year, but I could imagine that when Woods Creek is flowing, the water could get really high and scary. Additionally, this is a pretty popular section of trail, so I suspect the cost of the bridge is justified in the number of lives it saves.

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This isn’t a wood-slatted-desk suspension bridge, it’s cables strung between the spans with a catwalk as the deck. It’s very wobbly, and a little bit of an adrenaline rush to get across.

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From the trail junction, the trail climbs again towards Rae Lakes. Eventually, Fin Dome comes into view, a sign that you’re getting close to Rae Lakes.

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Early summer in the Sierra is baby season. I snapped this picture of a baby marmot just before he ducked into his hole to hide from me.

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The Rae Lakes area is really, really beautiful. I thought it was probably the most scenic section of the trail. In this basin are a series of alpine lakes with a group of mountains at the head which are striped with different kinds of rocks, forming a gorgeous contrast.

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Right at the head of the basin sits the Painted Lady, presumably so named for the different colors of rock bands in the mountain’s face. I decided to call it a day here, even if it was a bit earlier than the other days. I was treated to a gorgeous sunset.

This area is very popular, I was camped near probably a dozen other groups. I overheard some of them talking, and two different groups had requested ranger assistance via radio. There was a man who burned his foot somehow (I would later learn that he accidentally poured boiling water on it while cooking inside his tent), and a woman who hurt her ankle descending Glen Pass. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much in the way of supplies or skills to be able to help, but some other folks nearby did.

 

Day 6: Rae Lakes to Guitar Lake

31 miles, +7,000’

This morning I wasn’t sure (again) what a reasonable goal for the day was. Guitar Lake was about 31 miles away, but would require clearing Forester Pass and the small, punchy climbs down near Wright Creek and Wallace Creek. I had also heard rumors that the weather was going to be a bit worse today than yesterday. To accommodate for this, I figured I would try to be off of Forester Pass before 2 PM, when Sierra storms are usually getting started. I figured if I could do that, it would be pretty easy to put back the 15 miles to Guitar Lake in the remaining six and a half hours of daylight.

I had also heard some rumors that Glen Pass was very rocky and difficult, which were emphasized by seeing someone who had hurt themselves hiking on this section of trail.

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On my climb towards Glen Pass, I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise over the Painted Lady and surrounding mountains.

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I was able to knock back Glen Pass fairly quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I got the Strava CR on the segment from Rae Lakes to the top of the pass, even with 30+ lbs on my back. I was pretty surprised by this, actually, as the Rae Lakes Loop is fairly frequently run in a day, and I had seen someone doing just that the other day.

I didn’t find the rocks on Glen Pass much worse than Mather Pass, but I did try to be a bit careful. The view looking back to the north was beautiful, as the sunlight played off the high tarns just below the pass.

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After Glen Pass, the trail drops down to 9,500’ before starting the long climb up to Forester. Here, the prow of East Vidette stands imposingly above Bubbs Creek. Funnily enough, I remember walking past here last year and taking just about the same picture, but it didn’t turn out anywhere near as well. It’s funny how conditions like clouds, and the way the light is shining can make such a big difference.

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At the bottom of this drop, I ran into a mother Grouse and her babies wandering around in the grass.

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I pushed the pace a bit up Forester Pass, eager to get to the top before 2 PM. Fortunately, the weather was holding just fine. Here’s the view back down the wide Bubbs Creek valley.

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I ran into this chipmunk (actually it’s a Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel) halfway up Forester Pass. He was running around with what looked like someone’s garbage in his mouth. Gross.

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As I neared the top of Forester Pass, the clouds grew darker and darker around Junction Peak (13,888’). But I was hammering, and figured I would be over in under an hour, and it was only noon.

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I made it to the top of Forester around 1 PM and hung out there for maybe ten minutes. I chatted with a woman who was just starting her 9th trip on the JMT (Wow!). She said she was an ex-olympic swimmer.

As we were chatting, the storms continued to brew and it started to rain in the basin north of the pass. When I heard the first thunderclap maybe a couple miles away, just east of Junction Peak, I knew it was time to hustle. If that storm blew just a little bit east, I would be in the heart of it, in a high alpine basin with no cover. Bad news.

I hustled down the pass before coming into the basin where I set a good pace. But the storm picked up a bit, with thunder every couple of minutes. I was starting to get worried as I was still a good distance from tree cover, so I ran for about a mile and a half, putting back a 10:29 mile, at 12,000’ carrying a 30 pound pack. Not bad!

Eventually I made it into the tree cover just above Tyndall Creek and hid under some trees with some PCTers for half an hour or so. Probably not actually the best place to be, but I figured it was better to risk it and stay dry (it was alternating rain and hail now) than head into the open and risk getting struck by lightning, and the thunderstorm wasn’t on top of us anyways.

When I hadn’t heard thunder for a little while, I said goodbye to the PCTers (they were heading north) and headed out across a meadow. At about the same instant as I stepped into the meadow, lightning hit in the next group of trees I was headed for, about half a mile away. I promptly turned around and ran back to the same spot.

I hunkered down with my bunkermates for another half hour or so before the weather above us started to clear up. When the skies cleared up enough, and the thunder stopped for a little longer, I braved it again. This time without another pant-shittingly close lightning strike.

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As I kept hiking, I passed some folks pointing at something to the west. I checked it out when I got to a clearing and there was the tree that the lightning had struck, on fire. Fortunately, it was somewhat isolated, so it didn’t seem like it was going to spark a big fire.

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Continuing south, the weather began improving, enough that I felt fine crossing the Bighorn Plateau, a high, open expanse offering great views of the Kaweahs to the west and Mount Whitney to the south (pictured).

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Later in the day, I noticed another thunderhead forming to the east. Fortunately, I was well clear of any more scary sections. But the cloud kept growing taller and taller. I passed two different groups who thought it was a volcanic eruption. By this time, I had guessed that the lightning storm had ignited a fire, and the heat from the fire was pulling the surrounding air upwards, forming an enormously tall cloud. I spotted some smoke building up in the cloud as well, which confirmed my theory.

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I managed to push on to Guitar Lake before the end of the day, arriving around 7:30. By this time, the wind had shifted to blow South/South-West. It was blowing smoke from the fire straight over Mount Whitney and Guitar Lake. As the smoke cloud descended on us, flakes of ash started to fall on everything. I was glad I had the tent and rainfly this night. Here’s Mount Morgenson under a haze. This peak is named for fallen backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson, whose story is told in the excellent book The Last Season.

I figured that given the weather events of the day, it would be wise to get an early start the next day. I decided I would aim to catch the sunrise on Mount Whitney at 5:45 AM, which should leave me with the option of climbing Mount Muir (14,019’) on my way down. I was kind of eager to summit Muir, as I had tried and failed on my previous Whitney climb. In the event the weather still looked bad in the morning, I would just hustle over Trail Crest (13,600’) and down to safety on the other side.

 

Day 7: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal (Mount Whitney and Mount Muir)

16.4 miles, +3,400’

As I mentioned, I was eager to summit Whitney early the next day. I didn’t sleep particularly well this night and rose around 2:15 AM to have some breakfast and get packed up. I started hiking around 3:45 AM and set a brisk pace up to Trail Crest, arriving there in about 75 minutes where I unloaded my pack and headed for the summit, with the weather looking acceptable.

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I summited Whitney right on schedule, around 6 AM and stopped for a few pictures. Here’s the view to the north with Mount Russell in the foreground and Mount Williamson in the distance.

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Looking south to Trail Camp and Mount Langley in the distance.

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Looking south from the trail just below the summit to my next goal: Mount Muir, a class 3 scramble about 300 feet up from the main trail.

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The summit view from Mount Muir back past the needles to Mount Whitney. The scramble up Mount Muir required a little bit of route finding and was, in my opinion, a little bit more difficult than class 3, requiring some stemming and mantling moves up onto ledges. But, that said, it wasn’t so difficult that it felt sketchy. The views of Mount Whitney were fantastic, and despite seeing hundreds of signatures in the Whitney summit register for each of the previous days, there were only two in Muir’s summit register from the previous day.

On my way down, I saw someone eyeing me on the descent. I wanted to make sure they didn’t think the peak I was on was Mount Whitney, so I hustled down to chat with them. Turned out they knew where they was going and was staying low to avoid rockfall (smart) and get some beta. When I got down, they headed off for a summit attempt.

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As I continued descending, the sun started to hit the Hitchcock Basin and the Kaweahs, which made for some beautiful pictures.

At Trail Crest, as I repacked my things, a guy strolled by, lit cigarette in hand and nonchalantly said “there’s gonna be lightning before noon today” as he continued to the summit.

The route down to Outpost camp was fairly treacherous. My feet were sore, and the 6,000’ downhill was getting to me, so I took it a bit easy. About halfway down, I spotted the climber on the summit of Mount Muir. Down farther, a helicopter was buzzing around in the basin, and none of the hikers seemed to know why. Turns out, it was keeping an eye on the nearby Georges Fire, which was ignited by the thunderstorm the previous day.

On my way down, I ran into a Forest Service ranger who permit checked me. Funny that I had already seen two SEKI rangers who didn’t bother asking, but once I entered the very popular Whitney Zone, they were checking everyone. I suppose they have to, or the area would be even more overrun than it is now.

I made my way down to Whitney Portal, tired but pretty satisfied. I had put away 194 miles with 39,000’ of climbing in 7 days. In the middle 5 days, I had averaged 31 miles a day with 6,000’ of climbing. While it had been tough, it wasn’t as tough as I initially feared. I had done it.

 

Epilogue

The John Muir Trail

In his book Sierra High Route, Steve Roper writes

Although the popular John Muir Trail (shortened herein to Muir Trail) traverses this fascinating timberline country on occasion, it frequently descends west into heavily forested regions in order to circumvent the great ridges that jut out from the main Sierra crest. These diversions from what I regard as the range’s finest terrain become especially annoying in the northern half of the High Sierra, for here the famed path traverses relatively lackluster country for many miles.
— Steve Roper

I mostly agree with Roper here. The JMT passes through some gorgeous scenery: Rae Lakes, Muir Pass, Forester Pass, the Bighorn Plateau, but it also has some sections of 10, even 20 miles with fairly “lackluster” scenery.

That’s not intended as a criticism of this trail nor an endorsement of Roper’s Route (Alan Dixon, for example, would argue that Roper didn’t get it quite right either). Rather, I’m trying to acknowledge what the JMT is: a long-distance trail through the Sierra offering a mix of terrain from Sierra forest to alpine basins and high alpine passes, alternating between these with increasing frequency as one moves south. And that’s exactly the experience many are seeking, as was I for this particular trip. If you think you might not enjoy some of those sections, consider modifying the route.

To make concrete suggestions for someone interested in the JMT, if you don’t mind skipping the nice area near Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes (I live not too far away, so this is negotiable), you might consider starting over Duck Lake to avoid the dull scenery south of Red’s Meadow. Or, if you’re interested in a shorter or slower trip, start from Muir Trail Ranch or Piute Pass, which will drop you off at the north end of gorgeous Muir Pass. You could also extend the trail south to Cottonwood Meadows by following the PCT or traversing the Miter Basin, about which I’ve heard great things.

This hike provided some more context for me supporting the popular north-lake-south-lake loop. This loop includes the Muir Pass section of the JMT punctuated on both ends by the beautiful Little Lakes Valley and the Humphrey’s Basin. In the past, I have viewed this as missing some of the beautiful High Sierra just south of here, but now I believe this loop would make an excellent backpacking trip.

Speed

I came into this trip thinking I could manage 20-25 miles a day for an 8-9 day finish. That was about as much as I could manage for a regular weekend trip at lower elevation, so I figured with a 35 pound pack in the High Sierra, I would have trouble putting back more than 25 miles.

But, I managed to execute a 7 day finish by piling on the miles in the middle 5 days. My pace was equivalent to an 8 day finish of the full JMT. How did I manage that, and why was my initial estimate so conservative? I think it was a combination of good physical fitness, a fair amount of backpacking and high altitude experience, the long hours of daylight in July, and the speed of a single person.

The End

This is my first time writing a big saga like this, so if you have any feedback, or enjoyed the pictures or words, or hated it, or if you have any questions, let me know!

That’s it, here’s bigger and better things!