Garnet Peak - highlight of day 3
Incredible, Exhausting, Inspiring. It is difficult to avoid superlatives when talking about the John Muir Trail. The clarity of light, the intensity of the vast night-time skies, the diversity of flora and fauna – all combine with the rarefied atmosphere to take your breath away day after day as you wend through valleys and climb a succession of higher and more rugged passes.
In true Hartell fashion, one or two key elements of the escapade were done on a wing and a prayer. Having travelled to Yosemite a day early in order to obtain “walk-up” permits I made sure to be at the rangers office by 6am – fully 90 minutes before they opened. Expecting to be 1st or 2nd in the queue I was dismayed to find a gaggle of people already there – some since one or two am!! The effort was just enough, however, as I bagged the final two permits to start the next morning. A chilled day followed with a great bear sighting in the evening – just when I didn’t have my camera with me – doh!
So, at the crack of 8.15am, a good couple of hours after most others, we hit the trail from Happy Isles and the beginning of an ascent that would eventually take us to nearly 10,000ft from the valley floor at 4,000. We were travelling lighter than almost everyone else we saw but 5 days food for two people inevitably feels heavy.
Indian Paintbrush - the flowers are amazing
A longish first day saw us reach the backpacker area at Tuolomne campground to keep on a 10day or so schedule. Day 2 takes you up the beautiful Lyell Canyon with crystal clear rivers rushing over smooth granite slabs and up to the first pass over 10,000ft. By the end of day 2 we started to pull ahead, ever so slightly, of times I did back in 2005. This set the tone for the rest of the trip as, each day, we would arrive at the “2005” point slightly earlier and forge a few more miles. Some days this was fine, other either Lynn or I crashed mid-afternoon and had to be coaxed back into life. Despite our food being calorifically adequate, it’s volume is smaller than we are used to so hunger seems to be an unavoidable part of the first few days.
Enlightenment on Pinchot Pass
Anyone who has undertaken a wilderness trip of more than a couple of days will understand the changes that occur – the camp routine becomes established, lunchtime or simply the chance to sit on a rock for 5 minutes are cherished, the mind frees up – firstly flooding the brain with random thoughts and plans for tomorrow, next week, the rest of your life and then calming, stilling and accepting its freedom.
Whilst thoughts of fresh bread, ground coffee and various culinary delights pop up now and again, you also learn to appreciate simple, free things like a cool breeze, a comfy rock slab to lie on in the sun, the scent of the trailside flowers,
This JMT is jolly hard work!
At breakfast time on the 6th day we reached Muir Trail Ranch and received our food re-supply. The rucksacs were heavy once more but we had the remaining 5 days food to see us to Whitney Portal. Higher now, the trail is mostly above the tree line in the amazing Alpine upper valleys with chains of lakes and water gurgling everywhere. On our 10th day we approached Mt Whitney and decided to reward ourselves for the 5.30am starts and 6.30pm finishes that had become our routine. Rather than continue over the summit to complete on the Saturday late evening we would take a full afternoon rest and enjoy the finale in the morning. Blissfull! – a clear lake, no mosquitoes, warm sun and a whole afternoon to eat all remaining food, wash and clean and prepare for an early start.
Rugged Muir Pass
Return to life as we know it was not easy – the lift generously given to us by a kindly Taiwanese took us from a world of mountains, lakes and rivers where we saw fewer than 50 people each day and heard only birds, water and thunderstorms to a world of 6 lane freeways, airport security and mass transit systems. At 4.30 that morning we had woken at 12,000ft on the back side of Mount Whitney, by 11.30 that night we were at home in San Francisco east bay – dazed, bewildered, tanned, clean, exhausted and happy.