Wednesday, August 27, 2014

JMT part 2: In which we learn to yell BEAR!

This is my second post about hiking the John Muir Trail this summer. If you missed the first one, check it out here.

July 10: Day 1, Mono Meadows - Illiouette Creek

It was good our first day on the trail wasn’t ambitious because it took us forever to get out of the campground at Bridalveil Creek. Dad cooked some delicious griddle scones (seriously: scones, on a camp stove!) and then everyone shuffled to start packing. Mom, in particular, clearly had not finalized the contents of her pack and was having trouble fitting everything in the small, lightweight Osprey she had bought for this trip.

Somehow, even though we were only carrying four days of food, we still needed 6 bear canisters, the voluminous plastic buckets with screw-on lids that keep bears from our food. I felt kind of like we were a circus train leaving camp, with overstuffed packs and things dangling off the sides. 

Dad had a travel luggage scale with him ("That's why your packs's so heavy!"). My pack weighed in at 45.2 lbs the first day. Lightweight backpackers we were not, but I accepted it as a challenge. I have always felt encumbered by heavy loads, and was relishing the opportunity to get used to carrying a big pack.

Cram it full!

We trudged up the road to Mono Meadows trail head, and then down to Illiouette Creek the same way Dad and I had on our day hike the previous day.  It was a short, but beautiful hike through the lush Mono Meadows and a classic Yosemite burn. It felt further with the big pack though, and I was looking forward to a dip in the creek.

Near the creek was World’s Most Perfect Campsite. A sandy, partially shaded area right by a delectable swimming hole. We pitched our tents in the early afternoon and we all waded into the swimming hole, marvelling at the clear, cool water. It was perfect, the kind of Sierra beauty I expected when I first imagined the trip all the way back in October.

Zoe and Karin enjoy the swimming hole
After that we lay in the shade, reading, writing, napping, savouring the luxury of having nowhere to be, nothing we had to do. Pennie arrived a few hours later after driving the van, White Thunder, around to Tuolumne Meadows, taking a bus back to the Valley and then hiking up to Mono Meadows via Glacier Point. She was elated from her hot but beautiful hike.

The campsite, the weather, the swimming hole - it all felt like an afternoon in paradise. It turns out paradise is finite.

July 11: Day 2, Illiouette Creek - Sunrise Creek

I woke up a 5:30, just beginning to conform to the ‘thru-hiker’ time zone, means going to sleep and getting up in sync with the sun. Sunset was just past 8:00 pm for most of our hike, and sitting around in the dark, especially because campfires weren’t allowed at many of the sites, wasn’t appealing.

Before the hike, Dad created a huge spreadsheet of food, with calorie counts and suggested meals. A lot of our food was purchased in bulk, like freeze-dried carrots, which makes sense when you’re travelling with a big group, so that we cooked whole meals out of freeze-dried ingredients. Among the breakfast meals was something called ‘smoothie breakfast’. Reading this line of the spreadsheet before the trip, I remembered imagining the smoothies I make a home, thick and full of fruit fibers. This morning, Dad had whipped out the smoothie mix. It was a sickly pink powder with some freeze dried chunks of fruit. He invented a smoothie dance to mix it in a large plastic water bottle, hopping from one foot to the other and shaking in a sick parody of a Native American Shaman. 

It was our first morning on the trail, and we got to experience the joys of the U-Dig-It Pro, a collapsable steel trowel used to digging holes. What for? Taking a crap! (The holes should be 6-8 inches deep according to the Permit Talk) The U-Dig-It-Pro comes in a little case with a strap, and Dad joked that he should keep it on his belt. “Always ready!” 

Humor degrades so quickly on the trail.

Zoe and Annevitte 'crump' (sit down without taking off their backpacks) along the trail
We finally start hiking at 8:15 am, and split into two groups. Pennie and Mom took the most direct path to Nevada Falls, where our path would officially cross the JMT. The rest of us took the longer Panorama Trail around.

As we climbed up towards Glacier Point, my pack felt heavy and all wrong. There was too much pressure on my collarbone, as opposed evenly distributing the weight across my shoulders, back and hips. I stopped to try and shorten the back plate even more, which helped a little, but I still felt like the pack was suspended too far off my back rather than curving around it.

I started to feel frustrated. It was only our second day on the trail and I felt totally out of shape. All of my training didn’t seem like it translated to backpacking at all - my heavy, uncomfortable pack was ruining everything! I sang to make myself feel better. Singing works every time, and by the time we reach the top to Illiouette Falls to a spectacular view of Yosemite Valley, I have mollified myself.

On the climb up towards Panorama Dome, we made up alternative lyrics to "Rolling down to old Maui" by Stan Rogers

It’s a damn tough life,
Full of toil and strife,
We backpackers undergo.
And we won’t give a damn,
Till the trail is done,
How heavy our packs do grow.
We’re southward bound,
Going up and down,
On the good old JMT.
Our dusty tracks,
Meet our heavy packs,
On the way to Mt. Whitney.

The Panorama Trail lived up to its name, with sweeping views the hulking granite domes scattered above the Valley. We arrived at Nevada Falls for the second day in a row, rendez-vousing with Mom and Pennie a little past noon. It was hot again, and again many of us submerged ourselves in the cool river. 

As we ate lunch in the shade of a tree, we count the tortillas and somehow the number is off - we didn’t have as many tortillas as we were supposed to. This made me grumpy. I didn’t come here to starve, and besides, what was the huge food spreadsheet for? We were also low on our granola/energy bar count. One tortilla slathered in peanut butter and some trail mix later I felt better, but the rest of the group now viewed me as some sort of food ogre. I joked that I had to work on my Hanger Management. (Seriously though, I do).

We finally shouldered our packs again to leave Nevada Falls during the hottest part of the day. The dusty trail zigzagged through Little Yosemite Valley, and I felt progressively worse, as thought the peanut butter I ate was in fact oozing through the soles of my shoes and gluing me to the trail. The sun was relentless, and I felt dizzy. The last mile and half from Little Yosemite Valley to the Sunrise Creek junction were possibly the longest of my life.

Pennie on the trial up from Little Yosemite Valley

But we finally got to the junction, and found a big campsite in the shade of some large trees. There was no big swimming hole at Sunrise Creek, but there was a steady stream of cold, clear water in the creek. Dad cooked an absolutely enormous pasta dinner while Pennie quizzed him about the various species of trees we were seeing. (Jeffery pine! Red fur!)

As twilight started to creep through the trees, a woman in beige pants and a vest with a very official looking walkie-talkie showed up. It turned out she was part of a bear management squad.

“There tends to be a lot of bears in these campsites,” she informed us in a rapid, excited tone. And they were planning to capture and tag a bear, that very night!

“So if you hear anything that sounds like a bear,” she said, “Just yell BEAR and we’ll come a capture it!” She also told us that  bears would eat anything scented - it all had to go in the bear canisters. Apparently there is a bear in the Valley that eats citronella candles. This prompted a flurry of us running around, yelling things like, “Is Ibuprofen scented?” and cramming things into bear canisters. The bear squad lady left us very much ruffled, excited and maybe a little scared about the prospect of seeing a bear.

The bear management squad

I woke up during the night, and every crackling twig was a bear in my mind. Unfortunately, none of these visitors were real.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, August 25, 2014

JMT part 1: In which a journey of 211 miles starts with a day hike

The weeks have passed quickly since I set out and completed the John Muir Trail with 7 of the most enjoyable people one could possibly thru-hike with. I could make all sorts of excuses about how I’ve been too busy to blog, but the honest truth is that I needed to let the whole experience marinate a little bit before I wrote about.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I have a confession to make. I think hiking the JMT might the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have thought about how to define the difficulty of the different physical endeavours, and have come to the conclusion that the most difficult endeavours are those that you actually consider quitting. The sheer number of times I mentally vowed that I would quit the JMT attests to how difficult this trip was, and not in the ways I expected.

In my darkest thru-hiker hour I proclaimed that I would only write one thing about the JMT on my blog: “THRU-HIKING SUCKS!” Needless to say, I changed my mind about that particular gem. 

July 9: Day 0, Yosemite Valley - Bridalveil Creek

We were due to start the JMT July 10, but due to the difficulties of getting a permit out of Happy Isles for 8 hikers, we were starting from Mono Meadows, essentially on the east side of Yosemite Valley rather than in the Valley itself. Dad and I had taken a YARTS bus into the Valley to collect the permits while the others had driven the van, dubbed ‘White Thunder’ to Bridalveil Creek campground, where we would start the JMT the next day.

And who were we? Two families, the Strimbeck-Bazilchuks and the Rands, both originally from Richmond, Vermont and all avid outdoorsmen and women. Together, we call ourselves the StrazilRands. In my family, there’s me, Dad, Mom and Zoe (my sister, 19). The Rands consist of Pennie (the mom), Matt (the dad, who would join us in Mammoth), Annevitte (the elder sister, 19) and Karin (the younger sister, 16).

Hint: we did finish the trail. Here on Mt Whitney, from left to right: Matt, Karin, Mom, Zoe, Annevitte, Pennie, me and Dad
Dad and I fought our way through the crowds in Yosemite Valley to the permit office, and received our Permit Talk from one range slurping a green smoothie and another who wore more than a wildernessy amount of makeup. After consuming greasy breakfast sandwiches in the Deli (second breakfast!), we waddled off to a shuttle bus to find the trailhead.

The Permit Talk
At the Happy Isles trailhead sign which marks the official start of the JMT, Dad and I took the obligatory pictures. “Mt. Whitney via John Muir Trail 211 miles,” sign proclaimed under a list of other destination. I found this figure intimidating. Not so much the distance itself as the time it represented. We planned to be on top of Mt. Whitney in 24 days. There are few things I have done for 24 days straight. Now I was headed to the simplest form of doing: put all the stuff you need on your back and move forward. All day, every day.

The start of the JMT

Our day hike brought us up the Mist Trail. I’m not sure where the definition of trail ends and road starts, but the highly traffic trails in the National Parks are definitely cresting that limit. We swam up through a sea of shirtless college guys, mothers coaxing their children one step at a time with candy, and larger individuals for whom this seemed to be a very strenuous hike indeed. The Mist Trail ascends steeply through the trees, first up to Vernal Falls and then Nevada Falls. Both of the Falls were ghosts of their usual voluminous flow due to the drought in California.

Nevada Falls
We stopped at the top of the Vernal Falls and I got out a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I looked away to take in the view of the valley, and when I looked back there was a fluffy squirrel butt sticking out of the Reese’s bag. I squealed, and Dad reacted quickly, grabbing the squirrel and throwing it away. One scary experience for the squirrel probably won’t wipe away years of being feed by tourists from it's memory, but one can hope.

Once we cleared the top of Nevada Falls, the tourist crowds shrunk. The heat of the day started to sink in and I soak in the calm part of the river above the top of the Falls with all of my clothes on. As we eat our Deli sandwiches, enjoying the last fresh veggies in a while, fat squirrels prance around, looking for treats. I hiss and swat at them, trying to show them that humans are dangerous and mean. I don’t seem to get the message through.

We soon left the sheer granite domes of the Valley behind and hike down towards Illiouette Creek. There are several burns (areas where forest fires have been), black charred trees stark against the green undergrowth. 

I started to get tired of the hot sun. I thought about how much water I had left - not as much as I’d like - and so I drank conservatively. We finally reached the Mono Meadows trailhead at 6 pm, and hitched a hike down to the campground.

Dad hiking through the burn
When the rest of the gang arrived from their day in the Valley, we all piled in the car and drove off to Glacier Point to watch the sunset. Pennie squealed and took a zillion photos of everyone with her big DSLR. Zoe and Annevitte quietly squint through their viewfinders of their smaller DSLRS, so focused you know they must be getting the right shot. I snapped a few photos but feel the removal from the landscape that I often experience at viewpoints. Experiencing something is touching it, moving through, not just gawking at it.

Playing Ansel Adams

We ate a late supper in the dark and discussed trail names, which you are supposed to get from other hikers. Everyone is excited about the tomorrow, the real start.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Live from the JMT

We are dusty, dirty, hungry, slightly tan but also sunburned, tired, excited and on the trail. And all of our gear is wet. Specifically, we are currently taking a zero (rest day) on in Mammoth Lakes after having hiked the first 56 miles of the John Muir Trail.

Dad at the beginning of the JMT in Yosemite Valley
First we wandered through the smooth, sleeping granite giants in Yosemite. Among the day hikers clutching half liter water bottles and bags of Doritos, we were something else. We were thruhikers, with heavy loads and many days to go.

Half Dome as seen from the way up Cloud's Rest
Since a short stint in Tuolumne Meadows, we've left the crowds and everyone we meet is part of the same club. A group of people who choose to spend their days moving through landscapes at a slower pace. People who know that smelly clothes and heavy packs are the price to pay for countless vistas and Sierra swimming holes.

Sunrise on Banner Peak as seen from our campsite at Garnet Lake
And those swimming holes! Swimming every day is part of the routine, as essential as eating. For who can pass by potholes traversed by babbling brooks or the cool silence of a serene lake?

Sigmund, a Norwegian friend I spontaneously met (full story coming later) butterflies in the early morning in Cathedral Lake. Cathedral Peak soaks in the first rays of the sun in the background.
We carry the weight of our world on our shoulders, because our world what we can carry in our backpacks. Suffice to say that my world has seen fit to shrink since day 1 in Yosemite. So many things seem essential in the living room at home and prove less important on the trail.

Mom and Karin admire the view on the way up Donohue Pass
We have already climbed high, doing our first pass over 11 000 feet (about 3300 meters) a couple of days ago. I can already feel my lungs adapting to the altitude. The altitude doesn't stop the flowers either, the multitude of colors and varieties of which hasn't ceased to astound me.

Mountain Pride (Penstemmon Newberri) growing on the slopes of Donohue Pass, with Zoe in the background
Although the weather was great for the better part of the first week, we have been hit hard the last couple days by intense afternoon thundershowers and hail. Upon our arrival in Red's Meadow yesterday, the roads had partially flooded because of the rain. Luckily we had a rest day penciled in for today, and we decided to take it at the hiker's hostel (Davison St) in Mammoth, where we're drying our stuff and furiously organizing the food from our resupply boxes.

This will be my only blog post during the JMT, so savor it in suspense of the full report coming up sometime after August 2.

I'll finish with a final photo from the top of Donohue Pass.

Me, Zoe, Karin and Annevitte. Banner Peak is the spike in the distance.
Happy Trails!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Guest post: Base weight

Continuing in the trend from last weekend, I give you another guest post. Today I'd like to introduce Nancy Bazilchuk, award winning environmental and science writer, Knight Science Journalism fellow, and - you guessed it - my mother. She, like my father and I, is currently in the last stages of preparing for our through-hike of the JMT. Here's her take on the preperations.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Base weight

It’s a gray Sunday afternoon in Trondheim, and I am in my kitchen, chopping colored pencils in half.

For most people, including me in a former life, this would be nothing short of stupid, if not absurd. What kind of moron cuts colored pencils in half? With a chef’s knife, no less?
How to make tiny colored pencils

But for those who are hip to the idea of base weight, it makes perfect sense. 

Base weight is the weight of all the stuff that you have to carry for an extended backpacking trip, without the weight of things like food and water. It’s the stuff you can’t eat or get rid of without littering the landscape.

In less than a week, our family will head out on the John Muir Trail. We’ll take 25 days to hike 211 miles [339 km], and will cross 7 mountain passes higher than 11,000 feet [3300 meters].

I’m going to be carrying my base weight up over mountain passes, down past glacial tarns and up over the highest peak in the continental United States, Mount Whitney.

I’m going to be intimately acquainted with every pound (or kilo) I have on my back.

That should help explain the need for sawed-off colored pencils. Or may leave you wondering about the need for colored pencils at all.

It wasn’t always this way for me.

In my 20s, I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I went there for a summer job, after an extended trip through Europe and part of Africa that I took after college. I came for a summer but I stayed for four-and-a-half years, after a job opened up teaching outdoor skills and natural history programs.

The AMC maintains a chain of 8 mountain huts in the Whites that are fully staffed in the summer, and where all the food is packed in by the hut crews. 

These pack trips can involve carrying 70 or 80 pounds at a time, and they are a source of much pride in the hut system. Although I was never a hut girl, I still carried my share of heavy packs into huts and everywhere else.

Big pack girls. Nancy on the right
Whenever I’d take my “Beginner’s Backpacking” workshop out, for example, I’d always carry lots of extra clothing to share with my workshop participants.

In the evenings, after the working day, I’d often hike to one hut or another, bearing gifts – the most appreciated being cases of bottled beer, since all of the hut crews brewed their own beer and the bottles (after we had dutifully emptied them) were prized.

One time I carried 110 pounds [49 kg] into Lonesome Lake Hut, easily three-quarters of my body weight. My knees were invincible.

But no more.  

At this point you surely must be thinking (or even hoping) that I’ve done more than just chop my pencils in half to pare my base weight and get ready for this hike.

And I have.

I’ve gone on training hikes with Rick, and with Molly and Rick.

Training hike up LiaƄsen in Trondheim, Molly on the left and Rick on the right
I’ve weighed and checked every piece of equipment, trying to make sure that it all is precisely what I will need, but no more. 

All you need is... gear?
I’ve bought a few new lightweight pieces of gear – mainly an Osprey Aura 50, which weighs half of my old Lowe Expedition pack, and a new Thermarest NeoAir All Season sleeping pad. That helped.

Then, the biggie – over the last year, I’ve lost about 15 kg. Now that’s a way to cut base weight! That means every time I hoist my pack I can think to myself that I have carried this much weight every day, all day, for years. Theoretically, anyway.

Base weight also involves leaving things behind.

In my case, the most important thing I have to leave behind is the perception I have of myself – as I once was, lugging heavy loads and thinking nothing of it. 

Early adventures. Rick with a mustache and Molly in a snowsuit
I was, after all, the original Wild Bazilchuk, and then the mom who carried all those extra clothes for Molly and her sister Zoe when we went for family hikes or ski trips together.

High-tech overalls at Crystal Cascade
That’s my extra wool hat on Molly’s head in the picture of her in overalls, in front of Crystal Cascade, in the White Mountains.

It’s a weird feeling to realize that Molly and Zoe are stronger than me.  I no longer need to carry a big pack with the extra clothes to share with them – they’re the ones who are more likely to have to carry things for me.

Or not.

I did cut all those colored pencils in half, after all.

- The Wild Bazilchuk, Sr

Friday, June 27, 2014

Guest post: The Accidental Hiker

My father, besides being a biology professor, excellent skier and runner (sometimes he's even faster than me!), is a master storyteller. Growing up, all of our longer outdoor excursions were driven by the promise for more stories. "Tell me about Nepal again! Tell the story about the keas in New Zealand!"

I thought it was about time to share some of the magic with you. So without further ado, I present Dad's story of the first time he hiked the John Muir Trail - and his expectations for this time around.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

The Accidental Hiker

I just did it. I had no plan, little prior knowledge of the route, no food drops, minimal equipment, and very little money. On June 9, 1981, I shouldered my dilapidated pack and headed out from the Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley, intending only to see how far I could go, one day at time. Fifteen days later, after more than 220 miles (350 km) and 85,000 vertical feet (26,000 m) of ups and downs, I landed at Whitney Portal, at the other end John Muir Trail.

I had just turned 27, and had been back in the United States less than six months after my Big Adventure, more than two years working, traveling, and hiking in New Zealand, Australia, and Nepal. I guess I was still a little restless. And lonely, too. On the far side of the globe I had spent some time with a self-entitled “rangerette” who had grown up in Yosemite National Park and worked as backcountry ranger there. Possibly the girl of my dreams. So after odd jobbing on the east coast just long enough to save up some travel funds, I flew out to San Francisco and made my way to Yosemite. I was welcomed and had a lovely few days touring around the Valley with my friend, but also learned the lesson that you can never just pick up where you left off. So maybe I had the walkin’ blues.

That first night I slept out in the open on top of Half Dome. You could do that in those days, and it was a good way to stay out of trouble with the bears – on my previous visit in 1973 I had all my food taken by the legendary bears of Little Yosemite Valley, who had only gotten more devious in the intervening years. There were maybe 40 other people up there that night, including a group of graduating high school seniors from Berkeley that had hauled up two good-sized telescopes.
Various groups have built nests, each in their own style – some like to pile rocks, and there’s even a few tarp-tents. Like a nesting colony of seabirds…though there is a certain camaraderie here.” (Journal entry, June 9)

The view from the top of half dome. Image taken from panoramio for illustration
I set off from Yosemite with only a local map and no real plan. When I blew through Tuolumne Meadows a few days later I picked up a JMT guidebook along with several days more food, allowing as to how I might possibly want to do the through hike, but because I had no food drops I knew I would have to take it one stage at a time.

It was as minimal as I have ever traveled. I had a 10x12 foot tarp rather than a tent, but slept in the open on all but one night, in a worn-out synthetic fill sleeping bag on a thin, blue, closed-cell foam pad. I had no stove, a single, heavily fire-blacked pot for cooking and an empty bean can for a teapot, and I cooked over small thumbwood fires, either in established fire rings or drowned and buried in the sandy soil and dusted over with pine needles when I left each site.  That was quite deliberate; I had been experimenting with stoveless travel back east, and left my old liquid fuel stove in Yosemite to save weight and continue the experiment. I wore gym shorts and a t-shirt during the days, and woolen knickers, a heavy wool sweater, a wool hat, and sometimes an anorak to keep warm at night. Luxury items included my camera, binoculars, bird guide, and something to read.

Along with food, all of this somehow fit in or on my beloved little North Face Wrapac, with just 2500 cubic inches (40 liters) of interior space. I strapped the big sleeping bag on the top and the blue pad on the side. Midway through the trip the cotton canvas back panel of the pack ripped so I hand-sewed in a new panel made out of one of my old nylon gaiters. I didn’t need them anyway – it was a low snow year and I quickly learned to camp high so I could hit the remaining snow on the north sides of the passes while it was still firm. I would often cook my evening meal down in the trees and then hike on until sunset and sometimes on into twilight and moonlight to bivy above the mosquitoes and bears. Looking back I can see I might have gotten into serious trouble if the weather soured, but it never rained or snowed, and the one night I slept under the tarp was to try to conserve heat at a high bivy. So I got away with it.

I didn’t stick to the JMT the whole way. I detoured over Cloud’s Rest and out to Red’s Meadow and Mono Hot Springs, adding extra mileage and elevation. My last resupply was at the latter on June 16th, and that somehow held me for the last eight days. I didn’t have any sunscreen for the first week or so, and burned my nose and lips so badly that I took to using spit to glue bits of toilet paper to them to give them a chance to heal. Most of my pictures from the trip are scenics, and there aren’t too many of those because I couldn’t afford more film, but I have a selfie that I took using my camera’s timer one evening by a campfire, looking lean and dirty in my wool sweater and hat, with a ridiculous white patch on my nose (all my photos are slides and I have no good way to scan them now, so here’s a digital photo of the slide).

Big Red in full dirtbag mode.

My journal is terse, the whole journey recorded in just 28 scrawled pages in a small spiral-bound notebook. The last four days are recorded in a single, long entry, written from memory while nursing a big can of Foster’s lager in Lone Pine, because I had somehow lost my only pen on the way to Muir Pass. There are few attempts to describe the scenery, and after more than 30 years of mostly being stored away my slides no longer evoke much in the way of specific memories. But I remember: Cold- blue alpine lakes, sparkling in endless sunshine, ringed by clean granite peaks and surrounded by scattered pines growing in cracks and pockets of sandy soil. Emerald meadows, rich and moist against the sere backdrop of baked and crushed granite and tortured trees, just coming into bloom with bright pink shooting-star flowers, Indian paintbrush, columbine, and lupines. A long-burning sunset watched wearily from outside the stone beehive-hut on Muir Pass. The faint, haunting, pineapple-vanilla smell of Jeffrey pines, dry-roasted out of them by the long hot days. Miles of dusty trail, dirty summer snow, and fractured rock high up in the alpine basins, approaching the southern passes. The Doppler drone of a hummingbird, darting past me to feed on penstemon and other flowers growing in a trailside hanging garden fed by seeping groundwater. Glimpses of the Sierra, compressed by the years into a jumpy film reel of memory, waiting to be rediscovered.

Alpine lakes on the JMT. Image borrowed from this blog for illustration
Though I traveled solo during the day and usually camped alone, my journal has some notes about people I met along the way. Mark, a neophyte I met at Red’s Meadow and hiked with for a day, showing him the ropes. Pete, who I met partway through a 20 mile day up Evolution Valley ending with some serious postholing in thigh deep wet snow to make Muir Pass by sunset. Both of those guys shared some food with me, and I remember meeting a northbound couple that gave me some spaghetti, sauce mix, and a bit of dried ground beef. These gifts allowed me to stretch my meager supply further -- “Mount Whitney is starting to look like a definite maybe.” (morning of June 19, at Muir Pass).

Almost every day I took a dive into a river or one of the alpine lakes, no matter how cold the water was, and rinsed out socks and underwear to keep the grunge under control. It was probably the cleanest long distance hike that I have ever done. With all the good weather I recall the Sierra as almost relentlessly friendly, but my journal makes clear that I had to contend with mosquitoes in the meadows during the days and evenings when I camped lower down.

My binoculars were an old pair World War II vintage porro prisms, given to me by my stepfather. I sometimes slowed down enough to watch birds and wildlife. I noted hermit thrushes, Townshend’s solitaires, blue grouse, common nighthawks, and an eared grebe in an alpine lake below Muir Pass. There were coyote, marmots, deer, and of course bears. On my second night out, at Sunrise Camp, a bear came by and sniffed around quite close to me while I cowered in my bag. My food was safely hung from a tall pole put up for the purpose, but the sound of breaking branches later that same night announced a successful raid on some food bags hung from a tree. I had learned to do a counterbalance hang and that got me safely through the trip.

The JMT wasn’t quite enough. When I got down to Lone Pine, I slept out in the desert, resupplied, washed some clothes at a Laundromat, and hitchhiked up to the east end of the High Sierra Trail for a six day crossing from the dry east wall of the Sierra to the giant sequoia groves on the west slope in Sequoia National Park. All the tourists and traffic around the big trees scared me back into the woods for one more night – on my way in I had noticed a fire-hollowed sequoia with a big opening in the side and a luxurious bed of dry needles, and backtracked to hole up there for one more night, steeling myself for the return to civilization.

Mom and Dad prep for this year's JMT hike

Thirty-three years later, I am in the last stages of planning and packing for our two-family, 24-day hike of the JMT. The rules have tightened, and the numbers of people vying for permits have increased exponentially – the first step of trying to secure a permit for our big group was a bit of a cliffhanger for us. I have spreadsheeted our meals, adding up calories and grams, trying to make sure we have enough but not too much. We have bought new backpacks and mattresses, a lightweight tent, and bear canisters, every item weighed and reconsidered, trying to keep the weight down but maintain some measure of comfort. Our companion family in Vermont has put together and sent out resupply buckets and packages, with almost 100 pounds of food going to Muir Trail Ranch for the seven day stretch to Kearsarge Pass. This will be in many ways the antithesis of my spontaneous solo trip in 1981. But I am looking forward more than ever to hiking the trail with my family and friends, with good food and time enough to slow down, smell the flowers, and take the occasional side trip to a peak or hot springs. Despite all the planning, it will still be an adventure.

Boxes of resupply boxes packed for the JMT. Photo: Penny Rand
- Big Red