John Muir Trail - Week 1, Part 1 (Days 0-3)
Day 0 - Monday August 19, 2019
After driving from Tucson to Lone Pine, getting my permit at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center, parking my car at the Lone Pine Film History Museum's long term parking lot, making sure I had everything I needed in my insanely heavy pack, and after having one more freak out, I met Lone Pine Kurt who was my ride to Horseshoe Meadows where I'd be spending the night at 10,000 ft and starting my hike the next morning. Halfway up the windy road to the camp grounds/trailhead I realized I forgot my Garmin InReach in my car's center console. Frazzled doesn't begin to explain how I felt in this moment. On the verge of tears and hands shaking, I thought "Am I really ready for this?! I can't believe I forgot my Garmin. What else have I forgotten?" Lone Pine Kurt calmed me down and reassured that I had prepared for this and I was ready. He gladly drove me back to my car so I could get my Garmin and the drove me back up to the campground. Thank God for him!
After I unloaded my pack from his trunk, he gave me a paternal hug, wished me luck, gave me some last minute advice and then drove off. I stood there with my huge pack, feeling alone and exposed even though there were hikers and campers all around me. I took a deep breath, turned to find a campsite and tried to settle in. Imposter syndrome set in big time. I set up my tent, boiled some water, opened my journal and wrote this:
"I can't believe I'm actually here. Years of dreaming. Months of planning. Moments of doubt. Moments of 'I've got this.' The anxiety is still with me. My hands are shaking as I write this. Am I really about to do this? My stomach is in knots right now while I wait for my dinner to rehydrate. And I kind of want to cry. My friends & family have been so supportive & have said the most encouraging things to me. I have felt so loved by everyone. They all believe in me. They've called me brave, strong, badass, rockstar, etc. And I believe I am those things! I do! But there's still the doing part. I have a lot ahead of me... Tomorrow morning the real adventure begins. I know I'm ready, I'm capable, I can do this! I'm a bold, brave, strong badass!"
I didn't sleep well that night. I woke up several times, not getting more than 3 hours of solid rest at a time. This would be a theme throughout my trip. But I woke up feeling positive. I wasn't in a hurry to get an early start. I was only going to do 8-10 miles each day and I can easily do those in 4-5 hours so I figured I had plenty of time. I would soon learn that hiking 8-10 miles in the Sierras is a whole other story and would take me almost 10 hours each day. More on that later though.
Day 1 - Tuesday August 20, 2019
Around 9am I packed everything back into my pack that was somehow now 50lbs (?!?!) and headed towards the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. I met some other JMT hikers who would soon pass me in a matter of a mile. One of them kindly took my picture at the trailhead sign. Looking at this photo now, this poor girl had no clue what she was getting herself into. As I passed the sign and looked up towards my first pass of the hike I had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude and pride. I felt this sudden emotion wash over me and realized "I'm going to make it!" I felt so strong and sure that first morning. I knew I was going to make it to Yosemite. Happy, excited tears fell as I kept hiking through the soft, sandy trail. I stopped to talk to a handful of people, all of whom were so excited for me and told me I was going to have an amazing time. Most of them had been in the Sierras many times before and to hear that this was my first time made them giddy with excitement for what lay ahead of me. Their good wishes raised my spirits even more and reinforced my first day's mantra: I'm going to make it!
The hike up and over Cottonwood Pass was 3.5 miles from the trailhead. It was a good first challenge. I was at the top by noon, feeling accomplished but also realizing I had a long road ahead of me. The longer I hiked the heavier my pack felt. I knew I had too much food. I knew I overpacked. But being my first thru hike I didn't know what I would want to eat or what I would crave. And did I mention I was on my period for the first four days? It wasn't until Day 5 that my pack started to feel significantly lighter. Carrying a heavy pack isn't an issue for me, it's the taking the pack off and then putting it back on again that really sucks.
I had planned on hiking 8 miles but did 10 miles the first day. The last mile was tough but I was determined to make it a nice round number. I camped by myself and had a rough night's sleep. I don't sleep well in the backcountry but I figured with my new comfortable sleep system, melatonin, and ear plugs I'd be set. Wrong. I kept thinking that something was going to walk into camp in the middle of the night. This was my first time camping in the backcountry in the Sierras (alone, might I add) and I was sure a bear was just going to waltz into camp looking for my peanut M&Ms.
Day 2 - Wednesday August 21, 2019
Another nice surprise when I woke up was realizing that I had bled through not only my sleeping clothes but also my down sleeping bag to my sleeping bad. What a great first night! I was at a dry campsite so I did the best I could to clean up everything with my wet wipes and minimal water. I finally just had to pack everything up and start hiking, hoping I'd find some water soon to properly wash everything. I eventually found a stream and took a good half hour washing out my clothes. I made sure to practice Leave No Trace and collected water in a ziplock bag, walked 200 feet from the stream, added biodegradable soap to the water and washed my undies and wool base layer bottoms, then dumped the water in a hole that I dug with my trowel. This was repeated several times to get all the soap out and ensure everything was clean. It was a process. I couldn't really just dunk my sleeping bag in the creek since it's untreated down. Instead I wiped it down as best I could with a wet towel and then let it dry in the sun.
All of this added stress and extra time to my day which thankfully was mostly downhill. The second half of the day saw a lot of climbing up and over Guyot Pass and eventually making it to Crabtree Meadows. Another added stressor was the fact that I left my hiking gloves by the stream where I was doing laundry and didn't realize this until I was 1/4 mile down trail, down a couple hundred feet of elevation loss. I had to laugh a bit because as I had been walking I was thinking "wow this place is so beautiful, I wonder if I'll ever be back here again" and then here I was passing through this spot again because I'd forgotten my gloves, haha.
My heavy pack was a nuisance. Taking it off and on multiple times a day was getting tiring. And I could feel blisters forming on my feet. I never get blisters so I figured this wouldn't be a problem on this hike. Wrong again! Putting in 10 miles day after day was really taking it's toll on my poor feet. I was so incredibly slow hiking the second day. I joking referred to myself as Tortoise and had to repeat a mantra of "slow and steady, we're going slow and steady, slow and steady, we're going slow and steady" as I hiked up and then down, up and then down. This helped me keep a good pace, even if it was slow and steady. I was having to stop every 20 feet or so to take a short break and keep my breathing under control. I was so frustrated with my physical abilities at this point but thankfully I did not shed any tears. Hiking down into Crabtree Meadow felt like it took forever. There was more climbing up than I thought there'd be and what I thought the map showed. After hiking all day and I still wasn't at my campsite, I thought "all this climbing is bullshit. Where the hell is this damn Crabtree Meadow!"
I finally made it into camp before 7pm completely BEAT. I chose a camp site close to the water and I soon realized why no one else was camped close to the water: mosquitoes. I unloaded my heavy pack and started to set up my tent. I thought about moving but was too tired to find another spot, it had taken me way longer to get here than I thought. Imposter syndrome set in once again. PCT hikers roamed all around in their Altras, hanging out in Crabtree Meadow, sitting by their tiny packs and their ultralight tarp tents, laughing and looking spry and carefree. Thoughts of "who am I to be out here? I stick out like a sore thumb" started to creep in and I did my best to ignore them. People talk about getting up at 4am to do Mt Whitney, which I would tackle the next day but I was not about to get up that early. I figured 7am would be good enough, right?
Day 3 - Thursday August 22, 2019
I woke up with my longest, most exhausting day yet ahead of me. I knew Whitney would be hard, but man was it HARD. I didn't get out of camp until 8am. It was a beautiful hike to Guitar Lake where I wanted to set up camp before I hiked up but the gradual uphills were slowing me down once again. Several people I passed scoffed at the idea of me doing Whitney that day. It was only 9am, I had all day! Was I really underestimating it that much?? I set up my camp at Guitar Lake, lightened my pack by leaving most of my stuff in my tent, and by 10:30am I was starting the climb up to the trail junction. My mantra all day was "step by step, slow & steady, you've come all this way by being slow & steady" But I was sooo slow and had to stop every 10 steps again. Tons of hikers were headed down, already making it to the top earlier that morning. "Heading up?" they'd ask me, "well, good luck.."
They didn't know how determined I was. I finally got to the trail junction at 2pm. Going 2ish miles with 2,000 ft of gain took me 3.5 hours.
Would I make it to the top? What is my turn around time when it's too late to keep going? I was just going to go for it. I had all day and I'd come this far already, slow and steady. I met a nice couple finishing up their JMT hike that day, Mt Whitney was their final challenge. And here it was my first challenge! My JMT miles didn't even start counting until I was up Whitney. The miles I'd hiked since Horseshoe Meadows have all been extra miles just to get me to the the JMT.
From the trail junction it was another 1.9 miles with 1,000 more feet of elevation gain. I was already at 13,400 ft and honestly the altitude was fine for me, it was just the elevation gaining while hiking. The trail was very rocky and bouldery at times and my feet felt like ground hamburger. My legs were fine though. Finally after hours of hiking I could see the hut on the summit! One more mile! Well that last mile was the worst. But I was going to do it!
At 5pm I finally summited Tumanguya/Mt Whitney 14,505 ft!
This was the hardest thing that I've ever done. I was so proud of myself and honestly in disbelief that I was standing on the top of the highest peak in the lower 48. I had service at the summit so I texted the family to let them know. I felt so accomplished. It was beautiful up there! But there was a part of me that felt very anxious. It was 5pm and it had taken me 8 hours to get up here and I still had to get back down to Guitar Lake. I wanted to stay at the summit to really soak in the experience and honestly allow myself to really celebrate this accomplishment but I also really needed to start hiking down. I tried my best to take in the views but in the back of my head I was fearful about the hike down. It was a tug of war inside to bask in the joy of checking off a bucket list item and worrying about my timing. Elation and anxiety battled inside at the top of Mt. Whitney.
I stayed for about an hour, took in the sights, chatted with some nice people camping up there and then high-tailed it down. With the sun starting its decent I knew I had to make quick time getting back down. I especially wanted to get past the bouldery switchbacks before it got dark. Also, so much of that downhill back to the trail junction was actually uphill. Like, what? I'm going down, why am I going up?! I was exhausted. Thankfully I did get down past the trail junction and past the bouldery switchbacks before it got dark. It was a gorgeous sunset. I still couldn't believe I did it! But now my body was telling me "okay, we're done now, time to stop this whole hiking thing for today" while I still had 2 miles to go in the dark with my headlamp. Then my trekking pole broke!
I finally, finally got back to camp at Guitar Lake at 9:30pm. I was spent but I still had to eat something and knew that if I didn't stretch I'd be done for. I quickly made ramen while I messaged my Dad on my InReach that I'd finally made it back to camp. Unbeknownst to me he had been waiting up looking at the clock as it got later and later, worrying about my status. My tracking hadn't been working and he only knew my location when I sent messages.
And my poor feet. I officially had massive blisters forming on the sides of the balls of my feet and under my toes that throbbed with each step down the trail. It was only Day 3 and I was going to have to figure out what to do about my feet. I knew I needed rest so I laid down as soon as I finished my dinner. As per usual I was up in a few hours and got out of my tent to go pee when the brightest, clearest display of stars and the Milky Way greeted me. I couldn't help but audibly say "wow!" standing there in the chilly night. Then some other lights caught my eye. I could see the headlamps of hikers making their way up the trail! It wasn't even 4am yet and they were getting a good head start for sunrise at the summit. I wish I would have made an earlier start but at this point in my hike I didn't understand the importance of getting going before the sun was up. Soon I'd realize that's what I needed to do if I was going to successfully make it to Yosemite.
(Read about Days 4 - 7 HERE!)