John Muir Trail - Week 2, Part 3 (Days 13-14)
(Read about Days 10 - 12 HERE!)
Day 13 - Sunday September 1, 2019
The night before we had talked about how we didn't want to get a super early start because we'd all had a hard time getting up before 6am but when I got up around 7am Meghan and Lee already had their tent packed up and were ready to go. I panicked a bit. It took me at least an hour to break down camp and I wanted to stay with Meghan and Lee. I started frantically getting my stuff together. By now I had a rhythm of deflating my sleeping pad to force me out of bed, rolling that up, stuffing up my sleeping bag, getting everything packed into my pack in a specific order. I knew how this was done by now but it still took me a while to get it accomplished.
Meghan and Lee took off by 7:30 but I knew I'd see them again. Their hiking style was to stop frequently for breaks where my style was to just keep trucking along until you absolutely had to take a break. Even though I felt anxious about them leaving me behind I knew I'd catch up with them.
I took in the sights of Palisade Lakes while drinking my coffee and stuffed my tent into the top of my pack. I turned my gaze over to the trail, about 50 yards away, where I saw a line of hikers. A lot of people had hiked by this morning, getting an early start but this group of four was led by a guy wearing a white and black trucker hat and a red bandana around his neck. Hey, why did he look so familiar?
I quickly realized it was Reid! Followed by a woman I didn't recognize and then Brian and Diane! "Reid!" I called out and waved frantically, excited to see the rest of our Independence group. He looked over and after a second yelled "Hi Stephanie!" It was a great feeling having someone knowingly yell your name in the middle of the wilderness. This sense of belonging and being known made my heart swell. I ran over to give everybody hugs, they were just as excited to see me! We quickly asked and answered questions, "Where did you guys stay last night?" "We were up on the southern part of the Lake! We couldn't hike anymore we were so tired." "How was the zero day at Rae Lakes?" "Have you seen Meghan and Lee?"
I was filled with excitement knowing our little group was going to be reunited. I let them know that Meghan and Lee were only about 30-40 minutes ahead of them. I was then introduced to our newest group member, Zoe. She was wearing a teal bandana which was the symbol for the Facebook Group Ladies of the John Muir Trail. After she started speaking and I heard her English accent and learning that she lives in Sydney I realized she and I had chatted in the FB Group before the hike since she was set to start at Horseshoe Meadows the day after me! We figured we'd meet up at some point on trail since she was not doing Whitney and our timelines pretty well matched up. And here she was, hiking with my friends! What a small world the trail can be!
Reid took of to find Lee and Meghan. I quickly grabbed my pack and started hiking with Zoe, Brian, and Diane. We set off down the Golden Staircase, a series of steep switchbacks with chiseled stone steps that drop down for well over 1,000 ft in 2 miles. I was grateful to be hiking down those stairs and not up! Another plus for hiking northbound!
Zoe and I matched our paces and soon passed Brian and Diane. They were having a tough time that morning but we said we'd meet back up with them in a bit. The goal was to make it to Big Pete Meadow up Le Conte Canyon. We'd see them there!
As we hiked Zoe and I chatted more and got to know one another. We still couldn't believe that we'd messaged each other before the trail and here we were together. She also got a ride up the the trailhead from Lone Pine Kurt. We both had on our teal bandanas from the Ladies of the JMT group and just as we were talking about those bandanas we ran into a group of three women headed southbound all wearing teal bandanas. They were also part of the FB group! We talked to them for a bit and agreed that it was a difficult trail but knowing there were people feeling the same way out on trail but still going for it made all of us feel encouraged to keep pushing on. It was cool that a teal bandana could help create such a sense of community on trail.
The hike was beautiful but hot. This was the hottest day yet and we had almost zero shade. Part of the trail goes through an old burn area from a lightning strike several years ago. There were tons of snags (single burnt trees) all throughout the trail so it was easy to see how a lightning strike could start a bad forest fire.
We took a few breaks to eat snacks and filter water, thinking that Brian and Diane were just behind us and would catch up but we didn't see them. Zoe said they were having a rough go the past few days. We still hadn't caught up to Reid, Lee or Meghan yet. Knowing their fast pace I was again concerned with losing them. The group had just reunited and now we were separated again!
We stopped for lunch at the Middle Fork of the Kings River and found some shade for a bit. I was incredibly sweaty and feeling sluggish from the morning's hike. I had a good lunch of mashed potatoes and tuna along with some mango slices which for me helped boost my energy. We continued hiking past Grouse Meadows and up Le Conte Canyon which was GORGEOUS. We were surrounded by huge peaks and I felt so small. THIS is the kind of scenery I've always wanted to hike through.
We finally caught up to Lee, Meghan and Reid and learned that Lee has badly rolled his ankle coming down the Golden Staircase. He taped it up but was moving much slower than he typically would. He was unsure of what he wanted to do. Bishop Pass Trail junction was coming up near our next campsite and if he felt bad enough he and Meghan could hike over that to get back to Bishop and call their hike. I felt bad and I knew he was having a tough time but we'd just reunited! I hated that an ankle injury could take him and Meghan off trail. He said he'd see how he felt tomorrow. Like the rest of us he was slowly realizing that thru hiking was a lot more than he thought it would be and maybe this wasn't for him? I know I'd been having the same thought.
We finally called camp at 4:30pm at Little Pete Meadow. There was a grove of trees with plenty of flat spots for tents plus since we were below 10,000 ft we could have a fire. We set up our tents, gathered fire wood, took turns filtering water and washing in the creek. We kept waiting for Brian and Diane but there was no sign of them.
The evening was an enjoyable one. Reid got the fire going while we all made dinner. Zoe was making her trademark "mush in a bag" and I had mac and cheese which made a mess everywhere when the plastic ziplock bag I was using busted. I was able to save it but everyone offered to share their dinner with me if mine was ruined. We decided that night that we were officially a trail family since we'd reunited. I've really enjoyed my little trail family. I didn't know how much I really wanted one until I kind of just feel into this group. As the saying goes, the trail provides and I've been grateful for this provision.
Day 14 - Monday September 2, 2019
Another tough, exhausting day. Why did I think these passes got easier? Each pass has its own challenges. Today was Muir Pass and we had a 7 mile climb up 3,000 ft. After the past two passes, Mather & Pinchot, I thought this would be easy-peasy. Well, I was wrong.
We all got up early realizing now that the earlier we started hiking the earlier we could be done hiking. I saw headlamps hiking past our campsite before the sun was up, everyone else had the same idea. I packed up my campsite and realized my cook pot was turned over and the tin foil "lid" was gone. Crap, a critter must have gotten it last night. I feared it was one of the deer we saw during dinner and hated the thought of an animal dying from ingesting aluminum foil because I was too stupid to store it properly. I should have kept it in my bear can. Another rookie mistake.
Lee also had a run in with the deer when he realized he couldn't find his trekking poles. He at first thought maybe a hiker stole them but then he saw them in the field next to the campsite. When he got close enough he realized the wrist straps were completely chewed off! A deer made a snack of his sweat salted wrist straps!
We got moving as a group by 6:30 am. There were more clouds than usual and we hoped that didn't mean a rainy day. We'd had near perfect weather so far but knew eventually the late summer storms would roll in. We started our hike up the rest of Le Conte Canyon towards Muir Pass 7 miles away. The morning's hike felt fine but I could not find the right "gear," so to speak. It was a big struggle to get up with everyone else and we weren't even at the base of the pass yet. I was trying everything, jelly beans, electrolytes, trail mix, other snacks. I finally popped a salt tab and came to life. By 12:00pm the dark skies we saw behind us finally caught up and we knew we had to start hiking faster to get over the pass before it started to thunder and lightning. Lee jokingly yelled to us, "get your ass over the pass!!" We could hear thunder and thankfully had not seen any flashes yet but being exposed 11,500 ft up surrounded by granite is the last place you want to be when there's a chance of lightning.
I focused again on strong and steady, on getting my ass over the pass. We still hadn't seen Brian and Diane and with Lee's ankle still giving him trouble we all stayed together making our way up. At one point with the snow and scree we lost the trail. By now it started to sprinkle a bit, letting us know this rain was not going to hold off for long. We found the trail and it continued switching back and forth. Looking up we couldn't even tell which ridge held the top of the pass. We kept going over false pass summits thinking we were almost there but the rocky trail kept going. We couldn't even see the stone hut at the top. This was not good news. Guthooks showed that we were about half a mile from the top when it started to rain and then hail! Pea sized hail! We all quickly threw on our rain shells and then of course as soon as we had our packs on and continued hiking the rain and hail stopped and the sun came out. We kept our rain gear and continued hiking while thunder rumbled all around. Soon we didn't see many other hikers behind or in front of us, they were smart and had sought whatever shelter they could find to ride out the rain. We were desperate to get over the top so we pressed on. I was exhausted and soon fell behind, barely seeing Zoe ahead of me.
Then all of a sudden I looked up and there was the hut and the top of the pass! There was one little section of snow and then the trail crested. Lee and Meghan had just made it ahead and we ducked inside the hut, the only place we could seek shelter. It was 1:00pm on the dot. Wow, my first storm on the JMT. This is why they warn you about getting over passes by noon!
The hut was full of other JMT hikers seeking shelter. We crowded into the single room and chatted, some were heading north, others south. We shared where we were from, what we did, if we'd been out here before. I had no energy for conversation so I just sat quietly while listening and ate my packet of tuna which I realized was probably not the best decision in the small quarters but that's what I had ready. As the food hit my system I slowly came back to life. The hikers trickled out as they saw clear, seemingly safe windows from the storm. I just needed to sit for a little while longer, the climb up took a lot out of me. I didn't want to continue hiking. You're not supposed to camp in Muir Hut but we could say we had to seek shelter, right? PCT hikers do it all the time.
Forty five minutes later we started down the northern side of Muir Pass. The clouds were still dark and threatening but we hadn't heard thunder in a while. We still knew we had to hike down as fast as we could, it still wasn't safe to be out there. Surprisingly the hike down wasn't that bad. A few times I turned around to see what the clouds were doing and realized wow, we've made it down a long way already. We felt good about our pace until we heard thunder right over our heads. At that point we realized we still weren't out of danger so we continued on.
It was 3pm and we were only at the southern tip of Wanda Lake. We thought about finding a camping spot there but all of the established sites were already taken and it was still very exposed. We wanted to get to Evolution Lake but knew we didn't have 4 more miles in us. At this point if I stopped hiking I knew I wouldn't be able to start again so my slow and steady pace just kept going but with more urgency. I couldn't even stop to come up with a plan, I only had adrenaline pushing me on right now. We could make it to Sapphire Lake, it's just another mile and a half, we decided we could do that.
We always joke that the last mile of the day is the worst. You're tired, you just want to be done and it always feels like it is longer than a mile. This mile was the worst. By this point my tank was officially empty. I hadn't eaten in a while and I didn't want to stop to eat for fear that I wouldn't be able to start again. My pack was killing my shoulders, I still had blisters on my toes that would go numb when I started hiking but throbbed once I stopped. I dug deep and just focused on getting to Sapphire Lake, just get to Sapphire Lake. You can do one more mile.
Eyes down, I just hiked. I hiked harder and faster than I've ever hiked on this entire trail. I left Lee, Meghan and Zoe behind. They could find another place to camp if they wanted to but I was going to make it to Sapphire Lake. I pushed, and pushed and then finally, Sapphire Lake. The rest of the group caught up with me and we found a camping spot on some flat rock by the water. It was still exposed but this would do. There was already a tent close by and it happened to belong to our friends Brittany and Jeremy, who we'd met the day before hiking up Le Conte Canyon and who Zoe knew from the Ladies of the JMT FB group.
After I took off my pack exhaustion finally hit. After the adrenaline faded away, then came the tears. While everyone else set up their tents all I could do was just sit there and cry, tears rolling down my face. I was having a hard time catching my breath. I had a hard time articulating how I was feeling. I was so incredibly tired and sore and this was HARD but also incredible and beautiful and I felt so grateful to be able to do this. I felt like my body was releasing more than just tears and exhaustion, it was releasing the emotional and mental weight I'd put on myself. I texted my parents that I was at camp and how hard of a day it had been and how all I can do right now is just sit and cry.
My mom texted "That is your passion pushing through the biggest challenge you have encountered. When tears come that is your body, mind and spirit coming together to support you offering release and resolve."
I took in those words and thanked my body for everything it had allowed me to do. This has been an incredible experience so far and I've learned so much about myself and what I can do. I thought after all this my body would feel stronger, and it does, but its still working really and needs rest. In that moment I wished for a zero day. Meghan and Zoe came over to make sure I was okay. I drank some water, ate dinner, washed off in the lake and felt a lot better.
We all called it an early night, in bed before 8pm. I still felt sore and exhausted but Muir Pass was finished! The last of the tall passes! I wouldn't have to hike up to 12,000 ft again for the rest of the trail! No early morning tomorrow! I was so excited to sleep. Tomorrow would bring me to Muir Trail Ranch and my second resupply. I still wasn't eating as much or enough food but I was still making progress.
(Read about Days 15-16 HERE!)