"...a surprisingly solitary experience..."
After several training hikes, as detailed on other pages, I was ready for the Whole Enchilada: The John Muir Trail, from Yosemite in the North to Mount Whitney in the South, 225 miles in eleven days, unresupplied. My pack weight was 40.5 pounds before water, a seemingly not-unreasonable weight; of the 40.5 lbs., 22 pounds was food and 4.5 pounds was the required canisters to prevent the Pesky Bears from doing a Yogi Bear imitation on my food ("mmmm, yummy pick-i-nick basket..."). Feet toughened, gear tested, walking techniques practiced, stream-fording skills polished: here I go. My spouse and my daughter Sachi saw me off from my starting Point, Glacier Point to be exact; the Park Service web reservation system had not had any reservable openings for Happy Isles, the northernmost terminus of the trail, but the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point was available and seemed a nice alternative. For one thing, starting from Glacier Point allowed us to have lodging the night before in West Yosemite with a short & convenient drive right to the trailhead, whereas Happy Isles would have required more fussy shuttlebus stuff and have been a longer drive as well from our rented ski condo. So, after hugs and farewells, I gazed off to the East towards Half Dome and began to walk. (Click photos for larger version.)
Walking by yourself gives lots of time for reflection. One of the first items I mused over was my wilderness permit briefing at Wawona from the day before. As the Permit Person had been going down the list of "Do not" and "You must" and "prohibited" and "mandatory" she got to one item which I just had to pipe up on: what NOT to do with your toilet paper ("Do not bury..."). I had made the motion of striking a match and said "Of course, you should burn it." The Permit Person's eyes grew wide, as if I had just uttered an unmentionable word, and she said in horror "Oh, no, don't burn it; that would release MICRO-TOXINS!" Oh. Well. OK. I'll shut up for the rest of the briefing, then, won't I. Yes, that's the ticket. Affable nods, yes yes. But now that I was walking, I wondered what in the Heck she had been talking about. Was the Park Service seriously considering that a plume of smoke, however small, from a few soiled sheets of TP was some sort of environmental threat? I could understand the threat from some doofus lighting up a wad of Charmin and then watching as the pesky wind blew it into a pile of dry brush starting a forest fire, but it struck me that if someone was clueless enough to hover over flaming toilet paper and breathe the smoke (mostly just pulverized wood but with that tiny oh-so-charming additive of Burning Poo) why did the Park Service possibly care? Truly a puzzlement.
I wended my way along, down past Illouette Falls and along the Panorama Cliff. Shreds of asphalt from an earlier time when the Park Service had expected the flood of hikers in the 1970s to grow ever-larger, therefore taking drastic measures to prevent erosion on Yosemite's most-popular trails by paving them, still peeked up from beneath the duff here and there. Did they have an army of guys with wheelbarrows, or a string of pack-mules, or a fleet of helicopters to get the asphalt up here, I wondered, as I looked down into Yosemite Valley below and out across the valley to the wisp of Yosemite Falls tucked in its shaded alcove of granite.
The paucity of hikers (three in all) I'd seen so far promised to increase dramatically once I intercepted the trace of the Muir Trail itself, which I did as I approached Nevada Fall. A sign announced the junction:
and at once there were quite a number of hikers, as I'd expected along the Muir Trail. They seemed, though, from their gear and what they in general were discussing, to be almost all day-hikers on their way to climb Half Dome.
A word about expectations: in 1971 I had hiked from the east side of the Sierra to the west side, including the segment of the Muir Trail which passes through Evolution Valley. It had been quite a crowd scene on the JMT then, seldom out of sight of other hikers and difficult in the afternoons to find campsites. So I was expecting my walk along the Muir Trail to be anything but solitary and in fact had assured my spouse & Sachi that I'd probably be meeting many dozens if not hundreds of hikers per day. I was expecting crowds, and accepting of the likelihood.
I passed Nevada Fall and started gaining altitude again. Though it was well before noon, I was noticing that it was HOT and I was HOT and the other hikers were SWEATING like me. The forecast had been for a heat wave in the Central Valley and western Sierra. M&Ms in a bag of trail mix in my shirt pocket were at that delicate stage where the internal chocolate has melted and the sugar shell is fragile and easily broken. My small thermometer on the zipper pull of one of my gear bags read 95 degrees; could that be right, or had it been exposed to direct sunlight? In any case, the heat was starting to slow me down. I was taking every opportunity to drench my pantlegs, hat, hair, and shirtsleeves in an effort to stay cool (note upper pantlegs in photo.).
I came to the junction where the JMT and the trail to Half Dome diverge, and shortly could see vistas of the cable path up to the summit, faintly visible in this photograph as a light straight line ascending from right to left towards the top, with a few dots of hikers along the line:
And just like that, after the trail junction there were few if any other hikers of any sort.
Did I mention it was HOT? Boy, it was sure HOT. Sun and bugs be damned, I was rolling up my sleeves and pantlegs while seriously considering whether I'd be cooler sans clothes. I even resorted, shortly after taking the above picture, to only wearing one pair of my lightweight liner socks, even though this gave my feet less cushioning. And I was drinking a LOT more water than I had expected; I'd planned to just partially fill my drink bladder to cut down on carried weight, but by the afternoon had exhausted it and part-filled it multiple times to the tune of over four liters. I was drinking as much or more water as when I hike in the desert at 90+ degrees!
I got to the vicinity of the Sunrise High Sierra Camp, a sort of back-country dude-ranch, just in time to hear the "clang-clang-clang-clang-clang" of the iron triangle announcing dinnertime. This little Belding's Ground Squirrel had its mouth full, too, though I was not sure if it was carrying its dinner or its bedding:
I walked on. The goal for this day was to camp north of Cathedral Pass in the vicinity of Cathedral Lakes, but I was running out of both energy and daylight. I found a nice campsite towards the north end of Long Meadow, set up my tent, and cooked some dinner. I managed to eat most but not all of it; was tired enough that eating was not too attractive, much more work than pleasure. The final part of my journal entry for the day expresses the tone: Writing this at the northern end of Long Meadow; as far as I could get. Temp. is 66 degrees inside tent at 9:30 PM. Tired.
The next day, July 5th, dawned clear and warm. I was on the trail by 7 AM and got to where I had intended originally to have camped on day one by about 8:30 AM, meaning I was about 1.5 hours behind on my trip plan; not too bad. Since Tuolumne Meadows and its various trailheads were fairly close, the trail gave evidence of fairly heavy use. In some locations the trail was multi-stranded, with older traces filling in and new traces becoming more entrenched:
More-modern trail practices now route trails along the edge of meadows rather than through their middle to minimize the impact of hikers and horses clomping through when the meadows are wet and vulnerable to erosion. This part of the trail was definitely a throwback to an earlier time. Occasional blazes along the trail were a throwback too; "T" is for trail, eh? It was interesting that the only trees I noticed with this old-style blaze were all dead. I suppose all the living trees which originally were blazed in this fashion have long overgrown the indignity, that is, assuming that any trees survived it... Within a fairly short while I was in the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows
with its highway and campgrounds. I walked along a deserted trail,
having previously decided to take a cut-off which bypasses the road
crossing, store, ranger station, and campgrounds. Still, I found myself accompanied by the rumble of motor vehicles and the sights of peoples' gear in the nearby campgrounds.
Lyell Canyon is a spacious glacially-smoothed valley which slowly ascends to the south for over ten miles. I'd been intrigued by photos of it for thirty-plus years. It did not disappoint; it had a wide-open feel unlike any other canyon I'd visited in the Sierra, the endless meadow and limpid river stretching off into the distance. The trail itself showed a fair amount of use, not surprising given its proximity to the Tioga Pass road just to the north. There were many flowers along the trail, and deer grazing in the meadows. Quite a place.
One of the few people I met along the trail was a Park Ranger. He politely asked if my wilderness permit was convenient to pull out. Since it was tucked in one of my gear pouches, it wasn't all that convenient but I explained I needed to take a break anyway and whipped off my pack. While he was examining my permit, he commented on the Bear Spray on the outside of my pack and said "A lot of people are carrying bear spray; that IS bear spray, right?" I affirmed that it was, telling him that the bears need to be reminded occasionally who's the top predator in the Sierra: us Killer Apes. He smiled and went on his way.
By this time the morning's occasional clouds had developed a bit, providing some highly-appreciated shade. The clouds developed a bit further and I started to hear the distant rumbles of thunder. Some rain began falling to the north and east of me and slowly got closer. I was actually hoping that it would rain on me, as that promised to cool things off a bit more and would justify my bringing rain gear. But though I got a few scattered drops, most all the rainfall stayed just to the north of me. Walk for an hour or so, change socks. Walk another hour, change socks. Munch on some trail mix. Take another photo. Say "Howdy!" to an approaching hiker. The experience distilled into a surprisingly simple and appealing routine, intruded upon only by overheating feet and, towards the end of the day, twinges of muscle pain in my back and shoulders.
Ahead ice-covered mountains loomed up; the valley was coming to an end. My trip plan for this day was to go over Donohue Pass and camp a few miles beyond it. The lowering sun definitely had other ideas. I figured I'd get as far as I got, perhaps walking until 7 PM or so, and see where I wound up. I left the meanders of upper Lyell Canyon behind me and ascended above treeline. The Lyell Glacier was very prominent up ahead. I pulled off the trail by a small tarn at 10,400 feet, set up my tent, got some water, made dinner, ate, washed dishes, and curled up in my cozy Ray-Way quilt. Trail journal entry: A bit breezy here, but not so bad. Managed to finish my dinner, and even have a cup of hot chocolate and a cup of mint tea. Mmmmm...Warm...Relaxing...Mint...Tea... (slurp.)