We’ve had the opportunity to see the world from a new perspective. We are proud and delighted to say that we completed the John Muir Trail upon summiting Mt. Whitney on Friday, the thirteenth of September at 8:40 am. Standing at the top of the continental United States, we reflected on events from the previous twenty-eight days it took to reach our destination. As we shed tears of joy, the discomforts of the journey were already starting to melt away. The weather was about as perfect as it gets 14,505 feet above sea level, and we were able to spend a few minutes on top laughing about all of the crazy encounters that lead up to that moment.
We’ll get to all of the amazing and beautiful things we saw out there, but we thought it made the most sense to start with the things that aren’t uncovered until you begin the journey: The Unpublished. We spent over a year planning, researching, practicing, and training for this segment. While we were nervous during the days leading up to our departure, we felt prepared for a myriad of situations… but it turns out, you can’t prepare for everything.
Whether it was wildlife, weather, terrain, or our bodies, it felt as if the wilderness was on a mission to teach us the difference between the wilderness you see when watching TV, and the wilderness that really exists.
Black bears, big horned sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, marmots, golden eagles, deer, pine martins, rattlesnakes and an entire array of woodland creatures will cross your path on the JMT. Some of them you’ll see, some of them you won’t, but they are there. I kid you not, when I say that Anne was sniffed by a bear while alone in the tent. No harm was done, aside from the slight soiling of her down bag, but it being night one, a case of bearanoia set in that was second to none. Every meadow was a bearritory or bearea and, until we purchased ear plugs at one of the resupply locations, every nightly breeze was the hungry breath of Ursus. Although most of the critters are harmless and want nothing to do with you, there are those that are scary, and those that are annoying. Marmots, squirrels, and chipmunks are fast, large in number, and relentless. You must be on guard whenever you set your food down. They will chew through a tent, pack, or even your pants to get at the Chapstick you carelessly left in your pocket. When living outside for a month, it’s easy to forget that you are a guest in the house of many others. Have no fear about offending anything though, as reminders of this fact are given quickly and often.
Mountain weather is a bit different from your standard weather. It can go from beautiful, to building, to dangerous in no time at all. With very little warning, you will need to take cover in the trees. After a few storms, you will begin to read the signs and adjust your daily plans to give yourself the best chance of staying safe and dry. Even with your eyes on the sky, you can still get caught in a lightning storm featuring hail and thunder that can last from early afternoon until the next morning. It can make for a number of terrifying hours in a tiny tent, with limited options for entertainment. Hike high, camp low and make sure you keep that gear nice and dry.
Elevation change, forest fires, steps that reach mid-thigh, dry creek beds and lakes, frost/ice, and good old-fashioned boulder scrambling can make for a more challenging trail than the one featured on the front of the guide-book. There were a number of times that I wanted to ask the smiling lady strolling through a flat meadow, looking fresh as a daisy in her pressed cargo short-wearing cover photo, if she’d actually climbed any of the mountains we were covering. With a combined elevation change of around 84,000 feet (+46,000/-38,000), the trail can at times feel like you are undoing all of the work you just completed moments before. Hailed as one of the most supremely engineered long-distance hiking trails, you will still at times be cursing the downhill more than the up, and walking a razor thin edge at 13,200 feet.
The In’s and Out’s
I am just going to start by saying, that if you thru-hike the JMT, you will have to poop in a (WAG) bag… more than once. The trouble doesn’t stop there though; you then have to carry said bag with you over Mt. Whitney, and down to the trailhead some 6,000 feet below. Aside from bathroom logistics and discovering yourself in new and exciting ways, like any endurance event, you have to constantly monitor your caloric intake and hydration levels to ensure your bodies needs are being met. I often woke up with an overwhelming feeling of nausea, and it became a struggle to eat and keep those “tasty” trail eats down. The opposite was true for Anne, who despite consuming double the amount of breakfast I enjoyed each morning, had to adjust her waist belt until the buckles were touching, and had to use rope to keep her pants from falling down.
The thing about the trail is, it doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, scared, hungry, thirsty, sore, sick, or if your elevation change for the day is enough to make you feel like you’re actually going to lose your mind. The trail is going to be the same whether you’re having a good time or not, so it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to show up for the day. While there are lots of things I wish I’d known before we started that first week, we set out for an adventure and boy-oh-boy, it was one for the record books.