Note: I am writing this post primarily as a means of reflecting on my own experience on the John Muir Trail. I assume the reader has basic knowledge of the JMT, so I will not be discussing what the trail is or how to prepare for it.
Hardest Backpacking Trip Ever
The John Muir Trail (JMT) was without a doubt the hardest backpacking trip I have ever done. Prior to this, my two longest backpacking trips were both five days. I do not remember exactly how heavy my pack was for those trips, but it was probably around 40-42 pounds. Even with only one liter of water, my JMT pack weighed in at 48 pounds at its heaviest. At that point, I was carrying nine days of food. When I weighed my pack at Whitney Portal, and it still weighed 35 pounds. This was much a much heavier pack than I was accustomed to carrying, and I was still planning to hike for an average of 13 miles per day, only slightly less than my typical daily mileage on weekend backpacking trips.
Others I met on the trail used equipment that allowed them to hike with significantly less weight. After food and water, my tent, sleeping bag, and fuel accounted for most of my weight. My tent is already pretty light, but I saw that many people on the trail favored tarp tents. These typically weigh less than two pounds and leverage trekking poles to support them rather than tent poles. My sleeping bag is a synthetic 15 degree bag that weighs around five pounds. I could probably have purchased a lighter down bag rated to 32 degrees. My Gregory Baltoro pack, while capable of supporting a lot of weight, is definitely on the heavier side; it probably weighs at least 6 pounds empty. Two of my trail companions used ultralight backpacks. Although they can carry less weight, the heaviest their packs got to was just 25 pounds, and the packs themselves were much lighter. I brought 30 ounces of white gas fuel and a whisperlite stove because white gas tends to last longer than cannister stoves and is easier to refuel. I was, and still am, super afraid of running out of fuel. Others either used denatured alcohol or cannister stoves. The ones with cannister stoves got replacement cannisters at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) on day 6, and their fuel definitely lasted until Whitney, 8 days later.
About to set off from the base of Mammoth Mountain!
Compared to my previous trips, the JMT traveled through more challenging terrain. On previous trips, there were a couple days when I could coast: the terrain was relatively flat for 90 percent of the day. On the other hand, almost every day on the JMT would start with at least a 2,000 foot climb and the same amount of descent.
I would normally start hiking at around 7 AM. The sun had fully risen by then, but I often camped in valleys, so it took a couple of hours before I was in direct sunlight. I typically got to the top of each pass by 10-11 AM, so the ascents would be pretty cool. I slept well on the JMT, so after having either granola or oatmeal for breakfast, I felt pretty well-energized when climbing the passes. The mornings and pass climbs were generally the high points of each day. Each pass had a spectacularly scenic vista that I would spend at least an hour enjoying.
I found the descents to be much more draining. By that point, it was hotter and I had eaten all my food planned for the day, except for dinner. I remember feeling hungry and exhausted on the descents. I took an hour-long break on most afternoons.
Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness. Banner Peak is the major mountain you can see in the back. Day 1
Packing (not) enough food
How could I have gone hungry on the trail? Did I not pack enough food or plan adequately? I thought my food prep for the JMT was pretty extensive, definitely more systematic than any previous backpacking trip. I created a spreadsheet where I had a calorie goal for every day (3,500) and budgeted how to divide that among breakfasts, dinners, and snacks. I found these posts to be pretty helpful in my prep.
However, I was ultimately foiled in my attempt to stick to my plan because of space. There was only so much food I could fit in the 5-gallon bucket I had to mail to MTR. At MTR, I could only fit so much of the mailed food into my bear can, which was smaller in volume than my bucket. There were a number of things I had to give away that I wish I could have taken with me. They include:
I could have purchased a bear can ahead of time so that I knew what volume I would be working with, but I had a really good experience with the Bearikade from a previous backpacking trip, so I rented one for the JMT. Unfortunately, I did not have it available to try fitting food into until a couple days before I left.
During the first week, I did not notice I was running at a caloric deficit; I did not even finish all the food I had budgeted, since I only finished half the nuts and jerky that I had brought with me for the first half of the trail. On day 2, another hiker warned me to expect "hiker hunger" to start in a week. Sure enough, during the second week on the trail, a feeling of persistent hunger began set in. I felt like my remaining supply of nuts would not last me for eight days unless I rationed it.
I planned to rotate daily between two breakfasts (oatmeal or granola) and two dinners (mac and cheese or tuna w soba noodles and seaweed). Though each of these meals was delicious, I ended up eating each dinner at least 6 times. It's hard to look forward to eating a meal you are already intimately familiar with. Given how important replenishing calories is, I wish I had inserted a little bit more variety into my meal planning.
Lake Virginia, Day 4
Every day I thought of giving up. Every day, I thought the hike could not get harder and more exhausting, but the next day, it would get harder and more exhausting. Each time a side trail opened up, I briefly considered taking it. I admitted as much to some people I was camping with at Purple Lake, night 3. They were just finishing up their trip along the Sierra High Route, and I felt so jealous that they were almost done. Although I was not being entirely serious, they emphatically told me that I should not bail, that I would regret it for a long time if I did. After their quick and total repudiation, I did not seriously consider bailing out early again. Even after I stopped seriously considering leaving the trail early, but the temptation was always there. I even thought of exiting at Kearsarge Pass, only two days from finishing!
After the difficulty of the trail and not having enough food, blisters were my biggest challenge. By day three, I had two blisters the size of a penny on each foot. I suspect my socks were the main reason why I got such bad blisters. However, I also ignored hot spots because I did not want to disrupt my walking rhythm. That was a mistake. On day three, I changed my socks and immediately noticed an improvement, but my existing blisters continued to torment me.
The people I camped with at Purple Lake advised me to pop my blisters. I had brought some safety pins, so after sterilizing one with a lighter, I drained my blisters. The next day was much better, and I applied an ample amount of moleskin and duct tape to my blisters before starting. From then on, I would stop immediately if I felt a hot spot and encase it with molefoam padding and medical tape. As my existing blisters healed, I found that during week 2, hot spots or blisters were no longer a problem.
Thankfully, blisters were my worst affliction. I wish I had more wilderness first aid knowledge before starting this trip. One of my trail companions sprained her ankle early on the trail, but she knew how to wrap it to stabilize it.
On day 2, I started hiking from just above Shadow Lake, so my goal was to get beyond Red's Meadow. I went off the JMT to check out Devil's Postpile and Rainbow Falls, but afterwards, my belly started aching. After reaching the bathroom at Red's, I decided I had to stop there for the day. Luckily, the Red's Meadow store had some anti-diarrheal medicine. The next day, I felt much better and made it to Purple Lake. I'm still not quite sure what caused the diarrhea.
I ended up having to use the medicine one more time just before Whitney because it turns out that emptying a quarter of a bottle of olive oil into a mac and cheese dinner is not something my stomach can handle.
I started the JMT early enough in the summer that bugs were a problem. After 5 PM each day, the bugs would come out in force, biting through clothing, my face, and any exposed skin. I used my rain jacket to keep the bites off my upper body, and I wore a bug net when I set up camp. One night I was camping alone, and I tried to tough it out and not put it on immediately. You can see the results below.
Camp selfie. Night 4.
The most annoying times were when I needed to eat and had to flip the bug net up to put food in my mouth. After exposing my face, the bugs would rush in. I used bug cream on my hands on the worst nights.
Hiking Solo, but with Companions
I started the JMT solo, but it's a very popular trail, so I would regularly pass at least 40 people going northbound as I was going south. After I resupplied at MTR, I reconnected with a couple I had met back at Red's Meadow (night two), and we finished the trail together with four others who had been resupplying at MTR at the same time. We ended up hiking together for 8 days. We had come from the Bay Area, the Central Valley of California, Canada, San Diego, and the United Kingdom. On the hardest days, I felt encouraged to be sharing my time on the trail with these friends, and I do not think I would have made it to the end of my journey without them. We helped each other find campsites, waited at the tops of passes for each other, and watched the sun rise at the top of Mount Whitney together.
At one point, two of these friends and I were catching our breaths and taking a 45 minute break. I asked them, "Is this as hard for you as it is for me? Do you feel like giving up every day?" I felt very encouraged to hear those same sentiments echoed back at me. Rather than feeling like I was not up to the challenge of the trail, I realized that everyone else felt challenged in the same way.
Despite the high number of additional hikers, I was able to enjoy the trail in silence and solitude for hours at a time. I saw my fellow trail hikers as people sharing in an experience rather than rivals for limited camping spots. After a long day of walking and not talking to anyone, it was nice to camp with others.
Beyond this set of companions, I also regularly bumped into the same set of six people hiking south in camp, though not every day. One guy lost his voice over the course of the hike. Four guys from the Jet Propulsion Lab were hiking as a quasi-work trip.
People of all ages were hiking: I met one girl who was eight, hiking with her parents, and plenty of people in middle age.
The most inspiring fellow hikers I met at the top of Muir Pass (Day 8). Two women had stage four pancreatic and skin cancer, respectively. Given their grim prognoses, they decided to stop chemo and asked their chiropractors to give them exercises to prepare for backpacking. They were doing the JMT as a last act for themselves.
Hiking solo but being loosely connected with a group was definitely a nice compromise. I was able to walk at my own pace, sleep in my own tent, and could stop whenever I wanted to without holding anyone else up.
Upper Lakes Basin, south side of Mather Pass. Day 9.
I have mostly lost touch with everyone who I hiked with, even though the week that I was hiking with them, they were like family. This troubled me, so I talked with a close friend about this. He told me about some of the religious experiences he had in the past. In the moment, he would feel he had experienced something truly profound and life-altering, but then found it almost impossible to hold onto that feeling afterwards. He also told me it's very natural for people to move in and out of one's life. That conversation helped me put this experience in perspective, and definitely helped me feel better about my increasing distance from it.
My favorite spot on the whole trail was Palisade Lake, right before Mather Pass and two days after leaving MTR (day 8). The lake was exceptionally clear, wrapped by towering cliffs on either side, almost like a fjord. It reminded me of photos I have seen of lakes in the Swiss Alps.
One of the most sublime views I got was standing in Evolution Valley, looking up towards a rainbow forming above the peaks of Evolution Basin. I think I stood at the side of Evolution Creek for close to an hour.
Evolution Valley. Day 7.
I had backpacked once in the Ansel Adams Wilderness before, and I remember walking off-trail to get to a vista of the Minarets. On the JMT, I somehow found myself drawn to exactly the same spot to get exactly the same view. This time, the view was much better: there was still snow on the Minarets this time; the year before, a large fire had created a shroud of smoke around them.
Minarets. Day 2.
When my trail companions declared they were going to summit Whitney to watch the sunrise, I was skeptical. I am glad I chose to follow them because the sunrise was absolutely stunning. We were camped just above Guitar Lake, and I remember we started hiking at around 2 AM. I made it to the top of Whitney at 4:45 AM, when the sky was just beginning to light up.
Over the course of the next hour or so, the dull grey line on the horizon became brighter and more sharply defined, taking on gradually more color. The sunlight also stretched further and further across the horizon.
The entire time, it was bitterly cold. I had only brought enough clothing for 50 degree weather, totally reasonable for a summer hike, but definitely not sufficient for the top of Mount Whitney, which was probably closer to 30 degrees.
Mount Whitney sunrise, Day 14.
Would I Do It Again?
A year after my trip, I'm starting to feel like I might be willing do it again, but for the initial months after it, I swore I never would. Before I started this trip, I dreamed that one day I would do the whole Pacific Crest Trail, or at least the entire Sierra portion. Now, I am not so sure. If I did not have any blister problems, I would have enjoyed my first week a lot more, but I would have still had to persevere through hunger and constant exhaustion of the second week. It's hard for me to imagine hiking continuously in such a state.
While the scenery every day was certainly very impressive, and it feels very trite for me to say this, the fifth astounding mountain pass did not have the same scenic impact as the first one. I felt like I was cramming too many highlights into too short a time. Since I had certain mileage goals each day, and did not leave any time or food allowance for zero-mile or shorter days, I did not give myself much of a chance to really soak in the truly stunning portions of the trail.
Therefore, one part of me thinks that my JMT trip would have been more enjoyable physically and mentally if I had done it in smaller sections, or taken a slower pace. I would then have had the flexibility to take near-zero days in Evolution Valley or Palisade Lakes.
Returning to Civilization...
But another part of me misses the through-hiking lifestyle. For two weeks, hiking was my life. It didn't feel like a vacation, but in a good way: I had adapted to a completely different daily routine and rhythm. In the morning, I struck camp and made breakfast; in the evening I set up my tent, made dinner, and got water before turning in. Each day, all I had to do was walk, and there was always a clear goal: the next pass, and after that, the next campsite. None of the worldly concerns I had pre-JMT seemed important against the need to walk.
Sadly, it did not take very long for the trappings of modern civilization to re-ensnare me. At the top of Whitney, I watched the sun rise for as long as I could until the sun itself rose above the crest of the White Mountains and made it dangerous to look directly at it. While everyone else kept taking photos, I took my phone out and switched my phone's airplane mode off. It had been stuck in airplane mode since Red's Meadow. I knew the top of Whitney got cell reception from Lone Pine, and I told myself I was doing this so I could tell my brother I was almost done and that in 8 hours I would be down at Whitney Portal. Immediately, I was assaulted by a slew of text messages. One of them seemed particularly amusing, so I commented aloud to the people around me. One of my trail companions reminded me that a beautiful sunrise was going on, and that everyone else was too busy looking at it to pay attention to me. That's when I realized I had taken myself out of a profound wilderness moment on a flimsy excuse. The sun was now directly shining, so I could not have looked at it, but I could have still taken some photos of the sunrise through my phone. I snapped two more photos, but my biggest JMT regret is that I took that minute or two to look back at my phone at one of the most important moments of my hike. I should not have allowed myself to re-connect to the grid so readily and easily when my break from the grid was so imminently close to ending.
I took one more week off from work when I returned to San Francisco. I was sad at how quickly I went back to my old routine of checking my phone and email, wondering what was going on in the world, and thinking about work. Knowing what I know now, I would have tried to keep the through hiker mentality for just a little bit longer. I would have kept my phone on airplane mode, gone out for a walk to some destination, and just tuned everything out. There was no need to rush back to my default state of connected-ness.
If I have left you with the impression that I absolutely hated my trail experience, I want to emphasize that it was a profoundly positive experience for me. There was plenty that I disliked about the hike, but there were many moments I really enjoyed. I have wanted to do the JMT since my first trip as an adult to Yosemite in 2012. I can now say it was everything I could have hoped for, both good and bad.
There are many people I am grateful to for helping me complete the JMT. My brother and my girlfriend drove for nine hours from the Bay Area to come pick me up from Whitney Portal when my hike concluded. Their gracious offer to do so helped remove one logistical worry for me. My brother also helped book motel rooms for me and my trail companions in Lone Pine a couple days before the hike concluded. I was able to correspond with him via my Delorme Inreach GPS device.
My parents would not usually allow me to go hiking by myself, but in this case, they were fully supportive. They also provided me with the bug net that saved me from being eaten alive.A friend from their hiking group, Regula, provided me with a lot of very helpful advice that helped me prepare.
I want to thank all of my trail companions, who provided me with moral support and great company.
Finally, I want to thank all of the friends who had to listen to me talk their ears off about this experience. I think part of the reason was that I was still in the process of composing this blog post, so I was using those conversations as a way of reflecting on the experience. Now that the post is done, you will hopefully be hearing less about it. :)
Whitney Portal, Day 14
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