John Muir Trail - Part 2, July 27 - August 19

At 10:45am on August 18 we reached the 14,500' summit of Mt. Whitney (photo 1), the highest point in the continental USA and the official end of the John Muir Trail. Just over 24 hours later (another 11 miles and 6000' descent) we were enjoying a scrumptious lunch at the Whitney Portal Store, with a view of our patiently waiting minivan.

Day-to-day life on the second part of the JMT was much as we reported in the travelog from the first part. Because the second part was more than twice as long and somewhat more difficult, we didn't take any major side-trips, although we detoured a couple of miles here and there to pick up our resupplies (and, at Vermilion Valley Resort, to enjoy a real dinner and breakfast; unfortunately their cabins were full). We didn't take any full rest days either, although on a few occasions we hiked only a half-day (defined as under five miles) and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in camp. In total we spent 34 days on the trail: 30½ days "through-hiking" the JMT, 2 day-long side-trips, and 1½ days rest.

The variety and beauty of the terrain we covered in our approximately 240 miles was a source of continuous amazement to us (photos 2-7). We crossed 11 major passes, each one revealing an entirely new set of rugged mountains and deep valleys. We've taken many shorter Sierras backpacking trips, but this one gives us a whole new perspective on what a huge, superb mountain range and wilderness it is.

We continued to meet many friendly and interesting people on the trail, with relationships lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of days. There were some unique characters, such as a bluegrass band with instruments strapped to their packs, ultra-athletes covering 40+ miles per day (one of them wearing only shorts and carrying nothing -- he charmed food & water from other hikers), and a man with an enormous reflective umbrella in one hand and a shopping bag in the other (photo 8).

Throughout our travel-year, many people have commented to Tim & Emily how lucky they are (the kids soon tiring of it, but remaining polite), a pattern we first wrote about way back in Morocco. On the trail the kids still got the "lucky" comment, but especially from other JMT hikers they more often heard what a "great experience" the hike must be for them, or what "lasting memories" it would provide once finished. One perceptive and original hiker told Emily how much it would impress the boys when she got older.

Speaking of Emily, it was actually her suggestion in the first place that we hike the entire JMT -- she got the idea a few years ago when we hiked a portion of it during a week-long trip. On occasion she expressed mild regret over her suggestion. Among the four of us, Emily had the most dips in morale (Tim the fewest), but she agrees the trek was very memorable, and she even concedes it just may impress the boys. Morale issues had more to do with food (photo 9 notwithstanding), accommodation, and lack of outside communication than the hiking itself. Both kids were incredibly strong hikers by the end, rocketing up the last two high passes (11,978' Glen and 13,153' Forester) leaving Alex & Jennifer in the dust.

Except for one group of older Boy Scouts (who, in contrast to most other scout troops we ran into, were serious, strong and ambitious -- hiking not only the entire JMT, but also climbing several peaks along the way), we saw no other JMT hikers under the age of 25 or so. Emily & Tim would have enjoyed meeting other kids, but they're also proud of their unusual accomplishment.

In the first JMT travelog we reported zero foot problems, and our luck held as we watched many other hikers digging into their First Aid kits, some even abandoning the JMT due to severe blisters. We figured our comparatively low per-day mileage was the secret, but eventually Emily (and to a lesser extent Tim) did develop a few blisters. It's quite possible given the length of the trek that their feet simply grew. Fortunately everything healed quickly, and we completed the trail with no significant problems at all.

We also reported being very lucky with the weather on the first part, and that luck held right through to the end. During the longer second part we had a brief hailstorm one day after our camp was set up, brief showers another afternoon, and that was it. Not that there were no storms in the Sierras -- they just seemed to miss us every time. Our rainjackets were dead weight in our packs the entire trek, and we're certainly not complaining.

Fishing took a major turn for the better after our purchase of a decent rod & reel in Mammoth. Most places we camped had ample fishing opportunities (photo 10), and Tim happily reports success every time, catching up to six trout per dinner. The fresh fish was delicious, although enthusiasm ebbed a bit when the oil and bread crumbs ran out. For Tim, a day of hiking and fishing in the wilderness followed by a night in the tent is his idea of paradise.

Despite the gear repairs and replacements during our respite in Mammoth, we had a number of additional equipment and clothing demises, though none catastrophic. (Judging from other long-distance hikers, we were pretty typical.) Jennifer eventually gave up on her nearly daily mending of rips in the derrières of the kids' pants; their final condition was a disgrace (photo 11). Also notable were the kids' boots (one each in photo 12), brand new when we began the hike. Naturally the one item for which we brought a back-up -- our 15-year-old Rapidfire stove -- never faltered. Fortunately the PocketRocket back-up weighed in at a mere three ounces.

After living on a sailboat for two months earlier this year, we all greatly appreciated Ten Ways to Recapture the Cruising Life on Land. (Disclaimer: It may not be as funny for land-lubbers.) Inspired, and with plenty of time to discuss it, we came up with Ten Ways to Recapture the Backpacking Life at Home:
  1. Bring a 9" diameter, 12" tall plastic bear-proof canister to the grocery store. All food and toiletries for the week must fit inside.
  2. Sleep on your living room floor. Set the air conditioner so it cools the house to 40°F each night.
  3. Ignore your furniture. Sit on the floor or use your bear canister as a stool.
  4. Walk to school or work daily. Plan different routes using a topographic map; carefully analyze distance and elevation gain & loss.
  5. Create a mosquito breeding ground in the bathroom. Sit inside for an hour each morning and evening, on your bear canister, declaring "this is the life."
  6. To bathe, fill the tub with frigid water over a layer of rocks and silt.
  7. Instead of using the toilet... never mind.
  8. Alternate two outfits, at most. For a fresh look, turn your shirt inside-out.
  9. Wash your clothes by hand using cold water and ineffective biodegradable soap. Your bear canister makes a good wash-tub, but have someone guard your food.
  10. When walking, stop to chat with every passer-by as if they're an old friend. Inquire where they came from and where they're headed; wish them a wonderful journey.
And thus we come to the end of our year of adventures. It's been a great experience with countless lasting memories. We're all four very lucky indeed that we had the flexibility and means to pull it off.

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