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Casual stormy day on the Colorado Trail

As the last trail in my Little Triple Crown in a Year, I had the pleasure of hitting the 486-mile long Colorado Trail late this season—the end of August— and was perhaps the last thru-hiker to walk the trail end-to-end this year. I started in Durango instead of Denver, where most end-to-end hikers start, so that I would hit the higher altitude mountains first. While I was packing up at the trailhead, worrying about the cold was the last thing on my mind. It was hot! Today is also among my biggest days of elevation gain—starting at 6980 feet and going up to 10,000 feet.

 

The clouds rolled in and thunder hit the surrounding hills at 12:30. By 1, it was hailing…hard…and I took refuge under my umbrella and under large pine tree. It’s always a surprise hitting the trail and getting this kind of weather on the first day. Luckily, the eery black clouds turned to blue skies, several hours later. The elevation gain happened at a moderate grade, so was barely noticeable.  I found several springs not listed in the book.

The day ended at a beautiful bridge and campsite with blue sky above me. Not bad for a first day.

Day 1 was in the trees all day–pretty ideal for a stormy day
Day 1 was in the trees all day–pretty ideal for a stormy day

6 days, 22 hours in…

I woke at 12:30, having only 3 hours of sleep, but excited with adrenaline. I was hoping that by the time I hit Guitar Lake–where most people camp before Whitney—that it may be 3 AM when most hikers start.

Around 2:30AM, I saw some other headlamps going up the switchbacks, but never did see Guitar Lake. I had about 3 Probars left for food–I had measured my food at 1.4 lbs per day until the top of Whitney and expected to be hungry for the 11 miles down. “For now, I don’t need to worry about food. Get to the top!”

The switchbacks are haunting in the night—especially to see headlamps bopping above me. We were ghosts in the night–or fireflies. The switchbacks are not steep at all and slightly frustrating after I’ve gotten used to the Long Trail with its merciless uphills.

I caught up to the others in headlamps and passed two of  them after Trail Crest. I hiked with one of the guys, who had a fantastic headlamp that clearly had not been nighhiking for many nights in a row like mine. The trail became slightly exposed then and it was fun to look down through Whitney’s notches and see thousands of feet below. There was even a bit of snow on the trail.

Near the top of Whitney after a glorious sunrise
Near the top of Whitney after a glorious sunrise

I made it to the top at 4:51 AM—6 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes after I started. I stayed in the small hut until the sun emerged gloriously over the mountain.

Around 6:30, I descended and was shocked by how many people I saw on the switchbacks! It was crazy town! I’ve never hiked Whitney up the regular route, and when I’ve descended via the trail, it was in October or May–the off season that is less busy than August.

I got into Whitney Portal 5 minutes after breakfast was served, but got a burger instead. I sat at the Portal for about an hour with another JMT hiker, a guy from Germany. After many cars passed us—mostly tourists driving up to see the base of Whitney and then driving back—we found some climbers and they were able to give us a ride.

The crazy part, though, was that they had seen me in Yosemite Valley when I started at Happy Isles and had asked how long it would take me to get to Whitney Portal. When I said less than week, they hadn’t believed me. And here I was now…getting a ride from them!

6 days and 12 hours in

I woke at 3:30 AM because I knew I had 2 scary passes today—one of them Forester Pass, the highest pass at 13,200 feet, which I desperately did not want to be on top of in an afternoon thunderstorm.

It was really awesome to hit Rae Lakes at sunrise. Rae Lakes is stunning and what a treat to have it to myself!

On the PCT, Glen Pass was the scariest pass for me—I went up in a white out over a cornice (it had snowed 6 inches the night before on my poncho tarp). On the other side of the pass, the descent was very steep—more than 45 degrees and I kept hoping there wouldn’t be an avalanche from the fresh snow. Trail and snow blazing over Glen was one of the most startling parts of my PCT hike. I hoped it would be better this time.

So this is crazy–but Glen ended up being pretty easy! The top was beautiful and I was blown away by all the cool peaks I could see. I was the first person on it at 7:30 am and had a hard time dragging myself back down because it was such a peaceful place.

Beautiful morning over Glen Pass
Beautiful morning over Glen Pass

The ascent up Forester Pass was much longer than I remember the descent from my PCT hike. I guess I couldn’t glissade any of it! It was pretty moderate grade up until treeline and then the elevation started getting to me—but I kept going. On the top of Forester, I spent a long time chatting with these three cool hikers—Ass Stain, Sunflower, and their friend (sorry, can’t remember your name!)–and we ended up hanging out on top and descending together. They stopped to cook a late lunch, but as the clouds rolled in and rain started, I headed on.

I thought after Forester, I would be below treeline for the rest of the day, but I should’ve looked at my maps! There was a beautiful Bighorn Plateau listed on the map and I rushed over it in yet another thunderstorm with hail. But the Bristlecones were gorgeous.

My plan was to camp at Timberline Lake and I got there right before it was dark enough to need a headlamp—only to discover a “No Camping” sign. I pushed on and found a spot–determined to wake up early to get the sunrise on Whitney!

Day 6: Two passes, thunder, and hail

I was really excited for the climb over Mather Pass. Back in 2009, I got lost on Mather Pass on the PCT—so this was my vindication! I booked up the beautifully built trail up there (I later learned it is called the “Golden Staircase”) and made it by 10 am to the top. Hurray! My first pass not taken in the afternoon!

 

The distance between Mather and Pinchot is short–I expected to be able to do two passes no problem. But, by the time I got to Pinchot, the weather had turned. I decided to hunker down yet again, until I saw a guy speed hiking past me, looking at me strangely for sitting by the side of the trail far from my poles and other metal stuff.

It made me feel like an idiot. The guy also looked like Andrew Skurka, and I kept thinking—if he isn’t afraid, I shouldn’t be. Then my mind went to my wilderness first aid course–taken several weeks earlier–and how that kind of mentality is silly.

But, I saw some birds and chipmunks out, and in the end, decided the animals were right: it was safe. I booked it to the majestic top of Pinchot in the rain and rushed down. Several hundred feet after I made the pass, a clap of lightening nearby rattled all the mountains. Hail came storming down on me.

 

I didn’t know whether to stop to put on rain gear or keep going to get to lower elevation. Finally, I got cold enough, I knew I needed to put on my cuben fiber poncho tarp. I kept rushing after the Skurka figure.

The sun came out and I was able to dry my gear and found the Skurka character down trail doing the same. He ended up being a guy who had hiked the PCT and AT and BMT and owns Emo–the hammock company. He also was a friend of a friend of mine from school–really random.

I had planned on camping at the bridge, but had a lot of extra time and pushed upwards. It rained–hard–again, and in the rain, I saw two people wearing minimal clothing and no packs, running downhill. They said they were trying to get over Pinchot Pass that night—clearly ultra runners going for a record.

I’ll write more about what I thought after meeting the ultra runners–but it was a strange experience.

 

Day 5: My most terrifying JMT day

In the dark, I walked back to the JMT from Muir Trail Ranch knowing today would be the day I’d cross Evolution Creek and over the giant Muir Pass. I was a little intimidated, especially if the weather would turn. It ended up being the scariest day of the trip.

The bridge over Kern River in beautiful dawn light.
The bridge over Kern River in beautiful dawn light.

The Evolution Ford–contrary to as experinced by PCT hikers (with water up to my waist)–ended up being ankle deep. An older couple got to the ford before me and looked at it baffled and I hope they encouraged them with my casual crossing—I was so relieved that it was not as gnarl as before.

By 11:30 am, I was already hearing thunder and knew I’d be going above treeline soon. I thought about bunkering down, but kept seeing people I had passed on the way towards Evolution Lakes. I finally decided to push on.

There were dark clouds all around me, but a light blue patch right above which seemed to move as I moved. A guardian angel or something. Finally, I got to the point where it was 4-5 miles to treeline and everyone else was hunkering down. I could see the pass so close, though. Should I go?

I practically ran the last mile, staring at the Muir Hut atop with desire. I had heard from another hiker that it was grounded and fantasized making it to safety. Several hundred feet from the hut, I heard a clap (albeit, far off), and pushed, pushed, pushed. I made it to the hut and celebrated with a warm tea and chat with an Italian (Dave? Is that an Italian name?).

The descent was also scary as the clouds and thunder hadn’t really stopped and I was struck by how steep and intimidating and long Muir Pass is, even when it isn’t covered in snow as it is in June (when most PCT hikers go through). The trail, which is probably under snow for most of the year, is not as well maintained as other areas. I got some amazing photos, but was pretty happy to be below treeline.

Towards the end of my day, I spotted this Goldsworthy-esque piece of natural art. It made me laugh, even if it isn’t really Leave No Trace.
Towards the end of my day, I spotted this Goldsworthy-esque piece of natural art. It made me laugh, even if it isn’t really Leave No Trace.

I spent the last hour of the day hiking with Seiji. As always, talking with people calms one’s nerves after a big and exposed day.

Day 4: Two passes, one day

Got up at 4:30 am for a spectacular hike over Silver Pass. I saw the stars and first sunlight from the highest point in the area. But, my goal was clear: make it to Muir Trail Ranch before they close at 5 pm–meaning two passes in one day. Go go go go go!

I started with Tom but the gnarly 2,000 foot climb/switchback and a yellowjacket sting put me behind for a bit. I hiked with an environmental architect from Tahoe who had a nice steady pace and excellent conversation until he took a break at the top of the climb. I saw Tom again, but at some point before the second pass, Selden, lost him.

Bear creek, the scariest ford on the PCT, is reduced to a stone hopping, dry foot crossing. What a sad year for water and snow in the Sierra!
Bear creek, the scariest ford on the PCT, is reduced to a stone hopping, dry foot crossing. What a sad year for water and snow in the Sierra!

As lightening and rain poured upon me on the way over the pass, I met Bunny Slayer, a PCT section hiker with a good pace. He kept me motivated and distracted from my fears from above. By the time I hit treeline at Rosemarie Lakes, I was starving, but the weather had cleared. I admired the beautiful day that had blossomed from the top of Selden, and enjoyed a bit of a run down—not knowing if I’d make it.

 

I pulled into MTR at 4:30, got my box, and decided to spend the night with some other hikers at the Hot Springs there. The ford across the river to the hot springs—an off trail trip–ended up being my gnarliest ford for the whole JMT!

 

 

Day 3: Good weather gone bad

Had a satisfying breakfast at Red’s Meadow and saw tons of hikers—wow, this trail is different from the Long Trail. So many more people!

I knew I had some big miles to do today, but dawdled in town as one is accustomed to doing. I got cell reception, so called my mom. The showers are still being rebuilt at Red’s Meadows, but the lady at the store told me to give myself a sponge bath in their bathroom. Really??? What establishment owner encourages that kind of activity? How awesome!

The weather turned to thunderstorms later in the afternoon. I had to decide whether hanging out at 10,000 feet above treeline was a good idea. I ended up meeting a cool hiker named Tom and we camped with some other folk at Squaw Lake. He got an awesome photo of his cuben fiber MLD Patrol shelter next to my cuben fiber MLD poncho tarp. Photo to come!

 

Should I over over the pass?
Should I over over the pass?

Day 2: A JMT hike as part of a PCT hike does not count

I keep running into hikers who say they have hiked the JMT as part of their PCT hike. This just isn’t possible. If a PCT hiker went up Whitney and hiked the extra 24-26 miles from Tuolumne Meadows down to Yosemite Valley—that still isn’t a JMT hike! There are about 13 miles that separate from PCT and JMT between Red’s Meadows and Thousand Island Lake. Go back and do that section!

Ok, I am mostly joking–but the new 13 miles I hadn’t hiked before were beautiful hills between island studded lakes.

Donahue Pass, as I expected, was surprisngly easy as the up is gradual, even if it is surprisingly high for this early on in the hike.

 

Enjoying the view from Donahue Pass–with bits of Lyell and McClure–two peaks I enjoyed climbing in my days before long distance hiking
Enjoying the view from Donahue Pass–with bits of Lyell and McClure–two peaks I enjoyed climbing in my days before long distance hiking

Day 1: Start big or go the other direction..

Was the first up at the hikers’ campsite at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and enjoyed the lonesome walk by headlamp to Happy Isles, starting promptly at 6.

Vernal Falls as I ascend from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows
Vernal Falls as I ascend from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows

I think this may be the biggest elevation day out of the whole trip and I talked to several people who are taking several days to cover the distance. Especially with some dry water sources, it wasn’t easy!

I made it to Tuolumne Meadows in time for the store to stay open and feed me extensively and the nice guy at the Post office was still keeping it open, too!

Could’ve used more water today–I maybe even could have gone farther today–but decided to start out relatively slowly and take in the beauty.

Gear List for the John Muir Trail

Small pack on a high altitude trail

I’m about to head out on the 211-mile long John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It involves a long haul without resupply for more than 100 miles through high, exposed alpine peaks going as far in attitude as 13,100 feet. As usual, I’m not letting the isolation fool me into carrying more weight than I need. Going ultralite is about having items in my pack serve multiple uses. Here’s a quick run down of what is on by back:

Pack and packing materials

Mountain Laurel Designs Women’s Prophet Pack

Compactor Garbage bag (pack liner)

Gossamer Gear Torsolite pad (sleeping pad AND frame for my pack)

Mountain Laurel Designs cuben fiber stuff sack (three of them—food, shelter, and clothes)

 

Food and hydration:

2-L Platypus hoser (hydration is key to being a happy camper)

Sawyer Point One filter plus hose connector

Foster’s can pot with soda can windscreen and tin foil “lid”

Trail Designs Gram Cracker stove

Esbit Tabs (fuel)

Bare Boxer bear canister

Titanium spork

Mini bic lighter

 

Clothes

Patagonia down sweater and Houdini windshirt

Fleece Balaklava

Sleeping socks and Gloves (gloves can be potholders)

Long sleeve shirt and tights

Cuben fiber rain gear

3 pairs of Vermont Darn Tough  Run/bike ¼ length mesh

 

Sleeping

Mountain Laurel Designs Bivy and 30 degree Spirit Quilt (bivy is my ground cloth and provides extra warmth)

Shelter

Mountain Laurel Designs cuben fiber poncho tarp (also can use as extra rain gear or for warmth)

6 titanium stakes

Guylines

 

Other stuff

Maps and homemade databook

Sharpie (mark my stuff with it but also can keep a journal) with Leukotape around it (a medical tape I use instead of moleskin for blisters)

Gossamer Gear hiking poles (can also hold up my shelter)

First aid kit (Pain killers, anti-diarrhea, anti-histamine, vitamins, anti-itch)

Safety pin (pokes holes into blisters)

Bug spray/sunscreen/hand sanitizer

Toothbrush/toothpaste

Gear needed for a John Muir Trail thru-hike
Gear needed for a John Muir Trail thru-hike

  This is all I need for my hike!