John Muir Trail – A rough start

6/18/2017 – 7/3/2017 (Pre trip + 5 days)

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.–John Muir Our National Parks , 1901, page 56.

The truth of this quote runs deep.  This was my first through hike.  It was the first time backpacking.   I quickly found myself up to my neck in an adventure that I was too stubborn to quit.  During the hike I did not think about work, politics, my email, retirement, or anything other than my family and the trail ahead of me.  When I paused and looked I took in the wonder of what the mountains offered:  Rich sounds, fresh and natural scents, brisk and soothing air.

The wildlife seemed to welcome me.  Usually jays screech warnings when humans are near.  They did not in the high country.  Deer usually flee and keep their distance.  They often met me on the trail and stepped off to a minimal distance.  A buck walked within yards of me while I rested under a tree.  Grazing deer, marmots, chipmunks, squirrels, would look up, see me, then return to their business – unfazed, unless I was just about on top of them.   I was close enough to deer grazing on a leaves to see its drool glisten in the sun, I saw a humming bird bathing itself in a creek on the trail.  I could smell marmot musk, and had trout swim around my legs while crossing deep streams.

It seemed that forces were working against me to start.  A month before my start date a hikers died on mount Whitney .

Ten days before leaving, I received this mail:

[With apologies for cross-posting] I usually avoid advice unless asked. I prefer presenting trail condition information that helps people make their own safety decisions. I hate advice posts because there’s usually no way of assessing the experience levels of those reading a post.

But I feel compelled to volunteer unrequested advice. We are at — or approaching — maximum risk levels of a JMT hike. In most years, risks peak somewhat earlier and are low by mid-June or peak in October. This year, I think it is irresponsible — to yourself, to those who love you and to SAR folks who will try to assist you — for most people (not all) to start JMT hikes in June.

While I think June 20 will be the absolute high point of the likely risk — maximum melt risks with still dangerous pass crossings — conditions are unlikely to be much better now nor to improve all that much by late June. Maybe by July 5th, hopefully by July 15th

Snow bridges, which have provided many safe stream crossings in May, are disappearing. The remaining ones are unsafe to those who don’t know how to evaluate them.

There will be high-elevation water crossings with snow banks on either side. It is hard to make safe crossings when they start and end at steep snow banks. The banks also make it hard to recover if you fall. Also, if you find open water to cross, there may be an area downstream that is still snow covered and it is all too easy to get trapped under water if you are swept under a snow-covered part of a stream. That’s a really bad way to go.

The high-flow crossings (at somewhat lower elevations) will still have large snow-covered upstream watersheds that reach maximum hours of sun exposure on June 20. Hours of sunlight will diminish thereafter but only gradually.

June is likely to have nights that don’t dip below freezing and hot days with little cloud cover. That leads to postholing even early in the day and maximum flow at crossings until the upstream snowshed starts to diminish substantially.

All of the above suggests that the volume of water at crossings — high in recent trail reports — will be even higher at some critical crossings in mid to late June.

There are plenty of passes where the fall line is a 40 degree plus slope. They are hard to descend straight down such a steep fall line. If you try to switchback, icy traverses can be very dangerous and require good self-arrest skills. I’ve done some self arrest training and I’d guess that my likelihood of a successful self-arrest is in the 50% range. The 40 degree slopes now generally end in boulder fields. Glissading becomes more dangerous with increasing hidden voids and the dangerous rocky runouts.

There will be voids created by the increased melt rate next to rocks. Some are hard to recognize and if your foot slips into a void next to a granite rock, there’s a high chance of significant injury to your leg as it scrapes along the same rock that created the unseen void.

The east side exit passes will still have cornices and you may not realize you are on a cornice until you are in the danger zone for a collapse.

There are some who could do a safe passage starting late June. But I think safety requires at a minimum

— A group hike – soloing now will increase risks
— Training and recent practice in self-arrest
— Experience in challenging stream crossings
— Enough food and slack in the schedule to allow time to search for safe crossings or wait to cross in the lower flow of early morning
— Footwear with substantial soles that have a good bite to kick in stable steps without rolling
— Hiking crampons (real ones) – maybe microspikes once others have created a good path to follow
— Lead hiker with real ice ax (unless path well defined). Trailing hikers with ice axes or Whippets
— Ability to recognize safe vs. unsafe snow bridges
— Ability to recognize where hidden voids will occur – anticipating hidden conditions that cause voids (rocks, tree wells, etc)
— Good navigation skills (there will be multiple paths visible – you need navigation skills to know which to follow)

Most of these skills are required by every member of the group. A few (e.g., assessing snow bridge safety) perhaps are required of only one member if you stick together.

Perhaps most important, I think you need a group agreement to be open to bailouts if conditions are more challenging than you expect or the skills of all in the group are not as high as you had hoped. The last thing you want is for your least experienced member to be making a solo exit via an exit trail that is harder to navigate, steeper and has less prior traffic than the main trail. And probably has cornice dangers as well.

I decided not to share this mail with my family.  The night before I took the bus to Lone Pine (my last access to email) this warning from Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park System (SEKI):

River Safety
This year’s heavy snow pack and warming temperatures have resulted in extremely dangerous river conditions. There have been three river related fatalities in 2017. The cold, swift, and dangerous Kaweah River and South Fork of the Kings River is posing a greater risk to public safety than in recent years. The park urges visitors to enjoy areas of the park that are away from the river. Getting in the river or going near it could create a life or death situation.

Snow melt is causing creeks and rivers to rise. It’s possible to cross a creek during periods when the water is running lower, and find the same creek impossible to cross within the same day, causing visitors to become stranded overnight. If you have any doubt about your ability to safely cross a creek or river you are urged to turn around. Even the best swimmers can find themselves in a difficult situation under the current water conditions.

Wilderness Travel
The bridge at South Fork Kings River in Upper Paradise Valley along the Woods Creek Trail was severely damaged over the winter and has fallen into the water. There are no other developed crossings in the area and visitors who intended to use the bridge should adjust their plans.

The snow pack in the Sierra is still significant, with more than ten feet of snow still on the ground at the higher elevations. Snow levels are patchy around 9,000 feet and continuous at 10,000 feet. This means the high mountain passes including those along the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail may be difficult, treacherous, or impassable.

Warmer temperatures are causing snow to melt and creeks are running under what appears to be stable snow, creating snow bridges. There is a danger of falling several feet through a snow bridge into rushing water. Wilderness users are urged to use extreme caution. “Streams and creeks are continuing to rise and visitors should take care when attempting undeveloped stream crossings,” said Wilderness Assistant Pablo Garzon.

Play safe and Stay Found!

I did not share this one either.  I was nervous.  I reminded myself that river crossings were not right away.  I reminded myself that I planned alternate routes.  I reminded myself that I wasn’t foolhardy…..or was I.  I was conflicted.  I forged ahead.

I met Michael and his daughter on the bus in Mojave.  I met many PCT hikers at the hostel.  Most were dirty and getting clean.  Some smoked, some drank, all charging outlets were being used.  I watch three hikers meticulously pack their packs.  No spare space at all.  All of them had a can do attitude.  Two were a couple drippy and his girlfriend.  They gave me words of encouragement and told me I could do it.  (Was it for me or for them?)

We got a ride to Horseshoe Meadow sharing a ride with two PCT hikers Radigast and Tennison and Mike.

A night camping at Horseshoe meadows and I was ready to go.  I hiked nine miles to High Lake at the base of New Army Pass.  The Long Lake trail was flooded so I wild-countried it to High Lake and camped. Seven of us were to attempt New Army Pass in the morning.  Two waited behind and decided to go a different route.  Five of us made it to the base.  The two snow boarders attacked the 50 foot ice cornice. Going straight up.  It took one 40 minutes and the other an hour.  The three of us who remained decided we weren’t prepared for the climb. The couple decided to go the goat path along Cirque Peak.  I decided to go around via Cottonwood Pass which would add another 20-25 miles to my trip (9 back, and 15 up and around Cottonwood.)

My hike up Cottonwood was hard.  I started to chafe.  I camped in a Bristlecone Pine Grove — this was rejuvenating.   In the morning I ran into a couple who had been turned back by the rangers.  They had lost a member of their party and Search and Rescue had to get involved.  They told me Tyndall creek was impassable and he was suffering from snow blindness.  A mile later I ran into Q, a female Canadian PCT hiker, wandering without a backpack or anything asking me if I had seen her glasses.  She looked absolutely dejected.

Daylight was running out as I hit Crabtree creek.  I was thinking about camping there.  I already saw one tent.  The mosquitoes were relentless. I couldn’t even pause to look at my map.  I couldn’t think well.  My thigh was hurting.  Just then, Nosebleed, Ramses, and California Gold showed up, they said this was a bad spot because of the mosquitoes.  They moved ahead and crossed the creek,  I followed them.  We walked along Whitney creek.  They crossed, but I stayed on a campsite on the north side next to the San Diego group.  I hurriedly setup camp.  I had no appetite.  I forced myself to eat some beans and rice.  My neighbor smoked weed, which really bothered me.  I left the city to get away from that crap.  But whatever, I needed rest for an early start to Whitney.

I started before dawn and trekked up to the base of Whitney ascent.  The base was six miles from my campsite —  farther than I thought.  I had used up a lot of time and energy just to get to the base.  I drank a quart of water.  Filled both of my quarts and started up Whitney.  I was exhausted. It was slow going.  Groups of people passed me.  My pack was killing my shoulders.  I met one climber coming down, who said she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t pass the ice traverse on the top of the switch backs.  I climbed on.  People looked like ants down below.  I looked up and I’d occasionally see someone so high, that I couldn’t believe I had so far to go.  People started to pass me on the way down.  “You have about two miles of up to go” “It get’s steeper and harder to breath.”  “There is no water up there and no snow.”  My nose continued to bleed but I kept going.  I made it past one ice traverse.  I reached the second.  It was afternoon.  I had less than half a quart of water.  The second ice traverse in front me slide into a rock pile.  I was tired.  My back hurt.  I decided to turn around and go back down.   I was at about 13000 feet.

On my way down I encountered a group of three hikers coming in from Independence via Kearsarge pass.  They shared that the hike over Forrester to here was the hardest hiking they had ever done and suggested I do some soul searching as to whether I could do it.   I made camp where the Whitney trail meets up with the PCT after a little creek.  I had some food and determined that that nasty smell wasn’t just BO, but that my chaffing had become infected and was oozing puss.  I washed it the best I could, used my rubbing alcohol and Neosporin gauze and tape.  I went to bed thinking about my failures and warnings:

  • Maximum risk for a June start…don’t be irresponsible reschedule
  • SEKI warnings about death and snow melts.
  • New Army Pass FAIL
  • Cottonwood Pass couple warnings about Tyndall creek.
  • Infected Leg
  • Mount Whitney Failure
  • Going through snow was harder than I thought.
  • Failing Nutrition system and no appetite.

Perhaps I should bail out at Kearsarge.  Four nights in, with two more to go until Kearsarge, I was having little success…should I quit?

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