The view north from the summit of Mt. Langley
Looking north to Mount Whitney from the summit of Mount Langley

 

The 2008 John Muir Trail Hike


Attempting the John Muir Trail in late September was not the smartest thing to do.  The vibes were bad from the beginning.  Concerned about early snow, leaving my single vehicle at Tuolumne Meadows was not an option.  This was also true for Reds Meadow because the Mammoth mountain shuttle to Devils Postpile and Reds had already been terminated for the season.  Left with few save choices, I elected to deliver a food/fuel cache at Parchers Resort near South Lake and begin the hike from Coldwater Trailhead at Mammoth Lakes.  This required climbing over Duck Pass, then descending to the JMT near the Duck Creek crossing.  It was here that I met with a fellow solo JMT hiker, David H.,  We continued together, to spend the first night at Lake Virginia in a bitterly cold wind from the south.  This was my first warning that hiking the JMT at this time, of this year, was going to be decidedly unpleasant.  Furthermore, I was making hard work of the hiking … lacking recent fitness training since late July on the PCT north of Yosemite.

The next morning, hiking from Lake Virginia, down into Tully Hole and climbing up from Fish Creek to Silver Pass was hard work in cold windy conditions.  David, much fitter than I, pushed on to make the VVR Edison Lake ferry before evening.  I camped a few miles south of the Pass at a site Lucy and I had used, and enjoyed, in 2006.  Another cold morning (27°F), despite this I was up early to make the 13.4 miles to Upper Bear Creek Meadow before evening.  The big climb up Bear Ridge I found manageable, but the subsequent descent to Bear Creek followed by the endless climb to the Meadow gave my legs and knees much pain.

After another cold night, hacking and coughing up slime in the early morning, I began to think seriously of bailing out over Piute Pass in two days time.  This option became more attractive as my fourth day on the trail progressed.  The climb to Selden Pass was reasonably easy, even pleasant, but the long descent down to Muir Ranch and the long drag up to the Piute Pass Trail intersection convinced me to use Piute Pass as an early escape from my ailments and the constant cold.  Total hiker count on the trail for the day was four … and I camped alone at the normally busy campsite near the intersection.  This location at just above 8,000’ was relatively warm which made it easy to get up early, cook, eat and break camp, but I was coughing and spitting again … a positive sign to get off the trail while I still could, with only the one 12,000’ Pass in my way.

I’d been down the tortuous trail to the JMT from Piute Pass, twice, but never tried the 3,300’ ascent.  The first section is through a dramatic gorge with steep granite sides, sprouting magnificent Sierra Junipers from cracks in the near vertical slabs.  Also present are groves of White Fir and the occasional Red Fir throughout the lower sections of the gorge. After four hours climbing I reached the intersection of the French Canyon Trail, there meeting two couples that were also on their way out over Piute Pass


They planned to spend another night below the Pass, which was also my intent and they offered to drive me back to Mammoth where my vehicle was in the Motel 6 parking lot … I hoped!  I followed them up the trail toward the Pass, still 7 miles away.  They turned off about half way and headed to the lowest lake in the drainage to make camp.  To ensure I was ahead them in the morning (for the ride!), I pushed on to 11,000’, turned off the trail to camp at the highest Golden Trout Lake.

This was a good campsite, but high, cold and exposed to the wind.  Overnight the temperature fell to 21°F, and even fully dressed in all clothing, including a down jacket, I did a freeze in my 20°F rated sleeping bag from Western Mountaineering.  A blessing the next morning; the sun came over the peaks early, and with no wind, my climb of 400’ to the Pass was almost fun.  However, the descent to North Lake brought back the agony of my knees … the worst I’d ever felt in the mountains.  But help was on the way: It turned out that the two men in the foursome (who did give me a ride to Mammoth), both in their 60’s, had knee problems … and one them was an Orthopedic Surgeon.  He’d had his knees operated on and said what a mistake that was!  Talk about serendipity, they quickly diagnosed my knee problems as osteoarthritis, advised me not to have any knee operations, but simply use ibuprofen (Advil, Aleve etc.) tablets before long descents … but watch for stomach upsets if the dosage is too high.  I’ve since used this chemically assisted hiking technique with excellent results.

 

 

Many lessons from this six day, 65 mile hike on the JMT 

1 ... Take appropriate clothing and equipment for the high elevation environment when hiking the long trails in Fall.  My equipment limitation was a sleeping bag that’s lightweight, compact, more than adequate for summer in the Sierra Nevada, but not up to Fall/Winter trips.  I’ve corrected this problem with the acquisition of a 5°F bag from Western Mountaineering … a little heavier, more bulk, but perfect for temperatures below 25°F.

 

2 ... Realize that by mid to late September many of the Sierra bus/shuttle services will have stopped operation and in the event of early October snow, roads could be closed to trailheads … until late Spring!  Leaving personal vehicles at Tuolumne Meadows, Reds or Agnew Meadows, South Lake etc. for long periods, is a chancy business.  Having someone drop you off is the smart thing to do … even if you have to pay (through the nose!) for a private shuttle service.

 

3 ... In trip planning, make provision for the shorter days, heavier packs and optional bailout routes that will have to be used in the event of early snow.  It would be prudent to carry snowshoes by mid October … always remember the lessons of the Donner Party!

 

4 ... My experience this year, attempting to do my annual hike down the JMT, convinced me not to try this again so late in the season.  What would work from mid September through October, is JMT circuits: South Lake to North Lake, Onion Valley to Whitney Portal or to Horseshoe Meadows and perhaps what I ended up doing: Mammoth Lakes to North Lake.  All of these routes have bailout points to the western side of the range, if absolutely necessary because of early heavy snowfall.  Also, these routes can be done without resupply, and hiked on a more leisurely schedule to offset the shorter days and heavy packs.

 

2008 PCT-JMT Schedule

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My tent near Upper Golden Trout Lake
at 11,000' below Piute Pass
Piute Creek Canyon above the JMT intersection
Looking up Mono Creek drainage
from above Pocket Meadow
The lakes on the northern side of Duck Pass

Piute Creek shortly before it meets the
South Fork of the San Joaquin River

Fall mountain aspens above North Lake