John Muir Trail: The Day I Left

9 Sep

My time on the John Muir Trail can be split into two parts: The first eight days amounted to getting settled, learning to camp for the first time ever in my life, getting more fit, working out required food, and working through my knee issues and how to sleep in a bivy sack (see below). All the while, hiking 15-20 miles a day on blisters and a sore ankle, all of which would go numb after the first mile and stay that way (as long as I kept walking). I met some great people, and had some wonderful mid-hike conversations about: Burma, the importance of asymmetrical career paths, why foreign languages are great undergrad majors, why and how the Sierras are (and aren’t) geologically interesting, all about libertarians and voting, trials in ultralight backpacking, anadromous fish, bear behavior and what have you.

Dawn at our Evolution Lake Camp

Sara at Muir Hut

Jake at Virginia Lake

I camped with some or all of these fellow trail friends at the end of each night. Every morning, we would each break camp and head out at our own pace: our own staggered ruck march capped usually by a mid-morning peak of some 10-13,000 ft, however we always intersected and connected with each other at regular intervals throughout the day. There’s so much more to tell here: about myself and the start of my trail, and I will.


But the ninth day began something quite different for me on the trail. As I had every night prior, I went to sleep planning to sleep in and take it easy. Being nice to myself was a rule for this trip that was inevitably broken each morning after not being able to get ANY sleep inside my Bivy. If you aren’t familiar, a bivy is a lightweight shelter that sounds like a good idea in theory. In reality, Bivy was a fancy body bag with an optional mosquito net and a logo on the outside. Freezing and wet with the condensation of my cozy coffin, hardly made the 8 ounces I’d shaved off my pack weight worth it. Everything I own must go inside, and, once inside, it is free to swim about the interior. Socks in faces, while warm coats were carried to the bottom by the currents where I couldn’t reach them without some effort. My mid-sleep situation slightly resembled a biology diagram from 5th grade:

Though I had spent time trying to perfect my camp, Bivy still roused me early. Sloping campsites and ants conspired to thwart my plans. Still, I awoke focused. Today was Mather Pass, the first serious summit and pass of the hike so far. The hike up from 8500 ft to around 12,000 ft in just a handful of miles sparked something in me. The height and difficulty of whatever was next was a favorite topic of several pedants I ran into who had hiked this trail before. But the more people told me tales of how hard x or y was going to be, the more my competitive nature made me more excited than anxious to see for myself.

I awoke in nautical twilight. Dredging my clothes from the bottom of the sack in the dark was a challenge, as was making an audit of all items against the contrast of the dark forest floor in a 2000 foot valley. I triple-checked my gear list, each time finding an errant sock or propane tank I’d forgotten. I broke camp, proudly up the hill, directly placing my shin into a log, and oddly blurted out “asshole”, referring likely to myself, the log and probably the bivy too.

I walked in blue light through a flat few miles, the outsides of my heels tearing against odd stitching placed inside my boots. I stopped for coffee in the valley, staring at Mather in front of me in the cool of the valley.

Climbing Mather Pass

Climbing Mather Pass

Mather Peak

Climbing Mather, I gasped for air as I focused on bagging the peak in under two hours. It seemed like a very reasonable-unreasonable goal. The pass is no more or less than a series of endless switchbacks, then a lake, a teaser respite before an even longer set of switchbacks. And somewhere before the lake, I thought I was nearly done. I saw a second peak peering above the one I was nearing. I faded for a moment. I remembered Dan reading from his guidebook the night before, talking about the history of Mather Pass, the route and the beautiful red and purple flowers that peppered the talus formations for the first half of the trail, making it sound so benign as I drifted off to sleep.

Yet there I was, 10 hours later, gasping, panting, struggling, staring at flowers, looking at the red flowers Dan was talking about. I saw the peak slide out again behind an old Jeffrey pine. None of the group was behind me. I decided to set my expectations, which is important to do this when spirits are flagging: Maybe I was almost done, but if not, could I go on? A few moments were all I needed: Where else would I go? and of course I could! and I was just tired is all, because I hadn’t slept in the asshole bivy and that asshole log left a bruise and the confluence of everything was ruining my hiking Zen.

On Top of Mather

Upper Basin Desert

I took the opportunity to admit I was hungry and swallowed a massive Peanut Butter and Jelly Power Bar that Jake had graciously given up last night. I spotted a vole on the rock above me and smiled. Three or four more carried twigs while weaving through the rocks higher up the hill. I moved on, dug in, and summitted Mather around 8:30. I had no idea if that was two hours or not, but it felt good to be up there, done and watching the view. The toenail on my second toe decided to say goodbye at this point. A surprisingly painless process.

I stared south across the Upper Basin plateau, realizing the day had just started. Seven miles of spaghetti-western, high desert lay in front of me, yawning from below a steep decline down steps on the other side of Mather.

In the distance, the first rainclouds rolled in around 14,000 ft. Split Mountain to the East. The day seemed different than the others as I skipped down the talus to keep pressure off my tricky knee. I’d left something and wasn’t sure what, but it was gone for sure.

Next: The Path Of Electrical Storms

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