A Change of Plans

I have found it very hard to post anything for the past several months because I didn’t know how to start.  I have made hiking a part of my life and personality over the past several years.  When I get a hobby, I dive head first.  In the last year, I have made hiking the JMT a core part of my plans.  And now I’ve changed my plans.

Several things have happened since my last post, and I think the universe is telling me not to hike the JMT this year.  It took me a long time to come to this realization, but I believe I made the right choice.  There have been good things that have gotten in the way (we’re buying a house, and Andrew switched jobs to one he is better suited for and will enjoy more) and not so good things (a complete failure of a training hike, not getting a southbound permit and settling for a northbound one) that have led me to believe the JMT isn’t for me in 2016.  I am not in shape enough to hike 12 to 15 miles every day at an altitude I’ve never been at before, and I definitely don’t want to have this once in a lifetime experience without my husband, who is my best friend and patient hiking partner.

Instead, I will be hiking the Rae Lakes Loop with one of my good friends from high school and her roommate.  Rather than heading from Glen Pass to Woods Creek in just one day, passing through the Rae Lakes in a blur, we’ll have a lot more time to enjoy one of the most beautiful stretches of the JMT.  We’ll take 7 days to explore the beauty of the area, jump in alpine lakes, wonder at waterfalls, and hike an average of 8 miles a day.

After the jump, read more about what will happen with this blog and what my future plans are.

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Dealing with Permit Rejections

If you’re like me, you’ve gotten plenty of emails that look like this recently:

The disappointing email

A Disappointing Email

 

This is the email Yosemite sends when you don’t get a permit for the John Muir trail.  I’ve got 19 of them sitting in my inbox, and will probably get another one this afternoon.  I have 16 chances left to get a permit for the John Muir Trail, and Sunday’s submission marks the start of our “ideal” window, where we’ll get a bonus vacation day off because of Labor Day.  We can’t do the trail late in September because of a work event, so I have a true hard stop deadline for the JMT.  I’ve seen lots of others get their permits for the JMT, when I’ve come up empty handed.  And that’s okay.

When I look at the Yahoo group or Facebook groups for the JMT, I see the panic that some people have about getting their permits.  Yes, I want to hike the JMT because it’s a classic trail in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.  I like that every day on the trail is different and that hikers don’t cross a road for hundreds of miles.  But there are other places that can be done too, with equally beautiful views.  I will be disappointed if, come March 14th, I get my 36th permit rejection, but then it’s time to submit for Wonderland Trail permits!  And if that doesn’t work, that’s okay too.

Checking on Snowfall

One of the things I’m watching closely this year is the Sierra snowpack.  For the past several years with the drought, it was perfectly possible to tackle the JMT in June.  Snow on the JMT means that you’ll spend more time hiking up and down passes, as they’ll be slick and the trail may not be visible.  It also means you’ll be dealing with swift, high stream crossings, which can be very dangerous.

The last year with a considerably above normal snowpack was 2011.  That year, there was snow on passes into August.  If you want to check up on how the snowpack is, I like the following two links:

California Snow Water Equivalent Map

This site gives regional information about the percentage of the normal amount of snow the Sierra has gotten compared to this date in an average year and as compared to April 1st.

California Snow Water Content Chart

A great visualization where you can compare past years to this year.  Check out 1997-1998 for a similar El Nino year – looks like we’re on track for a snowy year!

How to Get a Southbound John Muir Trail Permit in 2016

I’m now about eight months from being on the John Muir Trail.  I have had a really hard time keeping the blog up to date, because I’m not sure what the likelihood of us getting permits is.  It’s an easy excuse to not train when I have nothing forcing me to.  Permit submission is upcoming, though!  I though I’d dedicate a post to the permitting process for the JMT for 2016.  Of note – I’m talking in this post only about southbound permits, because 80 to 90 percent of hikers move from north to south.

A Single* Permit

One of the wonderful things about the John Muir Trail that makes it not terrible to plan is that even though it goes through several national parks and wilderness areas, you only need a single permit to hike the trail in its entirety, including climbing Mount Whitney, provided you stay on the John Muir Trail for the entirety of your trip.  You are allowed to leave the JMT for 24 hours to resupply, but if you stay off trail for more than that, you will need a second permit.  As you’ll see from below, I don’t think the headache is worth it.

Why the asterisk?  If you want to hike Half Dome as a side trip, you will need a separate permit that you can apply for alongside your JMT permit.

Why Quotas?

The John Muir Trail is one of the most popular long trails in the US.  It starts in Yosemite National Park, which is the third most visited national park in the United States.  Most visitors never stray into the backcountry to camp, but even if 1 percent do, that would be over 30,000 people annually.  To ensure that the wilderness actually stays wilderness, the parks and forests in the area limit the number of groups that can enter the backcountry.

Graph showing increase in use on the JMT since 1998.

The popularity of the John Muir Trail, like other American long trails, has exploded in the past decade.  More and more people every year are backpacking, including people like me.  I wasn’t raised in a family of outdoorsy people, but I joined in my husband’s hobby after deciding I wanted to spend more time away from my computer and outside.

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3 Weeks… No Email

There’s a few things about the trail that I’m really excited about.  3 weeks without email is definitely one of them.  I really like my job, and I enjoy the occasional craziness that it has (for example, I started this post after being up all night until 11 AM for a system upgrade), but I have a very hard time letting it go.  I always make myself available via cell if needed, and respond to emails from my phone regularly into the evening.

There’s really something to be said about being disconnected.  I’m not sure what we’ll do quite yet, but I’m sure we’ll be calling home at our resupplies and maybe even using a SPOT beacon.  But it’s days like today where I have 650 messages in my inbox and no good way to dig myself out that really make me look forward to simply living in the moment.

Resupply Locations on the John Muir Trail

Part of the logistics of doing the John Muir Trail is how to get food into the wilderness when you don’t pass a road for a full 220 miles.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of research on what’s available.  There are many different resupply options at the beginning of the hike (going North to South), but for the last 100 miles or so, there’s nothing right off the trail.

Mile 0 – Happy Isles

Happy Isles is where you start (if you’re lucky enough to get the permit!) and allows you to enter this crazy journey!  Of course, you’ll need food, but not too much, because your first opportunity to resupply is…

Mile 23 – Tulomne Meadows

Most thru hikers tend to leave some supplies in one of the bear boxes here.  If you don’t trust other hikers not to take your stuff, there’s a post office.  There’s also the opportunity to drink a beer here.  It seems like most people cache some gear here because those first twenty miles are quite the uphill battle.

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Things That Scare Me

The John Muir Trail has a lot of stuff on it that is intimidating, difficult, or is just overall scary.

1. Bears

You have to carry a bear canister in the High Sierras for good reason – there are lots of active bears in the area.  Though Yellowstone, which actually has grizzlies, doesn’t require a bear canister, you never know what you’re going to run into in the Sierras.  The odds of actually seeing a bear, though, are really slim if you practice good food storage.  In addition, I know how to handle a bear if approached – yell at the bear in a monotone voice/bang pots and pans while slowly backing away from the bear.  Face the bear while you do this.  If attacked by a brown bear, fight back.

2. Being Slow

Though Andrew and I usually cover ground pretty quickly (2 or 3 miles per hour during our trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which is pretty darn fast for hiking), the actual walking portion of the day will take up a lot more of our time on the JMT.  If you say you can hike 2 miles an hour in easy sections and as slowly as a mile per hour in difficult sections, you’re looking at about 6-8 hours of hiking a day to get in the 10-11 miles we’ll need to get in daily.  That’s a lot of time on your feet.  I hope to combat this through lots of practice and 10-12 mile hikes before hitting the trail.

3. Heights

Oh boy.  I don’t like heights.  See that image at the top?  That’s the only way to access Half Dome.  Half Dome is the giant dome shaped hunk of granite in the middle of the picture below.

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Though the views are supposed to be amazing, I’m worried that I’d wind up stuck on the cables going up or down, or wouldn’t be able to enjoy the view from the top.  This is a side trip we may or may not take, but there’s plenty of mountain passes on the trail that are close to that nerve wracking.

4. Bad Weather

Bad weather is the worst.  There’s nothing I hate more than being somewhere beautiful and I can’t see it because it’s wet and all I can think about is being dry, it’s hot and all I can think about is cooling off, or it’s freezing and all I can think about is warming up.  In the Sierras, it also has the added bonus of being really dangerous to get stuck in weather above the treeline.  Yay?

5. Not Getting a Permit

The only thing worse than the four things above?  Not being able to go at all.  If for some reason we aren’t able to get a permit, we’ll do the 90+ mile Wonderland Trail, but it wouldn’t be the same.  If there’s wildfires or too many people apply for permits, we may have to cancel our trip.  And let’s face it – this is going to be the trip of a lifetime.  I’d hate to miss out, and even postponing a year feels like a cop out.

Why the John Muir Trail?

The John Muir Trail is a 210(+) mile hiking trail in California from Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mount Whitney.  Much of the John Muir trail (about 160 miles) follows the path of the much much longer Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada.  The JMT runs along the backbone of the High Sierras, and was named to honor naturalist John Muir.  Along the trail, hikers can expect to gain over 42 (or 44 or 46, depending upon your source) thousand feet of elevation gain.  To put that in perspective, that’s about 1 1/2 times the height of Mount Everest.

The hiking season for the JMT varies from year to year depending upon snowfall, but most years it runs from early July through September.  Most hikers tackle the hike from north to south (with the exception of PCT through hikers, who almost always go south to north).  My husband, Andrew, and I plan to go north to south.  We live in Madison, Wisconsin – elevation 846 feet.  Mount Whitney, at the southern terminus is the highest point in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet.  If we started off at Mount Whitney, I guarantee my butt would be on the ground every 8 steps and I’d probably have to turn around.  To prevent altitude sickness, most people recommend sleeping above 8,000 feet several nights before attempting to summit.  It just so happens that much of the trail is above this altitude.

Andrew was an Eagle Scout, and I, obviously, was not.  I didn’t even start backpacking until 2013 after a particularly rough winter.  But, I feel in love with it.  I love being able to get away from my desk job and go where my own two feet can push me.  And I love being able to see things that you can’t see otherwise.  The JMT seems like the best trail that we can do that (1) is a true thru hiking experience, (2) has amazing views, and (3) we don’t have to quit our jobs to do.  There’s a lot of work to do before we get to the trail, and I can’t wait to share it with you.