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Black Giant from the JMT

Gearing up
for our John Muir Trail 2000 trek

          Next in our preparations is the consideration of gear. Our previous backpack trips were less than seven days in duration. Now we are planning a three-week trek. How does that affect your equipment? What is essential? Where can you reduce weight? Over the years we have accumulated gobs of gear and clothing for backpacking. I find it most useful to have a checklist of all the stuff I might consider for a standard backpack trip. I consult the checklist whenever we plan a trip so I'm not constantly rethinking equipment and I can be sure I did not forget anything. For the JMT I start with the basic list and adjust for the special circumstances (light weight).

          I will take my GPS (call it entertainment with a safety rationale) and an Olympus Stylus Zoom pocket camera as nonessential gear but part of my motivation. Hopefully, the camera will provide me with adequate reference photos and inspiration for painting at home in my studio all winter long. I will also take a two-ounce pad and pencil for journal entries and sketches (time allowing).

          A bear box (weighing in at a hefty 2.5 lbs.) is an essential item as far as we are concerned. We had marvelous luck for ten years hanging food. But ever since the time we lost our food to a very clever bear (which kiboshed a mountain climb and left us hungry), we are not so inclined to play Russian roulette and risk aborting another trip for an avoidable problem. Besides, it is now the law in these mountains.

          Jardine's idea of crafting your own 13-oz knapsack and leaving the heavy hi- tech pack at home is intriguing, but I will take my 7.5 lb. Dana Terraplane simply because it fits like a glove and I hope to keep the total weight under forty pounds. Not ultra light but not super heavy. We have read the accounts of people who carry only fifteen pounds (of course, they must resupply their food) and travel twenty miles a day. We have read about and met people hefting sixty to eighty pounds; God only knows how they do it. I hope to limit my load to thirty-five or forty pounds (with Irene about ten pounds less) for an average hike of ten miles per day. We hope and expect to lose weight but not kill ourselves.

          We will not take a tent. Instead, we will take summer sleeping bags and Gortex bivies (the bivies are the only Gortex we carry, so in case of an emergency, you get into your bivy and hold on for help). A multi purpose tarp, light insulation pads and chunk of foam will separate us from the ground. Irene carries a whisper lite stove and bottle of white gas as well as the light weight Coghlan water pump (too bad you have to filter that clear mountain water). We each carry thirty-two ounce water bottles. Other stuff we will take includes : Swiss Army knife, compass, whistle, headlamp, extra batteries (for headlamp or GPS whichever needs them first), lighter, matches, small candle, sun glasses, sun block, chapstick, DEET, light bug mesh (to wear with hat), aspirin, antacid, baking soda gum, chamois wash cloth, soap, toothbrush & toothpaste, travel tissues, medicated foot powder, moisturizer, Neosporene, some MediPore bandages, portable sewing kit, fishing hooks & line, nylon cord, duct tape and a couple all purpose trash bags (about three pounds total weight). We each also carry an Aladdin insulated mug. These are incredibly versatile keeping hot things hot and cold things cold and well worth the seven ounces to make any trek more enjoyable.

          We usually take too many clothes and too much food; then of course, we like to be comfortable and eat well on short trips. So the question is, "how do we cut back without being miserable and unsafe?" Knowing our primary activity will be hiking-until-we- drop, the most important consideration is comfortable and durable hiking clothes. Using the layering system we include fleece for safety and warmth. We will both take essentially the same kinds of clothes including two light weight Polypropelene shirts, a pair of hiking shorts, silk shirt, silk pants (great light weight wind breakers that keep you warm or cool depending on what you want), medium weight fleece shirt and pants, a rain poncho (covers you and your pack in case of rain), three sock inserts and two pairs of socks (I like a silk/wool blend). A light floppy hat with brim all around (that covers your ears, the back of your neck and something you can dip in a cold stream to help cool off your head as you hike onward and upward), a scarf, glove inserts (maybe fleece gloves for cold mornings and passes), a fleece helmet as bed cap (so I can expose my head to enjoy the stars and not freeze my noggin)(see above painting Muir Pass). Finally and most important are well fitted light weight hiking boots. My HiTechs which I just bought for this trip are perfect, Irene's Asolos aren't quite perfect but she will most likely grit it out.


Marmot in Darwin Basin below Mt. Mendel

          Food is the hardest supply to plan. Too much and you break your back. Too little and you lose sleep listening to a growling stomach. The wrong kinds of food and you won't have enough energy to climb those passes. We know from experience that the food you think you will want to eat when you are at home planning a trip is far different from the food you crave on the trail. Your body screams for carbs and salt when you are hiking hard. All the candy, cookies and chocolate you carry are mere extravagances for lazing around a campfire after a big satisfying meal when you think you've gotta have desert with your coffee. There will be little time for that indulgence on this trip. We may bring a miniature Snicker or two.

          Our primary staple is Ramen. Light, cheap, versatile and the broth is perfect for altitude sickness to which I am prone. Irene adds lots of things to Ramen to keep it "alive." I cannot divulge any of her secrets here because I don't know any of her secrets, I just eat them. Lunches will be cheese and salami sticks, crackers and gorp.

          Gorp is separated into salty gorp and sweet gorp. For salty gorp I start with a healthy portion of cornnuts and add mixed nuts, pretzels, peanut butter pretzels, bread chips, rice chex and sesame sticks (Irene adds hot oriental stuff to her salty gorp). Sweet gorp is a trail mix combination of dried dates, pineapple, coconut flakes, pecans, apricot, papaya, apple, cranberry, carameled sunflower seeds & peanuts, white raisins, currants and a few flavored jelly beans for excitement (sometimes you just want the taste of a rootbeer or a marguarita while you are pumping up hill). A jelly bean will linger a while if you don't chew it. We will probably add a couple snickers for desert, some fig newtons to round out lunch, some peanut butter and cheese crackers to substitute for some lunches or change the pace of a constant gorp diet and maybe some caramels or butterscotch hard candy for a sugar jolt.

          We will take some Gatorade mix for a little boost here and there, maybe some peach tea and freeze dried coffee to stave off caffeine withdrawal. Sounds like a lot of food as I write it down, but the portions are not large. You have to really search the gorp bag for one of those jelly beans.

          We will take about one-and-a-half pounds of food per day between the two of us. This is well under what you would expect is necessary considering one needs four thousand calories per day for this level of exertion. We want to lose a little weight anyway so the calories will have to come from storage. We will resupply at Kearsarge, Muir Trail Ranch and Reds Meadow. At most, we will carry seven days of food. I will probably carry most the food while Irene carries the stove, the gas and the toiletries. Her pack should be lighter than mine (until all the food is gone at which point I'll be too weak to carry anything and Irene can carry me and my nice light pack).

          Before our August departure we took a couple shorter hikes into the Sierra as warm up and practice, to test some of our equipment and sample the light weight strategy. The first trip we took was to Three Rivers on the west side of the mountain range. We car camped and did some light day hiking. Then we strapped on medium weight packs for an over night at Hockney Lakes. The climb is about 4K' over nine miles through the magnificent Garfield Grove (the fourth largest grove of Sequoias left standing ... "any fool can destroy trees." — JM). Although the climb is steep the altitude was a mere 8600 ft at the top.

          Our next excursion took us to Reds Meadow to check-out the facilities and what to expect when we go trekking through there on the JMT. The hot spring showers will be a delight. The Store is well stocked for a supply of just about anything you need although the prices as expected are a little steep. The Restaurant is nothing special but to a weary trekker, a large hot meal may be a welcome change from Ramen. While in the area, we took a day hike out of Mary Lake to Duck Pass and back ... with no pack. Also on this excursion we hiked out of Onion Valley up and over Kearsarge Pass to spend the night above Bull Frog Lake and get an idea of what sort of climate conditions to expect in the High Sierra this time of year. Kearsarge still is one heck of a pass to climb and a great warmup exercise for the JMT. We tried out different foods, our bivies, the camera, etc. - a short, dry run.


Joshua Tree at sunset along Highway 395

          By mid July we are pretty much ready to go. Since we regularly get free room deals from the Plaza Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas, I think we should plan a trip to the City of Sin the weekend before we head into the wilderness. That way we can offer brother Steve (our shuttlemeister) a little more vacation than the four hour drive to Lone Pine. A Vegas weekend would also allow us to tank up on buffet carbohydrates and get our fill of loud, obnoxious, glitzy urbanity so that we run off into the wilderness with glee. We plan to spend the last weekend of July in Las Vegas. On Monday we rise before first light (before the summer sun can scorch us), drive north, then west through Death Valley to our JMT departure point at Horseshoe Meadows outside Lone Pine.

          We are packed and ready to go two days before our departure. Typically on trips we have taken previously, we are packing up until the last minute. I didn't want that to happen this time. Still, Irene is up most the night cleaning the house and ironing clothes for Vegas (maybe Vegas wasn't a good idea). Our JMT preparations are complete and that is what is most important.

          I had read stories of trekkers deciding to do the JMT the night before they took off. You miss so much excitement of anticipation that way; like telling a little kid on Christmas Eve "oh, by the way, tomorrow is Christmas." (Sheilina will find that a poor example because Irene and I haven't really gotten too excited about Christmas as far back as she can remember, but for those who do get excited about Christmas, you get my point). Anticipation of a big moment in one's life should be savored and enjoyed. Part of all the preparations is about savoring the anticipation. Irene is usually so excited before an adventure that she does not sleep. She was born for adventure; she can never get enough. The John Muir Trail is a great personal adventure and Irene has had no sleep.

          Steve arrives in Escondido on schedule and we depart for Vegas precisely at o'dark thirty (about 0430) before the sunrise and the subsequent heat. We cross the Mojave Desert without incident and arrive in Vegas sometime in the morning before the temperature is too hellish (something like 103°). My Log goes blank here. What follows is just a whirlwind of video screens, noise, constant reaching into my wallet, drinks and food and more drinks and more food, naps, staying up late and getting up late, and clouds of smoke, in the air, in your eyes, on your clothes, constant noise and more drinks and more food, until you've had quite enough and it is finished.

          Monday morning as planned we steal out of Vegas (not having won the big bucks, or the little bucks). It is once again o'dark thirty. Steve rides shotgun and tracks our progress on the map (probably a little anxious about the ride through Death Valley on what is to be the hottest day of the year). Irene in the back seat sleeps off the excesses of the weekend even though more adventure looms ahead. We stay pretty much on my schedule and reach Zabriski Pt. precisely at sunrise. We stop and share the moment with the other tourists for about thirty seconds (there is a prevailing unpleasant outhouse condition). We hightail it out of the park. Steve gets a quick drive through tour of Death Valley with our recommendation he come back and visit another time like November when the weather is more survivable.

          We arrive in Lone Pine at 0830 where we can finally relax. First, we get our wilderness permit at the Ranger Station. It is a Monday so there are plenty available for the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. Next order of business is a BIG tasty breakfast (Steve's treat ... what a guy!). After breakfast we pick up some last minute supplies including two Leki Super Makalu spring loaded hiking poles and hooks & line for emergency fishing (the hiking poles prove to be a Godsend on this trip and we will never leave home without them). The poles are surprisingly the same price as at the big retailers REI and A-16. We also buy a little more food ... just in case. The little more food probably put me over forty pounds and Irene over thirty for the beginning of the trip.

          We take a short drive-by visit to Whitney Portal; already the people are swarming. Then we drive up the switchback road south of Whitney to Horseshoe Meadows and the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. We immediately get some relief from the rising desert heat when we reache the 9.5K altitude. We take a leisurely stroll (in sandals) out to the center of Horseshoe Meadow to stretch our legs after the four-hour drive from Las Vegas and so Steve can experience a little more of the alpine environment than what he has seen from the car and parking lot. After this "exhausting" hike in the hot sun, we are all ready for a nap. A little nap is the perfect way to begin any adventure.

          "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." — JM

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