Whitney Sunrise ... next chapter

Sunrise view of Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills

for our John Muir Trail 2000 trek

          Sometime after the millennium hysteria subsided, Irene decided she wants to hike the entire John Muir Trail before her fiftieth year on the planet ends October 2000. I sign on. So we set about the task of preparation for a three- week 220+ mile trek through the heart of the Sierra Nevada ... the Range of Light.

          Most of our backpack trips in the last ten years have been rather spur-of-the-moment adventures with many lessons learned. This time we prepare more meticulously. There are food issues and weight issues to get right.

          Irene goes to work on the Internet to research how others have approached the JMT. Bill Finch's 1987 trip is illuminating and a good read. There is the 1999 aborted trip story (probably too much weight); the boy scouts who "ran" it in fifteen days tale; the sixty/seventy year old folks stories; etc. The trail has hundreds of tales and hopefully ours will be one more.

          Chris Townsend's interview with Ray Jardine on his lightweight doctrine gets us seriously considering all the stuff we don't need to bring. Not too sure about the umbrella and its functionality in the High Sierra, but other hints that lighten the load are well taken. Internet connections make transportation plans and food resupply much easier with appropriate telephone numbers and addresses.

          While Irene is busy with Internet research, I set about learning the trail. I read the Sierra Club tote books: The Best About Backpacking (to make sure the most important matters are considered) and Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail. The Guide is a wonderful blow by blow indispensable tool. It is filled with around-most-every-corner, what to expect on the trail, where the camps and views are, side trips and in case of emergency exit trails information. Although the book tracks the trail from north to south we plan a south to north expedition.

          Hiking the trail south to north puts the Sun at your back rather than in-your- face most the way. You get the toughest climbs first (if you can hack that you can probably make it all the way); and there are more opportunities for food at the end of the trip (Reds Meadow & Tuolumne) so you need not carry as much weight in the beginning.

          Neither of us wants to climb Mt. Whitney at this time; so we decide to avoid Whitney altogether (as well as $15 admission fee) and enter the Sierra at Cottonwood Pass about five miles south of Whitney. We are familiar with Cottonwood having staged many backpacks from there. You drive up to 9.5K' and within four miles you are over your first 11K' pass. You have a sense of accomplishment right away to lift your spirits and fire you up (as long as you don't suffer from altitude sickness). The modest ascent gets the 'ole heart pumping, but nothing like the exhausting climb out of Yosemite Valley.

Sierra Reflections

Typical High Sierra reflective alpine lake

          With the trail description read, I next want to commit it to memory so that I do not feel the need to carry the guide book on our trek. It is easy for me to visualize the trip if I have good maps. So we go back on-line to research who has topo maps of the Sierra on CD-ROM. Although, Topo has many CD-ROM packages, as yet they do not have any for Macintosh. James Associates has a CD of JMT topo maps for Macintosh; but, I am unable to determine whether their GPS software will allow me to print out segments of the maps to carry with me into the wilderness. That's a shame since this CD seemed to be a perfect solution. (James Associates after our trip returns my email inquiry with an affirmative. You can print PICT images from the maps on their CD. Too late.)

          Tom Harrison offers a marvelous packet of thirteen 9"x12" 7.5 minute maps of the entire JMT. I like the shading of the topography; you readily know whether you are going up or down (for those of you who have a little trouble reading topo maps). Since we have a Garmin GPS-12, I appreciate the lat/long tick marks included at every minute to help me easily coordinate positions. I decide to make my own prints of the original maps by scanning them into the computer and outputting to ink jet printer. This seems like a lot of extra effort, but: it preserves the originals for subsequent trips; it allows me to print front and back so I have less paper (a minimal weight advantage); I can connect-the- dots grid the map at one minute intervals thereby making GPS locating even easier when in the field; I get better acquainted with the trail; and once into the computer I am able to zoom in on details to more accurately calculate preliminary way points.

          Perhaps this level of trip detailing seems excessive. I realize the JMT trekked by thousands is practically a freeway through the Sierra. If you cannot follow this trail you should not be out there at all. John Muir would not choose to take the path named in his honor but would rather go "by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way ..." -JM. As much as I aspire to walk in the footsteps of JM, on a trail or not, I like to know where I am and where I am going. For me it is part of the adventure and part of the fun. Satellite positioning would be inconsequential to John Muir.

          I have GPS coordinates collected during previous trips on and around segments of the JMT. I load these into the Garmin along with seventy interpolated way points taken off the map. I estimate lat/long for trail crossings, river crossings, lakes, passes, exit routes, etc. I am curious how accurate these estimates will be once we arrive at the actual locations. Since May 2000, consumer GPS is more accurate without the strategic error previously imposed. My Garmin is twice as fast to acquire satellites and twice as accurate when it does (within eighteen foot radius). I will carry the eight ounce GPS just for fun; I do not expect to need it.

Going Home

High Sierra creek crossing

          I compile a list of the trail highlights along with altitude, lat/long, and mileage between points (like that used in Starr's book). It is printed on a half sheet of paper to keep with the maps as a loose itinerary. We can make daily plans and assess our progress easily from this tracking sheet. Again, this extra documentation helps me commit the trail to memory.

          I see the trail as a pass-a-day trek. Rise early and hike until about noon, take a big lunch/dinner break during the heat of midday, then hike again until dusk, grab a snack and bed down. This seems the most efficient way to cover a lot of ground without getting exhausted. It also separates your eating place from your sleeping place to lessen the chance of an unpleasant bear encounter.

          We pick August for our trek. August is the peak of the summer season, low risk of lingering or falling snow, the safety of numbers with plenty of people traffic (even if most people are headed north-to-south in the opposite direction) and the best time to get out of home in hot Southern California and stay in cooler climes at altitude.

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