At the tail end of summer 2023, a ragtag band set out to hike the John Muir Trail (JMT), a long-distance push over the Sierra Nevada in California, starting in the Yosemite area and ending with a climb over Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48.
The John Muir shouldn’t be confused with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a much longer trail that runs the entire span of the United States’ western coast, but over this part of California they’re one and the same. As you’re walking the JMT as a long-distance, ultralight-obsessed, travel-worn backpacker, it’s not unusual to come across (and usually be passed by) another breed of even longer-distance, even more ultralight-obsessed, and even more travel-worn backpacker, as they go about their 4 to 6 month odyssey along America border to border.
An end-to-end run of the JMT typically takes three weeks. With all of us working age and somewhat time-constrained, we were planning to do shortened version of it in two, but even this more modest project ended early (read on).
2023 was a year of unusual high precipitation in California, which left the whole area beautifully green and with resevoirs and creeks at their fullest in a decade, but is also the reason we waited until late August for the hike, to give the mountain snow atop the Sierras a chance to recede.
Like everyone knows, the best way to start any trip is with a flat tire.
On the final stretch of the narrow road up to Vermillion Camp, windows open, there’s a sudden pop and the distinctive sound of air rushing out of a narrow opening at high speed. I had three seconds of ignorant bliss wondering what that sound was before it became the noise of rubbery tread signaling with little ambguity the presence of a flat. Being the only vehicle in a mile in any direction, there wasn’t much question as to who the puncture belonged to.
Better yet, it’s a rental. We’re not even sure if there is a spare, let alone where to find it. The vehicle is a Jeep. Remember when the spare tire on a Jeep hung off the back door, as obvious as the sun in a clear blue sky? Those old days are behind us and this is 2023, the year of the undifferentiated SUV design, and the storied Jeep is no exception, looking just like every other SUV on the road.
Ten minutes and a lot of experimentation later, someone finally decides to RTFM, we realize that the spare is mounted out of sight on the car’s undercarriage, and is manually winched down using a special access port hidden under a plastic cap in the trunk.
That’s the bad news. The good is that there’s literally no better time ever to get a flat than when you’re on vacation with an amorphous schedule and a bunch of dudes. A flat tire moves from concerning incident to team building activity, with everyone pitching advice and labor. What was a somewhat worrying situation a few minutes ago becomes benign as the five of us argue about best practices for jacking a car and getting the tired changed out.
We finish with a lopsided vehicle (the spare isn’t full sized), but one that’s drivable, and make our way into Vermillion, finding our campsite to be in a prime location on the shores of Lake Edison.
This first day is for driving, acclimatization, and for some of us to get used to our equipment. I haven’t been backpacking in a long time, and am impressed by tech advances over the last two decades:
I’m carrying a full-sized freestanding tent that weighs only two pounds. It has UX features like poles and latch points that are color coordinated to maximize the ease and speed in which it can be assembled. With a little practice, I can put it together in two minutes flat.
I borrowed a modern air mattress (thanks Farina). It has two separate levels of valve granularity that let it to be easily inflated and deflated in two minutes each. It provides practically perfect insulation from the ground, helping to keep even the coldest of nights warm.
I borrowed an REI-brand lightweight down quilt (thanks Farina), which is like a sleeping bag with no bottom layer (intended for use with a Therm-a-Rest so it’s not needed), but can be jammed back into its stuff sack in under a minute, a job that used to be an arduous ~5 minutes for the heavy synthetic sleeping bags that I used as a kid. Amazing.
That night we stop in for dinner at Vermillion’s small cafe, and are treated to some ludicrously large fajitas (this appelation challenged by several members of our group who believe them to be more of a quesidilla). We’re overcharged for beer, but buy some anyway. It’s our last opportunity for this sort of luxury, along with freerunning water and power for quite a while.
Another camper stops by our site in the morning and tells us that she’s been coming here for decades and it’s the first time in many years that Lake Edison looks full and beautiful. Drought conditions in California have meant that it’s been a long time since the area’s looked this pretty.
We swim in the lake before leaving. The air is warm. The water is refreshing, and very cold.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast we drive back out of the campground to find parking along the feeder road. For the next two hours we search for a new freeform wilderness campsite for the night. We coin the term “Farinateering”, which roughly means “bushwhacking in circles carrying heavy objects like cast iron pans for many hours before eventually arriving at a destination that was 15 minutes from the road along a well-worn path”. That’s okay, none of us are here to take the easy way out.
We decide to pitch along the shores of Doris Lake, midway between Lake Edison and the Mono Hot Springs.
After many hours of exhausting Farinateering, Umur, a wise executive, determines the only wise course of action available, which is to take a midday nap on an unusually ergonomically-sound rock.
Rob investigates the feasibility of escaping the lake via bouldering a sheer granite slab. It doesn’t occur to me until much later, but the photo is a microcosm representing our progress on the trip.
I find my most epic tent pitch ever. If you’re going to visit Beverly Hills Rock, please make sure to pick up a guest pass at the guard booth, pleb. This is top dollar lakefront property after all!
We hike into the Mono Hot Springs campground for dinner and one last resupply. One half of our party gets lost on the way and runs into a large rattlesnake in the rocks, but we’re in full barbarian mode now and no one is overly concerned about it.
Once reaching the campground every one of us orders one last burger (except Umur, who gets a blackened fish fillet). Our waiter is an incredibly pleasant European from Prague that calls us all “sir”, which feels overly formal for a bunch of vagrants wearing hiking pants and with zinc sunscreen slathered all over their faces. We finish late and walk the mile back to camp by the light of our headlamps.
Day 3 is really day 1, where the trip gets real and we start hiking long distances. We say goodbye to Umur, the car, and heavy luxuries like our cast iron pan, camp chairs, and dignity, and get hiking.
For the first time, we realize just how heavy our packs are, how hot California is, and how far we still have to go. I take a sunburn on the lips that’ll last all week and into the next. (Note to self: buy hat.)
Farina starts to use the word “exogenous” a lot, one that I haven’t heard since high school science. We all smile and nod, pretending that we’re speaking mutually intelligible English, but secretly, none of the rest of us know what the hell he’s talking about.
That is, until he jumps into the first creek we find, fully clothed. The idea is to cool oneself using an exogenous (def’n: “relating to or developing from external factors”) source of water, thereby conserving the body’s internal supply. It’s really hot so this seems like a magnificent idea to the rest of us, and we follow suit.
The day is spent hiking from the road up Bear Creek Trail to the point where it intersects with the JMT and PCT, which are functionally the same thing along this stretch. We camp by a creek shortly after, starting to get used to the dramatically reduced number of people we’re now seeing, with our only neighbors being a couple evening headlamps visible in the distance one campsite over.
Day 4 is our first major push of the entire trip, planned at 15 miles, but more like 20 by the end of the day. We’re still getting used to sleeping on the trail, but spirits are high.
From left to right: Peter (PVH), Rob, Farina. Despite an Italian last name, Farina is obviously not indulging in enough pizza and pasta. It’s okay though, because despite a non-Italian last name, I’ve been picking up the slack.
We go up over Seldon Pass, passing by many beautiful alpine lakes. Marshall Lake and Marie Lake on the way up. Heart Lake and Sallie Keys Lake on the way down.
We eat lunch at the top of the pass, meeting Keith (not pictured), a PCTer who we’ve been intermittently passing and being passed by all day, and another fellow from Glasgow.
After a previous bad experience with marmots, Rob doesn’t like marmots, and spends as much time chasing them away from his pack as he does eating food. The marmots go hungry, temporarily, but appear unconcerned as they wait for the next
victim hiker to come through.
Now back down the other side.
Rob picked up his vintage 80s pack at a thrift store and despite being heavier than anything else on the mountain, it’s a huge hit on the trail. Everyone we speak to for more than a few minutes comments on it. Often it takes less than time than that, and sometimes it’s the only thing someone notices about our party.
That was Heart Lake. Next up, Sallie Keyes.
There are many water crossings along the trail. We quickly learn that although it’s often possible to use stones and logs to get to the other side without getting your feet wet, it’s just as often not possible. Some hikers carry a pair of sandals to change in and out of around unavoidably submarine crossings, but in the spirit of exogenism, all four of us wade straight into every one we come across.
I realize that I’ve internally redefined the word “dry” from its traditional sense of “not wet” to mean something more like “not having walked through a creek in the last half hour”.
At the other end of the lake we pass a group of hikers going the other way who tell us that we’re in for an “epic downhill”. Having just traversed a pass we thought we were largely done for the day, so it didn’t immediately register. We were indeed in for an epic downhill involving miles worth of switchbacks down to Shooting Star Meadow.
We hadn’t realized it going in, but this would be our longest stretch without easy access to water. Luckily it was on the downhill for us, but we pass a number of very thirsty people on the way up. One parched-looking Australian in particular I realize in retrospect I should’ve offered a refill to.
We pass a fallen giant that someone’s helpfully analyzed and labeled to be 186 years old as they were clearing a way through it for the path.
It was a long day and we arrive at our campsite along the gushing Piute River in the last hour of daylight. We laud ourselves on almost 20 miles walked when a guy comes in who tells us that he’s just done 30 miles – effectively hiking the same distance that we did in two days in one. None of us wants to hear it. Get outta here guy!
Golden hour out here is tremendous, with the valleys having already fallen into mostly darkness, but with the final rays of the sun still illuminating the mountainsides. Here’s the Pavilion Dome, towering above us.
I walk around at night a little and find a scorpion, albeit one of only modest size. One of the surprises of the Sierra Nevada for me is how little fauna there is of any size compared to the Rockies. In the Rockies it’s not uncommon to come across larger wildlife like bighorn sheep or various members of the deer family, but at all times the ground is teeming with all kinds of insects and arachnids, whereas in the Sierras I’ve mostly come across only mosquitoes and blackflies (which the Rockies also have plenty of). It’s a little disappointing, but to be honest, I don’t miss the giant wolf spiders in Alberta that run faster than I do.
The days and nights are now a little cooler. Farina isn’t jumping into as many rivers as before, and switches from saying “exogenous” to “endogenous”. (endogenous def’n: “having an internal cause or origin”, meaning roughly, “bring your own sweat for cooling.”)
Our big job of the day will be to make it across the San Joaquin, which in previous years had a bridge across it, but one that was destroyed this season by higher than normal water flow.
The JMT eventually crosses back over the San Joaquin, so Farina had originally plotted us on an “up and over” route that involved avoiding the initial crossing and instead scrambling a cliffside and descending further up the trail. This option would’ve been a bit of a slog though, so we’d been talking to hikers going the other to ask after what they’d done to get across, and the nearly universal reply is that they’d forded the river a little downstream from where the bridge was out, saying that it was possible to find places where the water was about thigh deep and not running too fast.
We found that someone had thoughtfully built a cairn near a good crossing point, and as other hikers had reported, had no trouble getting across.
A team from the National Forest Service had set up camp in the area so they could work towards clearing the remains of the bridge.
Eager to demonstrate their bonafides as federal employees, they were unfriendly to a degree that seemed to indicate that they thought they were actors satirically playing their roles in an SNL skit, refusing to acknowledge basic greetings, and casting dangerous looks in our direction if we looked like we might be getting too close. They’d littered the area with vituperative signs to make it clear that nothing resembling basic humanity should be expected under any circumstances.
The rest of the day was spent hiking up along Evolution Valley, considered by many to be the most beautiful spot in Kings Canyon National Park, a claim that I can endorse.
Our pitch that night was one of the most picturesque, sleeping under the shadow of The Hermit, a gorgeous 12,000+ foot peak. There were a couple very nice campsites, but the mosquitoes descended upon us like a plague, so we ended up pitching away from meadows on a long granite slab. Unfortunately that didn’t do anything to deter the mosquitoes, so we ate quickly and had an early bedtime.
To enter my tent I’d run 50 feet to the other end of our granite slab, temporarily discombobulating the cloud buzzing around me, then 50 feet back in the other direction, nosediving through as narrow of an opening in its entryway as I could make.
Out of all the bugspray we brought, Farina’s Eucalyptus-based solution is the only one that seems to be empirically having any effect. The snake oil REI sold me is as effective of a mosquito deterrent as sugar water.
We hadn’t spotted anyone around our campsite are the previous day and had assumed that we were largely alone, but the next morning we find a surprising number of backpackers passing us in both directions, suggesting that they must’ve camped nearby (or gotten up very early). We’re a little slow in packing up camp and I use the opportunity to try and dry clothes on our giant rock slab and array a bank of solar panels I’d brought along to recharge my battery pack.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve found that I’ve vastly overestimated my power requirements for the trip, and could’ve left the solar panels and even the power bank at home. I’ve been reading a Kindle every night before bed, but it’s still at 90%+ charge. My iPhone in airplane mode has been holding a steady 40-60% charge for three days now. My camera and headlamp could’ve made the whole trip without a recharge. Low-power chips, LED lights, and lithium batteries have made backpacking easier than it used to be, but I’m still spending an unreasonable amount of time monitoring power levels that can only be explained by a creeping digital addiction to which the entire world has fallen prey.
Today, another pass, once again decorated by alpine lakes. This one named for the man himself: Muir Pass.
At the top of the pass is the John Muir Memorial Shelter, built in 1931 to commemorate Muir and serve as an emergency shelter for high-reaching climbers. I wasn’t expecting it to be so thoroughly well-constructed, cut from the very stone surrounding it. Ten hurricanes could roll through and it’d still be standing.
I meet a solo backpacker in her early 20s inside who tells me that the hut represents the exact halfway point of the JMT and her trip. It’s a popular place to meet and greet, and some of our party spends some time inside shooting the breeze with other hikers.
I hike without poles or microspikes, something that used to be perfectly normal for almost all of human history, but which has become unusual in the last decade or so. Suspicious even.
Other backpackers in the hut warn for 47th time this trip that without these critical tools I’m a dead man. You hear me? DEAD. It is simply not humanly possible to cross a patch of 50 feet of slushy snow unaided by modern technology. Would you go up Everest without oxygen too you f*ing nutjob? I nod solemnly and say that I’ve accepted my fate. Could they please say a nondemoninational prayer for me once they reach the other side.
Now that gravity’s on our side again, some members of our crew take advantage of natural shortcuts down the mountain.
Although finally on the descent, we still have quite a long way to go and are racing the clock to make a good campsite before sunset. Part of this is our late start, but we also seem to be very good at pacing our days so that we use every last minute of daylight. Not a bad thing necessarily, but necessitates a quick march for the last few miles to make sure we’re not setting up our tents by headlamp.
We find a campsite near the river that’s a stone throw’s distance away from a ranger cabin. With a long day behind us and mosquitoes bad again, we allow ourselves the luxury of a campfire, which is permitted again now that we’re back below 10,000 feet. It’s a huge hit and helps keep the bugs away. For the first time since the trip’s beginning, we stay up later than 9 PM.
After a week’s discourse on how our backpacks are too heavy and on our various investments in ultralight equipment, Rob breaks out Laphroaig, which he’s been carrying in the kind of steel flask so robust that carried in your breastpocket, you could take a bullet from anything smaller than a .500 Magnum, briefly pretend to be dead, only to jump back into action as it turns out the heavily fortified flask absorbed the entire force. Hefting it in one hand, I estimate that it weighs roughly the same as a Toyota Corolla.
Overnight we experience an atmospheric effect that’s highly unusual in California: rain. It pitter patters softly on our tents all night long. I’m glad my equipment is reasonably waterproof because I hadn’t even tried to stow my pack.
Today we head up over Bishop Pass on our way to resupply at Parchers, where we’ve shipped containers of extra food and provisions. It’s by far our moodiest day atmospherically, with mountains cloaked in clouds, and giving off heavy Ansel Adams vibes.
On our way up we encounter yet another broken bridge. This one’s even more problematic because it’s still proximately in one piece, but looks like it could break apart at any moment, and teeters precipitously at the edge of a waterfall and long drop below.
We opt to go up and over a series of rocks twenty feet above, giving us a little extra span to catch ourselves in case of a fall, but which in retrospect, is maybe safer than the broken bridge by only the most marginal possible extent, and probably not at all, but we survive.
The day is our longest day so far, with 4,000 feet of elevation gain on the way up to the pass. We make it over, on the way encountering a young backpacker from Japan and an entire platoon of backcountry kayakers, which is apparently a thing, each of whom had carried a 50 lbs. kayak on their shoulder over the pass. On the other side we descend to a parking lot for day hikes departures, and walk the rest of the way along the road to Parchers.
Now we commit an error. We collect our resupply buckets at Parchers, and after many 6,000+ kcal days, everyone is looking forward to a preferrably-very-unhealthy meal not cooked on a camp stove, which the Parchers website seemed to indicate would be available there, but wasn’t.
While slumming around the resort, we meet a firefighter named Nick, who kindly offers to drive us down into Bishop. He warns us that because this was festival weekend in Bishop (coinciding with Labor Day), accommodation might be hard to find, but we’re stuck in an awkward place. With no cellular connectivity (and Parchers unwilling to give us their wifi password), we couldn’t check for accommodation in Bishop without actually going to Bishop. Also, we all really want to eat a cheeseburger.
In Bishop we find the unhealthy meal that we were looking for, but also that accommodation is not only a problem, but an existential one. We’re initially surprised by how tight it is despite a littany of motels in every direction, but with four experienced technologists, and in the age of Expedia, Kayak, AirBnB, Hotels.com, and Hotwire, assume that it’s only a matter of time until we snipe something.
Over the next two hours it dawns on us that there is nothing, not one room, campsite, or cupboard. Not a hundred miles in any direction. Not only that, but there’s also no Lyft, Uber, or even taxis. Not only that, but it’s the long weekend, so there’s also no shuttles to anywhere else in the next two days. Not only that, but no car rental agencies are open, and even if they were, won’t allow a one-way rental at any price. By the time 10 PM rolls around, we’re sitting in a bar with heavy backpacks, full resupply buckets, and no prospects. The situation is grim.
It’s a small town and people are nice. Our server gives us exhaustive local advice, none of which we can use, but we appreciate his commiseration with our plight. The bar’s owner lets us store our resupply buckets overnight.
In a moment of desperation, Rob and Farina, the Americans in our group, walk into the local police precinct and feed them the line, “look, we’re not trying to break any laws, but say you had a hypothetical situation that was so dire that the only available option was to camp in a public park …” The officer, showing small town civility, tells them that in this hypothetical situation, if caught, the infractors would be told to move along, something that backpackers are fairly well known to do anyway. The closest he can get to giving us permission to break the law without explicitly saying so.
There’s BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land five miles out of the city, but with no transport available of any kind, we have no way to get to it. Besides the nearest public park, our one remaining prospect is to see if we can camp on the fairgrounds, which the internet seems to suggest is possible. We start walking that direction, even as we’re still making phonecalls to motels to confirm that there’s indeed really-absolutely-nothing available. Farina stops in at one last hotel and the staff there help him call a municipal shuttle that seems to still be running. The shuttle driver answers the phone and tells us that he’s coming to pick us up right now. This is excellent news, except that no one is exactly sure where we’re being picked up to go to.
He arrives and introduces himself. The name is Nightrider. It’s the shortest shuttle trip of our lives. Nightrider drives us a mile outside of town (which takes less than a minute), points to a field along which a number of RVs are parked (and appear to have been for quite some time), and assures this that this is where he’s taken backpackers to sleep before. He points to an RV. See that? That’s John. Great guy!
As we get out, he looks us in the eye, and says solemnly, “Look, if anybody gives you any trouble, just tell them: Nightrider sent you.” Not a hint of a smile is cracked. He is dead serious. After we’re safely unloaded, he gives us one final nod before peeling away and racing off into the night.
Farina rigs up a tarp using a complex series of intricate folds and knots that’d make a grandmaster Scout Leader cry. The rest of us crack a beer and pretend this isn’t happening. Half an hour later, still incredulous at the absurdity of the situation, we crawl under the tarp and try to sleep.
Something I learn about Bishop – it’s windy. Really windy. We sleep, but with a galeforce that seems to blow at 100 MPH all night, not well, waking up tired and demoralized. (Except Farina, who woke up at the crack of dawn to see what advice he could procure over an omelette at the local Denny’s.)
We break camp and go find breakfast. After more smartphoning we come to realize that there’s no way out of this godforsaken town for at least two more days after the end of the holiday weekend, opening the possibility of two more sleepless nights in a random field somewhere. No way out except for one last flight at 2 PM to SFO before the leg ends for the entire season.
Homeless and barely awake, the thought of hitchhiking our way back up to the trailhead and hiking all the way back over Bishop Pass to continue our journey is hard to swallow right now. Farina’s backpacking spirit is indomitable and he’ll do it, but with a plane ride I have to catch next week to Charleston acting as a hard ratchet on our schedule, and with just about the worst night of sleep I’ve ever had and a promise of more to come, I’m hesitant. The other two are definitively out.
Impulsively, we all book tickets immediately.
We’ve become acquaintances with a young Norwegian PCTer. Although not traveling with him, everywhere we go in Bishop, he’s already there. The 2nd and 3rd time it’s exciting to see a familiar face and we yell enthusiastically “yoo dude it’s you!” The 4th and 5th time defy belief and are progressively more unlikely and funny. At 6+ it gets kind of weird. He gets to each new location first, so doesn’t appear to be following us, but we start to wonder if we’re somehow following him.
Now that our tickets home are booked, we use this omnipresence to our advantage to hand off as many of our extra supplies as he’s willing to take. Farina’s trademarked snack is Target trail mix with sunflower seeds mixed in to fill gaps and maximize caloric density. After a short sales pitch, he donates a few gallons of the stuff along with some vials of olive oil (intended to be drank on their own like a tequila shot), and from the look of the PCTer who’s a skinny 150 lbs. of sinewy muscle, he could use every kcal. He had the same accommodation woes that we did and tells us that he camped at the fairgrounds last night. He survived, but it was extremely loud and he slept about as well as we did.
Bishop’s airport is the smallest I’ve ever seen. We make friends with another backpacker from Sonoma on the way there, and talk about film cameras and black bears before a one-hour flight home that compared to last night, feels a little too easy.
And in an unexpected twist, Farina and I are back in Bishop a week later to climb Mount Whitney and finish the trip. To be continued.