Mt Whitney the long way.... the John Muir Trail

17 Sep 1998 - by Dewey Dumond

So you've done Whitney by the Portal, by the Mountaineers route, by the East face, but how about the back side from Yosemite? During the winter and spring when incessant El Nino rain kept us inside wondering when we would ever get out climbing, Mike Rinaldi and I started working on trips we wanted to take this year. We both wanted to do the John Muir Trail, but I couldn't afford the normal 3 week trip, family and work responsibilities precluded that. I convinced Mike we could hike 21 miles a day and blaze the JMT in 10 days, and Mike agreed to come. With the trip nearing, Mike, Rich Caliger and I went to Tuolumne Meadows and attempted to do three 21 miles days. The results weren't very encouraging, we did 2 x 20 miles and decided to climb Mt. Dana on the third day, convinced our earlier goal was unrealistic. I knew we had to extend the trip a few days longer and so I reluctantly asked my wife and boss if I could take 2 weeks off. This was not met with approval at home or at work, I had to threaten to quit my job and I ended up forfeiting my climbing rights for 1999 to satisfy my wife, but the trip was on! And so it was that myself, Mike and Jimothy Farhni planned to do the JMT in 13 days, averaging around 17 miles per day. We would resupply twice, once at Tuolumne Meadows, 1.5 days into the trip, and again at Vermillion Valley Resort on Lake Edison, 6 days into the trip. Earlier experience indicated we would need about 2 pounds of food per day, making food the heaviest part of our packs. Yosemite's bear reputation as well as other trouble spots in Kings Canyon, convinced us to buy bear canisters which added another 2.7 lbs. to our load. We went light other wise, Jimothy and I used bivy sacks and Mike used a solo tent, however we were far from the "Ray Way", we had packs that weighed 40 to 55 lbs. depending on the food level. The day before the hike, my wife dropped us off in the Yosemite valley, about the same time hurricane Isis was homing in on the baja peninsula. A light sprinkle started to fall, a trend we would see for 6 of the next 7 days.

Sept 4 Day 1 15 miles Yosemite Valley to Sunrise High Camp We took the obligatory photos at the Happy Isles trail head and started exactly at 8:00. The sky was mostly overcast and the ascent towards Vernal and Nevada Falls was easier than we expected due to the mild conditions. We passed the Half Dome trail at noon and the Clouds Rest trail a few minutes later, the ascent was gradual but the sky began to look a little darker. It eventually started sprinkling in the late afternoon, setting a precedent that would follow us for the next week. We arrived at Sunrise to find the high camp completely deserted, we guessed that they never opened it this year. Today was to be one of our lowest mileage days, but the 5,365' gained was probably our greatest elevations gained in a day.

Sept 5 Day 2 16 miles Sunrise to Lyell Canyon We woke up to a dry morning, all signs of the previous days sprinkles had disappeared. Sunrise is located in beautiful Long Meadow and as we climbed towards Cathedral Pass (9,730') we were greeted with one beautiful meadow after another. Wildflowers we amazingly abundant for this time of the year, owing to this years massive snowpack. As we climbed we passed under Tressider Peak and got great views of Echo Peaks as well as Cathedral Peak. Mike took some great pictures of Cathedral Peak reflecting off the glassy surface of Cathedral Lake. We arrived at the Tuolume Meadows Post office at 10:15 and picked up our first resupply of food. After hamburgers at the grill we headed into Lyell Canyon now shouldering the weight of full packs for the first time. The sky began to cloud up and sprinkles followed off and on for the next couple hours. Our hope was to camp up on the bench at the end of the canyon, but a heavy rain forced us into rain jackets and pack covers, and eventually we set camp near Ireland Creek.

Sept 6 Day 3 16 miles Lyell Canyon to Thousand Island Lake We spent the morning trying to dry our gear, an effort we would do less and less of as the trip went on. The sun was out and the sky was blue and we had excellent views of Mt. Lyell as we began climbing toward Donahue Pass (11,056'). The sky suddenly darkened, causing some concern about going over the pass, but the threat of lightning never materialized. We hit the top of the pass at 1:00 and said goodbye to Yosemite as we entered the John Muir Wilderness. The sun came back out and we stopped for lunch along side one of the most beautiful meadows I've ever seen. Fields of Indian Paintbrush and Lupine extended out in all directions as far as the eye could see. This area between Donahue and Island Passes had the highest concentration of wildflowers I've ever seen in the Sierra's, making it one of my favorite spots on the entire trip. We had El Nino to thank for the late season bloom. Intermittent sprinkles followed us to Thousand Island lake, were the sky eventually cleared and allowed us our first starry night sky.

Sept 7 Day 4 16 miles Thousand Island Lake to Reds Meadow We woke up to a clear, crisp morning and enjoyed the views of Mts. Ritter and Banner. The day was spent hiking from one beautiful lake to another, as we passed Emerald, Ruby and Garnet Lakes. The skies began to clouded up again, and the sprinkles followed shortly after, as we hiked past Shadow, Rosalie, Gladys and Johnston Lakes. We could see the Devil's Postpile across the river, but a washed out bridge prevented our crossing over and the next bridge would have meant backtracking 2 miles, and none of us felt like the side trip. The trail from here to Reds Meadow passes through a burned out forest, and between the burned trees and the horse damaged trail, this section had few redeeming features. Jimothy had complained of a few blisters earlier on the trip, but this long slog up and down sandy trails added a few more. We had cheeseburgers at the Reds Meadow grill, washed down with a couple Sierra Nevada Pale Ales, and took showers! Our brush will civilization was to be tarnished though, as we ended up camping next to the couple from hell. They had a domestic quarrel that went on until 3 a.m. and the worst part was the argument just kept repeating itself. "That's MY pink lighter?" was heard ad nausium all night.

Sept 8 Day 5 16 miles Reds Meadow to Lake Virginia At 7,700' we were at the lowest point we would be at on the JMT, we had a steady uphill climb past Red Cones until we came to the Silver Divide and got our first views of the Cascade Valley were we stopped for lunch. We again climbed steady passing Purple Lake and stopped for the night at Virginia Lake. It was very windy at the lake, which helped us dry out our bivy's and clothes, but before the day ended it rained, keeping our wet streak continuous. Today was the first day we started comparing our ailments, I had gotten diarrhea and feared I might have gotten Giardia, Mike had achilles tendonitis, and Jimothy's feet we badly blistered in multiple spots.

Sept 9 Day 6 17 miles Lake Virginia to Vermillion Valley Resort (Lake Edison) We woke to a cold, crisp, windy morning and descended down towards Tully Hole, along Fish Creek. We then began a long easy ascent towards Silver Pass (10,900'). The clouds and sky started to darken an soon we were in intermittent sprinkles. As we neared the top of the pass the temperature dropped below 40 and we started getting a little snow. We hurried down the other side towards Quail Meadow and got great views of the Vermillion Cliffs. We left the JMT and crossed Quail Meadow to get to the ferry stop at Lake Edison. Vermillion Resort is 4 miles further by trail, and most hikers pay to take the twice a day ferry across the lake. As we waited for the ferry to arrive, several bolts of lightening hit the general area, and believing the ferry wouldn't cross the lake in that weather we started hiking in. The ferry did come, but we had hiked too far to get back in time, so we put in a few extra miles we could've done without . Vermillion Valley Resort is a haven to weary hikers, they really cater to PCT and JMT thru hikers. The first drink is on the house, the first night is free in the hikers tent and the staff treats you like family. We had BBQ steak for dinner, homemade pie for desert, all washed down with the requisite Micro Brews, and best of all....showers! During dinner, Jimothy revealed to us just how bad his blisters were, and feared he might have to abandon the hike. Mike suggested a rest day might allow him time to mend his wounds, and so we agreed to take an unplanned rest day.

Sept 10 Rest Day Vermillion Valley Resort I had the best nights sleep of our trip so far, and we woke up to an absolutely beautiful day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and we spent the day unpacking our resupply boxes and reading on the lakeshore. We met a lot of fellow hikers, including Al, who had to be over 70 years old and was doing his 6th JMT! We found out that a lot of the hikers ended up staying here an extra day or two because of the hospitality, and so we nicknamed it the "Hotel California" were you can check in, but never leave. We heard tales of "Marathon Man". He's a fellow who does the PCT every year using a superlight pack (<25lbs). He's been known to hike 45 miles a day and at one time swam the length of Lake Edison. Upon reaching the other shore, Butch, one of the Vermillion owners said he crawled out of the Lake looking like a "drowned rat" and proceeded to introduce himself. "Hi, I'm Marathon Man", he said. At that Butch replied, "You sure are!". The Vermillion tales are many and very entertaining. It was great to spend a day among kindred souls. We used our day to heal up, I took imodium, Mike iced his achilles, and Jimothy lanced and taped his blisters.

Sept 11 Day 7 15 miles Vermillion Valley Resort to Heart Lake We woke up to a nice sunny morning and after breakfast we took the ferry across the lake to rejoin the JMT. Our packs are now the heaviest, and the passes ahead of us are the highest of the trip, but we feel better after a days rest. We passed through dense aspen forests before hiking along pretty Bear Creek. We started climbing up towards Marie Lake and the sky started to cloud up and darken. We sensed rain and stopped to get out jackets, Jimothy evidently sensed worse and started putting on pants as well. Moments later it started snowing on us, the snow had the size and shape of hail, but was not frozen solid, it was less dense. We waited out the heaviest of the snow and then continued up toward Seldon Pass (10,900'). We were starting to run out of daylight as we neared the pass, and then the snow began falling again, making this one of the more challenging days on the trail. We crested the pass and descended down to just beyond Heart Lake, were we found a marginal flat to camp. We were eating a late dinner by headlamp when I got my next challenge... a crown fell off one of my teeth! Thankfully the tooth had already had a root canal, so this was more of an inconvenience, than a problem, but I was quietly wondering if anything else could go wrong.

Sept 12 Day 8 19 miles Heart Lake to Evolution Valley We awoke to a clear, crisp morning and hiked down passed the beautiful Sallie Keyes Lakes. This is where we would have liked to have spent last night, we just ran out of daylight. We would spend the next few days trying to catch up to our planned schedule. We left behind the John Muir Wilderness and entered Kings Canyon. We spent much of the day hiking beside the South Fork of the San Joaquin river, as we approached Evolution Valley. The weather changed for the better, not a single cloud in the sky, we would get no more rain or snow for the rest of the trip. We passed beautiful McClure meadow, and not surprisingly there were quite a few tents pitched here. We also ran into Al the 70 year old from Vermillion. We were at first surprised that he was ahead of us but then found out that he had driven from Vermillion to Lake Florence and saved a day of hiking in the process. We continued up towards Evolution Lake, but again fell a little short of our daily goal, stopping at large flat camp near a stream. We got our share of mosquitoes this evening, and we all bundled up in fleece for protection.

Sept 13 Day 9 18 miles Evolution Valley to Palisades Canyon We hiked uphill past Evolution Lake, and then passed Sapphire and Wanda Lakes before the slog up Muir Pass (11,955'). You can see the stone hut on the top of the pass for miles before you get there, and we stopped for lunch and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. Mike climbed up to the top of the hut for a photo and declared it to be an easy class 5! We then passed Helen Lake as we started the descent towards Le Conte Canyon. Our pace was slowed by the rocky descent and numerous stream crossings. The canyon is spectacular with it's impressive vertical walls and numerous meadows. Grouse Meadow was among the finest we saw on the entire trip. We started climbing upwards along Palisade Creek and choose a fine site for the evening, still a little short of our planned schedule.

Sept 14 Day10 17 miles Palisades Canyon to Lake Marjorie We began the day with a 3,500' climb past Palisades Lake on our way towards Mather Pass (12,100'). There were a lot of clouds, but the weather never worsened. We passed many hikers and ended up sharing the pass with about nine others during our snack break. We got great views of Split and Mt. Sill. We hiked down the So. Fork of the Kings River, along a very stark landscape, surrounded by tall peaks. We made camp at lovely Lake Marjorie and got back onto schedule.

Sept 15 Day 11 19 miles Lake Marjorie to Charlotte Lake This day was the real test of the trip, we tackled Pinchot (12,130') and Glen (11,978') passes. We hit Pinchot with fresh morning legs and flew up and over, taking a short break at Twin Lakes. We hiked down Woods Creek most of the morning, before crossing the "Golden Gate Bridge of the Sierra" a real neat suspension bridge, that sways just enough to add a little drama to the river crossing. We took an afternoon break at Arrowhead Lake underneath Fin Dome, before climbing up to the Rae lakes. These lakes really do live up to their reputation as being among the most beautiful in the Sierra's. With a short break here we started up Glen Pass, which proved to impressive with it's exposure and steep switchbacks. We enjoyed a great sunset as we headed to Charlotte Lake and made dinner under a beautifully starry sky.

Sept 16 Day 12 20 miles Charlotte Lake to Sandy Meadow There was a light hearted feeling as we had breakfast, the realization that end of the trail was almost in sight, and we were going to make it. We gained almost 3,000 feet before we even got to Forester Pass (13,200'), but we were getting stronger every day and the packs got a little lighter, and we flew up and over leaving behind Kings Canyon and entering Sequoia NP. We descended down to Bubbs Creek and Vidette Meadows. This area has a reputation for it's beauty, but we didn't see much from the trail. We climbed up Bighorn Plateau were we got great views of Tyndall, Williamson, Russell and Whitney. We were getting excited now, and pushed on beyond our scheduled camp. We found a great camp near Wright Creek and watched the alpenglow on Mt. Whitney. Mosquitoes liked this site also, but even they couldn't dampen our spirits of being this close to finishing the JMT.

Sept 17 Day 13 20 miles Sandy Meadow to Mt. Whitney to Whitney Portal /b> We woke at 3 a.m. and hit the trail by 4:00 with headlamps on. Jimothy didn't want any afternoon thundershowers to prevent us from summitting and we all looked forward to getting into Lone Pine for showers and food. We made good time in the darkness and passed by the Crabtree Ranger Station at first light. We passed by Guitar Lake and quite a few hikers just getting started. Our pace was smooth and easy all the way up to the Trail Crest. Most people coming up the backside drop their packs here before going on to the summit, but we figured we'd carried them this far we might as well carry them all the way. We sumitted at 11:07, followed by lots of high fives and the mandatory summit photos. It was a sunny and cloudless day, but it was still cold on top, and after lunch we headed down. We had just finished the JMT, but we still had eleven miles to go. I remembered a past hike down feeling like it went on forever, and that still hasn't changed! We were tired and it was getting late in the day when we finally got to the portal, and we had no ride down into town. We stuck out our thumbs and the third car pulled over and gave us a ride, a perfect ending! We got a motel in town, and I've never enjoyed a shower as much I enjoyed that one. We celebrated that night with Italian food and a pitcher of micro-brew.

Sept 18 Lone Pine to Ridgecrest to the Bay Area We caught a Greyhound bus to Ridgecrest, where we rented a car one-way to get us to the Bay Area. Mike lived up to his Italian heritage, driving us home in record time. We all survived our various ailments, we finished better friends than when we started, and we all agreed two weeks was too fast, Mike and Jimothy are already talking about how many days they will take the next time they hike it. I've been told by my wife not to plan any more two week trips any time in the near future, but I'm sure glad I got to go on this one! We got to see awesome peaks, beautiful meadows and lakes, starry skies, and more wildflowers than I ever dreamed of!

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