August 16 • Day 1
We left Los Angeles at 5 in the morning on Wednesday the 16th – riding along the massive freeways and interstates off and away into the desert – and immediately we felt a wave of relief flood over us. There was no more planning to do, no more groceries we could buy, no more spreadsheets to mull over – it was time in a very real and tangible way. We arrived to Lone Pine with the mountain range we would call home for the next 3 weeks looming to the West. And the relief was replaced by nervousness. A full body wondering and feeling of: “Can we do this?! Are we crazy?! Is this nuts?”
We weighed our packs at the base of Whitney Portal and did a last moment rearranging to balance the weight between the two of us, so that each when loaded up with water came out weighing a whopping 45 pounds (20.4 kilograms)!
And then there was nothing left to do but walk. And walk. And walk.
And as soon as we were nestled in the mountains, we were giddy, full of excitement for 21 days of wildflowers, mountain creeks, waterfalls, boulder fields, and flowing rivers. It was such an overwhelmingly serene sense that the last year of planning and prepping actually had shapes, colors, sounds, textures, moods, shadows, and lights. No longer was the trip about lines in guidebooks or theoretical happenings. It was real. It was here.
That evening we hiked to Trail Camp, a 6.3 mi (10.1km) jaunt from the trail head, and 12,000 ft (3,700 m) high. We didn’t yet have a routine – how to organize ourselves, where to put the tent, how to place the bear canisters, how much food to make – so we were a bit disoriented. With so few belongings though, the task was made much easier. We went to bed exhausted and content.
August 17 • Day 2
We slept through the night calmly and deeply, waking up to one of the most spectacular sunrises either of us had seen in a very, very long while. We packed up camp (again, this was a little clunky as we still had to figure out our routines), and then it was time to face the tallest peak of the trip – Mt. Whitney. This is often hikers’ last summit, as the traditional route on the JMT is from the North to the South, and we are hiking South to North. So we had a challenge ahead of us – a 14,505 ft. (4,421 m) peak, the tallest peak in the 48 Continental United States loaded up with 45 pound packs, and we were only just beginning! We worried that we might feel a bit sick from the altitude, but we both felt sturdy and strong.
And all along the way there were plenty of other hikers encouraging us, supporting us, and acknowledging that we were beginning the JMT in a very difficult way. We felt cared for, loved, and never for one second were we discouraged. There were 99 switchbacks to Trail Crest, and these felt endless as the wind whipped our faces, and the air got thinner. Upon reaching the trail crest, there were many other hikers welcoming us to this point – and we could ditch our packs to complete the final 2 miles to the summit, and again we had another moment of relief. Without our gear we were light as birds and we flew to the top. The view was spectacular, and the sense of accomplishment indescribable. Knowing that the biggest challenge was behind us and we made it with joy, made us realize that we can easily tackle the rest of the trail.
We trekked down to recollect our packs, made our way down countless more switchbacks, leaving the Eastern Sierras behind, and descending into the Western range. We camped at Guitar Lake so named for its uncanny shape, which we spotted from the top of Whitney. At the time it seemed impossible that we would be camping so far away that evening, but we easily made it there by 4pm, in time for lakeside swims, and a brilliant red sunset show on the Western face of Whitney.
August 18 • Day 3
We felt alive and full of wonder as we trekked through meadows and boulder fields, up on plateaus, beside creeks, and into woods. We saw Mt. Whitney from miles and miles away, and couldn’t believe we had just been on its peak the day prior. As we wandered through Sandy Meadow, a fellow hiker passed us going the other direction and we asked, “how’s it going?” He looked into each of our eyes, and said with earnestness, kindness and a smile, “No complaints.” This became our mantra as we journeyed to Tyndall Creek.
Once at our campsite, we were halfway to our first resupply station, and we knew we had WAY too much food – our bear canisters still needed lots of smushing and pushing to close, and our packs were heavy.
Our knees were feeling the pains of lots of pressure on their sensitive joints, and our shoulders and hips were bruised and aching. But we took the attitude of our friendly trail companion who we met earlier in the day, and thought, “No complaints.” Onward.
August 19 • Day 4
We woke knowing that we had another big challenge ahead of us, the second tallest peak of our journey, Forester Pass sitting at 13,153 ft (4,009 m). We began the ascent upwards and the terrain was otherworldly. Almost like a Star Wars desert with pockets of lush grasses, a few snow crossings, and one massive waterfall. It was hard on our bones, and we both, with a touch of remorse, took painkillers to ease the discomfort.
Once at the top, looking back on Sequoia National Park from where we came, and looking out onto Kings Canyon where we were headed, all of the discomfort faded away. We hiked down through snowfields, red from mineral content while mountains towered around us. There 360 degrees of peaks, a creek, and a handful of the most jaw dropping crystal lakes. All of this led to Justyna pulling out her camera time and time again to capture the beauty on film. We stopped at a mountain lake for a swim, a lunch, and a few restful moments of writing and relaxing. We intended to hike another 5 miles to Vidette Meadows, but halfway there saw a nasty storm coming our way, and heard thunder in the distance.
We decided that for the sake of safety we had better stop and set up camp where we met several campers going southbound on the trail. They were nearing the end of their food supplies, and were happy to have some of our extra bars, dehydrated beans and they certainly didn’t turn away our mezcal!
The rains never made it to us, but we were thankful nonetheless to have missed any potential lightning – which in the mountains can be a very dangerous thing.
August 20 • Day 5
We rose at Bubb’s Creek to the babbling and bubbling of the water gently washing over the stones and moss. We had a lighthearted morning, knowing that we had a fairly simple day ahead of us. We enjoyed coffee together on a fallen log, spent a little time meditating, and then lifted our packs back onto our backs – significantly lighter after a few days of eating and giving away our food – and set out for Kearsarge Pass, the only way off the JMT to our first resupply, where we could send pictures and words to our friends and sponsors.
We again met hikers who were impressed with our efforts – and we felt proud that not only are we hiking the more difficult direction, but we are also tackling an extra pass (sitting at 11,709 feet (3,569 m)) – twice, to get off and on the trail.
We made it just shy of the Onion Valley Campground where we would be picked up the next morning, and stayed by a small lake, on a hillside from where we could watch the Total Solar Eclipse the next morning – a very big and rare occasion.
We were alone at our campsite, and realized that we were well prepared – physically and mentally, and also that we have all the necessary gear and clothes that meet our needs in the best possible way.
August 21 • Day 6
We spent a lazy morning drinking coffee and watched the Solar Eclipse – the moon eclipsing the light of the sun in such a way that it felt like evening for a few moments. Even the birds stopped chirping seeming to think that night had descended. Everything felt still as we looked through special glasses at the sun as it disappeared behind the moon.
We slowly walked down the trail to meet our motel host who drove us to Independence, California, from where we could pick up our resupply bucket and send these words and pictures for the blog.
It felt strange leaving the mountains behind descending into a town rather than a grove of trees. We feel that for now we don’t quite belong to this world of roads and shops. Nevertheless, we were absolutely happy to have a hot shower, hair masks, and laundry service.
Tomorrow morning we head back over Kearsarge Pass to reconnect to the John Muir Trail. We won’t have service or contact with the world for another 7 days, and we are ecstatic.