gear test

I generally consider myself to have been cursed with a birthday just days after Christmas, but in this case it meant I got to load up on new gear while I was prepping to apply for a JMT permit. Last week’s Grand Canyon trip provided a chance for me to finally test out my new loot.  I got to retire my synthetic sleeping bag of fifteen years and try out the North Face Blue Kazoo, a much warmer bag than I needed for this trip, but one that will be perfect for the Sierras. A grand success, my two nights in the Kazoo were indistinguishable from my nights in the hotel beds. It resembled sleeping inside what a child imagines a cloud is like.


I also got to test out my Patagonia Nano Air jacket, which I scored in a glorious online sale. The award-winning design lives up to the hype. It’s so warm, you guys. And light, and comfortable to hike in, though I mostly used it around camp or at the windy rim. It’s also way cuter than I expected— fairly form-fitting and not at all constrictive in the shoulders (unlike reports about the redesigned Nano Puff). I didn’t notice the longish sleeves one bit and loved the pockets.I did find myself trying not to snag the delicate-seeming fabric on sticks and zippers, but I have a feeling it’s sturdier than it appears. It also makes a fabulous pillow—since, in the Kazoo, sleeping in a jacket was no longer necessary!

My gear replacement epiphany was sparked by nighttime chills on a short solo trek last September, in particular at Long Lake’s 10,760 feet. Staying warm wasn’t a huge issue on this trip, but I’ll have some cold nights on the Muir Trail without a doubt—especially since I’m starting from the Mono Pass trailhead at a higher elevation than the traditional route.


a return to the trail

So much for keeping up with this blog. Life happens—and sometimes it’s so good you forget anout everything else—but that’s no excuse not to write. And it’s no excuse not to train either—so last week my father and I packed our bags for the Grand Canyon.

My Dad is a hardcore Canyon vet, and I’m also very experienced with the corridor trails, though less so with the “cool routes” he’s spent the last twelve or so years mastering. For this trip, our original plan entailed descending the Grandview Trail to Cottonwood Creek, followed by a second a night at Grapevine, a third night at Cremation, and a fourth night at Phantom Ranch before heading up the South Kaibab to the rim. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I’d been plagued by some troubling stomach issues, so we decided to play it a little safer. We ended up doing a one-nighter at Cottonwood and climbing back up Grandview, then taking a day to explore the rim, and ending with another one-nighter at Phantom via the Kaibab both ways. In all, we hiked about 35 miles, thanks to an 8-mile boost from our so-called “rest day.”

Arriving at the Canyon, we made it to the wind-blasted rim for sunset. Looking out at the sacred natural marvel before me, I felt a stronger spiritual contact with the Canyon than I’d felt last year. I prayed for patience, and I prayed for time.


We hiked down the Grandview the next morning, which may be the steepest trail I’ve ever encountered. At least it was the most consistently steep over its mere 4.5 miles, many lined with brutal cobblestones. We didn’t capture the fierce grade in photos. I guess we were too busy suffering. Or maybe it was because we dropped our camera on one of our rest breaks and half of our photos suffered from the ensuing shutter problems the rest of the trip. Our climb back up for the lost camera added at least another mile to our day. Though Cottonwood Creek (not to be confused with the much more civilized Cottonwood Camp) is only at the level of the Tonto Plateau, getting there felt just as hard as hiking all the way to the bottom.



The same could be said for getting back up. After watching bats reel in the cool gray dusk and sleeping under the stars to the tune of the creek frogs, we woke up with aching muscles and the daunting prospect of retreading our steps to the top. The relentlessly steep ascent was sweetened by the low swoop of a California Condor over our heads and a monstrous helping of mint chocolate chip ice cream at Bright Angel Lodge.

Tuesday was our recovery day. In the morning, we explored breakfast options in Tusayan now that the Best Western has started charging for their buffet. After a successful trip to R&E’s Stage Stop for bagel sandwiches, we drove out to the tower at Desert View, which I’d never seen in my six trips to the park.



I was impressed by how open the canyon is from Desert View. Supposedly, this is the spot where Coronado’s men first set eyes on what would become a wonder of the world.




After climbing up the tower with its faux petroglyphs and more amazing views, we took a quick detour to the new visitor center before catching the shuttle out to Hermit’s Rest, the western terminus of the Rim Trail. From there, we took our time hiking 7.8 miles back to Grand Canyon Village along the winding, intermittently paved route, snapping photos along the way. Our soreness from the Grandview trail began to dissipate.





Wednesday morning, we made our second and final descent, this time taking the familiar South Kaibab down to the river and staying in the campground at Phantom Ranch. Compared to the Grandview, the South Kaibab felt easy, but by the junction with the River Trail near the last mile, we decided to change things up. The River Trail proved a lovely, shaded alternative to the hot Black Bridge crossing and traverse past the beaches.


Arriving at the glistening Bright Angel Creek always feels like entering a fairyland. We got there crazy early, in time for lunch, lemonade from the canteen, and an extended beachside chat.



The wind had picked up over the course of the afternoon and was wreaking its usual springtime havoc, so we pitched a tent this time. I was more than warm in my brand new North Face sleeping bag, which I’ll review in tomorrow’s post.

The final climb back to the rim the went smoothly, mostly under gloriously temperate skies. Some hikers coming downtrail complimented us on going up the Kaibab instead of Bright Angel, but it’s so much faster that its steepness is worth it for a veteran canyon hiker. In the last half hour of hiking, dark clouds took hold out of nowhere, and it grew so cold I was eager to trail my dad’s slower uphill steps rather than wait for him at the top in the wind. As soon as we got back to the car, a light snow began spattering the windshield. Talk about perfect timing.

As I reluctantly return to the “real” world (or leave it, depending on your point of view), I have a clearer sense of what I need to do to prepare for tackling the JMT this summer. The canyon trip was a good barometer for my hiking fitness, and its steep ups and downs make it particularly relevant for the Muir Trail ( though our packs were lighter than mine will be in July). I certainly don’t have the cardiopulmonary conditioning I should have at this point, but I can tell my knee exercises have been paying off: I didn’t feel any knee pain the entire trip! It was also an opportunity to consider my personal growth in the year since I last came to the park. My father agreed there’s been a tremendous difference.



new horizons

I’m so thrilled to officially be hiking the trail, and I’m taking my unconventional entry point in stride. It’s an opportunity to soak up some bold new scenery, which may not measure up to Yosemite Valley and Tuloumne but has the added thrill of being completely unfamiliar. Armed with Tom Harrison maps and a GPS, I shouldn’t have trouble navigating the terra incognita. In fact, it’ll be refreshing to avoid the Happy Isles/Half Dome tourist crowds—though who knows how much more foot traffic the Mono Pass area will get now that Donohue exits are at a premium.


I’ll probably camp the first night at Alger Lakes, which look beautiful, but I may stop sooner if I’m too wiped out from the epic climbs up Parker and Koip Passes. Then, after skirting Gem and Waugh Lakes and wrapping back around to the east, I’ll finish up Day 2 on the north side of my beloved Thousand Island Lake—and back on the Muir Trail for good.


After that, it’s a day and a half of familiar territory: a camp near the Ediza Lake junction or so, and then hitting Reds Meadow for lunch and resupply on Day 4 before moving on towards the Duck Lake junction and Purple Lake. Save for a long ago Whitney day hike, I’ve never been east of Red’s on the JMT, so everything should pose a fresh challenge from there on out.

In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of walking to do. The four-mile jaunts around Hancock Park are all well and good, but I’ve got to step up my game now that this is really happening!

it’s official

I’m trailbound! I finally gave in an switched my third-choice Yosemite entry trailhead to Mono/Parker Pass—which bypasses the whole Donohue bottleneck—and immediately received a reservation for July 27. This means I won’t be on the JMT proper for the first two days, but fortunately I’ve hiked the first 60 miles of the trail before twice anyway, so a slight change of scenery doesn’t bum me out too much. Since Mono Pass starters can’t camp in the park bounds, I may end up camping around Sardine Lake and backtracking a little the next day before heading over Parker. Starting here may shorten the overall trip by a day, but that may not be a bad thing with since some extra high passes will be subbed in for Donohue. It will still be an epic haul, and I can still technically say I hiked fromYosemite to Whitney. And I’ll be able to rejoin the JMT before Thousand Island Lake, one of my favorite spots on the route.

The permit was a bright spot in an otherwise rough day. For some reason, I just didn’t feel like doing life today, and while my suffering wasn’t nearly as acute as it was before I got treatment, I definitely felt like a depressed person. I think I’m creatively stagnating. I try to write but feel paralyzed, and I’ve gone back to avoiding and putting off obligations. Even my daily maintenance walk through the fog didn’t help much. But like the fog, it’ll blow over. Tomorrow is another day, and now I have a hike to plan!

the struggle is real

Friday’s permit attempt was denied. Shocker, I know. Tomorrow, I’ll find out about my apps for July 18-20, which most likely will also get denied. I’m not stressing yet, because these entry dates are already earlier than the ones I wanted, and I’m open to not starting in Yosemite at all if need be. Northbound is looking more appealing all the time, but I want to finish with Whitney.It’s worth trying as hard as I can—fortunately it’s not all that arduous, stone age technology not withstanding (fax? really?).

I hope that actually hiking the JMT is easier than getting a permit! It’s like applying to colleges over again. But a lot of people have gotten them (obviously, since all the slots are full). I’m not on a strict time table, and I’m pretty open minded about where I start. I wish I could attach an extra sheet with eight entry choices for each day instead of the three on the form. It’s a bit of a gamble: should I put my actual top three choices, or stake a bet on a less popular choice? I may mix it up a bit. The one point working in my favor is my solo status.

I’m very grateful to be in my current clear-headed mental space for this frustrating process. I’m able to take it in stride, and forgive my boasting but I’m damn proud of that. To be honest, it’s almost kind of fun, though I’ll be relieved when I finally know where I’m starting and can plot our an itinerary in earnest. Being in limbo, and coping with the unknown in general, is very tough for anyone and I’ve never been good at handling it. But I know I will be somewhere in the Sierras come August, come hell or high water (or low quotas). And that’s enough to keep my chin up.

the other boot drops

Yesterday, Yosemite officials dropped the new rules that had been rumored to be in the works. For late-July hopefuls, it was a bit of a doozy:

“To protect access for other hikers and preserve the quality of the JMT experience, Yosemite National Park is implementing an exit quota on an interim basis. The exit quota will help the park to address access and resource concerns until a comprehensive approach can be developed through the upcoming wilderness stewardship planning process. The interim quota will limit the number of hikers exiting the Yosemite Wilderness over Donohue Pass to 45 per day. The exit quota applies to all wilderness permits reserved or issued after February 2, 2015.”

Naturally—because that’s how my life works, I guess—February 3 was the day I had planned to submit my first permit application for a late July entry. Instead I found myself scrambling to put together a ranked list of strategically chosen start points last night, battling multiple printers, and praying a lot. The competition for today’s lottery will be stiff enough as it is, but it’s the last day before Monday to avoid the Donohue quotas. Many JMT Facebookers have reported three or more failed attempts at scoring permits before finally landing a sub-optimal entry point like Mono Meadow or Lyell Canyon, so I can only imagine what the new quotas will do to the odds.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe these restrictions are a good thing for the park. The increase in foot traffic over the past decade has been staggering. I just wish they’d at least given us a year’s notice so we had more time to plan alternative routes.

Chances are I won’t get any permit today and will have to face the narrowed quota system next week. Then again, it’s possible I’ll get my first choice: a passthrough permit from Happy Isles. Randomness means everything is possible. Hell, I may even score my first choice through hike after the Donohue restrictions go into effect. But the chances will drop from slim to slimmer. I’m not going to stop trying, and fortunately I have a flexible schedule and can start hiking any time within a 12-day window.

Northbound is an option. Other trailheads outside the park are options. In fact, the options are as expansive as the wilderness itself. I’m letting the Universe handle this one and trying not to stress too much, but that doesn’t mean I can curb my anticipation. Within the next few hours I should hear back about my first application. Crossing all my fingers and toes…

moving boxes

I haven’t been keeping up with my regular blogging this week—I’ve been packing, moving into my new place, and getting ready for a weekend out of town. But never fear, I have been getting plenty of exercise! My knees will be grateful for the stair climbs I’ve been doing, and lifting boxes full of books has given my arms some much needed work to do.

Every time I move—and hopefully this will be the final time for awhile—I try to toss out or give away as much as I can. But it’s hard. I get attached to everything from tattered high school track tees to the empty moving boxes themselves. One reason I find backpacking so satisfying is the feeling of liberation from the endless mountains of STUFF we first-worlders tend to accumulate without even trying. When every ounce counts and we pack up and move every day, we’re forced to make hard choices and identify our priorities. And when I’m in the wild, I don’t need things to feel fulfilled. I’m not even planning on bringing non-trail books on the JMT. There’s enough spiritual food out there.

Every time I get out on the trail I get the sense that this is how life is meant to be lived. Yet when I return to the city, all the trappings and clutter have magically become necessities once more. Funny, isn’t it?