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.

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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.

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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…

stepping it up

I need to get a lot more serious about my physical training. The Muir Trail is studded with giant stone steps, and that’s what’s done my knees in both times I’ve done the first section. But there’s still enough time for me to make a big difference in my knee strength. Unfortunately, over the course of the next week I’ll be moving out of my townhouse, which contains a flight of 15 stairs, into a first-floor apartment. Yesterday I went up and down the stairs 50 times with a break between sets of 25, and it felt great (albeit proving just how out of shape I still am). Now I’m kind of sad I didn’t take better advantage of the stairs when I had them in the privacy of my own home. I did use them for step-ups and hip hikes every week or so, but I really could have gotten some climbing simulations in, maybe even with a full pack. I suppose I could still try scaling the stairs of my new building with a pack on, but the neighbors are bound to shoot me some perplexed looks.

Before I have to bid my lovely staircase goodbye, I’m going to try to do a few more rounds of stairway repeats. I also found a promising new knee exercise, and I’ll try to look for some of the secret stairways that abound on the more easterly side of L.A. where I’m headed. I can’t let excuses like convenience get in the way. Anyone who puts convenience first doesn’t belong on the JMT in the first place.

No matter how many trail journals or guidebooks I read or how many documentaries I watch, if I don’t put in some serious legwork I’m doomed to let myself down. In April, I’m going backpacking in the Grand Canyon in with my dad for five days. Between now and then, though, I need to plot out some challenging local day hikes. My favorite hiking buddy is battling chronic illness these days, but I love a good solo dayhike. It’s about carving out the time when “weekends” are a bit of a foreign concept in my work schedule. I’m the only one who is responsible for my preparedness.

role models

I just finished reading a fabulous trail journal and accompanying prep guide by Allison Nadler. What a great read and helpful resource. As a female solo hiker who hit the trail around the same day I’m planning to embark, Allison is someone I can aspire to be.

Well, I do flatter myself a little. In many ways Allison’s hike is a far cry from what I imagine my hike will be. For one, she’s way out of my league. A true ultralight warrior, Allison was hauling just 15 pounds on her back and clocking in 13-20-mile days. The whole JMT takes her just 15 days despite permit issues forcing her to end her first day less than 5 miles up the trail. It’s impressive. Though everything I’m bringing is reasonably light, it’s not on par with her Gossamer Gear or single-wall tarp. And I’m not planning on ditching my shiny new stove only to partake of of another group’s hot meals. Yes, Allison may have started out solo, but she makes friends quickly. To be honest, the “trail family” concept is appealing, for the security if nothing else. But I would hope to spend most of my time doing my own thing.

Despite our obvious differences, I still found Allison’s journal chock full of nuggets of experience.  The fact that our calendars line up so well made me note her reports of where the bugs were—as well as her horror stories from the monsoon rains and deadly creek crossings. I’m praying that won’t happen this year. Other pro tips: the $5 knee braces at Muir Trail Ranch saved both Allison and her trail buddy a lot of pain. And apparently it’s possible to arrive at Muir Trail Ranch and find that your resupply bucket has also arrived—empty. What a nightmare.

Still, her story is just one more piece of evidence that disastrously bad luck, knee pain, torrential rain and low morale are all temporary. Never underestimate the power of the Single Push! Her fabulous photography is just the icing on the cake. Color me inspired.

JMT guidebooks

I just finished reading two JMT guidebooks I got for Christmas, which has whet my appetite even more and given me something to think about besides the permit I may not get.

First off: The Cicerone Guide to the JMT by Alan Castle

10899819_10100726532055734_1351204156_nCastle is a Brit writing for Brits. In addition to the basic information about all stages of the JMT, his guidebook is loaded with tips for foreign travelers and reminders that American hiking is like nothing like “walking” in Britain. If I were a European, this aspect of the Cicerone guide would be invaluable. I’m not, as it happens, but maybe you are.

Even for those of us who use flashlights rather than “torches,” the Cicerone guide is a helpful overview. Castle’s descriptions of each JMT segment are concise yet meaty. While the maps are highly schematic and lack contour lines, they do provide a general idea of the route, and the book also provides daily mileage and elevation summaries. Castle divides the trail into 21 suggested days—more than I or many experienced hikers will opt for, but you can’t please everybody all the time. In his timetable he assumes an ascent of Half Dome, which occupies most of Day 2. If I were flying all the way from the UK to visit Yosemite for the first and perhaps only time in my life, I’d want to climb Half Dome too. But as a native Californian who’s already been to Yosemite four times, I’m planning on saving my quads for the JMT itself, little more and hopefully no less. So Castle’s Day 3, culminating at Tuolumne Meadows, becomes my Day 2, and so on. Castle also is a big fan of Vermilion, which I was thinking of bypassing. Yet while not all of Castle’s days will match mine (or anybody’s), they definitely give the epic haul a bit of structure and help the first time through-hiker visualize what’s doable in one day.

The book is a fast, fun read and could also be useful on the trail if you choose to carry it. Compact with a durable vinyl cover, it’s still not light, but that’s why God invented Xeroxes and compromise, I guess. I probably won’t bring it with, but it really helped me visualize the parts of the route between Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch that had thus far remained hazy in my mind.

Next up: The Wilderness Press JMT guide by Elizabeth Wenk. 

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Man oh man, Lizzy Wenk loves her rocks and plants. Granted, John Muir was a naturalist, so perhaps no guide to his namesake trail can be considered complete without a thorough survey of the geological and biological diversity of the trail. However, from a pre-planning perspective, the heavy description feels like filler, especially if the only type of azalea you can picture is Iggy. The heavy, almost academic naturalist-speak reaches a peak, fittingly, as Wenk describes the final ascent to Whitney. “If you’re lucky, you’ll see [granite] embedded with dark, rectangular outlines of minuscule dark minerals, showing where other minerals began to grow but were engulfed by a single, ever-expanding feldspar crystal; this is called a zoned crystal.” No, if I’m lucky I’ll still be on my feet by that point, and probably not thinking about granite.

Yes, it would be at least mildly interesting to know the name of each variety of pine and heather and as I trudged along, but that would require lugging a 283-page book over nearly as many miles. I was not the least bit shocked to learn (from the about the author page) that Wenk wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the effects of rock type on alpine plant distribution and physiology. As you do.

Fortunately, Wenk’s book is also chock full of helpful stats—passable topo maps, detailed mileage breakdowns, elevation profiles, labelled panoramas, escape routes, and invaluable campsite data— all of which are reprinted in her separate JMT Data Book.

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Now this is something which I probably will slip into the brain of my pack for reference. Instead of imposing an idealized calendar, Wenk recognizes that timetables are highly subjective and organizes the trail into stages according to the drainages. While I appreciated not having to translate “Day 15” into “Day 14(?)” for every chapter, it was tiring flipping through pages figuring out how to best divvy up her sections into trail days.  I’d love to see a book (or website) that outlines JMT through hikes of various lengths. Want a 17-day trip? Here are a couple suggested camp plans. Want 21 days? Try this or that.

Basically, neither of these guidebooks was as helpful as I wanted it to be—as in, I still have to make a lot of decisions about my itinerary—but both were enjoyable and useful, especially taken together. Wenk’s Data Book might be the most indispensable. I also have Eric the Black’s famed JMT Pocket Atlas, which is incredibly lightweight and nothing but excellent map data.

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Nobody can say I haven’t done my homework. Now to do the footwork.