John Muir Trail 2017

Information about our 2017 John Muir Trail hike is included below. Summary information for those wanting the quick version is first, then detailed information with section headings. Some important details, especially with respect to communication, are not contained in the summary.

1000 Island Lake

Summary

  • Why (History) – Finishing a bucket list item – The John Muir Trail (JMT) in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. We hiked the north ~90 miles of the John Muir Trail (JMT) last year, and we are finishing the south ~135 miles this year.
  • Who (History) – The plan includes a total of six hikers for various parts of the trip. Returning from last year are myself, Edison, Valentin and Rebecca. New this year are Rebecca’s brother Zach, and Eric (a coworker of mine, with whom I climbed Mt. Fuji in 2013).
  • What / When / Where (Trail Information) – Those of us hiking the whole itinerary will start at Edison Lake on Sunday, July 23rd, and we plan to exit Whitney Portal on Tuesday, August 8th. We expect to hike ~135 miles, climb and descend ~51,000 ft., and reach a maximum elevation at the summit of Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contiguous states) of 14,505 ft.
  • Updates (Communication) – We expect to have no cell phone reception for the entire duration of the hike. I have a Delorme InReach satellite communicator and expect send tracking points a few times per day, one pre-made message each day (“At Camp…” – see below for more information), and a few trail reports over the course of the trip, all of which will be posted to my Facebook wall and/or the shared map here. Otherwise, I’ll leave the unit powered off.

Here are the major sections with more details:

History – What led to all this? What was last year’s Trip?

Trail Information – What are we doing this year? What are the logistics?

Communication – What do all these messages mean? Is everything okay?

History

I began backpacking at a young age with Jan Weston, who has become a close family friend. Over the course of growing up, this led to several backpacking trips with the Sugar Group, Pioneer Christian Academy, Edi (we got engaged on a backpacking trip in 1992), my best friend Paul (A harrowing story for another time), and many subsequent trips with Jan and other friends of his.

At some point, while I was still in high school, I had the idea that it would be fun to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT; 2,659 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington). Sometime later, I realized that I was not likely to be able to do such a large trip due to time and money constraints, nor was I actually interested in walking quite that far (nice idea, maybe not so nice in reality).

However, I had backpacked enough in the Sierras to conclude that I would like to hike the JMT at some point. The JMT is officially ~210 miles long from the north end in Yosemite Valley to the south end at the summit of Mt. Whitney. However, hiking the whole trail requires hiking an additional ~10 miles between the summit of Mt. Whitney and Whitney Portal. ~170 miles of the JMT is shared with the PCT and is arguably the most challenging and ‘best’ part of the PCT. So I put the JMT on my bucket list many years ago.

As I’ve aged, I realized I might not be capable of hiking the whole trail when I’m considerably older. Some older people hike the JMT (many in their 70s and even 80s), but I don’t want to risk not being able to due to physical constraints. Edison is old enough now to hike with me, and I’m not getting any younger, so I thought this was the right time.

Varrin and Edison at Edison Lake, 2016

As I looked into planning, I concluded I wanted to go slower than would allow for a through hike of the whole trail given my work schedule constraints. Furthermore, although I have backpacked quite a bit, I hadn’t done such a long through hike, so splitting the trail into two sections made sense for both schedule and learning purposes. For various reasons, the ideal spot to split it into two pieces wound up being Edison Lake, which is slightly north of the halfway point. I didn’t choose that spot only because it shares its name with our oldest son, but that makes it all the more fun.

Getting a permit to hike the JMT is very difficult starting at either end (Yosemite or Mt. Whitney). However, getting permits starting at Edison Lake is relatively easy. The north ~1/2 of the trail is easier and more civilized. There are easy resupply points, cell service at various spots along the way, and even showers at Red’s Meadow. That seemed like good prep for the more challenging southern section.

The 2016 JMT crew on top of Half Dome

Last year, I wrangled a crew of 10 people to go along, including my long-time backpacking buddy, Jan. For those that missed it, here are last year’s photos I posted to Facebook. Edison and Philip got off after ~30 miles at Red’s Meadow. The remaining eight of us hiked the rest of the way to Yosemite Valley, including a side trip to the top of Half Dome. The whole trip, including half dome, was ~95 miles with ~29,000 ft. of elevation change and a maximum elevation of 11,066 ft. Although we were very well prepared last year, the learning experience from last year’s trip was invaluable in schedule planning and other preparation for this year’s trip.

Now, it’s time to finish! Unfortunately, Jan can’t come along this year due to a bum knee. We also lost several others from last year’s trip for various reasons. If all goes as planned, three of last year’s hikers will have completed the entire trail at the end of this year’s hike: myself, Valentin, and Rebecca.

Trail Information

The plan for this year is to starts on Sunday, July 23rd and end Tuesday, August 8th. A schedule with statistics for each day is as follows:

Date Start End Miles Climb Descent
7/23/2017 Edison Lake Mono Creek 1.6 200
7/24/2017 Mono Creek Bear Creek 7.3 2188 920
7/25/2017 Bear Creek Sally Keyes Lake 7.7 1766 710
7/26/2017 Sally Keyes Lake Muir Trail Ranch 7.5 2442
7/27/2017 Muir Trail Ranch Colby Meadow 12.6 2056
7/28/2017
7/29/2017 Colby Meadow Big Pete Meadow 13 2159 2484
7/30/2017 Big Pete Meadow Deer Meadow 10.4 940 1452
7/31/2017 Deer Meadow Kings River (S.Fork) 11.4 3119 1907
8/1/2017 Kings River (S.Fork) Woods Creek 12 2099 3756
8/2/2017 Woods Creek Middle Rae Lake 6.8 2038
8/3/2017 Middle Rae Lake Upper Vidette Meadow 6.9 1744 2393
8/4/2017
8/5/2017 Upper Vidette Meadow Tyndall Creek 11.6 3279 2325
8/6/2017 Tyndall Creek Guitar Lake 11.2 1319 650
8/7/2017 Guitar Lake Trail Camp 9 2961 2477
8/8/2017 Trail Camp Whitney Portal 6.1 3599
Totals 135.1 25868 25115

For a sticky map of the route with layover points, see this Google Map (deselect “Waypoints” for a clearer view; select “Waypoints” to see campsites, junctions, etc.). I include this because the Garmin shared map (see below) may disappear sooner. The Google map should stick around.

I plan to leave Edison Lake lighter than last year, with only a half load of food. I mailed supplies a couple weeks ago to Muir Trail Ranch which will provide a full week’s worth of food. We will receive a second resupply, hiked in by Edison and Eric (they’ll stay with us on the trail for a day), a few days from the end.

This year, the schedule is easier than last year for the first few days. I learned last year that starting out with a long hard day was a bad idea. This will give us several days to acclimate and exercise before we hit big pass after big pass. After the first few days, the schedule gets much harder than last year. Day seven begins a six-day, ~60-mile stretch that crosses four passes around 12,000 ft. and has 24,000 ft. of elevation change. The totals for the entire trip are listed in the table above.

Communication

Last year, we had (and knew we would have) cell service at several points along the way. Even so, Jan carried a Spot locator, which is a stand-alone, one-way satellite position reporting, messaging, and SOS device. The Spot was only used to allow specific contacts to keep tabs on our position. The rest of us used cell service when we had it to post updates for the rest of the world (eg. Facebook, etc.).

This year, the hike is longer (planned for 17 days v.s 12 days last year) and I do not expect to have any cell service for the entire duration of the hike. There may be service on top of Mt. Whitney, but it sounds like it’s not particularly reliable. There’s definitely no service elsewhere. Therefore, I decided to obtain better quality satellite messaging and found a great deal on a used, first-generation Delorme (now Garmin) inReach satellite communication device. I selected the “Recreation” level service plan. The device can operate in stand-alone mode or paired with a cell phone as follows:

  1. Position Tracking – it can be activated to send position information to the shared map every 10 minutes while moving in stand-alone mode. The service plan I chose allows for unlimited position reporting.
  2. Preset messages – it can send three different preset messages in stand-alone mode. I can set the content and distribution of these messages ahead of time, but cannot change them once we start the hike. These messages can be sent to individual contacts (text or email), the shared map, and/or Facebook. The service plan I chose allows for unlimited sending of preset messages.
  3. Text messages – When paired with a phone, it can send short text messages to contacts, the shared map, and/or Facebook. It can also receive short text messages from contacts, but not from the map (I disabled that feature) or Facebook. There is no text messaging ability without the phone connection because the device itself has no display and input capability. The service plan I chose allows for a limited (small) number of text messages, after which there is a charge for each additional message.
  4. SOS – in stand-alone mode, it can send a SOS signal. When paired with a phone, it also allows two-way text messaging with Search And Rescue personnel. All plans allow unlimited SOS, however Search And Rescue itself may not be free. We will try to avoid needing SOS…

I have loaded points into the shared map (red triangles) that indicate our approximate expected camping locations for each day. The labels include the dates we expect to be at each place. This represents “Plan A”, which we may not exactly follow. Last year we mostly followed Plan A, but there were several instances that we deviated from it considerably in schedule (not route). This year, we could have to deviate from Plan A both in schedule and route due to trail conditions.

The hiker contacts (family of the hikers) will receive more detailed communication information. For the rest of the world, my plan for normal communication is as follows:

Position Reports – I’ll occasionally enable position tracking, which will go to the shared map only (positions appear as blue dots). I won’t leave tracking on all the time we are moving in order to conserve battery. The map is publicly accessible at any time, is updated in near real time, and no notifications are pushed out for new position reports.

Preset Messages – I’ll send one (of the available three) preset message every day to my Facebook wall, the shared map, and the contact list for the hikers, probably in the evening. The message contents will be exactly the same each time: “Msg1: At Camp. Full Map: https://share.garmin.com/varrin More Info: http://sugargroup.net/varrin/jmt2017 Facebook replies not received on trail.” The Facebook post automatically links to a separate map (not the full shared map) that shows only the position for that specific message. The URLs included in the message body point to the full shared map (including all tracking data, previous messages, and camping location labels) and this blog post to explain what “At Camp” means. “At Camp” means only these two things: 1) The inReach worked at that moment at least in stand-alone mode, and 2) we are camping in that location that night. It means nothing more or less than that. Specifically, it doesn’t mean that there is trouble if we are off-route/schedule, nor does it mean there is no trouble if we’re on-route/schedule.

Text Messages – I may occasionally send short text messages with updates about the hike to my Facebook wall and/or other contacts, keeping in mind the additional cost after the small allotment is used up. I may also send trail reports to a contact who will relay them to the main JMT Facebook group. The absence of text messages or any other indication of trouble may generally be interpreted as “all is well.”

The hiker contacts will receive additional information regarding contingencies, deviations, communication failure, etc. Any additional real-time information about the hike that seems relevant for the whole world to know will be relayed by Edi or Edison (when he’s not on the trail with us), either as comments to inReach posts on my Facebook wall or as new posts to my Facebook wall. Edi and Edison are the primary contacts who will communicate directly with me if possible.

Note about inReach posts to Facebook: For posts made via inReach to Facebook, reply comments will not be relayed back to us on the trail. Therefore, you may comment all you like, but we won’t get them by satellite while we hike.

Finally, it should go without saying that pictures and general commentary will not be available until after the end of the trip due to the lack of internet access. Thanks to the helpful advice I got from friends, I hope to have great pictures from my new camera to share at the end!

That’s enough! If you read this far, kudos to you!

See ya all when I get back!

V-

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