JMT 2017 Gear List: What worked, what didn’t, and what was just plain dumb

*If you’d like to skip directly to the gear list, scroll down to the bottom.*

Introduction: Heavy pack = insane determination to go ultralight (because sometimes I was so annoyed with my 35-lb pack that I was tempted to chuck it over a cliff)

When I was just beginning to get into the outdoors, I thought that everybody just bought a kit at the beginning of their ventures and then were magically set for the rest of their lives. I also thought that there was no difference between brands, that overpriced materials were the exact same as cheaper ones and were only expensive because of exorbitant marketing, and that a pound or two didn’t really make a difference in the overall experience of backpacking.

Yeah, I was wrong.

It’s almost impossible to know what works (and what doesn’t) until you try it out. What works or what is comfortable for one person may be inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst for another. I have come to terms with the fact that I will probably be tinkering with, tweaking, and adjusting my system for as long as I’m hiking (which, hopefully, will be a long time). Also, the extremely lightweight material that ultralight tents, packs, and sleeping bags are made of (e.g., cuben fiber) are quite expensive to produce and difficult to work with, and that is reflected in the price of products made with these fabrics – but with significant savings in weight and water resistance, leading to potentially more enjoyable trips. A few ounces might not seem like a lot at first, but when you consider “a few ounces” across all of the pieces of gear in a kit, you’re looking at pounds that add up, slow you down, and make your back and hips very sad.

Even though my pack wasn’t that heavy – the heaviest I clocked it at was 38 pounds – it was still frustrating and sometimes painful to carry. If I hadn’t trained for months beforehand, I dare say it might have endangered my chances of finishing the trail. It was hard to put on after a break or when I was getting tired. It felt like I was carrying a literal bear on my back. I missed my base weight from the Camino in 2015 – a scant 10 pounds because I didn’t have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, or stove – and I am now determined to whittle down my kit to be as close to “ultralight”as I possibly can before my next big ventures (spoilers: there are vague plans in the works).

A quick disclaimer before we get to the gear list: I am by no means an expert in the gear department (yet!). Take my advice with a grain of salt, and always hike your own hike.

 

Gear list

Here is a very rudimentary gear list, starting with my “Big Three,” then clothing, and going on from there. Green font indicates an item that I particularly enjoyed or found useful. Red indicates an item that didn’t work well, was hard to use, was too heavy, or was otherwise not a good choice and I will be looking for alternatives. No color indicates no particular feelings one way or the other about it. When appropriate, notes about the item are included in parentheses after the name/description.

“Big three” (Sleeping system, pack, shelter), with weight

  • Pack: Osprey Ariel 65 L (approx. 4.3 lb. I’m emotionally attached to this thing because it’s seen me through a lot of traveling, and it is one tough little bugger. But it’s way too heavy, has the worst water bottle pockets I’ve ever seen, and squeaks like crazy no matter how I load it.)
  • Tent: REI Dash 2 + Footprint, split the weight with Timmy (just under 3 lb total, around 1.5 lb for me. It worked fine, but I’d ideally like to get a better, more lightweight, more flexible sleeping system for solo hiking, like a tarp or a tarp-tent and a bivy sack.)
  • Sleeping bag: Kelty Cosmic Down 20-degree (approx. 2.5 lb. This is a comfortable, warm bag, but there are way lighter bags out there. I’d ideally like to keep this one for car camping or overnights and get a lighter one, like an Enlightened Equipment quilt, for backpacking).
  • Therm-a-rest Z-Lite closed-cell sleeping pad (I’ve loved this thing since the day I bought it- it’s simple, you never run the risk of it getting a leak like inflatable pads, and it’s super light. Definitely not the most comfortable, though, but you get used to it).

BIG 3 WEIGHT TOTAL: approx. 8.3 lb (I aim to get that down to about 4.5 before my next trip).

Clothing (no idea how much any of these weigh)

    Clothing worn:

  • Patagonia Baggies Shorts (so comfortable, great pockets, dries so fast)
  • Synthetic Columbia shirt
  • Injinji toe socks (will never hike without them. Magical blister prevention).
  • Smartwool mid height PhD hiking socks
  • Trucker hat
  • Buff bandana (a favorite- you can use it for EVERYTHING – blocking the sun, blocking dust, turn it into a hat, wipe out your pot, wipe off your face… a magic garment.)
  • Watch
  • Random sports bra + pair ExOfficios
  • Suncloud Ricochet Polarized Sunglasses (I dare say that these saved my trip. The snow was glaring, unimaginably bright – so glad I bought good glasses at the last minute, at Timmy’s suggestion. The lenses are curved, meaning that much less light is likely to get in. Also, these were super cheap for higher quality “active” type shades – on Amazon they were something like $25)
  • Salomon X Ultra Mid Aero boots (These finally turned me off to boots in general and Salomon specifically. The shoes rubbed painfully on the insides of both of my big toes, and my right toe is still numb from it. Ibuprofen helped save the hike. I’m going to try the trail-runner approach from now on).
  • Outdoor Research mid-height gaiters – I liked that they kept rocks and snow out, and they were particularly useful for those miles-long snowfields. But they were a bit too heavy for my liking and I’d ideally like to switch them out for lighter ones.

Clothing carried:

  • Mammut Wenaha rain jacket (love it in real life, but way too heavy for the trail – will be switching to a lighter shell for hiking)
  • Patagonia Down Sweater Jacket (great piece of gear, but in the future I’d like to find one that’s a bit lighter, or perhaps switch to a vest).
  • Melanzana Microgrid Fleece Hoodie (possibly my favorite item; warm, lightweight and comfortable, could even pair with a lightweight down vest for a truly versatile cool-to-cold weather kit)
  • Marmot wind jacket (good piece of gear but was redundant with the rain jacket – in the future I’ll just bring a combination wind + rain shell)
  • Underarmour thermal tights (a favorite)
  • Waterproof neoprene socks for camp (the single worst idea I’ve ever had – I brought them to avoid having to have cold feet in wet shoes at camp, but separate camp shoes like flip flops or Crocs would have been infinitely better.)
  • Extra synthetic shirt (waste of weight – everything got smelly anyway. In the future I’ll just bring one shirt).
  • Extra pair Injinji liners
  • Extra pair Smartwool socks
  • Fleece gloves

Hydration/food/cooking

  • BearVault BV500 Bear Canister (required by law and a smidge inconvenient – approx. 2 lb of plastic)
  • Platypus GravityWorks 2L Water Filter (Surprisingly, I was not happy with this choice, even after a bunch of research. It was wonderful at camp, but irritating to use when I had to fill up along the trail. I will be switching to something simpler and lighter).
  • CamelBak 1.5 L hydration reservoir (A pain. Nice to have water instantly when walking but too annoying to fill up, probably will only use on day hikes from now on)
  • Collapsible plastic water bottle from Walmart (I used one on the Camino and it was fine, but this one was weirdly shaped, didn’t fit in my water bottle pockets, and broke about a week into the trip.)
  • MSR PocketRocket stove (a classic. I love this thing. One of my favorite pieces of gear – sturdy, simple, reliable, efficient. There’s an even lighter and smaller model out now as well.)
  • GSI Outdoors ultralight cook set – Pot, pot cozy, spork, pot grip – simple, gets the job done, perfect size for storing small cooking accessories.
  • Lighter

Electronics

  • iPhone SE – served as camera as well. Obviously a great item to have on the trail, because in addition to being a phone and camera you can also load trail apps, which I did and which I found extremely helpful to supplement our GPS.
  • Garmin InReach Explorer+ GPS Messenger (a last-minute purchase that I was SO glad I had. My friends and family could track our progress, and I was able to send pre-set and composed messages to my mom. We had zero cell reception out there, and it was really a comfort to have this. Also used its GPS features to supplement the phone app).
  • Anker mini battery pack + charging cord (Impressively powerful for being the smallest external battery that Anker makes. In the future I might even just bring this if I’m hiking solo- for two of us the charge ran out after a couple of phone and GPS refills, but for one person on a frequently-resupplied trip, just this would be fine).
  • Anker Solar charger (A little clunky, but it worked quite well, charged the battery fast. Might be simpler to just use a larger external battery in the future, but I’m pleased with how this worked).
  • iPhone charger cord
  • Apple earbuds
  • Petzl Tikka Headlamp (I love this headlamp. It’s super bright and super efficient – I didn’t change the batteries a single time and the light was still bright at the end of the trip. There are definitely lighter headlamps out there, but this one is a real champ.)

Toiletries/necessities/first aid

  • REI Weekend-sized first aid kit (Total overkill. Nice to have the supplies in case of an emergency, but the thing had like 8 pieces of gauze and a bunch of medicine I’d probably never use. In the future I’ll probably combine parts of this kit with more frequently used medicines like Ibuprofen).
    • Also, more importantly, what would have been even better than a good kit would be to have taken a Wilderness First Responder class – what’s between your ears is way more important than what’s in your kit, and in contrast to Timmy, I know absolutely nothing about wilderness medicine. If something had happened to him, we both would have been totally screwed. I won’t run that risk ever again – I will be taking a WFR course before my next major trek, no excuses.
  • Contact case + small container of contact solution
  • Glasses + case
  • Wet wipes (always a wise choice for staying hygienic on the trail)
  • Small hand sanitizer
  • BodyGlide (good for preventing chafing and blisters, but Vaseline often works just as well)
  • Small sunscreen (bought more at resupply locations)
  • Lip balm with SPF

Miscellaneous

  • Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles (Amazing. I don’t know how I ever hiked with no poles or one pole before this. Really helped my balance, and they’re lightweight).
  • Extra plastic bags (quart, gallon, and shopping bags – for trash and reorganization)
  • Tom Harrison John Muir Trail Maps, carried in a plastic bag – great set of maps. You should always have a paper copy to back up your electronics, and know how to read them! Timmy carried a compass; otherwise I would have brought one. 
  • 15L Outdoor Research Waterproof compression sack for sleeping bag (Overkill. Too heavy. Just use trash compactor bag if you’re worried about your down bag getting wet.)
  • Sea to Summit 2L dry bag (I use this almost every day for small electronics and necessities both in “real life” and on the trail. Came in handy for my phone, cords, and the Anker battery)
  • Sea to Summit Waterproof phone case (Useful, and I’m glad I had it, but perhaps not totally necessary given that I already had a dry bag)
  • Outdoor Research 10L compression sack for clothes
  • Rite in the Rain mini notebook and pencil (Awesome. I love these notebooks. Great for recording thoughts and events without having to worry about it getting wet)

That’s it! I think I got everything, but if there’s something I forgot I’ll update this post. Feel free to ask questions if you have any! There is definitely a lot of room for improvement in this kit, and I’m looking forward to getting more streamlined in the future.

Beautifully Brutal: Some Reflections on the John Muir Trail

Here I am again: sitting at my desk, writing at my computer. It feels weird to be out of the wild, off of the JMT, enjoying the fruits of civilization, facing the turn of the seasons again. I’ll spare you the “time goes so fast, I can’t believe the trail is already over, etc etc” sentiments, though I certainly have them, because there’s not a thing either of us can do about the relentless march of the clock except for treasure the present and reflect on the past. Allow me to do some reflecting for a moment.

For the past week and a half I have oscillated between astonishment at the hike, gratitude for having been granted the opportunity to explore the Sierras, and regret that I am not still on the John Muir Trail. I cannot overstate how much I want to be back on the trail. I yearn for it. I close my eyes and I see LeConte Canyon, its towering walls reflecting the waning daylight. I look to the hills and I am descending from Palisade Lakes to Deer Meadow. My thoughts wander and there I am again, back at Mt. Whitney, on the 14,500-foot pinnacle separating the brown expanse of desert from the jagged staccato peaks and glacier-carved valleys of the Sierra Nevada – the Range of Light. I am camping by Bubbs Creek near East Vidette. I am sharing a campfire with Timmy and three friends we met on the trail. I am ascending Pinchot Pass with an ice axe and crampons. I am climbing Half Dome. I am glissading down the snow on the north side of Forester Pass. I am crossing Evolution Meadow.  I am watching a bear scratch at a log from 100 yards away. I am looking up at Cathedral Peak, imagining how John Muir would have felt looking at it for the first time. I am telling the sun goodnight as it sets over Tuolumne Meadows.

In some odd, understated way I feel like a switch has been flipped somewhere within my neurons and muscle fibers, and now forward motion and the beautiful, masochistic satisfaction of covering the distance on foot and minimizing what I carry to the point of absolute necessity is stitched permanently into my soul. My motivation is aimed in a direct line towards the next time that I can hike for days, take a long walk from one point to the other. I feel like a world has been opened. It is solved by walking. The way is made by walking. As far as I am concerned, walking is the simplest, purest, most worthy activity. The trails are there. They are waiting for me. And I will find them.

On the trail you don’t get any filters. There is no noise. There is no distraction. You have to be okay with yourself, with sitting in silence and facing yourself head-on. It leaves the door wide open to brutal honesty. You see life as it really is. You are engaged daily in pain, in struggle, in simple actions, in the way life must have been before modern conveniences. Stripped of these layers, all that is left is the trail, and God, and you. I wish more people could experience that kind of simplicity. It takes away so much of our hurtful, superfluous, vain concerns. On the trail I don’t care whether someone I meet is from the United States, or Israel, or England. I don’t care if they’re conservative or liberal. It doesn’t ever come up in conversation, because it doesn’t matter: We are all out there together, experiencing the same beauty, the same pain, the same joy, the same struggle. This is true of life in general, of course, but it’s hard to see when there is so much noise. On the trail all is harmony, even in the chaos of nature. On the trail I can imagine a world free of hate, and full of simple peace. What I hope and pray is that I can translate that peace into my life, to live with the same joy and peace that the trail showed me – not keep it to myself, but spread it outward.

A few people have asked me to describe the John Muir Trail in a few words. What I have come up with so far is that it is beautiful and brutal, and beautifully brutal. For obvious reasons, the JMT is beautiful: The pristine alpine lakes framed by towering, glacier-speckled mountains; the mountain passes leading to new worlds of trees and streams; the meadows filled with deer and marmots – it’s no secret that the trail is visually stunning. But it’s brutal. There were miles of snow, thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, really rough hills, rocky terrain and mud pits. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling. Just when you think you’re almost to camp, another drastic uphill mile that wasn’t even on the map presents itself. Switchbacks go on forever. The downhills are almost worse than the uphills, with all the wear-and-tear on the knees. But it was always, always worth it. My lowest, most desperate point on the trail was the north side of Mather Pass. It was hot, and the sun reflected off of the three miles of snow relentlessly, making for a rather frustrating combination. My crampons kept getting stuck in rocks, we unsuccessfully tried to avoid a thinning snow bridge, and a fast, hip-deep, freezing cold creek came out of nowhere right before we made camp, which was above 10,000 feet so we couldn’t even have a fire. But the next day, we cruised 8 miles to LeConte Canyon and were rewarded with the most incredible view of a meadow where the Middle Fork Kings River stops its violent flow and meanders softly, slowly, through the grass, while soaring mountains on either side keep watch. There was not a single part of the JMT that I would refer to as “easy.” But one hundred percent of that trail was worth it.

I think that I will be processing this trip for a while. No matter what trails I hike in the future, I have a feeling that this one will always be special: my first real thru-hike, my first real wilderness experience, the one that flipped the switch. The Sierras have wedged themselves into my heart, and I hold them there gratefully.

That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope this gives you, in the broadest sense, a feeling of what the John Muir Trail was like for me. In the coming weeks, I will add more pictures, as well as follow-up posts about our itinerary and a few more reflections about the JMT. Thanks for following along. 🙂

We’re alive! Updates from Mammoth Lakes

Short post because I’m writing on a phone! More detailed updates to come, but for now here’s a quick briefing…
17 days of hiking has led us to Red’s Meadow Resort and a much needed zero day in the town of Mammoth Lakes! We are about 60 miles from the end of the road for this venture, Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley. And I’m having a really hard time putting into words what the John Muir Trail has been like.
We have crossed snowy mountain passes and countless freezing cold streams. We have summited Mt. Whitney and stood speechless and awed in soaring valleys looking up at unimaginably beautiful mountains and cliff faces. We’ve traversed zones scarred and shaped by wildfires decades past, stumbled upon many a deer grazing in many a perfect, picturesque meadow. We have eaten more than a few freeze-dried meals, Snickers, and bags of instant oatmeal, fended off hundreds of mosquitoes and flies, and gone up and down more switchbacks than I believed possible before this trip. It has been wild, it has been freeing, it has been peaceful, it has been hilarious, it has been humbling, and it has been hard.

Two and a half weeks in and I can understand perfectly what drives Triple Crown-caliber hikers to pound out thousands and thousands of miles: among other things, the beauty, the curiosity, and the pure majesty of the distance. I love the mountains. I love being part of the mountains, no matter how brutal and snowy and insanely difficult they are. I feel at once like a stranger and as if I were at home. It is magic. It is freedom. It is, as John Muir called it, a good practical sort of immortality.
Here are a few photos from the first two and a half weeks. About a week more and we’ll be in Yosemite! More pictures, thoughts, and stories to come. Thanks for following along! -S

IT’S TIME!!!!!!!!!! WOOOO HOOOOOOO!!!!

It’s here. It’s finally here. After months of planning, training, packing, gear purchasing, paring down, and stuffing more food than is reasonable into a bear can, the time has arrived. Tomorrow morning we’ll depart LA for the Eastern Sierra Interagency Center in Lone Pine, where we will pick up the permit that we reserved for our trailhead back in January. I would say that I can’t believe it’s already time, but it honestly feels like I’ve been thinking about this trail for a zillion and a half years. For months now I’ve been poring over maps, writing notes about river crossings, debating the merits of fleece versus down (spoilers: I’m bringing both), triple-checking my solar charger and external battery and InReach messenger settings, and going back and forth about whether or not I need my ice axe (I think I’m bringing it just in case). I am tired of planning, tired of talking about it, and tired of waiting. I’m ready. My boots are sitting by the door, my pack is loaded up, and I am 10000% ready to go.

I’m an optimistic person, but I’m also a cautious person, so I don’t want to oversimplify or understate the dangers that this year presents – a record snowfall in many parts of the Sierra leading to swollen stream crossings and miles of snow well into July is nothing to take lightly. However, recent NOBO reports on the JMT Hikers 2017 Facebook group indicate much faster melt and much more dry land in the southern half than the northern, which is great news for us. One report even said that the entire area between Cottonwood and Crabtree is completely snow-free (this still sounds too good to be true to me, so I’m taking that observation lightly). Another indicated that the infamous snow chute on Forester Pass is nearly melted out. These are incredibly good signs. Both Timmy and I are feeling strong and ready to go beyond our planned itinerary for the first day (instead of 5 miles we want to hike about 12), and we’re both so jazzed to get out there and see what the incredible, infinite, majestic High Sierra has to show us, teach us, give us. Of course we want to make it to Yosemite, but even if we only make it as far as Kearsarge, or Taboose, or Bishop, we will still have been out there, and that, after all, is really the point of this whole thing.

The psych is high right now, and I’m so excited that I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sleep tonight and tomorrow, but I am also experiencing a feeling that is hard to place or to describe. It’s something deep, a profoundly moving sense of gratitude, solemnity, and grace as we approach our trailhead. It’s almost identical to the feeling I had the night before I started the Camino de Santiago two summers ago, when in the evening I watched the setting sun cover the town of St. Jean and the rolling Pyrenees in soft pink light, feeling the turning of the earth and knowing, in my heart, that I was absolutely where I was meant to be. Although I do not doubt the constant and gentle workings of the Divine in everyday life, there are really only a handful of times in my life that I can point to and say with certainty that goes beyond emotion, “God was there.” That night was one of them, and this moment before our departure feels like one as well. It’s hard for me to explain why the mountains pull me so strongly, or why I feel like a magnet drawn inextricably to the Sierras, or why, even though it’s grueling, smelly, sticky, and stupidly hard, the simple act of doing nothing but walking for days on end speaks peace into my soul. But all of this is true on a primal level. In reading his words, I feel a kindred connection with old bearded John Muir, the gentle, observant wanderer in the mountains. I feel so blessed to have the health, the ability, and the opportunity to walk in his footsteps in the rugged California landscape he loved so much.

I’m going to try to sleep, but my expectations aren’t so high for that. 🙂 I’ll also try to add updates while I’m on the trail, but it’s more likely that I’ll write afterwards, so hold tight.

In closing, let me leave you with a few words by John Muir himself:

“Wander a whole summer if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled, and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy-laden year … give a month at least to this precious reserve.  Time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will definitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.” 

Life is nothing without curiosity and wandering. Here’s to our wild places, our mountains, and those who explore them.

HAPPY TRAILS!

-S

PS: If you’re interested in having a look at our route and planned itinerary, here’s a link to a map I put together: https://caltopo.com/m/78MU

 

Heavy(ish) pack = ultralight dreams

7jul-gear pic

Above: My gear for the JMT in 2017, including the “maybe item” Petzl Glacier ice axe – 350g (will wait until the day before to decide based on trail reports). My Osprey Ariel 65 is off to the side at top right. My Kelty Cosmic Down 20-degree sleeping bag will go in a dry compression sack and then in a waterproof trash compactor bag. Melanzana fleece and Patagonia Down Sweater will both be in my kit because I get really cold.

Heavy(ish) pack = ultralight dreams

Backpacking seems like it should be simple, right? You just pack your bag, find your trailhead, and start walking!

Yeah, no.

Backpackers, especially JMT hikers, have to consider so many things that day hikers and causal walkers never have to deal with. Above tree line? Congratulations, you get to go to the bathroom in a wag bag and carry your own poo for 90 miles! Record snow year? Hooray, even the simplest “creeks” can become raging death-traps if you don’t time your crossings right or look for alternate fords! Going 10 days in between resupplies? Right on, here’s 14 pounds of food and a bag of tortillas to last you until Muir Trail Ranch! Etc. etc. etc.

I’m definitely not complaining, because I am just bouncing around in my seat waiting to get out into those beautiful mountains. But it’s been a little stressful trying to balance weight and anticipated need, especially since I’ve never tried a hike like this before, and it just so happens that this is one of the hardest trails, and one of the highest snow years on record. The result of my multiple months of repackaging, paring down, and realistic assessment is a base weight of about 22 pounds, a bear canister with around 12-14 pounds of freeze-dried meals, granola bars, and instant coffee, and the fluctuating capacity for anywhere between 1-5 pounds of water. The food weight will start to go down very quickly, and I may not end up bringing my ice axe (it’s a day-before decision for me). So overall, my pack will be around the 30-35-lb region.

I’ve been training hard, and consistently, at between 7,000 and 12,300-foot elevation with 30-40 pounds for the last couple of months, and I feel prepared to deal with the immense weight for the first couple of days before it gets closer to a more comfortable 30. But I’m already starting to see through the cracks in my kit. Most ultralight (or at least decently-light) long-distance hikers will laugh and shake their heads at you if you carry anything over 20 pounds for a thru-hike. I understand this reasoning. Lighter weight means bigger, more enjoyable daily mileages. You’re thinking less about what’s on your back and more about the nature around you.

For me, there are a few issues with the ultralight camp, though, chiefly among them being the very practical reason of cost – as a general rule, the lighter the weight, the higher the price tag. But besides this, I really feel like one’s personal journey in backpacking is just that – personal. I can’t expect to just do my first thru-hike and have my system down pat. It will take many miles and years before I have consolidated and become comfortable with that balance between weight and necessity. On this hike I will probably learn that much of my preparation was in vain, or that I didn’t use certain items as frequently as I thought I would. Or, equally likely, I will learn that I missed something on the trail that I elected not to bring. Either way, I’m learning to be okay with this uncertainty, and to embrace the journey. I might get made fun of by PCTers with 20-liter packs on this summer’s trail, but maybe in a few years I’ll be a 2,000-miler with a base weight of 9. That’s the dream. And it’s in the future. For now, my 65-liter setup will be just fine.

It’s a process, y’all. Life is all about process.

Happy trails! -S

 

JMT training: a short saga (with pictures!)

I’ve been training like crazy for the JMT. This is mainly because I see this trail as having so many inherent hazards this year (e.g., snow on high passes, swollen creek crossings, mosquitoes by the bushel, to name a few), and I do not want my fitness (or lack thereof) to be added into this grab-bag of danger. Also, Timmy has legs that are about a half a mile long, and I am a much happier camper (and I’m sure he is too) when I can keep up. So alas, I have been doing a variety of hikes with a variety of weight throughout the spring and summer in order to feel prepared and ready to carry 35-40 pounds over some of the highest elevations in the lower 48.

Some of the more hilarious training experiences involved nightly walks with my mom when I was home in Kentucky for a few weeks, wherein I would carry my 65-liter pack, full of textbooks, craft supplies, cans of sand, cans of tomatoes, and the entire Harry Potter book series for weight, while she would push our two Pomeranians in their stroller (yes, they have a stroller). It was a sight to behold.

Some of the more epic training hikes included my trek to the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine via the Hunt Trail, which comprises the last five miles of the Appalachian Trail, as well as the Penobscot Mountain Trail in Acadia National Park (by the way, Maine is rad. Go there). More recently, I hiked to the summit of Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona at 12,633, and only a slim 20 miles from my house in Flagstaff, in addition to a few other rad hikes around Northern Arizona like the Kachina Trail, the Abineau Canyon Trail (possibly my all-time favorite in the area), and the Little Elden Spring/Little Bear trail in the Dry Lake Hills. For each of the less difficult hikes I’ve tried to at least approximate the amount of weight I’ll be carrying on the JMT, while the more gnarly ones like Katahdin and Humphreys got a bit of the weight shaved off for time-saving purposes.

Although I haven’t even stepped onto the JMT yet, I can confidently say that this has already been one of the most incredible summers yet! Cheers to my mom and all my hiking buddies who have shared these beautiful trails with me so far this year.

9 days until liftoff!!

 

 

 

 

hiker derp writes a blog about the JMT!

I’ve never been able to stick with blogs before. Whether they are too specific to sustain my interest, or too broad to share pertinent thoughts, I haven’t had much success in the past.

But alas. I am trying again.

Because this year, I am attempting to hike the John Muir Trail northbound, in July, in the highest recorded snow year since 2011. It will be amazing, terrifying, exhausting, frustrating, mesmerizing, and belligerently beautiful. And I would be remiss to not share my experience, my strategies, my successes and my failures, and my thoughts with someone else out there.

If I were going alone, I’d be shaking in my boots just thinking about the snowmelt, the passes, and the “it’s a waist-deep wade at low flow” water crossings I’ll be facing. But as it is, I’ll be joined by my patient, level-headed, infinitely calm boyfriend, who happens to be a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), hopefully soon to be a wEMT. This fact makes the whole thing a notch less deathly-seeming. But even with the best preparation, gear, and emergency medical knowledge, it’s not an easy trail: The lowest elevation outside of Yosemite is a few hundred feet below 10,000. The highest point on the trail is Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 at 14,500 ft, followed a swift two days later by the ominous Forester Pass, at 13,200. I’m carrying crampons and an ice axe. I packed most of my gear in dry bags so that my down bag doesn’t get wet, and therefore not keep me warm at the likely sub-freezing night temperatures. This trail is intentionally hard, and intentionally incredible. Many hikers call it the most beautiful mountain scenery in America. It is relentless in both its difficulty and its awe-inspiring grandeur.

So here I am, writing for you, dear reader, in the hopes that I can convey the majesty, the excitement, the terror, and the incredible beauty of California’s High Sierra and my 230-mile trek through it.

Here’s my plan for this site:

First, I’ll be posting some thoughts on training, reasons for hiking, trails I’ve walked so far this summer, and mental and spiritual preparation for the trip, among other things.

Then, hopefully, after the trip I’ll be able to share the actual experiences, the conditions, and insights gained from my time on the trail.

Finally, after the trip, I hope to make this a more general space for my hiking (and specifically thru-hiking and long-distance hiking) experiences (other planned treks include the Camino del Norte and the Camino Primitivo in Spain, and *hopefully* an Appalachian Trail thru-hike before too many more years go by!). I hope to share reflections, life lessons, gear and equipment ideas, and general thoughts on the outdoors and life.

Cheers and see you soon! -S

 

3 reasons why I am hiking the John Muir Trail (or, why type 2 fun is the best kind of fun)

Reason #1: “Fun”

I ran cross country all four years of high school. In the summer, as soon as the conference rules allowed us to practice, we met five times a week at 7 in the morning for runs that ranged from short-distance speed training to long, grueling, sweaty Kentucky 12-milers. When I started I could barely jog two miles, and by the end of my first season I could make it through ten in a reasonable time. I was never fast, no matter how hard I tried, and I’m sure I had a really dumb-looking gait, but I loved it. I loved the hazy pinkish light of those humid early mornings, the cool fog descending on the lakes, feeling the miles dissolve beneath my feet, experiencing my body grow stronger, slimmer, and more able to endure the distance. But if you had asked me during any of those runs – particularly the longest, hottest, most solitary ones – if I ever wanted to run again, I probably would have screamed a ragged “HELL NO” in your face before painfully slugging back to campus in what could only in the most liberal definitions be considered a “jog.” But later, once the run was over, having gulped down a liter of water and a Clif Bar, I would instantly look back on that run with fondness and earnest joy, remembering only the strength and the pretty morning light, the raw feeling of glory in possessing the ability to go so far on pure strength and determination – and I would be fully ready to do the whole thing over again, and again, and again.

This, friends, is what the outdoors community likes to call “type 2 fun.” It’s grueling, endless, and painful while you’re doing it, but when you look back all you can remember is the glory. Much like running cross country, hiking presents this kind of experience to its adherents. There are gnarly ascents and descents. Dangerous wind speeds. Snow-covered miles of trail. Pure, unabashed distance. Big creek crossings. Altitude. Finding a decent campsite. Physical ailments. The challenges are numerous and the task seems gargantuan, but it is in these situations where some of the best stories are made and some of the most valuable lessons are learned, and where people can really develop connections with themselves and the people around them.

The word “fun,” much like the word “happy,” is too shallow to describe the reasons why people hike (or climb, or ski, or run, or do anything they love). It doesn’t encompass the complicated emotions of watching the sunrise or making it to the summit. It doesn’t do justice to the satisfaction of knowing I was there, I did that. It doesn’t reach the pure, indescribable state of being really out there, beneath the mountains and the trees and the sky, vulnerable and humbled in the face of the Divine. It isn’t big enough or good enough for the wilderness. There are no words good enough for our wild places. I think even John Muir himself would agree with that.

Reason #2: Wilderness

We live in a world of connectedness, closeness, and ease. Everything is at our fingertips, transportation is miraculously fast, and communication is mercifully convenient even across distance, and thank God for that. I’m not going to go all Edward Abbey and say that I’m not grateful for civilization and modern achievements – any good hiker worth her salt appreciates a shower and a tall cold one on a zero day, let’s be real. And I love being able to call or message my family and friends who are thousands of miles away from me. There’s a miraculous comfort in our connectedness.

But I must confess that despite its benefits, society terrifies me, and frustrates me. Terrifies, because it’s so easy to fall into comfort and fail to question, to act like this world is disposable and that all its resources are free for the taking. And frustrates, because I think people would live a lot differently if more of them could see what’s out there, what this planet has to offer, and what horrific things we are doing to our environment and, consequently, ourselves. We are so focused on humanity, as if we were so great, but this world could surely survive millennia beyond our extinction. Wilderness, more than anything else, reminds me of our deeper responsibility and our deeper connection – not the instant, moment-by-moment connection we are used to in the 21st century, but the older, ancient, purer connection we have to this planet and to all of its inhabitants.

Wilderness is in our very blood. And this sacred wilderness, the Sierras so beloved by the quiet, saintlike conservationist for whom the trail is named, has been calling me for quite some time. The AT certainly possesses its own unique beauty, and the mountains of Arizona are a joy to experience, but the rugged High Sierra presents so vast, so humbling, and so regal a landscape that it is impossible to deny the opportunity to experience it.

I make no promises about how far I will get, how well I will do, or what the conditions will be like. We very may well have to bail at Kearsarge like a lot of PCT hikers are doing now, or we may make it to Yosemite. Who knows. Whatever the outcome, I will have been in the presence of some of the most incredible mountains on the planet, and for that I will be truly grateful.

Reason #3: Being Better

While some may call hiking an inherently selfish endeavor, I disagree. Of course I hike for myself – because there are so many parts of this incredible world that you just cannot see from the side of the road, and I want to see as much of this blessed planet as I can. But it’s also for others. Hiking, much like running and climbing, gives me the headspace and the meditative time to become less impatient, less stressed, less frustrated. It allows me the space to observe life from a distance and reflect on my behavior and my direction. Because of this, it makes me better – a better teacher, a better daughter, a better girlfriend, a better friend. It’s hard to keep the lessons of the wild to yourself, and the trail makes me want to turn outward, and be more aware of the world and the people around me. I’m very far from perfect, and the trail makes me even more aware of that. But it also makes clear what needs to change.

 

So there you have it. Three (of many) reasons why I am hiking the John Muir Trail. Now it’s time to stop procrastinating and get back on that training grind…

Happy trails! -S