Monday, September 30, 2013

John Muir Trail (part III)

Today's post will cover a lot of ground (in a literal sense), however being as I have a TON of pictures, I'll let them do most of the talking (if a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then this post is HUGE!) In case you missed the first 2 posts on this trip here are links:

Part I
Part II

It's now Saturday morning, and the beginning of our first full day in the mountains. We awake into the chilly high Sierra at about 10,500' of elevation. I think Greg crawled out of the tent first, which is a very hard thing to do early in the morning when you are so nice and toasty in your torture bag. We slept 'ok', though I know for sure that we both did a fair amount of tossing and turning. We make a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and 2 pots of coffee (my Jetboil stove also has a French Press we have TASTY hot coffee in with our breakfast).

 This is our view as we leave our campsite headed west towards the John Muir Trail. That's Bullfrog lake in the middle, we go just to the right of it and soon after connect with the JMT and go left (south).

 And here we are at the JMT intersection. To the north lie the Rae Lakes, and continues on and  until you finally get to Yosemite and the northern end of the trail (about 185 miles or so from here). We of course are headed south towards Mt Whitney, which we will hopefully hit 2 days from now.

Here we are looking south. The trail goes to the left of that pointy peak. We are currently descending from the Onion Valley down towards Bubs creek and the Vidette Meadows.

 The deer here aren't very afraid of us. They hardly take notice...other than to make sure we continue hiking.

I believe this is Center Peak. If that is true, then our trail passes left to right in front and then we switchback up on the right side heading towards Forrester Pass.

You can see our trail on the left, and we are near the very top of the treeline, right about 11,500'. 
Yes, just another beautiful valley in the High Sierra, ho hum.

Some of Bubs creek flowing thru Vidette Meadows. It's just gorgeous up here!

 You can sure tell these valleys were covered in glaciers long ago.

Now we're back above the treeline. Very desolate terrain here...quite the opposite of the earlier meadows.I feel that at every turn we could see the Mars explorer Curiosity creeping along looking at rocks.

 This part reminds me of the Highlands of Scotland...nothing but moss and rock and water. It's hard to believe that all of these pictures today were only in a 12 mile section of trail (and we're not even at the 12 mile point yet!) Our trail came thru the valley on the right, WAY back there somewhere!

The trail now goes up steeply towards Forrester pass. Here Greg takes in the view as he catches his breath. He's been hiking like a madman all day, driving a mean pace.

 Looking back from where we came from earlier in the day. Kearsarge lake is a LONG way from here.

And FINALLY we make it to the pass. It's been quite a hike for us, that's for sure. Looking thru the crack to the south the terrain looks surprisingly similar to what we just left!

The trail descending on the south side goes down a near vertical face. You can see Greg ahead forging on, and below him the switchbacks making this trail possible. You wouldn't want to fall off the trail here, that's for sure!

This shot gives you an idea of the wall of rock we are descending. That's Greg almost dead center.

Greg has FINALLY run out of gas. That's Forrester Pass behind him (the notch in the middle). When I finally got down he was sitting on a rock, hoping I'd want to stay the night right there (there was a small lake, and 2 other guys had already pitched their tent right off the trail by it). I was hoping to get a bit further down this plain towards Tyndall Creek (back into the treeline and in some shelter). However it wasn't in the cards...Tyndall Creek is 5 miles from the pass, and we were pretty tired.
 Heading south from the pass, the trail and terrain are about as desolate and unforgiving as can be. Tyndall Creek is still about 4 more miles from here.

About another mile south we find some water and a small patch of moss to put our tent. I had no intention of putting it in a rock garden and had we not found this would have kept on. So this was our Saturday night campsite. We're still at about 12,500' elevation, and pretty much NO cover if any kind of weather comes in, but we didn't really care at that point...we were TIRED!

The sun has set and it gets cold QUICK! But hey...all the comforts of home...a rock to put the stove on, our 2 bear cans (certainly NO bears will be up this high, there's NOTHING at all for them), and the 2 platypus water storage bottles. We have a good system: while I pitch the tent every night Greg filters 4 liters of water for our dinner/breakfast/hiking slackers up here for sure! Behind me is my pack covered by my new home-made tyvek pack cover. In the morning when we pull our covers off we find our packs were frosted heavily under the tyvek. It got a BIT chilly during the night up this high out in the open, but we were just fine in the tent and our down bags.

And that pretty much wraps up day 2 of our odyssey.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

John Muir Trail (part II)

In case you missed it, part I of our epic journey is here:

John Muir Trail part I

So now we are on the trail, heading up from the car-park/trailhead. We have just a few hours of light, and about 6 hard mostly uphill miles that we MUST cover before we camp for the night. My pack felt better than ever, now that I've dropped almost 10 pounds from what I have carried these many years. Sure, some of the 'comfort' items didn't make this trip, but we expect to be walking most of each day, so it's not too big of a deal anymore. theory was we will be SO tired every night that we will make camp, eat dinner, and go to sleep being totally whipped. That theory was a pretty good one it turns out.

We headed up towards Kearsarge pass, and immediately we could feel the altitude working against us. But we continued the climb, and this time I brought my polar wristwatch-computer/heartrate monitor and chest-strap. For once I wanted to know how hard I was ACTUALLY working. Turns out my cardio system wasn't working all that we climbed and climbed (I was pushing the pace, knowing how far we had to go before setting camp and hoping to be there before dark) my heartrate was hovering around 140 to at most 145. On my bike that would mean I'm not working at all...I could be sitting back behind a bunch sucking their wind and chatting comfortably. However I was NOT able to chat comfortably. I was working HARD. I would have thought it would have been the opposite...that due to the altitude my heartrate would be way HIGHER than expected, not lower. All I know is that when I was at or above 140 beats per minute it was all I could bear, there was no higher gear for me to switch to.

One of the lower lakes we pass on the trail to Kearsarge Pass.

We kept on moving, and I have to say that this part of the trip was definitely NOT very enjoyable. Within the hour I could feel a tiny headache creeping in, and knew it wasn't going to be any better before we cleared the pass. Oh, and the weather forecast called for scattered evening showers and thunderstorms tonight. And it was right. We hadn't been on the trail too very long when it started to rain (not a downpour thankfully). So we stopped and poncho'd up using our new "Gen 1" Tyvek ponchos. I hadn't really thought it thru when I made them, as I basically copied the heavy 'super poncho's that we both have. But it turns out they were still big enough to go over both us AND our packs, and would work just fine as long as the rain was coming down and not 'sideways' with the wind. Which thankfully it was (down, not sideways).

However, even raining it is still a very scenic route as you can see in the panorama above. AND, it's been a year since we were last in the high even as we death-marched we also were taking in the beautiful terrain. There's just something about the high mountains.

 This is Heart Lake, where we were 'base camped' last year. That was a great trip for sure! Our tent was on a little clearing in the blob of rock/land poking down in the top-middle of the heart over on the left.

We pass thru the lower altitude trees and finally move into the last of the trees, the bristlecone Pines, which I must admit are my favorites. I had never heard of them until many years back when both of my brothers and I were in the area for some mountain biking up at Mammoth (in the summer you can bike on the mountain, and it's AWESOME!). Our first day we detoured up onto White Mountain (to do a little bit of altitude acclimation)...which is one of the California 14'ers (over 14,000 feet tall)...there is a bristlecone pine forest there around 11,500 to 12,000 feet that contains what was until this year thought to be the oldest living "non clonal" thing on the planet: the Methuselah tree (they don't tell you which one it is as some yahoo will try to burn it down or kill it). They've taken tiny core samples and have dated it at 4845 years old (and just this year they've found an even older tree in that same area that is known to be over 5000 years old). Think back to what the world was like when these trees were young saplings. It's hard to fathom that they can still possibly be alive!

 This is one of my favorite bristlecones. It's still alive believe it or not...there are a few tiny blotches of needles on one of the backside lower branches. Science says that the trees with the hardest lives (ie: living in the hardest places) live the longest as they grow so very little each year. No matter how you look at it, they are all works of art both alive and even when dead!

Anyway, I digress. We pushed and groaned our way up the switchbacks thru the bristlecones, and soon we were passed even those, and are getting close to the final push to the pass....a long stretch across a HUGE scree field. It's so barren it is beautiful.

Here's Greg gasping for air as we are now above the treeline, just entering the huge scree-field. It has pretty much stopped raining by now, but we are too tired to stop and remove our ponchos.

Looking back across the giant scree field we just crossed. You can barely see our trail down thru the middle of the picture. That's Big Posthole Lake peeking in on the lower right.

Here we are at the top of the pass. As you can see, we are very close to losing the light, and we still have some hiking to do. The lake on the middle-left is Kearsarge Lake, which is our overnight campsite destination.

Hiking like fiends down from the pass, and we are about to lose the sun. We're about half-way there.

We arrived at the lake with barely enough light to hike by. There were already a few tents set-up in the area, and we didn't want to camp on top of anybody else, so we did some bushwhacking to find us a suitable site in the twilight. We found our spot and hastily set camp. My head was splitting from an altitude/mad-exercise induced head/neck ache, but I set-up the tent while Greg went and filtered water for the night and morning. We ate our Subway sandwiches (well, Greg gobbled his down like a hound-dog, while I was nauseous from my throbbing head and could barely eat, but I kept at it knowing I had to have food). We boiled a quick pot of water for a nice hot cup of tea, and then we hit the sack. I popped one of my trusty 800mg Motrins which is about the only thing that helps when I get one of my rare headaches (I hurt my neck pretty bad WAY back in the Navy as a 20 yr old...and occasionally I get 'one of those' headaches...over the years Dr.s have shaken their heads and prescribed more Motrin for me...I guess we all have our crosses to bear, and this is mine. I'm just thankful that it's not something worse. 

And 1 of our ordeal (I mean SUPER-FUN backpacking trip) comes to an end as we settle into our "torture bags" (as Greg aptly named them many years back) for some rest before the REAL hiking begins.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Backpacking The John Muir Trail (part I)

Last weekend my brother Greg and I safely completed our backpacking expedition of a small section of the JMT! Well, it wasn't so small was about 1/5th of the total trail (almost 40 miles), as the entire JMT is 215 miles long (which we hope to eventually knock off section by section).I believe I must apologize up front here, as this first post will be EXTREMELY boring as its pretty much all about the pre-hike preparations.

We agreed to meet at 10am Friday morning in the bustling metropolis of Mojave CA (it's where our travel routes meet). Our meeting place was the originally the McDonald's, however that was closed for renovation, so I switched it to the Carl's Jr. Greg was still about 15 minutes out, and I was already knee-deep into a 2nd breakfast when he arrived ( never know when your next meal will be, and I'm not one to turn down food very often). Greg had a quick breakfast and we then took off headed for Rt 395 north, destination Lone Pine Ranger Station. It is there every year that we get our hiking/wilderness permit, then grabbed us each a Subway sandwich (that nights dinner). We then we headed up the crazy climbing road and dropped Greg's car off at the Mt. Whitney Portal (which is the southern END of the John Muir Trail), which is accessed from right there in Lone Pine. Then we headed north to one-horse town of Independence and then again turned west towards the mountains, finally arriving at the Onion Valley trailhead around 3pm, which is where our 2013 odyssey truly begins. This is the same trailhead that we backpacked out of last year, however this year we were doing it one-way (in lieu of our typical "pack in, set up a base camp, then fish/day hike, and finally hike back to the same trailhead).

As of our arrival, we had two schools of thought for how to proceed.

Option A: park in a camping spot and spend the night "car camping" right there at the trailhead, where we do a little bit of acclimating our bodies to elevation. Whitney Portal is around 8600', and Onion Valley trailhead is about 9600', and we had driven up from our near sea-level lives that morning. In the past we've always gone for Option A.

Option B: quickly ready our packs and hit the trail. This is the manly option, as it will surely incur some fair amount of pain as our bodies are forced to adapt under pressure (or lack of it actually) as we coerce our tired and oxygen starved bodies up and over Kearsarge Pass (about 11,600') under the deadline of darkness. IF we were truly hoping to pack out on the following Tuesday then this was pretty necessary.

So, of course being the manly men that we are, we went for Option B. We went thru our packs in a fair hurry, trying desperately to rid them of any unnecessary weight. I had a paper-copy of my excel spreadsheet where I had been weighing all my camping items (including the empty backpack) in an attempt to get a grip on where the weight was coming from. In years past we've each packed in over 35 lbs each. This year we knew that to carry our packs the entire way we needed to drop some weight. Hard choices were made, redundancies were eliminated. Also new this year was we BOTH carried a bear-can. Usually we do one can (carried by Greg, as I carry the tent) and I also would carry some mesh bags and line to do a bear hang of any extra food/smelly items that we don't want in our tent in case a bear were to show up. However we knew we'd be spending a few nights above tree-level, thus no bear hangs (and they aren't technically allowed...bear cans are the only recommended way to protect your food in 'bear country').

One of the redundant items we eliminated was a 2nd Jet-boil stove. I've been an adamant supporter of having two stoves. Having HOT food is a MUST in my book. Consider our dinners and breakfasts are in need of hot/boiling water, and it would be a very sad meal if only cold water were available. Being as I was carrying the tent (which is a new model, 2 lbs lighter than the tent I carried in years past!), I gave Greg the large bear can and I carried the medium size one (it weighs 1/2lb less). The food was all divvied out for each of us, and then I put some of mine in Greg's can along with him carrying the stove (1.5lb) to offset the 4lb tent. Also eliminated this year was fishing gear, camp-shoes (comfy things to wear once you make camp), butt-pads (to sit on rather than just sitting on a log or rock) among other things.

Also new this year is some home-madeTyvek gear. I have been researching making some necessary items from Tyvek for the last year, and a month or so ago I bought a 100'x9' roll at Home Depot. You see, Tyvek is a wonderful miracle water-proof yet LIGHT WEIGHT material used mostly in construction. The 9' roll is used over the bare plywood of a house before the siding is put on. It is a waterproof yet breathable film membrane. Off the giant roll it makes a HORRIBLE noise as it is quite wouldn't want to pull out a sheet of this in a campground after dark I can assure you. However, if you take said sheet and run it thru your washing machine a few times (with a tennis-shoe or other like item in there with it) and then air-dry it, the material comes out almost like a cloth, all soft and wrinkly, with the thunderous crackle all gone. I had made us both bivy bags, ponchos, pack-covers, and also a footprint for the new tent. I modeled the poncho's off of our heavy 'super ponchos', however my Tyvek ones weighed just a bit over half of the store-bought ones. The bivy bags are simply a little tube for our sleeping bags. They can be used in lieu of a tent (if you are a TRUE ULTRA-lightweight backpacker, which we are NOT), or if we were expecting COLD weather they can be used inside the tent to extend the temperature rating of our sleeping bags by about 10 degrees. The pack covers are elastic-banded covers that slip over the packs as they sit out in the open at night, and are lighter and cheaper than any store bought models.

And is the FINAL list of what made my backpack for this trip:
Bear can (Bear Vault 450), tent, 23 degree down sleeping bag, 1 two-liter platypus water bottle (for filtering water into at our nightly camp, Greg also carries 1), mosquito head net (just in case, it only weighs 4.8oz, and IF there are mosquitoes it would suddenly be worth about a million $), small plastic orange 'poopie' shovel (to dig your 12" hole for your dooty), long handle plastic spoon, insulated cup, Tyvek poncho, Tyvek pack cover, long underwear (merino wool blend), rain/wind shell, fleece jacket, 2nd pair hiking socks and separate wool sleeping socks, wool stocking hat/gloves, inflatable pillow, sleeping pad (new model: gray foam pad bonded to thin blue pad: total weight 1lb 10oz and works FAR better than the MUCH heavier Thermarest inflatable), and all the food: mountain house dehydrated meals for each dinner, 3 packs instant flavored oatmeal for each breakfast, and 2 cliff bars and 1/2 pack beef-jerky each day for on the trail lunches. My TOTAL pack weight (consider my empty pack weighs 4lb 11oz) was 28lbs at the start (we weighed them at Whitney Portal at the end and my pack was now 23lbs). Also it has to be said that there are always a few 'stowaway' items, such as a shoestring (in case I break a boot string, also useful for many other emergency repairs), my led head-light, and a few other odds and ends. Also this year I carried my little 'bathroom kit' in my pants cargo-pocket (toothbrush w/ handle cut off, mini half-empty toothpaste tube, motrin and antacids, small sunscreen 'chapstick' style tube, and sleeping pills (Unisoms, we both take 3 gel-caps each night to help us sleep, which works WONDERS when you are old and sleeping on the ground). 

I carried my drinking water this year in a disposable water-bottle with a little carabiner clip around it's neck, and it was attached to my belt (NOT in/on my pack..water is heavy!). I also carried my Tyvek poncho and half of my long underwear on my back above the pack waist-belt (so technically it wasn't in my pack, thus another pound was lost). There are many arguments about whether total weight or weight of your pack is what matters. In my book (and being as I am the one carrying it all), it's weight on my back that matters most. My legs are strong...I have no problem with the weight. It's how much I have sitting day after day hour after hour on my shoulders/hips that matters most. I can tell you with absolute certainty that having my pack sub-30lbs for the first time EVER made a HUGE difference! Even at the very start when I lofted it to sling it over my shoulders, I didn't GROAN for the first time. Huge diff between 35+ and 28lbs! HUGE!!! Greg's pack weighed a bit more at both ends: 30 at the start and 25 at the finish. However he didn't quite go thru his pack with a fine-tooth comb like I did...he still had some extras (large zip-lock plastic bags separating clothes, full size (vice miniature) deodorant, stuff like that) and he now realizes that all those tiny things add up to a few extra pounds.

And so. At just about 3:30pm we locked the car after totally repacking our backpacks, and we hefted our now lighter loads onto our shoulders and we HIT THE TRAIL. I leave this first installment with our 2 trailhead pictures.
Greg and I locked and loaded, ready for us grizzled mountain-men to hit the HIGH Sierras!

Our final pre-departure picture: the obligatory trailhead sign selfie.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Up, Up and a WAY!

It's that time again! Tomorrow my brother Greg and I begin our annual backpacking extravaganza! We are meeting in Mojave around 9:30am, and then this year we will BOTH drive up hwy 395 (that runs from Mojave and goes up along the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains) all the way to Lone Pine. That's where the big new ranger station is. We will get our permit hopefully with no problems, then we will BOTH drive up to Mt Whitney Portal (the trailhead for the hike to Mt Whitney) and leave his car there. Then we'll load all his gear into my car and we will drive north to the Onion Valley trailhead (where we went out of last year). This year we are doing our FIRST point to point ONE WAY trip! We've never done this before...we've always packed in and unloaded/set up a 'base camp' and then day hiked and fished every day.

Our goal is to hike a nice chunk of the John Muir Trail. We hike from the Onion Valley trailhead and in about 7 miles (after we've gone up/over/down Kearsarge Pass) we will link into the JMT. Then the trail turns left (south sort of) and the fun really begins. We have 3 large passes to cross...Kearsarge, Forrester, and finally the hike up to Trail Crest (at the top of the ridge, a mere2 miles away from the Mt Whitney summit). Being a point to point we will be carrying the FULL weight of our packs every step of the way. We hope to be hiking down into Whitney Portal next Tuesday afternoon...however we've reserved Weds as a potential hike-out day if needed. We have no idea how hard this will be..but I think it's safe to say it will be harder than we think (but we Chapek boys are quite stubborn, so unless there is a broken femur and / or spouting arterial blood flow, I think we will make it).

OH...before I get any further, in case anybody out there is interested in following us, here is the SPOT (Satellite POsition Tracker) map that will show our location every 10 minutes (that the device is turned on) for the duration of the trip:

You have the option of choosing either Map or Satellite view or hybrid (a satellite map with any roads and such overlaid). If you hover over any of the position markers it gives you the time it was sent.

Hard or not, I'm pretty sure we will have a GREAT time! Greg has been down in San Diego all week for work (riding home on the train as I type) and doesn't get home until later this it's a "hi honey..I'm home...and I'll be leaving tomorrow morning to go backpacking with Matt". So he's rather frazzled (he sort-of got out all his stuff last weekend). I've been crazy busy at work, and then getting everything ready for this trip has left ME feeling frazzled all week too. But my car is loaded, and only a few tiny items left on my I'm much calmer now. We have our food pretty well figured out (we will each be carrying a bear can, and eating Mountain House dehydrated food for dinner, instant oatmeal for breakfast, and cliff bars and jerky for lunch/snacks as we hike. We drive up to the trailhead tomorrow afternoon and then decide if we should hike up/over Kearsarge pass or car-camp the night and go up early on Sat (keep in mind we live at Sea Level...Kearsarge is around 10,000' I believe...maybe a bit less...Forrester is over 13,000 but that won't be for a few days...and Mt Whitney goes to near 15,000). We have Sat/Sun/Mon as full days, with Tues as a planned 'hike out' day...our it can be a 4th full day and Weds is the hike-out day...that will be a day by day decision on how we are progressing each day. We'd need to hit pretty good miles to make it in 3.5 days...roughly 15 miles a day...not sure we are up to that with full packs...but we will soon see.

Here is an altitude profile of the entire hike we plan to do:

OK...enough on about the VUELTA!!!! GO CHRIS!!! YOU CAN DO IT!!! OMG..if he pulls this off it will be the most exciting thing in cycling in a LONG time as far as I'm concerned! He's still one of my 2 fav (still racing) riders...he and Fabian (so VERY sad he's out). I'll be sending him whatever spare energy I can (hopefully...if he suddenly starts looking like he's bonking, it's because my 'energy sending' wave-beam accidentally turned around and I'm sucking HIS energy to survive this 50 mile hike).

Anyway, have a great weekend and I'll check in late next week with the full story AND pictures.

Later gaters...and CHEERS!