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.


  1. OH, those altitude headaches! I always got one, nauseated too, the first day. Carried Pepto-Bismol for that. Even though I had slept at Whitney Portal, I still had a pretty bad one by the time I reached the camping area around 12000 feet (on the Mt. Whitney climb) and like you, just made some instant tea, crawled into my bag and slept for about two hours before I revived enough to make a meal. But by the next day I was fine.
    Another trip didn't go so well. I had driven up to and hiked from Horseshoe Meadow on the same day, climbing up over Trail Pass heading for Cottonwood Pass, where I planned to stop. The first hours were fine, but by the time I got to my stopping point I was more miserable than I had ever been; felt like a full-on case of influenza (you know, where you feel like you are surely going to die). I made tea, but couldn't eat. Really, I was a bit scared and decided that I needed to get to a lower elevation. It was getting late, nearly twilight when I lifted pack and started down a trail that looked to be a shorter route straight from Cottonwood down toward Horseshoe Meadow, hoping to find a spot to stop lower down. As it turned out, it was all through wooded trail, and it got dark so I was descending by flashlight, continuing to feel quite ill. I came to a locked up cabin and thought to stop there, but I was still feeling quite sick and in the end traveled the entire 3-4 miles back to the car. Now it was after midnight, close to 1am I think. I laid down in the back seat to try to sleep but still my head was so bad that I couldn't. So, after an hour or so, I decided to drive down to Lone Pine. The road seemed to have a million more switchbacks going down than it did going up! But, once I was down to the valley floor, blessed relief. I just pulled into the parking lot of a diner and crawled into the back seat to finish the night. Needless to say I didn't finish that trip! And I believe that was my last backpack in the high Sierras as well (for a number of reasons).

    Hope you don't mind that I am reminiscing along with your posts -- you are the only other person that I know that has ever been up there!


    1. Hey Rae...reminisce away! I LOVE hearing from others who have had some of the same experiences! (never seen Greg show any signs of altitude sickness, that rat dog!) I need a day..or at least an evening to let my body have a chance. This trip we skipped that, and I paid for it, but not nearly so bad as it could have been. I recall our trip in the Golden Trout Wilderness a few years back...the drive to Horseshoe Meadows (a WILD one, pretty similar to the Onion Valley trailhead drive from what I remember, they both make Whitney Portal drive seem rather tame). I hear Cottonwood Pass is a bear...have yet to do that one...on the GTW trip we did a one-day up over New Army Pass and bagged another 14'er: Mt Langley...gave us a nice view of Whitney, and our side trip up Whitney this time gave us a nice view of what we now know is Mt Langley. Sounds like you were still making good decisions, even in your agony...knowing that you MUST get down, and then DOING it...that's what sets you apart from so many others who don't make good decisions in crunch time. Amazing what just a few thousand feet will do when you feel like you are dying (our 1st of 2 Mt bike trips to White Mt many years back was like that...we were able to go up past the Bristlecone Pine area and park up at the University research station (USC, UCLA, can't remember which one has the station)...toured the facility, then we mt biked to NEAR the summit..but I was getting the splitting death-headache at about 13,000' and knew I wasn't going to make it to the summit (there's an actual dirt road to near the top, where it turns to a jeep-type trail if I recall correctly) and turned around...HAD to get bro's came w/ me of course, and then as we descended in my little bro's Explorer I was feeling better by the foot! Crazy how that works...can't imagine those who go for Everest...the top of Whitney isn't even as high as Base Camp.

      I'd actually LOVE to road-ride both the Horseshoe Meadow and Onion Valley trailhead roads someday...but I'd have to be in pretty good shape...they are both steep and LONG...real beasts for sure. It's a goal...maybe one year Greg and I will drive up there for 2 or 3 days and do them both...maybe in the spring when it's not hot but not too cold....

  2. Matt, Rae - my hubby and his bro trekked in Nepal one May, planning to spend one night pretty high up out of Kathmandu. I think it was near 15k and the bro got mountain sickness quite bad and only wanted to sleep. So my hubby monitored him all night, waking him every two hours just to be sure he would wake up, then the next morning split his load with him and started descending. Just like you said, Matt, he got better with almost every footstep once they went down. When he was finally ok, they decided the bro wanted to go back home, that he'd had enough, but hubby went to Everest Base Camp, where he said every single footstep was an ordeal!

    1. Oh WOW! Would love to see Everest Base Camp someday...but these days I hear it's not quite so excellent...way too many people...20 years ago would have been something. Never been to Nepal (yet) either..THAT would be pretty cool...maybe I'll go during winter when nobody else is there (grin!)...