Sunday, September 2, 2012

John Muir Trail II. Epic thunderstorm, the camaraderie of the trail, and losing my companions

Kim and I huddled in our respective tents at the Lyell Canyon bridge as a thunderstorm swept over us. The ground shook from the thunder and lightning flashed from cloud to cloud and on the pass above us. Rain pelted our little tents. This was easily the most intense thunderstorm I had ever been in, and even though we were only at 8,500 feet, it was hard to know if trees around our campsite would be struck.

This wasn't our only worry. The rendezvous with our other companions had never happened. We had arrived at our meeting spot at 2 pm amid a light rain shower. The others had left later than we had, but as the hours stretched on and other hikers arrived without having seen them, we could only speculate what might have happened and what we should do. Wait another day at the bridge or move on? Moving on to keep the schedule and our food drops seemed like the only answer.

It had all started well along Lyell Canyon. "This is the only flat section of the JMT," a couple coming the other way told us. It was a day of walking next to a slow, unhurried river that alternately flowed over bedrock in cascades or wound lazily through big meadows. It was easy, and we had made good time. But where were our hiking partners?

In the morning they still had not arrived, the note we left for them untouched. Unsure of what to do, we packed up our wet gear and headed up our first pass of the trip, Donahue. Despite what other hikers had told us, this was a meandering, enjoyable walk through small tarns and flowers, gradually ascending to about 10,000 feet. The other side of the pass was equally inspiring, a downhill walk past more small lakes and streams until we reached a low point and had to climb again, up Island Pass.

My worries temporarily fell away as we reached the top of the pass, the trail passing two mirrored lakes, the miles to come stretching in front of us. At this point, on Day 5, Day 19 seemed too far away to even contemplate. Something happens when you spend a few days in the wilderness, something that is hard to describe or explain, but it was happening now. The rest of the world seemed insignificant. This was my life now. Wake up at first light, pack my bag, walk for hours. Find a campsite, make dinner, and go to sleep. It was simple and good.

We started passing lakes as beautiful as dreams, turquoise water with black peaks above, white granite surrounding them. Thousand Island Lake, Ruby Lake, and our campsite for the night, Garnet. We camped on rock slabs overlooking the lake. Once again, our companions failed to show. Our only hope now was that they would meet us somehow at Red's Meadow, our next resupply and accessible by shuttle. Maybe they left the trail, we theorized. It was hard to know, and even in the busy Sierra, it was easy to feel somewhat alone with my uncertainty.

The next day was another 14 miler, a dusty climb past another chain of lakes and then a long, pumice trail past Devil's Postpile to Red's Meadow. Water was scarce and temperatures soared as we lost elevation. The trail, diving into deep forest punctuated by enormous blowdown, held little interest. For the first time I questioned my ability to continue. Somehow I had acquired blisters that marched along the tops and sides of both little toes, reducing me to a hobble. Maybe, I thought, I should leave the trail at Red's.

These thoughts were forgotten as we came to a junction pointing to the general store. We poured the contents of Kim's water bottle over our dirty legs. Here there were milkshakes and our resupply, and other hikers to talk with. We sat on the lawn in blissful tiredness.

Pretty soon, though, Kim would have to take the shuttle back to her car. I would be on my own. The thought did not terrify me, but what to do about my companions? Did I just keep going, pushing on to meet our scheduled horse packtrain resupply? Did I wait here? As I fretted, a group we had seen since Toulumne came up. "You can have our alcohol stove," Brewer said. He handed it to me with a bottle of alcohol.

This is the thing I was learning about the long distance trail life: People are better out there. At Garnet Lake, two other hikers shared their stove with us after Kim's failed to work. People said hello. They stopped in the trail to talk with us. They showed us good tent spots. Now here were some strangers giving me their stove. I loved this about the trail. I already knew I didn't want it to end.

I gathered our food bucket, mailed weeks ago. My last hope evaporated. My companions were not here. It was almost time for Kim to go. We exchanged worried glances. What could have happened to them? Should I go on by myself?

The mountains held no answers. I would have to figure this one out on my own.


  1. Yipe--you are too good as leaving your readers in suspense, waiting for the next post!!

  2. I still can't get over how rocky the Sierras are. Crazy. And milkshakes? Maybe you and I would get along backpacking after all, you definitely have your priorities straight!

  3. That last pic is my favorite so far. Enjoying the tales, too. Call me back when you can! xo

  4. Two thumbs up for milkshakes!


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