JMT: Pre-Hike Prep

One month from today, we’ll start walking the John Muir Trail. Because we’ve both spent years dreaming about this hike, it’s almost hard to convince myself that it’s really happening this summer.

The JMT travels the Sierra Nevada in California. For most of its length, it overlaps the Pacific Crest Trail (which runs from the US/Mexico border up to Canada). It winds through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the country, and will take us through Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks; the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wildernesses; Devil’s Postpile National Monument; and Inyo National Forest. About a third of the trail is above 10,000 feet.

Formally, the JMT stretches about 210 miles, with the northern terminus at Happy Isles in Yosemite and the southern terminus at the summit of Mt. Whitney (highest point in the contiguous U.S. at 14,505 feet) in Sequoia. Hikers going southbound then have to add another 10 miles or so to descend Whitney and exit the trail, so typically JMT hikers travel about 220 miles. But we’ll be walking a few more than that.

Because strict permit quotas and increasing interest in the JMT make it very difficult to start in Yosemite, we opted to hike northbound (“NOBO”) instead. We also opted to begin about 15 miles south of Mt. Whitney — this let us avoid the very competitive permit lottery for the Whitney Portal trailhead, and it will give us a few days of easier hiking at altitude to help us acclimatize before we start the big climbs. We start near Cottonwood Pass, where we’ll get on the PCT and hike it until it converges with the JMT at Crabtree Meadows. Then we’ll hike the JMT east so I can attempt a summit of Whitney, and retrace our steps back to Crabtree before continuing north to complete the JMT. I know, it’s confusing. This map might clarify a bit:

We begin at the southeast corner, at Cottonwood Pass TH. Click to enlarge the photo.
Click to enlarge. We begin at the southeast corner, at Cottonwood Pass TH.

Our resupply plan also adds a few miles to our itinerary. About a week into the trip, we’ll hike out over Kearsarge Pass to the little town of Independence on the east side of the mountains. We’ll stay in a motel that caters to hikers and pick up our resupply package, then hike back over the pass the next morning and join the JMT again. That’s about 15 more miles roundtrip. So, roughly: 210 for the JMT proper, +15 to reach the JMT from our starting trailhead, +10 to go to Whitney and back, +15 out to Independence and back = approximately 250 miles. Whew!

Getting to and from the trail is its own logistics puzzle. Although it’s very well-traveled by hikers every year, the trail itself is more remote than our previous trips. We’ll fly out to Reno, take a bus about six hours down to Lone Pine, then take a shuttle service up to our trailhead (for a total of 2.5 days of travel before we start the hike itself!). While in Lone Pine, we’ll mail our air travel clothes back home so we don’t have to carry them on the hike. When we leave Yosemite at the end, we’ll take a bus to Merced and then rent a car to go visit friends in the Bay Area and Davis/Sacramento. We’re also mailing some post-hike clothes and toiletries ahead to friends in Oakland.

Training

NOBO is said to be the more challenging direction of travel: you start at higher altitude, with more difficult mountain passes at the beginning and longer distances between resupply stops, which means carrying more food (i.e., weight) from the start. We’ve planned what we hope is a reasonable itinerary with a few low-mileage/easy days at the very beginning. Still, we know the hiking will be very tough. At the bottom of the map image, you can see the trail’s elevation profile (we’ll be traveling from right to left on that profile). It’s quite a lot of climbing and descending, with eight sizable mountain passes to cross, plus Mt. Whitney and twice over Kearsarge Pass! Our time on the Wonderland last year gave us a better sense of what mountain hiking is like, and we’ve adjusted our training accordingly:

  • Crossfit workouts 4-5x/week, including 1-2 longer workouts and lots of focus on legs and core strength.
  • long climbs on the stairmill at a cheap gym down the street, 1-2x/week
  • day hikes with our loaded packs, usually 5-9 miles each, 1-2x/week
  • stair climbs at the football stadium with our loaded packs, at least 1x/week, including walking to and from the stadium (~4 miles roundtrip)
Cyn, near the end of the Lake Mingo Trail.
Cyn, near the end of the Lake Mingo Trail.
Early morning sun on the red trail at Allerton Park.
The morning I realized mosquito season had officially arrived. On the red trail at Allerton Park.
Morning climbing at the football stadium.
“Midwest mountaineering” at the football stadium.

This is the best combination we’ve come up with, considering that we live in the flat flatness of the Midwest. The stairmill is profoundly boring, but it’s the only way to climb continuously for long stretches of time. Stadium climbs help us train our downhill muscles, and even though our day hikes are on flat terrain, they still help condition our feet and legs for carrying weight. We also feel hopeful that our new trail runners will lessen the structural foot pain that we both incurred last summer.

Food/Resupplies

We’ll be on the trail for almost a month, so a big part of our pre-hike planning concerns food prep and resupply arrangements. We’ll start out with about a week of food and then resupply three times: at our motel in Independence, at Muir Trail Ranch, and at Red’s Meadow. This means buying, repackaging, sorting, and mailing a ton of food and supplies. I spent weeks menu-planning. It’s tricky business because the food must: (a) have enough calories to sustain very strenuous all-day activity, (b) be light enough to carry without breaking our backs, (c) be tasty enough to overcome the loss of appetite that often accompanies high-elevation hiking, and (d) be compact enough to fit into our bear canisters. (Bear canisters are required on almost all of the JMT. They are the ultimate determinant of how much food you can bring.) Thankfully, we have a much better sense of what types of foods we like on the trail now — no more oatmeal! In addition to our beloved mid-morning Hot Drink, we will have one hot meal per day — we mostly made these ourselves, starting with couscous, StoveTop Stuffing mix, ramen, or instant potatoes and adding seasonings and freeze-dried chicken/veggies. Otherwise it’s the usual no-cook fare, though I tried to plan a good rotation of flavors over the course of the trip.

Cyn heroically repackaged everything into single portions, so we can keep track of about how many calories we’re getting each day and so everything fits better in the bear cans. This whole food prep process required lots of charts and spreadsheets and weights and measurements, but I felt triumphant when I was able to fit everything for our largest resupply into our bear canisters. What a relief.

My food supply for the first leg (seven days). Not pictured: a block of hard cheese that we'll buy in Lone Pine the day before we start.
My food supply for the first leg (seven days). Not pictured: a block of hard cheese that we’ll buy in Lone Pine the day before we start.
First leg's supply packed in my bear canister. Still plenty of room for my toiletries and trash (ALL smellable items must be in the bear can overnight!).
First leg’s supply packed in my bear canister. With enough space left over for my toiletries and trash (ALL smellable items must be in the bear can overnight!). Packing a bear can is like real-life Tetris.

Soon we’ll pack each resupply into big 5-gallon buckets, add other supplies (to replenish toilet paper, sunscreen, bug repellent, batteries, etc.), and ship them off.

Mental Game (–Cyn)

One thing I (Cyn) have been working on a lot this year is improving my mental game for the hike ahead. Until a few years ago I considered myself to be an unathletic person. I liked outdoor stuff and yoga, but rarely did things that were really challenging, so I didn’t have a lot of experience with being uncomfortable but continuing to do the work.  This was such a limitation for me last year. I was always comparing myself to other hikers or convincing myself that I wouldn’t be able to finish. It made it hard for me to really enjoy parts of the trip or to deal with the challenging parts. So I’ve committed to trying to do better this year. One thing I did to address this was to really work hard at Crossfit, and stop avoiding workouts that had too many burpees or too much running, both of which I hate, or that just seemed too long and hard. That in and of itself is working wonders, to just commit to doing it, sticking with the pain, and knowing that I can get through if I keep chipping away at things. The other thing that’s been so helpful is to read blogs and books about thru-hiking. I hadn’t done much of that last year and so was a bit surprised when the hike felt hard or when we got rained on for 8 straight hours. Not that I didn’t know these things could happen, but I didn’t KNOW it, you know? Reading about other people’s experiences (especially Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart) has helped me really understand that it’s inevitable that there will be climbs that seem impossible, that the weather will not always cooperate, that things are gonna hurt, and that some days you’ll just feel terrible for no clear reason, and that through all of that the only thing to do, usually, is to keep walking.

Anticipation

We still have several tasks on our to-do lists, including treating our clothes for bugs/ticks and practicing the set-up for our new tent a few more times. A ridiculous amount of preparation has gone into this trip, but it’s mostly just added to the anticipation, because we’re both so excited to hike this trail. I know it’s going to be challenging and sometimes exhausting, but now that we’ve done a few trips, I have a lot more confidence out there. We have our gear and food pretty well dialed in now, and we’re both stronger hikers than we were at this time last year.

There are a few things I feel apprehensive about, though. Not bears (California only has black bears, not grizzlies), or getting lost (the trail is very well-traveled and well-marked), or even getting caught in cold rain (we revised our clothing systems slightly after last summer’s Terrible Day). My major concerns are: (1) lightning (we will address this by getting over mountain passes early in the day, since the thunderstorms fairly reliably begin in the afternoons), (2) mosquitos (likely to be pretty heinous in some sections, but we have good bug repellent and headnets), and (3) water crossings (it’s been a high snow year compared to the last few years of drought, and the melt-off by July could mean high, fast rivers — we will deal with this by trying to cross as early in the day as possible, when the water is lower, and seeking out other crossing points or waiting for other hikers to cross with if needed). I’m also a little worried about the effects of altitude. We each got preventative medication to address actual altitude sickness, but we’ll still have to adjust to the thin air. Still, finding ways to negotiate new challenges is something I really love about backpacking. And anyway, it’ll all make for good blog posts later. –Toby


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