My son Devin and his girlfriend Jessie are hiking the John Muir Trial. This is a hike that starts in Yosemite, and after 24 days (if you keep plugging away at it at 10 miles a day on average) ends up at Whitney Portal. Hiking more than 200 miles through the High Sierras, crossing dozens of rivers and streams, climbing over 13,000 foot passes, and, on the last day, seeing the sunrise from the top of Mt. Whitney, at 14,454 feet the highest mountain in the continental United States, doing the John Muir trail is mostly a matter of tenacity and raw endurance. The problem is: You can’t carry enough food for a month on the trail. “Food drops” are required.
A food drop contains everything they need to eat for about a week. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner is planned and rationed. Dinners are dried meals that only need water. Lunches are dried soups, some trail mix. Breakfast is granola or cereal. All a good variety of flavors. And then there are lots of “bars,” including candy, protein, PowerBars, and the like, for snacks and grazing. A food drop container fills a large 5-gallon bucket (like a paint bucket).
They dropped off the first food drop with a friend (Jesse R.) that lives on Mammoth Mountain at the ski resort. The second drop they mailed to the John Muir Trail Ranch, where they keep the stuff for you to pick up when you get there. And the third drop — I hiked in for them yesterday, August 7, which happened to be my 54th birthday.
You might ask how you coordinate a thing like that? The hikers need to plan and know exactly where they will be each day, allowing them to predict a date of arrival at a specific place on the trail. The place needs to be accessible from the “outside” meaning it should be no more than a one-day hike from a place that you can drive to. Devin planned that he would be at Bullfrog Lake (red arrow) on August 7. The Kearsarge Pass hike is about 7.5 miles from the Onion Valley Camp Ground (blue arrow), over Kearsarge Pass (green arrow), a 11,800 foot elevation to climb over. With Onion Valley at 9,200 feet, it does not sound so bad, but considering the thin air, the lack of acclimatization and the 2,600 feet elevation difference, it is a formidable hike with a 50 pound pack.
The map [click to enlarge] shows the trail in a fine dotted line. The bad news is that I lost my GPS shortly after crossing the pass, so I can’t show the usual trail route that I walked. Bummer. I have to get a new and improved one.
Here is a photograph of Bullfrog Lake from the top of the Pass (11,800 ft). It’s the blue lake in the distant center.
From where I took the photograph, it looked like I could just yell down and they’d hear me. It’s actually another two hour, three mile hike from this vantage point, and as you get lower into the valley, you don’t see the lake anymore, requiring maps and careful navigation to find it. I had trepidations and was nervous. What if they were not there? We had made arrangements of where I’d leave the stash, but I could not fathom resorting to that. Their last email confirming the date was from the JMT Ranch some nine days earlier. A lot can happen to delay you in nine days.
To my relief, when I finally arrived at Bullfrog Lake, I saw the two of them from a distance, fiddling with something on the ground. When I yelled “Devin” to announce myself, he waved and then rushed to collect something off the ground. I could not figure out what they were busy with. Here it is:
They had started making a sign “Happy Birthday” with rocks, Jessie arranging the rocks, and Devin collecting them, but I arrived a bit earlier than they expected and surprised them.
I found them healthy, happy and hungry.
Jessie was showing me how torn and dirty her shirt was. Imagine not changing your clothes for three weeks while being outdoors 24 hours a day.
Devin has his tangled and dirty hair tied back in a pony tail, which you can’t see in this picture.
They had run out of food completely. There was not a peanut left in their packs. The rendezvous was obviously critical. Besides the stash that Devin had put together for me to bring, I knew they would appreciate goodies. Even though those goodies contributed substantially to my already heavy pack, the impact on them was worth every ounce. I know what hikers crave, especially when out that long. The treats I brought:
- Four fresh “everything” bagels that smelled so strong, I was afraid every bear on the mountain would start chasing me.
- Six hardboiled eggs, two of which became part of my lunch while there. You can see Devin eating one of them in the picture above.
- Four fresh apples. Jessie said they were the number 2 item on her list of cravings. I forgot to ask what number 1 was.
- Two fresh peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They ate those within minutes of my getting there.
- A block of fresh pepperjack cheese. Cool and hard.
- A pint of Jack Daniels.
When you are out that long without any comforts of any kind, no chair, bed, shower, soap, fresh food of any type, believe me, those simple things are treasures. And that’s how they treated them. I could tell that August 7th would be the day of the feast, with more food available than the entire rest of the trek.
We spent an hour and a half together, me resting, they eating and repacking food. I knew I had a long walk out yet to do, with the afternoon sun beating down on me as I climbed the pass. They had a long way to go yet, getting closer to Forrester Pass, a 13,000 plus foot pass they’d have to get over the next day, and then on to Whitney, the top of it all.
As we hugged good-bye, I knew it was a perfect way to spend a birthday.