Upon descending Whitney and since returning home, several folks have asked what we would do differently. Unprepared at first, I’ve grown to enjoy this question as new answers emerge daily as we look back upon our time together.
In baker’s dozen fashion — in honor of our 12 days, plus one much needed zero day, on the trail (and, well, because donuts), our thoughts are below.
SUNRISE TRAILHEAD > Tuolumne Meadows / 16.3 miles
Like so many important moments in your life, the hike will come slowly then all at once.
I would remind myself not to rush the beginning, middle, or end of the experience as each has a beauty all its own. I love that we took the time to capture this pre-hike shot looking out over Tenaya Lake hand-in-hand. Better still, I am grateful that we found each others hands during endless stream crossings and, on our approach to Whitney weeks later, that we held each other on our way to the top.
While I wish Zan and I had taken more time to record special moments like the one above, I would strive to truly appreciate the grandeur that surrounded me — in the moment — including the beauty of the partner who shares in my adventures.
TuolUmne MEADOWS > Rush Creek / 17.1 miles
Don’t pull into camp with your tank on empty.
The first few days, we were excited and just a little freaked out. I was itching to test our limits — to know how many miles we would average each day and whether or not we’d even reach Whitney at the end of it all. During one of our first passes, Donahue, we decided to push on for another mile, mile and a half with little food in our bellies, and even less water, but an overabundance of sun exposure and elevation gain. We arrived at our lunch stop exhausted and hangry and forever lost the pleasure of all the lovely miles in between. Next time, I would know better than to ignore my body or the demands of the elements.
Rush CREEK > Red's Meadow / 20.9 miles
Temper your thoughts — the dangers of the wild aren’t always as grand as you imagine them to be, nor the comforts of civilization.
When we got into Red’s Meadow for our first shower and hot meal in three days, Zan had vividly conjured the world’s most delicious french fries in his mind’s eye. Sadly, not only were they not epic, they did not even have a place on the diner’s menu. We devoured our dinners, nonetheless, then made our way into the overbooked campground to search for a space to pitch our tent. Make Note: When you return from the wild, be prepared to settle for potato salad with a side of groveling...
Red's MEADOW > Squaw Lake / 21.1 miles
Find your pace and respect the flow of your fellow hikers.
Having the right gear is good but hiking in the company of like-minded folks can be even more enjoyable. By Day 4, we were beginning to yo-yo with a few sets of hikers including Alejandro and Jim (above). We passed each other several times by the time we reached Virginia Lakes and, while our duos never formally merged, it was comforting to cross paths while enjoying our autonomy. Plus, the animated conversation and impromptu barters — dark chocolate in exchange for photos of their map — proved to be worth their weight in gold.
Squaw LAKE > VERMILLION VALLEY RESORT (via Goodale Pass) / 14 miles
The last few miles are always the longest (especially when you are looking forward to a luxury.)
Whether it be a warm shower, soft bed or a dip in a glacier-formed lake, focusing too earnestly on the rewards that await at your final destination has a tricky way of prolonging that gratification. So determined to make our miles into Squaw Lake, we failed to fully notice the storm that was brewing over the mountains and onto the exposed granite cliff. After pitching our tent in a lightning storm above 10,000 ft — surrounded by water and tumbling rock — I will do better next time to slow down and stay alert.
Zero Day at VVR / 0 miles
Deal with your issues — whatever they may be — before you head off, or suffer the consequences.
By the time we hobbled into Vermillion Valley Resort on Day 5 it was clear that the “toenail issue” I had been ignoring during our training hikes was not going to get better on it’s own. Instead of having it removed by a doctor, I lost more than two hours of our rest day clipping and sawing and tugging at it until it was finally extracted, root and all. Lesson? Listen to that weird voice inside your head or that rumble in your gut — they usually know what’s best.
VVR > MUIR TRAIL RANCH / 25 miles
Most of your fears won’t come to pass but keep your hubris in check.
So many things we worried about never came to fruition — we saw 0 bears, 0 rattlesnakes and all forest fires stayed at a safe distance as did the bubonic plague and giardia. But, we soon learned that hiking the JMT is like hiking on the surface of the sun (if the sun were also as dusty and covered in horse poo as it was bright.) Sending my sunglasses back home in an effort to save on pack weight was, hands down, the biggest mistake I made the entire trip. Each afternoon nausea would hit me like a wall and I’d have to carry it, along with my regret, up and over each pass. Next time we’ll be sure to spend a little more time getting to know the terrain and adjust our gear, and ego, accordingly.
MTR > Evolution Lake South / 20.9 miles
Don’t dwell on the idea of what your hike is "supposed" to be like...
While we did our best to get our nutrition in order — a minimum of 100 calories per ounce or it didn’t get packed — reviving a dwindling appetite became a serious issue by Day 7. Next hike I will tell myself, “Now is not the time to freak out over preservatives or artificial flavors. Now is the time to get calories and water into your dirty, smelly, hungry body. Liquid calories are golden.” When your appetite is all but lost, the best calories are the ones that you can actually stomach and that is how a bag of Flamin’ Hot Fritos saved my life. Shout out to Alyssa (aka Bright Eyes) for sharing bits of her bucket at MTR. Surprisingly, they were the only thing that I could choke down and comprised a bulk of my diet for the next four days.
Evolution LAKE SOUTH > GOLDEN STAIRCASE / 19.7 miles
You are stronger than you think — don’t place limits on what you are capable of.
While I’m not afraid of heights, per se, I was very afraid that I’d be afraid of them once I was too high to change my mind. Thankfully, hanging out on the JMT / above 10,000 ft, the rewards found in the landscape have a way of constantly nudging you further from the safety of your comfort zone. My advice to future me? Don’t fight it. Instead, take this chance to conquer your fears. On the eve of Day 10, the landscape forced us to pitch our tent less than a foot away from a 40-foot drop. While it would never be my first choice, the dazzling sunset we witnessed from our perch had a way of making the jitters more than worth it.
GOLDEN STAIRCASE > MILE 166.8 (WEST OF WOOD'S CREEK) / 22.5 miles
To do two things at once is to do neither well.
If you have planned for a gradual, leisurely thru-hike then by all means bring the deck of cards or a good book and consider yourself lucky to have the best of both worlds. That said, if you are trying to make your miles to meet a stretched goal, make peace with the idea that you likely won't be filling up that sketchbook, photographing every sunset or fishing every lake. You really can't do both well so choose one adventure and focus.
WEST OF WOOD'S CREEK > BUBB'S CREEK / 17.7 miles
They were right, the early bird does get the worm.
Dear Future Me,
Get up early. Like, super early, and get on the trail while the Earth and it’s creatures are either just waking up or bedding down. Remember the mornings you dressed and ate in darkness then slid out of the tent to take your first steps by the smallest morning light? It was magical and you should do it more often.
Bonus Tip: Hikers that aren’t stuffing in 20+ mile days are often finished and taking all the best camping spots by 3 or 4pm. Allow yourself to stop early and get a good spot for once, dammit.
BUBB'S CREEK > Guitar Lake / 21.3 miles
Always remember that great article on going lightweight and fast packing the JMT.
Even if your mind and spirit are willing, at some point, be mindful that your body may start breaking down and paying the price. As the article above says, the human foot is simply not engineered to sustain this kind of activity. Lest you forget the lesson, refer to the image above where you had a fresh toe hole, Alyssa would have her third ingrown toenail surgically removed and Zan’s feet had turned into dog pads along the way. Pro Tip: Keep your feet clean and dry when you hike but lube those puppies up and shove them into fresh socks as you sleep. Otherwise? Ground. Meat.
Guitar > Whitney Summit > Whitney Portal / 15.2 miles
Leave plenty of room to recover and settle back into normal life.
The ascent to the highest point in the contiguous US is long and challenging and you’d be wise to have your power song at the ready. Likewise, the 6,500 ft descent back down to the world is equally demanding — not because you need to plan for that hitch to your hotel (thanks for the ride, you turkey), that first trip to the laundromat looking homeless or your first noisy, crowded restaurant. And yes, sitting in a chair will never feel quite so good, a cold beverage will never taste as refreshing and a hot shower and soft bed will be heaven. But the return to life will require a bit of time and space. Give yourself enough then give yourself a bit more.
Like so many important moments in your life, the hike will come slowly then all at once.