Well, I’m at it again! As many of you know, in May of 2015, I embarked on a life changing journey, hiking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across Spain. I never considered myself an adventurer or even a hiker but the experience sparked a voracious need to explore this world and push my limits beyond any visible horizon. Only a few short months after returning from home and dealing with the tremendously difficult adjustment back to reality, I started getting that itch again. “Life is short. Do it all” rang through my ears regularly. I was hungry for another experience. I hadn’t even assimilated back to my normal routine when I began searching for my next big adventure. This time, with my husband by my side, I decided to set my sights on something a little closer to home but much more physically challenging. I’ll be hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California. Not only will I be hiking with Brian this time but we will be joined by Stephen, who I hiked with briefly in Spain, and his girlfriend Rachel! I am so looking forward to a Camino reunion!
The four of us got our permit to hike together just a couple of weeks ago. We were all thrilled and shocked to get our permit as the JMT is an extremely popular trail and the permit process, while a tad daunting to prepare for, is nothing more than a simple lottery. Optimistic hikers fill out the detailed form and submit it exactly 24 weeks prior to the exact day they intend to start hiking. Then they await a response with their fingers crossed. If they’re not selected, they hear nothing at all. Because so many hikers request permits, the chances of our group’s name being drawn from the hat were quite slim. We gave ourselves a one week window. We would submit a permit every morning for one week or until we heard back from the permit office. Brian and I even had a plan B in case the JMT didn’t work out. We decided if we can’t hike in California, we would spend a week hiking the famous Laugavegurinn in Iceland. To our complete and utter surprise, our form was selected the very first day! We couldn’t believe our good luck!
The John Muir Trail is a 210 mile path through the high Sierras in California. (It’s actually closer to 220 miles when you’re done because most people don’t consider the fact that you have to hike back down that final mountain once you’ve reached the top!) Hikers may choose to hike the JMT heading northbound or southbound. My team and I will be hiking it southbound (SOBO), beginning in the beautiful Yosemite National Park and ending atop the monstrous Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States at 14,505 feet. To give you some perspective on how high 14,000 feet is, I jumped out of a plane once at 13,000 feet during a spontaneous skydiving episode I had about 10 years ago. So, yeah. It’s pretty high. In fact, we will never fall below eight thousand feet across the entire trail.
So, I’m a long-distance hiker now. I’ve hiked 500 miles across Spain. That makes me a pro right? This 200 mile trek should be a cakewalk right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. The Camino was filled with its own challenges from which I’ve grown and its own treasures which I will hold forever in my heart. But the JMT is a completely different adventure. I will have a whole new set of challenges to brave. So how does the JMT differ from the Camino? Let’s start with the most obvious. It’s only about half the distance. Unfortunately, it’s also twice as hard. Not only is it technically more difficult than the Camino (there are sections where you have to wade across streams and skirt past cliff sides), but the elevation gained over the JMT is downright scary. Yes, I had to cross over the Pyrenees Mountains on the Camino but even with the highest altitude on the Camino, we’re only talking about a few thousand feet of elevation gain in total. The John Muir Trail on the other hand consists of numerous pointless ups and downs (PUDs). That’s the technical term you’ll need to know if you’re going to keep up with my complaining. There will be lot of complaining about PUDs. But back to my comparison, I hiked the Camino in thirty-eight days. We’re going to try to hike the JMT in twenty-one days but based on my performance on the Camino, I think it’s going to take me closer to a month to complete.
Okay, so what else is different about the JMT that I’ll have to account for in my planning? Well, there are no cafes or bars along the way. In fact, I’ll be several days worth of hiking away from civilization at any given time. What this means is I will be carrying all of my food and water with me. This presents a few challenges. First, this nearly doubles the size and weight of my pack even with the convenient freeze dried meals we’ll carry. Second, it means hikers must protect their food stash from hungry animals. Especially the big ones! Thus, all JMT hikers are required by law to carry a bear canister. These bulky hard monstrosities weigh anywhere between two and four pounds empty, enough to make any long-distance hiker cry. Also, unlike the Camino, I will have to carry a much warmer/heavier sleeping bag (it drops below freezing at night even in the summer), and a tent. Brian and I have selected a roomy three-person tent to share during our journey. Hiking can be extremely taxing on existing relationships so I have taken some notes from Brian’s Appalachian Trail (AT) hiking partners Sunshine and Young Beard. They were engaged to be married prior to hiking the AT together and they married a year later. They too carried a three-person tent and said having some space at the end of the day was crucial to staying together. So a three-person tent it is!
Alright. Food/water, sleeping bag, tent. Got it. What else could possibly be different? The weather. In the high sierras, one must be prepared for a range of precipitation and temperature. I will be hiking in July so during the day, it could possibly be up to 100 degrees (which is dreadfully hot for hiking) and as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature drops to around 30. So I’ll have to find the most efficient way to dress for all types of weather conditions. There was also a good deal of snowfall this winter so at the higher altitudes, we’ll be hiking through snow. I’m prepared to carry my micro spikes but I have not yet decided if I’ll bring more serious gear. Brian purchased us both ice axes, not so much because he knows we’ll need them but more because he’s addicted to buying outdoor gear whether we need it or not. Ice axes are pretty serious though and without practice, a hiker is more likely to impale herself with it than to save her own life with it. We hiked up Saddleback Mountain in Maine a couple of weeks ago and brought our ice axes with the intent of practicing with them. But when encountered with steep icy slopes where my ice axe would be useful, I was too scared to practice falling and catching myself with it.
So I will most likely not bring my ice axe.
Let’s talk about altitude sickness. Altitude sickness presents itself when there is a lack of oxygen due to a sudden ascent (such as hiking up a large mountain). Symptoms include headaches, extreme fatigue, insomnia, shortness of breath, respiratory failure, cerebral edema, coma, and death. While I’m not worried about the more serious symptoms, I’m not taking this concern lightly. No one can know who will suffer from altitude sickness and there are few things you can do to prepare yourself. I’ve never hiked over 6,000 feet and when I did hike at 6,000 feet (on Mount Washington), I was eternally out of breath and dehydrated. I couldn’t catch me breathe or drink enough water to save my life. I don’t know if this means I’ll have trouble at 8,000 to 14,000 feet, or not. I guess I’ll find out when I get there! I’m going to get a prescription for Diamox which is supposed to help with symptoms and my hiking group plans to arrive in Yosemite a few days before our official hike begins to give our bodies time to acclimate to the higher altitude.
There are numerous other differences that will make the JMT a significantly more challenging trail for me than the Camino but I’d say the above mentioned are the most notable. The only other difference worth commenting on at this point is the fact that I will not have Wi-Fi every evening like I did on the Camino. What this means is I will not be able to update my blog regularly. I did not believe I would be interested in journaling on the Camino but I quickly learned that the time I spent each evening reflecting on my day was a critical part of my experience. So I intend to journal on the JMT as well. I will share those journals openly and honestly on my blog as I did with the Camino but you may not hear from me as consistently this time around. That said, I’m still exploring my options. For the right price, I believe you can get cell signal anywhere!
I thank you for your support and interest and I hope this adventure will be as exciting for you as it will certainly be for me!