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John Muir Trail: Day 1, Disaster

I'd never been happier to wake up at 3 am. The months of planning, the anticipation, everything was already worth it. I had no idea if this trip was feasible for me or not-- much of my gear had been on exactly one shakedown hike, and my legs were feeling weak from quarantine. I felt the altitude, 8000 feet; it turns out that 12 hours may not be the correct amount of acclimation if you're coming from sea level. Shocker. But the fears aside, the air felt electric, and in the pre-dawn glow of a full moon, I rolled out of my sleeping bag, packed up my gear, and set out for Whitney Portal proper. I'd camped for free just minutes away, out of eyeshot of the road and the trails on the recommendation of a local. I picked up the day's food from the bear box I'd stashed it in the night prior, and took my first steps on the trail. 4:15 am.


I had lofty ambitions for the day-- all the way to Guitar Lake, just on the far side of Whitney. I'd done it years ago in the other direction, albeit on the last day of a trip, with a pack that didn't suffer with a 9 day food carry. I may have been in better shape then, but I was half the backpacker I am now-- at least, that's what I told myself. My start time slotted nicely between the early crew and the average hiker. A little slice of mountain, all to myself. My pace was strong, and I was

making great time, but I felt a little tension build as a group of ultrarunners made quick work of my lead. Nearly all my interactions with other folks on the trail are positive, but without exception, the bad ones have happened within a day of a trailhead. The headlamps bobbing up from below, the altitude, general COVID stress, and the sleep deprivation led to an anxiety that's relatively uncommon to the backcountry-- and so with the other group within earshot behind me, I arrived at a trail junction. The only trail junction on the front side of Whitney. I read the sign, altogether too quickly, and my brain said this is the way! I hardly slowed down through the intersection, and felt immediate relief as the group took the other turn.


 

The Mountaineer's Route is a bucket list item, one day. A shorter, more aggressive route up Whitney, it's a completely different type of challenge than trail hiking. At lower altitudes, the path splinters off into false endings in the brush like a root system, each fragment a previous drainage of the creek, or an animal use trail, or an ill-fated bushwhack by a frustrated hiker. The Ebersbacher Ledges are an incredible piece of routefinding, a zig-zagging series of natural switchbacks made of uninterrupted granite slabs with a great deal of exposure and a view to match. Small sections regularly get into the Class III zone, rife with small boulder problems, continuous use of hands, and high-steps that bring a hiker's knee to their chest with unfortunate regularity. As the trees drop away, the mid-altitude section is an exercise in open-terrain routefinding, with fairly basic landmark identification and orienteering requirements. Beyond that is a dizzying, though fairly standard, chute climb up to the Final 400, a steep and genuine Class III section with the possibility of a detour for anyone wanting to bypass it. All told, it's a wonderful way to experience the Whitney Zone while keeping the day-hikers at arm's length.


The Route is something within my comfort level, and something I'm excited to try. But it's not something I'm keen on doing with a 30+ pound pack, without adequate preparation. It's the type of land that's genuinely dangerous for someone who's attempted passage without sufficient planning, and certainly moreso for someone who's stumbled onto it unawares. Deaths are relatively common on an annual scale. And it was this trail that my anxiety and haste had put me on. Stubbornly, I cruised up the steep switchbacks as the trail got narrower and narrower. I made the turn onto the E-Ledges and circled back at the lone pine tree, gnarled by high winds and by harsh years. I made Lower Boy Scout Lake at around 7 am, and followed an apparent trace trail through the boulder field, not having thought enough about the path I was taking, the unfamiliar scenery, and the obviously missing landmarks I should've been seeing.

Lower Boy Scout Lake, with the scree field in the top left.


I didn't give up hope until, in the middle of a seemingly everlasting scree field, shrouded in thin, sharp air, I saw my beloved trace trail expire at the base of a 200 foot vertical headwall. It wasn't that I was unclear on where to go, the path was located quickly-- it was the realization that nowhere on this trail should require the least bit of thought as to routefinding, and thus, that there was absolutely no chance that I had taken the correct turn from the main trail. In retrospect, the red flags were embarrassingly abundant. I had every reason to turn around, at any point. I had hiked this trail before, and happily glossed over the unfamiliar scenery and the shockingly different trail conditions from what I remembered of the previous trip. But regardless, I had hopped from tiny patches of trace trail 40, 50 feet apart at a time, aiming for patches of worn gravel between the fist and torso-sized scree. Arriving, I would rest, a brief reprieve from the sliding, and scope out the next patch of "trail". This was, looking back, dangerous, clearly absurd, in direct contrast to all hiking best practices, and the single worst example of mountaineering I've ever been a part of. This is worse than the time I ran out of water in Big Sur, this is worse than the time I got much, much too close to a wildfire, and worse than the time I was unprepared for snow on San Jacinto.


I'm writing this down in part because there's a prevailing narrative that this kind of stuff simply doesn't happen in the outdoors, and if it happens to you, that you don't deserve to be there. I think it's important for the accessibility of the outdoors to change that story with lived examples. Nature will happily put you in a hazardous situation without a second thought, and the only grave error is responding incorrectly to these situations. And so, I took things one step at a time. I got my frustration and my anger out-- it's a dangerous thing to be dealing with strong emotions in a precarious circumstance. I triangulated my position with a map and compass, helped by the obvious conclusion that I was on the Mountaineer's Route, and took some time to develop a plan. My original goal of a Whitney summit and a back-side descent that day was obviously on hold. The priority here was not doing anything unnecessarily dangerous. The only way down was the way I came, and on a steep scree field, a quick move is a great way to start an unstoppable slide, with you atop it.


 

I moved slowly and mostly sure-footedly down the scree field, though I definitely took some spills along the way-- a hazard of the loose rock underfoot. It a pragmatic slog that was a wonderful foil to the enthusiasm and the hurry that had led me here, and I was still pissed that my Big Trip was off to an uninspiring start. When I focused on that anger, I slipped-- every time. I took some time at Lower Boy Scout to swap out my sun-heated water for something a little cooler from the lake, and tried to process through those feelings a bit more; I was by no means out of the woods. At the E-Ledges, I found that my way up was untenable as a descent, and ended up dropping my pack about 15 feet so I could clamber down a vertical section without the added bulk. A rip in the bottom of my pack was nothing some tenacious tape couldn't fix, and my bear can was able to take the brunt of the drop. But an injury would've be a quick end to this trip, and I was determined to salvage it from a poor start. My path down the E-Ledges had returned me to the impassable thicket from earlier, a stone's throw from the actual trail-- rather than bushwhack to the trail itself, I decided to skirt the edges of it, using the foliage to help out my precarious footing on the steep, slick granite. This would've been a fun slab problem in the climbing gym back home, but the circumstances soured my mood a bit. I emerged from the brush with only a few bad cuts from the thorns, and counted myself lucky that I'd made it through. It was only some easy switchbacks with soft pine needles underfoot until I got back to the Mt. Whitney trail, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Regardless of the circumstances, I was out in the mountains, I was safe, and I was still able to continue. Sometimes, that's the best case scenario.



A summary of some poor decisions


Once back on the Mt. Whitney trail, I made great time. The gentle grade, the forgiving footing, the option to retrieve my poles from the back of my pack and give my hands some rest, it all created the perfect circumstance for putting down some serious miles. But my detour had cost me. While it was only 10 am, I'd been hiking for 6 hours already, and the unseasonably warm weather was getting into the heat of the day. The demoralizing experience of backtracking nearly to the trailhead in order to correct my mistake wasn't helping, and my body was pretty torn up from the thorns and the exertion of the Mountaineer's Route. The scenery helped morale, though-- expansive views of Lone Pine and the White Mountains across the 395 narrowed as I ascended, eventually only peeking through a small V-shape in the mountains I'd passed through. The trail rose up granite spines, gaining distance from their valley floors, and the trees dropped away, giving way to the high-altitude scrub brush. Wildflowers bloomed, most hidden from the harsh light of the day under rocks-- sky pilot, mountain sorrel, and snow plant, if the title of wildflower can be extended that far.



A look back at Lone Pine and the White Mountains


I arrived at Trail Camp, the last stopping point before Whitney, and thought through my options. It was only 1 pm, and I had plenty of time to make the summit and descent. But, I only had 2 liters of water capacity, and once I passed Trail Camp, the next water was Guitar Lake. Between the altitude, the heat, the dry stretch, and the extra miles I'd tacked on, the prudent thing to do was to call it for the day. To paraphrase the wise words of Elizabeth Wenk, there's no need to push it on the first day of a weeks-long trip. And so, reluctantly, I found a nice spot by the lake, fended off an altogether-too-friendly marmot and a cadre of chipmunks who were absolutely working as a team, cooked some dinner, rescued a snickers bar from one of the aforementioned chipmunks, and called it a day. All in all, I was grateful that I didn't have to get helicoptered out, that I was still on the trail, and that I was only a handful of miles behind the pace. It was hard to stay upset, surrounded by giants in this little carved granite bowl, with the clouds drifting by, the lake gently lapping, and the promise of a good day tomorrow.



Day 1, at Trail Camp

Stats for the day:

10.5 mi,

+7000' / -3000'




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Hey, thanks for stopping by!

I appreciate you reading! I hope it was fun, useful, or interesting.

 

The dream is that by running this blog, I can give those I care about a way to keep up to date with what I'm doing. Bonus points if someone stumbles across this and it helps them plan a trip or get into the outdoors. Always feel free to drop me a line if you've got questions about anything posted here!

Much love,

Riley

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