Ski Mountaineering

Hiking the John Muir Trail

Aug 26- Sep 13, 1996

Reiner Stenzel

This is a trip report of hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT). The purpose was to experience thru-hiking on perhaps the best part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). As a peak climber I also wanted to combine it with climbing several SPS peaks near the trail. Since it was difficult to find a matched partner I did it as a solo trip from Yosemite to Whitney, which took me 19 days for a 259 mi, 54,000' trip including 9 SPS peaks. For those interested, a detailed trip itinerary is provided. Here is the trip description in diary style:

Sun, Aug 25, drove with my VW bus to Whitney Portal. My better half and mother-in-law followed with their Nissan. They were planning to go to the Bay Area and made a detour through Yosemite. At Whitney Portal I left my VW van and all three of us continued with the Nissan. We stayed in a motel in Mammoth Lakes.

Mon, Aug 26. Got up at 6am, breakfast at 7-7:45am in Mammoth Lks, left by 7:45am to Lee Vining. Filled up gas and drove on Hwy120 to Tioga Pass and into Yosemite Valley. Arrived in the valley at 10am. Took shuttle bus to Happy Isles. After farewell from Hatsuko and Obachan started the hike at 10:30am. When kids asked me where I was heading I said Mt Whitney, 220mi, and they looked in disbelief. Pack was heavy (>50lbs), weather hot, and trail crowded with visitors. Passed by beautiful Vernal Falls and reached Nevada Falls by noon. After lunch break continued into Little Yosemite Valley, passed the junction with the Clouds rest trail and stopped at the nearby campground with a meadow and little stream (6.7mi). Hung my food and entire pack on a steel cable between two posts for protection from bears. By 2:45pm hiked back to trail junction to Half Dome, ascended to the base and climbed the summit via the ladder with steel cables. Fun to climb, great views from top. A bit windy and hazy in the west from wildfires. Took pictures and returned by 5pm. By 6pm in campground, washed up in stream, cooked and ate dinner and went to bed by 7:30pm with nearly full moon.

Tue, Aug 27. Got up at 6am, hiked by 7:10am up the Clouds Rest trail and reached the summit by 10am. Took pictures of Half Dome below to the southwest, then continued trail toward Tenaya Lke, side trail back to JMT heading to Sunrise High Sierra Camp. Rather crowded by hikers going back from camp to Yosemite Valley. When hiking down from Clouds Rest I felt strong and went full speed downhill: Big mistake! Got big blisters under the heels due to pounding from heavy pack. Applied lots of moleskin. Took a bath in the Sunrise Lakes. After 11mi hike arrived at HS Camp by 1:45pm. Continued on JMT past beautiful meadows and nearby Finger and Tressider Pks to impressive Cathedral Peak. At Pass looked down on pretty upper Cathedral Lke, continued to lower Cathedral Lke and set up camp by 4:30pm. Overused area with many camp areas under reconstruction and blocked off. Camped near lake. No bear ropes or poles. Hung up extra food in tree and took a swim in the lake. Cooked and ate dinner by 7-7:30pm. Cathedral Pk in red evening light with haze from forest fires. Almost full moon rose over Echo Pks. No wind, no fish rings, a large noisy group camped at other end of lake. Went to bed by 8:15pm. By 10pm woke up due to snorting sounds nearby. A bear was after my food. Got up, threw rocks and yelled at him. He vanished, later splashed into the lake. Had only a light sleep since I knew he might come back. But he waited till the bright moonlight was gone. Fell asleep until around 4am when he came back quietly. He shook the branch with the food. I had attached my cooking pots and the rattling woke me up. Knew that if he got my food at the beginning of the trip it would be over. He was standing upright near my hanging food bag. It was a full-size 400lb black bear. I got up, shouted and threw rocks, to no avail. He would not budge. We were facing each other, about 20 feet apart, both upright, I with raised arms to match his size. The adrenaline was flowing; it was a war of nerves. Finally, he gave up, down on his four feet he trotted away. Could not sleep after this excitement.

Wed, Aug 28. The plan of the day was to hike 15mi to the end of Lyell canyon. Felt rather tired from the bear incidence. Got up at 6am, packed, ate and left at 7:15am, back to the JMT, heading toward Tuolumne Mdws. Met and talked to forest service workers cleaning trees on trail with chain saws. Began to hear car sounds from Hwy 120. Took trail parallel to road past crowded campgrounds. Saw and collected king bolete mushrooms. Arrived by 10am at trail junction to Lyell Canyon. Kept going on sandy JMT until close to river, then took long lunch break at river, washing clothes and body, sunbathed and relaxed. Sautéed mushrooms for lunch. Back on trail at 1:30pm, passed Vogelsang trail junction, and reached Lyell Base Camp (Kuna Creek) where the camping is known to have bear trouble. Began arduous climb to Donohue Pass in smoke-filled air, eyes full of tears. Met several people: One hiker coming down from Marie Lkes reporting good fishing; a couple who came down from Dana Mdws via Kuna Pass and Donohue Pass. Some people camped near the footbridge of Maclure Creek but campsite was again ransacked by bears; broken branches, torn ropes, bear pies, thick forest without visibility. So kept climbing. At 6pm found a good campsite with widely spaced trees, long branches for hanging food. Made camp, hung food, pumped water, cooked dinner, and went to bed by 8pm. Poor air, worse than LA smog. Late moon rise, no bears, good sleep after a 15mi, 2000’ day.

Thur, Aug 29. Got up later, 6:30am, to a clear morning. A deer roamed in the meadow. All clothes smelled from forest fire smoke. Packed and left at 7:45am. At waterfall where trail turns away from Lyell Creek, went XC toward Lyell and Maclure. At snow level hung up big backpack on rock wall to protect against marmots and continued with water, food, camera and valuables to climb Maclure. Up sun cupped Lyell glacier into L-M saddle, then up south ridge and summitted at 11am. Enjoyed the views, signed register, took pictures, unfortunately camera fell on rock, flash bent but otherwise no damage. Returned same way down free climbing down Lyell glacier. Retrieved pack without damage, returned to trail, took a short dip in cold lake, ascended by 2pm JMT toward Donohue Pass. Clear views from the pass since smoke had not yet arrived. Hiked down to junction with Marie Lke trail, then to Davis Lke trail, Waugh Lke trail, up Island Pass and down to 1000 Island Lake. Beautiful range of mountains between Lyell and Ritter. On JMT met some hikers coming from the lake, others heading down to the lake. Hiked last mile XC to western end of 1000 Island Lke where nobody camped. Took a bath, set up camp, cooked and ate dinner, to bed by 8pm. No rings from fish in the lake. Again smoke from Hetch Hetchy fire moved in. Gloomy mood. Moon rose late. Bothersome mosquitoes at night.

Fri, Aug 30. Up at 6am; frost on pack and in meadow. Clear sky, took pictures of Banner Peak reflecting in calm waters of 1000 Island Lke. Left by 7:15am along lakeshore. Spotted a nice sequence of islands and decided to swim to them in the morning sun. On way back got uncontrollable shivering, i.e., mild hypothermia. Dried in warm sun and headed back to the JMT by 9am. Planned to hike 15 mi to Reds Meadows, Devils Postpile. Next stops at green-blue Emerald and Ruby Lake for short dips. Swam with a “tame” trout. At Garnett Lake found a nice peninsula for a lunch break. Swam and sunbathed and explored the lake with fishermen in the far distance. At 2pm headed down to Shadow Lke, dipped into Shadow Creek, then ascended many switchbacks up to Evelyn and Gladis Lkes and dipped into both. Continued on slowly descending dusty JMT to Reds Meadows, a busy area with many day hikers and tourists. Arrived at R.M. campground by 6:30pm, settled down in hikers campground, and cleaned up for dinner in the hot springs. Planned to splurge in the Resort’s restaurant for a fancy dinner. Arrived just after 7pm. Bummer, they closed at 7pm! At least I got two beers and snack in the shop. Walked back to camp. No bear boxes in hikers' campground. Stashed extra food into locked bathhouse since bears were invading the campsite. Talked to 3 hikers whose packs were raided by bears although their food was safe in their bear barrels.

Sat, Aug 31. Got up at 6am to find that food was safe. Took a long hot shower, walked up to the restaurant and had a great breakfast together with the three hikers from last night (two were also heading to Mt Whitney). Ordered coffee, 2 OJs, 3 pancakes, eggs and beacon. Could not finish all. Bought apple juice and fresh socks for blistered feet. They felt so good! Hiked out of Devils Postpile toward the Red Cones passing through burnt forests with waist-high lupines. Interesting mixture of volcanic and granitic rock. Passed by a virgin spring with crystal-clear water. From 12noon-1pm had lunch at Deer Creek Crossing. Lost somewhere my JMT topomap #9. Talked to three hikers who came from Mt Whitney. Continued hiking for two hours to Duck Lake, which I had visited two years earlier on skis. Rested, changed socks and continued hiking toward Purple Lke. Met a young ranger woman who suggested that Virginia Lake is a better campsite than Purple Lke. Passed Purple by 4:45pm and continued uphill to Virginia which is a fine high-altitude lake (10,314’). Quite a few campers around the lake. No suitable trees to hang food. Stuffed everything into barrel. Had dinner by 7pm, went to bed at 8pm. Beautiful evening clouds over lake and mountains. Clouds in the south, haze in the north. Glad to get away from Hetch Hetchy forest fires. It had been another long day, >15 mi, 2700’. Felt numbness in left upper leg, perhaps a pinched nerve. Disappeared when taking off the heavy pack. Most of the day’s hike was in forest with few exciting views.

Sun, Sep 1. Got up at 6:30am. Luckily no bear incident. Sun was blocked by mountains. Packed, ate and off by 7:45am. Hiked down to Tully Hole, along Fish Creek and then up to Silver Pass. Met 3 solo women hikers, two coming from Mt Whitney. One carried a 65lb backpack and had knee trouble. Later that day, I had a scare: red urine. Probably too little water and pushing the body too hard. Intended to take it easier and just went to Indian Chief Lake below Silver Pass. Arrived by 1pm, ate lunch, swam and packed light for an afternoon climb of Mt Izaak Walton. Successful climb, only second party on summit this year. Fine summit views. Distant clouds over Yosemite from forest fires. Returned to camp by 5pm. Met one man, a trail crew member. Swam and sunbathed at 5:30pm. Fished for trout and caught 7! Had an excellent dinner with miner’s lettuce in bouillon soup, fried trout, and tea. Body relaxed, blisters recovered, soaked in plenty of sunshine.

Mon, Sep 2. Got up at 6:30am, had oatmeal breakfast, packed and left by 7:45am. Climbed to Silver Pass. A frozen snow bank covered the trail, which was bypassed by climbing XC over rocks to the pass. Then descended to Silver Pass Lake where at least 3 groups camped. Continued down along Silver Pass Creek. Just steep drop to Pocket Meadow met two through hikers coming from south of Whitney. Another young couple passed by with lightest gear, at most 25lbs. From Pocket Meadow there was a fine view of Izaak Whalton and Red&White. Then down to Mono Creek and Quail Meadow where more people were coming up from Lake Thomas Edison (ferry runs at 9:45am and 4:45pm). At 11:30am started the infamous 60 switchbacks climbing 2000’ up the Bear Ridge. No water for 5 mi; next stream at Kip Camp. At 3:30pm, coming down the dry trail met a single woman struggling up the switchbacks in the afternoon heat. By 5pm found a nice campsite at the stream crossing of Bear Creek with Hilgard Branch. Washed up in the evening sun, sunbathed on rocks, cooked dinner and ate, and went to bed by 8pm. It had been another 15mi, 2000’ day. Got pretty dehydrated on the long Bear Ridge; some numbness in left thigh coming back.

Tue, Sep 3. Woke up at 6:30am. No sun due to mountain ridge in the east and lots of trees. It got cold at night since yesterdays freshly washed clothes were frozen. Two hikers passed by at 7am. Packed, ate and was on the trail at 7:45am. Headed along Bear Creek toward Selden Pass. Tricky stream crossing of Bear Creek below Upper Bear Creek Meadows.Beautiful scenery near Rosemary Mdws with Mt Hooper in sight. Collected many mushrooms. At 10:30am arrived at Marie Lake below Selden Pass. Only one fisherman at this big lake. Decided to stay and make a basecamp for climbing Hooper and Senger. Fished, caught big brown trout, and had trout with sautéed mushroom for lunch. Made camp, hung up pack and, at 1:30pm, hiked with 10 essentials up to Mt Hooper.

Climbed over rock and snow into saddle south of summit, ascended 1800’ on scree on backside, and summitted by 3pm. Climbed the class 4 summit block and signed peak register. Great views from the Kaweahs in the south to Ritter and Banner in the north. Still saw the forest fires in Yosemite. A cold wind was blowing from the south. After taking some pictures, descended the same way as up and was back at camp by 5pm. Did some more fishing and caught a 12” brown trout, bigger than my 10” frying pan. Enjoyed a fine dinner with miners’ lettuce, sautéed mushroom, fresh trout and tea. To bed by darkness, 8:15pm. A half moon rose by midnight. It was a perfect day without any pains, great weather, and a satisfactory fifth peak climb.

Wed, Sep 4. Got up at 5:30am by moonlight. A few clouds in the sky, but as daylight started it became overcast. Prepared camp by covering everything up with rain cover. Started to hike up to Mt Senger by 7am. Cloud layer sinking and covering the summit. Took wrong route and had to retrace. Mixed whiteout and clearing. Summitted by 9am. Peak register in a 2” brass pipe. Only two parties on summit this year. Took pictures when clouds allowed. Gloomy mood, Hooper in a whiteout. Descended back to camp, packed and hiked out by 10:30am. Cold and windy on Selden Pass. Descended to Sally Keyes Lakes, all deserted. After several miles crossed Senger Creek, had a nice view back on Mt Senger, and then descended to JMT junction with trail to Florence Lake. Hiked to Muir Ranch to pick up food cache. Decided to stay at campground near Blaney Meadows Hot Springs. Crossed the river, went to the hot springs in the meadow since the brown pool was occupied. Soaked in warm clean water, went to the large cold lake for a swim, then back into hot water. Took a nap in the meadow until woken up by raindrops. Rushed back to camp to cover up gear. Old lady, serving as camp assistant, demanded to see wilderness permit. We talked and she gave me apples and grapes, much appreciated. At 5pm, went to check my food at Muir Ranch. Everything was there and fine. Left it overnight due to predicted bear trouble in camp. Back in camp had a fine dinner. Talked to other campers who were also heading to Mt Whitney. Toward evening clouds broke and rain stopped.

Thur, Sep 5. Got up at 6:30am, cooked and ate breakfast when a bear moved through camp. Chased him away. Packed, went to Ranch to pick up the food stash. Decided there was too much and gave away a full salami, 2 bags of nuts, bread, one cylinder of white gas, toothpaste, insect repellant, roll of toilet paper, all to the old lady for distribution of needy hikers. By 8:15am hiked out with again a heavy pack. Passed three bridges. At third bridge met two older hikers, Bruce and Bert, who headed in the same direction as I did and we would meet several times again. A party with a mule came down the trail. A sick child was riding the mule while the parents hiked next to it. It was a significant climb from Goddard Creek to Colby/Maclure Meadows. Talked to the Maclure Ranger about the bear situation at McGee Lakes and was told of no problems. Thus, climbed up XC to the McGee Lakes, which was a workout with full pack in the heat. Met a longhaired, talkative guy coming down from the lakes. Arrived at Lake 10,821’ at 5pm, set up camp, noticed another party at far-end of the lake. Since no high trees for hanging food, set up an “alarm” system with string and pots around food stash. No bear problem, slept well, but cold at night.

Fri, Sep 6. Got up by daylight, 6:30am. Prepared for peak climb, hung up pack and extra food in low trees, left by 7:30am. Climbed over saddle to Davis Lakes, stayed high, traversed on south side of McGee into westernmost chute between middle and west summits. Ascended chute, continued along ridge, reached summit by 11am. Peak register in a 1” alu pipe with first entries from 1939. Regular register in zip lock bag, few entries, mine was second entry this year. Great weather (cool, clear) for taking pictures. Returned by 11:30am, back at camp by 2:30pm, bathed, ate ramen for lunch, packed and left by 3:30pm. Ascended with full pack 800’ up pass south of highest McGee Lake, then down to Wanda Lake. Arrived at W. Lake at 6pm and set up camp. Met Bruce and Burt again and had a nice chat. Three other JMT hikers joined. Got some whiskey. Went to bed by 8pm. Hung up all food/gear from mice.

Sat, Sep 7. Up at 6am on a cold and windy morning. Washed clothes from last night all frozen. After breakfast and packing left by 7:30am before all others left. By 8:30am reached Pass 11,955’ with John Muir Hut, took pictures, noticed haze in the south from forest fires. Then hiked down to Helen Lake where I marmot-proofed the backpack. Then took off with daypack to climb of Mt Fiske. Left by 9:30am, climbed around Helen Lake to smaller lakes toward Warlow and Fiske. Up a class 3 ridge and summitted at 13,503’ around 11:30am. Nice views but hazy, cool wind. Good register with several entries in ’96. Took pictures, snacked and returned over class 1 south side back to Helen Lake. Found a roll of film in the backcountry. At Helen Lake there were lots of gnats. Ate lunch, packed, and left at 2:30pm. JMT into LeConte Canyon was very pretty. Above Big Pete Mdws there were lots of avalanche signatures. Continued via Little Pete Meadows to LeConte Ranger Station. Met Bert and Bruce again. Camped near the Ranger Station and hung up food properly due to bear warnings. Ate dinner, cleaned up and went to bed by 8:15pm in full darkness. Decided to climb fewer peaks in order to cover larger distances in next few days.

Sun, Sep 8. Got up at the usual time, 6:10am, ate breakfast, packed, left by 7:30am. No bear problems at night but mouse stole pot-cleaning sponge; found it under rock near cooking area. Cold and clear morning. Hiked without sunshine in LeConte Canyon from Dusy Branch to Palisade Creek. Saw nobody camping or on the trail. Grouse Meadow very pretty with quietly meandering Kings River in meadow. At other places the river has noisy waterfalls. At river junction met a group of eight older hikers going down into LeConte Cyn. Hiked up Palisade Creek, which involves a slow but steady ascent. Passed one hiker going from Florence Lake to Mt Whitney. Saw more avy activity in Pal Crk canyon especially near Deer Creek. Many switchbacks between 9,000-10,600’. Busy on the trail. Passed two hikers heading for Mt Whitney and a couple coming from there. Arrived at Upper Palisade Lake at 1:30pm. Climbed down to the lake, swam, cooked a hot lunch and had a nap till 2:30pm. Packed, back on the trail by 3pm. Reached Mather Pass (12,100’) by 5pm. Talked to 3 young rock climbers who wanted to do all the high peaks of the Palisade Range. Descended from Mather Pass into Upper Basin to a nice but treeless lake in a wide-open plane. Set up camp by 5:50pm, cooked, ate and went to bed by 7:50pm. It was a long day (14.5mi, 4,000’) but felt fine due to long lunch break, enough water and food for the body.

Mon, Sep 9. Up at 6:30am, sun hidden by Split Mtn. Temps <30 deg and frost covered tent and pack. Waited till 8am for sun to come and dry gear. Left around 8:30am, headed down to junction with Taboose Pass trail near South Fork of Kings River. Lost almost 1000’ that had to be reclimbed to reach Pinchot Pass (12,130’). Met four hikers seen earlier at Blaney Mdws (Doug, Paul, Steve, Celine). Hiked up to Marjorie Lake, then climbed the switchbacks to Pinchot Pass, reached it by 1:30pm. Took pictures, then descended toward Twin Lakes, arriving by 3pm. Found a nice campsite and decided to stay since clouds were building up. Took a swim in the lake, sunbathed in the last sun, then a thunderstorm moved in. Prepared camp for rain, hung up food and hid in the bivy while it rained, hailed and thundered. After end of storm went out to fish and caught eight trout. Great evening colors after storm broke up. Ate in the darkness. Later wind stopped and sky cleared. It was a moderate day (12mi, 2000’) because had foot problems in the afternoon (outer bone of right foot hurt). Decided to go easier next day.

Tue, Sep 10. Up at 6:30am to a clear day. Hiked out at 8am downhill to Woods Creek. Pain above right ankle reappeared when going down. Met several times the four hikers from Blaney Mdws. Crossed the suspension bridge across Woods Creek at junction with Rae Lakes South Fork. Climbed from 2,100’ up to the Rae Lakes. While quietly hiking heard a nearby tree crashing to the ground. Passed Dollar Lke at 12:30pm, arrived at Rae Lakes by 2pm.Saw a garter snake near the lakes. Found bear boxes at the Rae Lakes and many campers settled in the vicinity of the boxes. Set up camp, stashed food into the bear boxes, then went fishing. Successful catch of five trout, among them one large brown trout. Saw fresh bear tracks at muddy shore of lake. Fried the trout for dinner and shared them with a group of hikers whom I met earlier on the trail. They offered brandy and chocolate, what a treat. To bed before darkness, 8pm. It was a great day, just sunshine, but still had some foot problems.

Wed, Sep 11. Up at 6:20am, ate, packed and left the Rae Lakes at 7:30am. Beautiful reflections of peaks in quiet water. High clouds in the sky. Ascended trail to Glen Pass. No foot problems going uphill. Reached pass by 10am. Saw trail crew with horses on pass. Talked to hikers going north, too. Headed down toward Charlotte Lake, took trail to Vidette Meadows, and made a one-hour lunch break at Bubbs Creek. Washed up, dried in sun, ate lunch, then started the long hike up Bubbs Creek by 1:15pm. Passed the same people I met on Glen Pass. Passed the junction to Center Basin to a plateau with stream and trees just south of Center Peak. By 4:15pm decided to camp at 11,200’ since next lakes below Forrester Pass would be too high (>12,000’) and cold. Two other parties stayed and camped. Had a pot full of sautéed king bolete mushrooms to supplement the freeze-dried dinner. Ate a hand full of nuts with tea and chocolate. Then had a bad stomach pain. Worried about a bad mushroom, but it went away. Must have been the oil from all the nuts which upset the stomach accustomed to a fat-free diet of freeze-dried food. To bed by 7pm. Smoke filled the air in the evening.

Thur, Sep 12. Cold wind blowing all night and in the morning. Up at 6:30am, out of oatmeal, had tea with breakfast bars. Needed gloves and goretex jacket and pants. At 7:30am headed up toward Forrester Pass on long but well graded trail. Reached 13,200’ pass at 9:30am. Smoke filled the Kern River valley. Descended the many switchbacks on south side of Forrester Pass into open plane, the headwaters of the Kern River. At 12noon crossed Shepherd Pass trail at Tyndall Creek and had a lunch break. Fed all the nuts to the birds. Felt great, no pain in the foot. But had dark urine, so forced myself to drink more. Continued to Bighorn Plateau from where one has a wonderful view of the Great Western Divide, the Kaweahs, and Russel/Whitney. Took a break at a flat round lake on the plateau, surrounded by fall-colored grasses. Crossed Wright and Wallace Creeks. Met the Crabtree Ranger who did not ask for the permit when he heard I came from Yosemite. Continued to Crabtree where there were nice campsites with bear boxes. All other hikers continued to Guitar Lake. It was a long day (15mi) with the highest pass on the JMT. To bed by darkness, cloudy and cold.

Fri, Sep 13. Got up at 6:30am to a uniformly gray sky. Ate breakfast, packed and hiked out before 8am when it started to snow. Wore goretex shells and gloves. Hiked up to Timberline and Guitar Lakes, then up the switchbacks and reached Trailcrest by 11:30am. Lots of people heading up to Mt Whitney. Decided not to leave my backpack at Trailcrest and hiked up with full pack to summit. Cold and windy, but from 12-2 the summit came out of the clouds. Hoped the weather would improve so that I could spend the night on the summit. Took some pictures and signed the large summit book. Had a hot lunch by melting snow that filled part of the summit house. But by 2pm clouds lowered again. Gave up and descended by 2:30pm. Passed Trailcrest, descended on >100 switchbacks to crowded Trail Camp, outpost camp and finally Whitney Portal. Arrived at the car at 7pm just before darkness. Car started at first try, although small light was left on for 20 days. Stopped by at the store, then drove down to the 395. Called home to announce arrival by midnight. It was a long last day, 21mi, +4000’, -6000’, but the body was trained after 19 days of hiking and climbing. Lost 15lbs of weight, gained ½” beard, but never felt that fit.

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