Adaptability on the John Muir Trail - By Tara “Candy Mama” Dower
Late August of 2021 the Forest Service closed all California National Forests to visitors. The Dixie Fire was raging in Northern California and they wanted to prevent any further fires and protect the public. When the news came through I was at the Hostel of California in Bishop organizing a food resupply for my final section of the John Muir Trail.
Rascal, Margaritville, Crusty and I had gotten the golden ticket of JMT permits for August of 2021. Starting at Happy Isles going southbound for Mount Whitney was the preferred route for JMT thru hiking hopefuls. Our girl gang of hardcore hikers traversed the first section of trail with ease putting in impressive milage. Crusty, otherwise known as Reese, started to develop painful blisters that had become infected and had strained her ankle from lace locking her trail runners. She crushed milage every day and barely complained but the pain became too much to bare when we got to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) for our first restock. She decided she would leave us there so Margaritville, Rascal and I continued. We were looking forward to our second and last restock which was in the town of Bishop. We weren’t looking forward to the hike over the famously difficult Bishop Pass though. After completing the long trek up I vowed to never do that pass ever again.
From right to left Crusty, Rascal, Candy Mama, Margaritville. Photo Credit: Tara Dower
There was some talk about the fires up in Northern California before we got on trail, but besides the views being a little hazy we were barely affected by the wildfires ripping through the state. Once we were in Bishop more information came out about how devastating those fires had been. On our zero day (zero miles hiked) at the famous Hostel of California the news came out that all Califronia National Forest were to be temporarily closed. Though we were disappointed we respected and trusted the forest service and left California to go home.
Fast forward June of 2022 Crusty and I set off from Duck Pass for a redemption hike of the JMT. Beginning at Duck Pass allowed Crusty to get the miles done from VVR where she got off. So much had changed since the last time Crusty and I were here but the most dramatic differences were the addition of some new backpacking gear as well as my husband, Sheriff. I had switched my pack for a Swift V by Six Moons Designs and had traded my one person tent for the lightweight 2 person Haven Bundle. The Swift V allows me to easily carry the load of my gear but also the required Bear Vault for the Sierras. The Flight Vest Harness helps transfer the load in the right areas and has a bunch of snack pockets which I appreciate. The Haven Bundle is perfect for when my husband and I are backpacking together. We can split up the minimal weight of the shelter easily and allow us our own space in the vestibules and sleeping areas. Luckily before we got on trail we tested the tent on several camping trips and perfected the pitching method. We were used to a freestanding tent but the learning curve for pitching a non freestanding like the Haven was easy to overcome.
Six Moon Designs Swift V at the base of Mather Pass. Photo Credit: Tara Dower
Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp and Net Tent Bundle two miles below Glen Pass. Photo Credit: Tara Dower
It was the night before getting on trail and our excitement grew in anticipation as we checked through our packs one final time to ensure we were ready to go. Little did we know that the next couple days would test our adaptability through some chaotic logistical challenges.
Duck Pass to Bishop Pass
The first day was rough. We had completed 10 miles but not easily. Jumping into the trail where we did meant we had little ease into the tough passes that involved a lot of climbing and descending. Sheriff and I didn’t have our trail legs like we used to on our 2019 Appalachian Trail thru hike. From the first day we wondered if we’d need to be adaptable to our planned mileage. By the second day our plans had changed. Where we had planned to hike 17.5 miles and restock in 5 days we ended up stopping early, hiking into VVR to get an extra meal, and realized we may not be able to finish the JMT with the shape we were in. Initially we thought we would be able to hike big miles and enjoy the Sierras, but it started looking like we would have to choose one over the other; hike big miles, be in pain, and meet our deadline, or slow down and enjoy ourselves.
Crusty coming down from Muir Pass. Photo Credit: Tara Dower
Again, our plans changed by the third day. We figured we could both finish the trail and take our time if we didn’t zero in town. This plan would allow us to take it slowly and experience ALL the John Muir Trail. The three days that followed involved a lot of wavering between feeling we had a shot at completing the trail to not. One day we’d have trouble getting over a pass and not complete all our miles to the next day putting 17 miles down with ease and zeal. The theme for this hike became adaptability with group reflection. Backpacking involves flexibility and the understanding that plans can change at a moments notice. Also sometimes on trail your entire motivation can change and that's okay. As long as you are honest, reasonable, and make safe decisions as a group.
By day 6 we had made up the miles in order to take a zero mile day in town but I had to first break my vow and go over the dreaded Bishop Pass. Even though this pass is difficult it is one of the few spots for an easy hitch into town and quality restock. By this time Crusty had developed blisters and had slight pain when she stepped on her right foot. We thought with a rest day in town she could easily get back on trail with us to complete the remaining miles to Mt. Whitney.
Bishop Pass to Mt. Whitney
As we began climbing back over Bishop Pass after our day off it was clear that Crusty was in a lot of pain. We stopped to evaluate our options but Crusty decided to step off trail once again and go back to town to rest and maybe rejoin us at Kearsarge Pass 4 days later. Ultimately she never came back to finish because she felt the pain was from something worse than just blisters. Rather she believed her scoliosis was the cause of the intense pain she felt shooting up her right leg. I was immensely saddened to see Crusty leave trail once again but am always so amazed by her fortitude and strength. Rather than accepting defeat she is actively working towards her dream of completing the John Muir Trail and adapting to her circumstances.
Going up Pinchot Pass. Photo Credit: Tara Dower
For this next section of trail we had planned out a modest but flexible amount of miles to get us to Mt. Whitney within 8 days. Our plan was based off our experience from the section before and the understanding that the four passes that awaited us were going to be increasingly difficult. The first three days back were rough for Sheriff and I. In that time we had hiked nearly 40 miles over Bishop, Mather and Pinchot Pass with 8,500 ft in ascent and 6,600 ft in descent with a full resupply of food. However, things drastically changed our fourth day going past Rae Lakes and up Glen Pass. We finally felt our trail legs coming back and our energy levels returning to normal. As we climbed that day we met a couple other southbound (sobo) JMT hikers that were going our similar pace. Sheriff and I ended that day at a beautiful campground overlooking Charlotte Lake and the surrounding mountains. Over the next two days we flip flopped with our new found trail family of sobo hikers, climbed over Forester Pass, and made it to the base of Mt. Whitney. The following morning we planned to finish the John Muir Trail by night hiking up Mt. Whitney which is the highest point in the lower 48 at 14,508 ft. Many sobo JMT thru hikers choose to finish their epic hike by watching the sunrise at the summit.
Watching the sunrise on top of Mount Whitney. Photo Credit: Jonathan Dower
At 1am Sheriff and I, along with our trail family, awoke to start our four mile hike. The stars were bright and the Milky Way was glowing. Along the mountain, headlamps could be seen climbing multiple switchbacks and scaling the ridge. Two and a half hours later we made it to the top, bundled up in all of our clothes, sleeping bags, and found a spot to watch the sunrise. An impressive display of colors rose over the White Mountains and flooded Owens Valley. I reflected on the fact that I had just finished the John Muir Trail and felt thankful for the demanding but rewarding miles in the Sierras.
With every hike comes new lessons learned. As I left the Sierras early in August of 2021 I learned not to take any amount of miles on trail for granted. This time around I learned to be adaptable. It is a crucial skill that not only got us to finish the JMT but also allowed us to fully enjoy what each day had to offer.
Crusty, Candy Mama, and Sheriff.