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John Muir Trail, USA

Bill Orme, Perth, WA

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”—John Muir

Camping below Donohue Pass.
Camping below Donohue Pass.

The John Muir Trail in California may appeal to some of the hardier BTF walkers. This 400km route crosses plateaus high above the tree line and makes its way through passes which, even in mid-summer, remain snow-filled.  It winds from the Yosemite Valley to the top of Mount Whitney, at 4,350m the highest point in mainland USA outside Alaska. In winter, it can be negotiated only on skis.

The trail remains mostly above the 3500 meter level, traversing three National Parks –  Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia – and two Wilderness Areas, the Ansell Adams and the John Muir.

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 and went to America as an eleven year-old. He became a great, if largely uneducated, environmentalist who convinced president Teddy Roosevelt to declare Yellowstone and Yosemite as the first US National Parks. He helped to found the Sierra Club in 1892 and was its first President until his death in 1914.

In 1988 the US Congress declared John Muir Day to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of this great adventurer and observer. Four of his books, John Muir – The Wilderness Journeys, make fascinating reading.

A snow covered plateau.
A snow covered plateau.

I had been looking at this arduous route since 1990. My wife Nedra looked at it too, noting the continuous camping for three weeks, gruelling climbs and descents in extremes of weather, the risk of lightning and hailstorms, and the ever-present threesome – bears, giardia and mosquitoes. Wiser than me, she ruled it out.

Elder son John, being braver, volunteered to accompany me and we set out in late July to miss high summer. Most people take 25 to 35 days to complete the trek, with multiple diversions for reprovisioning. We aimed to carry food for 20 days and to complete the route in one go, avoiding off-trail detours.

Initially I had not realised that the trail ends on the top of Mt Whitney, which leaves another 20km and 3,000m descent to get to Lone Pine down on the desert floor. This can be quite a trap for those who haven’t read the small print.

Having studied the route, we decided to walk it from north to south rather than the more popular south to north route described in the guide book. It is easier to get to Yosemite from San Francisco and there is a convenient bus from Lone Pine to Los Angeles to get home. Also, starting at Yosemite makes it much easier to acclimatise.

Beware rockfalls!
Beware rockfalls!

Most of the route is common with the great Pacific Crest Trail which runs from Mexico to Canada. Only at one stage do the routes diverge, and at that point the Pacific Crest Trail notes say that the John Muir Trail is to be preferred.

We had three scares before the walk was properly under way. The first came when the quarantine officer at the airport considered confiscating our food. We had brought all our food from Australia, carefully wrapped – servings of homemade muesli and powdered milk, plus all the freeze-dried  food, biscuits and dried fruit for the whole route. Maybe it was our jet-lagged hangdog expressions, but the supervisor let us through. With careful packing, our packs, including food, maps and fuel for the faithful Trangia for 20 days weighed only 17kg each, without water which was plentiful along the way.

The second scare came when we went to pick up our wilderness permit for our route at Yosemite only to find a big chalked sign stating John Muir Trail closed. However, there was no problem there either, as it was only the exit from the valley by the normal route that had been blocked by a huge rock fall. This was solved by an extra day’s walk that involved climbing over Glacier Point and the almost vertical Half Dome the next morning.

The third scare was not so easily solved – our arrest and bail for entering a prohibited zone to see the rock fall and the devastation created, where great trees had snapped off at the base from the wind turbulence that the fall created. We skipped our court appearance but departed America without further arrest.

Bill descends from John Muir Pass.
Bill descends from John Muir Pass.

Our third morning brought violent vomiting which was first diagnosed by a passing doctor as altitude sickness from the two earlier large climbs immediately after the long flight, but which turned out to be an infected middle ear that cleared up in twenty-four hours.

From then on we wended our way over high pass after high pass, through ever changing valleys, beside and across raging streams and placid high marshes, always amongst ragged and interesting ridges. Lakes were everywhere, some massive, island-studded and placid, some blue, others emerald, ruby, sapphire and grey, tucked under the glaciers that descended into them.

We saw wild flowers, some new to us, others adaptations of familiar ones, aspen groves and forests of many kinds, and always birds, from soaring eagles to moth-sized blue-green humming birds, suspended while their tiny beaks darted from flower to flower.

The weather during the first week included thunder, lightning and hail which, while scary, gave great displays and kept the temperature reasonably warm. Camping high and alone on frozen ground under the lowering skies gave us angry red sunsets and sunrises – far better than watching TV.

The next eleven days saw clear skies that allowed the heat to escape at night, and brought temperatures see-sawing between 30 to 40 degrees at midday to -10 and -20 degrees at night. One morning I poured boiling water over the muesli to soak it and warm it up a bit, and in the two to three minutes that it took us to take down the tent it had all become solid ice.

The biggest problem was crossing the raging streams, which were carrying the snow melt. Sometimes there was a log to walk across, which was scary enough, but if not it was a matter of leaping from one slippery rock to another while carrying a full pack. One of the few other walkers we met was lying beside a crossing with a broken leg, awaiting two rangers coming with a stretcher to take him to the rescue helicopter. Had I been on my own there were a few occasions when I may have given up, but John got me through each of these incidents.

We thought snoring might be a problem as we were sharing a small tent, but it wasn’t. Maybe we were just too tired to notice. John’s skill and perseverance over a sometimes sceptical father kept the bears at bay. He was more successful than one chap who had his pack ripped open mid-morning while he got water from a creek. Giardia was repelled by 180 iodine tablets. John says he burped iodine for months after. Mosquitoes we didn’t avoid, but we somehow got used to them.

High Lakes below rugged crags.
High Lakes below rugged crags.

We each finished twelve kilos lighter and John said I didn’t pack food for twenty days, only twelve, which I spread out over twenty. Ungrateful son! We learnt many tricks, including cropping onion family grasses and simmering them as a vitamin soup.

The walk from Half Dome to Mount Whitney, took us eighteen days, through snow-covered passes, down crumbling descents and along an army of snow covered, ragged ridges in a unique and exclusive part of the world.

When we checked off at the end, the US National Parks Service advised us that, as far as they were aware, we were the first to walk it in one go unaided – a nice first for Australians.

The John Muir Trail ranks alongside other walks I have done, such as the Pyrenees (Atlantic to Mediterranean), La Grande Traversee des Alpes (Lausanne to Nice), the Italian Grande Traversata delle Alpi and the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route, all of which have their own, individual charms.

On the European trails there is usually the opportunity of yarning with other walkers from many countries in the huts each night, whereas the John Muir Trail passes through fragile areas where walkers are rightly limited by quota, which means meeting very few. On one section of six days, in fact, we met none!  I consider it one of the world’s great walks, with the added bonus of walking in John Muir’s footsteps.

Mt Ritter reflected in 1000 Islands Lake.
Mt Ritter reflected in 1000 Islands Lake.