JOHN MUIR TRAIL
The John Muir trail was just a small part of my 8 month, 14,500km kayak, cycle and backpack around the USA. By the time I arrived at Yosemite I had already paddled 4,300kms, backpacked 800kms and cycled nearly 8,000kms.
The John Muir Trail is an epic 350km trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains that extends from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney — the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. The JMT is named after naturalist John Muir, founding member and original president of the Sierra Club. Muir. Construction on the trail began in 1915 – a year after Muir’s death – and took 46 years to complete.
The John Muir Trail covers some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, from stunning, glacier-chiseled Yosemite, to the jagged spires of the Minarets, to the highest mountain peak in the contiguous United States. It is a place that you will hike over numerous high mountain passes, pass ancient glaciers, cross fast-moving mountain streams while surrounded by giant peaks.
The JMT is truly a wilderness trail, coming close to civilization at only a few points.
I arrived at the Yosemite National Park by cycle. I had been in the desert areas for the last few weeks, passing through places like the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Death Valley where it had been around 30-40 degrees celcius, but crossing the mountains of Yosemite it was snowing.
At the park entrance I joined a queue of cars, flashed my national park pass, crossed the 9945 ft mark and entered the inner sanctuary of the park. I immediately felt the excitement build inside me and as I stopped beside a lake I gazed at the beautiful reflections on the water. The mountains that were covered with fresh snow and spread across the valley looked wild. A small stream followed my progress further into the park and eventually led me to Lambert Dome. The dome was a huge granite rock in the shape of a half dome. A little further Tuolumne Meadows, a flattish grass meadow came into view. People were walking and scattered around the meadow. I stopped at the information centre. It was only small, so it didn’t take long to look around.
Tuolumne Meadows (at 8,600 feet) is the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra. It is 55 miles from Yosemite Valley via the Tioga Road on which I was travelling. In the summer Tuolumne Meadows is a favorite starting point for backpacking trips and day hikes. The meadows are spectacular in early summer, abounding with wildflowers and wildlife.
Cars were parked further down the road where a walking track led towards the picturesque Cathedral Peak. Before long I had passed a granite slab, left the meadows and cycled into a valley of huge, striking granite domes. I stopped, they were just too spectacular to ride by. There were no posts to lean my bike against so I took a gamble, I wheeled it into a gutter and used the pedal to keep it upright, and it balanced precariously there. The rock around me was quite phenomenal.
Further down the road the sun lit up the mountains surrounding Tenaya Lake. I stopped at the far end and had a short rest, took some photos and admired the truly beautiful scene. I didn’t think the day could get any better.
Suddenly the clouds started to move in. With them came the mist, then the mist turned into fog. Visibility was cut to 20 – 30 yards. There was no shoulder at the side of the road so the cars passed close, in fact too close for comfort. They could hardly see me but I couldn’t move off the road or stop cycling as the weather was rapidly deteriorating. I cycled on, lightning struck right in front of me, which was quickly followed by a clap of thunder so loud it reverberated throughout the valley. It was that loud it was frightening! I stopped to put on my Gore-tex waterproofs, jumped back on my bike and pushed along a road that had now turned into a river. It started to hail and the hail stung my face as if someone was using it as a pincushion. I was happy when the hail eased and the rain returned. As the cars passed I could only see their red rear lights through the foggy mist. One driver stopped ahead and scraped all the hail stones off his windscreen before moving off again.
I put my hood over my helmet to stop the cold rain running down my neck and back. I followed the winding road, with the thunder and lightning shadowing me as I struggled up hills and sailed down the slopes. I was high in the mountains and authorities had closed the road twice in the last three days because of snow. I didn’t want to become stranded up there without a warm sleeping bag so I just had to keep going. My feet were wet and cold, but fortunately I was wearing my Gore-tex jacket so at least my body was warn and dry.
A wet, steep downhill run tested my brakes and gave me hope that it was the last hill before Yosemite Valley. With no chance of reading my map due to the rain destroying my visibility, I was longing to get to my destination and I just hoped the Yosemite Valley was close by. However as I crossed Yosemite Creek my super fast freewheeling ride ceased and my hopes were sorely dashed as I started climbing again.
There was now no traffic on the road to present any hazards to me but there were still the dangerous descents and those agonising ascents to contend with. On top of that my feet were soaked and like two ice blocks that were absolutely freezing. At last I descended a long hill that had a closed steel gate at the bottom of it and beside it a female ranger who stopped me. She told me that it was snowing up in the mountains I had just come from and that the road was now closed. I was more than pleased to have made it down the mountain as it was just too cold to be camping up there without my warm sleeping bag.
I stopped at a service station at the next junction, asked about the local camp ground, which was $15.00, but the lady suggested going on to Yosemite Valley to the Sunnyside campsite as it was only $3.00. It sounded feasible, so I decided to head there, but it was 6.00pm and I still had 16 miles to go, although she did say it was all downhill all the way. But I’d heard that one before!
I bought a tin of beans, put it in my pannier, zipped my Gore-tex jacket and hood and descended. I was cold and became colder as I gathered speed. I was now longing to climb a steep hill to get warm again, but I just kept accelerating downwards. I sped through two tunnels and suddenly right in front of me there it was – one of the most incredible sights in the world, Yosemite Valley.
It was like something out of a fairytale book. If there was a fairytale world out there, then this view was it. It was more than amazing and my heart pounded with absolute joy. I stopped next to a Japanese couple looking over the valley, took my camera out to find it was all fogged up and unsuitable to take photos. I couldn’t believe my luck! I had the world’s most breathtaking sight in front of me and I couldn’t capture those memories. How disappointing that was.
A river flowed below in the valley, winding through the pine trees and between huge cliffs and mountains. One huge, vertical cliff was called El Capitan, a very famous climber’s cliff. It was right there dominating the scene. I could see a lush valley that narrowed, until the mountains totally engulfed it. A waterfall cascaded from near the summit of one mountain top. I was in complete awe of the sight before me. I shivered with total elation.
The sun dipped beyond the mountain behind me leaving an illuminated trail that slowly grew fainter until finally the bright light that was shining into the valley had virtually vanished. The whole scene was overwhelming, breathtaking and I just wanted to camp right there to wake up to it in the morning. Unfortunately, the steep sided mountain pass offered no place to do so as it was just too steep.
A low wall ran beside the twisty road and guarded traffic from running off it and dropping thousands of feet to the valley floor. I followed it down zipping by it at great speeds until I crossed the Merced River and where the hill ceased. Shivering, I now followed a one-way road shielded by towering trees. I was seemingly in another world and trying to grasp the stark contrast in scenery.
As the last of the sun’s rays faded from above the mountains on either side of me, I felt a rush of excitement that pulsed through my whole body. I kept getting glimpses of the huge rock walls between the trees and occasionally I would see a tiny ray of sunshine through the clouds that would illuminate a small part of the high vertical cliffs. It looked mysterious, surreal, but brilliant. I paused to take a photo but my camera was still fogged up. Further, a huge rock tower (Sentinel Rock) to my right stood like a giant pillar at the entrance of a hidden world. The shallow Merced River flowed to my left with tiny meadows beside it which were layered with mist. The canyon narrowed further leaving me with a sense of being locked in. I knew then why this place was turned into a National Park.
I knew that I was entering a very special area but suddenly those last remnants of light had gone and the darkness now robbed me of seeing one of the most stunning valleys in the world. The canopy of trees and the cliffs blocked the light from even the brightest star from filtering through, leaving my trail towards Yosemite Village black, wet and cold.
I had no map of the village, so I followed my nose towards the lights and the camping registration building. There was a sign on the wall saying, ‘No Vacancies’. I crossed the potholed car park and asked a couple, whose bright clothes and hair colour indicated that they were climbers, where the best place to camp was. They suggested that I should sneak into a vacant staff tent, but I just didn’t have the courage to do that. The only thing now was to go in search of Sunnyside, the climber’s campsite.
It was absolutely black, the road was wet and dazzling lights from the passing cars made it difficult to cycle safely but I arrived at camp without falling off or being hit. Disappointingly though I was out of luck again, there was a sign saying ‘full’, so a man suggested I go to the backpackers campsite, back up the valley. This campsite is only for backpackers heading out on a walk, but I was past caring, I needed to camp somewhere. As I struggled to find a place to rest my head, my evening had now turned into a nightmare and my morale had taken a dive. I should have camped back up near the service station, I thought.
I was cold and could see little on the darkened cycleway. Every few moments I would accidentally deviate from the cycleway on to the dirt, despite my dim torch shining on the path. I was told to look for a sign, but found nothing and ended up lost. I returned the way I came wondering if the night could get any worse. I then spotted campers in the distance through the trees around a blazing fire. I went over to them and asked them if they knew where the backpacker’s campsite was. “You’re here,” they said. I don’t think you could begin to imagine how happy I felt.
I was so relieved to find a place to camp. The group welcomed me and I was content to get warm around their fire and have a good talk about my walk ahead. Steel lockers were scattered around the camp, which gave campers a place to store their food away from the bears. It is illegal to camp with your food in your tent, but my new friends said that there was little threat of a bear entering your tent if you are in it. They said they always camp with their food.
Although they had a lot of camping experience, they couldn’t convince me to sleep with my food. Read any book about bears, it’s always strongly recommended to put your food in a food bag, finding the highest tree and hoisting your food high in the air. Of course there are smart bears around so you have to make sure they can’t climb the tree and grab it. The other alternative is to carry a bear drum. This is a small drum made of light strong plastic, with a lid that a bear can’t open. The idea is to put all your food, toothpaste or anything sweet in it, place it 50-100 yards away from your tent so the bear is attracted to it and not you. Although I have been using the ‘up the tree’ method, I will be taking a bear drum with me on my walk.
It was late when we stopped talking and all the others hit the sack. It gave me a chance to change clothes, erect my tent and have some food. After such a big day (13 hours cycling steep hills) and the last hour cycling in circles, it was great to be warm, settled and camped.
Wednesday 30th September
With daylight I returned to Sunnyside Campsite to book a spot. It was the cheapest campsite I had used in the US, $3.00, however I shared a small site with six other tents, but that didn’t matter. I counted 160 tents in the camp ground, which had only one toilet block and no showers. If you wanted a shower, there was a public pay shower block in the village. Most people were happy to get a cheap site and shower occasionally. The campers were mostly climbers and the camp was only a few minutes walk from one of the biggest vertical climbing walls in the world. I met Scott Camps and Jenny Vran, two Australians who were ready to attempt the big wall climb of El Capitan. Once they start climbing they will spend days climbing the wall and will have to camp on the wall at night in hammocks. Jenny said, she had bought my canoeing book back in Australia. What a small world!
Thursday 1st & Friday 2nd October
In the next couple of days I rode around viewing spectacular sights like the Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and El Capitan at different times of the day to capture them in their different moods. I also collected my warm gear from the post office and the four season tent sent to me by Mike from Mountain Hardwear. I had a lot of gear that I didn’t want to take with me on the walk so I placed it in two lockers in the village. It was very cheap, and the best thing was, there wasn’t a time limit.
It was October and the summer holiday season was over. Many of the roads and tourist venues in the mountains were closed. However Yosemite’s climbing campsite still bustled with activity. Some of the best climbers in the world were here. The main talk around camp was of a Slav climber soloing El Capitan on the west side of the ‘nose’. Apparently it was a very difficult climb, especially when doing it solo.
That night I walked to El Capitan along a deserted road. The mist was rising and the full moon illuminated small meadows alongside the river and light streaked through the trees. There had been bear sightings in the valley, so I checked out any rustle in the woods. When I arrived at El Capitan it too was lit up by the big, bright full moon. I felt as if I was in heaven, just standing there looking up at the steep rock face trying to spot climbers hanging in hammocks and bivouacked for the night. It was another amazing scene which would be firmly entrenched in my memory.
Saturday 3rd October
It was finally time to leave my safe haven and take to the mountains and start my John Muir Trail walk which is regarded as one of the best in the world. I locked my bike behind the Wilderness Centre, took a bus to Curry Village and started my walk out of the valley into the mountains following the Nevada Falls track to Little Yosemite Valley. Within the hour I was wondering why I was carrying such a heavy pack. I tried working out what I could leave behind before passing my last rubbish bin at Happy Isles. I needed ten days of food for the first part of the walk to Mammoth Lakes and I wasn’t prepared to throw any away. I was heading up into mountains of 11,000 to 14,000 feet, and winter was moving in quickly, so I really needed all my clothes. My four season Mountain Hardwear tent was heavier than my 3 season tent, but not knowing how bad the weather was going to be, I needed to have the best shelter. And although I could feel a strain through my right leg, I had no choice but to carry my heavy load of 30 odd kilograms. The length of the trail to the end near Mt Whitney was going to be about 220 miles (350kms), it crosses six passes over 11,000 feet (3,400 m) and several other lower passes.
As unfit day-tourists and mules descended the Nevada Falls trail, I moved along ascending and zigzagging along the switchbacks and getting spectacular views of the waterfalls, of Half Dome and other high walled mountains in the valley, all of which had the sun shining directly on them. When I reached the top of a falls, I stood on the falls rock ledge and had my last look into the valley and then carried on towards the Little Yosemite camp grounds on a trail less steep.
At the campsite, which was nestled between the mountains, several other people were making the best of the weather and full moon. In the days since my arrival at Yosemite, the weather predictions had been bleak with snowfalls and the onset of winter. But in the last day or so, the clouds had moved away, opening up clear, beautiful blue skies. Consequently the nights ahead with the full moon, clear skies and being up at 9,000 to 13,000 feet, were going to be decidedly cold.
Ninety nine point nine per cent of the hikers in the Little Yosemite camp were there just to climb Half Dome, a particularly dominant and spectacular feature in the park. I camped next to Carol and Chris and had a good chat. Well, I did most of the chatting, but Carol and Chris seemed content to listen and ask questions as I talked about my big trips, my books and the time I worked with unemployed youth and street kids and how I used to take them on twenty four day physically demanding outdoor trips to help boost their confidence and self-esteem.
Sunday 4th October
By the time I was ready to make my way to Half Dome several people moved out from under the trees of the camp to find sunny patches to try and thaw out after such a cold night. I’m sure most had sleeping bags that were inadequate for the low overnight temperature. I now had a very warm sleeping bag so I slept well.
It was a busy trail to Half Dome and although I carried a heavy pack, the day trippers, who were only carrying daypacks, were slower and more exhausted than I was. It was hard to believe how unfit some of the young males were, but I guess I had been doing a lot of physical activity and was probably at the pinnacle of my fitness. At the John Muir – Half Dome trail turnoff, I hid my pack behind a rock and took off bounding towards the summit with only a daypack, and what a difference it made. I was certainly able to move faster and easier. Closer to the summit, as the trail moved out of the forest onto the rocky mountain side, it became steep. Some walkers were exhausted from the climb and from the thin air, so they ventured no further. Others managed to steadily climb the trail only to find it became even steeper where the last part of the climb to Half Dome began.
No kidding it was steep! To help walkers climb this last section of near-vertical, smooth rock, there were two steel cables descending the mountain-face held in place every 3 to 4 metres by steel posts. Between these posts were planks that made it a little easier to rest, and decreased the strain of having to hold on to the rails.
At the base of the slab were hundreds of gloves lying on the ground. These were to prevent your hands from becoming severely cut on the steel wire. I grabbed a pair and then looked up to see twenty people on the climb. They were moving slowly, however they had good reason, even I was surprised at the steepness of the climb. If one person is slow, so is everyone behind them. The fitness of the walkers was really tested here. I could hear them breathing heavily. It was mighty slow progress and when the people descending the cliff caught up with walkers ascending, it became even slower. It was nearly impossible to ascend and descend elsewhere, as the rock was too smooth and steep.
At the summit several people were making phone calls home, I assumed they were telling their loved ones or friends how beautiful it was up on the mountain. Most though were getting answer phones and were a little annoyed that they couldn’t talk to their friends from such a spectacular place. It was indeed spectacular and looking over the edge of this giant rock slab was alarming. It dropped several thousand feet without any interruption. Most people crawled carefully to the edge with care and peered down into the valley with both astonishment and awe. Others were too nervous and wouldn’t go anywhere near the edge. I could understand their fear. A guy kindly offered to take a picture of me on a rock shelf that really overhung the Half Dome Mountain by several metres. I jumped at the idea and it turned out being an unreal shot. The view from Half Dome was so spectacular I could understand why all the unfit people around me had wanted to get to the top.
Just seeing so much breathtaking scenery over the last few weeks had been mind blowing and it wasn’t going to stop until I at least, finished my walk.
On my descent there were only about ten people climbing up so I had a quick run down. One slip though and you would say goodbye to life. My hands heated up as I grasped the steel cable and used it as my hand rail. Thank God for the gloves! I passed many exhausted walkers on my return and at the bottom of the steep climb I met Chris and Carol who were going no further. They said their fitness wasn’t up to it. Chris jokingly said I was like a fox terrier as I managed to go so quickly and leapt around like a young dog. An Afro American was also resting at the bottom and he said he was scared of heights and could go no further. To come all this way and not be able to reach the top and see the view must have been heartbreaking and I genuinely felt for them. I walked slowly back to the turnoff with Chris and Carol and a few others that had been forced to turn back because of their lack of fitness.
At the turn-off where I left my pack I gave Chris and Carol a big hug. I felt that we had become good friends in such a short time. From this junction I would see very few people on my journey south to Mt Whitney. My pack was still where I had left it, and after hoisting it on my back I continued my journey east on the John Muir Trail. Everyone else walked in the opposite direction to return to Yosemite Valley at the bottom of the mountain.
The track weaved and I kept looking back to see Half Dome and its splendour. Eventually it disappeared from sight and now everything ahead of me was new. I filtered water at a stream and took photos of Pyramid Mountain and a rock with a big nose, a little like my own nose!! (The rock was called Columbia Finger). My pack was heavy and my breathing became more laboured as I climbed above the 9000 foot mark. I still had the slight twinge in my right leg. By nightfall I was close to crossing my first mountain pass. Just before the sun set, I found a good campsite under three tall pine trees. I could already feel the cold creeping in. Dropping my pack at the base of a tree, I unpacked my polartec and down jacket and wrapped myself up before climbing a ridge to watch the sun set and to cast my eyes on another new world.
I lit a fire and cooked dinner and then I noticed what I thought were three torch lights coming over the ridge, but just as I was beginning to feel startled by the sight, I realised it was only the moon filtering through the trees. The night was quiet, with a cloudless sky. A plane flew overhead leaving a big vapour trail for me to gaze at. I had ten days of rations, but only seven days crammed in my bear drum so I put the other three night’s worth in a bag, threw a line over a high tree limb and hoisted it up, well out of the range of prowling bears.
Monday 5th October
After leaving camp and the forest canopy I started my ascent and within minutes I was straining. Twenty minutes later I reached a flatter summit area where I was surrounded by a magnificent vista, Tresidder Peak, Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Peak, Echo Peaks and the Cathedral Range. The mountain range spread in a semicircle. Looking down the valley towards Tuolumne Meadow stood the imposing Cathedral Mountain. I ate my lunch sitting on a rock slab outcrop under a sunny sky. I shed my sweaty clothes and placed them on rocks to dry. I felt both joyful and relaxed as this first day of being really alone in the wild-west was like heaven. I chewed on nuts, raisins and dried fruit and looked on at my beautiful vista. The country was so different to the mountains on the east coast of America and the mountains of Australia. I could sense my 220 miles (350kms) walk through the Sierra Nevada mountain range was going to be a walk to remember.
I moved on and descended into a meadow where two mule deer were grazing near a small tarn (lake) with Unicorn Peak in the background. I descended again into another meadow and between Cathedral Lakes and Cathedral Peak and back into the forest. Unbelievably, when I was purifying water from a mountain stream, a man on a skateboard, which was fitted with large wheels, came charging down the mountain. He had a scruffy appearance and long straggly hair. He stopped, grunted a few words about how he was happy that there were no horses allowed on the trail, but there were no rules about riding skateboards. The track was steep, twisty and littered with rocks. Very seldom was it smooth enough for the skateboard to rattle more than a few yards before slamming into rocks. When it did the man would reach down, lift the skateboard over the rock and have another short ride. At first I was impressed by his unique and strange way of descending the mountain, but later as he faded into the trees and disappeared I thought what a ridiculous thing to do. But he seemed happy and even happier that he was doing something that the authorities couldn’t stop.
Within minutes he had disappeared beyond the trees and soon after I caught up with an elderly couple on a day walk. I walked with them for a while, but the woman carried bells on her backpack to scare the bears away, and it drove me crazy. I pushed on and within the hour I had reached a deserted campsite at Tuolumne Meadows. Tuolumne Meadows (at 8,600 feet) is the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra. It is about 55 miles from Yosemite Valley via the Tioga Road but shorter by the trail.
As the holiday season was over, the campsite, the store and information centre were all closed. This usually busy piece of paradise up in the mountains was incredibly quiet. The gravel track crunched under foot as I passed hundreds of deserted campsites. Tables were bare and solitary. Bear-proof steel boxes, used to protect camper’s food were closed for the winter. At the east end of the vast camp-ground I found a high spot overlooking the river and a huge granite dome that I had earlier passed on my cycle ride across the mountain range. Tioga Pass was now only a few kilometres up the road.
As the camp was closed, all water taps were turned off and the toilets were shut. These luxuries were so close, but impossible to take advantage of. It didn’t matter as I had a stream passing my tent door and lots of wilderness in which to dig a hole.
The moon appeared at 7.30pm and as it rose, it shone directly on the tree tops creating such a bright light that the trees looked snow-laden. It seemed like Christmas had come early. The moon was full and it virtually turned the night into day. The sky was completely clear as I sat on the rock watching the moon come over the hill, and the vapour trails and flashing and twinkling lights from overhead aircraft. The air was crisp, in fact distinctly chilly, and yet it was one of those perfect nights. The water cascaded along the river in front of me skirting around rocks and falling over ledges. Although it was not canoe-able, I sat beside it listening, thinking and imagining that it was much bigger and that I was in my kayak forging my way through the rapids.
Apart from the cascades the evening was otherwise still. Lambert Dome which was right in front of me formed a spectacular backdrop. All I needed now was a little company and a bottle of port. Instead I sat in solitude and though company would have been nice, I savoured the moment. I watched a deer graze on the other side of the river. As the night drew on and with a sense of deep contentedness I continued to reflect on my incredible journey.
I left my wild and serene spot by the river for a moment to put my food away. I had forgotten about the raccoons and bears that may strike if I was away from my food stores too long. I returned to a place by the river and found a large boulder formed much like a chair. I sat on it and looked on. The cold chill was kept at bay by the warm down jacket that I wore. Spruce trees standing erect like arrows were becoming more visible as the moonlight brightened. The water swirled in front of me and on the other side of the river, upright boulders looked like people. I had my own little amphitheatre and beyond it the high rock dome. I reflected back to the time when two guys at the Yosemite camp told me that they climbed Half Dome on full moon. What a great idea! It would be absolutely beautiful to do it tonight, but my chance was lost as I was too far away.
Tuesday 6th October
It had been cold in the night, my water bottle was frozen and so was my hanky that I had washed and left out to dry overnight. It was so stiff, like a piece of fibreglass and I could have thrown it like a frisbee. I took my food from the bear-proof locker and slammed it shut knowing it was the last time on my hike that I would use this safe system. Yosemite N/P has had its share of bear problems mainly due to people leaving food in their cars and the bears smashing their way in to get it. The car usually comes off the worst!
Yosemite National Park is home to 300 – 500 American black bears. Apparently though, very few are black, they’re more likely to be found in a variety of colors ranging from black to brown, blond, or cinnamon.
Black bears are omnivores and will eat almost anything. They spend most of their days foraging for grasses, seeds, berries, acorns, and insects and occasionally feed on carrion. Bears tear open rotten logs or old stumps in search of insect larvae. Unfortunately, many Yosemite bears have also perfected the skill of obtaining food from humans.
I left the Tuolumne Meadows deserted campground and moved on along the trail of the Lyell Canyon meadows and followed the Lyell River, the waterway that kept me spellbound the previous night. Between a number of wooded areas, small grass meadows appeared next to the meandering river. Deer grazed and further up the valley where the meadow became wider, a lone coyote trotted beside the river. It moved along with confidence and seemed to have little to worry about. I stopped and waited for it to come closer. The coyote trotted on, it hadn’t sensed my presence. My pack lay heavy on my shoulders, as I stood motionless like an old tree stump. It continued to follow the meandering river, and then suddenly it stopped, raised its nose and sniffed. It looked very relaxed and poised, but it still hadn’t smelt me, probably due to the wind blowing down the valley. By the time the coyote drew level with me, it was less than 350 feet away. It paused again, looked all around and then trotted off disappearing behind a line of rocks. I lost sight of it and after a few minutes I walked on following a fairly flat trail. What a magical moment. You can see it on the telly, but there is nothing like seeing it in real life. I was stoked!
As I continued on there were large numbers of Prairie dogs scrambling about in the small meadows. They kept me amused as they darted in and out of their holes. As I moved on, the river came closer to the trail. I stopped and relaxed and watched ripples and swirls create and fade away and small pebbly races form tiny rapids. I watched, studied and daydreamed.
I moved on again to find that grit had got into my socks and was creating friction under my big toe. I stopped on a rock platform to tend to it. The sun was hot, so I took off my shirt and pants to dry off the sweat.
I walked on and met Ollie Oliver, a hiker who was from Somerset in England. He had been enquiring about the John Muir Trail at the wilderness information office in Yosemite at the same time as me. He had just come from walking around the Yukon area in Alaska. He said that the people in the office knew very little about the trail, which I had to agree with. Most of the people that worked in the park over the summer period were students and hadn’t walked out of Yosemite Valley. With 99% of the people asking for information about the Yosemite Valley, they probably didn’t need to know that much. We were two of very few people that were actually walking more than two days at a time. Ollie had taken a bus to Mammoth Lakes and was walking from Mammoth back to Yosemite Valley.
Chipmunks scurried from tree to tree as I pushed higher towards the pass. The meadows were becoming smaller and often disappeared for some time. However small the meadows were, the little patches of grass were still popular with Mule deer, which grazed happily.
My easy day walk began to change as the track steepened up a mountainside. Trees closed in and the climb increased my heart rate and as I followed a winding but beautifully paved cobblestone path, a recent landslide had demolished a wide line of trees down the mountain. There were now steps on the trail which had once been built by prisoners but now they are built by volunteers. The steps had been built at the perfect height for climbing, which I must admit reduced the strain on my legs.
I turned to see the scenic valley, which was flanked on both sides by mountain ranges, disappear behind me. It was sad to see it vanish as I crossed a small footbridge over a stream. I paused to watch four chipmunks chase each other up the trees as well as gaze at the snow-covered mountain range before me. Further on, after a steep climb I found another small meadow just below the mountain range. There, two young deer were frolicking with mum. At a distance they had no fear of me being there, but they decided to flee when I was about 100 feet away. This hidden meadow was almost water logged and the overflowing stream running through it slipped over a rocky mountain side.
The track’s vertical ascent not only had me slowing down, it also had me labouring for breath. I paused at a small stream to filter a litre of water, just enough to get me over the range. The track was soon covered with snow making it difficult to follow, but the higher I climbed the finer was the view of the other snow-clad mountains in the distance. I passed a small lake prior to my final assault to the top. The warmth of the sun diminished as it slowly descended behind the mountains giving fuel to the already cold wind that swept up the valley. My body soon felt the force of that cold wind, so much so, that I needed to increase my layers of clothing to three.
By 5.15pm I was out of Lyell Canyon and I had conquered the 11,050 ft Donohue Pass. I now had a completely new view of the mountain ranges and valleys of my southern route. As far as my eye could see there were mountains, lakes and open wilderness. With the light fading quickly, the cold rapidly moving in and no suitable camping sites close by, I felt a sudden sense of apprehension and loneliness. I paused to view a razor sharp peak that lay in the far distance, and below me beyond a watery valley, I could make out an area with scattered trees and big boulders with small grassed patches between them. It looked promising like paradise compared with the rocky steep and uneven surroundings at the top of the pass. I descended into this new found world in search of a lower campsite.
There was a little light when I arrived as the sun was still filtering through the patchy northern clouds. Before me however, in the southern sky the clouds were layered and formed in such an amazing fashion. Red was blazing and bleeding in horizontal streaks. I looked around in all directions and the views were awe-inspiring and breathtaking, and I was so moved by the beauty before me that I could have cried.
Now that I had a place to camp and an amazing view my mood completely changed as I was now neither apprehensive nor lonely. A stream snaked down the valley around the boulders and trees. I hurried to find the perfect piece of turf to set up my tent and to take some hopefully stunning photographs of the incredible scene surrounding me.
As I sat on a rock shelf I was entertaining the thought, that this was probably one of the most beautiful places that I had ever camped. Then I heard a rattle of pots a few hundred metres down the valley. I investigated and found Charlie and Tim who were doing a circuit walk and heading to the Banner Peak in the Mt Ritter region. These were the two peaks that we could see prominently in the distance. I chatted for a while and returned to cook tea. I placed my food drum behind boulders away from the tent and put my toothpaste and other food in a bag and hoisted it up a stunted tree.
The evening was cold but my down jacket kept me snug. At 8.05pm a near full moon rose from behind a mountain lighting up the area and enabling me to continue to view the beautiful surroundings in a subdued light. It was still bright enough to walk, and later I strolled down the track absorbing every bit of the wilderness. Although a little tired from my 16 miles trek, it was difficult to drag myself to bed.
Wednesday 6th October
In the morning Charlie and Tim came over to my camp to say goodbye, but I soon caught them up just as they were checking out a huge bear footprint embedded in the frozen mud. Just proves that bear are around.
The wind increased further as we left the shelter of the trees and I moved across Island Pass and entered the region of Thousand Island Lakes where the landscape opened up. I stopped several times to take photos, first at a small lake at Island Pass and then at several places further on. It was one of those most stunning and beautiful places that I just had to keep taking photos of. The snow-covered Mt Ritter and Banner Peak stood majestically at the southwest end of the Thousand Island Lake. The view only amplified in intensity the closer I walked towards the lake. Small islands were scattered throughout the lake, and although there were a lot of them, it didn’t look as if there were a thousand of them. The sun reflected off the lake’s surface and a cool wind howled across it encouraging me to keep moving.
I passed two small lakes, Emerald and Ruby before following the north-eastern end of Garnet Lake. The howling wind raced down from the mountains across the lake whipping up the water into whitecaps. I walked around to where the lake narrowed and where the water was draining into a creek. I sheltered from the incredibly cold wind behind a rock wall of the creek, had lunch, filtered water and checked my toes for blisters. Leaving my sheltered haven behind, I was soon blasted by fierce winds again. I could hardly keep on my feet and as I crossed the wooden footbridge over the creek, I felt very vulnerable and unsteady. To my relief I made it across, followed the trail around the lake for half a mile and then followed it south-east over a low pass which zigzagged down into a small swampy meadow. At the end, the cliffs seem to block my route, however on closer inspection the trail continued through a gap in the rock and down between the two cliff walls. At that point, where the wall was no longer vertical I startled three mule deer which were grazing above me. They were inquisitive, looking down at me without any fear. Their huge ears popped up and as they stared. I managed to get a photograph.
My winding trail eventually brought me out at Shadow Creek. Here the water cascaded from the many high falls, around rocks, boulders and into a forest before Shadow Lake where it slowed until it reached the far end and began to cascade down the mountain again. I met a lady near the lake on a day walk, her husband was trailing some distance behind calling out for her as she stepped it out.
I traversed around the south side of the lake and zigzagged steeply up the mountain side to the small Rosalie Lake at 9500 ft. It was misty and the lake was penned in by rock walls, and looked a little neglected. I quickly walked across a small creek and fled into the mist. The cool late afternoon air chilled me until I started to climb up and over another ridge to a smaller lake, Lake Gladys. It was 5.30pm, time to stop, but the frost-covered ground was uninviting so I moved on further, trying to find that perfect camping spot that I was now accustomed to. Leaving the lake I descended, passing many ponds surrounded by swampy vegetation. Then the trail dried, the woods closed in and that perfect camping spot faded with the light. Just at dark I crossed a stream but there was no flat spot, instead the trail led me across a steep mountainside. In places landslides had fractured the mountain and bundled trees into a huge pile. At times, when a clearing enabled me to see across the valley I could see a few twinkling lights of some distant building. The darkness had caught me out. I knew now I had no chance of finding that beautiful spot and with the sun now gone it was less important to do so. I stumbled down the steep trail and my hopes were raised when the trail headed towards the valley floor. I couldn’t see it, but somehow in the darkness I knew it was there.
Rustling noises in the woods kept me from being too complacent. Every so often I turned my torch to check, but saw nothing except the odd coyote track. Then from nowhere a stampede of hooves charged. For a moment my heart felt like it had left my body, but I quickly gained control and my heart rate lessened when I realised it was deer running away from me. When I found a flat area just off the trail next to a fallen log, with Johnson Lake 65 odd feet away, I decided to stop. I was too tired to go any further.
Thursday 8th October
Rusty Smith who had his hair tied up, wearing long johns and using a baby carrier as a backpack came walking by my camp. He was from Santa Barbara. We talked for a while and he gave me his number just in case I needed something when I was passing Santa Barbara on my cycle trip.
I soon reached the Devils Postpile area, waded a creek, as the bridge was closed and found the Ranger Station. It was here there was a public road to the monument and the town of Mammoth Lakes which gave me the opportunity to go to town to replenish my food stocks. From the lonely campsite I walked along the bitumen road towards Mammoth Lakes hoping a vehicle would pass so that I could hitch a lift and rest my weary legs. At a clearing I caught sight of the craggy, but beautiful Minaret Mountains and later found four fishermen sitting on vehicle inner tubes fishing in the middle of a small lake. They looked so odd.
It was a 15 mile walk to the town of Mammoth Lakes and having walked 8 miles on a hard bitumen road with a heavy backpack so far, I was grateful when a car eventually stopped. He was a hiker himself, he moved his junk from the front seat and I hopped in to get a lift right to the supermarket in town.
I had a great time in the supermarket and associated shops. At the laundry I washed everything in my pack. While I waited I sat outside and sorted out all my food and left as much cardboard and rubbish behind. I took the opportunity to ring Jenny as it was going to be a long time until the next call. The Liberals had got back into government and there was water rationing.
Before leaving town I checked out the outdoor shops and had my last cool drink. It took me two lifts and a bit of walking to get back to the Postpile car park. I walked to the campsite and paid $12.00 for the pleasure of rock-hard ground and no showers. I trimmed my beard and washed my hair in freezing water.
Friday 9th October
I left the campground and walked to the Devils Postpile. Geologically it was an amazing site, and although impressive I had expected the post piles to be much taller. The Postpiles are of volcanic origin and have their beginning in the great earthquake fault that lies along the east side of the Sierra range. The columns stand like tall stone sleepers and around the base a multitude of fallen ones that have broken into 2 to 6 feet long sections, created big piles. I walked on to Red Meadows campground and to where there were some hot water springs. There were a few timber cubicles so I washed and scrubbed up in the cubicles that had the hot spring water running through them. It was such a wonderful feeling getting clean, standing outside on wooden boards and feeling the wind blow across my body. After my wash, I took photos, ate cheese and walked back to the trail knowing it was going to be my last real wash for some time.
Within minutes I was walking through a badly burnt out area with huge trees that were scorched and pitiful. The whole valley was black and bare, but soon after I moved out of what looked to me like a moonscape and into woods that were alive and green. It was such a contrast. Red hills, valley streams and lush meadows. I was in a happy mood and thinking about home.
As I moved through the woods it was quiet and there was good camping at Deer Creek where I stopped for lunch. A little further through the woods the terrain got steeper and rockier. Here I could see Silver Range. Several birds with big fan tails, a little smaller than a pheasant, flew before me. As it was getting dark I slipped by a lake surrounded by mountains with varying colours whilst keeping an eye out for a camping spot. I found a spot near a stream outlet and quickly put my tent up. Darkness drew in before I finished writing in my diary.
Saturday 10th October
It had been a clear cool night with the stars shining. I added water to my cereal and it froze up in front of me, so I was eating icy cereal with frozen raisins, so hard, they were impossible to eat. I had to boil water to thaw them out. By the time the sun came over the mountain, I had finished breakfast, purified water and taken some photos. I climbed between mountains for about a mile and then it was down to Virginia Lake where it was much more open. Oddly, I heard a trumpet sound in the mountains, but I never really found out where the sound was coming from.
As I rounded the lake there was a wonderful view of the snow-clad mountains before me. After a steep up and down walk to Tully Hole I came to a small meadow at the bottom with a creek running through it and surrounded by mountains. Down another steep trail I followed a stream. It was truly majestic! Icicles were still on the shaded side of the rocks where the water cascaded. I eventually came to a bridge that crossed a river. The bridge, to my surprise was so big and strong that it would have easily taken army tanks. Mt Izaak Walton dominated the scene. I followed the track to a turn-off where I filtered water and had a bite to eat.
I started climbing again, zigzagging although it wasn’t so steep, and I passed a meadow halfway up which had a stream running through it. The track moved over a rocky area that by-passed the Lake of the Lone Indian (what a name!) and eventually came out at Squaw Lake. The track was now a path of intricate stone rock steps. The steps were just amazing, they could have been part of stonework in any royal gardens. I crossed the front of the lake and climbed further passing another trail. I moved left of Chief Lake and up towards the Silver Pass. Nearing the top the track was covered with frozen snow, so slippery it was virtually impossible to keep my feet from sliding from under me. Now it was all guesswork trying to figure out where the track was headed. I finally reached the head of the pass and took photos of the way I came and the way I was going. The way that I was headed looked nowhere near as impressive as the way that I had come.
I started my way down the mountain trying to escape from the cold. I thought I could see tents but they turned out to be big boulders. Fifteen minutes later I met a tired looking Dan and Kerry walking with a very obedient golden retriever dog. They stopped to talk and said they were on a 60 mile, 6 day hike finishing at Reds Meadow.
We parted ways and I carried on and followed the descending track towards trees and granite outcrops. Huge towering walls were over on the right with a stream running next to the trail. I stopped to filter some water at a lovely rock shelf. The track carried on intersecting a small meadow where the stream started to fall.
The track zigzagged and I started a very steep rocky descent, the steepest section so far on my journey. As the track descended, there was a near vertical cliff where the stream cascaded waterfalls along the way. If horses used this track they would have had a hard time.
I finally reached the base where another creek was running down the valley and where a few flowers were still in bloom. The track again became steep and at one stage the rocks made walking extremely difficult. I came to a track, which entered from my left, and continued following the John Muir Trail to the right moving out of the shaded valley into bright sunshine. It was great to feel those warm rays of sun.
I saw a good camping spot overlooking the valley and instead of stopping I carried on through the trees and granite boulders. I started cursing to myself because I hadn’t stopped at the good campsite, but luckily I later found a big flat area near a cascading creek and with a beautiful view of the mountains. With the steep descent I now realised why Dan and Kerry were looking extremely tired when I had met them earlier. It wasn’t too cold after dark so I finished writing my diary by candle light.
Sun 11th October
I had camped upstream of Quall Meadow. Being in a valley, it was a lot warmer than on a mountain pass. In the middle of the night I thought I heard a bear at my food so I jumped out of the tent to investigate. To my disappointment, there was nothing to see.
I only cooked oats to save fuel and had no hot drink. The morning sun lit up the mountains to my right. By 9.15am I started walking down the valley next to the stream and at 9.30am I was passing a junction of the Mono Pass Trail. A little further I crossed a bridge and from there, after a few chilly, wet creek crossings, it was all uphill. A grove of Aspens had names carved in them. It was so incredible that people with the mentality of vandals were right out here in the middle of nowhere. The track zigzagged the steep mountainside for almost two miles to where the aspen trees mixed with the spruce trees.
The track was pretty level for some time as it penetrated the woods, but the descent to Bear Creek was steep in places. Autumn was already on the way and lots of yellow-leafed Aspens were once again on the slopes. The drying leaves rattled much like a rattle snake. Many birds were singing and chipmunks were scampering around. It was almost like a valley in spring time. I passed several huge pine trees and several small streams intersected the trail. In the valley the large stream cascaded over rock slabs and rocky rapids. I walked on for some time before finding a great spot where the stream cascaded over smooth rock slabs. I stopped and filtered water had a strip wash in the brisk air which left me tingling all over and decidedly refreshed as I settled down to have lunch.
The track followed the stream which meandered through granite outcrops and stands of pine trees, and afforded exceptional views. I noticed a hiker ahead, his dog had already spotted me, and much sooner than his owner. The hiker and I started talking. George Sessions had been out for three days and was heading home. His lovely dog was a wolfhound cross. When he realised that I was from Australia he asked me if I knew someone by the name Patsy Hallen. It was an amazing question and to his astonishment I said that I did, and that she was a good friend. Patsy and her partner Peter (who I know from Perth) had stayed with George, a professor in the US. Patsy worked for Perth’s Murdoch University. We said our goodbyes and as I walked away he called me back to give me his phone number, just in case I needed help. I cursed myself when I forgot to take his picture. He looked a real bushman and Patsy would have loved to have seen it.
I carried on walking, laughing to myself about him knowing Patsy. What a coincidence! The track steepened making me rest on the odd occasion. There was a scenic mountain range to my east called, The Seven Gables and it was absolutely beautiful. Mt Hooper to the north-west was also striking. Eventually the track wound over and around granite outcrops to come out at Mari Lake. The sun was being blocked by the mountain but two thirds of the lake was still in sunshine. It looked a real picture with the islands and a peaked mountain in the background.
I kept moving towards Selden Pass which wasn’t too much higher than the lakes, reaching there at 5.30pm. One last photo and I was over the pass heading south into yet another new valley and new territory. The canyon entering Heart Lake was in the shadow and a lot cooler than before the pass. I decided to keep going to Sally Keyes Lakes, but just before them on a hill overlooking the lakes and the distant mountain range I found a flat place to camp.
With such a fantastic view of the lake and the 12,000 foot mountains I couldn’t resist stopping. By the time I had my tent up, filtered water and started cooking, it was dark. I just sat there looking at the outlines of the mountains and lake. Over in the far distance beyond a mountain I saw a big cloud of what looked like moving birds, which was a strange sight.
The evening was still and chilly. There were very few planes moving across the sky that night. Just before retiring to the tent I loaded all my food in the bear drum and placed it some 50 metres away from the tent. I wrote my diary by candlelight.
Mon 12th October
I kept slipping off my mattress in the night due to my tent being on a slight slope. After rising at 7.00am I tried to start trekking earlier but by the time I had breakfast, changed film, bandaged my toe to stop a blister from forming, and taken photos it was 8.50am before I managed to get moving. It was an overcast morning. Although the sun tried to shine on the mountains the clouds continued to block it out.
I was passing through an area of lakes, and there was a good camping spot on the southern end not far from a hut for winter surveyors. Further along the trail on a narrow section I met a mountain man named Jim Hinson who was riding a horse and leading a mule. We talked for some time. He was just scooting around. “Might shoot myself a deer,” he said. He spends a lot of time riding in the mountains. “They are closing many of the trails to horses,” he said, “and they even want us to start carrying our own feed.” He didn’t seem very happy with the future plans of the trails.
We said our goodbyes and I carried on downhill towards a steeper section with several switchbacks. I could see right down the valley. Aspen trees were near yellow and they looked just beautiful. I eventually came to a trail junction that led to the Muir Trail Ranch. I turned left on to the main trail but it narrowed considerably until it met up again with a trail near the San Joaquin River. Further along the trail at the Piute Creek Bridge I stopped for lunch and took the opportunity to filter water.
I carried on up the valley still following a sandshoe imprint that had been on the trail for some time. The trail was rocky and windy and moved close to the river and into a small gorge. Aspens gave the gorge some much needed colour. After a few switches across the river the trail left the main river and headed a steep course to Evolution Creek. There were many switchbacks, some with steep sections that made me work hard. It was like climbing into a paradise valley. Since entering the Kings Canyon Park the trail wasn’t kept as well as the Yosemite National Park or the Ansell Adams Wilderness trails.
I did a short detour to a waterfall. The track then levelled out and crossed a stream in a meadow. At times the water was ankle deep but my gaiters kept out the water. I arrived at McClure Valley at 5.00pm, passed a ranger’s hut and kept walking, passed another meadow and eventually stopped opposite a big triangular mountain at 5.45pm to camp.
Tues 13th Oct
I had a sore throat during the night so I gargled with aspirin. It relieved it for a while. I left the volcano shaped mountain at 9.10am and it wasn’t long before I zigzagged up a fairly steep section. The track levelled off and I came out at Evolution Lake which, surrounded by mountains, made a very pretty picture. If only I could have camped there last night!
I crossed a creek by using stones and soon after I met Steve Smith who was walking with the aid of ski poles. He was rugged up and wearing a Gore-tex jacket, so it must have been cold on the pass. We talked for a while, and he mentioned he had spoken to the guy who was wearing the sandshoe imprint that I had been following. Steve said he thought the guy was around 30 and apparently he was trying to finish a section of the track that he couldn’t do last year because of snow. He was shouldering a small pack and moving across the terrain pretty fast. He had asked Steve for some spare fuel and his sandshoes were glued and coming apart. Steve said the guy was about a day ahead of me. I was hoping to catch him up, as I had been chasing his shoe marks for some time.
I was longing to reach the pass as I moved by a few more lakes. The vegetation became sparse as I neared Wander Lake. It was tranquil, grasshoppers were jumping everywhere and a kestrel was hovering above waiting for the right moment to swoop.
Moving up towards the pass was like walking on the moon. There was no greenery at all, just rocks and mountains with snow lining the summits. I spotted an African-looking hut at the top of Muir Pass at 11,945 ft. When I reached it I looked inside the round rock building. It was all rock inside with rock ledges and seats around the outside, a boarded up fireplace and one window overlooked the valley.
I took photos and descended Muir Pass. The scene looking south looked as if it had been a site for mining. It was just rock and more rock, some different coloured rock and several lakes intermingled with the rocks. I moved up, down and around crossing snow ice that hadn’t melted over summer and stopped at Helen Lake for lunch and to filter water. As I sat next to the lake, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. I threw a raisin in the water to attract fish, but none came. It was so peaceful. Helen and Wanda Lakes were named after John Muir’s daughters.
I carried on moving over more frozen snow whilst being very careful not to slip. I lost the track several times, but managed to find it further on. This wouldn’t have been a good place to be walking through in a storm. A stream of water was flowing through a tunnel of snow being exposed at times before flowing underground again. Beyond another small lake the track started to descend and ahead was a big mountain with many different shades of brown. I descended the rocky route to another small lake and as I got lower the mountainsides were beginning to bloom with greenery. It was good to see vegetation again. I meandered down the trail in awe of the particularly beautiful scene. I turned a corner and the canyon just kept going and there were waterfalls entering from all directions and streams of water cascading over long sections of rock.
It looked a long steep downhill walk to the next corner, where on a distant meadow that had a stream running through it, I thought I could see a brown bear. I became pretty excited and quickened my pace. When I got closer my bear turned into a blackened tree stump, so it was a bit of an anticlimax. The country was abounded with squirrels and chipmunks scattering everywhere. I had seen so many in the last two days.
The canyon was in the shadow, and just before Le Conte Canyon with its polished granite walls I reached a clearing just as five mule deer crossed the track. I looked around me at the huge rock walls and inspiring mountains and knew that I just had to camp there.
I picked a spot and erected my tent and within minutes it had rime on it which was a good sign that it was going to be a cold night! It was hard to keep focussed when unpacking with such breathtaking scenery around me and it was times like these it would have been good to have someone there to share it with. The high altitude was using more fuel than I wanted, so I decided to cook on a campfire close by. The dry wood was soon ablaze so it wasn’t long before I was having soup, pasta, Milo and a choc bar.
As I ate my food I was startled by a noise that was just a few feet away and when I shone my torch, it turned out to be a mule deer and not a bear, thank God! Another deer was grazing nearby. I sat next to the fire deep in thought watching the deer graze and looking up at yet another cloudless sky and brightly shining stars. I had climbed over a mountain pass virtually every day since starting my walk and now I only had 72 miles to go to reach my goal. My heart suddenly fluttered at the fact that my amazing days on the trail would soon be coming to an end.
Wed 14th October 98
It was a cold night and as I moved out of the tent a thick layer of rime was covering it making a crinkly sound of frost breaking up. I tried to have breakfast but the water in my cereal pot slowly turned to ice, so I transferred it to my cup and used my hands to warm it up, which helped. As I packed I watched the sun hit the mountain tops and in the hope some of the heat from it would melt the ice on my tent, I left it standing until the last moment. I was reluctant to leave this magical place of tall steep cliffs, but as I did the sun’s rays hit the valley floor. Fifteen minutes later I reached an unmanned ranger’s hut. The ranger only resided at the hut in the summer season so there was no-one was around. I walked on finding it difficult to stop looking over my shoulder to look back at the impressive mountains behind me.
A range of mountains, including ‘The Citadel’ looked down at me. A creek continued to cascade right up to Grouse Meadow then it slowed and meandered across the meadow to quicken and drop away again when the valley steepened. A waterfall before the meadow was a picture of beauty with a very steep cliff just downstream. Just before my turnoff at Palisade Creek the stream cascaded over a 13 foot drop.
I was now at the lowest point of the trail and Mather Pass was only 11.5 miles ahead. The trail started to climb straight away and soon after, I was walking through Aspen groves which leaves were nearly all bright yellow. Looking back down the valley I could see the jagged mountains which could have been the Devil’s Crags or Rambaud Slopes. On my left, way up on the high steep mountain slopes I could see green meadows with pine trees looking somewhat like Switzerland.
At Deer Meadow, where the stream slowed I filtered water and put my tent fly out to dry. The crashing of water continued further along and then silenced as it levelled. Although there were deer marks on the ground, there were no deer to be seen, only squirrels. Every time I looked back down the valley I could see the towering crags.
I moved out of the trees and later found myself climbing the Golden Staircase, a series of steep switchbacks. It levelled for a short time as I entered another valley and another range of jagged mountains. When one picturesque scene was lost, another one came into view.
The trail headed up and down through lightly wooded forest high above the Palisade Lakes. Just before a running stream, I paused at a sheltered campsite, probably the last sheltered camp before the pass.
I left the trees and started climbing rock. The trail zigzagged up the mountain and it was soon out of sight. My breathing became laboured as I got close to the 12,100ft Mather Pass, named after Stephen Mather, the first head of the National Park Service. As the steep rocky trail led me close to the top, I took the opportunity to catch my breath and take a last, long look at the magnificent valley below. There were just so many magnificent views.
Grey clouds had been gathering and they were now thick above the mountain tops lining the valley from where I had just come. I took a photo of the route I had taken, and a couple of the route ahead. The valley ahead was more open with three lakes, and narrowed down into the wooden valley. I wasted no time walking down the steep switchbacks. At one spot, snow and ice blocked the trail, so I had to take extra care crossing it as I was so close to my goal.
As I walked between the lakes there were now no clouds on the mountains to my east, but they were engulfing the valley in the far distance. I saw a figure in the distance and it didn’t take long for me to meet Lee Stevens, a photographer on a five day hike who was on a mission to take photographs. Lee said he had heard the weather was going to be okay for the next four days. But to me, those clouds were looking pretty ominous. I left Lee with his camera fixed to a tripod waiting for the sun to reappear.
A strange looking mountain, I believe the Cardinal Mountain, had a very dark brown top and a lighter base with two pinnacles. I continued down the valley searching for a camp. I had walked 18 or more miles by the time I found a good spot under some pine trees not far from a fireplace and a creek. I cooked dinner on the fire to save fuel.
Tonight there were clouds in the valley, a rarity on this walk so far, so I spent the night with no stars twinkling in the sky.
Thursday 15th Oct 98
I just couldn’t sleep as I was thinking about the end of the walk and how great and how sad it would be to finish. I tossed and turned for ages and eventually fell asleep, but I woke up once or twice trying to find a comfortable position, one that didn’t dig into my bones.
It was cold and dark when I rose and as the morning dawned, the heavy cloud was trying to clear, and every so often, a mountain peak would be visible. Although I was wearing mittens, my fingers really felt the chill.
I headed down the valley at 8.30am, crossed the river and ascended again passing a sign indicating 4 miles to the pass. It was pretty steep and when the forest thinned the terrain levelled and lakes began to appear.
Although there was more rock than vegetation there was something special about the valley. It wasn’t threatening, it was easy to walk, and quite straight forward until near the end. For the final ascent the steep, rocky path zigzagged back and forth, my breathing at times labouring on the steeper sections. I now have more respect for Tim McCarthy-Snape, Australia’s leading mountain climber, who climbed Mt Everest, 29,000 feet without oxygen.
On both sides of me there were coffee rock mountains. I stopped at the top of Pinchot Pass 12,130 feet, to have lunch at 11.45am but there was a very chilly wind whipping up the mountain. The view to the south side was stunning as the mountains were getting bigger and a group of small lakes were scattered below them. It was that cold I had to put on my wind bloc jacket.
I worked my way down the valley and into the trees on a steep decline. At a creek crossing I spotted mule deer and as I unzipped my camera bag they heard the noise and six deer took off! They stopped in the distance and looked back at me. I descended further and came out of the trees passing a good campsite. The valley was then rocky with stunted trees, many were bent or fallen. Although I was heading down into a valley the track seemed to go up as much as it went down. A stream cascaded over several drops and rock slides and large dead pine trees on the opposite bank were yellowish in appearance and several had fallen down the mountain side.
Clouds had been drifting in and a large, ominous black cloud stayed around the peak that I was passing under and it then began to snow lightly. As I trod on an angled stepping slab I slipped on the loose gravel, but luckily I landed on my bum and pack with no harm done. It gave me a warning to be more careful.
At last the track descended. Once down onto the valley floor the track turned north for a while and then crossed a suspension bridge. There was a board sign welcoming me to ‘Woods Valley’ and the do’s and don’ts of being in the valley. I noticed a good imprint of the sandshoe that I had been following, but I was no nearer to catching the walker up. The valley was a little similar to the last one, a bit ragged and barren. A few waterfalls cascaded and up on the mountaintops I could see it snowing. However, fortunately for me, the weather looked better in the direction that I was walking.
At 5.45pm I arrived at Dollar Lake, a lovely round lake with a view of Arrowhead Mountain. The clouds were still hovering around, but Mt Arrowhead looked quite stunning especially when the sun managed to filter through the clouds. I arrived at Arrowhead Lake at 6.10pm and made camp quickly at a nice spot under a tree. A small bird with a black head hung around keeping me company.
A split in the skin on my thumb started bleeding and the very chilly evening seemed to make it throb even more. Fires were not allowed above 10,000 feet so I had to use my stove to cook dinner. I needed to take care not to use too much fuel, as I didn’t want to run out before I reached the finish. The evening was soundless, clouds were drifting across the sky, mist was forming over the lake and slowly rising up. It began snowing lightly, but the clouds were rapidly pushed across the sky giving me an opportunity to catch sight of the bright stars once again. I locked my food in a bear container that was located at the lake, the first I had seen for a long time.
I saw no-one again today, only footprints.
Friday 16th Oct
More light snow fell during the cold night. To my surprise though, the sky was clear of clouds in the morning. However, a crisp white frost covered the meadow leaving it as white as white. My feet were frozen and they took a long time to come alive. I prepared my cereal and once the water touched my pot it froze, so I ate an icy breakfast whilst looking at the Fin Dome mountain range.
I left camp at 8.30am and walked through pine trees next to the lake. There were beautiful reflections in the water and the mountains next to the pass, especially the Painted Lady, which was lit up by the early morning sun. It was so crisp and water in the lakes so clear I could see fish as I walked by.
After leaving the lake the track steepened and snaked around. Once I arrived on top of the next plateau there was no vegetation, only a couple of lakes. Streams were frozen over, but occasionally I could see water bubbles beneath the thin ice.
It was a steep zigzag climb to the top of the pass and there were many sections that still had frozen snow covering the path, so walking was dangerous, and I had to choose my steps carefully. One slip and I could have said goodbye to the world. It was with some relief that I arrived at the summit of Glen Pass at 11,978 feet. The path on the south side was steep and the view of the nearby mountains was magnificent yet again. I know I have said time after time how magnificent the mountains were, but I cannot help myself, as the beauty of what I was seeing was so awe inspiring.
Another huge mountain standing tall and guarding a nearby lake was less than half a mile away. I descended the many switchbacks and then the track levelled and moved around the mountain. There were several ‘make do’ camping spots before the track turned, and down in the valley below the lake, was a tall rock face which would have been great for climbing. Eventually the track went down into a valley where there were warning signs about bears near the track junction. I was so hoping I would get to see one before the end of the walk.
I carried on and began to descend a steep section to a meadow. I paused for lunch in the sun and had superb views of the huge mountains and my way into my next pass. I met two 50 year old men coming in from Cedar Grove. We had a quick chat before departing.
At the bottom of the steep descent there was good camping in the valley. It looked a popular place. I was on the lookout for a good walking stick to help me with the snow/ice sections on Forrester Pass but most of the wood was dead and bent. I carried on up the valley in search of the ideal branch, which I found under some pines. I trimmed it with my Swiss army knife and yes, it’s actually getting used!! I knew I brought it along for something.
I passed another good campsite with a bear box and kept going to where the valley divided, near Center Peak. There were squirrels and several deer, and another bunch of deer in the valley. As the track turned I noticed some great campsites under the last trees in the valley. The sites were terraced as though someone had shaped them. I kept going another 150 odd feet and found a campsite out in the open that without exaggeration had a million dollar view. There was a circle of mountains and an odd rounded shaped castle type rock. It was only 4.50pm and early to set up camp, but this was a special camp with such a dramatic view that I knew the chance of finding one better on the top of the pass was very slim!
As the sun descended lower in the sky, the mountains on the N/E side glowed red. Their jagged peaks were a sight to see. At nightfall a very bright star appeared in the eastern sky long before I noticed any others. For a moment I thought it was a bright light. It wasn’t long before the sky was full of stars and only the faint sound of a stream could be heard. It was one of those very special nights – to sit out and look at the mountains and stars and allow my thoughts to drift. It soon got so cold I had to retreat to my tent to write my diary.
Saturday 17th Oct 98
It was very cold in the night. Though I was snug in my sleeping bag, my feet were chilled, but the rest of me was okay – just. In order to warm my feet I had to curl up and keep them on my mat.
I was restless during the night tossing and turning because the side I was sleeping on kept becoming numb from sleeping on the hard rocks, so I had to keep swapping sides. Having gone to bed at 9.00pm it was a long time to sleep until 6.30am, but it just felt too cold to get up, so I waited another 15 minutes.
I finally started to move and poked by head out of my tent and found a cloudless sky and a narrow ray of sunlight shining on a mountain top. I had nuts and apricots for breakfast to avoid my cereal turning to ice. I would have the cereal for lunch instead.
Whilst getting ready I enjoyed the majestic scene around me. I was now ready to go, all wrapped up in my wind bloc jacket, gloves and beanie that kept my ears warm. After 15 minutes of climbing I crossed a creek and collected water. To save pumping and purifying I decided to put tablets in the water instead. It was just too cold to stop and pump. The path-works along this section were incredible. It was like someone had built a road in the mountains which was supported by rock walls. As I turned south the slippery, icy snow started covering the track but where the sun was able to reach the path, the snow had melted.
It was hard to believe, that at nearly 13,000ft there were several small rodents running around and zipping under and out of the rocks. A big snow/ice drift had now completely covered the track as I zigzagged up the rock face. It was slippery and dangerous and I was thankful for my trusty stick to keep me on my feet. When I reached the top of the pass there was a sign saying “Forester Pass, 13200 ft.” I took a photo and then moved off the track and climbed higher still and found a flat area big enough for two people to camp and someone had built a 2 foot wall around it. I ate nuts and took some photos, then descended the steep southern side humming and singing along the way. Once I reached the base of the cliff the track gradually descended and then flattened. Lakes were now half frozen, and the stream completely frozen. Fall wasn’t just creeping in, it seemed to be galloping in.
Looking back from where I had come across the pass, I could see what appeared to be a small hole in the mountain but I hadn’t noticed it when I was up there. The good thing about taking time to look back was that I always got a different view. I continued on heading towards the lower valley where I started seeing a few trees again and a bit more greenery. I left my stick that helped to steady me over the pass next to a tree as I didn’t think I would need it again. A tall dead tree that had gone a yellow colour stood nearby with branches reaching out like arms. It looked as if it could come alive and start walking away.
I came across a track to the Tyndall Creek Ranger Station, but I carried on the JMT and ascended around a mountain. At the Tyndall Creek crossing, where I stopped to filter water and eat some nuts, there was a campsite and a bear box. I continued climbing and eventually reached a very bare area, like a prairie where the buffalo should roam. There were some imposing mountains in all directions. A dead tree, just the trunk, no branches stood like a lone guard overlooking the mountains. I began to descend steeply into Wallace Creek with part of the creek looking like a canyon. After the creek and where there was a bear box, the trail climbed steeply back up again. My stomach wasn’t feeling too good after a drink of water, so I stopped drinking for a while and dropped a purifying tablet into my filtered water to give double protection.
I passed between an area with large boulders and the trail went straight through them. I descended to a small meadow and by a mountain that looked like a castle ruin. Several deer had been popping up all day and now chipmunks and squirrels were very active in the woods. It was mostly downhill to the Crabtree Meadow Ranger Station Hut, but the hut was off the track, so I didn’t see it. On the other side of the creek on snow covered ground two deer were watching me. I moved uphill with the setting sun casting its dying rays right down the valley creating beautiful, vibrant colours on the trees and the mountains. I passed several good camping spots but none had that special requirement that I always looked for…… that perfect view.
I climbed further and finally found that place, that spot with that perfect view in all directions. Another day had passed and I still I hadn’t seen any one. The sun had set and over the distant eastern mountain a single bright star appeared and when the whole sky eventually turned velvet black a million bright stars lit up the night sky. There was no cloud and the night was so clear.
It was the middle of October and in theory the weather should have been deteriorating, but over the last 18 days I have had fine weather and a lot of clear skies and sunshine. I had been so lucky. I sat there on my bear drum taking it all in. I felt a bit sad as tomorrow was a big day and the finish of my walk.
Sunday 18th October
I woke up a few times during the night with sore sides and spent another night tossing and turning. I waited until 6.45am before I moved from my sleeping bag. It didn’t seem as cold but it was probably because I wasn’t so high in the mountains as other nights and I was in the shelter of some trees. The sun started shining on some distant high peaks as I ate my oats for breakfast.
I passed Timberline Lake which had reeds and grass on the upstream side. I started climbing leaving the trees behind and passing Guitar Lake, my second last lake on my amazing walk. The last smaller lake, a few hundred feet further was unnamed. I was now at the back of Mt Whitney, but it was impossible to see the summit or even recognise it. I was now getting pretty excited as my goal was getting closer. The trail ascended sometimes only to detour around the grasses that helped stop the erosion. The water that ran down the trail had turned to ice and was very slippery.
As I climbed higher I could see the shape of Guitar Lake and it was quite aptly named. It was hard to imagine where the track would lead me as it zigzagged up the mountain and seemingly in the opposite direction of the Mt Whitney summit. The track became steeper following a multitude of switchbacks. When it got too steep I stopped and rested, and looked and listened. There was not a soul in the valley, it was silent and peaceful.
The mountain took some climbing. The switchbacks however allowed me to climb vertically in a very short time. As I neared the crest of the mountain I kept looking up and thinking I must soon be there and then the track zigzagged once again. Then as I was 10 minutes from the crest I heard voices and saw people walking on a distant trail.
I was in shock. My peace in the mountains was finally shattered. I sat and had one last look at the magnificent scene with Mt Hitchcock dominating it. I had been in harmony with the country and the trail, but now I could feel my gut tightening as my dream walk was about to end and I had to get back to reality of civilisation! Maybe I should go back the way I came?
I pushed on and soon joined other walkers and the main track up to the summit. Most of the day walkers looked exhausted, so I left them in my wake despite my heavy pack. One guy had to stop every 50 metres to rest. The trail levelled and beside it rock pillars were standing proud. Between the pillars there was a very steep and spectacular drop to the east and towards Death Valley and the road that I had previously cycled on.
On my final climb a huge slab of frozen snow had covered the track, so I scrambled over the rocks following no definite route. I met a guy from England who was working in the US (his English rowing club cap was what that gave him away). He wasn’t looking too good as he was to be affected by the altitude. I later saw him sitting quietly on the summit waiting for his friends and his health to return.
When I reached the top several other people were sitting on the rocks. Some of them who were being affected by the altitude were lying and trying to overcome that un-well feeling. Many of them had started walking from the bottom at 4.00am this morning, so they had climbed several thousand vertical feet in a very short time.
When I caught my breath I looked out towards an extraordinary wilderness. The day was so clear and I could see for miles. It was simply spectacular. I was here at my final destination looking at the direction from where I had crossed all those mountain ranges. The mountains were layered, across the wilderness like mirror images. They spread for miles until the far distance haze sucked them in and they vanished from sight.
As I stood 14,505 feet (4,421 metres) above sea level I reflected on the 220 mile route that I had taken across the mountains. Reliving my journey, I could see myself slowly weaving my way south across the high peaks and lower valleys. I felt the sweat of the hill climbs and the chill of the mountain tops. When darkness drifted in I was always camped at the most exquisite of places, with million dollar views. Apart from a very few nights, the sky was cloudless and the stars twinkled. I was very lucky to have such good weather so late in the season.
I turned to the east and looked towards Death Valley. It was quite incredible really, here I was aloft the highest mountain in the US and Death Valley the lowest point, was only 70 miles away as the crow flies.
Then it finally hit me. I was actually at the end of an incredible journey yet I didn’t feel as exhilarated as I thought I would be. Maybe it was all the people around me that took the shine off my achievement or it was just another day or was it that I was so used to seeing and achieving special things I was blasé about it all.
An information poster mentioned that John Muir first climbed the mountain on the 21st October 1873. I milled around at the top for 50 minutes before signing the visitor’s book next to the emergency hut and started to move. Before leaving, I walked over to a tall fence. It turned out being a toilet with three sides, giving little privacy but the most fantastic view. I descended and within 3 miles I met a guy wearing an Arafat hat and carrying a Wildness Equipment pack. I thought he looked like an Australian especially wearing an Australian pack so I asked him where he bought it and told me Sydney. His name was Adrian Lake. He was working in the US and he tried to visit a different part of America every weekend. He had started heading up to the mountain very late, so by the time he reached the top and returned, he would be descending the last part of the mountain in the dark.
After the pass the trail was thick with snow and ice. Views of Mt Whitney and the Pinnacles were superb but the icy trail was pretty dangerous, I slipped several times, but my trusty stick prevented me from going over. I was glad I wasn’t walking this section in the dark. About twenty other people were descending around me.
I eventually left the icefield. It was a wonder that someone hadn’t slipped to their death as it was dangerous, especially for beginners and there were a lot of those. After leaving the ice I managed to make better time. I trekked through Trail Camp, and above the camp there was a toilet that looked like a truck and several tents that were spread between rocky outcrops. It was the strangest campsite that I had come across. I noticed some toilet paper in a pool of water and paper under some rocks. I wanted water but I decided not to take any from the lake system around the camp as hikers had left such a mess and who knew what was in the water. Many walkers were packing up their tents and heading down the mountain as I passed by. Camping at the site meant that walkers didn’t have to walk to the summit and return on the same day. It is a 23 mile trip from the bottom to the top.
The valley was getting closer and the track descended steeply. I could see lakes below and in the far distance I could see the valley floor. At Mirror Lake, which was well away from the people camping, I filtered water and continued marching through Outpost Camp. It was cold in the valley as there was now no sun to warm it. I crossed a creek that was frozen but I didn’t fancy camping there. I descended further to Lone Pine Lake and the trail just kept descending and zigzagging. I couldn’t believe how far it was, and it was no wonder people were looking exhausted.
I suddenly got glimpses of the car park way down in the valley and like a little child I cheered. The switch backs still made it a very long way but at least I knew my walk had an end. By 6.25pm I finally reached the car park. I asked three other walkers for a lift, but they said they weren’t going to Lone Pine. I left my trusted stick in the car park for another walker to use and walked along the bitumen road down the hill in the dark. I could see the lights of Lone Pine, but the town was still 13 miles away, a long way after such a difficult and tiring day. I walked on, my feet were burning on the hard bitumen road and I didn’t fancy my chances of being picked up, but twenty minutes later a four wheel drive stopped. Three guys from LA welcomed me in. I was happy and so relieved to reach Lone Pine and find a $40.00 a night motel.
I had a shower and took my clothes to the laundry and went to the Pizza shop and had a salad bowl and a small pizza and coke and talked to some of the walkers who I had met up the mountain. When I returned to my room I wrote in my diary until 12.20am.
Monday 19th October 98
It was lovely to be in a bed and have a restful night’s sleep. For breakfast I went to Carl Jnr restaurant and had bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns and a muffin and finished off with a Danish pastry which wasn’t the best Danish I’d had.
I did some grocery shopping, went to the bank and bumped into three women that I had met up the mountain. They mentioned that the Australian guy, Adrian Lake, had stayed with them all the way down the mountain and helped them by shining his torch when theirs had failed.
I returned to the motel and packed up before heading to the Town Hall and whilst waiting for the bus to arrive I wrote some postcards to post home. A man sat down beside me. He said he was a born again Christian and a Jew and that he was a Prophet. He said things happen when he is around. He also went on to say that he once killed people for a living and that he was once one of America’s top agents. Lucky me, I always get the good ones to sit next to!!
I had two bus rides before I was dropped off at Lee Vining where I had to hitch hike over the mountain via the Tioga Pass, Tuolumne Meadow and into the Yosemite Valley. There were no buses going over the range to Yosemite. It didn’t take me long before a Japanese guy on holiday stopped and gave me a lift straight to the Yosemite Valley. I was lucky. The last time I crossed the mountain was by bike and it was snowing. It was much warmer this time and it was a pleasure to be able to look out the car window and watch the scenery go by.
Arriving back at Yosemite wasn’t quite as romantic as arriving the first time but it was still very special. There were a lot less people as many of the campsite and tourist shops had closed down for the season. I camped at Sunny Side camp site again where there were still lots of climbers attempting El Capitan. My climb had finished, it was now time for a cycle ride.