September 30, 2021
by Pierce and Kent Friel, Expedition Joe Adventure Team
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.
- John Muir
High above Lone Pine on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in California, a thick cloud of fog slowly grew up the mountainside. My brother and I had just summited the highest peak in the lower 48 and the thin air at 14,500 feet was making it hard to breathe. Hours earlier we had woken up in a motel in Lone Pine with a cup of Wrangler Reserve. Smooth yet bold, it was just the thing to get us up and going, and pumped for the adventure ahead. Although we were not on track for a true “alpine start”, we had woken early enough for the sun to still be sleeping behind the opposing valley wall, with our 20 pound packs ready and packed (including of course, our Expedition Joe coffee), we drove the windy road up to Whitney Portal and began our northbound hike on the John Muir Trail.
As we slowly gained elevation on the trail to the summit, the views only got better. Continuing to gain, we began to feel the effects of altitude at 13,000 ft, and below we could see a helicopter hovering above Trail Camp, a camp typically used to access the summit in two days, but this morning the air was still as this helicopter made a rescue on the mountainside. As we gained the trail crest, Kent battled a bout of AMS (acute mountain sickness) that slowed our accent significantly. The sickness slowed us for hours, and with each step, Kent felt worse. The closer we got to the top, the more Kent found himself stopping, but once we finally crested the peak, the feeling of accomplishment washed over us. Nearing the top our steps slowed, and we took in the magnificent views on a clear California afternoon. Puffy clouds were our best friend that day, as a storm had raged the night before. We enjoyed ourselves and the views for a short while before our peace was interrupted by hands reaching over the cliffside of the peak, two climbers untying their ropes before us, casually strolling around as if this was of no significance considering the 1,500-foot edge they had just walked over.
Maybe it was the drop in altitude, or maybe it was just the feeling of accomplishment after submitting Whitney, but as soon as we began to wind our way down a series of switchbacks towards Guitar Lake far below, Kent started to feel much better, and by the time we sat down for a water refill break at three o’clock, we were ready to put in the miles. We descended a bit more and soon reached Crabtree Ranger station. Miles and miles away from any roads, we encountered the most amazing backcountry cabin we had ever seen. The ranger was away, but we took the pleasure of checking it out and snapping a few photos. We pushed through several miles of rolling Sequoia forests for a couple more hours, until we reached a nice plateau spot for dinner. We set up quickly on a boulder and boiled a pot of delicious chicken parmesan couscous. The whole process of preparation was quick and easy, and the result was just about right, save for maybe some herbs or spices to add some extra flavor.
Appetites satiated and ready to hike, we set back onto the trail. Quite aware that we had miles to go before we reached that night’s campsite, we pushed for a while, descending into the Kern river valley, and then back up the other side, to a nice lookout where we snapped some photos of the sunset. It started getting dark after this point, so, thirty or so minutes after we got back on the trail, we put on our headlamps. We crossed the Bighorn Plateau in the dark and pulled into our camp well after eleven o’clock. Our first job was to stock up our bear canister with all items that smelled and stache it a safe distance away from our campsite. Trying to keep quiet so as not to disturb other sleeping campers, we set up our tent, slid in, and fell asleep almost immediately. So concluded a day that had begun before the sunrise and ended long after it had set. In between, there were more miles than either of us had hiked in a single day, along with more than seven thousand feet of elevation gained.
The morning came quicker than we expected, and we made our start in the dark, just before five. We got on the trail quickly and without major issues. Climbing out of the woods and over the treeline, we saw the sunrise over distant mountain peaks, sharing this spectacular sight with no one except a few grouse and marmots. The far-off cry of an eagle may have been the only other companion. This was the perfect opportunity to enjoy a cup of Native Sun coffee, which was silky smooth and perfect for the big day we had ahead. We ascended out of the wooded valley where we had spent the night and found ourselves in a high alpine basin with three large lakes. Ahead of us were a few campsites and a wall of mountains and ridgelines. It was impossible to pick out where the pass lay among this sheer wall of rock and scree. The closer we got though, the more apparent it became that the trail would take the most direct, albeit steep and nearly sheer wall of rock, route. The small figure of a hiker climbing this impossible wall was our marker, as we slowly gained on him on our way up a switchback on top of switchback to the top of Forester Pass. Reaching the top took a couple of steps along a path that had been literally blasted into a cliffside, held up by large steel I-beams and impressive stonework. Our reward on the other side was a completely new view that stretched for as far as the eye could see with dizzying rock peaks, deep blue alpine lakes, and an evergreen carpet of forest and streams far below. The scale of everything in front of us was unlike anything we had experienced in our past adventures, and it took our breath away. We weren’t the only ones taking in the views, however, as we finally had caught up to the hiker we had been following. Standing next to a pack that he said was fifty pounds and full of luxury gear like a foldable chair, he was naturally curious how we got our packs to be so light. This Hawaiian hiker was planning to do the trail in the range of eight to ten days and was the first northbound hiker we had met.
After wishing him luck, we made our way past him down a series of steep switchbacks, though not nearly as cut-into-the-rock as the way up, we finally reached several lakes and then, a river that flowed into a forested valley where we plowed through seven or so miles to the base of Glen Pass. We planned for lunch at the top of Glen, but we had no idea what a beast this pass would be. The first part was easy enough, as we climbed slowly out of the treeline in easily graded switchbacks. Then it plateaued and we began another descent. At this point, we started getting worn out rapidly, and each step felt harder than the last. We finally reached a lake below the pass proper, which took a series of narrow switchbacks upwards for a couple hundred feet. Thunder clouds were now very close, so we pushed this part and made it to the top around 2 PM. It started to rain a bit, but we ate a quick lunch of freeze-dried pork and tuna tacos. We still had the monster pass of the day ahead of us, four thousand feet of climbing to the top of Pinchot Pass. Below Glen Pass lay the Rae Lakes, two beautiful and large lakes with a ranger station and (so we heard) lots of fish.
We continued to descend rapidly, and soon reached another river valley where we began pushing hard, jogging the downhills. Several hours and about sixteen miles later (eight miles of descent and eight miles of uphill), we reached a low point slightly above 8,000 feet. Here it began raining, and we crossed a suspension bridge over a rushing river and began our final ascent of Pinchot Pass. It was still light at this point, but dusk was approaching and the rain was not letting up. When it finally did let up, it was nearly dark, but we were determined to make it over the pass. Forgoing a hot dinner, we ate energy bars and Snickers, put on lots of extra layers to protect ourselves from biting wind and dark that required headlamps. The final couple hundred feet over the pass in the dark and cold were brutal, stopping every switchback, everything in our bodies ached and the cold was ever-present despite our many layers- we dropped our packs for the night less than a mile down off of the other side. We had made it, but it was dark and well past eleven. We set up our tent and quickly fell asleep. This monster of a day included three major passes, almost ten thousand feet of climbing, and more than thirty-five miles. As we drifted off to sleep, the reality of what we had planned for the next day began to set in on us, and we wondered if we would make it. We had already beat AMS, two storms, and a lot of climbing. Who knows what could be next?
This morning we awoke at about 5:30 AM, and as we packed up camp, we began debating our plan for the day. Enjoying a cup of Rubicon Reserve, a coffee that was trail ready and perfect for the next day’s adventure. Descending Pinchot, we headed toward the base of Mather Pass and walked along with a friendly couple hiking a section of the JMT. Sharing tips and trail stories, we hiked together for a little while. Then we kicked it into gear and made it to the base of Mather Pass. The climb from our side was sizable and steep, but nothing compared with the long, grueling ascent that southbound hikers have to contend with. We saw several southbound hikers, all of them exhausted, having made it up to their first (and our last) pass over 11,000 feet on the JMT. Again, there were dark clouds in the distance, and we assessed our plans for the rest of the day. We decided to push to Palisade Lakes below and take a break there. Upon reaching these lakes sometime after one o’clock, we ate a snack and decided to take a refreshing (but cold) dip in the lake. Returning to the trail we decided to push to LeConte Ranger Station, where we would spend the night. Our continued descent involved the Golden Staircase, the last portion of the JMT to be built, and as the name suggests, a rugged set of stone steps and switchbacks built into the mountainside. Reaching the valley floor, we humped it into camp, arriving around six. After scouting our campsite, we made acquaintance with the hiker occupying a nearby tent. He was a retired climbing guide from Truckee, California finally making the trek along the PCT, although nearly five weeks behind schedule due to an injury. He was headed towards Canada but was unsure if he would make it before the snow set in the northern reaches of the Cascades. If not, he would finish what he didn’t get to next summer. We swapped stories and compared gear, and he wouldn’t let it get past us how impressed he was with our journey. He was planning for an alpine start before four, but we had dinner to cook and camp to set up. Enjoying delicious pork and beef chili, we talked about our next day’s agenda. As we slipped into our tent around eight, we were comfortable but absolutely exhausted. Several hours later, however, our comfort would nearly be lost as the loud sounds of thunder woke us up with a bang. Quickly and efficiently, we fully secured our rainfly, which we had left half open to allow for stargazing. The rain set in quickly not long after that, and it came harder than at any other point in our trip. Seeing a flash of bright light, we counted the seconds until thunder. It wasn’t long before we heard a deafening boom, and discovered that lightning had struck less than a mile away from our tent. Tired as we were, we burrowed ourselves deeper into our sleeping bags and fell right back asleep.
The morning was still and ever so quiet, and the stars were still in the sky when we arose around four. It quickly became clear to us that our 72 hours on the JMT would give us a satisfying sense of completion. Looking back, we had climbed all the rugged terrain and super-high alpine environments that the trail is famous for. As we sipped our Battle Grade Coffee and we chatted about that day’s plan. We would climb nearly four thousand feet out using Bishop Pass, hiking out to a trailhead about fifteen miles away. As we began our climb, the sun had just begun peeking out from behind enormous mountain peaks, and we were rewarded with some spectacular views. We climbed and climbed, and made it eventually above the treeline. As the fact that the end of the trail was imminent dawned on us, we began to dream of mouthwatering meals at the trail’s end. Avoiding snacks for this very reason, we pushed on until we finally reached the top of the pass. At this point, we exited Kings Canyon National Park and could see the desert valley far below us for the first time since the top of Whitney. Our legs ached as we descended, but our spirits soared. The journey had been one that we would never forget.
The John Muir Trail is named after the “Father of the National Parks”, a man who continues to inspire, telling us to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings” and, over the 72 hours we spent on the trail that carries his namesake, we forged unforgettable memories and took our spirits to new heights. It was truly an experience that words cannot accurately capture. And they shouldn’t try to capture it- because everyone deserves to go out there and experience these places that our great country has to offer for themselves. Expedition Joe is a trail-ready coffee that is ready for your next adventure. Get out there, and in the words of the immortal John Muir “break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
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