Day 1 – 9.2 miles Happy Isles to… Some Forest
Elevation climbed today – 4,700
I woke up before my alarm went off at 4am. We were all ready to go by 5. I popped two Advil to subside my persistent headache.
We all walked the first mile to the start of the trail in silence. The first part of the trail is paved and straight up. Everyone bolted ahead of me. This would have bothered me in the past but I learned from the Camino that if you have any chance at conquering a trail, you have to hike your own hike. So I looked down and kept going. This mountain is so much steeper than the Pyrenees. I realized the part of the Pyrenees I traversed was graded for cars so it wasn’t as steep as this. This wasn’t graded for cars, for horses, or even people. I struggled so bad the first mile. I just kept telling myself “just put one foot in front of the other. That’s all you have to do today.” I was leaning forward with he weight of my pack so I couldn’t see anything but the ground in front of me. As long as the rocks to the sides of me were moving behind me, I knew I was making progress. But sometimes I moved so slowly I nearly wasn’t moving at all. It wasn’t very cool even in the early am but there was a welcomed breeze from the rushing River we walked beside. The mosquitoes were out but not too bad at first. I don’t know what time they wake up but they must work in shifts.
Eventually we hit some switchbacks and the trail got much more manageable. As Brian said, “I never thought I’d love switchbacks so much.”
At one point I was on a cliff ledge huffing and puffing, watching the sun start to peak over from the other side of the ledge I was on. I walked around the ledge and heard a familiar roar. Waterfall. I lifted my head and right in front of me, almost at eye level was the massive Vernal Fall. My group was sitting with their shoes off enjoying the view. Time for a break and what a beautiful view.
As we continued to walk, the sun started to peak over the cliff we were walking up. I dealt with the usually hiking battles. Sweat was burning my eyes so I had to put on my hat, the sun was blinding me so I had to put on my sunglasses, then the mosquitoes got worse. My Deet was in my head canister which was at the bottom of my pack so Stephen let me borrow his Sawyers lotion. He said it was more effective than Deet and I was skeptical at first but it’s been hours now and not a single bug has landed on me.
As I was walking up the ledge, the waterfall was to my left and now after a few hundred more feet, I really was eye level with the top. The cliff to my right had snow melt flowing off it and onto the trial. I had no choice but to walk through it. It felt like an ice cold rain. I loved it and took my time crossing.
We all met up at the top of the waterfall and filled our water bottles. Stephen and Rachel have a water pump and Brian and I have a steri pen. They both come with pros and cons so it’s a matter of personal preference.
While the trail was slightly less steep after that, it was now made of dirt and massive rocks. It was like walking up a staircase for about an hour. I felt quite miserable and was back to walking really slow. However I noticed that when we got to flat sections (and there were only a couple), I felt a rush. A hiker high. This is something new I started experiencing this last year in the whites and it’s why I continue to hike. I hate the actual hiking but I love the high I from it.
At one of our stops, I took my bag off and accidentally placed it right on an ant hill. Fortunately they were not fire ants but it was a good lesson for me. Always look before putting your pack down.
The rocks finally gave way to a nice sandy walkway as we entered a beautiful forest. To our right was a rushing river. I realized how fortunate we are to start the hike so early in the season when the snow is still melting and the waterways are bursting. Let’s see how fortunate I feel when we get to higher altitudes and have to hike through the snow!
We passed through a hiking camp and stopped by the Merced River which feeds the waterfall we saw the whole way up. As we entered we saw a couple other hikers including one naked guy. We said hi and went about our business settling it. It was time for a nice long break. I kicked off my shoes and socks, opened my pack, pulled out my bear canister and removed my lunch – flour wraps, pepperoni, and sesame cranberry peanut butter. I know what you’re thinking. It sounds horrible right? I actually enjoy it when I’m hiking though.
I got in the water! The ice cold glacier water! I only made it up to my my thighs but I felt accomplished none the less. Rachel was braver than I was. She removed her hiking gear and ran in but by the time she got up to her waste, she turned around and ran back out. It’s touch when the water was snow only two days earlier. Next was Brian’s turn. He jumped in and played around like it was nothing. It inspired me to do the same. I stripped down to my Patagonias and jumped in! It felt like needles penetrating my whole body, followed immediately by a strange a sensation in my chest. I don’t know if my heart stopped beating for a second or what but it was a shock to the system. It felt so good to put my clothes back on though and feel the cool wetness seep through.
As soon as we started walking, I was back to feeling terrible, walking at a snails pace. Now the sun was beating down on us. Brian and I stopped every single time we crossed shade from a tree. At one point we ran into Stephen and Rachel. They said they were getting concerned. Apparently they were waiting much longer for us. I assured them that we were ok but that our progress the rest of the day would be much slower. We’re accustomed to New England weather whereas they’ve got Tennessee blood coursing through them. They are completely unphased by the heat and physically they are beasts so I suspect we won’t see them for the rest of the day.
At one point Brian encouraged me to turn around and look behind me. It was a perfect view of Half Dome. Half Dome is a huge cliff that people climb up using the assistance of cables because it’s so steep. Brian and I considered doing it while in Yosemite but decided not to do anything remotely dangerous just before our trip. But I have to admit when we ran into the day hikers coming down from it, I was almost jealous. But that’s ok. The JMT is more adventure than I can even handle.
Somewhere around mile six or seven I put my headphones in. The sun was unbearable but the hike itself became much easier when I could no longer hear my desperate panting. Soon, I was feeling good. Really good. I got that overwhelming feeling that I can do just about anything. It wasn’t until day 24 on the Camino that I started feeling like this. I was hoping to get to that same high sometime on this shorter trip but I didn’t expect it on day one. It’s almost like my body remembered the hike. It remembered what to do and I slipped into quickly. Granted that last few miles of today’s hike were far more gradual that the first four. I coundnt think much beyond my own suicide I the beginning.
We came across a tiny stream, found some shade and refilled our bottles. I was laying in the dirt with ants crawling on me, watching algae fill into my body. Gotta love nature! Once my bottles were filled, I covered my body in the ice cold water. Time for another break. We sat for over an hour chatting and enjoying the day.
We sat on a big log that had been destroyed by bears. I can see all over the trail that bears are everywhere. They tear into fallen trees to get to the bugs. I’m really hoping I see a hear while on the trip. So far today I’ve seen snakes (non poisonous), lizards, and squirrels.
The last few miles were tough. There was still an incline only now we were walking through a forest that had been scorched by wild fire which meant there was no protection from the sun and it was now the hottest part of the day. Brian got a text (surprisingly!) from Sun Bear. He told us it was to be over 100 degrees in the valley and to be careful. We will try but the problem is, we can’t take a siesta today as planned because they’re calling for a 50% chance of thunderstorms so we have to haul ass to camp. We could see the clouds rolling in so they kept us moving at an uncomfortable pace.
A lot of people don’t like walking through this part because its “ugly”. I was glad we spent a few days in Yosemite though because I learned so much about my surroundings here on the JMT. For example, I learned that wild fires are actually a necessary part of forest growth. I doubt this was a prescribed burn which they do every few years simply because the JMT cuts right through it but it looked to me like a healthy burn. It killed all the small and weak trees and left the large ones still standing but heavily charred. The ground was covered in burned trees which is a great habitat for critters and you could see all the new growth that sprouted in the ashes – ferns and wild flowers.
At one point, I stopped to take rest in the smallest shadow casting from one of the burned trees. When I looked up again, I realized I couldn’t see Brian anymore in the distance. I felt a mild panic rising in me as I realized I couldn’t see the path anymore. There were so many downed trees that they seemed to swallow the JMT. Suddenly I realized I was in the middle of a fire pit that stretched out for miles all around me. But I stood still for a bit and waited for my eyes to adjust. Very faintly I could see the makings of a path. I began following it constantly looking for my group. Soon I saw Brian off in the distance. What a relief.
We crossed a couple more streams but only one today required us to take off our shoes. We will be crossing some big rivers on this trip which can be dangerous this time of year with the current. But so far we haven’t had to deal with that.
When we arrived at camp, I didn’t even recognize it as such. It was just more burned forest except there was a nice rushing stream cutting through it. We found a place to call home for the day. Everyone was already resting, so I told Brian “I need a minute to rest my feet.” The moment I said that, we heard thunder rumble across the sky. We looked up and not more than a couple of miles away was the storm cloud coming our way. Without a rest, I began helping Brian set up camp. We struggled with the tent a bit tiger it exactly the way Brian wanted it. He gave Stephen and Rachel guidance on placement of theirs as well. He set up camp over 150 times so he knows what he’s looking for. I didn’t always know what he was trying to accomplish and even though he was very kind, I could tell he was frustrated with me as he told me what to do and then redid everything I attempted on my own.
After the tent was set up, Brian whispered to me, “I’m going to pass out.” I rushed to get him some water and told him to sit down. I would be fetching the water for tonight’s dinner alone. The stream was about 200 feet from camp. I met Stephen and Rachel there and filled all our bottles. I attempted to wash my feet but by the time I got back to camp, they were covered in ash again.
Despite the ash forest we were occupying, the camp was beautiful. Off to one side where the storm was rolling in from was a small valley and on the other side stood a mountain only a few hundred feet above us. By the way we went from about 4K feet today to 7800. That’s quite a climb. But what made the mountain less than a mile away from us on the other side of that valley interesting is that it was covered in snow. Now that we are reaching higher altitudes, maybe it will cool off a bit.
Brian wasn’t feeling well but he waded in the cool stream with me for a bit before starting dinner. We sat in the sun in our underwear trying to stay cool as we lit a fire with our camp stove, boiled water, and poured the boiling water into our dehydrated meals. I’m so glad we bought these meals. Not only do the Good to Go meals taste excellent but we have no dishes to do and we can use the bags to store our garbage before putting them back into our bear canisters.
Brian went to lay down in the tent while I stayed with the food. It’s so freaking hot out in the sun. I hope we can get to bed early tonight and get up early tomorrow. We have to walk almost twice as far tomorrow as we did today. We survived our hardest day though!