There’s man in every secret corner of her
Doing damned, wicked deeds.”
– Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Before writing about my 2014 thru-hike on the John Muir Trail it seems important to tell the story of what happened on August 30, 2013 when my feet hit the dusty trail at the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley to head south on the the John Muir Trail, and all plans of walking 227 miles quickly crumbled…
The planning for hiking the John Muir Trail began nearly a year before, in the end of 2012. I bought all of the books and maps, joined all of the online JMT forums, read all of the John Muir Trail blogs, watching all of the YouTube videos. The more I consumed, the more sure I was that the Sierras were calling me. Once given the ‘ok’ from work to take the time off, full-force planning began. The daunting permit application day arrived on March 16, 2013 – exactly 24 weeks before my departure on the trail. For those unaware of how competitive these permits are to get, the saying: “The hardest part about doing the JMT is getting the permit” exists for good reason. Navigating the permit system in Yosemite is confusing and requires good strategy, and the uncertainty behind the daily lottery and what permit you will actually get from your 3 choices (if any) is nerve-wracking. Somehow I lucked out with getting my first choice permit (Happy Isles – Sunrise/Merced Passthrough) – I truly felt like I won the lottery.
I planned on hiking the trail initially with 2 friends. Unfortunately, one had to drop out over the summer – so it was just my friend Jesse and I that ended up hitting the trail together.
On August 17, 2013 the Rim Fire erupted in the Stanislaus National Forest outside of Yosemite – The Rim Fire ended up tragically being the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada, and the the 3rd largest in California’s history. We watched it semi-nervously, but as we were getting ready to leave the closest it was burning to the trail was about 30-40 miles away, so we really didn’t feel it would affect us getting on the trail. The one impact that was starting to affect JMT hikers was the closure of Tioga Pass Road, which is critical for people getting transportation to Yosemite Valley from the Eastern Sierras. The only solution for many was to find transportation all the way around the Sierras to the Yosemite Valley to start their hike, which is nearly a 400 mile detour. This also meant that there was no way to get from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley other than to hike the 27 miles. I had made friends with a couple that was leaving on the trail the same day as us, and they decided to switch their permits leaving from starting in the valley, to starting from Tuolumne Meadows. They would day hike down to the valley, and then back up again, just so they could do the entire trail (and that 27 mile climb out of the valley to Tuolumne Meadows is no easy feat)!
The smoke from the fire, for essentially the life of the fire, had been blowing to the north and settling in the Tahoe area. Yosemite had been miraculously clear of all smoke. It was looking like everything would go off without a hitch….until I checked the weather a couple days before I left. The forecast was predicting a change in wind direction the day we started the trail. Not good.
I called the Wilderness Permit Office the day before I left to ask about potential for trail closures, and I was totally brushed me off, “We haven’t seen any smoke in the valley. I’m sure it will be fine”. Clearly their crystal ball had a completely different forecast than the NOAA.
My husband, Michael, was awesome enough to drive me up to Yosemite, and Jesse met us there. Once we arrived in Yosemite Valley I asked any rangers and park employees we ran into if they had heard about the predicted change in wind direction – again they all brushed me off, “We haven’t seen any smoke in the valley”. Surely all park employees were tired of being bombarded with questions about the Rim Fire from obnoxious park visitors, and that was likely why I was being brushed off with such obvious annoyance. Yet the National Weather Service was still predicting a shift in winds that would bring the smoke into Yosemite, and I seemed to be the only one that not only knew about it, but that was concerned.
The morning that we were to leave on the trail we awoke in Camp Curry to clear blue skies. I thought they all must have been right about the weather. I still had some work to do before I signed off from civilization for 18 days, so I hunkered down in Curry Village with my laptop for the first part of the day. Around 3:00 in the afternoon we were finally ready to hit the trail! I went to the restroom to change into my trail clothes, and to my shock, I walked out of the bathroom and looked up at Half Dome to see the first trails of smoke starting to make their way into the valley. Ugh.
When we finally arrived at the Happy Isles trailhead I said goodbye to Michael with tears and excitement, and off he went to drive back home…
Within 30 minutes of us officially being on the trail the smoke was pouring in thick. I started to get very nervous. Then, not even a mile into the steep climb up toward Little Yosemite Valley, the trouble really started…not only was I having difficulty breathing, but what possibly felt like small asthma attacks. I had never had any asthma symptoms in my life so I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on – but it became clear that as the smoke poured thicker over the valley walls I was definitely having more trouble breathing.
Jesse kept reassuring me that my trouble breathing was probably just anxiety or possibly the elevation (though we were only at about 5000 ft at that point), and that I should just keep going. He felt confident that as we climbed higher and closer to Tuolumne Meadows the smoke would clear – so we should keep moving. Unfortunately, I knew in my gut that it was likely not going to get any better up ahead. I still had spotty phone service so I called Michael to tell him what was going on and to stay by his phone because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and we may have to turn around.
By the time we got to Little Yosemite Valley, the smoke was thick, it was getting dark, and we didn’t think it entirely safe to keep going. So, though our permit required we camp beyond the Half Dome junction, we ended up setting up camp in Little Yosemite Valley (hoping the ranger would understand if we were questioned). By 8:30 it was dark out and turned in for the night. The smoke was so thick we couldn’t see more than 3 feet with our headlamps, and ash was falling like snow. I was getting nervous because I still felt short of breath. When I went to lay down in my sleeping bag it all got worse. I couldn’t breathe much at all – it felt like I had a weight on my chest, and I was starting to feel nauseous. I kept sitting up and lying back down, hoping the feeling would go away. I knew sleeping in the smoke wasn’t the smartest idea (and in the dark with zero visibility, even with our headlamps, I didn’t really have an option to go anywhere). So, I ended up taking some Benadryl to knock myself out (which later I learned later was actually quite smart as it can help with both asthma attacks and with smoke allergies).
I ended up sleeping soundly through the night, and woke up around 6am to an eerie-yellowish smoky world. Everything was covered with ash – and it was definitely not any conditions that were safe to hike in, more or less, even be outside in. We ate some breakfast and I stopped a few groups of hikers that passed us heading in the direction of the valley, asking each of them if the smoke cleared up ahead…they all said no. Jesse still felt that the smoke would be better if we made it to a higher elevation, but I wasn’t so sure, and with my trouble breathing I wasn’t even sure if I could make it to a higher to find out. I decided we should hike to the Little Yosemite Valley ranger station and ask about the conditions ahead and the forecast. I knew that if the forecast up ahead wasn’t good that I probably shouldn’t risk it – but I needed to know for sure.
As we packed up camp we met two other JMT thru-hikers that had started in the valley that morning. One guy was from Japan, the other from Germany – and they had both flown all the way to the US just to do the trail. Impressive. They were really nice guys – people that I looked forward to hiking with and talking to more. We ended up all walking to the ranger station together to figure out what was in store for us up ahead. A ranger and two other NPS employees were all there pouring over a giant topo map of the park on a table. “We’re hiking the JMT and I’m having trouble breathing”, I blurted out. “We were wondering if the smoke conditions are better up at Tuolumne Meadows?”
“No, it’s worse up there.”
And tears instantly began to flow…I knew that meant I would need to turn back. It would not be safe for me to continue.
The ranger called up to the office at Tuolumne Meadows to double-check, and he confirmed that the conditions were horrible up there. He told us that the trails were open, but they were encouraging people not to hike, and the conditions were so bad that they told all NPS staff not to go outdoors unless absolutely necessary. He took us over to the map and showed us the current active burn area and the distance of thick smoke cover (which was for nearly 100 miles south). He said they were predicting that the wind-shift could continue for possibly the next 4 days, which would mean that we could be hiking all the way to Mammoth in smoke (assuming I could even make it that far). The ranger looked me in the eyes and said to me “Highway 120 is closed to Tuolumne Meadows. There is no vehicle access. If something happens to you between here and there, no one will be able to help you.” That sealed the deal. The tears wouldn’t stop, and I knew that it would be completely stupid for me to continue. Yet, Jesse and the two other hikers wanted to keep going. I told Jesse if he felt safe he should go ahead without me. Though we were hiking together, we planned to be self-sufficient with all of our own gear and food just in case something like this happened. I wanted him to keep going. We hugged goodbye, I wished them all luck, and we parted ways – them heading towards adventure and endless miles, and me heading back to Camp Curry to cry in a beer.
The hike back down to the valley was filled with defeat and smoke. I wrapped a bandana around my nose and mouth to try and minimize the smoke inhalation. When I reached Nevada Falls I had sparse cell service and called Michael, told him the bad news, and being the incredible man he is, he jumped back in the car right away for the 6 hour drive back to pick me up. I saw only a handful of people on the rest of the hike down. I passed a park ranger that was on her way up to Half Dome, she saw the tears and stopped to ask if I was okay. I told her what had happened, and she actually thanked me for making the right decision assuring me that it was not a safe situation for anyone to be hiking in – her parting words to me were “The trail will be here next year.” I held on to that.
Reaching the valley, there were rangers posted at the trailhead with warning signs that were encouraging hikers to turn around. The valley was an eerie ghost town. Usually bustling with enough people to annoy me, I was incredibly surprised to see essentially no one. I headed to the lounge in Curry Village to sit alone with my thoughts, and to wait the next 6 hours for my husband to get there. I felt incredibly defeated, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing just wasn’t meant to be. 2013 was not to be the year.
Michael got there around 6:00 and we drove as far as Fresno that night and got a hotel room. I was hacking up a lung the whole way. The severity of the smoke really hit me when I took a shower and the entire bathroom filled with the smell of mesquite barbecue. I smelled like I had literally been sitting in a barbecue pit or smoker for the past 24 hours. I’ve sat next to campfires many times, and you smell your clothes the next day and they smell of smoke…my hair smelled like smoke so bad that I needed to shampoo it 3 times to get rid of the smell. Thats when I realized how bad it was, and knew I did the right thing.
When I got back home, I debated getting back on the trail further south – but when it came down to it, I didn’t feel up to it. The wind-shift ended up lasting for only a few days, which was good to hear for my friends that were still out there, but also left me wondering if I could have made it (which is stupid to waste time thinking about). I got an acupuncture treatment for my lungs a week later that left me coughing uncontrollably for an hour afterward, detoxing my lungs and body. The following weekend I was feeling emotionally and physically better, and went up to Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon for 3 days of backpacking to get some the call of the Sierras out of my system. It was beautiful, crisp with fall in the air, and I managed to scratch an item off my bucket list of sleeping under a Giant Sequoia and waking in the morning to sit under it and read John Muir.
A few months later, the planning for my 2nd attempt on the John Muir Trail in 2014 began. And, yes, Jesse finished solo 2 weeks later!