Whenever I am talking to a small group, or even a single hiker, about a potential John Muir Trail hike, I know some of the same questions are going to come up. The bears are often the first concern. Those who are unfamiliar with the Sierra Nevada often are under the impression that they are lurking behind every tree and boulder, and that a substantial part of their diet is backpackers. After that, it’s not unusual to be asked if I carry a gun. Once we have those two out of the way, it’s not long until I start getting questions about exposure to heights – and, more specifically, falls. Just how bad is it out there on the trail? How often do hikers lose their balance, slip, windmill their arms, and tumble into an abyss, never to be seen again?
Relax. There is almost nothing to worry about.
The only place where you might find yourself getting a little uncomfortable, if heights tend to make you that way, is for about five to ten minutes coming down from Forester Pass (if you are hiking southbound). The trail there is wide and flat, and perhaps more importantly, never crowded. If you suffer from a bit of acrophobia, you can hug the inside of the trail and walk as slowly as you like, without fear of embarrassment. It will be over before the taste of that chocolate bar you ate at the top of the pass has left your mouth.
I said there is almost nothing to worry about. Should your plans to thru-hike the JMT include a side trip to the top of Half Dome, all bets are off. If you are even the slightest bit nervous around heights – and who isn’t – getting to the top of Half Dome is going to require that you get well out of your comfort zone. I have never seen a photograph of the climb up the cables that faithfully conveys the feeling one gets looking up that ascent. Furthermore, although fatalities are very rare, they are not unheard of.
The goods news is that you can arrive at the bottom of Half Dome, decide it isn’t your cup of tea, and still hike 100% of the John Muir Trail. Unlike Forester Pass, Half Dome is optional.
Good hiking, Ray