There are either eight, ten, or eleven John Muir Trail mountain passes, depending on how you count them. I tend to say eight, because that’s the number of major passes there are on the trail. They are: Donohue, Silver, Selden, Muir, Mather, Pinchot, Glen, and Forester. (You can check this out for more background on each.)
A thru-hiker will climb Cathedral Pass and Island Pass as well, but they are far less dramatic, and many hikers don’t even know when they’ve arrived at the top. Most of the major passes have signs announcing that you have reached the top—which are superfluous—while the minor passes go unsigned. That is too bad; a sign telling me where Cathedral and Island passes actually are would be useful!
The eleventh pass is Trail Crest, on the way down to Whitney Portal, after summiting Mount Whitney. Technically, it isn’t on the JMT.
Which brings me back to the big eight.
There are two primary strategies to get over them safely and with enough remaining energy to negotiate the sometimes just-as-difficult descent. I call them “Rest at the Bottom” and “Getting There Early.”
Rest at the Bottom. The primary objective of my first thru-hike was to finish. Sure, I intended to stay safe and leave no trace, but all other considerations were relegated to secondary importance compared to finishing the hike. With that in mind, and with the passes (especially the last four, which I would tackle in four consecutive days) casting a long shadow over my limited self-confidence, I was determined to give myself the best chance to make it over each pass.
That meant two things: sleep at as low an elevation as possible the night before, because, generally, the lower I slept the better I slept, and avoid climbing at the end of the day, when I was most spent. That’s exactly what I did. In all but two cases I spent the night before a pass at the lowest point within a day’s hike (for me).
This plan worked great! In each instance I made it over the passes handily. It was a great psychological boost to know that the afternoon miles were often going to be all downhill. The only drawback was that on a couple of occasions—Glen Pass and Forester Pass—I didn’t reach the top until early afternoon. Fortunately, the days were thunderstorm-free.
Getting There Early. My priorities for the second thru-hike were different. I knew that I could hike the miles; this time I was determined to enjoy the experience a little more. Part of “enjoying the experience a little more” was camping at spots that I had walked past the first time. Many of those spots, like Marie Lake and the Rae Lakes area, happened to be close to the tops of passes. With one thru-hike behind me, and with a little more self-confidence on this second trip, I decided that a climb in the afternoon, even if I was a bit worn out, wasn’t so bad. I even finished one day with the Golden Staircase!
The additional benefit was that I was off the pass early, which was good, because I had thunder, lightning, rain, and even some snow and hail the second time around.
Which way is right? I’d be hard pressed to call either one “wrong.” Still, next year, you’ll find me at the top of the major passes early in the day. At least for me, getting to the top early is the way to go.
Good hiking, Ray