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 good 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
For me the orders of the questions were reversed. Undoubtedly, the first question I would get last year as I told family and friends about my summer plans, was about guns. And although, I like guns (what military guy doesn’t?) the extra weight, and of course the lack of utility on the trail for a weapon made it an easy decision to forego carrying…now another 3 hour wait in Richmond for Amtrak? Might make me reconsider and mail it back home from the post office at Yosemite this year…(Just kidding)…
I did see folks turn around on both the sub-dome and the cables last year…I talked to a couple of them and they were very upset…kind of disheartening to see….but if not comfortable with heights, people need to remember that this is not Disneyland….no harnesses, no tethers…Clint Eastwood was right…” a man has to know his limitations:”…
Thanks for the comment, Tim. I got to tell you, I gulped a few times before I made it up the cables the first time. It is intimidating!
Thanks for the article. I’ve wondered about the ledge walk down from Forrester (though we’ll be NOBO so that will be our first big climb). Your photo is probably the best one I’ve seen.
Thanks, John! I got lucky with the light. If you are going northbound you’ll be walking a little slower, which should make it even more benign.
Wow – great timing on this. My neurotic fear of heights (or more accurately, drops) was kicking in yesterday while looking at some snowy videos of that section of the JMT and the snow chute crossing. Edge-of-cliff walking and my back acting up (I herniated a disc the day I came off my last 10 day backpack) have been my 2 biggest worries. Now I can focus on my back.
Glad to hear you found the article somewhat comforting, and good luck with the back injury. Thanks!
Thanks for the article. Oddly enough, I was hoping for lots of photos of precarious footings near shear drop-offs. 🙂
There are plenty of opportunities for “hero” shots, Eric. I kind of like the one at the top of my twitter feed. Thanks for the comment!
In my experience, the trail to the top of Whitney was the most frightening.
That’s true. It has a little exposure, too. Thanks for the comment, Trinka.
When I did the southern portion of the JMT in 1980 the dreaded chute on the south side of Forester was snow and ice covered and was definitely frightening to me. Also portions of Trail Crest between Guitar Lake and the Whitney cutoff trail were very narrow and exposed (you didn’t mention Trail Crest at all – maybe that trail has changed since 1980?) I don’t remember being uneasy on the cutoff trail up to the top of Whitney. I may have been so oxygen-starved at that point that my memory was impaired…
Oh, and btw, that’s a great photo.
Another hiker mentioned the last couple of miles to Whitney, but I never felt it was much exposed. Perhaps it’s because each time I have been there it has been after 2 1/2 weeks of hiking, it’s the last day, and I’m kind of focused on the end. Thanks for the comment, Gail, and the kind words about the photo.
About that picture…
is that an overhang in the bottom left quadrant made of a bunch of small(ish…relatively) rocks wedged together, or an optical illusion?
No optical illusion, Bob, but I can assure you that it is quite safe. That is standard procedure in trail building. (Although, I might not want to be on it in an earthquake.)
Did the JMT SOBO for the first time last year. Your awesome pic was the hardest part of the trail for me by far! (Definitely did not do half dome!!) It’s the thought of falling and dying, not the heights itself. Fortunately the trail is wide enough and not that long across south of Forrester so I slowly traversed successfully–and what other option is there at this point? Trail Crest to the summit has a few spots as well but there are places in between to regroup and most of the way a slip would not mean death! The only other spot is the cable going up the switch backs section. There was ice there on our trip and the cables are precariously close to the edge–tough choice. Hope that helps another climber similar to me. Being able to see and read about this challenge beforehand was definitely a big plus for myself.
Thanks for the comment, Lee. I’ve slipped on that icey spot going down from trailcrest. There isn’t much exposure there, but it is treacherous, you’re right!
So how does the exposure on Forester Pass compare to the trail up Whitney?
…at least I have no fear of [but lots of respect for] bears – I’ll probably see more in my back yard in the next month than I’ll see on the trail.
Thanks for the question, Rick. In my opinion there is no significant exposure on the trail to the summit. Others may disagree, although I don’t think anyone would suggest that it is as exposed as the southern side of Forester Pass. You are certainly high on your way to Whitney, but there are no cliffs immediately off the trail (although you can find them if you are looking for them).
I’m hoping to hike the JMT, so this is good to know! 🙂 I feel like I would be crawling through the section in your photo, but if you say it’s not as bad as Half Dome, maybe we can do it! Although I’m not sure how we managed to make it up to Half Dome. I almost had a panic attack and turned back at sub-dome, and I’m not too eager to do it again. haha
Thanks for the comment, Esther. If you can handle half dome this will be no problem!