At about 7:20 a.m., on Thursday, September 12th, 2013, I walked the last few feet of the John Muir Trail and reached the summit of Mount Whitney. It was the end of a trip that began at Happy Isles.
Reaching the summit was a different experience than the first time. On that day, in September of 2009, it was sunny, clear and crowded. This year it was cloudy, cold (there was snow and ice on the trail), and at no time (while I was there) were there more than four people loitering about.
But it wasn’t just the last day that was different; the entire hike was. Over the next few months, interspersed with our normal John Muir Trail news and information, I’ll try to describe the lessons learned this time around.
It’s not hard to decide where to begin. This second thru-hike was tough—very tough—and I attribute my difficulty almost solely to one factor: pack weight.
Prior to this hike I was more than a little skeptical of the significance of pack weight. My skepticism had several sources.
First was my personal experience that the backpack, no matter how heavy it is, tends to “disappear” after a few days. It’s still heavy to lift, but modern backpacks are terrific at distributing the weight as you walk, whether they weigh twenty pounds, or forty.
Second, I was influenced by a number of other hikers who downplayed the value of low pack weight. I found many of their arguments persuasive.
I also did a poor job of planning and preparing for this hike. In the eight weeks before I began the hike a number of unscheduled and unforeseen distractions popped up, including a to-good-to-pass opportunity to buy a home near the Sierra Nevada, and an unexpected, week-long, business trip. I wasn’t as thorough and thoughtful as I should have been and I ended up paying the price.
The best evidence of that? The FIRST time I weighed my pack was when I exited the wilderness at Whitney Portal. I had no water in the pack, and for reasons I’ll explain later, I had no food, either. The pack weight: forty-three pounds, not including my boots and the clothes I wore.
So, how did an extra eighteen pounds make this hike different? Two ways.
First, I was slow—really slow, particularly uphill. I’m already a slow hiker, but with more than fifty pounds on my back (with food and water) my pace was glacial. The last stretch up my old nemesis, Glen Pass, was excruciating. Not only was my cadence like that of a funeral march, my stride was so short that my heel barely cleared the toe of my opposing foot.
It was occasionally even worse going downhill, especially where there were steps or rocks that made watching one’s step a must.
The other big difference was the effect on my legs. Two-and-a-half weeks after I’ve left the trail I can still feel the fatigue, wear, and tear during my morning walks. On the trail it meant less energy at campsites to explore.
So, what are the lessons I’ve learned? Next week I’ll discuss some of my poorer gear choices and offer some better alternatives.
Good hiking, Ray