The most dangerous part of any John Muir Trail thru-hike is the drive to the trailhead. The wilderness in general has far fewer hazards than your average freeway, and – unlike on the interstate – if you avoid gross lapses of judgment you can almost guarantee your survival. (On the road, you also have to contend with the gross lapses of judgement of others.) But, even in The Gentle Wilderness (as the Sierra Nevada is known), you can get yourself into trouble.
In the summer of 2005 Hyundo Ahn decided to hike the John Muir Trail as part of a last, great adventure before returning to the Republic of Korea; he was a UC Davis exchange student whose time in the United States was coming to an end. He picked up a wilderness permit in the valley on Monday, June 20. Despite the heavy snow that year that lingered well into July, Ahn had planned to hike at an ambitious pace. He seemed “real confident” and listed an exit date, from Whitney Portal, of July 1. That meant he had to average more than twenty miles per day, which is a quick pace in the best of conditions.
After the hike he intended to spend a few weeks touring the states before departing on July 21 for South Korea. He missed his flight that day, and after some investigation, no one could confirm that he had ever exited the wilderness. Yosemite National Park was notified immediately.
Calls to several hundred wilderness permit holders revealed that he had been seen within the park on June 22 and 25. Any hiker who intended to summit Mount Whitney eleven days after departing Happy Isles would be more than seventy miles south of the border of Yosemite on July 25, not still within its confines. No one had seen him since.
By the end of July, the search for Ahn had been scaled back considerably.
On August 5, a search team found his backpack near Pywiack Cascade (see red arrow, above) on Tenaya Creek. That is more than two miles from the closest point along the John Muir Trail, across rugged terrain. The next day his body was found in the creek, about a mile downstream. It had probably been submerged until the waters had receded just a few days earlier.
How a JMT hiker could end up where Ahn was found is quite the mystery. The Cloud’s Rest (see blue arrow, above) trail is a popular alternate route, but it would presumably had even more snow than the standard route along Sunrise Creek. A camera found led investigators to believe than Ahn died on June 26th – just a day after he was seen by other hikers. It also appeared that Ahn had either attempted to cross the creek, or had fallen into it, and had been swept away and battered by the current.
Even with this little data, it seems reasonable to conclude that Ahn’s attempted JMT thru-hike would probably been successful had it not been for the snow. The snow likely forced him off the putative routing, which led to a series of unfortunate decisions culminating at the bank of Tenaya Creek.
Early season John Muir Trail hikers should not consider the presence of snow as a reason to necessarily abandon the hike, but one must be ready for the added difficulty, particularly as it applies to navigation.
Good hiking, Ray