Recently in JMT Category


September 20, 2009

Transportation to and from the JMT seems like a perennial problem for people. The basic issue here is that JMT is a point-to-point trip and so if you want to drive, you end up leaving your car at Whitney or Yosemite. Here are your major logistical options:
  1. Get someone to drop you off and pick you up.
  2. Drop your car off at the finish and have someone shuttle you to the start. I suppose you could do the reverse too.
  3. Take mass transit to the start and back from the end.
  4. Drive to the start and take mass transit back.

The first two options require having friends, so I was left with the second two. I originally intended to take mass transit both ways, but due to an airline scheduling screwup (details here), I didn't have time to take transit and had to drive out to Yosemite. I figured that maybe I could bum a ride back from Whitney from some other hikers and in the worst case, I could take transit back.

I really do mean the worst case here, since the transit situation is pretty grim. The nearest trailhead to Whitney is at Whitney Portal, which is basically just a parking lot, campground, and store in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town to Whitney Portal is Lone Pine, 11 miles away. The official story about getting from Lone Pine to Yosemite Valley is that you take CREST from Lone Pine to Mammoth (leaves Mon, Tue, Thur, Fri at 6:15 AM, arrives Mammoth at 8:20 AM). You then take YARTS from Mammoth to Yosemite Valley (leaves 7:00 AM, arrives 10:55 AM). Yes, you're reading that right: CREST arrives in Mammoth 80 minutes after YARTS leaves for Yosemite. Now, I've never personally been to Mammoth and I hear it's kind of nice, but after a couple of weeks on the trail, I suspect most people are ready to get home—I know I was—so this doesn't seem like a real attractive prospect, and I went looking for alternatives. First, I'll tell you what I did and then I'll tell you what I probably should have done.

You may have noticed that I've left something out of our little trip. When you get off the trail you're still stuck at Whitney Portal and you need to get to Lone Pine. There are shuttle services, but really this part is pretty simple; the road to Whitney Portal (cleverly named Whitney Portal Road) from 395 runs right through the center of Lone Pine, so more or less anyone leaving Portal is going to go to Lone Pine. A decent fraction of them have room in their cars and are happy to pick up backpackers, so hitch-hiking this section is easy. That said, I was hoping that I could get a ride to Yosemite or Mammoth from someone who was executing the aforementioned option 2. I hadn't met anyone who fit the bill, but I figured some people might come off the trail so I made a "Yosemite/Mammoth" sign and stood by the exit to Portal for an hour or so. After about 10 people had stopped and offered to take me to Lone Pine, I got the idea, put down my sign and stuck out my thumb and got a ride within 5 minutes.

This got me as far as the Whitney Portal Hostel, but again I was hoping to avoid two overnights (one in Lone Pine and one in Mammoth). One of the other people staying at the hostel suggested I try hitchhiking [remember, 395 is the main strip in Lone Pine]. After a few minutes with my sign, I ran into a woman pushing her kid in a stroller who said that her family was driving to Tuolumne the next morning and they could probably take me. After some negotiation with her and her husband, we were on. I met them at their hotel the next morning and they dropped me off at the Tuolumne store around 11 AM. Now remember, I really wanted to be in Yosemite Valley, which isn't exactly an easy walk from Tuolumne. Luckily, there is a bus that leaves from the store at 2:15. This isn't a a terrible option but it still leaves me sitting around for three hours, so I figured why not try to hitch it the rest of the way? Five minutes with a marker and a cardboard box and I had a new sign and was standing out on the road. A few minutes later, another hiker who had come off JMT the same day as I had walked over. She helped me improve my sign (with a better pen) and we chatted as people drove by without picking me up. After 45 minutes or so a van full of Italian tourists (I hear Europeans are better about this than Americans) came by and picked us both up, taking us to one of the Valley parking lots by around 2 PM. From there, you can take a quick shuttle to the trailhead parking and your car.

Anyway, what I learned from the other hiker was this: don't take the bus to Mammoth. Instead, take the same bus all the way to Lee Vining (a town right near Tioga Pass and the entrance to Yosemite). Because Lee Vining is more or less at the intersection of 395 and 120, it's easy to hitch a ride from people driving into Yosemite from the East Side; she said that she spent about 5 minutes waiting before she had a ride into Tuolomne. Even if you can't hitch a ride, the worst case scenario is that you take the same YARTS bus the next morning into Yosemite Valley, so aside from having to spend the night in exciting Lee Vining instead of Mammoth, you're no worse off. Of course, this advice only makes sense if you don't mind hitch-hiking; I usually wouldn't be willing to, but it's common enough near Yosemite that you don't have to feel too awkward and I generally feel like I can take care of myelf. Your mileage may of course vary.

UPDATE: The CREST bus arrives in Mammoth after, not before the YARTS bus leaves. Thanks to Eu-Jin Goh for pointing this out.


September 10, 2009

I've finally managed to get my JMT trail pictures up. You can find the gallery here. Each picture has meta-data indicating when it was taken, so you can work out some of it by reference to my itinerary, except that all the dates are off by one day (i.e., the pictures allegedly taken on the 14th were really on the 13th). I was just shooting semi-randomly, but here are some good ones if you're short on time:


September 7, 2009

Brett Maune just shattered the unsupported JMT speed record, going from Whitney Portal to Happy Isles in 3 days, 14 hours and 13 minutes. By the way this also breaks the supported record, held by Sue Johnston.

September 5, 2009

Probably the two pieces of backpacking gear where fit is most important are your pack and whatever you wear on your feet. In both cases, the gear is an interface between your body and a heavy load, so it's important to have something that works for you or you're likely to end up in serious discomfort. Back in the old days, everyone used to wear hiking boots but as lightweight backpacking has started to take off, it's become a lot more popular (and more practical) to wear something lighter, generally some sort of trail runner. I've always worn hiking boots but this time I decided to transition to trail runners. Since I already had experience with them, I decided to go with Inov-8 Roclite 295s. I've worn these for plenty of trail miles and I know they fit well and are comfortable, though they wear fast, so I bought a new pair and just lightly broke them in before my trip.

I had two major concerns about transitioning to a trail shoe: ankle protection and water resistance. One of the claimed benefits of a hiking boot is that the high top protects your ankles, but after my most recent trip to Emigrant Wilderness, my ankles were still pretty beat up in my boots so I figured trail shoes weren't likely to be much worse. A few short hikes with them seemed to confirm that. My second concern was water resistance. Like many hiking boots, mine are Gore-Tex lined and so waterproof at least until you step into water above the top of the boot. The Inov-8s are largely mesh and so not water resistant at all. I considered getting a Gore-Tex trail shoe, but the problem with those is that they don't drain and since a low shoe increases the chance you'll step into water above the top of the shoe, I figured better to have mesh shoe that drains fast. I also brought a pair of VFFs for stream crossings and use as a camp shoe.

As far as socks go, standard procedure is to wear two pairs: a liner sock and a thick hiking sock, but with a shoe this light I decided to skip that and just wear Injinji Tetrasoks. I've worn these for plenty of runs and races and know they're comfortable and wanted to give my feet some space to breathe. I initially brought two pairs of Injinjis and one of hiking socks as a backup, but I never wore the hiking socks and traded them in for Injinjis at Muir Trail Ranch.

Overall, this system worked out moderately well. While I was initially worried about the water issue, it turned out not to be a problem. On day 4 or so I stepped ankle deep in a stream and it just turned out not to be that bad. My feet dried quickly and I was comfortable enough that I didn't feel like I needed a water shoe. Unlike other trips I've done, my feet didn't feel horribly beaten up at the end of the day and I found myself just wearing the Inov-8s without socks and unlaced to walk around camp. I never wore the VFFs and when I got to Muir Trail Ranch I shipped them home: no point in carrying an extra 300g of useless shoe. The Injinjis got dirty fast but I was able to wash them in streams and keep them from getting too filthy.

I said I was reasonably comfortable, but I did experience two problems. First, by day 7 or so, due to some combination of rocky terrain forcing constant pronation and supination, fatigue, and maybe just being poked by the occasional rock was starting to wear on me and the outside of both feet started to hurt in mid-metatarsal. I was worried this would be trip-ending but keeping a high load of naproxen and wrapping a couple of strips of tape around each foot seemed to relieve the pain enough that I only got occasional twinges if I really stepped wrong. This was uncomfortable but not fatal and after the 9th day I was no longer seriously worried about this killing the trip—two weeks later my right foot still hurts though, so I'll have to see how long it takes to recover. It's hard to know if this would be a problem in hiking boots, since it only happened after a week or so and I've never been out that long before.

The second problem is that the Injinjis wear fast and by days 9 and 10 the pair I was wearing had gotten so threadbare that I got a blister on the ball of my right foot. This was my only blister the entire trip and I just drained it and kept going, so overall this was very minor. Still, it serves as a reminder that you need to pay attention to your sock wear and in the future I might bring one more extra pair of socks.

All things considered, I don't think I'd go back to boots. They're less comfortable for short trips at least and the weight penalty is just too extreme. However, I might try out other trail shoes or experiment to see why I started to develop foot problems towards the end. I should also mention that I beat up the Inov-8s pretty badly—200-300 miles is about normal for a trail shoe and the soles on these had worn pretty far down and the synthetic leather part of the uppers was starting to peel off the mesh. I suspect another week and they might have started to fall apart on me. Even as things were, I had to replace the Engo patches that stopped me from getting heel blisters. I'm not complaining here: it's just something you would need to keep an eye on if you were doing a lot of backpacking in lightweight shoes.


August 30, 2009

Behind "what did you eat", "where do you get water" is one of the big questions you get. On the JMT and in the Sierras in general, the answer is "everywhere". I only remember a few stretches of the JMT over 5 miles without some source of water (lake, creek, river, etc.) And for the few stretches where there isn't water, you just need to know in advance and tank up. I carried three water containers: an empty quart-size Gatorade bottle and two 2 liter Platypus canteens, but never carried more than 3 liters of water, even for the dry stretches; if you're moving at 2 miles/hr, then you really only need about 3 liters even for a 5 mile stretch, since you can't absorb more than about 1l/hr.

This is only a partial answer, though, since it's not considered a great idea to drink untreated surface water (though see this article). There are three basic treatment options:

  • Chemical treatment (e.g., iodine, chlorine)
  • Water filters
  • Electronic devices (steripen, miox)

The idea with chemical treatment is simple: you fill your containers, drop the chemicals into them, mix, and wait. Old-style chemical treatment really was terrible: it was slow and left a bad aftertaste. Things have gotten a lot better, though. The best chemica treatment is probably Aquamira, which works in 15 minutes and leaves only a very minimal aftertaste. I've used Aquamira drops, which require mixing from two bottles, but Aquamira also comes in tablet form which I'm informed by friends is more convenient. The big advantage of chemical treatment is that it's ultralight. The disadvantage is that it's slow and can be problematic with marginal water sources: if the water is cloudy you need to prefilter it to remove as much of the particulates as you can. If you are trying to get water out of a shallow stream, you also can have trouble getting your container to actually fill. Finally, it's still annoying to have to wait 15 minutes to drink.

The other traditional alternative is water filters: your typical filter is a pump attached to some sort of filtration element. You drop the input hose in the water and attach the output hose to your bottles. When you pump, the water is forced through the filter and into your bottles. The big advantage of a filter is that it's fast, can work even with very shallow water (since it's a pump), and removes all particulates. Of course, if the water is really dirty, the filter can clog, but the better filters are pretty good about this. Many of them come with prefilters that will remove most of the larger particulates. You can also get two kinds of non-pump filters: small filters that fit over the mouth of a water bottle (this only seems suitable for very limited circumstances) and bag filters (e.g., the ULA Amigo). I've seen the Amigo in action but never tried it myself so can't vouch for it. The big disadvantage of filters is weight: the overall weight of my filter (I use a Katadyn Hiker Pro) is 440g.

The newer alternative is electronic purifiers. These come in two varieties: ultraviolet irradiators (Steripen) and electrolytic (MIOX). [As far as I can tell the MIOX is just making chlorine dioxide, the active ingredient in Aquamira, electrolytically.] Of these two, the Steripen looks better: it's more convenient and seems faster (about 1-2 minutes). I'm not sure I see a huge benefit here: they're both a lot heavier than Aquamira and have a lot of the same drawbacks in terms of marginal water sources that any chemical system has.

I currently use a Katadyn Hiker Pro, and carry Aquamira as backup. The difference between the Hiker and the Hiker Pro is that the Pro has quick connect hose fittings, which is somewhat more convenient. I also bought a Platypus Filter Link so I can pump right into my Platypus containers. This works well, except that there's no vent in the Filter Link, so when you get to the very top of the container, you start to get air back pressure. This seems like it would be fixable by punching an air hole.


August 27, 2009

Some sort of shelter is one of the "big three" heavy backpacking items (the other two are backpack and sleeping bag). Traditionally, of course, this means a tent, but some ultralight backpackers have started to go with some even more lightweight options, such as tarps (see for instance: Tarptent). Tarp construction varies, but at a high level they're single-wall tents with various degrees of full enclosure. A lot of them save weight by using a trekking pole as a tent pole, thus avoiding the need to carry a separate pole. With this technique you can get a single-person shelter for around 20 oz (assuming you're using trekking poles anyway).

I don't use trekking poles myself, and my personal preference is for an ultralight tent: the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1. The Fly Creek UL1 is a double wall tent: an ultralight mostly mesh bag held up by a single pole and then a separate rain fly. The entire apparatus weighs 1.04 kg (2 lbs, 5 oz) including stuff sacks, stakes, etc. [Big Agnes lists this as 2 lbs, 3 oz, but my scale gives the above number]. It's nominally freestanding, but as a practical matter you at minimum want to stake out the foot of the tent, since there's only a single pole running to the foot the corners tend to flop in otherwise. In addition, if it's cold you need to be careful about how you stake out the rain fly: unless you guy it out especially in the vestibule, you don't get adequate ventilation and there's a lot of condensation inside the tent—I've seen this happen with my Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 as well. In addition, if you just leave the vestibule slack you get a lot of draft. So, finding a site where you can put the stakes in can be a little tricky. The other minor issue is that the tent only has 38" of headroom so I at least can't sit up straight except in one location and even then I suspect I'm a little bent over. On the other hand, you don't really want to spend that much time in your tent.

If set up properly, the Fly Creek UL1 does a great job of keeping you warm and dry. The next to last day of my JMT trip it started to rain right after I got to Guitar Lake at 3ish and kept going for the next 11 hours or so. I stayed in the tent warm and dry pretty much the whole time and slept well. The two guys next to me were in tarp tents (not sure which model) and complained that they had a lot of wind and rain intrusion (I think due to the requirement to keep some openings for ventilation) and that they were extremely cold and wet and didn't really sleep at all. Seems like that difference was worth a few ounces and I saw other people ogling my Big Agnes.

I should mention that on about day 8 (probably the 9th day I'd used the tent) I went to stow it in the stuff sack and the top 3-4" of the stuff sack tore almost completely off (there's a seam running down one side and that didn't tear). This doesn't affect the functionality of the tent—it's just the stuff sack—but it's a minor inconvenience. I've contacted BA and they're sending me a new stuff sack.


August 26, 2009

Probably the first question you get asked about a long backpacking trip is "what do you eat?" This is definitely a central concern, since you obviously need to eat and food often makes up between 1/4 and 1/2 of the mass you're carrying. First, some constraints:
  • The nominal human caloric requirement is something like 2000 Cal/day, but more if you're exercising. Different people require radically different amounts of food depending on their metabolism, how fast they're going, how much weight they're carrying, etc. Backpackers probably aim for more like 3000 Cal/day, but you need to learn how much you personally need.
  • You want your food to be as light as possible. Carbohydrates and protein provide 4 Cal/gram and fat provides 9 Cal/gram. Water in the food costs as does fiber and other non-energetic components.
  • You probably need around 1g protein per gram of body mass per day.
  • In areas where there are bears (the Sierras definitely have bears) you need to store all your food so bears can't get at it. In some areas you can hang your food from trees, but it's better to use a bear canister, which is basically a big plastic bin. I use the Bearvault, shown below. For JMT, bear canisters are basically required. This creates a new constraint: food must also be compact in order to fit into the canister. Note that the canister itself weighs on the order of 2.5 lbs, so that's a substantial cost in and of itself. On the other hand, it's not like you're not going to bring food at all!

Within those constraints, you can more or less do whatever you want and there is a lot of variation. Lots of people use the traditional freeze-dried backpacker meals, especially for dinner. From one another hiker, I heard the legend of a Pacific Crest Trail (Mexico to Canada) thru-hiker who eats couscous and textured vegetable protein cooked in a plastic bag on the top of his pack by the heat of the sun during the day.

Another important factor here is palatability. You could of course load up your pack with dog chow (approximately 4 Cal/g) and eat that for every meal, but you'd probably get tired of that pretty quickly. There are plenty of trail stories of people who just packed the equivalent of dog chow (e.g., trail mix) and then tired of it 3-4 days out and were reduced to begging passersby for something different. Confounding the palatability issue, a lot of people lose appetite after long days of effort as well as at high altitude, and what you want to eat in those circumstances may vary. A lot of people also report losing their appetite initially and then regaining it with force after 4-5 days, which complicates resupply (more on this in a bit). Finally, you have to decide if you want to cook. Most people do, but the stove does weigh something, and then you need a pot to boil water in, plus the fuel, and so you're talking somewhere on the order of 250-600g, which isn't insignificant. My experience on recent trips in the sierras has been that I wasn't hungry for freeze-dried dinners after a long day and I don't much care if things are hot, so I just decided to take cold food this time.

As a practical matter, you can't take enough food for 11 days, so nearly everyone does one or more food resupply drops. I did mine at the Muir Trail Ranch.

My initial plan was as follows:

Meal Food Quantity  Calories
Breakfast  Granola 60g 294
Lunch Triscuits 56g 265
Almonds 56g 376
Snacks Granola 60g 294
Clif bars 3 783
Dinner Triscuits 74g 395
Peanut Butter  64g 400
Jerky 56g 146
Chocolate chips/m&ms  30g 152
Fun size snickers 2 ??

I packed all this stuff (except the clif bars and the peanut butter) into individual ziploc bags inside one quart-sized ziploc bag per day. The idea here is that you just pull out today's bag and you're good for the rest of the day. I also brought an extra day's food bag for backup.

This plan disintegrated really fast. Let's start with the triscuits. My general thought was that they were flavorful, salty, and crunchy, etc. so this would work out, but unfortunately while this is fine at home in front of the tube, on the trail, it's more like you're eating sand and you just have to shove it down. I only managed to choke down the full dinner portion of triscuits once or twice. Now for the jerky: I generally like TJ's beef jerky (teriyaki flavor) but I decided to mix it up a little bit and buy different flavors and somehow whenever I pulled out a dinner bag I got some disgusting flavor. The only ones that I concluded I could tolerate were the teriyaki and some spicy/peppery flavor. Also, jerky requires a huge amount of chewing, and this isn't really consistent with the objective of just getting calories in, especially when you're not really hungry in the first place.

Finally, there's the peanut butter; from a palatibility perspective it was fine, but from a dispensing perspective, a disaster. I packed it in these squeeze tubes, but they're pretty useless. I put chunky peanut butter in one and then when I went to squeeze it out, I got a small bit out and then it just clogged. When I squeezed harder, the plastic clip popped off the end and getting back on didn't really work out—I think it was broken somehow. The clip on the other tube actually broke before I left, so basically a bust. At the resupply point, I threw away the tubes and just packed the peanut butter into a ziploc bag, but this didn't really work any better, since you can't get it out with a spoon without making a huge mess. [And remember you don't want to get covered with PB since then bears think you smell like food.] Like I said, a bust.

So, the bottom line here is that I brought way too much food and had to do a bunch of re-sorting out at the resupply point. What I eventually settled on was something more like this:

Meal Food Quantity  Calories
Breakfast  Clif bar 1 240
Almonds 56g 376
Snacks Granola 60g 294
Clif bars 2 783
Dinner Triscuits 56g 265
Peanut Butter  64g 400
Jerky 56g 146
Chocolate chips/m&ms  30g 152
Fun size snickers 2 ??

Note that we've lost about 650 Cal here, so that's a pretty significant change, and even then I was really having to shove food down and often only ate like half my jerky or something. I wasn't wearing a power meter or anything, but at this point it's clear I was at a significant caloric deficit; at the end of the trip I had lost about 10 lbs even though I had a fair amount of food left in my pack and wasn't really ever feeling hungry.

Three other points that deserve making:

  • I deliberately deemphasized (yes, 3/day is deemphasized) energy bars even though I eat a lot of them during training. The theory here was that for the long term I should actually eat, you know, food. This was a mistake. I had energy bars left at the end but they were the thing I liked the best—probably because they're sweet—and I would have been better subbing them for some of the more food-type food.
  • I brought about 6-8 energy gels on the theory that I might need the occasional fast burst of energy to get over some pass (and this helped with Forester Pass and Mount Whitney), but I only ate a total of 2 gels. This isn't a big deal, but they're the only food I brought that contains a lot of water, so there is a weight penalty here.
  • One of the better moves I made was to bring a few packets of Propel powder. At altitude and in the heat you need to consume a lot of water, but it also gets boring because it's tasteless [this is part of why Gatorade was invented]. Propel is just flavoring, so it's super-light, and mixing up a bottle of flavored water occasionally can make it much easier to rehydrate.

All in all, though, my food seems to have worked out pretty well. Given that I didn't want to eat at all, it was always going to be an exercise in forced caloric input, and since I managed to get enough calories in without vomiting I guess you could call it success.


August 25, 2009

Sorry for the unadvertised absence but I've been gone hiking the Appalachian Trail John Muir Trail.

Here's the executive summary: the JMT starts at Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley and nominally goes to the summit of Mount Whitney, 211 (208? It's remarkably hard to get accurate numbers here) miles away. Because there's no road that goes to the top of Whitney, you then need to hike out to the trailhead at Whitney Portal, for a total distance of 218 (222?) miles. I left Yosemite at about 10 AM August 13th and arrived at Whitney Portal at about 2 PM August 23rd. More specifically:

Day  Camp Site Distance  Cumulative
1 Upper Cathedral Lake 17 17
2 After Donohue Pass 20 37
3 Reds Meadow 21 59
4 Squaw Lake Outlet 21 79
5 South of Selden Pass 24 103
6 Sapphire Lake 21 124
7 Upper Palisade Lakes 22 146
8 North of Glen Pass 22 168
9 Tyndall Creek Crossing  21 187
10 Guitar Lake 16 203
11 Exit 15 218

Note: numbers are approximate and don't include detours, places where I accidentally went off the trail for a little bit, etc. The cumulative and distance numbers don't add up perfectly due to round off error.

It's traditional, I suppose, to do some sort of day by journal, but honestly you don't want to read that "Day 5: walked another 20 miles. Ate another 9 PowerBars. Stunning scenery. Very tired." More interesting, I think, is to talk a bit about planning, gear, logistics, etc., so I'll be doing some of that over the next few days. I'll also post some more pictures once I get them uploaded, sorted, etc.