The following is an excerpt from my John Muir Trail (JMT) journal. The John Muir Trail is traditionally hiked southbound and stretches 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. It passes through three national parks, climbs over nine major passes, rises up to the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and leads the backpacker up and down 47,000 feet of extreme changes in elevation. It is what backpackers deem the finest mountain scenery.
Pounds of Perseverance
I started hiking the John Muir Trail on July 31, 2014.Although I had planned this journey for months, nothing could prepare me for the erratic behaviors the Sierra Nevada Mountainshad in store. I come from sea level where the temperature never dips below 75 degrees and my version of a good lightning show is only accessible via YouTube. I later found out that no matter how much I planned the intricate details of this journey, the most important thing I could bring was an open mind and the ability to adapt.
People seemed alternatively envious and fearful of my fate on the JMT, as a solo female hiker, but I knew my physical and mental capabilities and was ready to go after the wilderness that John Muir has written about so fondly. After about a week on the trail, I was surprised to realize how seamlessly I’d fallen into my daily routine: hike, eat, sleep, repeat, with a few swims and a few new friends mixed in. The anticipation of a “huge mountain” approaching wasn’t so scary anymore, and they came and went with similar jagged granite switchbacks and achy feet each time. But that was before The Great Storm on the 11th day.
Three-one-thousand…four-one-thousand…five-one – CRACK!I shuttered and clutched my ears as the thunder echoed down the canyon. The thunder was chasing me. What once was a far off rumble had followed me closer and louder the past hour. But I was so close… within a mile of my end to an 18-mile long day. Don’t be so picky… you need to find a spot NOW! I said to myself as I felt the first raindrops on my face. I backtracked a hundred feet and ran down a hill to a decently flat spot amongst some small trees. Stay calm and just get your tent up, Sadie. I coached myself as the panic started creeping in. I haphazardly wedged my tent under a tree and jumped in with my pack. Everything was soaked at this point, but a sense of comfort came over me. Deep Breaths… you’re safe now. Safe. No one is safe out here. Especially when you are at 11,000 ft of elevation in the High Sierras in a thunderstorm. Safety is just a word that comforts the soul in times of terror in the Sierra Nevadas. The roar of hail pelting my tent interrupted that moment of comfort. I peeked through the netting to see frozen marbles beating down. What once was lush green was now quickly becoming a blanket of ice. I curled up in child’s pose on the cold, damp nylon floor of my shelter as I saw another flash out of the corner of my eye. One-one-thousand… two-one-thousand… thr—CRACK. Oh lord, it’s getting closer. Just stay calm… it will be over soon. Moments later…FLASH! One-one-th—CRACK! Oh god… this is the closest it’s ever been. I peeked out the netting again just as the lightning exploded the ground just hundreds of feet from my tent. FLASH! CRACK! BLAST! I cowered in a ball and clasped my hands over my ears. The clap of thunder sent a high-pitched bang into the sky and reverberated down the canyon while the ground rumbled below me. Adrenaline pumped through my veins and my heartbeat thumped audibly in my chest. I lay paralyzed on the floor for several minutes as many more strikes touched down and eventually the storm peaked and passed. The hail softened and tapered off over the next half hour before another wave of lightning came. The Great Storm (which clearly made a name for itself amongst the few who met it that day) had come quick butwith a vengeance and I had just nearly missed its fury. Hello High Sierra thunderstorm, it was an absolute terror to meet you.
Human persistence and perseverance is incredible. Yes, the weather was less than predictable this trip. But it doesn’t compare to the mind game and emotional stressors that came with it. When I was curled up in the fetal position while the deafening thunder clapped overhead I questioned everything in life. I gave up so many times in that tiny tent but somehow was able to sleep off the doubt and continue the next day only to be faced with morestorms for 10 days straight. “The worst weather in the 40 years I’ve hiked these mountains,” described Sam, a 69 year-old retired man on his 9th journey through the JMT. The doubt skyrocketed when I’d say bittersweet goodbyes to the trail-mates I’d met along the way, Sam included. The magnificent landscape was just too treacherous now for some to continue. I questioned if I should go on every single day. But the thru-hiking mentality is not one of “I need to go X miles tomorrow,” it’s a long-distance game to the finish. It takes endurance, flexibility and the objective mindset to take what may *look* like a step back (for rest-time or to let the storm pass) in order to make the rest of the thousands of steps ahead.
I completed my thru-hike (backcountry jargon for completing a long-distance hike in one trip) two weeks after The Great Storm on the top of Mt. Whitney at 7:00 am with 10 others whom I’d celebrated the breathtaking moments and endured the calamitywith; they were my family now and we stuck with it until the end. Many of us hiked solo, but we were never truly alone. We earned every mile of the John Muir Trail. Collectively, we mentally gave up hundreds of times during the storms, aches and pains, and bitter cold nights but all found a meager bit of internal fortitude to move on in the morning. We were all colors, ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes joined by a single commonalty; we survived the Sierra, together. No piece of fancy gear got us through the hailstorms, it was the ability to keep an open mind during times of adversity and embrace the grand power of the Sierra Nevadas in all her forms… that we surely did. Out there, we were the student to which Mother Nature spoke and she taught us just how small, and how great we are.
Maybe you are a fellow hiker. Maybe you are not. Regardless, I bet something drives you or draws you in. Whatever it is you want, you could be this uncompromising about the forward motion to achieve it. You can feel a clarity and purpose and innately believe that you are on the right track. My hope for all humans is that we will identify what we crave and move closer to it every day while ignoring the non-believers who think it’s too dangerous, messy or worthless to be passionate about. The journey may be even more beautiful than any reward.