Sunday, September 1, 2013

You're backpacking the John Muir Trail? You're how old?

heading towards Donahue Pass
approaching Glen Pass
 Every once in a while we meet some young men on the trail - 30ish, and they go on and on about how great it is that we are out on the trail. We have figured out that they think we are old and thus a novelty. We thought we were just other hikers, participating in what we sometimes look at as an extreme sport. Hiking and backpacking are one of the few areas where I can talk the usual trail topics, gear, food, weather, and feel like any other hiker. I guess we will have to live with being categorized by a few. At 72 and 77, we may be getting past middle age.

viewing Rae Lakes
We see our older friends beginning to be impacted by aging, so that threat is always out there. As a consequence, each of our trips over the last few years is an intentional pushing of our personal envelope. How else do we find our limits? This does lead to making mid trip changes to adapt to the circumstances. For the most part, age seems to be a factor mainly in resiliency - a ten mile segment of trail over rough terrain and always above 10,000 feet elevation, with several thousand feet of ascent and descent - is a demanding day for anyone, but we can do it. The difference is in how fast we could do it again (no, this post is not about sex). When we get to the planned end of day spot, and find that going a couple of miles further would be better, it is a little more difficult than
it once was. As a trip approaches, friends will ask " aren't you excited about your trip?". While we are looking forward to it, the more accurate feeling is hope and trepidation. Hoping that things will go well, concern about finding a new limit. However, we presist.

So, to the trip. Plan A - do the John Muir Trail in 20 walking days (216 miles of wilderness, mostly above 10,000 feet, a food drop resupply at the four day point, and the ten day point, with a layover day in a cabin at the ten day point. Our daily schedule was ambitious - 11 to 12 miles per day, and \meeting it took us all day, 8am to 6pm. At day seven at 4pm, we still had a 2000 foot climb and then a descent, to stay on schedule. Obviously we were going to miss our cabin reservation and layover day, so executed plan B - hike out to Vermillion Valley Resort, and through a combination of shuttle services and car rentals, drive several hundred miles to recover our car from the start point, drive home and regroup.

Upper Basin
Plan B continues - about six days later we were on the trail again. This time headed north, from Kearsarge Pass to Piute Pass. This trail is by permit only, and our only choice was this northbound route. The plan was ten days, and slightly fewer miles per day. Some thunder and lightning the first day, but only after we were over the entry pass, so no risk. As we continued north, the southbound hikers we met kept telling us about the four days of terrible storms, trapping them in their tents most of the time. We started feeling a little better about giving up our original plan. Our trip stayed problem free, other than the occasional Men are from Mars, Women from Venus discussions about risk assessment on possible scenarios of weather variations. Likely probability is not a useful argument against such things as "what if there is a freak storm and we are trapped by snow out here?".

Plan C was used to end the trip. I had one of the last Plan B days set to cross a high pass in late afternoon. Not a good idea under any circumstances, and possibly fatal if an afternoon lightning storm occurs. That morning the sky was dark and cloudy, and worsened as the day went on, so we went out by an alternate route with a sheltered area to camp, and crossed the alternate pass the next morning under clear skies.

Hints, Tips and Factoids

In no particular order, things we did, learned, that may help others.

Spot Phone: We had a satellite phone, loaned to us for testing purposes by Spot LLC, the company the makes the popular Spot emergency signaler and tracking device. This worked for us in areas where no cell service was available. I did find that it accidentally got turned on several times, using up battery power, so if I took it again, I would remove the battery except when making a call. I will do a separate post on the phone at some point.

Phone business card: I made a two sided Word document where the content was the size of a business card - 2.5 in margins, centered, about 6 phone numbers on each side. I had the various emergency service numbers on one side, and the personal phone numbers on the other. I covered each side with clear plastic wrapping tape, and cut it to the size of a business card. That way I had a waterproof document stored right with the phone, both in a ziplock bag.

Infection: This is a scary thing. It can kill you in about four days. Susan had an issue with her ankle and shin a couple of years ago in France. We didn't know it was an infection until we saw a doctor at the end of day two. Never found the entry source of infection, but antibiotics cured it. This trip we met a man who's wife had just been airlifted out, delirious, and a temperature of 105 F. This was from badly infected blisters. Another four to twelve hours delay, and she would have died. With any sort of wound, be alert for signs of infection, puffiness, redness, pain, keep it flushed out with water, soak in hot (not scalding) water every couple of hours if available, and get medical attention if it worsens. Have a way of estimating a person's temperature. Find Jim Hansen's post in Facebook's John Muir Trail group.

Altimeter Watch: I carried a gps on this trip, but only turned it on once. What I relied on was the altimeter  watch. Elevation was usually sufficient to pinpoint a place of interest. Even if not calibrated exactly, very useful for measuring the amount of ascent or descent.

basic e-ink Kindle: I carry this on most trips, with lots of useful documents. However, during Plan A part of trip, had it packed in the backpack flat against the back. This cracked the screen, making it unusable. I have learned since that the e-ink Kindles are very sensitive to any sort of bending. The screen is extremely fragile and cannot be bent or pressed in any way. So, pad it well. I did, by the way, replace the screen successfully. Googled for replace Kindle screen and found as well as
Ordered the replacement screen from China - AliExpress. The Youtube version was the most helpful.

Condensation:  We have a single wall tent, and on three different nights the condensation was dripping off the top several hours after we had gone to bed. Used a pack towel to wipe it down several times during the night, and by 3am, the remainder had frozen, so stopped dripping. I used to carry a small sponge for this purpose, and it worked better than the pack towel.

Footwear: Most people on the JMT were wearing boots, but we had our usual trail runners, and think they worked better than boots for traction, and as good as boots for walking on those paths of small boulders that sometimes make up the trail surface.

Hiking Poles: I again managed to break one of my Black Diamond Ultra Distance fixed length poles, but still swear by them and have ordered a replacement.

Warm Gloves: I didn't bring any, so constantly borrowed Susan's for those cold mornings when I was up making the coffee and tea.

Fleece Socks: I wore these most nights, but they wouldn't warm up feet if I went to bed cold - had to warm feet with hands first, then put on socks.

Packa: The Packa "pocket" was too small to fit my pack with the bear canister on top, so had to revert to using a pack cover. If I were to do much more hiking with a bear canister, I would order a custom Packa to fit, as that protects the pack better than a pack cover.

Maps: I had both the Tom Harrison JMT map pack, as well as the Eric the Black booklet. Eric's maps were slightly larger scale, and had water sources and campsites marked on them, so were useful. The map pack covered a larger area, so was also useful. We had the Elisabeth Wenk book on the Kindle, so just a printout of her list of data points (campsites, etc with utm coordinates) for the Plan B part of the trip.

Pee Container: On nights when cold or inclement weather make it difficult to leave the tent, a quart yogurt container with lid, or its sturdier rigid Ziploc equivalent can save the day. You just have to stick an arm out of the tent and toss, (keeping in mind what is in the direction you are tossing).

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