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Part 2: Finally Hiking the John Muir Trail at Age 50

My hike of California's 211-mile John Muir Trail was a long time coming. Some 30 years long, in fact, thanks to the life changes I shared in my previous REI Blog post.

Curt at Mt. WhitneyRewind to when I started backpacking in the late 1970s: Back then, my hiking boots weighed more than a modern ultra-lighter's entire load. My camera used a thing called "film." There was no such thing as the "internet," and an apple was simply a fruit that you ate daily to keep the doctor away.

My last experience hauling a backpack was sometime around 1983 on an ill-fated and poorly planned trip to Clouds' Rest at Yosemite National Park. My summer sleeping bag and lack of a pad left me freezing all night long on the cold ground. That meant I was wide awake to hear the bear stealing our poorly hung stuff sack and eating our 2-day food supply. We hiked out on empty stomachs a day early, badly defeated and never to backpack again, or so I thought.  

Fast forward almost 30 years later to May 2011: I find myself standing in the REI Santa Monica store completely overwhelmed by a plethora of gear choices. I have no idea where to start, but I've committed myself to hiking the John Muir Trail in September so I need to make some decisions soon.

Some recent life changes have brought me to the brink of backpacking again as I enter my 50th year.  The biggest differences from 30 years prior are that my back is weaker and the gear has evolved significantly.  

Is it possible to combine a weak back with a loaded backpack and survive for 15 days and 220 miles on a trail?  I'm about to find out.

Edison Lake along the JMT
Like my Yosemite trip in 1983, I left REI badly defeated—not because the sales staff wasn't helpful, but rather that I was in decision-making gridlock. There were too many choices, and I was starting from scratch.  

Fortunately, I have one of those "gear geek" engineer friends. He's the guy that evaluates every piece of equipment, reads the reviews and does all the research. He had spreadsheets, graphs, pie charts and illustrations comparing dimensions, lofts, weights (in pounds and grams) with supporting mathematical equations.

Despite the overwhelming amount of empirical evidence, he was equally proficient at distilling it down to the practical.  Which in my case amounted to his declaration that, "I'm not going to use this backpack so why don't you try it."

First problem solved, I had a backpack. While that decision may seem too casual, it worked out well for me.  

My closest REI store at the time was 80 miles away, so a few trips to REI.com netted me the rest of what I needed, and by mid-summer I was geared up and ready to go. A few local shakedown trips helped work out the trail bugs and highlight my total lack of recent backpacking experience.

I deemed myself ready for the John Muir Trail.

Our JMT hiking group
To make up for my lack of experience, I joined with 5 backpacking-savvy friends to start our journey. We drove to Whitney Portal and dropped off my car which I hoped to see in 2 weeks at the end of the trip. From there we went to Mammoth and spent our last night in a real bed.

The next morning we took a shuttle to Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows where our JMT journey was set to begin. We had decided to skip the Yosemite Valley floor section because we had all hiked it before and the level of summer traffic can be insufferable.

We set foot on the trail around 11am after a few fits and starts including a blown hydration reservoir, bathroom stops and bit of "real food" before eating out of boil bags for the next 2 weeks. We had planned a short day for our maiden voyage, hiking in 8 miles on a fairly level trail. By the time we reached camp in the afternoon we all agreed on one thing—we were totally exhausted! Only about 200 miles and an average of 14 miles a day left to go!

Thousand Island Lake along the JMT
We had not even ventured over a mountain pass and we had at least 9 to get over before we were done, but at least we were on the trail. Our next option to get out was 3 days away near Mammoth. One of our hikers did leave us at Mammoth, 2 had planned on leaving when we resupplied 5 days into our trip at Vermillion Valley Resort. Three days after that another friend left over Bishop Pass. Now halfway in, it was down to 2 of us to stick it out to the end.

As we hiked we grew stronger and found our trail rhythm. Packing and unpacking became effortless. Hiking the high mountain passes was challenging, but not debilitating. We arrived at the base of Mount Whitney on Labor Day around 11am. Our plan was to spend the night here and summit the next day, primarily to avoid the crowds on Whitney.

I convinced my hiking partner, Skip, to push up a little farther. My goal was to at least make the summit, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about a shower and some real food again. Apparently Skip was on the same page, because when we arrived on top of Mount Whitney we both agreed that we were going to make haste for Whitney Portal and get out that same day.

Self portrait on Mt. WhitneyBy this time the crowds had disappeared from the summit. We shared the highest peak in the continental United States with only 2 other hikers, took some photos, called our friends on our now-working cell phones and headed for home.

We hiked 27 miles that day and later ate the best pizza I have ever tasted. Life was pretty darn good at age 50. The only challenge now that this big one is off of my bucket list is figuring out what to do next.

Maybe at 60 I can finally hike the Pacific Crest Trail?  

Editor's note: The John Muir Trail (or "JMT") starts (or ends) on the floor of the valley in Yosemite National Park and traverses 210 miles through 5 national forests and 3 national parks, ending on Mount Whitney; the highest peak in the continental United States. (From there you still have to hike another 11 miles to get out at Whitney Portal and end the journey.)

Posted on at 3:04 PM

Tagged: Hiking, John Muir Trail, Mount Whitney, Yosemite and backpacking

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TOTHEWOODS

An awesome achievement! I envy you! I have always wanted to hike the John Muir Trail and PCT. Most likely I'll be there at 50 when I retire as well (if I'm lucky enough to retire hehe). Thanks for the great post and you have to do the PCT! Cheers....

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basecampbound

Very inspiring story...and very well written. I am turning 50 this year and hope to do the JMT for the first time, next year.

I could really relate to where you were starting out....i have been there myself. May I ask what posotove things you listened to on your ipod?

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basecampbound

Sorry....along with the back and knees, the fingers don't work as well as they used to. I meant positive things.

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Curt Cragg

I found Wayne Dyer's books to be very helpful, as well as Stephen Mitchell's interpretation of the Tao de Ching.

One of the books that made the biggest impression on me was written by a doctor that worked with terminally ill patients. He related what people focused on as they reached what they knew was going to be the end of their lives. It wasn't wealth, career or status that was important, but rather relationships and experiences with the people that they cared about. The message is "live is if you're dying and make each moment count".

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Ron In Michigan

Turning 50 next week, and deciding what to buy next with my REI dividends. I also just got back on the trail 2 years ago after a 25 year break ( 4 kids). There is so much cool new stuff out there now to make longer trips more enjoyable. So I understood your origional griefs, I started from scratch again too. I now have taken 2 trips on the AT in virginia, West virginia, and Maryland. and 4 long weekend trips in Michigan. We have some great hikes here in Michigan. I plan to keep going until the Good Lord says no more. Glad to hear that others know that the outdoors have no age limits.

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sheilacragg

Curt, Loved your inspiring story. What a wonderful achievement and one of those memorable milestones you'll always cherish. The photos are breathtaking.

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