Yosemite Valley (Happy Isles) to Sunrise Camp
Total JMT miles — 13.2 Elevation gain/loss — +6405 feet/-1265 feet
I left the Yosemite backpacker camp at 8:00 am on August 10 for the long trek up and out of the Valley floor. My pack was heavy (57 pounds), but my mood was great as I walked the mile from camp to Happy Isles, the official beginning of the John Muir Trail. I chatted amiably with a father/son duo from Cleveland who were headed to Crater Lake, from where I had just come. The son planned to do the Crater Lake Marathon, and the father was his support. They were vacationing in and around California and Oregon, and loving every minute of it. I was struck by how everyone is up to something in Yosemite, and amid the throngs of tourists you can always find a good story. I was sad to see them head to their car as I continued to Happy Isles.
I used a “real” bathroom one last time, and had a tourist snap a photo of me at the trailhead. I was on my way! I knew from last year that the trail starts out paved, and steep. I also knew the day would require an immense amount of elevation gain if I went to Sunrise camp, which was my intention. Last year, my hiking partner Gregg and I camped part way up and did a late afternoon ascent of Half Dome. This year, I had no permit or plans for Half Dome, and my intentions were to reach Sunrise Camp, and do it in a fashion that was less taxing than last year. Despite camping only 6.5 miles from the start last year, that first day really did me in. For whatever reason, the steepness of the trail and the high steps required nearly defeated me last year on the very first day. This year, I was determined not to let that happen again.
I had plans for a three-prong approach to preventing last year’s extremely tough first day. 1. Hike with poles. For various reasons, last year I started without poles, and the trail was murder on my knees and hips as a result. So the poles were out from the beginning this time around; 2. Avoid the Mist Trail. While shorter and spectacular as it “mists” you from the spray of Vernal Falls, it is also much steeper, and bypasses the
real JMT route. We mistakenly did that last year, and I paid a dear price. This year I stayed on the JMT proper, ending up at the top of Nevada Falls, and seeing Vernal Falls only from a distance; 3. Expect that it will be difficult, and take it slow and steady. This approach served me well, and having the expectation of difficulty made all the difference in the world. I kept a steady but reasonable pace for the 3.5 miles up to Nevada Falls, and arrived at 10:15 am, just in time for a well-deserved drink, snack, and photos.
The next phase of the route was more gradually up, and felt very familiar. I took it slow and steady, up to the Half Dome Junction. I lunched there, and reflected that soon I would be in new backpacking territory for my first day out. My hips were starting to ache from the weight of the pack and the continuous elevation gain. But I was making good time, and knew I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I passed the junction to Cloud’s Rest, where we had camped last year, and felt briefly saddened not to be taking that side trip. Of all of last year’s side trips, Cloud’s Rest remained one of my favorites. But this year, I walked on by, my destination still 6.7 miles away. While I was nearly half way there, the toughest part was yet to come.
After several more tedious miles through a burned-out zone, Sunrise Mountain loomed ahead. I remembered it last year as a series of hot, dry, and steep switchbacks. I also remembered it as tedious and miserable. I stopped to tape a developing hot spot on my right foot before I started up in earnest. I could feel a blister coming, and I wanted to be proactive, especially on day one. I ate and drank. I continued to the switchbacks, as the cloudless day grew warmer. When I finally crossed the creek one last time and started up, my headspace got weird. I felt disassociated from my brain, like I was traveling in a fog. When I passed the rare person coming down, I made sure I was coherent. I think it was a combination of the heat, the intensity of the hike and day, and fatigue. I really had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other for the climb up Sunrise Mountain, and it proved equally as difficult as I remembered.
At the top, I was beyond ready to take a break…including a smiling “selfie”. Might as well look non-plussed! I was relieved to have done most of the elevation for the day, and to be a mere mile from Sunrise camp. As I re-shouldered my pack again, I realized with a start just how sore my hips, glutes, and scare-iliac ligaments were. Everything was screaming and exquisitely painful to the touch. It almost felt like I couldn’t keep going. But I continued on to expansive Long Meadow, where I took one last break as I tried to figure out where to camp.
The Yosemite ranger had told me to camp at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp…I thought that was only for paid guests. But I staggered in there, impatiently traipsing through the High Sierra camp, with it’s huts and guests. Where was the backpacker camp?
Some nice lady told me to just keep going, past all the huts. I did, and soon reached the throng of backpackers. This backpacker camp was even more busy than Yosemite’s! I tried to find a place away from the masses, but eventually gave up due to fatigue and frustration. I dumped my pack in the only campsite I could find… to heck with my desire for space and privacy. I apologized to the gal whose tent space I encroached on…she said no worries, she had been there three nights and it had been just as crowded each night. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to spend three nights there, but who was I to say?
I was simply relieved to unburden myself of my pack for good, right about 5:30 pm. I set up camp and went exploring. I thought Sunrise Lakes was nearby, and had a fantasy of dipping my sore body into the lakes for relief. After wandering for 30 minutes and ending right back at the backpacker camp (by the straightforward approach I had missed in the first round, due to my fatigue and impatience), I gave up on the lake idea. Turns out Sunrise Lakes is miles away, and I certainly didn’t have that in me. Instead, I made dinner and tried for bed, at darkness (about 8 pm). I slept very poorly…perhaps in part because of my bear fear.
This fear, the fear of bears, was definitely on my mind. Partly this was due to a bear encounter last year on the trail, which my partner Gregg dealt with by chasing off the bear. And partly it was because, at the Yosemite Wilderness Center this year, the ranger said they had to kill a bear merely five days earlier, who was prowling uncontrollably and threateningly at the Sunrise Camp…where I was stationed. While sad to hear this, it also had me worried. There had been two very persistent bears…the most troublesome one now was gone, but that still left one. As I tried to go to sleep, I kept envisioning what I would do if a bear tried to get in the tent with me! I know it sounds silly, but that night, those thoughts were present. I had to work with myself and my thoughts to dispel the worry…and it DID help to know that there were lots of other people around. One advantage of camping with the throngs!
Suffice it to say that after a restless night, I was relieved to be up and out of the Sunrise Camp next morning…and onto Day 2 of my adventure.
Highlights of Day 1
The hardest day was behind me…and it WAS better than the previous first day.
I KNEW that day one would be the most physically challenging. I was front-loaded with things like fuel and toiletries, as well as carrying five days of food. I would not have to carry any more weight at any time than I carried that first day. And I would not have to gain more elevation in any given day than I did that first day. To have all of that behind me, despite the pain in my hips and glutes, was a HUGE relief. Things would only get theoretically easier from that point on.
And despite the challenges, my goal of a better Day One on the JMT was definitely met. My attitude of acceptance and having the expectation that it would be difficult definitely paid off. I was not caught off guard by the challenge, and instead rose to and met it. A big success right off the bat!
I was proactive with pain and problems.
As mentioned, I started developing hot spots with my right foot, which I attempted to problem solve that first day. I also developed a hot spot on my spine, which had been one of my biggest issues the previous year…backpack chafing along the vertebrae, which opened up and caused pain and discomfort for the entirety of last year’s trip. This year, I could FEEL it happening on that first day, despite a new pack that was supposed to have a suspension system guaranteed to prevent this. Before I left Sunrise Camp on Day 2, I asked someone to put moleskin on the hot spot on my mid-back, as I could not reach it. One of the disadvantages of traveling alone…no partner to help with such. BUT, being proactive early on with the back was a necessity, and a nice crew of men and women all offered their thoughts on how best to deal with this. We all agreed that a strip of moleskin to more than cover the spot was the best bet.
Lessons of Day 1
Advantages and Disadvantages of traveling alone…
I started a file on this topic. I really liked being alone, in terms of setting my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted to, taking pictures, or not, and basically setting my own agenda. However, there was no one to immediately share the victory with when a milestone was reached, and it was difficult to do things like apply moleskin to my back. This file and theme continued to grow in my mind as the trip progressed.
Managing my tendency for needless worry…
This theme was played out in bear fears that first night. I wondered what my night would have been like if I had NOT worried about bears…yet I felt powerless to stop it. Also, I acknowledged my tendency to worry about upcoming challenges. I started worrying and obsessing about Sunrise Mountain before it was even upon me, that it might be “too much”. Then, when I was there, I worried that I might pass out or lose it, as my head felt foggy. None of those things happened. Realizing my tendency for needless worry caused me to start a file on that also…things I worry about that don’t happen. While I felt challenged to control my thoughts completely, at least I knew I could reflect back after the fact on the worries that never come to fruition. Somehow, writing it out after that first day and night helped to put the theme and reality of needless worry into perspective.
The body really DOES feel better in the morning!
Even though I slept poorly, I was relieved that I felt mostly OK on the morning of Day 2. I know this from past experience, that a night of rest usually pays off for physical pain relief, even if sleep is negligible. I repeated a mantra and affirmation as I packed up for the day…”I awake each day rejuvenated, refreshed, and revived.” I declared that as my theme for each and every morning remaining on the trail.