It was my 14th day on the John Muir Trail when the early morning snowstorm hit me as I ascended the 12,130-foot mountain pass. I crouched down next to a boulder and tree for safety, while I decided what to do next: turn back, sit it out, or keep going?
Thankfully, a group of hikers from Oakhurst soon came up the trail behind me, and together we chanced it to the top. The snow, wind, and cold followed us up and over. After two hours of mayhem, we dropped down below tree line as the sun emerged. We made hot water and warmed up. Later I learned that anyone who happened to have been on a high pass that morning was pelted by snow—and survived. But the bad weather sent many folks home.
Anyone who backpacks regularly in the Sierra Nevada knows that sudden afternoon showers are a regular occurrence. But this summer, monsoon-driven rainstorms dumped far more than was usual. And snow falling at sunrise took everyone by surprise.
After leading backpacking trips for the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter for nearly 20 years, I decided to finally through-hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) this year in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The JMT is an epic, 211-mile path through the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Yosemite to Mount Whitney—the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. Along the way, the Trail winds through three magnificent wilderness areas: Yosemite, Ansel Adams, and John Muir. It took me 21 days to cover 185 of the 211-mile JMT, starting in Tuolumne Meadows on July 7 and summiting Mount Whitney on July 27.
With food and water, my packed weighed about 30 to 35 pounds. I ate lots of oatmeal, Krave jerky and string cheese, and instant mashed potatoes. My food drops were at Red Meadows and John Muir Ranch, and I paid a packer to carry in my last resupply over Kearsarge Pass. Like most people who hike at high altitude, I lost my appetite and had to force myself to eat chocolate and nut butter, foods I usually wolf down.
I was impressed to see a number of solo women hikers like myself out on the trail. We all got the same questions before we left, such as, “Won’t you be scared?” and “What happens if you get hurt?” and even “Are you carrying a gun?” We all agreed that we felt safer on the JMT than walking downtown in any city.
After the terrifying snowstorm on Pinchot, my thoughts turned to the 13,152-foot Forester Pass still ahead. As with Pinchot, fellow travelers I met on the trail would help me over the pass—this time, Majoet and Denis from Quebec. And again, the ascent wouldn’t be without incident. As we approached, Denis spotted smoke. Then, hikers coming down the mountain told us they had seen trees going up in flames. First snow, now fire! Concerned, our small party continued climbing to get above tree line, where, at least in theory, there was no fuel for a fire to burn. Within an hour a state fire department helicopter showed up to check on the fire. We made camp short of the pass and eventually the small blaze died down, though we could smell smoke throughout the night. In the morning, we climbed three hours to get to the top of Forester Pass, where I said goodbye to my companions and went on toward Mount Whitney and home.
Teri Shore is an avid backpacker and wilderness advocate who has led Sierra Club backpack trips for the San Francisco Bay Chapter Backpack Section since 1996. She adores Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada and Trinity Alps. She has climbed Mount Shasta and many non-technical Sierra peaks over 9,000 feet including Mount Conness, Mount Dana, and Mount Hoffman. She has also completed long treks in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Read Teri’s trail journal and see more photographs from her trip online here.