About the Author: Deborah Peel is a writer, blogger, marketer, mother, lover of big trees and isolated mountain tops. Her passion is writing to build a better world and sharing her backpacking and hiking adventures, one step at a time.
On a warm day in August 2019, it was just me, my pack, and my dog headed down California’s I-5 to begin my John Muir Trail (JMT) journey. I’d been preparing all year and it was finally starting! All I could do was cross my fingers and think good thoughts for a successful backpacking adventure. I was so excited to be going into that phenomenal wilderness to bear witness to the sights found along the JMT. I was taking on a great challenge but was inspired to pursue it as a tribute to my dad, the 2nd Annual Hike for Harvey raising Alzheimer’s awareness. I’d trained and fixated on pack weight, artfully filling it with ultralight gear and essentials for staying healthy, warm, and comfortable on the trail.
First stop was Santa Clara, where my sweetest-ever black lab Taylor would be staying with my daughter, Liv, son Matt, and Grandma Donna. She would be in good hands, but I already missed her when my foot hit the gas pedal and I drove away two days later. She’d be fine. They’d all be fine. I’d be fine. Right?
The cool, sunny morning drew me over steep and sketchy Sonora Pass on Highway 108, dropping me onto Highway 395 south to Mammoth Lakes, CA. By 1:00 pm I pulled up to the Cinnamon Bear Inn before my room was even ready! Time for pre-hike activities! I studied a map of Mammoth area trails over a delicious burrito, scouting a hike at a higher altitude to begin the necessary acclimatization process. Mammoth is at 8,000’ and I drove up to Lake George and started hiking to Crystal Lake. At about elevation 10,000’, I noticed some dizziness and took a break before continuing up the trail. It came again and I decided to cut my hike short and return to my car. I felt fine but a little bummed at the short distance of my hike.
The trail magic of great people began with my hosts Lani and Jeremy at Cinnamon Bear. They learned of my plan to drive up to Tuolumne Meadows the next day, where I’d leave my car for the duration of the hike. They conferred and suggested an alternate plan, inviting me to leave my car parked behind the Inn the entire time! I accepted their kind offer and was delighted to reclaim a day to continue my pre-hiking in the Mammoth area.
The next morning, I had butterflies in my stomach as I stood in line to pick up my wilderness permit. The ranger quizzed me about some JMT basics like food storage (bear canister) and how far from a water source to camp (at least 100’) and awarded me my official JMT permit. I bounced out of the station like Tigger! Now it was time to lock in my body’s adjustment to altitude.
I started up Duck Pass Trail (trail head elev. 9,128’) with my 32-pound pack, hauling extra weight due to extra food for my pre-hike camping day at Horseshoe Meadow. No lie, the Duck Pass Trail may be rated “moderate” but it challenged me from the start with an immediate gain of 500’ and necessary breathing breaks. I determinedly pushed on and sweated like a pig. I passed pretty Skelton Lake and continued up to Barney Lake, glad to drop onto a log for a snack. I was antsy and didn’t break for long and during my descent I found the trail crowded with mid-day hikers, I opted for a steep side trail down to serene Emerald Lake, eventually ending where I’d parked my car. I was glad to have it to myself and practiced my skills navigating down steep terrain without hurting my toes and going off-balance. This was my last pre-hike and thought acclimatization should be complete. I rewarded myself with a late lunch and an ice-cold beer at Mammoth Brewery.
As dawn broke the next day, I was hiking across town to catch the 7:00 a.m. bus from the Von’s grocery store parking lot to Bishop with a transfer to Lone Pine. There I was greeted by Bob from Eastern Sierra Shuttle Service, who was a sight with blood trickling down from a wound on his scalp – he’d bumped his head getting out of the van. The full 20 miles up the twisting road, Bob delivered a constant stream of historical facts about Lone Pine and the Eastern Sierra area that kept me distracted from my creeping anxiety.
By 11:00 am, I stood in the parking lot of the Horseshow Meadow campground (elev. 9,920’). I had a whole afternoon to hang out at higher elevation before starting the real hike on August 27, 2019. I set up my bright green Nemo Hornet tent, the two-person tent that is perfect for one person and her gear. I took a light pack and walked toward the Cottonwood Pass trail. It was super sandy, making for harder walking, and in the heat of the afternoon I quickly turned back. I had a tiny headache starting and was sure it was due to skipping my usual morning coffee, a caffeine headache. Nothing an Advil couldn’t fix!
I thought I’d lay down to rest, but the piercing sun blazed directly on my tent, stifling me. I tried relaxing at the picnic table in the shade. I thought I should be hungry by now and went about cracking into my first backpacker’s meal of Mountain House spaghetti. I had a hard time finishing it but forced it down. I needed hiker’s strength!
As the sun shifted, I lay in my tent with the breeze floating through the dual side doors. My head was now pounding, a spike threatening to burst out my forehead. I took another Advil and massaged my temples, my neck, and my forehead. I willed my brain to relax. I drank water and drank more water, knowing that dehydration can cause a headache, gulping it down past a strange heartburn I don’t usually get. Must be the dehydrated meal, I thought.
Eventually, a dreamless sleep found me, interrupted occasionally by a late-night conversation in the busy campground. I was going to sleep so much better when I got into the true wilderness!
Trail Tip: Take breaks during acclimatization hikes and give yourself a proper 30-60 minute lunch.