JMT Day 13: 4th Zero in Mammoth

8/4

0 miles

We had a leisurely morning before deciding to head over to Stellar Brew for breakfast. It was a rather smoky morning, but it was not as bad as the previous evening. While waiting in line, I was delighted to see Cassie, Ben, and his family also join the line. We ended up having a nice breakfast together, and heard about their misadventures collecting their cats and trying to find areas without smoke.

We got to meet their cats, Maple and Cashew, and went around looking at some of the local shops. Eventually they wanted to go attend the Blues Festival, Bluesapalooza, so they gave us a lift back to the hostel and we said our goodbyes.

We hung out in the hostel for a while, and learned that Ella and Darcy had received their repaired van back. We purchased our tickets to go to Hawaii, and talked to our family about it.

We considered a visit to the Devils Postpile, but it was getting more smoky. We instead decided to visit the nearby twin lakes. Ella and Darcy came to pick us up, and we headed off. When we arrived, it was both extremely smoky as well as incredibly windy. We walked around for a while, and did get a partially obscured view of a waterfall. It was nice to spend some extra time with the Australians, as they have decided to head south to tray and escape the smoke. They gave us a lift back to the hostel, and we bid them farewell.

We had skipped lunch, so we went to the Burgers Restaurant, and had a nice burger. It had gotten even smokier, and despite our close proximity to the restaurant, I was still coughing by the time we got there. We spent the rest of our evening relaxing and making plans. Tomorrow Josh will take us back to Bishop, and Dylan will let us stay at his place to avoid the smoke until Pineapple’s parents can pick us up.

Our time in the Sierra Nevadas was much shorter than we had originally anticipated. It is disappointing to end it so early, but it is clear to me that it is the correct decision. Besides, Hawaii is always an excellent option.

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JMT Day 12: 3rd Zero in Mammoth

8/3

0 miles

We awoke early to catch the bus to Mammoth, and it was exceptionally smoky out. We grabbed some bagels at the Great Basin Bakery, and ate them on our way over to the bus stop. The walk was enough to make me cough a lot.

It took a while for everyone to pay, so we left later than scheduled. As we headed up the 395, it remained smoky, but just as we arrived in Mammoth, it cleared some. Mammoth Mountain itself was still shrouded in smoke, but some of the other mountains looked fairy clear.

We got a ride from Josh and his friend Tom to the hostel. Unfortunately we were way too early to check in, so we stashed our stuff there and rode the trolley around town. We got word from my friends Cassie and Ben that they were in town with Ben’s parents, so we went to meet them at a coffee shop. We had originally planned to see them in Yosemite but they had just received word that all employees were finally being evacuated. Ben and his father were going to hear back to pick up some last things as well as their pet cats.

I at least got to see Cassie, and meet Ben’s mother and brother. It was a short visit but I was glad to see her if only briefly. We also picked up our resupply that we had sent to them in Yosemite in case we decided to hike south. We bid them farewell and headed to the Mammoth Schat’s. We got sandwiches and found Cassie grabbing some last minute snacks before saying a final goodbye.

We walked back to the hostel, and it began to grow more smoky. We killed time in the lobby until we could check in, and found out Ella and Darcy, who had given us a ride from Bishop Pass, were having car troubles and were also in Mammoth. We made plans to meet up later. We saw more smoke come in, and found the Ferguson fire had jumped a creek and was getting closer to Yosemite, meaning it was now less contained and still growing.

At last we decided to officially call our hike off. Conditions are much too poor to continue on, and we have no desire to be miserable on trail. I talked to my wonderful sister and she is willing to host us in Hawaii. All in all, it’s a pretty great fallback option. Since my lungs have been bothering me a lot more, the decision is much easier for me to make. It’s much harder for Pineapple, though she recognizes it’s the right call.

We headed to the brewery for a drink with the Australians, and Josh soon arrived as well. We had a fun time at the brewery, then headed to a pizza place and split a giant pizza. We had a very fun evening hanging out and talking. We went back to the hostel for a bit and had some ice cream, and ended up talking for a while longer. The smoke did get even worse.

Since Pineapple and I are still on trail time, we got tired early, so Josh went off to enjoy the blues festival while Ella and Darcy went back to the Brewery. Overall it was a great evening. We will spend one more day in Mammoth before we start making our way back home.

JMT Day 11: 2nd Zero in Bishop

8/2

0 miles

We didn’t do too much. We did laundry, ate good food, moved from the hostel to a motel, and relaxed. It did eventually dawn on me that one of the workers at the hostel hiked the PCT the same year I did, and we had met on trail, which explained why he looked familiar. In the evening, we met up with Dylan, and went to the Burger Barn, which was delicious. The day started off very smoky, got a bit better, and got very smoky again in the afternoon. Tomorrow we head to Mammoth.

JMT Day 10: Bishop Pass

8/1

11 miles

We awoke early to a very damp tent. The one downside to an exposed campsite is the increased amount of condensation. We tried our best to dry things somewhat, then set off to tackle Bishop Pass.

We steadily gained elevation on switchbacks, and followed a waterfall up. We checked our progress and realized we were not moving as quickly as we thought. We continued, pausing briefly for water. We began another steeper section of switchbacks, and caught up to another hiker who had been doing off trail hiking. We soon finished that section of switchbacks and found a sunny flatter area. We talked to the other hiker a bit, then set out most of our gear in the sun to dry.

We enjoyed a longer break, as we wanted to dry things out a lot. Another JMT hikers passed by as well. We enjoyed the wonderful views, and I thought if we had to quit, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Soon, we continued on.

The trail was frequently flooded, and we wound our way up the valley. The scenery was spectacular, and we could see some clouds rolling in. The clouds gave us some protection from the sun which helped us a lot. Eventually we reached Bishop Pass. The final push to the top reminded me a lot of the hike up San Gorgonio. After a brief pause to enjoy the view, we started our descent.

We were surprised to find a small snow field, and some other hikers incredulously watched me cross in my sandals. Not too long after a woman told me to put on some shoes. As we descended, we began to smell a terrible odor. As we rounded a corner, we were horrified to discover the decaying remains of several deer. As soon as we passed them, the smell dissipated.

As we continued down, we chatted a bit with another JMT hiker who was bailing out due to the smoke as well. He is from Portland and didn’t want the rest of his experience to be ruined by smoke. He was faster on the rockier terrain and zoomed ahead. Another couple of dayhikers came up behind us, and as they passed, I noticed the woman wearing a Kathmandu pack, which are from Australia and New Zealand. I made a comment about it, and we had a nice conversation with them as we descended which helped pass the time. The couple, Ella and Darcy are traveling around by van before heading to South America. They were also kind enough to agree to give us a ride down. They paused for a break, and we continued on.

The terrain was pretty, but Pineapple and I were getting sick of hiking by that point. I began to smell smoke, and it grew darker. We passed the other JMT hiker, as well as several others. The descent grew rocky again, which slowed us. My feet really began to feel fatigued after this past section, and the descent seemed to make them feel even worse. Ella and Darcy passed by during a brief pause, and we began to rush on, not wanting to make them wait for us.

We heard a deafening clap of thunder, and get a few raindrops. We hoped we would be able to finish before it truly began to rain. We ended up getting stopped by a rather eccentric ranger who wanted to see our permit. This is the first time I’ve had my permit checked while backpacking. We pressed on through the last section of trail, and made it to the parking lot before the rain started. We found Ella and Darcy, and as we began to drive down, it began to pour. We felt lucky to have finished just in time.

On the descent, I shared some of my geology knowledge with Ella and Darcy. We offered to buy them a beer at the brewery as thanks for the ride, and we had a nice time talking and eating. After, we bid them farewell and lucked out again by finding a private room at the hostel.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening relaxing and cleaning up while trying to figure out the smoke situation. We plan to spend another night in Bishop before heading to Mammoth for a couple of days. We hope it clears enough so we can head south and exit over Bishop Pass again. We have given up on the possibility of completing the section between Mammoth and Yosemite. My friend Cassie who lives in the valley sent us a picture showing the awful conditions there. The last section was tough on us. Our feet are in rough shape, and I am still coughing. Hopefully the extended break will take care of those. Everything else will be dependent on the smoke.

JMT Day 9: Mather Pass

7/31

18 miles

We awoke early again, knowing we had to make miles. The mosquitos were quite active, and I killed several. Between the ones from the previous night and this morning, I probably killed at least 20. We were able to set off about 6:45.

The gentle grade made it easy to make miles, and we made good time on the approach. We soon caught sight of Mather Pass, and it did not appear nearly as daunting as the other passes. As we got close, two kids passed us, and it dawned on me that not only did I recognize them, but I had fit them for their backpacks. Their parents soon followed, and we stopped to chat, as Pineapple and I both had helped them.

We heard about their trip, and they gave us their insights about the smoke.we gave them our insights, and shared our trail names. They didn’t have any, but we learned their actual names, Sharon and Peter. We wished them well, and pressed on. Right before the final push to the summit, we began to see a few more southbound hikers. We also began to see more clouds roll in.

We made it to the top and enjoyed some nice views with several other people, and one small critter that looked like a mouse without a tail. After a brief break, we began the descent. It was quite rocky at the start, which did slow us some. As we continued down, I couldn’t help but compare it to my haphazard descent in snow on the PCT. We saw several more hikers working their way up as well.

We paused at a nice water source, and saw several hikers head north. We pressed on, enjoying wonderful views. We paused to talk to a trail crew to see if we could glean any new information, but they didn’t have anything new. We passed by one of my campsites on the PCT, and began another descent.

We wound our way down a steep canyon, and the sky darkened. We paused to talk to an older woman hiking with her 71 year old friend, and heard it had been off and on smoky for them too. Our pace suffered on the next section of switchbacks due to the rocky terrain. Pineapple’s feet have really been bothering her on the rocky descents. We passed a family heading north we had seen earlier, and it began to rain. We donned our rain gear and started to hear thunder. We quickly descended, and passed another northbound hiker we had seen earlier. We did get to enjoy a nice view of a waterfall.

We stopped for another water break not long after the storm stopped. The solo hiker went by again, and we followed. We saw several more southbound hikers, and it grew unpleasantly hot as the sun came out in full force in a burned area lacking shade. We progressed quickly on more even ground, and at another break spot, it grew dark again and we heard thunder. We donned our rain gear once more and continued. It wasn’t long before it turned into a full fledged storm.

We paused under a couple of trees to wait out the most intense part of the storm, which included hail. We saw the solo hiker go by again, and as the storm abated, we quickly caught up. We chatted a bit with the hiker, Jason, who had been doing very high mileage but was now feeling it. We decided to power on through to our campsite. It grew lighter, and eventually the sun came out. The last couple of miles dragged, as we both were a bit tired of hiking.

We arrived at our site and found a lot of other hikers already set up. We took a brief side trip to the ranger station to see if there was any new information. The ranger was nice but didn’t have any new information for us. We found a nice campsite a bit higher, and got set up.

Tomorrow we exit over Bishop Pass. It’s odd to think this could be our last night on trail. We hope to learn as much as we can before we make our final decision. We are hopeful.

JMT Day 8: Pinchot Pass

7/30

16 miles

We awoke early, only to discover crystal clear conditions. We were flabbergasted. We spent our morning routine discussing our options before ultimately deciding to continue on, with the likely intent to exit over Bishop Pass. Neither of us wanted to go out over Kearsage Pass a third time, so we figured that at least this way we would be making progress on trail.

We got an early start, knowing we had a significant amount of elevation gain. It felt amazing to be breathing clean air again. We encounter some nice views, and saw a couple hikers heading up. We paused to talk to a few about their experiences, and most said yesterday was the worst smoke they had seen with the exception of those who started around the same time as the fire. Many said the evenings were generally worse and mornings were usually clear.

We made good time down to Woods Creek, where I had camped on the PCT. The campsites were very crowded, and it seemed most people there were still getting ready. We crossed the suspension bridge, and saw a junction to Road’s End. I had been coughing all morning, and I think my respiratory system is still cleaning itself out after the past couple days. We began the long climb, and soon came across a natural water slide. There was not nearly as much water as the last time I went by, but it was still very impressive.

We stopped at a stream for water and a snack, and discussed possible options. This would be a theme for the day. We both seemed to agree that with the current conditions and how they affect us, we probably won’t do our south bound section. We wanted to hear from more southbound hikers as well to see if they might have more insight. We came into the sunlight and it began to grow rather warm. We talked to a PCT hiker who had flipped who said it had been smoky on and off since she started south from Sonora Pass.

As we climbed, I struggled with my fatigue from yesterday but took comfort in easier breathing. We took another water break and discussed how it would feel if we couldn’t finish. Neither of us want to hike while it is smoky, but it doesn’t sit well with us to not finish either. The climb seemed to drag on and on, and the heat didn’t help matters. We chatted with another couple about the smoke, but it didn’t change our minds much.

The last part of the approach was gradual, and felt a bit like Forester. We began to see more southbound hikers as well. At the last water source of the climb, a solo hiker caught up to us. He is not a thru hiker but is still pushing long days, having done both Forester and Glen Pass the day before. We leapfrogged a both with him on the last push to the summit. Pineapple and I paused for a few photos and a breather, then headed down.

Pinchot Pass doesn’t have an extended steep drop on its north side like most of the other passes. This allowed us to drop fairly quickly. We stopped for another water break, and the other hiker passed us for the last time. A due of hikers came by and we asked them about their experience with smoke. They said overall it wasn’t bad but evenings tended to show more smoke.

We fell into the monotony of the descent, but enjoyed our beautiful surroundings. We also noticed more haze and smelled some smoke. We also saw rain clouds, which put is in the odd position of not knowing whether we wanted rain or not. We descended to the base of the climb after seeing several more hikers.

At the South Fork of the King’s River, we stumbled upon a ranger, who we talked to about our plans. We definitely plan to head out over Bishop, but the decision from there has a few more considerations. We crossed the river, relaxed a bit, felt some rain, and continued on. The final climb took us along a meadow with a stream running by it. I distinctly remembered it from my PCT hike.

We made great time, and after some tired discussions got camp set up. We cleaned up, and briefly considered eating outside until more mosquitoes rolled in. It ended up being one of the buggiest sites yet. Tomorrow we have a short approach to Mather Pass, and will then be in position to start hiking out over Bishop Pass.

JMT Day 7: Kearsage and Glen Pass

7/29

16 miles

It got a lot smokier yesterday evening, and we could smell it in our room. We got ready, and our friend Josh arrived at 6:30 to pick us up. As we rode down the 395, we could see an abundance of smoke sitting in Owe s Valley, but hoped it would be clearer higher up. We enjoyed catching up with Josh on the ride. He has been fishing and climbing all over the Sierra for a couple weeks, and has more than a month left to keep doing what he loves.

We reached the Onion Valley Trailhead just before 8, and thanked Josh for the ride. We set off about 8, and noted that while it was a bit smoky, it was definitely better than in the valley. It was a rather hot climb back to Kearsage. We also felt the effects of the smoke, and I in particular struggled. My legs felt ok, even with the heavier weight, but my breathing was much more labored. We talked to a northbound JMT hikers who said it had been rather smoky the past few days, but there also hadn’t been any rain for that same time. We figured that was the main reason it was smokier.

We made it to the top around 10:30, and immediately began to descent back to the JMT. We followed a horse and mule for a bit and leapfrogged for a while. I felt sluggish and hiking took more effort than I thought it should. Pineapple was also feeling it. We did enjoy some nice views, since the smoke wasn’t obscuring things too much.

We rejoined the JMT and began the approach to Glen pass. I found this to be the most difficult climb yet, and again the limiting factor was not my legs, but lungs. It took a ton of effort to make progress. I was drinking a lot of water to compensate for the heat and my heavy breathing. I also began coughing some. We eventually made it to the top, and were able to enjoy a relatively clear view of the Rae Lakes Basin.

We began the descent, and the rocky terrain and heat slowed us more than we wanted for our descending pace. Some other people on the pass overtook us, which is rather rare. We paused at a stream to try and plan out the next section, and realized we would have to go a bit faster to keep our timetable. We arrived at Rae Lakes, and while I could tell my surroundings were beautiful, I was dismayed that my experience felt like so much less than the last time I had gone through. It got smokier, and the visibility dropped.

We continued on, and I was aware that our pace was a lot slower. Breathing did not feel great to me, and since our packs have more food in them, Pineapple was feeling the strain of the weight. Time seemed to drag on and on. We stopped to talk to a few groups to give ourselves the opportunity to rest. Visibility dropped more and I coughed a lot. At last we reached our predetermined campsite.

As we began our evening chores, we finally began to process all of the clues we had been receiving all day: 1) It was very smoky, to the point it was detrimental to our health; 2) the fire has been burning for weeks and is still only 30% contained; 3) we are heading north toward the fire and smoke; 4) hiking is not at all fun when you feel bad; 5) trying to wait out the fire will be very expensive, and transportation will become an issue.

We have therefore decided to end our trip early. It’s extremely disappointing, but we feel it is the right call. We debated exit strategies, but we agree our best plan of action is to simply hike right back out the way we came in today. We are a bit concerned about what our progress will be like given our pace today, but we will start earlier. We have enough food, and know the trail water sources enough so we can always spend an extra night leaving, though we would prefer to get out of the smoke ASAP. Hopefully we can do it tomorrow.