A Tale Of 23 Days In The Wild
Would you spend 23 days in the wild without wi-fi and call it a holiday? That's just what city-slicker Julie Carroll did. This is her story...
When I saw the incredible pictures on my good friend Julie Carroll's Instagram after completing her 23-day hike of the John Muir Trail in California I just knew I had to get the low-down. The scenery from the trek certainly looked magical, but I could tell that this was no walk in the park - and certainly a lot different from a cocktails-by-the-pool kinda holiday! So why then did Julie use precious annual leave days to complete this life-changing and physically and mentally challenging trek? Here she tells us in her own words...
A 23 day hike of the John Muir Trail in California, named for the Scotsman who helped preserve the area over a 100 years ago. 360+km of back country through the beautiful Sierra Nevada. Starting at Mt. Whitney and heading north to Tuolumne Meadows near Yosemite. No wifi, phone signal or electricity along the way.
Valid question. I like a challenge, it'd be fair to say I've got a competitive streak. I ran 4 half marathons, got bored and moved to trail running. Throw in a few camping/hiking trips to the States including a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon and my love of the outdoor adventure was reborn. I read Wild, I watched Into the Wild. The next logical step was to see if I could handle more than a few days away from civilisation myself.
Well it seemed logical to me... but just to be clear: I'm not a khaki wearing, compass carrying outdoors type person. I'm a 45 year old Creative Director who lives in the inner city and has worked in magazines for over 20 years. I know more about Brangelina than I know about Gore Tex. I simply just need a break from my phone and the Kardashians every now and then.
1 August 2017. Reno, Nevada. Vegas without ANY of the glitz.
I'm jetlagged and trying to buy supplies for a 5-hour bus ride to Mammoth Lakes, California. The beef jerky is under lock and key at Walmart which is really all you need to know about this town.
It's 100 degrees as I grab my pack and head for the Greyhound station. A homeless guy comes over to ask for a few dollars, he offers me a hit of his pipe in return, sweet of him but I decline. After a brief chat he heads back over to this bag, he's nervous leaving it unattended here. I realise this isn't everyone's idea of a good time but I'm having a blast. This day has been a long time coming - I'm finally on my way to hike the John Muir Trail.
Ten months earlier I'd decided a decent break from office life was needed for sanity reasons. I applied for Survivor and failed - twice. Time to come up with an alternate adventure myself.
One of my American friends posted photos of her summer spent hiking the John Muir Trail I was intrigued and emailed her a bunch of questions. Her reply was something along the lines of: OMG YOU MUST DO IT, IT WAS AWESOME!
The JMT officially stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney (the 2nd highest peak in North America). Around 80% of it overlaps the Pacific Crest Trail, made famous by Cheryl Strayed's book 'Wild'. You might have seen the movie starring Reese Witherspoon or the hilarious tribute in the Gilmore Girls reunion. For the record: I'm book.
PCT traffic has increased considerably since 'Wild' hit the bestseller list. Weird considering it's more of a guide on what not to do when hiking. Still, Cheryl's description of losing toe nails and carrying a pack dubbed 'Monster' didn't deter me either. Back in the 90s there was an average of 30 PCT permits given each year, now it's over 3000.
Seems a lot of folks are keen to ecape their everyday routine but thru-hiking is not a holiday, it's a serious undertaking people spend years prepping for. Signing up for more than three weeks in this rugged country, meant I was signing up to carry a 20kg backpack for an average of 21km a day. Oh and poop in the woods - I would have to poop in the woods. Most people decide that's the part of this trip they couldn't possibly do. Turns out humans can poop just about anywhere, it's walking for 9 hours a day that's the tricky part. Cheryl, you did try to warn me.
Back to that glamourous bus trip. I evesdrop on the girl in front of me as she chats about her time out on the PCT. She's heading to a Medical centre because of anxiety attacks and no longer being able to stomach any of her trail food. Her bag is half the size of mine, her head is shaved and she's emitting an odour I can't describe in words.
Another passenger points out the effects of flash flooding and fills me in on the record snowfall that's caused dry creek beds to become raging rivers. She's visibly relieved to hear I'm not hiking solo as local papers have reported two drownings and several near misses on the JMT in recent months.
As I leave the bus she hands me $20 for a good meal and says 'God bless you'.
I pray she's not watching as I try and lift my pack again. We're at high altitude now (7000+ feet) and at high altitude everything is harder. Breathing, walking, sleeping, that kind of thing. My 11kg backpack feels threes times as heavy.
The short walk to my hotel has me out of breath and I've got a hangover style headache. Luckily I knew to expect all this - the next 4 days have been included so I can acclimatise before starting the trek which will see us go above 14,000ft. Hydrolite, anti-nausea tablets and eating carbs help fight the effects, eventually the headache subsides but my first week on the trail will include dizziness and dry heaving. Hard to imagine why anybody would be having anxiety attacks right?
August 4, 2017, DAY 1.
I'm nervous as hell but also PSYCHED when I meet my group at the Sierra Moutain Centre. 9 hikers in total and our two wilderness guides Paul and Alwyne. Paul is a fellow kiwi who's just back from Nepal. Alwyne is a fellow red head, top notch rock climbing yogi. They will navigate us through some hairy situations and get us all home in one piece. Our group is a mix of nationalities, personalities and ages. From Paige, a cosplay costume designer in her 20s to Steiner, a devout Christian and graphic designer in his 60s. We're a random bunch of strangers at the start and a dysfuncitonal family by the end. Brenda or 'Speedy B' as she's known on the trail is hiking the JMT for a third time. On the really tough days I tell her she's crazy doing this more than once but now if you asked me would I do it all over again? Absolutely.
FIRST THINGS FIRST. GEAR CHECK
We have a very strict list of what to bring. All my gear was 'wardrobe tested' back in Sydney. You don't want to be in the middle of nowhere and discover your socks cause blisters. Cotton t-shirts are vetoed and many hours are spent at camping stores choosing clothes that function yet meet my fashion and budget standards. My 'I heart to Creep' cap makes the cut and is a real ice breaker. Just about everyone I pass says 'Hi Creeper', 'You're really creeping along' or 'I heart to creep too!'. Without Netflix it's the little things that keep you entertained... On our last morning I debuted a surprise new look: fresh t-shirt, hair in braids and bandana to channel my inner Navajo warrior. To say it caused a sensation would be an understatement. We're talking Beyonce red carpet arrival.
I mentioned my pack weighing 11kg - that was without group gear including: tent, bear canister (to keep those pesky bears from getting our food), stove and pots. I also add heavy crampons and spare shoes for snow and creek crossings at the last minute. It's best to keep boots dry so we'd swap over when we couldn't cross on rocks or logs. Carrying all this on your back means you become obsessed with weight. I took just enough lipbalm and toothpaste for 23 days and no deodarant. You're going to stink anyway. I cut down my toothbrush, ripped out sections of my pack and cut away excess packaging around tablets. I must have weighed and repacked my bag 30 times. Weekends were also spent running, weight lifting, swimming and breaking in my boots on the treadmill with weights in my pack.
My four small resupply bags include jelly beans, lollypops (I earn the trail name 'Miss Lolly'), instant coffee and lots of bandaids. We'll get these hiked into us at intervals along the way. Imagine Christmas, your 21st and Easter all rolled into one then multiply the excitement level by about 100. Thats how thrilling it is to get fresh socks and M&Ms after two weeks away from civilization. At the second resupply we get surprise pizza and fruit. You'd think we'd won the lottery.
I start a 'Sierra drug trade' as my painkillers run out and others need a chocolate hit. A spare Snickers bar got my knees through a couple rough days. At Muir Ranch resupply we rummage through labelled bins of items fellow hikers have ditched. Flavoured drink sachets are my major score and I offload snacks I no longer enjoy. The sight of Cliff Bars and Trail mix now make me shudder. I'm in the majority - that bin is overflowing.
There were very high highlights and serious lowlights during this epic adventure. I enjoyed all of it - even the parts I didn't enjoy. Here's an idea of the average day.
6am: 'Hot water is ready!' echoes around camp. Time to drag yourself out of that comfy sleeping bag and grab a coffee or porridge. We always camped near a watersource so we could fill bottles and cook. Iodine drops and filters are used to keep it safe to drink. You can take a bath but it's ICE cold, literally, it's melted snow. Wet wipes are your friend.
7.30am: and it's time to head out. I'd have breakfast while packing up and taking down the tent. Nothing is easy when you're tired and trying to manoeuvre in a small space. I got my 'systems' down to a fine art but I was always rushing. A bathroom break can take 20 minutes. Gotta find a private rock 200 feet from the watersource, dig a hole 6 inches deep, take care of business, cover up your business, pack out your T.P and head back to camp. You don't want to misjudge your timing or think you've got a private spot when it actually turns out to be right by a trail and then you're pulling up your pants just as two guys come round the corner...
10.30am: Time for a short break to elevate the feet, snack and reapply insect repellent. I was covered in bites, bruises, scratches, sore spots where my bag rubbed, had sunburnt lips, swollen feet and face. I wore gloves but my fingers were cracked enough that I couldn't use the fingerprint unlock on my phone for awhile. My mantra was 'Well you didn't want to be stuck in the office!' so I was totally cool with it all. Except that one day when I fell in the freezing river and got a soaking and a fright. I was a real cranky pants and walked alone for a few hours. Not only was I cold but I was annoyed at myself for not trusting my own judgement. Lucky I had friends around to pick me up and dust me off.
Usually I'd walk and chat with others in my group for most of the day. I'd take about an hour to myself when a bit of solitary time was nice for thinking about loved ones, life in general and making up truly terrible rap songs. Lamp, camp, my socks are damp!
Midday: One hour lunch break on top of today's chosen Mountain. I had zero appetite until we left high elevation but when it came back it came back BIG. I could not get enough calories. Weird looking rice and hydrated potatoe dishes were gulped down along with any mosquitoes that dive bombed my plate. All kinds of food combinations were put between slices of bread. Despite that I was 6kg lighter and RIPPED at the end of the 360+kms.
My body took time to adjust when I got home. Overeating and not sleeping are common amongst thru-hikers. I visited the Osteopath and took a lot of Ibuprofen for 2 months before the pain in my legs and feet went away. It also took that long for feeling to return in my big toes. Don't worry, the lasting sense of accomplishment outweighs all of these temporary ailments. I can honestly say I've never been so proud or elated as when I headed towards the finish line. There were tears, high fives from total strangers and hugs as we approached Yosemite. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for weeks. I'm smiling now as a I write this.
1pm - 5.30pm-ish
The scenery of the High Sierra is world class STUNNING. Walking up hill for 3 hours to get over a mountain is not easy. Nor is walking downhill for the next 3 but it's worth it simply for the view. The beauty of the varying landscapes will take your breath away (even though you're already out of breath). Snowfields that are coloured pink from a watermelon algae, aqua lakes, lush fairy gardens of flowers, rugged paths of broken rubble and fields of burnt trees. Gophers stand up to say hi and baby deer bounce around camp to keep close to mum. A curious Marmot accompanies me down the side of Mt. Whitney as I take a pee break.
I'm not sure who's more confused by what they're seeing. I find myself saying 'please don't come any closer Mr Marmot' as I reach for the hand sanitizer. That's trail magic. That's why we're here and that's why you get up morning after morning to do it all again.
Reaching camp at the end of the day is always cause for celebration. The pack and boots come off, the tent goes up and it's time to relax and reflect. Dinner is enjoyed sitting in a circle on our bear cannisters as Alwyne and Paul tell us the plan of attack for tomorrow. Spoiler alert: it involves a lot of walking. 'ish' is added to every number thrown out because 11ish 'Sierra miles' might end up being 13 normal miles (21km/half marathon) depending on terrain.
As soon as the dishes are done I head for bed. 7.30pm is a late night. Big plans to write a journal never got very far but here's an entry from the toughest and most unexpected day.
...'Day 14, A day to take care
This morning I woke up with eyes almost swollen shut. My face is twice it's size and my glands are up. Do not feel good. I've just finished saying 'I really need to watch my footing today' when I smack into a tree branch. Add lump on the head to the list of medical woes. 10 minutes later a Ranger stops us. There has been a death on the trail. A hiker had a bad fall. His body is still where he fell on the Golden Staircase and his young son is keeping vigil. The helicopter that will perform the evacuation flew over camp last night. Helicopters are a not a good sign out here and we've seen two so far.
Putting one foot safely in front of the other is my new mantra on the JMT...'
That tragedy is something I still think about regularly. It's hard to get your head around. I'd say it's a big part of why two of our group quit a few days later. Solo hikers like Cheryl Strayed are seriously brave for heading out by themselves. I had the safety and comfort of a group but there were times when I was, put simply, shitting myself. On my way out of Mammoth I met a hiker who got hives so bad his throat started to swell shut. He couldn't take the risk of not hiking out for the nearest medical assist ASAP.
My facial swelling went away after a couple days but I was worried. It wasn't until a few miles from Tuolumne Meadows I felt 100% confident I was actually going to make it. On day 20 I got to take a 15 minute hot shower at Reds Meadows resupply. BEST shower of my life. The dirt was circling down the drain and I called out to my buddy 'Wendy, isn't this AMAZING?'. After all those icy cold river baths the hot water was a shock to Wendy's system. She was passed out on her cubicle floor. Who would have thought a deliciously hot shower could be the thing that almost sends you home? There you go, the stuff you won't read in the brochure. Being out in nature IS wild, it does weird things to your body and mind, it's a mental game as much as physical and it's not for everybody but you might surprise yourself. Let's just say I thought I was hardcore and now I know I am.
5 MONTHS AFTER LEAVING THE TRAIL - So what's next?
I've been asked that a lot since finishing the JMT. I quit my job of 7 years as Creative Director of New Idea. I'm not entriely sure whats next and I'm fine with that, I trust myself and my decision making.
It's a total cliche, but this experience was life changing. Confidence, Calm, Clarity are words that come to mind.
I didn't make a snap decision about leaving this well paid gig but I chose not to ignore what I was feeling and thinking in the first weeks of returning home. If you're not loving what you're doing then no amount of money is going to make it bearable.
I've lost my 'consumer gene', shopping is no longer a pastime and I'm on a mission to declutter the apartment. I guess when you get back to basics - water, food, shelter - you start to notice how much crap you have.
On day one when our group assembled, Alwyne got us to take a moment and appreciate how much effort it took just to get to that start line. Some of us had flown around the world, some of us were nervous about age or injury, all of us had spent a lot of money and energy on this endeavour. We were on the trail for 23 days but really the adventure began well before we made it to California and it looks like it'll continue for a while to come.
UP FOR THE CHALLENGE?
Find all the information you need if you're planing to trek the John Muir Trail visit https://www.sierramountaincenter.com the guide company Julie used and also John Muir Trail planning, resupply, permit and map information.