They say ignorance is bliss, and for our friend Katie, her first backpacking adventure really was a blissfully ignorant experience. But for Kat and I, her “hiking chaperones”, not so much. Last summer Kat and I hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT). For the 2 years building up to our hike, Katie watched us plan and prepare every detail for this super intense thru hike and as she took it all in, decided she wanted to have a taste of our adventure. She had never backpacked and wasn’t much of a hiker but what she had was great athletic ability as a swimmer and cyclist and a shared sense of wanting something fun and challenging outdoors; our hiking plans had definitely piqued her interest. The plan was for Katie to tag along for the ride and join us for our first 2 acclimation nights at Curry Camp in Yosemite where we would officially start our thru hike. We then went one step further and told Katie she should start out with us on our JMT hike and camp with us our first night at Little Yosemite Valley. It was the perfect plan and Katie was stoked and so were we…this was an epic adventure and we were happy to share in the excitement.
Upon arriving at Yosemite, Kat and I watched as the euphoria of being in nature and especially of being in breathtakingly beautiful Yosemite take hold of Katie. Before our very eyes, we were watching a hiking newbie as she was overcome and overwhelmed by something she had never witnessed or experienced…she was seeing things and feeling things that she never knew she was missing but quickly realizing she needed in her life. Her excitement reminded me of a 4-year-old seeing Disneyland for the first time…but even better because there’s not much left that excites a 50 year to this level!
We spent 2 days acclimatizing and mentally preparing for a hike of a lifetime. They say that the hardest part of the John Muir Trail is the first 4.3 miles hiking out of the Yosemite Valley. It’s an elevation gain of 2100′ feet and its carrying a 35 lb pack on your not yet developed “trail legs” that gets you and I would whole heartedly agree with that assessment. Its straight up steep, climbing overly tall granite steps . Having left at dawn, we arrived at Little Yosemite Valley early, made first nights camp and relaxed for a bit, swimming in the Merced River, kicking back on the banks of the river, especially enjoyable coming from the dry dusty desert. We were feeling proud of our first day on the trail. But we couldn’t leave well enough alone and decided although we were beat from our hike up, we just needed to get in the presence of Half Dome, Yosemite’s tallest granite peak. Bravely admitting it just wasn’t in the cards to climb up this scary beast on this trip (for me, I just knew I wouldn’t have the strength to make it up 600′ of straight up chains) but still, we wanted to get close to H.D. and see for ourselves this wondrous peak known both for its beauty and it’s adrenaline inducing thrill of making it to the top without plummeting to one’s death. It’s intense and you have to be on your game, and I had no game left that first day. We set off from L.Y.V. at 3:00 in the afternoon and made our way up the trail with the general idea of going as far as the sub-dome and then we would turn around. But very soon after we started out, Katie, who hadn’t hiked with a 35lb pack on her back that day got another shot of her new-found euphoric energy at the thought of seeing Half Dome, started hiking faster than us, pulling ahead and as quickly as you can say , “never separate from your hiking group”, she was gone and out of sight from us. Oh-kee-dokie. Kat and I didn’t love that she’d done that, but like I said, Katie is athletic, she’s smart…but…she’s not a hiker…and it was getting a little late to summit Half Dome and the icing on the cake; ominous thunder heads were forming quickly in the not too far off horizon. Sudden and fast moving storms are the #1 way people die on Half Dome; when lightning strikes on that wide open granite, the valleys biggest and highest lightning rod, people have no place to take shelter. Kat and I picked up our pace thinking we would catch up to Katie but we didn’t. We continued on and as we were passing people coming down from H.D. we started asking if they had seen a petite blond in a bright blue jacket. They would all pause to think, but ultimately respond with a “no”. We kept hiking up the trail and thats when I started noticing little trails that went off the main trail. I was getting a stomach ache. We kept hiking and asking, always with the same answer, “no, we haven’t seen her.” Luckily dusk was a few hours away since it was summer but the clouds were creeping in closer and closer and we were getting panicky. Which wrong trail did Katie take? Will she know how to find her way back? Is she scared being all alone and lost? Does she have enough water? Will a bear eat her? Will her husband kill us when we have to break the news to him that we lost his wife? By this time I was on the verge of throwing up. My already wobbly legs were getting weaker and weaker as the minutes passed. Kat was handling this much different…she was swearing with clenched fists, ready to take Katie out (if we ever saw her again). We came upon our 10th group of hikers who we just happened to have hiked with earlier in the day. We stopped and traded a few pleasantries about meeting on the trail again and then quickly changed the subject and once again asked if they’d seen Katie who they knew from earlier in the day. This time we got a different answer…”yes, we saw her going up as we were coming down.” I’m sure all the other groups had been too deep into their own Half Dome hiking experience to notice Katie but our new trail friends probably stopped to say hello again and thats why they noticed her. At the news that Katie had been spotted, I nearly started crying with joy. Kat now was able to really let loose knowing she wouldn’t regret her words since Katie was actually still alive.
Hearing that Katie was safe and now headed all the way up Half Dome, Kat and I knew there was nothing we could do, that she’d be a few hours. Knowing we still needed to filter water, collect our camp water, make dinner and re-pack our bear canisters and prep for the next full day of hiking, we headed back down to our camp site so that we weren’t doing these tasks in the dark. The clouds were still a worry but I trusted that if the threat grew eminent, a “real” hiker would kindly grab Katie by the hand and yank her down as fast as they could go…she wouldnt be left behind.
Dusk fell and no sign of Katie but very soon after full on nightfall, 2 headlamps walked towards our campsite, one being Katie and the other being her new hiking buddy who just happened to be a world traveling hiker, quite famous on Instagram. She met him on the way up, also picking up another solo hiker on the way. And according to Katie, she spent several hours in the company of two of the most interesting and intellectual people she had ever met. Part of what made her new friends so interesting was their wanderlust for nature and hiking and their lack of materialism that backpacking reminds us so beautifully of. It was another piece of the puzzle that Katie didn’t realize she was missing, but was happily discovering thru yet another chance meeting of enlightened backpackers who were happy to share what those of us who love the backcountry know.
To say that Katie enjoyed her Half Dome climb would truly be the understatement of the century. You couldn’t wipe the grin off her face, her feet were barely touching the ground…the woman was high as a kite!!! I explained as kindly as I could that she literally broke every backpacking/hiking rule in the book while Kat unleashed on her ( in a scary but loving momma bear way)…how it effected us as her hiking partners and what she did was the ultimate in selfishness. But it didn’t matter. Katie was too drunk on nature and she could barely concentrate on what we were saying. She was giddy with the joy that nature always delivers. She interupted our lectures several times to relive her Half Dome assent…she couldn’t believe that this type of experience was out there waiting for the taking! It was infectious and we loved experiencing Katies first taste of nature with her…it had been a long time since our own first step into nature that would forever change us and it was fun to experience it again through someone else’s eyes. Lecture over. It was pointless.
Day 2 we woke up, had coffee and breakfast, packed up and walked Katie to the fork in the trail. Kat and I would turn right and continue another 207 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 and Katie would turn left, taking the 4.3 mile trail back to Yosemite Valley. The three of us hugged and said our farewells, turned in opposite directions and set off…2 of us about to embarked on the most epic 211 mile of our life, one just completing the most epic hike of her life thus far, crushing Half Dome. And discovering her new found love of nature.