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Sean "Miner" Nordeen
Begins: Sep 21, 2017
Date: Sun, Nov 5th, 2017
Trip Distance: 210.4
Entry Visits: 124
Journal Visits: 2,635
Guestbook Views: 8
Guestbook Entrys: 0
Overall, I was able to do the sort of mileage that I had wanted to and finished in 16 days after starting. Given that I started after 1pm on the first day and took an equivalent of 2.5 days off over the course of my hike, I'm pretty happy with the pace and daily mileage I did. Especially considering that I was often stopping almost an hour earlier than I normally would have in the summer months due to the shorter days of fall. The training hikes I did in the 2 months prior to my hike paid off, even though I did do very little hiking in the 2.5 weeks between Labor Day and the start of my hike. I lost about 5 pounds on my trip, though I suspect it was actually more but not showing up on my scale due to muscle gain in my legs during the hike.
The scenery was excellent. I was able to see snow covered mountains in the begining and some fall colors for the southern half of the trip. There was signs of a fire to the SW of Mt. Whitney, but it was only noticeable in the far distance after going over Forester Pass and I only smelled it during the later afternoon as I was descending down to the trailhead from Mt. Whitney when the wind direction shifted in my direction.
In the Sierra, snow is possible in month of the the year, including summer. But the chances of it are higher in the shoulder seasons then in July and August. In the second half of September, I've been snowed on a few times over the years. And this year was no different. The night before I started, at least 6 inches of snow was dumped at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite which is at ~8600 ft elevation. That is about twice the amount of snow that I would expect for this time of the year, though its not unheard of. Higher elevations received more. More snow dumped the following afternoon and night, though it was just 1-2 inches; at least where I was camped at around 7000 ft elevation. Some of the stories I heard from other hikers who went over Donahue Pass the following day, said they hit places where it was 16" deep. That said, it all melted off over the next several days and I had gorgeous weather for the remaining part of the trip which lasted well into the first week of October.
The only disappointment on this hike was my failure to hike Half Dome even though I had a permit to do so. Due to the snow I encountered at the very start, conditions didn't seem safe while I was nearby and I was unwilling to wait the extra hours needed for the icy conditions to melt off. I still think I made the right decision, but given I haven't climbed halfdome in over 20 years, I'm thinking I'm going to have to be more proactive in making it happen next year; even if it ends up being a day hike (which still requires a hard to get permit).
When I started this trip, I had the idea that I might add the High Sierra Trail (HST) to the end of my hike and exit out Sequoia NP instead of the Whintey Portal. That would enable me to see the Giant Sequoia trees that only grow on the western part of the Sierra Nevada. It was always a questionable goal as even the most optimistic schedule had me finishing in the afternoon of my last day allocated for the hike before I would have to return to work the following day. That said, I did maintain the necessary pace to make that trip happen. However, when I exited over Kearsarge Pass to resupply at Onion Valley TH (above the town of Independence), my ride back to my car in Yosemite texted me that he would prefer to pick me up before Sunday. That, and the fact that my right leg was starting to hurt some (especially at night as it got cold), made me decide that, while still possible, it would be better to give it up. That said, if someone has the extra time, I highly recommend the HST as an excellent ending point if they want to get a little more of the Sierra Nevada before heading home. I'm planning on coming back in the next year or two and hiking the HST as I've never done the entire trail before as the logistics are bad since you start and end on opposite ends of the mountain range with no nearby roads across. So I suspect, it will be made into a longer loop hike, which gives more time to enjoy the Sierra.
Hiking in fall verses other times of the year:
I hiked most of the JMT in 2009 as part of a PCT thru-hike in late spring in what was considered an about average year for the amount of snow that fell. The time frame for the JMT portion of that hike was late June through early July when the high passes were still covered in significant snow. The trail would disappear into the snow as you got near the pass and a hiker would be forced to scramble straight up and down to get over the pass. Snow softening in the later part of the day would lead to postholing where the snow would not support your weight and your leg would sink, sometimes up to the thigh, so there was great pressure to do the miles necessary to get over a pass by late morning and then camp close enough to the next pass to repeat. Water fords can become dangerous due to deep and fast running water. The need to carry the extra weight of snow gear (Ice Axes and traction devices) and extra food due to the slower pace just makes it even more miserable. This ended up being some of the toughest hiking I've ever done. That said, I still averaged 19.8 miles that year. However, that was only due to the fact that I had just hiked almost 800 miles in the mountains just prior to that, having hiked all the way from the Mexican border. I also put in some very long days, taking full advantage of the fact that I was hiking in the longest days of the year; often getting up before 6:30am and hiking till almost 8pm at night. However, the snow on the mountains was beautiful and I don't think the scenery in the Sierra Nevada gets any better then what I saw.
Over the years, I've done numerous trips into the Sierra in the usuall summer months after most of the snow has melted off, including parts of the JMT. Mosquitos are often at their worse, just after the snow melt off when the ground is finally clear of the white stuff and last well into August in a normal year. The frequency and often the intensity of thunderstorms seems to go up as summer progresses. That said, with the snow gone in all but the highest locations, travel is much easier, though some fords can still be challenging into the later part of summer. However, the numbers of other hikers is at its peak and solitude becomes harder to find; impossible in some of the more popular areas. As a result, backpacking permits can be harder to come by. Temperatures, in all but the lower altitudes, are usually moderate, and the Sierra Nevada has some of the best high mountain weather in the world during the summer months. That said, I've seen snow in every month of the year in the Sierra, and given some of the intensities of the thunderstorms I've seen, thinking you don't need raingear or a shelter, is a foolish idea. Just because someone else got away with it once, doesn't mean you will.
I've always enjoyed hiking in the Sierra Nevada in September after Labor Day passes. In many ways, its my favorite time of the year to hike. The mosquitos and crowds are long gone, water fords are low (and you can often keep your feet dry), there is no snow worth mentioning, and the frequency of thunderstorms has dropped. In the later part of September, fall colors start to be seen. Though temperatures are lower during the day, which I prefer to hike in, they start to fall below freezing at night and you may see the occasional dusting of snow, though I think that adds beauty to the mountain peaks. As you start to move into October, the risk of a major winter storm starts to go up, with the probability increasing the later in the month you go. I find the hiking to be at the easiest this time of the year, though the rapidly shortening days do mean you can't hike as long as you could 1 or 2 months earlier. That said, night hiking in the Sierra can be a magical thing as the white granite that is so prevasive through much of the terrain reflects moon and star light really well once you are above the treeline. I had always planned for this trip of the JMT to be in the month of September; though I had wanted to start a week or two earlier than I actually did. I did not expect it to take as long as it did to get a permit as the number of hikers usually falls off quickly after Labor Day. I wonder how much of that was due to the large amount of snow that fell this year as I supect it had many hikers delaying or rescheduling their hikes to start later this year than usual.
No matter when you hike the JMT, the scenery will be some of the best you will ever see. It should be on your short list of must do hikes. That said, there is much more to the Sierra Nevada then just the JMT. I've read about people that keep coming back to the JMT year after year and I sometimes wonder why. There is so much beauty in these mountains, so why limit yourself to the same thing all the time instead of exploring a new trail or area. You can randomly piece together a 100+ mile trip from any map of the Sierra and be almost guaranteed to have a great trip with excellent scenery. Don't just limit yourself to the JMT with its summer crowds as you can't go wrong no matter where you hike in the Sierra.
I took over 600 photos of my JMT fall hike. The entire album can be found here: JMT Fall 2017 Photos
A Walk South On The JMT - 2017
The John Muir Trail passes through a land of 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks, of lakes in the thousands, and of canyons and granite cliffs. It's also a land blessed with the mildest, sunniest climate of any major mountain range in the world. The John Muir Trail is 211 miles long and runs (mostly in conjunction with the PCT) from Yosemite Valley to Mt Whitney, in California.
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