John Muir Trail 1971 first week: Tuollumne Mdw to Reds Meadow Resort
1st week: Tuolumne Meadows to Reds Meadow Resort:
By late afternoon, we had all regrouped and departed from the trailhead near the Tuolumne Meadows campground. We were filled with anticipation of the adventure that lay ahead and yet also trepidation as to whether we (and our equipment) were up to the challenge. There were no cell phones, and many times during the trip we would be as many as 24 hours away from assistance.
If something on us or our equipment broke, we would have to make do. However, the size of our group gave us a breadth of experience, expertise, and ability that would allow us to deal with just about any situation. Once again, we had ample supplies of confidence and ignorance. Below, seated: Nancy Hall, Bob Shaver. Standing: Wes Little, John Laine, Kevin Anderson, Steve Siebert, Steve Little, Mike Shaver, Madelyn Paine, Chuck Ringrose, and Conrad Lowry.
As we ventured further into the canyon, we continually tweaked and adjusted our packs and tried to find our natural hiking cadence, which always takes a long time at the beginning of a trip. Later, we would find the "zone" within a matter of minutes.
As the group approached Rafferty Creek, its flow was much larger than expected. We felt it could not be safely crossed and we also assumed it was the Lyell River, so we started following it upstream, which was the wrong way. As evening approached, we reached a camp on the creek. We were all tired and a little sore, even though it was a short day, because none of us were used to the heavy packs and none of us were in shape for that high elevation.
My girlfriend Beth drove up from Modesto, and I hiked back down to the Meadows to meet her and spend the night there.
I got up early and bombed up to Rafferty Creek but the troops had already split. We finally met Conrad, John, and Mike. The whole group had apparently gone up Rafferty Creek rather than up Lyell Canyon and the JMT. We had all been fooled the evening before when reading the map. When the mistake was discovered, Conrad dropped his pack and ran up the trail to catch Chuck, but never caught up with him.
Since no one had seen him leave camp that morning we all hoped that he would realize his mistake and come back down the trail, to rejoin the JMT.
We went back the trail ourselves to the Lyell River, where Beth left us and headed back down to Tuolumne Meadows, and we started up Lyell Canyon. Reports told us that one group of 4 was ahead of us, and a larger group ahead of them. We knew the smaller group was ours and hoped the other included Chuck.
Cruising along all afternoon we caught sight of Chris Hughes a few times but never caught up with them till camp that night at the headwaters of the Lyell River, a campsite arranged the day before. We made camp and hoped that Chuck would make it in and that everything was all right with the people that were with him. They showed up shortly, after climbing up Rafferty Creek and then an exhausting hike cross country to our camp on the Lyell. Not a good start to the trip. Everyone was very tired, and we set about making supper and a good nights sleep.
Our itinerary for the trip was not planned for each day of the week. We picked three high and about equally spaced trailheads for our food drops, arranged for the food to be delivered to the trailheads on each Saturday, and the itinerary between food drops we figured out as we went. That allowed us to adjust the pace of the trip, and choose layover days for the best areas we found, or the best fishing or climbing, or to avoid mosquitoes. This loose itinerary worked out very well. One thing Mike and I didn’t anticipate was the urge of the hikers to get to the next food drop as early as possible, even a day or so early. Sometimes just making it in time was tough, but it was always nice to get a hamburger and shake, and take our clothes to a laundromat to get them washed.
Below: Where the JMT crosses the Lyell fork and heads uphill to Donahue Pass. Wait a minute, where is the bridge?
From Lyell Creek we headed for Donahue Pass, where we had lunch. The view of Lyell was quite good, and Chuck and I headed off from there to climb Donahue Peak. It was about 2 miles and 1000 ' gain from Donahue Pass to Donahue Peak. We agreed on a place to meet the others at Thousand Island lake, and wished them a good trip as we headed for the peak. The peak was an easy one, but it gave us a late start for Thousand Island Lake. We were wet from the snow when we crossed the Woods Creek Valley, a very secluded and peaceful place. Going up Island Pass I was really tired and we reached camp totally exhausted. The main group had beaten us to camp by only a few minutes, so we all hustled around for supper. As evening deepened the imposing view of Banner was spectacular. The peak really dominates the area, appearing to be an Everest from our camp.
Below: stream crossing between Donahue and Island Passes
Layover Day at 1000 Island Lake: Everyone was ready for a day of loafing and I sure was. Nancy loaned me a book that John was carrying, and with the book I hiked back over to the lovely Woods Canyon and spent the day reading and fishing. I returned in the evening, and found that everyone had used the day to fish, wash clothes, read, write, and sleep. Several had gone off and spent the day alone as I had. It was almost a new moon, and that night the Milky Way made a stunning sight against the profile of Banner Peak.
Below: Conrad soaking up some sun at 1000 Island Lake. Note the foam sleeping pad, and tube tents used as ground cloth.
Next day we headed to Lake Ediza. This was really a fun day. We got a late start from Thousand Island lake and traversed past Purple and Shadow Lakes toward the trail that branched off to go to beautiful Lake Ediza. A few of us were alternately bombing and going slow, and we all had lunch at Shadow Lake. The entertainment for lunch was provided by John and Nancy. We had passed a group of girls and John was full of plans and ideas of meeting the girls, which didn’t make Nancy happy.
The group of girls hiked past as we ate lunch and made no reply to John’s warm greeting. What he did get was a rock thrown by his girlfriend Nancy. After a long lunch we climbed a hill to the valley below Lake Ediza. Chuck and I stopped at a falls for the others to catch up and had a nice shower and rest. When the rest of the group caught up several more had showers in the falls before we headed up toward Lake Ediza. About ½ mile below the lake we found a really nice campsite near the deep and silent stream. After some exploring we found a meadow and marsh area really thick with wild onions, which we set about harvesting. My cook group, Chuck, Madelyne, Wes Little and myself had enough to fry them into a good vegetable dish and added some fish caught at Thousand Island Lake that we had carried with us.
We had a campfire and cooked popcorn and most groups had breads or cakes before retiring. Chuck was given the task of baking bread for our group, and really burned it badly. He made up for it later in the trip by turning out a series of flawless breads.
We cooked in groups of 4, and each group had a steel army ranger cookset. This set had a pair of nesting pots, with wire bails. The lid was a shallow frying pan, with wire handles that folded against the side of the pan. By putting water in the outer pot, and bread mix inside the inner pot, we made a double boiler, and could cook bread and cake mixes. We always camped in wooded areas in those days, and had wood fires. Stoves were an optional kind of thing, and only Conrad and Chris had a stove on this trip. We baked by putting the nested pots on a bed of coals, and then we put coals on the lid to heat the top of the mix. With practice, the breads could be baked perfectly, and were delicious. Each cook group also had a grill with three wires, which would be placed between two rocks with a fire under it. The outer pot became black from the smoke and the cook set was carried in a cloth bag.
This day was a layover day, so the fishermen planned to hit Lake Ediza. Chuck, John and I were gong to climb 14,000' Mt. Ritter. We started out early, reaching Lake Ediza at dawn. We went around the south end of the lake and soon found ourselves kicking steps up the glacier. We were heading for the notch between the two peaks of Ritter and Banner, both 14,000 foot peaks. Earlier that Spring three out of a party of four Sierra Club climbers were caught by a storm on Ritter and the three froze, the fourth one got out. We were carrying a newspaper clipping about the tragedy to leave in the register. All the prominent Sierra peaks had a metal register on their top, which opened to reveal a hardbound book in most cases. The tradition was that each climber signed the register, and could describe the weather or the trip, where they were from, and whatever else they wanted to say. The full registers were replaced with new books periodically by Sierra Club members.
All the way to the notch we ascended the snow field by kicking steps in the snow. At the notch we looked at the north side of Ritter and it looked really hard to me. From the notch we were about 500 vertical feet to the summit of either mountain. John wanted to stay but we talked him into continuing for a ways.
We stared up the most prominent chute and climbed its ice until it became quite steep and terminated. Chuck and I both had ice axes, but I don’t think John did. At that point John had had enough and waited for us there. Chuck and I climbed up and left out of the coular into the coular to the left. We just traversed across the top of this one to a ramp leading to the top. Three belayed pitches across the coular and 3 up the ramp. At the top of the ramp it was boulder hopping to the peak across boulders and wind fluted snow. We signed and read the register as we huddled from the wind. To the west we could see Half Dome and Yosemite, north were the big lakes of the Owens Valley: Mono, Crowley, and Owens. South was the whole of the Sierra and a tiny bump that I recognized as Mt. Whitney, our destination some 200 miles away.
Too bad it was too cold to really enjoy the view. After a quick lunch we started down, picked up John on the way, much shaken from 3 hours alone on an exposed coular, and had a long wet glissade to the notch between Ritter and Banner. At the notch Chuck began running up the south face of Banner, scrambling up the peak like a madman. John and I waited for him and we was to the top of Banner and back down in no time at all. The glissade from the notch to the bottom of the glacier was very fast and John especially enjoyed it. The trip down to Ediza and home to camp was uneventful, but Lake Ediza is a beautiful area.
Not much ground to cover, and we got off to a late start. From Ediza the trail took us by Shadow Lake and through rather uneventful country toward the small, marshy, Trinity Lakes, our destination for the night. We had lunch together on rocks, and met an old man and his daughter who were doing the Muir Trail also. She was a student at Berkeley and very cute. She wasn’t John’s type, we all decided; too brainy. Apparently her father was beginning to have problems with his legs and was becoming discouraged. He’s a tough old guy and I hope he makes it.
After lunch Conrad and I lagged behind, talking. We were overtaken by a group of four middle aged fishermen.
“Hello, where you headed?” they asked.
“The Postpile. How about yourselves.”
“Same. Have those ice picks come in any good or you?” They were referring to our ice axes, which several of our group were carrying.
“On Donahue Pass they were life savers, and we used them climbing Mt. Ritter also.”
“Oh. Say, has that mob from Toullumne passed you? A big party doing the Muir Trail.”
And thus was born the name of infamy that spread terror in the hearts of backpackers far and wide. Mothers would tell their kids “you’d better eat your spinach or the Toullumne Mob will get you.” That may be an exaggeration, but the name stuck with us and seemed to fit. This was perhaps the start of a feeling of group unity, a feeling that would grow after we’d weathered a few storms together. We were the Mob, or the Toullumne Mob.
We reached the Trinity lakes and spent the afternoon sitting around, throwing rocks into the water, and other intellectual pursuits. John, Kevin, Madelyn and Wes were not here and had presumably missed the lakes and gone bombing down toward the Postpile. Mike put on some running shoes and ran after them, passing John and Wes and going on after Kevin and Madeylin.
Meanwhile Mike had returned. He had run down Kevin and Madelyn, and they were on their way back to Trinity lakes. Kevin showed up shortly and said that Madelyn was far back and having a hard time of it. Mike had left the two of them at a trail crossing, the other trail going deep into the heart of the Minarets. This was also the last time Kevin had seen her, since he left before she was ready to go.
When she didn’t show up for a while more, Chuck went to help her carry her pack up. It was fully dark by now. After 40 minutes Chuck hadn’t returned so I went after them, with Nancy waiting supper for our return. I ran down the trail to the trail crossing Mike had told me about, then on towards the Postpile. What had happened, had I missed them somehow? Had they gone on down to the Postpile for the night? Had they taken the wrong trail? When I reached a river crossing too dangerous to cross at night I headed back, calling all the way. About a mile from Trinity Lakes Mike met me. They hadn’t shown up at camp either, so all we could do was wait until morning. We assumed they were together, and Chuck could handle any emergency that came up.
We had an uneasy night of wondering about Madelyn. It was at this time that I was really struck with my responsibility. No matter what happened, I was responsible for the safety of eleven people. I cursed myself for not having made a stronger point earlier about not going off without a map and with no idea of where you were going.
Early in the morning Chuck came into camp.
“Where did you find Madelyn, and where is she now, at the Postpile?”
“I never found her. I spent the night at the river. Ran all way down to the Postpile and couldn’t cross the river on my way back. No sign of her here?”
“Damn! We thought you would have found her and you two would have spent the night somewhere together. How the Hell could she get off the trail, anyhow?”
We knew that she had food so if she didn’t panic she would be OK. I packed up and took off down the trail, agreeing to meet Mike and the others at the Postpile, where we could search the place if she hadn’t been found. At the trail crossing some fishermen had seen a girl in red windpants heading down that morning. Yes, she had come from the Minarets trail.
I bombed on, and found her at the trail heading into the Postpile. She was fine, but shaken after spending the night alone on the wrong fork of the trail. She had discovered her mistake the next morning, and waited for us on the bridge when I found her. God, what a relief! We went on to Reds Meadows and I bought her breakfast at the café while we waited for the others. Apparently when Mike and Kevin left her they were so close to the fork that they assumed she would either remember the way she came or read the sign. She did neither, and hiked up the wrong fork until overtaken by darkness.
I filled her in on the happenings of the evening, and she really felt bad about causing us concern. She said that she had really learned something and would be more careful next time. Chuck and Mike arrived, followed shortly by the group. Some had found a natural soda spring and mixed it in the canteens with Wyler's lemonade for a kind of natural soda pop. A few of us had breakfast and everyone made a raid on the Reds Meadows store, resupplying for the coming week. It was becoming obvious the the food we had packed up for the trip would keep us alive, but to be full and satisfied we needed to buy supplement food in the form of bread mixes, dry cereal and powdered milk, and extra lunch foods.
The hot showers at the Reds Meadows campground (a rustic bath house serviced by a natural hot spring) were really heaven, and after the showers we went back to the store in time to see several freshly-baked pies being devoured by almost stuffed hikers. We had lunch there, and waited for our resupply goods being driven up by the Powells, who should have been there by mid-morning. I walked down to the lower campground to see if they showed up, and was joined a while later by Madelyn. We waited and waited, and the Powell’s van finally showed up at 2:00. We hopped in and drove to the Reds Meadows store and proceeded to sort, divide and pack our food for the coming week.
Something new for us that we tried on this trip was rotating cook groups every food drop. We hoped to put everyone with everyone else at least once. That would also allow us to avoid very large personality clashes. At the food drop, the new cook groups had to get together and divide their community gear (cook sets and grills) and food as evenly as possible, with each member carrying several meal bags. Each meal was a self contained bag, with drinks, dessert, and main course for four people in one bag. For lunches, each person had a separate lunch bag for each day, and in each bag was a complete lunch for one. That way, no matter where people were, they had their lunch for the day. They could also easily throw a lunch in a daypack for a day hike on a layover day.