California: John Muir Trail- Bench Lake to Woods Creek- Day 4

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John Muir Trail- Bench Lake (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek

Mileage- 8.94 miles

Elevation Gain- 1418 feet

Elevation Loss- 4031 feet

Bench Lake to Woods Creek

Bench Lake to Woods Creek Profile

Our fourth day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from the Bench Lake area (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek. This would be our shortest day both in distance and elevation gain… and we were welcoming it. Not because the previous days had been overly taxing at all, but because the remaining three days were going to be MONSTROUS. For the record, our trip was originally planned for eight days, but we were confident that we could squeeze the final four days into three and finish a day early, but more on that later.  The smoke from Rough Fire had again cleared out overnight, which brought blue morning skies and the crystal clear waters of Lake Marjorie.  Being that this day was our shortest, we took our time breaking camp.  I believe that each one of us spent some time giving ourselves a good wash… from head to toe.  The September air was cool and perfectly refreshing.  It was a great way to start our day.

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Our trek began at Lake Marjorie at about 11,200 feet.  Within less than two miles we would be at our highest point, Pinchot Pass at 12,050.  The cumulative elevation gain to the pass was probably a bit over 900 feet.  It was an easy climb, again on a well-established trail.  The views back to the north of Lake Marjorie were something special.  The skies were perfectly blue and reflected brilliantly off the water.  Just west of Marjorie you can see Mt. Ruskin and then in the far north North Palisade.  Facing southward you can see Mount Wynne to the east and Mount Ickes to the west.  The change in rock composition and color added a nice element to the canvas.

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Pinchot Pass ended up being one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip for me. As we reached the pass there was a small rocky peak directly to our west and I was convinced that I was going to climb the additional 200 feet for some reason- maybe accomplishment or a better view- I am not really sure, but three of us scrambled to the top as you can see in one of the pictures below. We are at the top waving. Pinchot Pass was also memorable because one I came back down from my side excursion I sat down to eat lunch. On night one a critter stole my spork from the area where I stored my bear can overnight. I had been operating for a few days by having to share with one of the other guys. But when I sat down at Pinchot I leaned backward to stretch and my hand landed on something strange. I picked it up and start screaming. Someone lost a spork and I, by chance, found it! I later boiled and cleaned it for usage the rest of the trip. It was a fantastic moment. For the record, this is the third trip in which I have lost a spork. It’s unreal.

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The descent from Pinchot Pass was one of several visual treats over the 100 miles we covered.  The area opened up with an expansive sky and mountains surrounding us on all sides with Crater Mountain to the west being most notable.  While the view was a bit hazy from Pinchot, as we traveled down the views cleared up nicely.  A few times we would just stop and take time to get a 360 degree view of the area.  It was that kind of place for sure.

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As we approached the Woods Creek area and dipped below the tree line, the afternoon smoke began to roll in. Woods Creek has a really cool suspension bridge that must be crossed in order to reach the camping areas. While the first couple of guys didn’t read the suspension bridge rules of “one person at a time,” the rest of us went one at a time. For this particular area the camping areas were a bit closer together. Not side by side necessarily, but you could easily see other tents and backpackers. I noticed that this area filled up quickly too. Those coming into the area later had to pack further to get spots. This area also sported a metal bear box to put your smelly stuff in, but we just threw our bear cans in it or beside it.

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The next day would take us to Glen Pass and then on to Bubbs Creek. Our remaining days were some of the most beautiful of any trip, but also the most physically exerting.

California: John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake- Day 3

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John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake (Lake Marjorie)

Mileage- 10.8 miles

Elevation Gain- 2787 feet

Elevation Loss- 2472 feet

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake Elevation

On our third day hiking half of the John Muir Trail we were traveling from Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake area.  That is the “official” permit location of our end destination, but we technically stayed at Lake Marjorie.  Lake Marjorie, which is beautiful by the way, is about a mile passed an offshoot trail that would take you to Bench Lake.  Our day would consist of an early morning 1300 foot march up to Mather Pass, a six-mile descent, and a late day 1000 foot ascent (which I don’t like at the end of a day!).  The morning, again, started off clear with stunning blue skies.  Starting the day off at 11,000 feet in early September is a gift of cool, crisp temperatures that are AMAZING for backpacking.  AMAZING.  And we were expecting some stunning views from the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet.

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As you would expect, the trek up to Mather Pass was really pretty easy. From our campsite at the second of two Palisade Lakes it was only a 1300 foot climb.  We could see it as soon as we started hiking and were really pumped to get up there.  There was a hesitant optimism that we may have traveled south far enough to escape the eastward winds of Rough Fire.  That wouldn’t be the case on this day either.  The terrain leading southward for the first mile is sandy with old broken granite rocks amidst sequoias and pines.  The trail is easily visible and traversed.  On either side of Mather Pass you can see steep granite wall and saw tooth ridge lines, respectively.  As we gradually ascended I continued to look back.  Palisades Lake was something nice to look at up close, it’s real beauty is in how exquistively it surrounds itself with peaks and passes.  In the photo with me in it below you will see Disappointment Peak immediately behind me with Palisade Lake smiling on my side.

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The approach to Mather Pass is wide open with busted and broken granite bits and boulders strewn about.  The series of switchbacks are easily managed and traversed.  We were feeling really strong on this day.  Between the acclimatization and adjusting to the time zone difference, we were in our element.

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Crossing over Mather Pass was significantly disappointing.  The smoke from Rough Fire was the worst it had been up to that point.  While we enjoyed our conversation the rest of the hiking day, we were a bit deflated.  On my mind was whether or not it would get any better or if this is what we could expect all the way to Mt. Whitney.  We crossed some pretty streams but, for the most part, our visibility was limited.  It was obvious during our short breaks that morale had suffered.  Epic views were veiled by a serious irritant and my sinuses agreed.  As we approached Marjorie, she was beautiful.  It was obvious that she would really dazzle once the smoke cleared overnight.

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On Day 4 we would be traveling from Bench Lake area (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek Trail area.

 

California: John Muir Trail- LeConte to Palisade Lakes- Day 2

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John Muir Trail- LeConte Canyon to Palisade Lakes

Mileage- 11.1 miles

Elevation Gain- 3705 feet

Elevation Loss- 1512 feet

LeConte to Palisade Lake

LeConte to Palisade Lakes Elevation

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but our trek from LeConte to Palisade Lakes was interesting and a bit of a mixed bag. Our morning was absolutely stunning and clear but the afternoon was really pretty brutal (again) because of the smoke from Rough Fire. We had not quite figured out that the smoke typically rolled in early afternoon. So with our 8am start, coupled with breaks/lunch, we inevitably had about 2-3 hours of smoke at the end of our hiking day. Nonetheless, we had over 11 miles to cover and over 3700 feet total elevation gain from LeConte to Palisades Lakes.

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In early September, morning temps are on the cool side and obviously cooler at higher elevations. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have long pants and sleeves (maybe even another layer) from the time we awoke until the time we broke camp.  That is what it was like this first morning.  You can see where the sun is shining, but it’s warmth is just out of reach. From LeConte we began to descend for a little over three miles to Middle Fork Kings River, which by the way is the lowest point (8113 feet) until after Mt. Whitney.  From LeConte, it’s about a six hundred foot gradual descent that will take you through a beautiful (and peaceful) meadow called Grouse Meadows.  I jumped off of the trail to break through some scattered pines to get a few shots.

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The remainder of our day was up.  From Middle Fork Kings the next eight miles would have us climbing over 3500 total feet in elevation.  It’s an eastward trek following Palisade Creek with Mather Pass set in it’s sights.  We would stop just a couple of miles shy of Mather Pass and leave it for the next day.  Our destination for this day was Palisade Lakes.  And the only way of getting to the lakes is by climbing the Golden Staircase.  Being that we would not be stopping to set up camp at the first of the two Palisade Lakes, our climb up the staircase to our final camp was about 2500 feet.  I admit that this day was tiring.  Of course, we were still adjusting to the elevation, but that climb up the Golden Staircase was taxing. But we pressed on another mile to reach the first of two Palisade Lakes.  By the time we reached the first lake I think we were ready to set up camp!  But we still had two miles and another thousand feet to go.  We put our heads down and found a way to grind out those remaining miles.

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We could have camped at the first lake, but there was another guy already there.  We took our chances by going to the second lake for a little more solitude, which worked perfectly.  We had the second lake all to ourselves!  That was great…and there was the added benefit of cutting mileage for our next day… but we were getting a bit grumpy at the end of this day.  The smoke was taking it’s toll for sure.  There were several campsite options at the second lake.  A few of them were southwest of the trail closer to the lake.  We took a couple of spots in a piney area toward the southeast end of the lake.

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Once the sun began to hid behind the razor edge ridge line across the lake, it began to cool quickly.  We set up camp and then started to pump and prepare for our long-anticipated dinner.  One of the funniest moments of the trip was when we were pumping from a side creek that drained into the lake.  While pumping, Ryan (who was on his first backpacking trip) dropped one of his socks into the creek and did not notice.  We shouted at him and told him that he lost his sock.  The sock had dropped into a small pool about three and a half feet deep (in the middle), but in the excitement of the moment Ryan tried to scamper quickly down the wet, slick rocks in his traction-less evening shoes.  Before we could stop him, he slipped and went full body into the small pool.  We sat there completely stunned at what had just happened.  Patrick was like, “Take a picture.”  I did, but I was so perplexed at the situation that I could hardly move or look away from, the now silent, Ryan.  On one hand it was completely hilarious. But on the other hand, it was a dangerous situation because it was really, really, really cold water and the air temperature was very cool.  Fortunately Ryan was able to recover his sock (ha!) and then change into some warm, dry clothes rather quickly.

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Our third day would take us from Palisade Lakes over Mather Pass to the beautiful Bench Lake area.

If you missed Day 1, here it is:

South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon- Day 1.

California: John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon- Day 1

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John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon

Mileage- 11.5 miles

Elevation Gain- 2800 feet

Elevation Loss- 3874 feet

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte 1

We arrived in Lone Pine, California late Thursday/early Friday and stayed at the Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel, where we got a few hours sleep before dropping our rental vehicle at a Whitney Portal parking lot (our end destination) and meeting our shuttle that would take us to Bishop Pass Trailhead.

We used East Side Sierra Shuttle (Paul Freitheim), who is incredibly knowledgeable of the area and the trail, and who also has a ton of funny stories to share.  He agreed to take us to the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop where we would pick up our backcountry permit.  While two of us took care of the permit, the other guys walked to Eastside Sports to pick up fuel canisters.  Once we secured the permit and fuel we made the short drive to Bishop Pass Trailhead.  We were getting a bit later start than we would have liked.  I think it was after 11am by the time we unloaded our gear and settled up with Paul.  Our estimated mileage for the day from the trailhead to LeConte was 11.5 miles with 2800 total elevation gain.

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Our trek from South Lake began in Inyo National Forest/John Muir Wilderness.  Trail conditions were extremely dry.  Two months before this trip we monitored fire activity in the area.  One of the biggest fires in the area, Rough Fire, began on July 31, 2015 and, despite all efforts to contain it, was still continuing to grow when we began on September 4.  This massive fire was approximately 30 miles west of the John Muir Trail and approximately 80,000 acres, which meant that we would deal with a significant amount of smoke over the seven days on the trail, as you will see in many pictures.

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The great thing about this trail, and then the John Muir Trail, is that there is no guessing where the trail is.  While our Denali trip in 2014 did not have any trails, but was all about route finding and bushwhacking, these trails were incredibly easy to follow.  The greatest challenges for us, even on day one, were acclimating to the elevation and the daily physical demand of distance and elevation gain. At the end of the day, despite all of our exhaustive planning, we are still from Indiana (650 feet above sea level)!  Actually we did just fine.  We trained a ton and I believe everyone took Diamox for a few days to speed up our acclimation to the thin air.  Other than breathing hard on day one, I don’t believe anyone suffered any ill effects.

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Despite the dry conditions, the stunning beauty that we saw was off the chart.  Even when I am surrounded by what looks like a trail among a boulder field I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real.  That is exactly how it was the first 5.5 miles to Bishop Pass, as we crossed into Kings Canyon National Park.  There is certainly a possibility of getting so wrapped up in the mileage and the 2800 foot climb that one doesn’t slow down enough to appreciate where they are or what they are seeing.  People always ask me for advice or perspective on backpacking and the number one thing I always say is, “Don’t forget why you are there in the first place.  Breathe deep and take it all in.”  Pictures are one thing, but remembering how it felt and how it looked with your own eyes is an absolutely priceless experience that a small percentage of the population ever get to realize.  And don’t forget to turn around occasionally to snap a picture of where you came from!

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The biggest drop of the day was around Dusy Basin.  Our eastward view displayed magnificent and hazy views of Isosceles Peak and Columbine Peak.  Further in the eastward distance was a beautiful razor’s edge of 14-ers, including Thunderbolt and North Palisade.  As we continued to drop from Dusy Basin into LeConte Canyon, our views boasted of Langille Peak and the Citadel.  Depending on which direction we were looking we could either see the contrast of marvelous blue skies and ridge lines or mountains fading into the smoky haze.  Unfortunately for us, we were heading into the canyon where the smoky haze rested for the evening.

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From Bishop Pass to the JMT junction at LeConte is 6.0 miles and a descent of 3874 feet.  To be honest, it was some really easy hiking that passed through some really spectacular areas.  The smoke was a real irritant, however.  We realized after a couple of days that the smoke would clear out overnight and then usually reappear around 2 or 3pm the next day.  Being that we got a really late start this first day, we battled the smoke a bit more than would subsequent days.  While I didn’t take any pictures of our campsites or set-up, there are quite a few places to camp that are spread out from one another.  While there were others camping at the other spots, we really never felt as if they were too close or inhibiting our experience.  The camp spots are relatively easy to spot, as they are areas that have had quite a bit of usage over time.  Some areas along the JMT provide metal bear storage boxes to put your bear can in for the night.  In other areas, where there are no metal bear storage boxes, one would need to simply put their bear cans in an area away from tents and the eating/food preparation area.

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The Day 2 would take us from LeConte along the JMT, through Grouse Meadows, up the mighty Golden Staircase, and then to Palisades Lakes.

California: John Muir Trail- Bishop to LeConte to Whitney Portal

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In early September 2015 our group of six, some experienced backpackers and some not, backpacked half of the John Muir Trail in California.  We entered in the town of Bishop, California on the Bishop Pass Trail and connected to the John Muir Trail at LeConte.  We then traveled south over the next seven days to summit Mt. Whitney and exit at the Whitney Portal.

Over the next eight posts I will be detailing each day and providing pictures of the 100 miles we traveled.

If you have any questions about the route, logistical planning, or anything else… feel free to comment below.

Here is the day by day breakdown:

DAY 1: South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte – 11.5 miles

DAY 2: LeConte to Palisade Lakes

DAY 3: Palisade Lake to Bench Lake Area (Lake Marjorie)

DAY 4: Bench Lake to Woods Creek Trail

DAY 5: Woods Creek Trail to Bubbs Creek Trail

DAY 6: Bubbs Creek Trail to Tyndall Creek

DAY 7: Tyndall Creek to Crabtree Meadow

Day 8: Crabtree Meadow to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal

Preparing for a John Muir Trail Backpacking Trip… Getting the Permit

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I am writing this a little more than a month after completing our John Muir backpacking trek, so hopefully I will be able to offer some perspective on what worked and what didn’t work based on our preparations.

One thing I should note at the outset is that we backpacked half of the John Muir Trail (JMT).  We began in Bishop, California, connected to the JMT at LeConte via Bishop Pass Trail, took it south to summit Mt. Whitney, and then exited out at Whitney Portal.  I mention this as our planning for half of the JMT will be significantly different than for those of you who are planning a full length through trip.  So, if you are interested in hiking half of the JMT then this is for you.

For this post I am only going to focus on securing the backcountry permit for this trip, because it is a convoluted and difficult procedure that is difficult to explain and even more difficult to pull off.   But here goes.

Backcountry Permit

The logistical planning for this trip was quite arduous, even for hiking half of JMT.  The permitting process was the most difficult of any trip we have taken to this point…and we have done a significant amount of backcountry hiking in National Parks.  I am not going to talk about the in’s and out’s of the permitting process in general, only the permitting process specific to our trip.  So if you are interested in doing half of the JMT beginning in Bishop then this is what you need to do.  Being that our endeavor began in Bishop, we needed to permit through Inyo National Forest.  No matter where you end, you permit through your place of origin.  For us, Inyo National Forest was our place of origin.

You will need to know your entry and exit dates for this online permit process because you can only register six months prior to your EXIT date.  Let me write that again, you can only compete for a backcountry permit six months in advance of your EXIT date.  I know that sounds backwards, but that is what it is.      Our ext date was scheduled to be September 12, 2015.  So that meant we would compete for a permit beginning on March 12, 2015.  The biggest problem is that there are both ENTRY and EXIT quotas and the number for each is different.  Our fear was that by the time we were able to compete for a permit the entry quota would have already been met.  If you think about it, this process benefits those who do shorter trips.  If there are only 15 entry permits available for Bishop and 15 people are doing two or three day trips… the entry permits would be gone before we even get to the exit date of our eight day trip.

I hate to admit it, but we manipulated the system to insure that we got the permit.  With six guys in our group, securing six permits of the available 15 permits was going to be difficult.  And we knew that we were at a disadvantage by doing a longer trip.  So each day leading up to the beginning of the six month window, I would monitor how quickly the permits would go.  You can monitor it at http://www.recreation.gov.  The entry you would look for is “Bishop Pass -South Lake JM21” and the exit would be “Mt. Whitney (Trailcrest Exit) JM35.”  The permit type is “Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney.”  Each day at 10:00am EST the permits go live and the competition begins.  It lasts less than sixty seconds before all of the permits are gone.  It is serious business.  I practiced a few times by putting in bogus information and then submitting it when it went live. I got really good at securing permits…and then emptying my cart.  Ultimately we decided that to guarantee our entry permit, we needed to go ahead and reserve six entry permits, even though the exit date we put down would be bogus.  Our thought process was that we would just cancel our permit and get charged the cancellation fee, but those six spots would go back to the queue just before our real window opened up.  So that is what we did.  I secured a permit for six with our real entry date and a bogus exit date.  And then about 12 hours before our real window opened on March 12 at 10:00am, I cancelled the bogus permit.  The next morning, just before 10:00am, the quota number repopulated and I was able to secure a permit with the correct entry and exit dates.

I know this sounds confusing… because it is.  It is a terrible process in my humble opinion.  I understand limiting the number of entry and exit permits.  That’s not really the issue.  The issue is making the EXIT date the beginning of the six month permitting window.  It benefits those who want to do shorter trips and unduly penalizes those who want to do longer trips.  Why not make the six month window begin with the ENTRY date?  That way, everyone is equal and has an equal opportunity to secure a permit… without having to manipulate the system.

Below is a picture of our final permit for your own planning purposes.  Of course I removed all of our names and such.

Happy permitting,

Brandon

JMT Permit

New York: Mt. Jo- Lake Placid, Adirondacks

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We took a family vacation in October of 2014 to Lake Placid, New York.  Leading into the planning for that trip I looked at the hiking options for the area.  As luck would have it, Backpacker Magazine detailed some amazing hikes in which one could see the bounty of autumn colors. One of the spreads included Mt. Jo, which is a 2900 foot mountain in the middle of the Adirondacks with a spectacular view of Heart Lake and more late year colors than you can handle.

Unfortunately for us… we missed the peak colors by a week.  Nonetheless, this short 4.0 mile circuit with about 700 feet elevation (up to a peak of 2876 feet) is a really nice hike for beginners, families, or anyone who wants some great views of the Adirondacks.

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To locate the Mt. Jo Trail you have to locate Adirondack Loj, which is south of Lake Placid, New York.  Adirondack Loj is the epicenter of several different hikes of varying distances.  There are two different routes up Mt. Jo, as you can see in the picture above.  The first route, which we took, is a more vertical and direct ascent.  The other route is a circuitous trail which is a bit more gradual, but still with some steep grades. We took this route on the way down.

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Despite the fact that my three-year old was completely tearing up the trail, he hit a wall with the boulders because he could not climb over them.  I threw him on my back and headed the rest of the way up.  I had not had a pack on my back since Denali, so it was a good work out with 45 pounds of wiggling and jiggling.

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As we approached the top of Mt. Jo, it was a bit overcast.  I was hoping for blue skies and big puffy clouds, but I can’t get that on every trip!  The view nonetheless was just spectacular, and one that we enjoyed for quite sometime as we had a snack on the large, open rocky area at the top.  We could see Heart Lake and the surrounding Adirondacks.  Most of the yellows had already fallen, which left all the other autumn colors for us to take in.  For such a short hike, it was well worth the view.

IMG_4102 IMG_4105 IMG_0385We made a quick trip back to the bottom.  The little man was ready for a nap.  Overall I was please with how he did…and how the family, as a whole, did.  The entire hike took us close to fours hours, which accounts for our breaks.  Of course, we wanted to see Heart Lake and get some pictures before we left.  I am glad that we did.  It was beautiful.

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Alaska: Wolverine Creek (Unit 13) to Eielson Summit and Exit (Unit 13) Denali National Park- Day 7

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Wolverine Creek (Unit 13) to Eielson Summit and Exit (Unit 13)

Mileage- 9.2 miles

Elevation Gain- 3750 feet

Elevation Loss- 2700 feet

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Day 7 Denali

Day seven backpacking in Denali National Park was one of the most unbelievable and memorable experiences in all of my backpacking experience. We spent the previous night at Wolverine Creek with the plan of summiting Mt. Eielson and then camping near the Thoroughfare River with a short exit to the Eielson Visitor Center on the morning of day eight.  As it turned out, we ended up exiting the evening of day seven… but more on that later.

We knew that day seven would be a marathon of a day… so we started off early.  As soon as we popped our heads out of our tents we could see that it was going to be the best day of the week.  Prior to this day we had not had a clear view of Mt. McKinley.  Either the clouds covered it or we were not within view, but this day would be remarkably different.

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We followed Crystal Creek and headed toward Castle Rock.  Had it been overcast that day, Castle Rock would have looked ominous as we headed toward it.  Nonetheless, our plan was to hook just left of Castle Rock and pass over a saddle where we would empty the heavy contents of our packs (bear canisters, tents, sleeping bags and pads) and then summit Mt. Eielson.  Of course we would have to backtrack just a bit when coming down Eielson to pick up our gear, but it was significantly less effort doing that than climbing Eielson with full packs.

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As I have mentioned in previous posts, backpacking in Denali is challenging because there are not any trails in the backcountry.  I suppose there could be some recommended routes in certain units, but the trail-less nature of Denali evokes a wild and primal instinct- You are free to roam.  And while that creates more of a challenge going from point A to point B… it is completely worth it.  Ascending Eielson evoked that sense for sure.  After dropping the heavy gear and standing face to face with Eielson, we studied the contours and textures, the obstacles, and the grades… and then we went for it.

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One of the greatest and most unexpected surprises appeared to our left as we climbed with heavy breath.  The first time Mt. McKinley caught my eye was when I stopped to catch my breath.  When I caught sight of the great Denali… everything stopped.  It was glorious, even from 35-miles away.  The blue skies and the Cirrus clouds painted a backdrop that I will never forget.  We could not get to the top of Eielson quick enough.  We knew our best view would be at the very top, but the grade was becoming increasingly steep and the softball to volleyball sized rocks were becoming increasingly unstable.  With each step we had to be certain that the rocks were stable.  Our trekking poles were invaluable, except for Josh who accidentally left his poles with the heavy gear.

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At the top of Eielson we separated along the ridge line and spent close to an hour alone, in solitude. Obviously we wanted some time to ourselves to simply take in and appreciate views which others could only imagine. But more than that, we spent time giving thanks to God for such profound beauty and freedom in the world and in our lives, thanks for the gracious and loving family members who support us and let us use our vacation time for wild and mind-blowing trips, and thanks for the physical ability and outdoor knowledge we have that enables us to go into the wild. When we came back together we took some pictures and then each one of us took turns standing on Eielson’s peak yelling to the top of our lungs “ALASKA!” That was the exclamation mark on one epic and memorable Alaskan adventure.

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As we descended along the ridge line we could see storm clouds brewing. On our last day Alaska would not allow for an easy exit… and that certainly became our running joke for the last four hours that day. It was a rough descent down the mountain and it seemed as if we would never reach the river bed. It began to rain so we dropped the packs and rain geared up. It stopped raining so we dropped our gear and took off the rain coats because they were getting too hot. We got ever closer to the river bed and decided to stop for our last blueberry break. We dropped the packs again and devoured pounds of blueberries. Once we hit the river bed it was going to be a long haul to our final destination… and around each bend… there were more bends and more bends. We finally climbed a twenty foot hill to the west of us to get on top of the land mass we were trying to circumvent. Once on top we hit a straight line and probably cut out a mile’s worth of river bed hiking. We descended and finally approached the Thoroughfare River. It was our last crossing and we sized it up. Again Alaska was laughing. Although we all had dry boots and wished to finish with dry boots… there was no way to cross without going at least knee deep. Like three banshees we ran through the Thoroughfare like runners crossing the finish line.

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We finally reached our destination for the night, which was only one mile from Eielson Visitor Center. As we dropped our packs and began to shape up the area the rain began to fall again and we just looked at each other. We were each thinking the same thing- we are only one mile from a bus out of the park, a cozy bed, and a warm meal at a restaurant! We were outta there. Sure we would have liked to brag about 8 days in the Alaskan wilderness, but 7 sounded just fine. The rainy and muddy hike up to the visitor’s center was a cruel joke and one last way Alaska would put the screws on us. This was NOT a leisure trail. It was near vertical and four inches of mud to step through on the horizontals. The weeds were head high and so we bush whacked. By the time we reached the top we were informed by a ranger that they had just spotted a grizzly in the immediate area in which we were hiking. Of course. We waited 15 minutes for a green bus to pick us up. I am sure the people we sat near did not appreciate our looks or smells.

Would I recommend someone backpack in Denali National Park for a week? Absolutely. But only if you have your head straight. While this was the most labor intensive backpacking I have ever done, it was more of a mental challenge than anything. Despite how difficult it was, it was one of the most beautiful and rewarding accomplishments in my life.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

Alaska: Muldrow Glacier (Unit 19) to Wolverine Creek (Unit 18) Denali National Park- Day 6

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Muldrow Glacier (Unit 19) to Wolverine Creek (Unit 13)

Mileage- 5.1 miles

Elevation Gain- ~500 feet

Elevation Loss- ~500 feet

Day 6 Denali

Day 6 Denali 2On our sixth day in Denali National Park we left Unit 19, crossed the Muldrow Glacier to Green Point (for the second day in a row), and then hiked into Unit 13 to Wolverine Creek just south of Mt. Eielson.

I have to be honest and say that my two favorite days in Denali were days six and seven.  Of course I will write about day seven in the next post, but day six was something else.  We woke up to a few clouds, blue skies, and a warm, radiant sun.  We welcomed it, for sure.  The previous day we were completely soaked and spent much of the evening in our tents.  On this morning we were able to set out all of our wet gear to dry.  We knew that we only had about a five-mile hike so we were cool with getting a later start.  And, despite getting off track the previous day crossing the Muldrow Glacier… we were much more confident  crossing the glacier with a direct route to Green Point this day.

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This biggest issue with crossing the glacier is when you drop down and lose your line of sight to the end destination. As we planned our crossing, we made mental notes of identifiable landmarks within the glacier that would keep us lined up. I suppose a simple compass would do the same thing, but we are guys right? And who wants to ask for directions when we can find it on our own! :) This approach worked just fine. We stayed lined up as we kept our eyes fixed on our intermediary landmarks. Of course the biggest problem with crossing glaciers is the unpredictability of obstacles. Heading toward Green Point we hardly had any real obstacles except for walking around pools of water and going down steep embankments. All of the elevation we encountered on this day was due to the glacier. My guess is that we were under 500 total feet elevation but it may have been just above that. Either way it was easy elevation.

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Once we got to Green Point we followed Glacier Creek north until we saw the base of Eielson to the north.  We travelled eastward and just south of Eielson, which we would be summiting the next morning.  McKinley had been elusive for our first six days either because we were out of range or because the clouds covered her.  The park claims that only 30% of all visitors to the park get a chance to see McKinley.  Our best chance would be on top of Eielson.

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We followed fresh water of Wolverine Creek through a rock-bed carve out between mountains where we would be camping for the night.  Despite the fact that we wanted to be done for the day so we could pump and eat, we pressed on so that our hike to the saddle on the southeast side of Eielson would be shorter the next morning.  We would be dropping our gear on the other side of the saddle the next morning so that we could ascend Eielson without much weight on our backs.  Finding a spot to camp along Wolverine Creek was not easy because of the rocks and uneven terrain.  We pressed on until we found a spot that could handle our two tents.

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We pumped, ate, and settled down for a much needed night’s rest to prepare for the 11-mile marathon hike up Mt. Eielson and then out to the Eielson Visitors Center. Our most epic day awaited us.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.