In March I was contacted by Sam and Steven Chaneles, a Miami-based father-son team who were planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail in 2017. Due to permit availability and personal schedules, their dates were June 17 through July 9. They’d been watching the record-setting snowpack plots and were increasingly concerned about the feasibility of their plans given their thin backpacking resumes.
I was able to help them pare down their kits, talk through anxieties, and set their expectations — and then they did all the hard work (and had all the fun, and a heck of a father-son trip) in the High Sierra. After they returned, Sam wrote me and included a few photos and anecdotes. It sounded truly epic, and I thought their story was worth sharing — partly for the entertainment value, but also to help others better understand the challenges and hazards of early-season backpacking in the High Sierra, especially after an exceptionally wet winter. Sam posted a more general trip report on his website, Engineered for Adventure.
In this four-part interview, Sam and I discuss:
- Snow coverage, navigation, traction & snowshoes
- Passes, axes, and crampons
- River fords
- Mosquitoes & final thoughts
Q | Did you encounter any mosquitoes? At what elevation and times of day?
Thankfully, we encountered mosquitoes only a few times, and only once or twice were they bad enough that we put on our headnets. That said, those mosquitoes we encountered swarmed aggressively (that that’s coming from someone who grew up in South Florida!) and didn’t seem particularly discouraged by spray repellent.
We were most bothered by them when we were at lower elevations, particularly in wooded areas near water, yet I was surprised to find some pesky ones even at high elevations. We were early enough that they were not a huge issue, yet as the offspring begin to hatch they will become a pesky nuisance.
Q | If there are topics that you think are important that we have not addressed,
As a novice to the High Sierra, and the JMT in particular, one thing I would note for others in my position is that while I remain convinced that extensive pre-planning is key to a successful and enjoyable through-hike, all of the Google Earth images one can capture and all of the books and maps one can find are no substitute for actually being on the ground and being able to react to real-time conditions. When in doubt, be safe. Be patient, open-minded, and creative. When faced with an unforeseen condition or event (for example, a significant gear failure or a more difficult than expected water crossing or, perhaps the sudden realization that your power bank won’t recharge your GPS device before the next resupply stop), take a deep breath and talk yourself through possible solutions before taking action.
A major realization I came to is that a thru-hike is a collection of “oh-shit” moments, and your success is dependent upon how you deal with them. The best example of this came in Tuolumne Meadows on day 3 of our trip. We had come across the first creek for which I had to take my boots off. Instead of securing my boots to my pack, like I should have, I decided to toss my boots across the crossing. I took my first boot, and lofted it high in the air, and proceeded to bank shot it off a tree and into a tributary feeding into the Tuolumne River about 30 yards to my left. I managed to save the first boot; I hadn’t realized that I dropped the second boot onto the bank when I ran to save the first boot, stuffed with a pair of socks and the bottom extensions of my zip-off my pants, which then rolled down the bank and into the river, floating off into the distance behind my back.
I could have flipped out at that point, with only one boot and Donohue Pass in front of me, yet one of the most important things I have learned from my experience is to stay calm and find a solution. I let out a primal scream then got to work. I pulled out my Garmin inReach to message my mom at home and tell her I needed a new pair of boots shipped overnight (thank you, Zappos!) to Mammoth Lakes, where I would be resupplying in two days. I then proceeded to hike up and over Donohue Pass in Crocs and crampons, a combination that was uncomfortable but got the job done. By staying calm and working through the problem, I was able to make it safely to Mammoth Lakes and to a new pair of boots (and earn my trail name, “Bullseye,” in the process).
In terms of nutrition, there are other ways to sustain yourself than Snickers bars and ramen noodles. We had a larger budget available than most PCT hikers (thanks, Mom and Dad), so we chose to make our own freeze-dried meals, purchasing individual freeze-dried ingredients and mixing them to make delicious combinations such as shepherd’s pie and beef chili.