The raindrops started abruptly, then turned into sleet, dropping faster and harder as I panted up 12,100-foot Mather Pass. Completely exposed, I needed to get up and over, but my sweat was cooling and I knew wet, biting wind would blast me at the top. I dropped my backpack to the ground, carefully tipping it away from the rocky drop-off and balancing it in the wind as I hauled out my rain jacket and wrestled it on. I hoisted the pack up and cinched the belt, then willed adrenaline to hurry my aching legs up the remaining switchbacks. Up top, I crossed the pass in a few strides.
The view, a phenomenal forever of treeless moonscape dribbled with glassy lakes, suddenly darkened. Hail fell. My unobstructed sightline found not one person visible below, although my younger and stronger hiking partner, Kirsten Keith, was ahead somewhere, having sensibly descended as the storm closed in. I began lurching quickly, too fast for safety in the sleet, down the rocky switchbacks between steeply plummeting slopes. My hands quickly numbed and I cursed myself for not having fished out my gloves and hat earlier. This, I realized, was one of those scary scenarios that could go wrong with the tiniest slip of a boot. No one would know. I slowed down.
In truth, I hadn’t been positive I’d conquer the John Muir Trail. I didn’t doubt my ability or fitness level, and never questioned, once I secured my backcountry permit through the National Park Service’s long-odds lottery, that I’d take it on—three weeks traversing 220-plus miles of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer. But confidence aside, there was a shadowy, repressed little question mark lurking beneath the bucket-list excitement of it all. At age 64, I’d be carrying a fully-laden backpack, at altitude, unsupported, over some of the highest passes and the highest peak in the Lower 48. Would my back hold up, my vegetarian strength hold out? Would any weird, age-related issues crop up? I had plenty of experience, true, and had summitted 19,300-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro, nearly five thousand feet higher than the JMT’s Mount Whitney, but porters had carried most of my gear for the week on Kili. Would 40 pounds on my own back do me in on the JMT?
Kirsten and I had already seen a rescue chopper; a woman had a stroke on the trail. And a fit, 50-ish guy we befriended had washed out with altitude sickness. I was reminded that the wilderness was our master up here. The endless chains of lakes and streams, so clear you could see every fish and pebble; the miles of trail winding through high, granite-sprinkled meadows; the piney forests that gave way to boulder-strewn slopes; the sawtooth ridges etched against the bluest of skies—all of this, day after day of it, was the JMT’s gift to us. But this was a place to be taken seriously, and carefully.
Settling into the daily routine on the trail, I found a bonus in these glorious surroundings—a timely, calming respite from the horror show that was the 2016 presidential campaign. The resentment-based, hate-stirring appeal of Donald Trump, while captivating more and more Americans, assaulted my Jesuit-educated values and upended my journalistic assumptions—I’d covered past presidential campaigns—about people’s willingness to accept proven falsehoods and shrug off revelations, speech and behavior that would have sunk any other candidate. Up on the JMT, these horrors couldn’t reach me.
As one hiking day rolled into the next, I came to see us JMTers as a special club, the lucky ones. How lucky that we had nothing to do except pack up our tents each morning and take one step after another through a scenic wonderland. How fortunate for us that politicians of the past had appreciated this place and protected it as wilderness and national park lands, and that a California governor, Ronald Reagan, had fought off a highway that would have changed it forever. Our unofficial club had an automatic kinship: Only those who strapped on a pack and climbed up here could experience the nonchalant power of the waterfalls and rocky, mountainside sculpture gardens and witness how the deer didn’t seem to mind our presence. The JMT brother- and sisterhood to my surprise included many hikers in their 60s and 70s, paying their club dues in hardiness and can-do attitude. Humbled and inspired by their confidence, I realized that all of us could and would make it.
As I dropped to the bottom of Mather’s switchbacks, the sky suddenly cleared. The air warmed and I thawed. A tension-releasing sob escaped from somewhere inside me. It felt good to look up and see what I’d done. I gulped some water, then checked my map before setting off to find Kirsten. This was just Day 15. We still had five days, 68 miles and the summit of Whitney ahead, every step of it magic.
* Rita Beamish, Class of 1974, hiked the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to the Mount Whitney trailhead in August of 2016.