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?