Day 4 on JMT: Sprinting to Yosemite National Park

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Day 4: Donohue pass out to Tualamne – about 16 miles

We woke to a sky full of gray and white clouds. Bummer. In the Sierras, the rule is that clouds before noon mean thunderstorms are brewing. So that settled that debate. We would hike out to Tualamne and then call the trip short, missing the goal of making it to Happy Isle and covering the full JMT by 27 miles. At least we would make it to Yosemite National park.

As we packed our bags and ate breakfast, the blue sky seemed to devour the grey clouds and before we were completely ready to hit the trail we were relishing in a bright sunny, warm cloudless morning. Well, there was one little white puffy cloud over the eastern horizon but surely the rule was not going to apply after such a crazy storm the day before. The rain must be out of these Sierra’s system after that massive blast the day before, we reasoned. Maybe we could make it to Happy Isle afterall.

Happy with sun power, we eagerly hit the trail. Within a mile that little white cloud was ever so slightly larger. Optimistically, we headed on. We still wanted to combine two days of hiking into one and get to Tualamne that day which meant we needed to stay focused which became increasingly difficult to do. Every person we passed turned into a conversation. It started the usual way, “How are you doing?” “Doing great, and you?” “Oh just great.” which usually wraps up with, “have a great hike”…”Yeah, you too”…and then your 45 second encounter with a stranger you’ll probably never see again is over. But after an intense storm like the one we all had just lived through happens, the conversation’s normal quick ending was replaced with, “how did you fare last night?” or “what did you think of that storm?” An instant brotherhood between every single person we passed was evident in the shared stories and relieved expressions we all shared. We were finally dry, warm, and hiking again.

Stories began to add up with each person we passed. Stories of a spirited 78 year old lady from Eugene, Oregon who decided to hike without any rain protection at all. We first met the 30-something year old guy that told us of a lady he basically rescued from hypothermia who he first encountered hiking, despite the pounding rain and crashing thunder. His first inquiry to her of her well-being came up empty – she was just fine apparently. He hiked on and as the storm got unmanageable to continue on through, he sheltered in place under a clump of trees. When she came slowly by him, he could see that she was visibly shivering and decided to intervene. This time she accepted help. He was by her side from that point until we passed them the next day.
“I don’t even know you or her, but seriously, thank you for doing that!  You saved her life!” I told this nameless man.

“Yeah, she was in stage 2 of hypothermia. I think she had less than 20 minutes left before she would have collapsed.”

How do you keep hiking in pursuit of a 15 mile day to Tualamne with stories like that unfolding?

“You’ll pass her in a few minutes. She is slowly making her way.” And sure enough, after a short bit, a slow moving older lady joined our group. She wore multi-colored running tights with bright yellow shorts over the top and wet worn looking running shoes on her feet. Her new companion was working out a plan for her so that she could exit the wilderness by the next day, but that did mean one more night in the unpredictable conditions that the mountains were delivering. Her trail angel spoke again, “I got cell reception on top of Donahue pass. Apparently today we have a 70% chance of thunderstorms.” Cory and I exchanged quick glances. We’d have to really hurry now. No way did we want to spend another afternoon trapped in our tents. The YARTS bus left Tualamne at around 6 pm and the thunderstorms could hit whenever they decided to. That YARTS bus would provide the link from Tualamne to where our truck was parked – a 2 hour bus ride through the most gorgeous areas of upper Yosemite National Park, Mono lake, the June Lake loop, and finally to Mammoth.

“We better get going. Have a safe journey.” Cory said.

“Yeah, I think I bit off a little more than I can chew,” the colorful older lady said with a twinkle in her eye. And with that, we sped up the pass.

Despite the fact that our legs are longer and seemingly stronger than our kids’ legs, for the third day in a row, we could not keep up with their pace. They raced ahead, whether hiking up the pass or hiking downhill towards Tualamne. “Stop if you can’t see us!” we called after them.

Safely off the pass we began our descent down the other side and through Lyle’s canyon, a gorgeous lushly forested and flat section of trail that ran parallel to the Tualamne river. This was the same river that less than a day earlier had flooded it’s banks, overflowing over the trail. The lone little white cloud that teased us at breakfast had turned into massive black clouds that swirled overhead and eventually began to thunder and drizzle on us.

“Let’s stop right now. I don’t want to hike in this. It could turn into yesterday’s torrential event any second” I complained.

“No way. We need to just go. If we hike fast, we might outpace this storm. I don’t want to spend another night in this stormy weather! We need to get to Tualamne, catch that YARTS bus, and dry off in our trailer!” Cory argued back.

Tension rose but we kept hiking, amidst the thunder which was not overhead yet but definitely chasing us. We hiked fast and furiously, much like we had for the past 3 days, continuing the sprint that was supposed to be a relaxing, first trip shake down trip. We met up with a family that was cruising equally as fast – a pastor from Portland Oregon, his wife, and his older 28 year old daughter – also sprinting to avoid the storm as well as attempting to hit the post office in Tualamne by 5:00 to get their pre-shipped resupply box.

“I wish we weren’t racing through here. It’s so gorgeous, but at this frantic pace we can hardly appreciate it!” Cory said. It was true. The light-hearted joys of backpacking had been replaced by focus, fervor, and high-mileage goals. But at last, we entered the Tualamne area and dashed to the wilderness permit office where we had previously stashed 3 days of food for the remaining 27 miles to Happy Isle. It began to rain at this point and just as we found shelter under the covered porch of the permit building, the little white cloud from the morning unleashed it’s alter ego on the earth. The drenching downpour came with crashing thunder and huge raindrops that sealed the deal, we were done. Maybe we could pick up a permit and hike Tualamne to Happy Isle some other day, but this family was done fighting the moody weather.

After picking up our food, we all slowly made our way to the Tualamne store where the YARTS bus would pick up our tired and sore bodies and deliver us to our truck. Once there, more stories surfaced from other groups. Tales of a tent that literally floated away during the downpour brought a comic relief to the predicament we all found ourselves in. The pastor and his family were staying on the trail. The rest of us were calling our trips short and hitching a ride on the bus. Thankfully, our time at the store included warm food and sun breaks, shared stories, and camaraderie. All the stuff that keeps me coming back for more, despite the setbacks.

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