By: Ethan Maurice
The John Muir Trail (JMT) traverses 221 miles of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains starting in Yosemite National Park and ending atop Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States. Being one of the most popular long distance backpacking trails on Earth, hundreds of backpackers take to the JMT every summer, drawn from all parts of the world. A wide-eyed wanderer's dream with it's 14,000ft peaks, unreal rock formations, and abundant water sources, some call it the world's best long distance backpacking trail.
In the summer of 2014, I traversed the entire length of the JMT with my younger sister, Haley. Though many had gone before us, our journey was one nobody had undertaken before.
My sister Haley has type 1 diabetes. At the all too young age of seven, her pancreas quit producing insulin. Ever since she's been injecting herself with insulin (many times a day) and constantly pricking her fingers to test her blood sugar levels. It's a relentless disease. In January, I brought up my intentions to hike the JMT and Haley leapt at the idea. Not only was she adamant about backpacking with me, she also wanted to make the trip into a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
I was hesitant to bring Haley along with me for a couple reasons. One, if we lost her vials of insulin out there she could lapse into a diabetic coma and die. Two, the JMT requires and incredible amount of physical exertion and high carbohydrate backpacking foods, both of which make balancing blood sugar levels nearly impossible (as we would find out). Three, she was my sister, only fifteen years old, and had never gone backpacking before. However, she has a seemingly endless reserve of motivation and I knew, with training, she could make it. So after some careful consideration, I agreed to let her come along and to fundraise for JDRF.
Putting together such a fundraiser requires a serious amount of work and dedication. The first step was to secure a permit, which I would equate to trying to grab a fish with buttered hands. For eight days straight I updated our permit application (moving the start date a day back to request exactly168 days in advance) and faxed it to the Wilderness Permitting Office in Yosemite National Park. It was a bit of an antiquated process, with the constant faxing and rewriting of a paper application over and over again. To my delight, after eight days, I received a confirmation email. We were to start on July 16th.
Brainstorming began. We decided a nearly perfect name for our fundraising effort - Summit Diabetes. Hours were spent researching gear, not just for backpacking, but figuring out how to keep Haley's electronic diabetes supplies charged, running, and supplied enough for three weeks out in the wilderness.
Then we met with the local branch of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Since Haley was a veteran fundraiser with them and I had raised nearly $100,000 for Phoenix Children's Hospital the summer before, JDRF seemed quite excited that we wanted to help out.
Haley trained climbing the mountains around our hometown of Phoenix, while I did the same two hours north in Flagstaff. However, for both of us, the trip remained on the back-burner while I finished up my undergraduate classes and Haley balanced school, student government, and softball.
I graduated from Northern Arizona University on May 9th, after a couple days of fun with some college buddies down in Mexico, we kicked it into full gear. Haley and I started hiking everyday. I spent hours learning how to design a website with Squarespace, creating www.summitdiabetes.com. Haley went on her first backpacking trip: an overnight putting us at the 12,600ft summit of Humphrey's Peak in Northern Arizona. We took tons of footage and photos with aspirations of a pre-hike promotion video. I spent an unnerving night by myself atop the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix in an effort to capture a few sunrise and sunset time lapses. With all our footage we put together a two minute promo video for our hike and simultaneously released our fundraiser to the world:
Then, the interviews started. The local JDRF office had many connections with the local media in Phoenix. We appeared on four different stations to discuss Summit Diabetes and the trek we were about to undertake. Being live, on camera, in front of seventy thousand viewers can be a bit intimidating, but I'd done it before and Haley's a well versed public speaker, so we got into the groove of interviewing on camera quickly.
As weeks whittled down to days before our start date, we conquered the mathematical and logistical nightmare of calculating how much food we needed and where to ship it. The John Muir Trail brushes with civilization in three places at 24 miles, 57 miles, and 106 miles along the trail. We sent our resupplies to the later two spots, which kindly hold your package for a somewhat, reasonable fee.
Three days before our trek was to begin, after a long night of packing, reviewing supply lists, and triple checking we had all needed diabetes supplies, we caught a flight from Phoenix to San Francisco. Two days were spent with a good friend of mine, wandering throughout San Francisco and making the walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. What a city - great public transportation, everyone rides bikes, and that cool ocean breeze... I loved the place.
The day before our scheduled first steps on the JMT, Haley and I endured eight hours of Amtrak bus and train travel bringing us from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park. We hopped on the first bus in San Francisco and five minutes down the street we met our third group member. Thomas, a young engineer from Germany, boarded the with the same intentions as us - to backpack the JMT.
Darkness fell before we arrived in Yosemite. After spending the night in the backpacker campsite, we awoke in the morning to stupefyingly majestic walls of granite surrounding us, rising thousands upon thousands of feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Haley, Thomas, and I strode to the permitting office to pick up our permits as well as rent out bear canisters, which are required to protect your food from, you guessed it, bears. Before leaving, we weighed our packs, mine was a backbreaking 52lbs and Haley's 39lbs (suggested weight for a grown adult: 30lbs). At this point, I seriously questioned our ability to haul our hefty packs over 200 miles and 46,000ft of elevation gain over the next three weeks, but we were there to “summit diabetes.” Straining, we helped each other get the voluminous packs on and took our first steps onto the John Muir Trail.
The first day was only 4.4 miles up to Little Yosemite Valley. At its best, I'll remember it for spectacular waterfalls, the views of Half Dome, and the group of day hikers from Arizona that recognized us from a radio interview we did back home. However, our first day also consisted off an infinite number of tourists, evil fat squirrels scheming to steal our lunch, and our stupidly heavy packs weighing us down as we gained over 2,000ft of elevation.
On the morning of day two, we left our camp setup and climbed Yosemite's iconic Half Dome. We braved the exposure of climbing stairs cut into steep exposed sections of granite and the climactic "cables" which takes hikers straight up a harrowingly steep, totally exposed, section of rock to the top of Half Dome. We returned to our camp around noon to pack up and move on down the trail, as visions from what felt like the top of the world danced in our heads.
Though the JMT is one of the longest continuous remote stretches of unspoiled wilderness in the United States, backpacking the trail is a social experience. Everyone is taking on the same climbs, looking for the next creek crossing to refill on water, and must undergo the same exact physical undertaking, which makes it real easy to befriend others. By the end of day three, we found ourselves covered in dirt and exhausted, but surrounded by a dozen new friends as we all scarfed down orders of burgers, fries, and ice cream at our first brush with civilization. At 24 miles in, Tuolumne Meadows was our first of three encounters with the modern world along the trail.
The next morning, the smell of gasoline and the outhouse permeated the campground air as we triumphantly left behind the concentration of humanity and strode back out into the wild. This is where that real, authentic wilderness started - the part of the trail you had to earn to see.
We ascended to over 11,000ft up Donohue Pass, our first major climb. Dark purple, verging on black monsoon clouds rolled in from the east as we pushed up the exposed mountainside. Reaching the top, things got a bit too exciting. Haley's blood sugar went low, forcing us to stop and get some sugar in her while menacing clouds blotted out the sun and began pelting us with hail. We hauled down the backside of the mountain in some kind of epic scene you'd only see in a Lord of the Rings movie, as clouds rushed across the landscape and the storm raged on. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, I felt alive - I was hooked.
Our group of JMTer's began separating and sorted out due to everyone’s different hiking speeds and schedules. We're among the faster, along with Thomas (that German dude from the bus) and a group of three other backpackers – Leon, Jerry, and Naomi. A habit developed of picking a camping spot on the map in the morning and meeting up in the evening. Sometimes Haley and I hike with Thomas, sometimes with Leon's group, but most of the time it's just us taking on the trail ourselves as Haley's blood sugar often dictated our immediate schedule.
Days increasingly blurred with one another. Our only concept of time became the position of the sun. As we progressed along the trail, our legs got stronger and the packs seemed more manageable. We laid eyes on sites that few have. Mountains that defiantly ripped from the Earth and thrust skyward, as sort of insult to gravity. Crystal clear ponds and lakes fed by snow melt appeared by the dozens. I jumped into every one I could. However, our spirits were often dampened by monsoon rains that drenched us and our insufficient rain jackets, day after day. Summers are supposed to sunny in the Sierra Nevada's, but our 20 day journey saw 12 days with rain.
On a sunny day, we triumphantly strode into our last resupply pickup at Muir Trail Ranch. Opening a resupply bucket is like Christmas morning when you were a kid. You open this bucket and it's filled to the brim with new dinners, a massive supply of Peanut M&M's, and more toilet paper, so you can stop using leaves! Everyone always sends a bit too much leaving Muir Trail Ranch leaving them with hundreds of pounds of extra food. We swapped all our boring granola bars for Cliff Bars and ramen for freeze dried Pad Thai backpacking dinners.
The two day climb out of Muir Trail Ranch to Muir Pass was exhausting with completely refilled packs, but brought us to some of the most remote, beautiful locations of the entire trail. John Muir's favorite places such as Evolution Lake and Le Conte Canyon literally broke my understanding of beauty. Laying eyes on Le Conte Canyon gave me physical goosebumps and left me stunned – for minutes.
By this time, we had backpacking down:
Wake up at 6am. Let the air out of the sleeping pad. Pack the sleeping bag up. Roll up the sleeping pad. Take down the tent while Haley covers her blisters in mole skin. Eat breakfast. Pack backpacks. Go.
We'd hike for the most of the day. Diabetes made covering ground difficult though. Huge climbs would send Haley's blood sugar down fast. We'd counter low levels with a liter of honey Haley carried in place of a second water bottle and quartered pieces of Cliff Bar. Upon reaching the top of a climb, Haley's blood sugar would skyrocket, sometimes to three or four times a normal blood sugar level. It was like a game of ping pong. At first, control seemed impossible. As we drew closer to Mount Whitney though, her ability to balance blood sugars got better and better.
After crossing the 13,200ft Forester Pass, all that remained was two days. One day to reach the base of Whitney, the next to summit and descend back into civilization.
Nature had other plans though.
Little did we know a huge storm was on the way. Rain pounded our tent as the alarm sounded the next morning. I awoke to find half the tent floor two inches deep in water! We scrambled out of the tent, pulled it out of huge puddle up onto dry land, and hopped back in to wait out the rain. Four hours passed and the storm showed no sign of stopping, so we just went for it. The rain drenched us as we broke camp and booked it a couple hundred yards down trail to a creek crossing, but the creek had become an impassible river. Already shivering (it was snowing on the mountain next to us) and bitterly angry at mother nature, we rushed back up the hill to set up our tent once again.
Around 3pm the storm finally let up. Low on food (as planned, it was the end of our trip), we had to make our miles for the day. Over the next seven hours, we managed to ford the still mostly swollen creek, along with two others, and in complete darkness finally reached the base of Mount Whitney. We pitched camp just above the famous Guitar Lake. At 11,500 in elevation, we gaped as a full moon, just above the horizon, reflected across the lake. Clouds blanketed the valley thousands of feet below. Us and the lake, we're part of a world above. The brightest of stars gleamed against a blackness that can only be seen in the most remote, light deprived, corners of Earth.
I stayed up an extra hour to gaze at the scene before me, knowing I might not set eyes on something so beautiful the rest of my life. After all the freezing rain, flooded creek crossings, and turmoil of the day, this was the calm after the storm. Everything was still and perfectly clear now. Deeply relaxed, I thought how tomorrow would be an easy, beautiful day to summit Mount Whitney.
I was wrong.
At first it was a novelty as we switchbacked our way up the backside of Mount Whitney. A couple inches of snow on the ground from the previous days storm, no problem. But as we climbed, the clear, crisp morning air quickly turned to a thick soup of clouds and light flakes of snow started to fall. “Wow, snow in August, who would have thought...” I said. Five minutes later, light flakes had become fast, heavy snowfall. This wasn't good.
We found ourselves with five or six other backpackers at a critical decision point. The trail came to a “T” along the ridgeline. One could continue on down the front side of the mountain (to the end of the trail) or head up the 1.9 mile offshoot to Whitney's summit. There was over a foot of snow on the ground at this point. Everyone around us immediately continued on down the mountain. Nervous, but determined, I told myself we were here to reach that peak, to summit diabetes. We weren't giving up that easy. I drew a deep breath and started up the trail towards the top of Whitney, Haley in toe.
My legs and feet were freezing. Both Haley and I were wearing shorts (our light hiking pants were soaked from yesterdays rain) and our shoes were filling with snow. In a especially treacherous section, we dug our hiking poles in deeply with each step we took as we nearly slid off a drop that would have ended us. My determination waned and thoughts of what would happen if we died up here ran through my head. At least the fundraiser would be very successful, I joked with Haley.
We met a handful of people coming back down the trail, none of them had made the summit. They all told us the same thing: it's too dangerous, you're going to lose the trail in the snow, turn around. They also asked how we could possibly be wearing shorts.
Once again, we survived the most exposed, slippery points along the ridgeline and made our way down the infamous 99 switchbacks on the front side of Mount Whitney, shivering the entire way. Both Haley and I cried as we made our way down, utterly defeated and disappointed that what we had hiked so far for, was right there, but we couldn't reach it. We would have to go home to family, friends, live television interviews, and tell everyone that we were staring at the finish line, but couldn't reach it.
Depressed, we spent the next seven hours descending over 6,000ft down to the end of the trail. Towards the end, Haley started laughing. A sort of revelation, she said to me, “We weren't supposed to make it. This mountain represents the struggle with type 1 diabetes. We haven't summitted diabetes yet; it's not that easy. You don't give it one try and make it, it takes persistence. We're gonna go home and continue raising money to end this disease. And next summer we're coming back here and climb this damn mountain again!”
Upon reaching the bottom, we hitched a ride down to the town of Lone Pine and booked two beds in a hostel. After 20 days, I finally took a shower and shaved the weird half beard, half peach fuzz thing off my face. The next day our dad picked us up in a rental car and we hopped right back into our lives away from the woods. As always, the transition back to civilization was abrupt.
We fundraised hard upon our return. I spent hours upon hours putting together a two minute segment about our hike and we appeared all over the news again to talk about our 20 days on the JMT. We flooded our social media campaign with donation asks and emailed all of our contacts. A month after our return, we had raised $8,300 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Compared to the $96,000 I raised the summer before, we were disappointed with our results. The trip was magnificent, incredible, and the sights absolutely blew us away, but the end left a bad taste in my mouth.
A couple months later, Haley was invited to give the Fund-A-Cure Speech at the local JDRF office's biggest event of the year, the JDRF Gala. On November 14th, 2014, Haley spoke in a ballroom in front a crowd of over 500 of JDRF's biggest supporters. She spoke not just of our trek and the lengths we went in our attempt to summit diabetes, but also the struggle to overcome the challenges of type 1 diabetes on the trail and at home. Ending with a message urging everyone to support some very promising technology, she left the stage with a standing ovation and JDRF received $276,000 in donations.
As with most times one ventures out of their comfort zone, we were changed for the better by the experience. Summit Diabetes helped raise over $284,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. We had developed significant media contacts, that come another adventure fundraising endeavor, will definitely come in handy. We experienced backpacking for three weeks straight on one of the world most beautiful backpacking trails. For Haley, diabetes will continue to be an affliction for the time being, but it will never hold her back. For us both, the experience won't just be a notch in the belt, but rather proof and a reason to keep pursuing. No glory days, just further reason to keep stretching our boundaries in the present.