Hiking for my Life
Hiking for My LifePrint This Post
I filled my fluorescent-yellow Nalgene water bottle at the drinking fountain at Happy Isles at the west end of Yosemite Valley last August 28, then screwed its top on tight. I clipped it to the waist belt of my 50-pound orange backpack and pivoted toward the trailhead. The thought flashed through my mind that I probably shouldn’t be doing this.
My primary care physician likely would frown at the idea. I’m 70. Have had both knees ’scoped. Was diagnosed with prostate cancer nine years ago and opted for a radical prostatectomy. Got a note from my urologist, a few days before I left on this adventure, on which he had scrawled “Not good!” and drawn an arrow to an elevated PSA number. I see double when I look to the right. I have tinnitus in both ears. My right ankle hurts when I lie on my back. Something snapped in my right elbow when I was showing off on a rope swing before dropping into a river in Oregon during my 70th birthday celebration.
My 100-year-old Aunt Marie had phoned me just before I left home to tell me, “I think you’re very foolish to do this and I don’t approve of it.” My wife of 46 years, Jackie, was home wishing I had chosen to take an Alaska cruise with her instead of hiking the John Muir Trail alone for a month. Now I owe her one.
The John Muir Trail (JMT)! It begins, if you’re hiking it south as I was about to do, in Yosemite Valley; traverses three national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia), a national forest, and the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness Areas, as well as Devils Postpile National Monument. It ends 211 miles later at the summit of 14,500-foot Mt. Whitney—tallest peak in the Lower 48 States. JMT through-hikers spend much of their time above 10,000 feet. They cross 11 passes nearly or over 11,000 feet, with two above 13,000. Trek through watersheds of five major rivers, by scores of glacial lakes, through woods of stately evergreens and shimmering aspens, serene meadows cut by meandering creeks, and a surreal fantasyland of sky-high granite peaks and volcanic cinder cones. Then, at the end of the Trail, they must descend another 11 miles and 6,000-plus feet down off Mt. Whitney to trailhead at Whitney Portal.
At the Yosemite Valley trailhead, as quickly as the thought that I might be nuts to do this entered my mind, all the reasons I should do it flooded in to displace it. I’ve backpacked since I was a Boy Scout. When I was Camping Editor of Field & Stream in the ’70s and ’80s, backpacking was a major part of my job. In recent years, I’ve trained new hikers to climb tall mountains and led several 22-mile-round-trip dayhikes from Whitney Portal to the Mt. Whitney summit and back. I climbed that alluring mountain six times before I became possessed with the crazy idea of walking 211 miles to once again stand on its desolate peak.
Then there was the 70-year-old factor: I figured if I really want to check off this bucket-list boondoggle, I’d better do it now. Who knows what 71 will bring, much less 72?
As I tightened the shoulder straps on my pack and started walking toward the sign that said “Vernal Fall Nevada Fall John Muir Trail,” I didn’t really think about it, but I was stepping into one of the truest adventures of my life. And I’ve lived a lifetime of adventures, from landing Navy planes on aircraft carriers to climbing Mt. Rainier in freezing rain and gale-force winds. But this was different: This time I was truly on my own—no support crew, no guides, no buddies—for most of a month-long trek with my house on my back through some of the most rugged and remote country on the continent.
To make that month-long story short: I hiked the trail. Every day it led me through jaw-dropping scenery. My vocabulary shrank to little more than “Wow!” “Look at that!” and “Oh my goodness!” There were moments each day when I wished I could beam Jackie in to share with her the natural marvels I was witnessing. But I would be remiss if I didn’t follow the advice of a through-hiker I met at a river crossing who told me, “When you write about this, tell people how hard it is; don’t gloss over the difficulties like most trail guides do.” Good advice. After a month of pounding my body on those implacable up-and-down granite staircases carrying a heavy pack, I lost 20 pounds of upper body muscle (okay, and baby fat), and, for a couple of weeks afterward, still dreamt of nothing but the trail. For the first week back, I woke every night with leg muscles cramping—thinking they still should be hiking. The trail was magnificently demanding—and the adventure of a lifetime!
I admit there were a few tense periods along the way, but they only added spice to the adventure, along with a sense of relief and, yes, satisfaction when I had left them in my dust.
For instance, there were times of uncertainty that I was on the right trail, and I’d cheer when a trail sign signaled I was still on course. At Red’s Meadow, one of my resupply points, I learned that the boat that normally ferried hikers from the JMT across a lake a few days south to my next resupply point, Vermilion Valley Resort, was not running and heard a rumor that the resort was closed as a result. One through-hiking couple I talked to quit their hike at Red’s on hearing the rumor. Operating purely on faith that Vermilion wouldn’t strand all the hikers who had sent resupply boxes there by closing early, I struck out on an off-map trail that I was told headed most directly to the resort. An 11,000-foot pass stood in my way, and the trail to its summit and down the other side proved an ankle-buster that I would recommend for expert hikers only. The trail beyond, through deep forests, was poorly maintained and signed, and I navigated mostly by guess and by compass. After lunch, I was out of food and low on water. When I finally emerged on the parking lot of a lively, open-for-business Vermilion Resort, I was ecstatic.
Ten days down the trail, my last resupply was scheduled to happen at a trailhead that was the gateway to an 11,845-foot pass. A friend and experienced climber, Kat Cobb, had committed to meet me there with the food box I had left with her and join me for the last six days and 50 miles of the trip. I’d given Kat a date on which I’d show up at the trailhead and I trusted she’d be there—but wasn’t sure I would make it. Due to family business, I had started my hike three days late. Pushing hard, I had made up two days so far, but approaching the trailhead, was still running a day behind schedule. So, the last day before I was to meet Kat, I hiked for 15 hours, climbing one of the JMT’s most dangerous passes at night, by headlamp.
Near the top of the pass, while ascending over polished granite, I lost the trail. After a few minutes of searching, panning my light beam side to side, I found it again and started along it. Shortly, it began to descend. I hadn’t realized I was so close to the trail’s crest but was pleased the difficult climb was behind me. A few minutes later, though, it struck me that, unlike all the other passes I had crossed, this side of the pass was much like the side I had just come up. I focused my light on the compass on my watch. I was going north instead of south! Back down the way I had come! I turned around, crossed the serrated ridge, descended into new country to the south, and met Kat on schedule the next day. Six days later, chilled to the bone and eager to summit, we folded our tents in the middle of the night. After a harrowing climb by headlamp up the wind-swept south flank of Mt. Whitney, we met sunrise at the 13,500-foot level and were the first climbers to summit the peak that morning—and reach the south terminus of the John Muir Trail.
Kat is young and strong. But what gave me the audacity to think, with all my physical shortcomings, I could complete such a long and arduous hike at 70—an age when many are content to recline in their La-Z-Boy, lick the wounds of age, and pass the baton of a physically active life to their kids’ and grandkids’ generations?
First of all, I don’t allow age to dictate my life stage. I decided years ago that I liked the way I felt at age 35, so I stay fit and enjoy the outdoors as if I’m 35. Sure, I make common-sense concessions to my chronological age. For instance, I don’t run anymore—as I loved to before my knee surgeries—to preserve my joints for hiking and mountain climbing. But I’ve replaced running with an equally vigorous workout that combines power walking in the hills with upper-body dumbbell exercises. I cross-train in the gym. I ride my bike down the hill into town for business meetings instead of driving, and take a longer ride once a week. Cycling is easy on my compromised joints, yet fabulous muscle and cardio exercise.
I have a primary care physician I greatly respect, but I take primary responsibility for the state of my health. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I take no prescription meds. However, for the last 19 years I’ve swallowed a panoply of pharmaceutical-grade nutritional supplements morning and evening, and I shipped a full supply of my am/pm packets to each JMT resupply point. In addition to full-spectrum multivitamins and chelated minerals, these antioxidants include fish oil and glucosamine for my joints, a grape-seed-extract-vitamin-C hybrid to fight inflammation, co-enzyme Q10 to optimize my heart function at high elevations, and a vision supplement (my distance vision is still excellent). I give these supplements much credit for the fact that I walked strong every day of my hike despite my inadequate trail diet and had no symptoms of altitude sickness.
Every day on the John Muir Trail, I felt intensely alive. Staying that way is my life plan—I don’t want to miss anything! I found the Trail a wonderful metaphor for life: physically and mentally challenging, full of lung-busting ups and bone-jarring downs, rich with surprises, scary sometimes, mind-bendingly beautiful at others, changing moment to moment like wind on water. We each have our own John Muir Trails, undertakings that call us to experience them despite all the good reasons not to. I intend to do everything in my power to keep my health so I can answer the next call when it comes. Now … off to my urologist to see what that elevated PSA reading means!
Published on January 8, 2013
Steve Netherby, former Navy pilot and 20-year editor and columnist for Field & Stream, has lived a life full of adventure. He’s piloted combat patrols over the war-ravaged jungles of Vietnam, summited Mt. Rainier in freezing rain and 50-knot winds, lived in a snow cave through a Wyoming blizzard, rode a bucking camel in the Australian outback, shared trout streams with Alaskan brown bear, and waded bass waters with Okefenokee alligators and Arkansas water moccasins. But he calls his 28-day hike of the John Muir Trail at the age of 70 “one of the truest adventures of my life.” He and his wife Jackie, a retired schoolteacher, have three grown daughters and five grandchildren.
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