Silhoueted llama  


(Navigation to trip days is at the bottom, should you choose to bypass this fine information).

For some reason, somehow I decided it might be a cool thing to hike the John Muir Trail with llamas. I think it was a longing to see some places I had seen when I was much younger, places like Evolution Valley and Rae Lakes, and these places were along the Muir Trail. Never knowing how many more times I might be able to backpack, linking all this together seemed like a sensible thing to do. Not having a field project in mind for 2016 meant I could take the time off (faculty don't get paid in the summer unless they have a research grant paying them, and for me at the moment any research grant money is going to cover my students). But hiking about 200 miles seemed like begging for disaster--I tend to pack heavy and so the prospect of backpacking for three weeks with a 60 pound pack just seemed painful. We had used llamas once on a four day trip in the San Juan Mountains and that seemed like a good match.

So just so I have a convenient record for me (and for the amusement maybe of a few people who might find this), here is how this all worked out....(unlike some blogs online, I am putting down what all preceded going into the wilderness as well.).

In the video Mile...Mile and a Half, they talk about their eight months of planning. It takes a bit longer when doing this, mainly because llamas are relatively unavailable in the Sierra.

Feb 8, 2015, Day -530: The past summer I had gone to the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp with my older daughter and a college friend. Slumming by paying mucho dinero was really pleasant. There is no equivalent way of doing the Muir Trail (well, maybe there is, but it involves horse packing, which is super pricey), so I looked for llama rentals in the Sierra. The only place I could find for the Sierra was Potato Ranch Llama Packers, so I emailed questions about llama packing. The answering email contains a lot of information, but the kicker is at the end: "I know it seems early but I am almost entirely booked for August 2016, all JMT trips." Almost two years out, I need to decide if I am really up for this. In the coming days I suggest this to my then-16 year old daughter Megan. She is psyched to go on a big trip like this (she had been discussing the Colorado Trail as it was in some list of things to do before you die kind of thing) and llamas are a huge draw. Soooo, decide to push forward. After all, it is about a year and a half away; this might well not happen anyways...

Feb. 23, 2015, Day -515: I email back that we should reserve three llamas from 23 July to 15 August 2016. This was mainly a guess. Greg at Potato Ranch emails back his offer: $100 deposit now, half of the $4320 cost due March 2, 2016. We can cancel up to 23 May 2016, so will have to divine the snowpack at that point. In a heavy snow year, Greg has noted the trail might not open until early August, too late for us owing to the academic schedule at CU Boulder. Over the next few days a check for $100 goes to Sonora, California.

...many months pass with other things going on...

Jan. 10, 2016, Day -194. Order a device from Voltaic Systems for charging my Nikon camera battery off a USB (I got a GoalZero solar panel for Christmas). [Took this in New Zealand but didn't use it. Tried it out here and it didn't seem to work, but took on the llama pack anyways. Tried it there and also failed. Lights on the device would indicate it was charging and then charged, and it did drain the USB battery, but the camera battery didn't show any increase in charge.]

Jan 23, 2016, Day -181: Although Greg had suggested south-to-north might be better, I am more certain I want north-to-south. Why? North to south means you are going to be in the shade more going uphill, also, all the places where you can easily get stuff are in the north. From Horseshoe Meadows, you have to go more than 100 miles and over 6 passes to get to John Muir Trail Ranch. Going the other way, you go right by Reds Meadow Resort coming from the north in the first few days, and then Vermilion Valley resort isn't too far off the trail after that. Finally, the higher passes are probably holding snow later, and they are in the south, so I am focused on north-to-south. We cannot leave from Happy Isles, or so Greg says, but we can try to leave from Tuolumne Meadows. One issue is that there is now a quota of 45 on how many can leave over Donahue Pass; it seems movies (and books) like Wild and A Walk in the Woods have stoked through-hiking desire. Reservations can be made 168 days in advance--two weeks from now. The only problem is that I will be in New Zealand with my older daughter, hiking the Routeburn Track. So I prepare applications for my wife to fax in while I am in New Zealand. I aim for three days. Our odds on a given day turn out to be about one in thirty.

Jan 30, 2016, Day -174: Greg emails that we need to chat. It is an El Niño year, and snow is somewhat above normal. For our dates, we might be out of luck. I am less concerned--El Niño has not really come through in a big way. I respond that I am on my way to New Zealand and we will have to chat when I get back, but that we'll know more once we see the results of the lottery entries for a permit.

Feb. 4, 2016, Day -169: My wife faxes in the first form for possible entry on 22 July. The answer comes back the next day: sorry, no.

Feb. 8, 2016, Day -165: Form for possible entry on the 23rd, 24rth or 25th is sent. I combined these because of the weekend. Next day the answer returns: sorry, no luck.

Feb. 12, 2016, Day -161: Back from New Zealand and now facing decisions on what precisely to do. Email Greg that we could now talk.

Feb. 26, 2016, Day -147: Been looking at permits. Turns out coming from the south isn't the simple "walk into the Forest Station and get a permit"--the reserved permits over Cottonwood Pass are pretty much all gone. Seems stupid to rely on walk-up permits, so I look back north. The first trailhead south of Yosemite is passing Gem Lake, the Rush Creek trailhead. Amazingly, for 23 July there are 2 slots. I grab them. In doing this I have to make up a schedule for the trip:

Sat Jul 23 2016: Gem Lake (Rush Creek)
Sun Jul 24 2016: Thousand Island Lake JMT- (River & High Trail)
Mon Jul 25 2016: Rosalie Lake (JMT- North of Devils Postpile)
Tue Jul 26 2016: Crater Meadow (JMT- South of Devils Postpile)
Wed Jul 27 2016: Duck Creek JMT Junction (Duck Pass)
Thu Jul 28 2016: Cascade Valley (Fish Creek)
Fri Jul 29 2016: Quail Meadows JMT (Lake Edison)
Sat Jul 30 2016: Bear Creek JMT- (Lake Edison)
Sun Jul 31 2016: Marie Lake JMT- Seldon Pass
Mon Aug 01 2016: Other / Don't Know
Tue Aug 02 2016: SEKI - Evolution Basin (34)
Wed Aug 03 2016: SEKI - Evolution Basin (34)
Thu Aug 04 2016: SEKI - LeConte Canyon (39)
Fri Aug 05 2016: SEKI - Upper Basin(46)
Sat Aug 06 2016: SEKI - Other
Sun Aug 07 2016: SEKI - Twin Lakes (56)
Mon Aug 08 2016: SEKI - Woods Creek JCT (58)
Tue Aug 09 2016: SEKI - Rae Lakes (62)
Wed Aug 10 2016: SEKI - Bubbs Creek (66)
Thu Aug 11 2016: SEKI - Tyndall Creek (80)
Fri Aug 12 2016: SEKI - Crabtree (83)
Sat Aug 13 2016: SEKI - Rock Creek (84)

This will, rather amazingly, not be too far off until the Twin Lakes campsite...

28 Feb. 2016, Day -145. I send a check for half the cost ($2160) only to learn the cost with shuttle is a bit more; Greg says we can balance out when the rest is paid. The remainder will be due on 9 July. Greg reminds me that I need some kind of satellite communication device; he can rent a SPOT device. I'll look around as I want something more than a thing where you only can push a button to say "help"! Also he asks if I want the llama-pack bear boxes. Yes! These are $5/day.... Meantime, I check in with Muir Trail Ranch; I want to drop my resupply at Florence Lake rather than mailing it (this means I can maybe put in some more perishable stuff). Turns out this is possible for $30 per bucket. I ask if there is a place where I could corral the llamas and spend the night in luxury with them; the answer is, essentially, no; I'd have to leave them at Shooting Star Meadow, 15 minutes away. So the luxury of llamas also means the absence of luxury for that one night. Oh well.

March and April, watching the snow maps at to see how things are shaping up. [Had I been with it, I would have found the Yahoo group for JMT hikers]. These maps seemed more pessimistic than I would have thought.

23 April 2016, Day -90. Well, hiking 200 miles, seems like new boots would be a good idea, but I need to break them in. I had good luck with Oboz boots before, so I get some new ones to break in. As wise as this seemed at the time, it didn't really work out the way I had hoped.

30 April 2016, Day -83. Time to start getting all the logistics ironed out. I email Greg at Potato Ranch to see about the shuttles and whether I can leave a car with him. We will need to spend a few hours with him the day before we leave to get trained on saddling and packing the llamas and other llama-care issues. I pull up the stock use page at Sequoia-Kings Canyon; the 2016 rules are not yet posted but I try to decipher the rules. One general rule is that we are to stay within 1/2 mile of the trail.

9 May 2016, Day -74. Settled on the YB3 standard satellite device from YBTracking (formerly Yellow Box). Allows texting and emailing and you can turn on and off the satellite access (so don't need to be paying for a phone you aren't using). You can also have it regularly transmit your location and have that posted on a webpage. In the end, this proves to be a very worthwhile purchase (I choose to buy one as in running some field courses I should probably have something like this). The only downside is that it is not tied in to any rescue agency--you have to reach somebody you know and have them ask to have you rescued. In some ways, this is better anyways.

16 May 2016, Day -67. Hard to believe, but starting to buy some of the odds and ends for the trail. Can't find the batteries to go with the GoalZero solar panels I have, so buy a new pack. Figure when I do find the old set that having an extra fully charged set could be important. We will have 2 iPhones, 2 cameras, and the YB3 that might all want charge at some point. Buy some things for a camping trip Megan wants to take that we might use, like a rocking camp chair.

20 May 2016, Day -63. Major shopping, mainly to get Megan appropriate gear, at the downtown Denver REI. Big thing is a pack bigger than a daypack--should be usable for a 1-2 night trip (though she decides it is too small when such a trip comes up). Also some cutlery (which we misplaced--it wasn't what we used on the trip but turned up months), a small battery lantern, some clothes, a camp towel, and a case for her iPhone (which, it seemed, she never used--that was playing with fire; this also turned up months later).

14 June 2016, Day -38. Been playing with the YB3 and had to ask them for some clarifications. The big red button that looks like an emergency button isn't actually all that useful for personal use--it will send a message to all your contacts that you set up online with YBTracking, but the message is kind of strange. OK, good to know (turns out that for commercial usage, what happens is that there are tiers of people that might get a message, and if the first tier doesn't turn off the alarm message, after awhile a second tier is alerted and so on. Not an option for personal use.) Adding on to our gear, got a solar shower, an Air Rail sleeping pad for Megan, and more clothes. I also order online a conversion kit for the Katadyn gravity-feed water filter I have; this will let me get a new filter with a higher flow rate. (Just as well I did; they are no longer available).

Late June into July, took a number of hikes to get boots and me broken in. While I think it worked for me, the boots and my feet were not getting along. A smarter person might have looked into a different pair of boots.

2 July 2016, Day -20. Increasingly delving into details. Can we pick up the permit at the Mono Lake Visitor Center on the way? I find I have to reconfirm the permit through the site within a couple of weeks of departure. I email the Forests about their stock policies, which aren't really very clear online. Inyo offers this webpage, which is really geared to horse travel; I am told to check the grazing update links as grazing is not allowed above 8000' when we are there! This is a pdf of special orders for past years; there is nothing for 2016, so I email back questioning this. I make a reservation at the Sonora Inn for the night of the 22nd. I now have the 2016 stock rules for Sequoia/Kings Canyon and it seems they don't know what they are doing at Guitar Lake, so I email the SEKI Wilderness Office and mention this to Greg. This is the first time I realize that I cannot camp with llamas anywhere in the Rae Lakes basin, nor on the south side of Glen Pass until Upper Vidette Meadow. Ugh. [This little tidbit and the sketch schedule I made for the permit will combine to make for a blunder on the trail.]

3 July 2016, Day -19. Mail the final llama check: $2,691. A question that would come up many times on the trail was, how much does this cost? I would defer usually as by then I had forgotten about these checks, but the answer more or less works out to $4951 for 23 days of 3 llamas, which is about $70/llama/day. Of course this includes the shuttle ride and the bear box pack.

5 July 2016, Day -17. Responses to emails have been dribbling in. Sierra National Forest has no real restrictions on llamas, they view them like horses. Greg confirms the long trek across Rae Lakes but thinks we should be able to go to Guitar for a night. He says we drive over Sonora Pass and it should take about 3.5 hours to get to the Mono Lake Visitor Center.

9 July 2016, Day -13. Megan finally settles on flying to Fresno the day of the llama training rather than flying in earlier and visiting Yosemite or driving out with me. Meantime I am wondering what my friend Matt is thinking; he and I had discussed him coming along for a few days, probably at the start of this trip. But I had last heard from him in early May. Time is short, what will he do?

12 July 2016, Day -10. First of what will be near-daily trips to REI. Over the past several weeks I have been hiking with the new boots, but the last hike was a disaster. Molefoam over a closed blister on my left heel stuck to the sock and pulled away the skin. Blisters also developed on the right heel. So bought a bunch of blister-related stuff (had I been really smart, I would have used some right away, but I kept it for the trip). Got some heavier wool socks and some liner socks. Basically, having a 12 1/2 foot in a 13 boot requires some work. Obviously another boot would be better, but my old heavy boots left me with blisters in New Zealand. Better the known evil than to discover a real disaster with some brand new boots.

13 July 2016, Day -9. Inyo National Forest clarifies the 2016 grazing rules. They expect areas below 10,000' to be open to grazing, those above 10,000' to open about 15 August, but the text allows discretion. Basically, don't graze in wet muddy meadows. I reconfirm the Wilderness Permit, which should allow us to pick it up any time on the 23rd rather than just before 10 am. Make my reservation in Fresno (Comfort Suites Fresno River Park). Greg suggests 3 pm at Potato Ranch for training. Another REI visit nets an extra filter for the gravity-feed water filter. Today I start a task of reprojecting scanned geologic maps (nice that the USGS has done this) so they can be uploaded into Maplets, a nice app for using user-created GPS-capable maps. By the time I am done in a couple of days, all the geologic maps for our journey are on both my iPhone and iPad.

14 July 2016, Day -8. Inyo confirms that I did successfully reconfirm my permit and so can pick it up any time on the 23rd. A relief. I make some suggestions to Megan on what to do in down time as she is worried she will be bored. We go through lists of freeze-dried food (Megan is vegetarian); there are some things a local FD food company makes that REI does not stock. So I contact Backpacker's Pantry directly and confirm I could pickup stuff at their office. So I order 3 packages of corn, 2 of garlic mashed potatoes and 2 vegetable medley. (I add a couple of Alfredo pasta meals the next day).

15 July 2016, Day -7. Matt reappears from the fog and is still interested in this trip. I happen to check on our permit and look to see if there are openings for Matt, and amazingly there is one additional permit available for Rush Creek on the 23rd, so I add it to our permit rather than leave it there for somebody else to grab. I give Matt an email rundown of options, including starting with us, meeting us near Devils Postpile, and meeting us near Vermilion Valley Resort.

17 July 2016, Day -5. The big shopping day for food and odds and ends. Lots of FD food. Megan talks me into getting her a nice hammock system and some lights for her hammock. Otherwise there is fuel (we are going to use the ultracompact SnowPeak GigaPower Auto stove) and lots of food. Also a water bottle and a mug and a 9' x 7' tarp. One thing I wanted is missing: the OvaEasy egg crystals, which are highly rated, are not in stock. So I set up an order to be delivered to the REI in Fresno.

18 July 2016, Day -4. Go by Backpacker's Pantry in Boulder and pickup my order of FD food. Otherwise mainly a day for finding all the bits and pieces and packing up.

19 July 2016, Day -3. Back to Boulder REI one last time. Get a couple of bear cannisters as I am worried we will overfill the llama bear boxes. Also sport beans and some stuff sacks. Leave Boulder with pretty nearly all the gear. Drive out to Richfield, Utah for the night.

20 July 2016, Day -2. Long drive to Fresno; I get there though in late afternoon. Matt calls as I am pulling in to my hotel. Decision is that Matt will try and meet us above the Vermilion Valley Resort, leaving his car at Florence Lake and then getting a shuttle ride to Vermilion Valley--if that is possible. He has not been able to get a hold of the folks at Vermilion Valley. So I will plan on visiting Vermilion Valley to see what can be arranged. After checking in, a quick trip to REI just up the road a little to get my OvaEasy Egg Crystals. After some confusion (the guy at the counter says it isn't there), the manager locates the package. Next up is grocery shopping for more perishable stuff. Not easy to find a regular market nearby, so I first search in a Sprouts Farmers Market and get a few things, but stuff I really want must be elsewhere. Finally locate a Vons and pick up a last few things. I can now finish packing my resupply but decide I need three buckets, so off to the nearby Home Depot for one more bucket. With this pretty much finished, head to the nearby movie theater and decide to see The Secret Life of Pets. A diversion but not much more than that. I had been encouraging Megan to find her camera charger, but it seems it is missing. She and Anne will go look for a charger tomorrow.

21 July 2016, Day -1. A nice thing today is that I can leave some stuff in the room. I load up the resupply buckets, packing an onion, green pepper, a couple oranges, summer sausage and some cheese in the middle of the buckets where they might stay cooler. Although I was warned that the drive up was a four hour drive, I manage it far more quickly (I am less intimidated by the road in than most other drivers). I stop in Prather to talk with the Forest Service but only learn a little--there is a fire near the Vermilion Valley resort that closed a trail to the Devils Bathtub. Otherwise fires are allowed below 10,000' in the backcountry (they are not allowed in the frontcountry). At Florence Lake I am told that the writing on the buckets will wear off, so we write on some stickers and tape up the bucket tops. I buy a couple of Florence Lake shirts, in part so I have some clean shirts when we come out of the wilderness. After a lunch that is really just snacks, I start to head up to Vermilion Valley Resort to learn about shuttles and what not for Matt. A couple of backpackers were looking for a ride in that direction, so I say sure, hop in. They had hiked across the Sierra as part of an annual family pilgrimage, apparently echoing days of old when they would cross the Sierra for trading and social visits. These two guys though told of losing their horses, running out of food, and being out separate from their main group, but they all would meet at Mono Hot Springs. On the way we find a couple more guys, these two having done the Muir Trail from Yosemite to here. Apparently they were to be picked up but figured they would try to get a phone, maybe at Mono Hot Springs or Vermilion Valley. We also pass an older member of the group of the first two guys, but he is fine walking to Mono Hot Springs (and we don't have room anyways). I pull in to Mono Hot Springs and drop these guys off, noticing that I have cell reception. As I pull away, one of the two guys looking to get picked up runs out and asks if he could make a call on my phone. Sure, I said. So he calls his mother (who was picking him up) and gets voicemail, so he calls his father. Turns out he was to be picked up by his mother at Florence Lake, but now he is off the Florence Lake road. He decides he'd better head back to that road. So I leave; before I get much farther down the road, Matt calls. Turns out he finally got through to Vermilion Valley and indeed he could get a shuttle ride from Florence Lake to Vermilion I suggest he try to stay there; he says there is a two night minimum. I think he should ask as they might end up with an odd open bed. So I do not need to go on. I turn around and at Mono Hot Springs there are the same two guys from the Muir Trail. So I pick them up and take them to the Florence Lake road junction. I get a description of his mother's car and plan on telling her where they are should I see her. I then head out, not encountering the mother's vehicle, so presumably she was between the Vermilion road and Florence Lake. Turned out one fellow who sat in the front seat had sat on a really sticky log, so there is pine tar on the passenger seat. So I stop at an auto parts place in Prather and get some gunk remover. Drive back down to Fresno with plenty of time to go see Star Trek Beyond in the IMAX theater near the REI (which I visit yet again for a few more goodies, like a bigger towel for Megan and a couple more stuff sacks and some backpacking shampoo). I learn that Anne and Megan failed to find a charger, so I call the main photo place in Fresno and they say they do have a charger that would work. So we will deal with that tomorrow.

Many months of running around and checking on things and making arrangements is done. Time to move on to Day 0... (or, if you are curious, the grand overview and end comments at the very end). I have put maps on my pages to provide some context, but the base map (older USGS 1:100,000 scale maps) have the trails in the wrong places (e.g., near Devils Postpile), just so you know.

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