Day 1

Yosemite Valley to Vogelsang Trail

This is really happening!  At the official start of the JMT
This is really happening! At the official start of the JMT
I awoke at 3 am to the coughing of the guy in the next tent in utter silence.  A pin drop.  I reached for my bag and cringed at every single crinkle of my bear bag.  I was in hell.  If we turned on our headlamps and started to get ready we’d surely wake everyone up around us. 

We gathered our bags and crept to some picnic tables away from the tents where we started getting ready.  By the red light of our headlamps we forced bites of muffin into our knotted stomachs.  Anxious.  I remember taking my birth control pill that morning and looking at the week of pills ahead.  Eight more times I would have to wake at this hour and go through this torture.  It seemed impossible.  Why the hell am I doing this?
It was 4:30am and pitch black when we started the short mile walk to Happy Isles - we wouldn't see twilight till about 6 am.  Ash caught in our headlamp beams and Jason questioned if we should cover our mouths - the air smelled much smokier than it did the evening before. 

Murky skies ruin the magnificent views along the Mist Trail
Murky skies ruin the magnificent views
along the Mist Trail
Soon we came to the sign - thee sign that Jason had been waiting for.  The one that every thru hiker must pose by and snap a photo, marking either the official start or end to their JMT adventure.  This was a religious experience for Jason.  Ten years earlier, as we hiked Half Dome, he watched a pair of dirty hikers finish their trek.  It was a moment he didn't forget, and one he said he’d always strive for.  Now it was our turn, and we posed for our own photos next to the sign anxiously smiling.  Last systems checked and ready to go.  We stood there with 24 pound packs on our back, five days of food and hoping to average 25 miles a day.  Nine was our magic number.  Jason and I gave each other one last wide-eyed look, took a deep breath, and took our first step.

Soon we were reduced to the familiar rhythm of our breathing and the clicking of trek poles on pavement.  I was happy to leave the craziness of the trip’s prologue behind and return to what I know.  This is I can do.

The air smelled horribly of smoke.  As the sun rose it became apparent that the sky was full of haze, the wind must have changed overnight.  As we neared the top of the falls we noticed we couldn't even see the back of Half Dome.  We were trapped in a bubble.  By the time it was 7am it should have been full daylight, but the atmosphere was blanketed with a thick layer of brown smoke that turned the sky into continuous twilight.  We couldn't see very far in any direction.  We wet our buffs and wore them over our mouths in a meager attempt to help filter out particulates in the air. 

Soon I began to become worried and we debated what was the smart thing to do.  We had no idea what the Rim Fire was doing, perhaps it was headed our way.  The wind had obviously changed direction and was blowing the smoke directly into the valley.  What if it stayed like this – we would be hiking in smoke for days.  Was it smart to continue?  Was it healthy?  Jason turned on his cell phone and caught a weak signal.  The NOAA website revealed that indeed the wind was blowing south but would change direction the next day.  We resolved to push on for the rest of the day and reassess the conditions tomorrow. 
Aside from smelling smoke all day, day one was easy.  Strong fresh legs with an easy 10 mile warm up the day before, we blasted by the falls, passing Half Dome in less time that it took us when we were 24 years old.

Around Sunrise Camp we passed our first backcountry ranger who asked for our permit.  She mentioned she had been on her beat for three days now, so we updated her with the status of the fire and the empty conditions down in Yosemite Valley.  She Looked like she was 18 years old.  I was very jealous of her and her job.  (The only other backcountry ranger we encountered was in Tuolumne Meadows, later that day.  Neither of them hassled us with anything else, other than asking to see a valid permit.)

At lunch time we passed a twenty something kid who asked if we were fastpackers, he probably guessed as much from the diminutive size of Jason’s pack. This kid was headed to the valley finishing up an impressive six day fastpack of the JMT.  He asked if the smoke continued to be this bad down in the valley. This was his first time to Yosemite and he was understandably upset about having saved the best for last, only to not see anything at all.

Smoke so thick you could look straight at the sun
Smoke so thick you could look straight at the sun
Around Merced Lake we met the only other hikers that day wearing something around their face to protect from the smoke.  They were four older hikers who brought paper welding face masks. They agreed with us that hiking in the smoke was probably not the smartest thing to do, but they also didn't want to let it ruin their entire vacation (a month later in October the government shutdown of 2013 would ruin thousands of people’s vacations).  I often thought about the firefighters and hotshot crews battling the blaze right in the midst of smoke and ash. They often spent weeks or months working 12 hour shifts in such conditions.  Once I thought about it from that angle I felt a bit like a pansy, frightened by having to breathe in smoky air for a day.  Nevertheless, the conditions were not ideal.  It was so smoky we couldn't see Cathedral Peak or the Eichorn Pinnacle from the trail, no more than a half mile away.  Through the haze you could look directly at the sun, a bright red ball stapled unnaturally to the sky. 

At the Cathedral Trailhead we picked up our cache and ate dinner at The Grille.  Once back on the trail, a very energetic guy approaching us pointed at Jason and excitedly asked, ‘Are you guys fastpacking?’  He was also a fastpacker, and would finish tomorrow in eight days.   As his hiking partner approached us, our excited friend eagerly explained to him that we were also hiking the trail in under ten days - I felt flattered by this man. Not only did he identify us as fastpackers, but he seemed excited to meet us.  At this point we weren't even sure we could finish in less than ten days. I felt like we were being welcomed into a small clan, each high miler quietly scoping out others along the trail. At the end of the day, every camper along the trail is a backpacker, regardless of how many miles you cover. But I suppose it’s just natural to seek out others who share your goals.

A few more miles till sunset and we found a great little campsite overlooking the never-ending meadows along Lyell Creek.  Around the last two hours of daylight we both started to complain that our feet hurt.  If only we knew what we were in for.

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