Summer’s still not quite here, and the unusually cool days we’ve had make for marvelous hiking. I wither in the normal heat of late May and early June, so it’s OK by me. For those Pacific Crest Trail thru hikers just approaching the tail end of the Sierra at Walker Pass, it is looking like a repeat of last year’s deep snow transit of the High Sierra. My heart goes out to them. But then again, it was the hardest yet most marvelous part of the entire 2,600 miles. I hope they hike it, and hike it safely. My fingers are crossed for them as almost double the number have pulled permits for the trail this year. That’s 600 versus 300 hikers last year. The word is out.
I’m getting a lot of questions about backpacking this summer, gear questions, pack weight questions and destination questions, so this week we’ll focus on what I think is the most important thing you can do to have a great summer hiking trip, whether it’s a single long day up Half Dome or a week long trip on the West Coast Trail. Training! One word, but a lifetime of benefits. In my mind it is by far more important than gear, weight and any other geeky hiking stuff you may think you need to know.
Training is my mantra in this column, and all the hikes I introduce are great ways to start or continue training for a lifetime of good health, or a summer of hiking. Whether it’s walking in a store, tying your shoe, or lowering your blood pressure, regular walking helps. Recently they’ve discovered that exercising outdoors is even more effective at elevating people’s moods than working out in a building.
Today’s hike is probably the toughest four mile trail in the Bay Area, if tough is measured by unrelenting steepness. It’s the Burma Road up Mt. Diablo from the North Gate Road. You begin just before the 1,000 foot sign, and ascend to the top, gaining nearly 3,000 vertical feet, most of it over a 3 mile stretch of trail. Then it’s down that sucker.
In all of last summer’s PCT thru hike from Mexico to Canada, I never hit a stretch as long and steep as what we have on Diablo. Having trained on this before hitting trail made the transition to serious hiking much easier for me. And it’s a beautiful trail. The hills and views are absolutely gorgeous.
Up and back it’s an eight mile hike, not an all day affair if you start early. Just do as much as you can the first time out, and then come back another day and do a bit more.
I had a religious experience on this trail four years ago, so that fuels some of the fervor you’re hearing. I had signed on to climb Mt. Shasta with several friends. Tim, our leader, started us out with a hike up the Burma Road. He explained that this trail is almost the same elevation gain and distance as it is from base camp at Lake Helen to the top of Shasta. The only real difference is the lack of ice and snow and that the trail doesn’t start at 11,000 feet and end above 14,000 feet as it does on Shasta.
When I was a kid, I hiked and biked up Diablo many times, but now I was in my fifties, was forty pounds overweight and carried a thirty pound pack. I started the day with a spring in my step and pushed like crazy up the steepest parts of the trail, which come at the beginning.
We had lunch at Juniper Camp, above the 3,000 foot mark, and I was definitely feeling it, but I blasted on up the Juniper Trail for the last serious climb to the top, and made it to about a quarter of a mile from the summit when my right leg went into a spasm that knocked me to the ground. I’ve never had such a painful leg cramp. It was a hot day and my friends had to carry me into the shade of the lone pine tree in a sea of chaparral.
It wasn’t much further, but I couldn’t make it off trail to a road. I just lay there with my hat over my face waiting for the cramp to release. They went back for the car, and I lay there for a full hour before both legs stopped cramping. Poor Tim, I was the only experienced backpacker he had coming on the hike up Shasta besides himself, and I’d just hit the dirt. When I was able to get up, I hobbled down to Juniper camp and waited for my pick up.
That collapse was seriously humbling, not to mention humiliating, and put the fear of God in me, or at least the fear of my own imminent mortality, if I didn’t change a few things. From that day until we successfully summitted Shasta two months later, I climbed that mountain three times a week, at least one of those up the Burma Road, lost 30 pounds, and never looked back. Every time I went up it, it got easier, and I felt better.
That summer I climbed Shasta, backpacked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier, and hiked the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. Only the ascent of Shasta matched the difficulty of the Burma Road. All of it possible because of training on Diablo.
To get there, follow the North Gate Road up Diablo and when you see the 1,000 foot sign you know you’ve gone just a few hundred feet too far. Turn around and park at the obvious trail crossing. There are trail signs that direct you up the Burma Road which runs straight up the spine of the hills. At the top of the first two hills you will see a trail marker. Don’t turn left, which is where the Burma Road continues, but go straight up the ridge on the Angel Kerley trail for a quarter of a mile and then branch left onto Mothers Trail. This is the third of the really steep sections, all of which greatly benefit by the use of hiking poles, especially later coming down.
Mothers trail will end when you rejoin the Burma Road, turning right and going up. Check out the spring which is piped into a large concrete tank, as it’s always full of very hungry gold fish. I always bring a bit of something to feed them. Burma Road will end when you join the Deer Flat Road, leading you to Juniper Camp. From there it’s a one mile jaunt to the top via the Juniper Trail, which is moderately steep, but nothing like what you’ve already done. The views get better and better the higher you go.
You’ll find water at Juniper Camp and at the top, as well as picnic tables. The Visitor’s Center at the summit has been remodeled and is a great place to sit in front of a wall heater that looks like a real fire if it’s a cold day and browse their displays and books.
Since making this a regular part of my training, I’ve met several groups of backpackers over the years who were using it to train for Shasta, and just last weekend, bumped into a group of guys from Benicia who were training for the TRT, (Tahoe Rim Trail), another great adventure. So if you’ve got a serious hike coming up, or you need the fear of God to help you turn your life around, try the Burma Road up Mt. Diablo. It’s the toughest trail in the Bay Area, and it’s right in our own backyard.
Starting next week, we will begin a series of columns that will feature the East Bay Regional Parks. I’m hoping to highlight one or two per month, and over the next year or two hike in every one of the 65 parks the district manages. These are the gems of the East Bay, and there are many I’ve never been to. I hope you’ll join me next week as we kick off this series with a walk in the hills above Crocket in the Eckley Pier Regional Park.
Pacific Crest Trail Stories: Seven days from our last resupply, and miles and miles of snow in the Sierra high country, found us at days end on the shores of Lake Thomas Edison. This was about midway on the John Muir Trail, but only mile 879 on the Pacific Crest Trail, so we had a mere 1,777 miles to go to reach Canada before the snows of winter put a stop to all travel.
June 22, 2011, and seven days since our last real rest. But we were camped at the ferry dock -- just a couple of boards chained to a granite bolder -- for the Vermilion Valley Resort, which was to be our next resupply point, and a well earned “zero day.” If you didn’t hike and therefore made no mileage, it was a “zero,” if you only hiked part of a day, and then took a break it was a “nero day.” At this point we needed the Full Monte, and a zero was in the cards, and besides, VVR had a fabulous reputation for fun and food, and we planned to see if it was all it was reputed to be.
The next morning we ate a leisurely breakfast on the beach while waiting for the ferry, not wanting to hike the 5 miles around the lake. We wanted to be pampered with the ride. When the pontoon boat docked, we met our host Jim, the owner of VVR. The ride across the lake was worth the price of the ferry. The area is gorgeous! The resort sits on the west end of a large Sierra Reservoir, Lake Thomas Edison, the Vermilion Cliffs rising on the eastern shore, and the first peaks of the High Sierra in the background.
When we hit the beach, we had second breakfast, a mountain of potatoes, eggs, sausage gravy and anything else we could think to ask for. We needed calories, and as many as we could get quick. Hikers get a complimentary beer upon arrival, and we took advantage of that soon after breakfast. None of this waiting around till 5 o'clock for the first beer, it was now or never. We had a day off and were going to enjoy it!
We were given a tent cabin we all shared with a few local mice, and after one chewed through a side pouch of my pack, we hung them off the ground from the ridge pole. Real guests stay in more formal cabins. Being mid way on the John Muir Trail, makes it an easy place to hike off to for picking up resupply packages. As well as having it’s own store and restaurant, it's got a great rustic outdoor area for drinking those beers that seem to have become one of the basic food groups we'd been missing. Dehydrated beer will make someone rich, and the idea for it is the source of endless jokes on trail, especially on a hot day and a long haul uphill.
We spent the day using the laundry, taking several showers -- at least I did as the trail funk never seemed to come loose with just one -- and then, eating, eating and eating some more, all washed down with proper libation. That evening we all lounged around a campfire where staff and guests mingled. Their stories of the place, and ours of the hike, took on the stature of any tales told around a roaring fire, shadows cast against the forest looming in the background. We slept well on bunk beds in the tent cabins.
The next morning after a huge breakfast, but no beer -- we had to hike again -- we caught the morning ferry back to the trail. Jim, the owner of VVR, and the pilot for our boat ride, told us that the resort was only famous for one thing, which was that, Sir Edmond Hillary, had once driven the ferry. He had come to VVR to be filmed on the Vermilion Cliffs, and had come aboard the ferry with a whole retinue of people, film crew and retainers I suspect. They had carried aboard a large, throne like chair which he sat on for the ride. Mid crossing he had asked Jim if it would be all right if he drove the boat. Jim said that this would be fine, as long as Jim got to sit in his chair while Sir Edmond had the helm. A boat ride in Sir Edmond’s chair is something to remember.
There you have it. VVR is famous for something, but it’s actually much more famous for the hospitality and fun most hikers have while they stop over and resupply there. It’s supposedly a long, poor dirt road coming in from the West, but I’ll go back and spend a few days there with my family at some point. I give VVR four stars for the friendliness of staff, the quality and portions of food, the funky, rustic beauty of the resort itself, and the stunning beauty of the setting, looking as it does across a large body of water into the heart of the High Sierra. If you're interested, their web site is at: http://www.edisonlake.com/
We didn’t get hiking until mid morning, so we had to make tracks to get over 10,827 foot Silver Pass, before the day was done. Just a baby when compared to the number of passes over 12,000 and 13,000 feet we’d been summiting for weeks now. But it would be enough. We would find that the trails over some of the lower passes were harder to figure out than the higher ones which had been more obvious.
It was a warm day, and the first several miles were easy. We had trail through the forest, until we hit the first waterfall. I don’t mean a bit of a trickle, or a small stream, but a full fledged waterfall crashing onto the trail, which was no more than a bit of a shelf in mid-fall, and then a serious drop just below that shelf. If you slipped or made any mistake in this one, you’d be over the side in a second and that would be it.
The warm afternoon was in full stride releasing billions of gallons of California’s frozen water reserve, and we just happened to hit this one at a bad time. Early in the morning it would have been manageable, as all the streams and rivers recede at night when the snow stops melting in the chill.
Smiles waded across first, then gave me a hand on the far side, which was the worst part. Next came Mango and then both Little Engine and Plain Slice. I got the camera out, and finally got a few shots of a bad crossing. This spot needed a bridge, as did so many others, but the John Muir Trail is still a trail, and dangerous in early season, and particularly in times of high melt off.
We weren’t done however, as there was a second waterfall in the trail further up. Although it was a bigger stretch of flooded trail, it was easier as it spread out further, thinning the amount of water we had to get through. All told, this turned out to be a day of bad stream crossings. Smiles had slipped off a log into one of them, and we all faired badly in one or another over the day.
We eventually reached snow again, and had to guess our way up Silver Pass in wet shoes and deep snow. Coming down this we got completely lost and found ourselves carefully working our way to the edge of snowy precipices in search of a way down the north side. We backtracked several times, and slogged extra miles in soggy afternoon snow, before finally figuring a way down.
Several miles from the pass, we found good camping. While pitching our tents, another thru hiker, Turbo, hiked in and set up camp with us, and had a tale to tell. Not long after the airlift rescue of Calorie back on Kearsarge Pass, (full story in the April 9, 2011, Walk About Martinez) )he had been involved in another airlift from Forester Pass, the highest pass on the PCT.
A hiker had become sick with HAPE, (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), while attempting to summit the pass, and Turbo and The Kern, (his trail name) had helped evacuate him down the mountain to the Kern River a few miles away. Getting to lower elevation fast is imperative. People die of this in the high spots of the world yearly, and so no one was taking it lightly. One of his party summited Forester and was able to get cel phone service from the top and called in an airlift.
After the rescue Turbo and The Kern were crossing a log on the river and The Kern attempted to throw his pack across to the far shore. It didn’t quite make it, and was swept away instantly, becoming the reason for his trail name. The problem now was that the two of them had only one set of gear and over 20 miles of snow and rough trail to exit the Sierra and make it to Lone Pine.
They got through but The Kern was now without gear to continue his hike. The story was posted on the PCT List, the email forum for thru hikers, and within a few days, people had donated, and sent or driven, much of the gear he needed to complete his hike.
That’s the depth of support a thru hiker has if he or she ever really needs help. Turbo’s story put in perspective our day of bad stream crossings, and suddenly a hike or two through a waterfall didn’t sound half bad.
“Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks... While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood...in Nature's warm heart.” John Muir