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|| News Item: Posted 2006-11-16

In the Footsteps of John Muir
By Tomas Ovalle, The Fresno Bee

Photo by

Tomas Ovalle on Mt. Whitney.
Standing 14,447 feet above sea level, Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. Reporter Marek Warszawski, two hikers, Jim Hurley and Emily Franciskovich, and I climbed to the summit as part of the Fresno Bee's John Muir Trail Project, which sought to trace the footsteps of the eccentric conservationist John Muir, all the while recording the experience.

John Muir concluded that many of the Sierra Nevada Mountains were formed by the movement of giant glaciers. These glaciers also carved Yosemite Valley and many other breathtaking peaks and valleys. Inch by inch these massive sheets of ice cut granite out of Half Dome, El Capitan and Mt. Whitney.

Jim and Emily planned to hike the whole 211 miles of the John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to the Summit of Mt. Whitney. Four teams of reporters and photographers documented their journey with photos and daily blogs for the Fresno Bee's web page.

My journey started at Roads End in King's Canyon where we hiked about twelve miles a day for six days up the granite staircase that is the Sierra Nevada. The landscape was tremendous as we climbed over three passes, several streams, and past many lakes filled with cool pristine water from the melting snow pack.

The light of the Sierra in the morning is yellow gold like straw. It bathes the trees, rocks, and mountains in this filtered light. It caused me to skip a breath. I felt humbled by the beauty that lay before me, and fortunate to be the one in the wilderness to interpret it.

On the trail, the food was sparse and I didn't bring enough. However, this was a time to cleans the body and fill it with more than caloric sustenance. It was time to dine on nature's visual delights, which were enough to stop the pangs of hunger. It was time to listen to the sound of life as it was before the arrival of any explorer.

I was given a Canon S-80, which has an 8 mega-pixel CCD with a wide-angle 28-100mm* 3.6x Optical zoom and a high-resolution 2.5-inch LCD screen with wide viewing. This is a versatile camera that is light and packs easily. I just wore it around my neck in a case that I kept open. I carried four 1-gig cards which was just right for seven days on the trail. I also carried a satellite phone and PDA. This is a far cry from a view camera but it was mobile, quick, and easy to use.

Photo by Tomas Ovalle / The Fresno Bee

Photo by Tomas Ovalle / The Fresno Bee

Two hikers watch the sunrise looking East from the base camp below Mt. Whitney on Monday, September 4, 2006. About 50 hikers spent the night at base camp.
In my external frame backpack I had packed a headlamp, a one-man tent, sleeping pad, water filter, two nalgene water containers, 20 degree sleeping bag, bear canister containing freeze-dried dinners, oatmeal packets, beef jerky, Gorp, PowerBars, and Gatorade powder, Jet-boil stove, coffee, cup, knife, , lighter, spoon, fork, clothes appropriate for the wilderness, toiletries, sat phone, PDA, batteries, for a total of about 45 pounds.

To prepare for the rigors of carrying the pack for such a distance I carried my pack around the neighborhood. I cycle upwards of 200 miles a week and race my road bike frequently. I was generally fit, but carrying the pack (which was about a third of my total bodyweight) took a couple days to get used to. I took the advice of experienced hikers and adjusted my pack throughout the day. This helped shift the load to different muscles and eventually I had it dialed in. If I had to do it over again, I would have walked with a loaded pack three hours a day for five days before I left. That would have been enough to establish some good muscle memory in preparation for the grueling 8 to10 hour days.

Hydration and caloric intake are critical to hiking successfully. I opted to carry nalgene water bottles, which require stopping to unscrew the cap and drink. A better option is to carry a bladder, which holds more water, which is accessed by a plastic tube, connected to it on the fly. Many backpacks have a special sleeve that a bladder fits into.

Energy is necessary on the trail. Any energy bar such as Cliff Bars or PowerBars, plus some peanut butter for protein will keep you going. I would suggest about four energy bars per day along with some Gorp, and for lunch some beef jerky.

The night came fast and with it the cold. Our reward was the starlit sky with the Milky Way shining brightly. Two miles below the summit of Mt. Whitney, Jim and I laid our packs down at a place on the trail. This is a tradition for backpackers so they can hike the last two miles unencumbered. Like a kid without any cares I began racing Jim to the summit.

Photo by Tomas Ovalle / The Fresno Bee

Photo by Tomas Ovalle / The Fresno Bee

Jim Hurley performs a headstand to celebrate the arrival on the summit of Mt. Whitney on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2006. Mt. Whitney is the terminus of the John Muir Trail and the end of the month long journey for Jim Hurley and Emily Fransiscovich.
On parts of the open trail I sprinted over rocks and up granite stairs. The cold crisp air was invigorating. I felt like mercury on wings speeding up the mountain and I could hear Jim laboring for breath behind me. With a backpack on Jim could move quite a bit faster than I, but without it, we were pretty even. We both agreed to stop and wait for Emily as we got nearer to the summit. As we reached the summit we were in awe of the beauty around us. The Kaweas, Mt. Hitchcock, the White Mountains, lakes, tarns, the Sierra was set like a feast on a table before us as we dined to our hearts' content.

The photos and stories ran for a month on consecutive Sundays. The plan was for the reporters' blogs and photographer's photos to run daily but this depended on the satellite phone and if there was a signal available. Not all satellite phones have satellites directly overhead and in the Sierra with many peaks over 13,000 feet it was crucial to have a line of sight with the satellite. Our website is run by a different department than the photo department. The coverage from the trail and posting of photos even after the trip has been inconsistent. The photos and stories ran on four consecutive Sundays. The photo department is currently making a standalone slideshow to post with voice-overs by the photographers to better display the work.

It was great to be part of a large project that was ambitious in scale. I still remember the smile on my face when I would see a picture on the trail waiting to be taken. We have one of the most beautiful wilderness areas right in our backyard and it was a pleasure to share it with our readers. Perhaps, you are near such an area in your region and maybe it's time to go make some tracks of your own!

(Tomas Ovalle is a staff photographer at the Fresno Bee.)

Related Links:
Ovalle's member page

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