Reaching the JMT- Crabtree Meadow Basecamp

(Still Wednesday, August 19, 2015)

Welcome to the JMT! Upper Crabtree Meadow  

7:30 pm– I’m almost too tired to write.  I’m going to call this a 12 mile day with the hike out from my camping spot far away from the trail at Soldier Lake and my wandering back and forth for 15 minutes when I got back on the New Army Pass Trail and couldn’t figure out which direction to go. Maybe it’s 11 ½ miles… Who knows, it depends on which map or trail signs I follow – they all say something different.

53 decent over guyot where ran into trail crew and asked about wag bag
Trail on the North Side of Guyot Pass

After hiking for 10 hours through red fir and lodgepole pine woodlands, crossing drought depleted streams, hearing a crazy coyote kill, climbing 2000 feet up Guyot Pass where I experienced my first false summit at Guyot Flat and  finally climbing a gentle trail that meandered along Whitney Creek, I reached the John Muir Trail and Upper Crabtree Meadow!  It’s quite a sight: stretching from maybe half a mile to my left toward the sharp granite peaks near Mt. Whitney, to the edge of the forest I just climbed out of on my right. I breathed a sigh of relief. I made it! I can rest!

I was greeted by a crowded and bustling backpacker camp – obviously a Mt. Whitney base camp.   There are at least 20 – and maybe as many as 30 – tents tucked into the pine trees bordering the meadow as far as the eye can see.  It reminds me of a refugee camp (not that ‘I’ve ever been in a refugee camp, but I imagine it would look something like this- only with not as much expensive ultra-light gear). It was also a bit of a shock to my senses after being mostly alone for 3 days.

I was obviously late. Finding a private spot to pitch camp was going to be a challenge. I headed to my right toward the line of trees that marked the south edge of the meadow – there were only a couple of tents tucked away in the trees against the hill that dropped down to the trail on the edge of Whitney Creek, where women were bathing and hikers were filtering water. But way down on the southernmost tip, there was no one. It was a bit out in the open, but at least away from the crowd.

I finally settled on a flat spot tucked against the trees that spilled down a big hill toward Lower Crabtree Meadow.  I dropped my pack and started pulling all my stuff out: my bear can, tent, sleeping bag, Thermarest, and sleeping clothes. I was anxious to get set up.  I sat in the dirt nibbling on a Cashew Caramel Macro Bar while I organized my gear. I was happy with my spot and couldn’t figure out why I was the only one who thought of camping here.

I laid out my tent and as I was attaching the poles to the grommets I happened to catch sight of something at the tree line on the east side of the meadow that I’d missed while scouting for a campsite.  To my complete and utter horror I was looking directly in the face of a man  sitting on a wide-open, for- the-world-to-see outdoor toilet, no more than 25 yards away. He was just sitting there, wad of toilet paper in hand,  shrinking down on his wood-instead-of-porcelain throne trying to hide from me. But there was nowhere to hide. The only privacy this outdoor toilet lent were two crudely built walls on the OTHER SIDE of the toilet.  My camp was perfectly positioned to get a straight-on view. Well that answers the question why I’m the only one down here.

crabtree toilet
Outdoor toilet at Crabtree Meadow

I was mortified. How the fuck did I miss that?  I was so embarrassed (I can only imagine how he felt!). I felt like such a back-country campground rookie (like I was supposed to know there would be a toilet perched on a wooden stage in the middle of a wilderness campground! Sure there was a sign pointing in this direction, but I was expecting something a little more obvious!)

I quickly plopped my ass down with my back to him and pretended to fidget in my backpack for a good 15 minutes to give him plenty of time to finish what he was doing.  Then I haphazardly crammed my gear back in my pack and dragged it and my tent over to a new spot, BEHIND the toilet wall. I’m still close, but at least I won’t be watching people use it while I eat my Pad Thai.

I set up camp and took a walk to get water for dinner (up creek!) and explore the camp. I talked to a few people who confirmed they’re here to acclimate for their Whitney summit. I haven’t met anyone doing the whole JMT, they’ve just come in from the south (like me) and are out here for a few days to do Whitney.

climb toward whitney view of valley below
view toward Crabtree meadow from Whitney descent

I met a guy (Tom) who was sitting on the edge of the meadow near a camp with four tents eating dinner alone.  We struck up a conversation about the dozens of adorable marmots scurrying about in the meadow. I asked if he was heading to Whitney and he explained that his group is still on the mountain. He’d started out with them this morning but had to turn back at 12,000 feet because the elevation got the best of him.  He said he was too dizzy and short of breath to continue and “it wasn’t worth” his health and safety to push on. He tried to make light of it but his disappointment shone through as he tried too hard to convince me he was ok with it. I listened, told him “good for you for making that decision” and walked away thinking: Wow, Ok this Whitney climb is the real deal!  I hope that doesn’t happen to me!  That will NOT happen to me……Right???  

It never crossed my mind that I might not be able to summit Whitney (or finish this trip).  I tend to do things without overthinking them: forging ahead and working things out on the way….  Hell, preparing for this trip pushed my planning and organizational abilities to the limits with the food and the gear and the maps and the permits. But I never really considered I couldn’t do any part of it –  I’d just do it. (One of my favorite slogans!). Put one foot in front of the other and just go. I half-jokingly told my friends the only way I’m coming out before Happy Isles is by helicopter.  I don’t quit. Talking to Tom was the first time it dawned on me that there was a very real possibility I physically may not be able to climb Mt. Whitney.  That no matter how much my mind and stubbornness wanted to summit, my body may not allow me to. I couldn’t accept that and quickly put it out of my mind.


crabtree camp 2 branded
The big rock that became my dinner spot at Crabtree Meadow

I’m back at my camp now leaning against a big rock about 20 feet from my tent on the edge of the trees that line the meadow,  eating dinner and watching excited and exhausted hikers get back from Whitney, campers carry their pots and Nalgene bottles to the creek for water and others languidly organize and tidy up their camps. I get curious looks and enthusiastic hellos from passersby on the way to the outdoor toilet. I’ve only seen two other solos here – and I’m the only solo woman.

I look around camp and soak in the vibe. I like it here.  There’s an excited and adventure-filled energy in the air.  I’m conscious of my feeling of belonging, despite being alone.  A warm contentment washes over me as I reflect on this. I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere!  I’m happy. Content. And happy to be solo.

camp at Crabtree without the view of the toilet
Camp at Crabtree without the view of the toilet

Later –  It’s not quite dark yet, but I climbed into my tent to rest for my big day tomorrow. This will be my first night in my tent. It’s nice to be in here away from the crowd, and it’s cozy, but I think when I’m alone I’ll go back to no tent. I feel too cut off from nature.

Reflecting on my day,  I feel like I completed my first real hiking day; 12 miles, 10 hours and about 2000 feet in elevation – and it wasn’t easy. I’m still feeling the effects of the high altitude.  At 10,958 feet with a 40lb pack, Guyot pass was no walk in the park! I purposely did short days up until today to give myself plenty of time to acclimate before climbing Mt. Whitney. I hope I’m ready!

The trail was pretty desolate most of the day.  I only saw 3 people until about a mile out of lower Crabtree. It was also a day of wildlife sightings: the near-deadly coyote incident, mama doe and babies, a marmot (there are a lot here at camp) and another doe.

My body is feeling pretty good, except the muscle or tendon I strained behind my left knee when I slipped in the mud getting to camp at Soldier Lake yesterday.  It’s a recurring injury that I always tweak when I fall (and I fall on every backpacking trip).  It’s a little painful today, especially when I land on my left foot a certain way that twists it slightly. The tendonitis in my left foot is acting up too. But it’s not horrible, I can walk. It’s a good thing I brought lots of Ibuprofen!  Other than that I’m just feeling your run-of-the-mill tiredness. I wonder what I’ll feel like in a week?  Two weeks? Three? It’s only day three, I could be out here another twenty seven days!

I had to remind myself a few times today that this isn’t about rushing to a destination. It’s about experiencing every single moment this journey has to offer. I relished in my breaks; on the shore of Rock Creek, at the top of the rocky and picturesque Guyot Pass with it’s view of Whitney Meadow, and IN Crabtree Creek at lower Crabtree meadows. (I literally pulled off my hiking pants and sat on a big rock to soak my painful muscle/tendon. But when I spotted a couple having a nice picnic across the way, I slipped on my pants, grabbed my pack and headed down creek. I couldn’t find a big rock so I just plopped down in the icy cold creek!)

Foxtail Pines on Guyot Flat
Guyot Flat

At times, I find myself rushing: gotta get the miles in. Gotta get there by 2:00. When the fact is, getting to camp early is boring. Yesterday I got to camp at 1:00 and I was bored to tears all afternoon. Slow down. Enjoy the journey. This is why I gave myself 30 days to do this. I hope as the days pass, I shed the hustle and bustle mentality of real life and settle into nature’s rhythm – and my own hiking rhythm. I have time, I don’t need to rush.

Tomorrow is the day I (hopefully) summit Mt. Whitney!!!! It’ll be 15 miles round trip with over 4000 feet in elevation gain (and loss! I do have to come down…). The good news is, I only have to carry a day pack! Everyone’s been telling me to get up to the summit early before the smoke gets bad – usually by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. (I chose to hike the JMT the year half of California is on fire – and it’s definitely affecting air quality and views). I’ll shoot for leaving right after sunrise. That should put me on the summit around 11am.

Time to get some sleep. Tomorrow I climb to the top of the world (well the top of the lower 48 anyway!) I’m excited to get this done and start hiking the JMT!

Next – my climb up Mt. Whitney! 

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8 comments on “Reaching the JMT- Crabtree Meadow Basecamp”

  1. I am enjoying your blog so much! You are a talented writer and I look forward to each chapter! I lived on Cape Cod, MA for 16 years where there are lots of coyotes. As soon as you started describing the “yip yip yipping” I knew immediately it was a coyote kill. The pack surrounds the frightened prey making all that noise. As soon as one of them makes the kill they all fall so eerily quiet! And you are right, they don’t want to eat humans!

    1. Rhea – Thank you for confirming that it was a kill. I talked to a friend who lived in AZ and had similar experiences that you’re describing and also agreed it was a kill. Unless you hear it you can’t really understand how horrifying a sound it is! It’s not your run of the mill midnight coyote howling! Thank you for the kind words. I’m very happy to hear you’re enjoying the blog. I never imagined following one dream (hiking the JMT) would lead to another (writing). Thank you – and stay tuned for my hike up Whitney. I think you’ll enjoy it! 🙂

  2. Your journey to this point sounds idyllic Carolyn. You’re a tough woman. Well done. I’m already looking forward to your next escapade.

    1. Up to this point it was idyllic! And now that several months have passed, I can say the whole trip was idyllic, although it certainly didn’t feel that way at times! Thank you for the kind words – and for reading my blog!

  3. When I did my first Whitney trip via Horseshoe Meadow, our second day was hiking from Soldier Lake to Crabtree (a pretty long day). We got there late in the day too, and it was pretty crowded. We ended up getting a campsite outside of the meadow, very near where the JMT crosses Whitney Creek just shy of the ranger station. It was actually a pretty decent spot away from the crowds. Granted, this was probably 20 years ago, so things may have changed since then. On our summit attempt, we got nailed by a huge storm with thunder, lightning, hail, etc. We didn’t start until 6 am, so got a later start, which didn’t help.

    1. I saw those spots across the creek the next day! I was wishing I’d explored more, but you know how it is. It’s the end of the day, you’re tired and you just want to be done!

      It’s too bad about the storm. It can be unpredictable up there!

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