The John Muir Trail is defined, among other things, by its indomitable passes. Ten total, including Mt. Whitney, all rising well over 10,000 feet and totaling 47,000 feet of collective elevation gain. Each day is, in its own way, defined by those passes. We plan our days based on the elevation profile ahead, often camping at the base of each pass, in order to conquer its formidable ascent early in the morning before the sun threatens to level us with its penetrating rays. We are forever in relationship to those passes, either preparing to summit, celebrating at the top or recovering on the other end. They are the high points of our journey- and the low.
Every hiker has their victory pass and their nemesis. We all tell stories about which passes nearly brought us to our knees and which ones surprised us by our own strength and tenacity. These mountains present daily challenges which force us to dig deep into our reserves, to call upon our greatest strengths and to go beyond the limits of our mental and physical capabilities. We gaze wearily upon the summits which, despite their appearances, are much further away than they seem. There are some that feel unreachable and others over which we soar proudly, surprised by the ease with which we conquered the unimaginable.
Each pass is its own journey and we in turn, become defined by them. They are the physical expressions of our internal landscapes and each summit brings forth its own victory. Switchbacks which stretch out for miles expose our greatest doubts and insecurities. Tempers run high and we question our belief in ourselves and in each other. On the backs of these mountains, our demons emerge and our smallest, most insecure selves peek out from hidden crevices. These are the lows. The can’t dos. The moments in which we are temporarily overtaken by defeat.
But in the end, we persevere, in spite of ourselves. And our doubts and insecurities are transformed into triumph. We rely on each other for support and we draw strength from each other. We reach the top and we look back from where we came with amazement. From our vantage point of victory we access new truths about ourselves that we will call forth the next day when faced with taller, harder climbs.
Such is the way of the trail. And as we travel Southbound, the passes, which by all accounts should be getting harder and more formidable, are transformed instead into our personal victories. We are conquering these mountains, as we conquer ourselves. Muir Pass, Mather Pass, Pinchot Pass, each rising higher than its predecessor and each gracing us with a victory that lends strength to our bodies and our souls.
We are now camping at elevations higher than ever before, as the winds whip at our tent and we huddle together with other hikers preparing to summit as we are. Tent cities crop up at the bases of high elevation passes, as there are few places to camp amidst the rocks that blanket the landscape above 11,000 feet. As much as we cherish our solitude, we love the occasional communal camping, which brings us closer to our trail families whom we’ve come to know along the trail. We all share stories about our journeys so far and come to know each other in ways that would take years of shared experience in the outside world. And when the sun comes up in the morning, we will pack up our temporary homes, fuel our bodies with coffee, oatmeal and miso soup, pump water from a nearby stream and set out for another day on the trail.