The Feat of Protecting One’s Feet

My feet after 48 miles of hiking along the John Muir Trail

My feet after 48 miles of hiking along the John Muir Trail

The above picture displays the state of my feet one day after 48 miles of backpacking, mainly along the John Muir Trail. The blood blisters beneath my toenails are old wounds, the result of a Memorial Day weekend “shakedown” backpacking trip on Mount San Jacinto (see Shaking Down the Trail). Had I not chewed up my feet during that hike, I probably would have come out of this one with clean toes.

I was lucky. The shakedown trip is meant to help backpackers assess difficulties that might emerge during longer treks. On the last day of that Mount San Jacinto adventure, my new boots tripped me up when I attempted to head down the trail with a full backpack on (they’d been fine on a long downhill stretch sans backpack). My toes became so badly bruised I could barely walk. I actually had to remove my boots, tape 5 toes, and walk out in softer shoes. It still hurt like hell. Even more disturbing, I had less than 6 weeks to correct the problem.

I couldn’t attempt to try a new pair for 2 weeks, as it took that long for my toes to heal. I decided the best thing to do would be to look for boots in the same make and model that had worked for me in Yosemite back in 2010, when I hiked the High Sierra Camp Loop, staying in their renowned canvas tents along the way. I was happy to discover REI still sold them (and I was very happy with their generous exchange policy).

Even so, I was nervous I was going to bomb out on a trip I’d been preparing for since late January (see Bringing Down the Weight). I was also concerned about my cranky back. I found myself sharing these fears with my rolfer—as he was working over this said back. He suggested I hike Cowles Mountain twice a week with a full pack on in an attempt to prepare. He thought this would give my body a chance to adapt before I got started.

At 1594 feet, Cowles Mountain is the highest point in San Diego. The hike to the top and back runs roughly 4.2 miles. I hit this Cowles trailhead fully equipped with backpack and brand new boots exactly 3 weeks after I experienced the seriously bruised toes. It wasn’t a breeze, but I could complete the hike with no new injuries to my feet. I began to relax as I continued with these training hikes, along with some workouts in the gym. Then I was sidelined once again by a calf muscle that seized up as I was running on a treadmill, leaving me hobbling. This occurred exactly 2 weeks before my backpacking group was scheduled to arrive at our trailhead, Glacier Point.

My calf was not better the next day. I ended up abandoning the rest of my workouts, and guiltily spent a lot of extra time in the bathtub. Not cool during a period of level 2 drought restrictions. I also hauled out my yoga mat and started getting more serious about my stretching.

The following week I was scheduled to take a poetry workshop at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Tassajara offers natural hot springs in Japanese style baths. I was hoping to get a lot of soaking time in. But at this point, I was becoming anxious about my declining fitness level. And as I left for the workshop on the 4th of July, my calf was still complaining.

The baths at Tassajara ultimately brought relief to the calf in question. Though I didn’t have my backpack with me, I decided to hike around the Tassajara grounds every day, in an attempt to stay in shape. Upon return, I completed one last training hike in the Laguna Mountains, walking some 10 miles. Glacier Point (day 1) was 5 days away.

I can’t believe my feet are fine. I did not get one blister or bruise during the entire week in Yosemite. This is not to say I didn’t experience any problems. On day 2, we ended up camping in a burn area, one that was still sooty.


On day 3, it rained at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp, where we set up our tents in the backpacker’s campground. A blessing: a few of us were able to talk the cook in the slightly more posh canvas tent camp into selling us leftover turkey dinners. To die for! On day 4, it began to rain once more.


I also sliced one finger as I was attempting to open my resupply box with a Multitool. On day 5, I began the ascent to Donohue Pass in a full out thunderstorm. The last mile leading to first bridge (the first place backpackers are allowed to camp after leaving Tuolumne Meadows) is very steep, and hikers face many granite stairs. As I climbed listening to the thunder and feeling the rain, I felt like I was hanging by a thread outside a castle wall in a veritable tempest. Thrilling! Of course, our group arrived at first bridge (9600 feet) to face damp ground and rain that was not dispersing. After we set up our tents, we hunkered down in our sleeping bags. It poured for hours.


The next morning (day 6), I took stock of my situation. My original plan was to leave the group (I needed to keep my trek beneath 10,000 feet, because I’ve experienced scary altitude sickness when I’ve attempted to go higher) and head back down Lyell Canyon until I reached the Evelyn Lake Junction. From there, I was going to spend one last night by the lake, before taking the Rafferty Creek Trail to Tuolumne Meadows where my car was parked. While I’d managed to stay dry throughout the storms we experienced, I decided another night – alone this time – in more rain at an elevation of 10,334 would not be a good idea.

Instead, I shortened my trip by one night and hiked some 10 miles back down the John Muir Trail to Tuolumne Meadows. Needless to say, it rained and hailed most of the way. As I walked, I truly felt for my fellow hikers, who were in process making their way over Donohue Pass at 11,056 feet. They did arrive safely in Red’s Meadow on day 8.

I will refrain from going on an on, thereby skipping most of the good stuff. Here’s a hint though: I’ve already begun cleaning up my gear for the next trip. I’ve been invited to backpack in the Grand Canyon, and I am also eyeing the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area.

A few pictures…


Panorama Trail

Panorama Trail

IMG_1536 IMG_1565 IMG_1579







Rain in Lyell Canyon

Rain in Lyell Canyon