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Trail Angels, Magic and The Golden Staircase

Part of my preparation for backpacking trips includes research. If there is trail guide or book, I’ll read it cover to cover. I get a topo map and study it. I google the area looking for articles, blog posts, YouTube videos and movies such a Mile… Mile & a Half about hiking the John Muir Trail. I watch, then watch over and over again. I go through my pack, make lists of what I have and what I need. I check my jet boil, tent, sleeping bag and first aid kit to make sure everything is in order and functioning. I study my Wilderness First Aid books, and books about medicinal and edible plants in the area I’m going just in case of an emergency. Like a good Girl Scout, I want to be prepared.

There is the saying “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.” I’ve learned many lessons on the trail. One difficult but important lesson is that nothing ever goes exactly as planed or turns out like you pictured. In the book Deep Survival, the author Lawrence Gonzalez lists being willing to change your plans as one of the most important survival skills.

Often, when I’ve been in a challenging situation, I’ve had to make a quick decision or act of faith that very well saved my life. It is at times like this when Trail Magic happens and the Trail Angels appear.

Allow me to tell you a story about the Golden Staircase.

In 2018, my sister and I planned to hike the second half of the JMT Bishop Pass to Mt Whitney, hiking 12-14 miles and one pass a day. We had my brother-in-law scheduled to bring our resupply at the weekend or 7-day mark at Kearsarge Pass.

From the first day, we got behind our planned schedule. When going over Bishop Pass, we walked through a section where there was a terrible accident the previous October that caused 100 mule deer to slide on ice to their death down a rocky ravine. There was a pile of deer carcasses with random bones scattered on the trail. It smelt strongly like rotting flesh! This really freaked us out. At the top of the pass we encountered our first snow and ice on the trail. We took that as a sign and didn’t want to end up like the deer below, so we took it super-slowly and went around on the boulders which added extra physical exertion and time. Our original plan was to do 14 miles - 7 up to the pass and 7 down to Le Conte Canyon. This would set us up to do The Golden Staircase the next day. On the way down my legs started to give way and we decided to stop for the day and planned to make up our miles the next day. The blessing here was camping in Dusy Basin and the most beautiful sunset.

We got up early the next day and started the 5 miles down, down, down to Le Conte Canyon. In the city I can knock off 5 miles in less than two hours. This trail was not what I remembered from years ago when we went up, up, up and exited. It was slow going due to slippery rocks underfoot, what seemed like a million switchbacks, and the unexpected heat. It took us 5 hours to do 5 miles. When we got to the lowest elevation on the JMT and the intersection along the Kings River I had to take a break to cool off. I was wearing faux jean leggings and they were suffocating! I took out my medical scissors from my first aid kit and cut them off at the knee. I turned the lower leg portion into arm sleeves, soaking them in the cool water. A woman asked me if she could film me for her blog as she had never seen anyone do that. I agreed and asked about her blog. She was a descendent of John Muir and was writing a blog and book about him. I was very eager to hear more. She shared that her uncle never went hiking or trekking. He meandered. I love that! All this chatting and soaking our feet in the river was Trail Magic but it also put us more behind schedule. We got going and by 5:00p.m. we were exhausted. We still had not made it to the Dreaded Golden Staircase which was our goal for the day. Everyone we talked to