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Mile…Mile & A Half

A Journey Along The John Muir Trail
The Muir Project

It was our fifth day of hiking, and on this particular morning what lay ahead of us was the 11,000 ft Donohue pass. The warnings from the rangers in the Yosemite Wilderness office were dire and we’d already encountered several people who had been turned back by the conditions in the snowiest year in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in decades. It was a tough year just to complete the 219 mile John Muir trail (JMT), but we weren’t just hiking it, we were also filming and photographing the journey along the way.

We were hiking the JMT southbound from Yosemite to the summit of Mt. Whitney, and the day before we had hiked along the lovely, verdant, and level Lyell Creek Canyon. The few straggling Pacific Crest Trail hikers we passed, who were traveling northbound on the trail, were a pretty hardened crew having already gone over the high passes, through the creeks that had become rushing rivers, and the miles and miles of the Mojave Desert. Their reactions to our questions about going over the pass varied from a shell-shocked it’s “pretty hairy” to a nonchalant shrug accompanied by “It’s not that bad. Stick together; you’ll be fine.” At the very least, we knew we had a thousand feet of snow to climb through to get over the pass.

For younger and heartier adventurers that concept might not be so daunting, but even though we’re all avid backpackers, our jobs in civilization involve sitting in dark little rooms staring at monitors. While we were sipping our beers in Tony’s Dart Away and planning our trip in January of 2011, climbing up vertically through snow wasn’t a part of it. There were even questions as to whether we could do the trail in the weeks leading up to our departure. Fortunately, we decided to at least give it a try, agreeing that if it felt too dangerous we could always jump off the trail and try another year.

For younger and heartier adventurers that concept might not be so daunting, but even though we’re all avid backpackers, our jobs in civilization involve sitting in dark little rooms staring at monitors. While we were sipping our beers in Tony’s Dart Away and planning our trip in January of 2011, climbing up vertically through snow wasn’t a part of it.
John Muir TrailBehind the scenes along the John Muir Trail
Almost immediately after the bridge, the snow appeared and the trail disappeared. We followed some footsteps through the tree cover and around a ridge, and once we walked out of the trees, were confronted with a jaw dropping sight. Ahead of us was a giant bowl, with a frozen lake poised at the bottom. On the back side of the lake was a thousand-foot wall of snow with what looked like ant trails switchbacked across its face.
The first couple miles of the pass were steep, but snow free. After an hour or so of hiking we came to a bridge crossing a rushing creek, and we pulled off our packs and grabbed a few shots. Almost immediately after the bridge, the snow appeared and the trail disappeared. We followed some footsteps through the tree cover and around a ridge, and once we walked out of the trees, were confronted with a jaw dropping sight. Ahead of us was a giant bowl, with a frozen lake poised at the bottom. On the back side of the lake was a thousand-foot wall of snow with what looked like ant trails switchbacked across its face.

Again the packs came off, and almost stalling the inevitable, we grabbed a few more shots. It was still early on in the trip, and we were just figuring out the balance of shooting and hiking. Ric, to his credit, stayed behind to shoot the rest of us crossing the wall and capturing the scope of the climb.

While along a trail with such epic beauty, it can be pretty difficult to pass up shooting some of the scenery you walk through, but when you’re averaging ten miles a day, and sometimes braving harrowing moments, you can’t get it all… even when each of you has a camera. While in post-production on the film, we certainly wished that we had captured a few of the more perilous moments, and listening to the “oohs” and “ahhs” from at our screenings when the time-lapses of the starry night skies appear on the big screen, makes us wish we had shot more of them. But our efforts were also divided to focus also on not falling and injuring ourselves or our equipment; and after a long day of hiking, spending hours alone in the cold, dark mountain night while others slept warmly wasn’t always appealing. So the fact that we had the footage to make a compelling story, while we had this beautiful adventure, makes us pretty proud.

JMT-04
The higher we got up the face, the steeper it seemed to get, and by the time we got to the last pitch there was a pretty long drop off beside the tracks in the snow. That said, as we climbed – one step at a time – our confidence grew. It helped a little that the views down Lyell Creek towards Tuolumne Meadows were as breathtaking as the effort of climbing. Of course, once we reached the top of the wall, there was another ridge we had to climb over. I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t really hard and a little bit frightening, but as we sat atop of the pass, filming the puffy white clouds over the eastern ridge of the Sierras, (while marmots stole our lunch,) we breathed a communal sigh of relief.

Over the next three weeks we climbed over higher passes in even worse snow conditions. We got better and better at the process of shooting while hiking, and were able to capture enough to make a feature length documentary of our adventure. But the best part of the story is that this is only PART of the story. What made our adventure – or our film for that matter – something meaningful, is that the sum truly is greater than it’s parts. It wasn’t just one day of adventure in the snow, nor was it one viewpoint of the trail. It was the collection of stories, the different styles of making art in the wild, and the individuals sharing them that made it all worthwhile.

Watch Mile Mile and a Half Now

In an epic snow year, five friends leave their daily lives behind to hike California’s historic John Muir Trail, a 211-mile stretch from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.). Their goal — complete the journey in 25 days while capturing the amazing sights & sounds they encounter along the way. Inspired by their bond, humour, artistry & dedication, the group continues to grow: to include other artists, musicians & adventure seekers. Before they all reach the summit, hikers and viewers alike affirm the old adage — it’s about the journey, not the destination. Mile… Mile & A Half is the feature-length documentary of that journey.

Visit The Muir Project website for details of the team, more videos, photos and screening information or follow them on Facebook and Twitter

All photos copyright The Muir Project

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