The John Muir Trail (JMT) isn’t some grand six-month trek up K2, but for the average person it’s a pretty big deal. With around 50,000 feet of elevation gain, every hiker wakes up in the morning and thinks about the climbs they have ahead of them. There is some delightfully level trail on the hike, but there is also precious little of it.
Muir didn’t walk the route in the same linear fashion modern day backpackers do, and he certainly didn’t enjoy use of all the new-fangled ultralight gear. But, he did roam these mountains and their forests with a knapsack and stale loaf of bread at the beginning of the industrial period, a time when climate change was starting to gain measurable momentum. His exploration was epitomized with this quote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”
That is no truer than when you consider climate change and its effects at altitude. Steven Beissinger, a professor of conservation biology at University of California Berkley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, co-led the Grinnell Resurvey Project in Yosemite and Kings Canyon national parks, and Inyo and Sequoia national forests. Joseph Grinnell was the founding Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and realizing back in the early 1900s that California was changing rapidly, he began conducting early inventories of terrestrial vertebrates throughout California.
“Hiking the JMT now, one cool thing is that you would have the chance to see all of the species that John Muir would have seen,” Beissigner says. “Our resurveys of sites visited by Professor Grinnell and his students have documented that all of the species they detected in the 1920s can still be found in the national parks — Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Yosemite. So, the parks are doing their job!”
However, it is much harder to see them, as many species are responding to the changing climate by shifting their elevational ranges. Some of the small mammals and birds have moved further upslope as the climate has warmed. The alpine chipmunk, Belding’s ground squirrel, water shrew and pika are high-elevation species of small mammals that have all retreated upslope. Birds also show some species, such as the savannah sparrow, black phoebe and white-breasted nuthatch, shifting up.
“These are patterns we would expect with climate warming, but the picture is a bit more complicated because some species of birds and mammals shifted their elevational ranges downslope,” Beissinger says. “And, it was unpredictable which species responded by moving up or down. Even closely related species in the same area were shifting differently. I am hopeful that many will have the flexibility to respond. The question is whether they can respond fast enough to keep up with a rapidly changing climate.”
A stream flows through the Ansel Adams Wilderness at 10,000
feet above sea level and what is traditionally known as timberline by backpackers — sparsely forested, granite outcrops and garden-like settings. Credit: Ian Vorster.
Kings Canyon National Park! I had just crossed a footbridge over Piute Creek where it joins the San Joaquin River and saw a little sign that announced the boundary of the park. Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams Wilderness and John Muir Wilderness — I had walked with a pack through these great places, and I was determined to add Kings Canyon to the list.
I made 17 miles by 2:30 p.m., passing a number of bristlecone and whitebark pine trees along the way. Bristlecone pines are the oldest known living things on earth. Some date to 4,600 years old, and many of these grow along portions of the JMT. It’s a special species, growing only between 7,500 and 11,500 feet above sea level. The severity of the environment actually seems to be the secret to their longevity. High winds, short growing seasons and bitter cold would describe the perfect climate for a bristlecone.
The whitebark pine is no less gracious — in healthy form. But, populations of these trees are suffering from white pine blister rust and the invasive mountain pine beetle — able to thrive at that altitude because of climate change. In 2011, the National Park Service determined that the species warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act due to the fact that it faces an “imminent” risk of extinction.
As I approached the limit of timberline, I sat down with my back against a rock at the base of Muir Pass. Looking up, I saw a guy hiking up the trail with what looked like a daypack.
“What does your pack weigh?” I asked.
With a grin he called back, “With a week’s food, it weighs 16 pounds.”
“That’s insane!” I exclaimed. “Mine weighs 23 pounds, how do you do it?”
“Well, I followed the standard list of bare essentials, and I eat a lot of granola bars. I’ve also made my own 20-degree quilt,” he replied, which told me he had been frequenting the same online ultralight forums as I had. A quilt means you don’t have to sew in a zipper, which means you don’t have to carry the zipper, helping to get your pack weight down!
Steve was a soil scientist from Ohio who was averaging 25 miles a day. I followed him over Muir Pass, although he quickly left me far behind. I made Muir Hut at the top of the pass at 4 p.m., spent 15 minutes at the hut, took a quick look inside and then began a slow and careful descent.
The mountains were covered in low, cold thunderclouds as I walked away from the pass. Each hiker struggles on a different pass at a different time, depending on how they feel. I was now struggling with the southern descent down the 13,000- foot pass. It was a typical alpine way — something you would imagine seeing in the Himalayas. Thousands of gigantic boulders were strewn along the trail, thrown off nearby cliffs by forces of heat, cold, snow and rain. I walked very carefully, aiming for timberline far below.
At 7 p.m. I passed two tents in a glade on the right side of the trail. I would have kept on walking because the spot was full, but just then heard a voice call out from the left, “Ian, is that you?” It was Steve. Together, we enjoyed a thoroughly good ‘ultralight’ evening.
Bristlecone pine forest between 10,00 and 11,000 feet above sea level, a few miles south of Forester Pass. Credit: Ian Vorster.