This Atheist is Heading to Church Today – Day 4 on the JMT

Religion, Politics, and the Human Mind

Hammock camping at Sunset High Sierra Camp in the Snow

The Forest Is My Church

Wake up!  I’ve made my choice.  This atheist is heading to church today!  I don’t usually talk about my beliefs.  Religion and politics are two topics that are very emotional to so many, and if not discussed properly, can affect relationships between others quite quickly and drastically.  That being said, I don’t judge others by their beliefs.  I’m not immune to having strong feelings one way or another, but I also understand that we are a melting pot with so many different views.  Politics I’ve never really had an interest in, but religion is a different story.  I find religion fascinating and although I myself am not religious, I understand (in my own mind) the value of religion and appreciate what it does for others.  Nature is my closest connection to religion.  The forest is my church and when on the trail, every day is Sunday.

Fascination With The Human Mind

My body has an internal alarm clock and as usual, today I woke up at 6:30 a.m.  I’ve always been a morning person.  It’s funny how different people can be in that respect.  You would think that biology would set all humans to the same alarm clock as you see in so many other species, but as is evidenced by my fiancé, David, and I, we couldn’t be any more different.  Biology, sociology, psychology, ideology, theology, philosophy… aren’t they all so fascinating?  Sometimes I wish I had kept on my path in college to understand why people are the way they are… but instead, I switched my focus to interior design.  Quite a turn, but even interior design is affected by these same studies that I find so interesting.  Why do we feel the way we do in a certain space and how do we as designers invoke (or deter from) a certain feeling?  That too is very interesting.

Let’s Get Back On Track – Good Morning!

Wow!  How did I get off on such a tangent?  Taking time to reflect while out on the trail will do that to you.  Let’s get back on track.  Where was I?  Oh yes, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. on my fourth day of hiking the John Muir Trail.

As my brain fog lifted and my eyes came into focus, squinting through my hammock net, I realized that the PCT hiker group had already left camp.  I could no longer see their tent encampment peeking through the trees.  Wow!  They must be early risers.  I didn’t even hear them pass by.  Still gazing through the net of my hammock, I could see the sun flowing delicately through the leaves of the trees.  When I stepped out of my hammock hoping to catch a photo of the sunrise, I realized why the PCT hikers left so early.  The snow beneath my feet was firm like a rock and I could tell that my microspikes would grip the ice very well.  I decided to hurry and pack up.  Now is not the time to relax.  Nor is there time for a warm cooked breakfast or coffee.  Time is of the essence.

I’ve Made a Decision

Once again, a night of rest renewed me and I decided definitively that I would not turn right and return to Happy Isles to head home.  Instead, I would turn left and continue up to Upper Cathedral Lake.  Being that the snow has slowed me down so much, I know I don’t have time to reach Lower Cathedral Lake or Tuolumne Meadows, but Upper Cathedral Lake would get me very close to my goal on this trip.  It would get me within four or five miles of my start point when I return to the trail in September.  I’ve always loved a challenge and I love it out here!  I can do this!  I will do this!  On top of that, when else would I get a chance to see the view of Cathedral Peak towering over Upper Cathedral Lake in such pure silence?  I needed to take this opportunity.  I’m so close!

Will Snow and Ice Hold Me Back?

Everything was a lot icier this morning as I packed up.  My hammock and tarp had a layer of white crystals, while my socks were frozen solid in the shape of a “V”. Luckily, I had my dry pair of socks that were hanging on my backpack the day before, and I store my clothes in my pillowcase to keep them warm and cozy.  I can’t say the same for my shoes though.  As I finished getting dressed and packing up, I grabbed my shoes to find out that they were frozen solid.  It was almost impossible to get the laces untied and pry them open.  As I wedged my feet inside the ice blocks, instant pain shot through my toes and up my legs.  “I can’t do this!” I thought.  “I’m heading back home right now!”   As I filtered water my fingers stung in the icy cold water and I wanted to cry.

Frozen socks are no bueno

I Can Do This!

No!  I can do this!  I am strong!  My shoes will thaw and as I move, my feet will warm.  I will not quit.  As I said before, this atheist is heading to church today.  I will make it to Upper Cathedral Lake and I will see the grand spires of Cathedral Peak.  With that, I strapped on my backpack, grabbed my trekking poles, and set my Garmin Mini satellite device to start tracking.  Here we go!

Heading Out on the Trail

I was a bit worried at first as I headed out.  I didn’t want to regret this decision.  Going left on the trail meant that I was committing to staying in the snow longer.  I first walked past the campsite where all of the PCT hikers had camped the night before next to the restrooms.  While there, I noticed that they had dug a hole and had a campfire.  I instantly regretted not going over there to hang out and talk last night.  Why am I such a hermit?  It would’ve been nice to have a warm campfire.  I could be wrong though.  The campfire could’ve been from somebody else previously in the week.  I didn’t see or smell any smoke last night.  As I looked around, I couldn’t believe that they had set up their tents on top of this uneven snow.  It looked horrible to sleep on.  How do tent campers do this?  I shook my head at the thought.  Tent camping is not for me.

Sunset High Sierra Camp Is Under Snow

How To Navigate Through The Snow

That’s enough debating on tent vs hammock camping.  We all know how I feel about that.  I continued toward the JMT trail.  At first, it was easy.  In the distance, there was another building, so I headed towards that, and then off to the right I saw a creek with a small waterfall and stairs.  This must be the way to go, so I headed down the stairs.  I’m on the right track!  It’s always a huge boost to your day when you know that every step that you’re making is getting you in the right direction, and this was one of those moments.  Every once in a while, I could see the tracks of the PCT hiker group, which really helped knowing they came from the direction that I was heading.  Anything that saves me from having to look at my map every five minutes is a plus in my book.

Happy days! The trail is peeking out through the snow as I leave Sunset High Sierra Camp.

Soon, I hit a huge snowfield.  There was nothing but suncups as far as the eye could see until you hit the mountains way in the distance.  The one huge advantage of this was that I could see the entire topography of the area.  This allowed the mountains to be my guide.  I could see Cathedral Peak off to the right and Columbia Finger off to the left.  This was the direction that I was going to head.  I wanted to head right in between the two.

Suncups for miles as I leave Sunset High Sierra Camp

Early Starts Are the Way to Go!

I was glad that I got an early start on the trail.  The suncups were so much easier to manage while they were frozen.  I could skip across the tops of the cups and didn’t fall once.  While skipping along, I made sure to keep the river to my right and the mountains ahead of me.  At one point I crossed over the river and I could no longer see the mountain peaks through the trees.  I was no longer in the big open meadow.  Now the river was to be my guide.

Let the river be my guide

Hiking is so much better early in the morning when the snow is hard and icy

I made sure to keep the river to my left.  I couldn’t always see the river, because most of the time it was under the snow, but I could hear it.  Every once in a while, I would come to a point where the river had broken through and you could see the raging water coming out from under the snow and then disappear back under.  I made sure to stay far away from these areas.  In fact, I made sure to stay far away from the sound of the river at all.  I just wanted to be able to hear it, but not too closely.  The last thing I wanted, was to fall through the ice, into the raging river, and disappear under the snow.  No one would ever know.  I do have my tracker, so they would have a general idea of where to find me, but even then, it would still be difficult.

The Last Season

Drowning under the snow seems like such a horrible way to go.  It makes me think of the book, The Last Season, which I read last summer as I hiked the Rae Lakes Loop.  The true story reviews the last days and the search for Randy Morgenson, an experienced ranger that went missing up in the mountains near the John Muir Trail in 1996.  After his body was found five years later, the investigation led to the conclusion that he must have fallen through a snow bridge, into a river, and down a waterfall.  It’s hard to say what really happened that day, but either way, it shows what can happen to even the most experienced backpacker.  If you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend it.

Heading towards Columbia Finger and to the right

Unload, Reload, Repeat

As I emerged from the trees and got back out into the open, I could see the tall peak of Columbia Finger.  This was my new guide.  I knew according to my map that I would cross just to the right of the mountain and continue straight.  Before continuing, I decided to take a break and have some breakfast.  A nice bowl of warm oatmeal sounded perfect to thaw my body and feed my hunger.  There’s no time to rest for long though.

I packed everything back up, put my backpack back on… and then I realized I still had my puffy jacket on.  Dammit!  It took off my backpack, took off my puffy, slid it in the slot right behind my back, and then put my backpack back on.  At that moment I realized that I forgot to grab my sunscreen.  Dammit!  I took my backpack back off, unloaded my bear caster, opened it, grab my sunscreen, loaded my bear can back up, put my backpack back on, and hoped I didn’t forget anything else.  We’ll see.

Turquoise waters as I hike up to Upper Cathedral on the JMT

Getting so close to Upper Cathedral Lake!

Let the Slush Begin

All happy thoughts were gone after breakfast.  The sun was in full force, the snow was soft, and I was getting off track again.  I thought I was staying close to Columbia Finger, but I had swayed right and downhill.  Gah!  I had to re-coordinate myself, go left and uphill.  Have you ever gone uphill in slushy snow?  Well, let’s just say that it’s not easy!  On top of that, I was in the trees again.  This meant lots of snow hills and tree wells, most so steep that I couldn’t pass.

The only thing that kept me going… other than the fact that I’m in the middle of nowhere and what else are you going to do, was that it was still early in the day and I was only a mile away from my goal.  Now in snow trekking terms, for me, that means about three hours away.  I trudged on.  I fell numerous times but I didn’t break anything.  That’s a plus, right?  I took a lunch break to regain energy and gather water.  I’m so close!!!  I hit another snowfield of suncups and fell a million more times.  Keep going!

I see Upper Cathedral Lake!!! I’m almost there!

Upper Cathedral Lake!  I’m Here!

Finally, I looked over a hill and there it was!  Upper Cathedral Lake in all its frozen glory.  It had the same perfect turquoise color as the Sunrise Lakes, only this lake had the majestic Cathedral Peak right behind it.  Amazing!  I can’t believe I have this view all to myself!  My first order of business was to set up camp.  I dropped my pack and searched each of the tree clusters.  Finally, I found the perfect spot in a small grouping of trees so that I could see Cathedral Peak.  I would have been able to see the lake too if it wasn’t so frozen over.  Oh well.

I found the perfect spot at Upper Cathedral Lake to set up my hammock with a view of Cathedral Peak.

As I set up camp, I felt pain like a urinary tract infection.  Oh no!  Don’t do this to me!  I have two more days to hike.  I tried doing a wipe-down of the area.  Hopefully, that does the trick and the pain doesn’t get worse.  I also noticed while wiping my nose that the skin was sensitive and burnt under the tip.  You don’t realize how harsh the sun can be as it reflects up from the snow.  I’ll have to remember to put on more sunscreen tomorrow.  I’m going to wake up earlier too.  That is the trick to spring hiking; frozen snow.

Relaxing in the afternoon sun on Upper Cathedral Lake with a winter wonderland of snow and Cathedral Peak as my backdrop.

Time to set up my tarp so I don’t fry in the sun.

Killing Time

I arrived at camp so early that I didn’t know what to do with myself.  Normally I would explore.  I would have hiked around the lake or even to Lower Cathedral Lake, but just moving a few steps in this snow was pure torture.  Plus, I wanted to take off my freezing-cold shoes and let my toes thaw out.  I laid around for a bit, but my head and neck hurt a lot.  I’m not sure why.  I can’t go to sleep already.  If I went to sleep this early, I’d wake up at midnight, and then what?

Games & Podcasts

I tried playing a few phone games, but they quickly bored me.  Then I decided to listen to a podcast.  I knew I had a few downloaded, but I wished I had downloaded my book instead.  Boo!!!  Note to self… download a book and a few podcasts next time.  Reading is great when I feel good and can concentrate.  Podcasts are good when I don’t feel good or I want help falling asleep.  I ended up listening to the only Hiking Thru podcast I had downloaded on my phone.  I love that podcast.  It’s all about thru-hikers and their stories.  Every time I listen to one of the episodes it makes me want to plan an even more extreme thru-hike.  It makes me want to hike the PCT.

Dinner, Yoga, and Reflection

Once the sun settled lower in the sky, I decided to make dinner.  Spaghetti with meat sauce was on the menu for tonight.  My absolute favorite!  Afterward, I did a little yoga.  Not sure why since I don’t usually practice yoga.  My legs hurt, I guess.  Hopefully, the stretching helps.  With nothing else left to do, I stood and stared at the beauty around me.   The mountains, the snow, the needles on the trees.  I listened to the birds and the river roaring.  I’m not sure where the sound of the river was coming from, but it must have been just across the lake.  I could hear the tiny trickle of water up the mountain behind me in the direction I came from earlier that day.

The Battle For Water

I should have stopped for water.  I’m almost out now.  Stupid!  It’s funny to think that water would be a problem.  After all, I’m surrounded by snow and I’m camping by a lake.  Well, to utilize the snow, I would need to boil it to transform it into water.  I don’t want to use up all my fuel doing that.  Going to the lake would require me to walk over there.  Easy enough, right?  Well, the lake is mostly covered in ice, so there is no way to know where the lake begins.  I don’t want to risk cracking through the ice and falling in.  I could walk back up to the nearest snow melt stream, but that would require me to put my soaking wet shoes back on.  Nope.  I think I’m just going to sip what water I have left tonight and filter more water as I hike out in the morning.

How to Prevent Icy Shoes

I watched the sun set behind the mountains.  This was my first sunset that I enjoyed on this trip and I still had yet to enjoy a full sunrise.  I tightened up my hammock tarp and let the sides down to keep me warm.  Tonight I’ve decided to sleep with my shoes.  I never want to have to relive this morning, hiking out with ice blocks on my feet and pain shooting through my toes.  I’d heard of others sleeping with their shoes at the bottom of their sleeping bags, but my shoes were filthy and soaking wet.  What could I store them in?  After much searching, I remembered I had my Nylofume pack liner.  Perfect!  Now my shoes will not freeze overnight.  Maybe they will even dry out.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I think I’ll throw my socks in bed too.  They’re still just a little damp, but not too bad.

Getting cozy in my hammock. Isn’t this Trailheadz Ethereal quilt to die for!!!


As I settled into my cozy bed I reflected upon my surroundings.  I can’t believe I’m sleeping in the snow.  Being a person that is always cold (I’ve been known to wear a sweatshirt in the middle of summer), snow camping is not something I thought I would ever do.  What is even more funny is that I’m not even cold.  If anything, I’m hot.  I stripped down to my base layers.  Tonight I won’t sleep in my jacket or my puffy pants.  I wonder if I could have gone with a higher temperature-rated quilt.  You can check out all my gear I decided to bring on my pre-hike gear post, “Tales From a Backpacking and Hammock Gear Addict”.

Before heading to sleep, I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m.  Today I was up by 6:30, so this would give me an extra hour of frozen snow to travel upon instead of slush.  Tomorrow I start my return home.  It took me four days to get here, and I have two days to get back.  Goodnight!

Sunrise High Sierra Camp to Upper Cathedral Lake

“To sit in solitude, to think in solitude with only the music of the stream and the cedar to break the flow of silence, there lies the value of wilderness.” – John  Muir

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Comments 7

  • Linda : Jul 26th

    Unload reload repeat lmao 🙂 you make it real thanks! Looking forward to the finish enjoy!

    • Chana Putnam : Jul 26th

      LOL! All you can do is laugh and hopefully not repeat the same mistake over and over again… too many times. Thanks for reading! I can’t wait to finish the trail in September.

  • Yermo Adan : Jul 26th

    Great article. As a fellow atheist I was truly taken in. But even as an atheist I am often in awe of nature. And then there seems to be the unexplained and unexplainable–I like to refer to that as the GREAT MYSTERIOUS. — I guess that might make me a two-bit nature mystic of some-kind but still an atheist. (Thanking William Least Heat-Moon, for the Great Mysterious idea). Oh and I am a fellow early riser. Always try to be up and out at the crack of Civil Twilight. You?
    Thank you again for a wonderful read

    • Chana Putnam : Jul 28th

      I agree, there are many unexplainable mysteries in the world, but I guess the world would be boring if we knew everything. Thanks for reading!

  • Joe Smith : Jul 28th

    I’ve enjoyed following your trip! I’ll be taking my Durston Kakwa on the JMT in August.. When you carry your bear canister on the top of the pack, do you keep all your smellables in there, and if so, does the pack feel top heavy? I’ll most likely carry my BV-500 inside my Kakwa for the 9-10 days (without resupply) between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney Portal, since the canister will be HEAVY with food!

    • Chana Putnam : Jul 28th

      I really didn’t feel any pressure on my shoulders this trip or top heavy. The Kakwa carries really well. I thought I’d be able to carry my can inside my pack. It’s one of the reasons I switched to the Kakwa, but my quilt is super fluffy and takes up quite a bit of space. What can I say? I like to sleep well. LoL! I’ll be resupplying in Independence between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney. I was a bit worried about carrying that much.

      • Joe Smith : Jul 28th

        I agree the Kakwa carries well. I’ll be able to pack everything even with the BV-500 inside, so that’s how I will roll. Plan to start the JMT from Yosemite late August, arriving at WP mid Sept. Best of luck w/ your trip!


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