Bethany House had never been backpacking in her life. Kendra Sidorenko doesn’t remember a life without camping. Together, the pair successfully navigated the 211-mile John Muir Trail during one of the shortest hiking seasons on record.
“It was amazing. It was terrifying. It was difficult in ways I didn’t even think of. It was easy in ways I thought were going to be more difficult. It was gnarly, but worth it,” said House, of Nipomo.
Over the course of 18 days, they trekked through mountain meadows, forged streams, camped with coyotes and met countless fellow hikers along the way. They saw tracks of bear and mountain lions, saw deer, turkeys and marmots, and experienced camping under a full October moon.
“We were a great team. We were very in tune with what we were experiencing together, but alone. Our goal was to be out there and focus on thinking about our lives and journeys. There was a lot of healing and growth and connecting with our higher power being out in the mercy of the wild,” said Sidorenko, of Arroyo Grande.
House grew up in the country building forts and exploring the outdoors, but her camping trips were few and far between. She’d never set up her own tent.
Three years ago, she started hiking and built a portfolio of day hikes ranging from sumitting Mount Whitney in a day, to several peaks in the Southern California Six-Pack including Mt. Baldy and Cucamonga Peak. She’d heard of the JMT, but never seriously considered it until last Easter, when Sidorenko, an acquaintance from church, invited her to hit the trail.
“I grew up backpacking. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve seen the sign where our trails crossed the JMT. I’ve wanted to do it since I was a kid,” Sidorenko said.
Sidorenko and another friend had secured coveted permits for the JMT, but when her partner backed out, she was left with the permits, a plan, but no hiking companion.
Her longest outings had been four or five days, she said, but she was ready to tackle the trail.
“I’ve had a lot going on in my life this last year. It was a radical thing for me to leave my 5-year-old daughter behind. I’m newly divorced. It was a very spiritual thing for me to be out in the wild and close out the outside world, my phone, my worries, my work, to get in touch with myself. To find out if I really believe in myself. To figure out if there were things I could actually do and actually succeed and finish,” Sidorenko said.
And House made a perfect partner. She had equipped herself with lightweight gear, freeze-dried meals, and safety equipment, and worked with other friends to learn how to use it all before hitting the trail.
On Sept. 24 they started out at Tuolumne Meadows, having knocked out the traditional Half Dome leg during a training hike before an autumn snowstorm blocked the route. They averaged eight hours of hiking each day, stopping briefly for protein-bar lunches and to filter more water for their containers.
“People kept telling me the time I got our permit for was too late, that it would be too cold, that we’d get snowed on. As it happened, it was the best time for the JMT this year because the water had finally gone down. It was too cold for the bugs, but good hiking weather,” Sidorenko said.
Their biggest single challenge was, indeed, the below freezing temperatures that dipped into the low teens nearly every night, and though House had a 15-degree bag, she said it didn't help much.
In the mornings, their water bladders were frozen. One morning, their propane was frozen.
“I was so terrified. My biggest fear was losing my fingers or toes. You don’t know how much it ruins you, being cold like that,” House said.
They ran into other hikers, including more than a few attempting the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada and merges with the JMT for much of its 211 miles.
They forged through snow at Donohue Pass on the border of Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. They took some time out to enjoy the views at Garnet Lake and Forester Pass, swam in Thousand Island Lake, and took a side trip over Mono Pass to Ruby Lakes for a resupply mission in Mammoth.
“There were times we asked each other why we were doing it. It was freakin’ cold. It was hard. I have bruises and nerve damage on my shoulders from the pack. For me, I love getting out there. I’ve had a lot of loss, a lot of grief these past couple years. It was a relief to be out there with someone with the same purpose and intent and drive and be able to succeed, to be able to be quiet and be in the wilderness and enjoy what we were seeing day by day,” Sidorenko said.
At Sallie Keyes Lakes, a chance meeting led the women to share their fire with a solo PCT hiker. The timing couldn’t have been better.
“We both got really quiet when we were setting up. We felt really exposed. It was very creepy. I still can’t put a finger on it. The sun was setting. We were in this canyon by ourselves, and suddenly we heard the sound of, it’s going to sound dramatic, but I’m not kidding, we heard a hundred coyotes screaming. They weren’t howling. They were screaming. It was echoing around the canyon,” Sidorenko said.
Then they saw a dark figure they were sure was a bear.
In fact, it was the PCT hiker who was equally unnerved.
“We stood there freaked out, then he started laughing. He said that was the creepiest thing he’d ever experienced. We ended up talking, laughing, listening to stories from his trip. It made us realize how important having people around is. You know, the more the merrier,” Sidorenko said.
Another time a yellow jacket drove the pair off the trail, which led to an unintended side trip to Muir Trail Ranch.
And, after House inadvertently threw her spork in the fire, she was forced to innovate. The two-inch-square cap from her camp stove box became her new spoon.
On Oct. 11, they emerged, victorious and undaunted, at Whitney Portal.
“I know what kind of food I like now. Next time we go, I’ll have a (sleeping bag) liner and extra foam pad for insulation,” House said.
The pair is planning to hit the Grand Canyon next, then House has her sights on a backpacking trip in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon area.
“As tired as I was, as cold as I was, and as happy as I am to be home, you instantly start missing it, the simplicity of everything,” House said. “You get home and you immediately start thinking, ‘Where am I going to go next?’”