Journey of a lifetime

Man hikes 250 miles on California's John Muir Trail to celebrate his 70th birthday

Fred Swegles / The Orange County Register /

Published Feb 1, 2013 at 04:00AM

To celebrate his 70th birthday, all Steve Netherby, of San Clemente, Calif., did was hike California’s fabled John Muir Trail.

A former camping editor of Field & Stream magazine, he trekked 29 days — all solo except for the last six days, when Kathleen “Kat” Cobb, a San Clemente resident and fellow board member with the San Onofre Foundation, joined him for the final rugged 50 miles.

In all, Netherby covered about 250 miles, lugging a pack that weighed 44 to 50 pounds. He took on the 211-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to the peak of Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the lower 48 states, at 14,505 feet. It was his seventh ascent to Whitney’s summit.

From there it was an 11-mile hike to the trailhead at Whitney Portal outside Lone Pine, Calif.

Added to that were several off-trail resupply detours along the way.

This is Netherby’s account:

• On the altitude

“Spent most of my time above 9,000 feet, much of it above 10,000 feet. Crossed 11 passes nearly or over 11,000 feet, with two above 13,000 feet.”

• Taking in the sights:

“Walked through watersheds of five major rivers, by hundreds of glacial lakes, serene meadows cut by meandering creeks and a surreal fantasyland of sky-high granite peaks and volcanic cinder cones.”

• How he reacted:

“My self-talk vocabulary on the hike shrank to mostly ‘Wow!’ and ‘Look at that!’ John Muir Trail boasts a superabundance of ‘wow!’ moments.”

• His daily diet:

“A total of 25 cups of granola, with powdered milk and honey, for breakfasts. ... High-calorie energy bar, trail mix and dried banana chips for lunches ... and 25 freeze-dried meals for dinners.

“It wasn’t nearly enough food to compensate for the calorie burn of days averaging eight hours of hiking and as many as 15 hours. I hiked until 1 a.m. one night, climbing over a nearly 12,000-foot pass by moonlight and headlamp. I lost 20 pounds on the trip.”

• Was the trail crowded?

“There were fewer people on the trail than there would have been in midsummer. I began my hike Aug. 30, and reached Mount Whitney on Sept. 27. But I crossed paths with many hikers as I progressed along the trail.”

• Any 250-mile trekkers?

“A number were through hikers, doing the whole trail as I was, but most were hiking a section of the trail. These were day hikers or two- to five-day backpackers. Many of these were there for the fishing.

“Because family business had kept me from beginning my trip until three days later than I had planned and I had to make my resupply schedule ... I had to push every day and had no time for fishing. I carried fishing tackle with me the entire trip.”

• Any other solo trekkers?

“Most through hikers hiked in pairs. We often leapfrogged each other day to day. I might pass them camped early in the evening and greet them in the morning as they strode past my camp.”

• Faces on the trail:

“I met more women than men who were through-hiking solo, including residents of places as diverse as Boston, San Diego and Finland. I talked to hikers from France, Luxembourg, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Korea, Mexico, Spain and Canada, as well as the U.S.”

• The most ambitious?

“One man and woman from the San Francisco Bay Area were yo-yoing the JMT — planning to hike it south to north, then turn around and go north to south. They were younger than I am.

“I celebrated my 70th birthday four days after my hike ended.”

• Any bear encounters?

“In a dream, my third night out. I woke up with a black bear standing on my tent and me. It was so heavy, this bear in my dream, that I couldn’t reach the small air horn I carried to keep them out of camp or the folding knife I kept open by my pillow in case it came to that.”

• But it was only a dream:

“I attribute the fact that I have no true bear stories to tell to my religiously adhered-to habit each night of locking my food and scented personal items away from camp in a carbon-fiber-and-aluminum bear canister with an airtight seal. I did, however, see many doe deer with young, some of which visited me at various campsites.”

• Other wildlife:

“In Yosemite, I watched mule deer bucks with heavy racks feeding and watering at a meadow stream. There were countless birds, squirrels, chipmunks, one outrageously determined mouse that repeatedly charged my late-night camp at dinnertime and was only dissuaded when I flashed him with my headlamp.”

• How wet was it?

“The weather was picture- perfect the entire trip. I took over 1,000 photos on my iPhone, charged by a solar charger I carried. I had only one afternoon of rain, while crossing a high pass in Yosemite, and one brief 3 a.m. thundershower.

“Toward the end, Kat and I felt fall in the air. Her sleeping bag wasn’t as warm as mine, and on the night before we were to tackle Mount Whitney, she called to me at 1:45 a.m. from her tent, saying she was freezing and could we get started on the climb to warm up.”

• Not an easy start:

“We left camp that morning at 3:45, climbed a challenging trail by headlamp and reached Mount Whitney’s summit at 8:45 a.m. We were the first to the top. The old steel National Park Service sign, bolted to a boulder that proclaims the elevation, was frozen over.”

• How long at the summit?

“After a photo session and a brief warmup in the stone hut that sits near the summit, we began the 11-mile hike out to the trailhead, reaching Whitney Portal and Kat’s car (delivered there by a shuttle service from the Kearsarge Pass trailhead where I had met her) at 5:20 p.m.”

• Celebration:

“Dinner that night at Seasons in Lone Pine seemed to us — still grimy from the trail — fit for gods, and my long, hot shower before early bed was, to me, a near-religious experience.”

• What all this taught him:

“I learned great respect for the pioneers who walked hundreds and thousands of miles to their destiny in the West.”

• What he’ll remember most:

“The unending mind-bending scenery, admirable people met, the aloneness with yourself and your higher power, moments of transformative clarity, satisfaction of meeting constant physical and mental challenge, rebirth of ability to laugh at yourself and your frailties.”

• And above all:

“The certain knowledge you have a loving and supportive wife waiting for you back home. Then, if you’re lucky as I was, a brave, strong, sure-footed, fast-walking, high-spirited hiking partner like Kat Cobb with whom to share the final challenging miles and ascent of Mount Whitney.”