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The Call of the Wild: Student Issac Ortega Hikes 170 Miles on the John Muir Trail

by Ashley Alvarez

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” John Muir’s famous quip captures the compelling quality of the outdoors for nature-lovers, and it happens to be Issac Ortega’s favorite quote.

The summer before Ortega joined UCI’s Anteater family to major in aerospace engineering, he ventured out into the wild.

“I had a friend…who invited me to go backpacking with him and his father at the JMT (John Muir Trail), which runs from Yosemite to Mount Whitney,” he said.

The popular yet rigorous hike spans 220 miles and attracts devoted nature enthusiasts like Ortega from all around.

Hikes as intense as the JMT require hikers to apply for permits before hand.

“In January, they open the application process,” Ortega recounted. “Permits are needed because the trail is popular and the permit is a safety precaution, but also, it’s a way to make sure the trail doesn’t undergo too much man-caused erosion, which sometimes make it hard to get a permit.”

Permit complications resulted in Ortega only being allowed to hike 170 miles, which he would complete over the course of 11 days.

Ortega stresses that rigorous packing for the trip is just as important, if not more important, than the will to embark on the trip.

“You have to be really prepared since you’re going to survive off the things you pack. You have to worry about water supply, shelter and a food system, also dressing in layers,” said Ortega.

Depending on the length of the hike, some hikers are faced with having to prepare resupply packages, which are packages containing food, water and first-aid supplies. Hikers address them to be shipped to points along JMT called resupply points, which is  the equivalent of a hiker’s post office. In preparation for his trip, Ortega also practiced hiking with the full weight of his hiking backpack.

“I had a camping and backpacking background, but I hadn’t done any long-distance backpacking,” he said.

Ortega’s backpack contained all the food he would have on his trip, as well as a small single-person tent and a down feather sleeping bag.

“They’re lighter, easy to compress,” Ortega said. “When you’re considering what to carry in one backpack, you have to consider the size and the weight of things. Which is also why I only took two sets of clothes with me: the one I was wearing and one extra.”

Finally, the day arrived. Ortega and his party began their trek at Mammoth Lakes. The hike is not for the faint of heart, a lesson Ortega’s party realized shortly after beginning.

“My friend’s dad had pre-existing back injuries that worsened the first day on the trail,” he said. “I didn’t feel good about proceeding, I didn’t know if he was well enough to continue, and it made me uncomfortable. What if something worse happened?”

Nevertheless, they pushed on, compelled by their love of adventure. The first day was a rude awakening for Ortega.

“I [had] felt like I was prepared mentally and physically. And physically I was, but mentally it was difficult with my friend’s dad being hurt, and the feeling of isolation that sets in,” said Ortega. “It really gets to you. You’re in the middle of nowhere remembering all the luxuries you took for granted back home.”

The feeling of wanting to quit but determination to push forward invigorated Ortega, as did the fact that he invested $1,500 on the trip, food and equipment included.

It was August, and Ortega recalled the trip being extremely hot in the daytime and cold at night time.

“It was 50 degrees at night, and it was especially colder at higher elevations. There’s also less oxygen the higher you go, so you have to get acclimated to the weather and altitude,” he said. “Some people face altitude sickness which usually happens above 800 feet. But I got acclimated and eventually stopped feeling it.”

Some days were easier than others, he recalled.

“Some days we covered nine or 10 miles a day, others were much longer 20-30 miles.”

Ortega experienced fatigue and lightheadedness while hiking up hills.

“You have to keep hiking non-stop to finish,” he said. “Maybe we had one or two hours to chill, but usually we only stopped for our breaks which were five minutes max.”

In those one or two hours, Ortega would cook or bathe in lakes. If he only had five minutes, he would scarf down a granola bar and hydrate.

Ortega and his party ate mainly packed dry and plain foods, which  they got sick of fast.

He recalls an experience at Arrowhead Lake where they picked a nice spot to rest for the night.

“It was a big spot, with a nice view, and then a resupply group arrived and wanted our big spot. They told us if we relinquished the spot they would give us actual food. I got a peach. And my friend got a soda, and his dad got a beer,” he recounted.

Hydration was tricky, as he had  to purify the water himself. Calculating the next source of water and rationing it appropriately was an everyday task. However, despite the stress, Ortega says the views and the feeling of accomplishment were worth it.

“Each time we would hike through a pass, I considered how hard it was to get there. 2,000 to 3,000 feet of continuous walking, and the views were memorable,” he said. “The mountains and the lakes, the water was crystalline, it was clear, really clear. Depending on the sediments some lakes were pink; others were turquoise; others were really blue.”

The highest elevation Ortega and his party reached was Mount Whitney, the highest point in California as well as the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet. Mount Whitney portal also marked the conclusion of the hike. Ortega and his party encountered animals indigenous to high altitudes like pikas and marmots in addition to the deer and black bears they had encountered earlier on. Ortega recalls the last stretch being the scariest

“We were hiking at 3 a.m. up Mount Whitney in complete darkness, using only the headlamps we wore to see, and it was scary to have a 1,000 foot cliff at my side and knowing any misstep could cause my death. It actually kinda makes you feel alive,” he said.

At the finish line, there was a small convenience store. After over a week of eating Clif bars and other packaged food, a fresh meal was a welcome change.

“They had different kinds of foods. I think I ordered a cheeseburger. It wasn’t the most delicious cheeseburger, but right then and there it was,” said Ortega.

Now, two years later, Ortega prepares to graduate and try the trail again. But this time, he plans to hike the whole 220 miles