The person who first introduce me to this route, and to backpacking, was a fifth grade teacher at Gettysburg Elementary School in Clovis, California, a school I attended for 3rd – 6th grades. Clovis is a proud community in Central California, east of Fresno, who’s boundary butts up against the foothills that lead to Yosemite, the Central Sierra, and Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Above the streets of old town Clovis hangs a sign that anchors the town’s image, “Clovis, Gateway to the Sierras.” No one exemplified that image more than that fifth grade Clovis teacher, Mike Murphy.
Every year since 1983, Mike has been taking students, families, and community members on the exact same week-long inspirational hike across the Sierra to Mt. Whitney. As we enter 2020, that is 37 years and counting. Back in the early 90s I was one of those kids. My family was one of those families. The entire Clovis community has been strengthened by contributions from community members who have backpacked the Sierra on one of Mike’s trips. They are teaches, civic leaders, business owners, social workers, community activist, strong mothers and fathers, and much more.
People who have hiked this route across the Sierra share a common bond and sense of pride that transcends profession, age, gender, income, religion and political divide, whatever! Overcoming common challenges like those experienced on this route brings people together, and can be empowering.
Our recent trail reunion
I have been backpacking the Sierra for more than 25 years. After my first two introductory hikes across the Sierra to Mt. Whitney with Mike in the early 90s, I hiked the John Muir Trail with him the summer after graduating from high school.
Our group of seven started from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite during a wet summer season and headed south toward Mt. Whitney. Persistent rain and the need to make minimum mileage each day made the first several days a real grind. For some, the physical, mental or emotional challenge was just too much. We lost one group member at Reds Meadow, a couple more near Vermillion at Lake Edison, and a fourth hiked out over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley.
By the time we reached Crabtree, located near the southern end of the John Muir Trail and just a handful of miles from the summit of Mt. Whitney, our group of seven had been reduced to three – Mike, myself, and MaryBeth, a seventeen year old former student of Mike’s and family friend.
Mike woke up at Crabtree with chest pains. Luckily, there was a ranger station on site. After a short evaluation, and learning that this was Mike’s fifth John Muir Trail hike, Ranger Rob Pilewski determined the safest course of action would be to air lift Mike out as opposed to chancing a strenuous hike over Trail Crest to Whitney Portal.
MaryBeth and I continued to summit Mt. Whitney later that evening, and hike out the following day on our own. Mike ended up being just fine, but his airlift departure was a turning point in my experience backpacking the Sierra. While Mike has continued as a mentor over the past two decades, I haven’t hiked with him since that summer day in 1997 when we arrived at Crabtree.
However, in 2020, his youth/community group, and our TSX group crossed paths for a night at Crabtree. They were heading up to Whitney that morning, and we were headed out of camp towards our exit near Cottonwood Pass.