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Eagle Scouts find adventure on John Muir Trail

Group from Troop 2222 finishes 211-mile hike in 19 days

Posted: August 29, 2009 4:31 p.m.
Updated: August 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Marc Seltzer, Curtis Van Grinsven, Johnny Howell, and Matt Van Grinsven stand before the Muir hut, located on the top of Muir Pass.

 
After walking 211 miles, climbing 47,000 feet of elevation gain, and hiking 10 passes over 11,000 feet, four young Santa Clarita Eagle Scouts from Troop 2222 finished the John Muir Trail in 19 days, with only one layover day.

Curtis Van Grinsven, Johnny Howell, Marc Seltzer, and Matt Van Grinsven started their adventure July 18 and finished Aug. 6. The Muir Trail begins at Happy Isle in Yosemite and officially ends on top of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,497 feet.

Hiking to the top on the last day, the four hikers were blasted with wind gusts and cold temperatures that froze drinking water and exposed skin.

Unable to escape the mind numbing cold, the boys savored the end of their hiking experience for 30 minutes and then quickly hiked down to the parking lot at Whitney Portal. The Scouts hiked nearly 20 miles the last day.

"My jaw froze shut, and my lips swelled. I think even my drool froze," said Seltzer as he described the cold on top of Mount Whitney.

The young men, ranging in age from 17 to 19, admitted the longest backpacking trip any of them had done before was a mere six days.

"We started talking about doing a long backpacking trip during the first part of the year. We chose to hike the (John Muir Trail)," said Matt Van Grinsven. "Now we have completed it, and we walked the miles all by ourselves."

According to the Scouts, they would start hiking by 7 a.m. and generally reached their next camp site between 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. each day.

"We are fast hikers so we reached our camp sites early in the day. This gave us time to relax and play each day," said Howell. "We had some great times exploring, swimming, reading, playing cards and just relaxing."

Since the Scouts planned to be near a lake or river each night, the first thing they did after setting up camp was to jump into the water. The hot part of each day was spent swimming, jumping off rocks, splashing each other, and laying out in the sun.

All four young men agreed Evolution Valley, with its deep blue lakes, was the most scenic area, and they all agreed Bear Ridge, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain in 4.4 miles, was the most grueling climb.

The Scouts found the passes about as grueling, and most of them were higher than Bear Ridge. After reading and studying the guide to backpacking the Muir Trail, "Hiking the John Muir Trail" written by Allen Castle, the Scouts expected Forrester Pass to be the worst obstacle, but afterwards, each named Glenn Pass as "the killer."

"We trudged up the pass, climbing one steep switch back after another, and then we reached what we expected to be the top," Seltzer said. "It was not the top. We then could see the top of the pass way up further. The trail looked like it went up the side at a 90 degree angle. It was blasted out of the rocky side. To get to the top, we had to climb another hour. It was tough."

Although agreeing the toughest was Glenn Pass, Howell said all the passes were 11,000 feet or more.

"Forrester Pass was the highest at 13,100 feet. I still remember Donohue, Island, Silver, Muir, Pinchot, and Selden Passes.

Crossing the passes was strenuous because of the quick gain in elevation. You could feel a pain in your lungs," Howell said.

According to the Scouts, the easy part of the backpacking trip was strolling across high lush meadows and jumping into the snow cold lakes and rivers.

"Hiking over passes meant long hiking days," Howell said. "When we had to go over a pass, we walked 14 to 16 miles to get to our next camp site."

Mosquitoes were another big problem. While three of the Scouts thought the mosquito population declined after the first week, Seltzer said it did not help him.

"I felt like I was being eaten alive. I had mosquito bites on top of mosquito bites. I was constantly scratching the bites," he said.

All four young men agreed the pouring rain storms were worse than the mosquitoes. While on the trail, the boys survived four nights of drenching rain storms.

The Scouts were lucky the rain clouds built up throughout the day, and released the rain only after they had set up their campsite each afternoon. During the first rain storm, Seltzer discovered his tent was not waterproof.

"I woke up and found myself lying in a soggy sleeping bag on my air mattress with two puddles, one on each side of me," he said.

"I was drier sitting under the trees than in my tent. To keep my backpack dry, I put black plastic bag over my backpack, but the next morning I found a mouse had climbed into my backpack and made a nest out of my toilet paper. It was my worst day."

Two other Scouts, Christopher Howell and Luke Seltzer, hiked part of the way with the young men, completing portions of the trail.

Luke Seltzer, an Eagle Scout, completed 11 days, but he dropped out at the mid part to run 50 miles with his cross country team.

Life Scout Christopher Howell hiked 60 miles, ending his hike on the frozen top of Mount Whitney.

The four Eagle Scouts discovered the people they met along the trail were the best part of hiking the trail.

"We met families hiking the (John Muir Trail). We saw one family - a father and two kids less than 12 hiking. We met ladies in their 60s hiking. We even saw runners on the trail," said Van Grinsven. "We saw one older gentleman backpacking who wore a skirt. One group - a father, two older sons, and their girlfriends - kept losing each other on the trail. We had a lot of fun talking with people and finding out why they were hiking the (trail). Most were like us. They were hiking the John Muir Trail for the fun."

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