2015: My Year on the Trails (better late than never)


Death Valley at sunrise (August)

January 19, 2016

My official lame excuse for an end of the year compilation a lofty 19 days into 2016: By writing mine at the end of the year – when everyone else is writing one; when TV shows are waxing teary-eyed rhapsodic about the year that was; when people are busy shopping for that perfect Christmas gift for Aunt Betsy the Scrooge or Uncle Sylvester the Dodger fan – I run the risk of having my blog post getting lost in the shuffle. By writing mine three weeks into the new year, I have the podium to myself. Wrapping paper is several layers deep on the compost heap, the Xmas tree has been put on the curb (we hope), 49er and Raider fans (or at least those who didn’t put a shoe through the plasma screen) are again watching other teams vie for the Super Bowl – in their own front yard down in Santa Clara (my hometown); Giants fans are counting down the days to Spring Training on their iPhones: A’s fans are doing the same on their out of date Blackberry flip phones; Warriors fans are in their own little world with the latest LeBron ass-kicking and memories of their championship parade dancing in their heads; and hockey fans…well, they can’t read much anyways so who cares.

So before I insult anyone else or I write so long that the calendar flips to February here’s my 2015, Year in Review. I’ll try to go easy on narrative, but no promises. I had such an epic, phenomenal year highlighted by my John Muir Trail adventure. The JMT was on my brain pretty much 24/7 in 2015, first in the planning and preparation, then the trip itself. Upon my return home in mid-August, I had a hard drive full of images to edit, then a great opportunity to write a feature article for Marin Magazine. (click link to read the article John Muir Trail article)

It’s always difficult to winnow a full year and thousands of image files to 12 images, but I’m game and it’s a great test for my ability to edit. The real test will be July/August, while I was on the trail.


Already I’m cheating. A two photos diptych from my ‘snowshoe’ trip to illustrate our four-year drought. A brutal year for the Sierra snowpack. Photo at left shows the almost non-existent coverage at the Mt. Tallac trailhead in mid-January (about 6300′). It was a little better near Carson Pass (about 8600′) the next day, but the drought persisted the rest of the winter and early spring and this would be my only attempt at snow sports for the entire year. 2016 is starting out infinitely better.



View of SF Bay from Mt. Tamalpais

By early February, I’d secured my John Muir Trail wilderness pass and had let my employer know I’d be leaving. I termed it an open ended sabbatical. In scheduling my 220 mile JMT trip, I wanted to make sure I was on the trail, in the wilderness, on two big milestones: my 55th birthday (July 22nd – I’m still accepting belated wishes and gifts) and my 20th Sobriety Anniversary. Since I’d done part of the trail in 2014, I didn’t have to obsess as completely about planning and/or training. I still did, but less intensely.



Bush poppies on the Fern Trail

Yes, I do love my wildflowers. The scant winter rains and mild temperatures meant an early wildflower season.  About five years ago, I was like a 3 year old when it came to flower identification. I’d see a flower and pretty much it was ‘pretty yellow flower!’, ‘ooh, pretty red one!’. I’m still not botanist material, and my mushroom knowledge is even worse. But I’ve come a long way. For all the time I spend in the outdoors now, I’ve really only been an avid hiker since spring of 2010. That’s the year that I suffered a pretty severe lower back strain (late Feb/early March) while training for a Mt. Whitney day hike (planned for late July). Until then, I’d trained by hitting the gym and running on trails and pavement. While trying to heal my back, I adopted a hiker/climber friend’s routine – training for a hike by hiking (it sounds so logical now). It was a Eureka! moment. In mid-March, I could barely get my back to support my torso or to walk. By late July that year, days after my 50th birthday, I found myself with arms upraised on the summit of Mt. Whitney.



Mariposa Lilies, Black Diamond Mine, Antioch

More wildflowers. I expanded my horizons and took a springtime hike at Black Diamond Mine in Antioch. Lots of history here, including an old cemetery and older mine shafts. With my REI dividend check in hand, I made my one major equipment upgrade for my upcoming trip: a Big Agnes tent. More room and half the weight of my 20 year old REI model. I do tend to get a great many years out of my things – cars, skis, bicycle, golf clubs.



The case of the disappearing Dome

Who really needs a justification for visiting Yosemite? I probably would’ve gone anyways, even if I weren’t doing the John Muir Trail in two months, but a quick three day trip (cut short by the rain moving in – photo at right) allowed me to scout the terrain. I wanted to find the wilderness pass office/ranger station, Backpackers’ Camp, and the trailhead. All would’ve been easily found anyways had I not made this springtime trip. On my one full day in the park, I hiked to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls and then followed Yosemite Creek for about a mile towards Tioga Road. I knew the weather was iffy, so I turned around at noon. By the time I reached my truck at about 2 pm, I was drenched and the roads and parking lots were turning into small lakes. If only we’d had these rains earlier in the season.



Mt. Tamalpais rain drops

May & June were strange weather months as we kept getting little storms here in the Bay Area. Tioga Road was even closed a couple of times in late June and early July because of snow. The road was reopened quickly each time, but at the very least it kept the hills green a little longer and made for a great photo opp on Mt. Tam.

July – John Muir Trail time!


My camp at Red’s Meadow on my birthday

Nearly impossible to winnow down my July images to just one. But those are also the images I’ve shared a lot on my blog, Facebook, Instagram and other outlets. So I choose this image from one of my days of rest at Red’s Meadow Resort. I had a long day (about 14 miles) on the trail on my 55th birthday. Hot shower, hot meal, and a campfire with a cigar were my rewards. My time on the trail was beyond words and I found myself overcome with emotion almost daily, feeling blessed to be alive and to be afforded such a great opportunity to attempt the John Muir Trail. I started the trail from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley on July 16 after dropping my 4Runner off near the end of the trail at Whitney Portal above Lone Pine. By the end of July, I’d covered about 130 of the 220 miles.



Beginning the descent from Mt. Whitney, John Muir Trail

I was on the trail until August 9th. I reached the summit on the 8th, exhausted and hungry, but euphoric. I lost 16 pounds while on the trail, about what I predicted. As much as I loved being out there, I was more than ready to get back to non-dehydrated food, sleeping in a bed, and I was in dire need of a hot shower. If being dirty and smelly were a competition, I’d have won a gold medal. Upon returning home, I began the long process of editing my nearly 3,000 images, movies and video journals. It’s now five months later and I’m still working on movies. Now I’m longing to doing it again one of these years. In the two weeks after I returned, my body was  a mess. Swollen ankles and feet, bruises, dried skin, aching knees. It took almost 6 weeks before I felt ‘normal’ again.



Out of commission

Although I went for a couple of low impact hikes on Mt. Tamalpais in September, I was without my camera temporarily. I broke my zoom lens on the John Muir Trail (130 miles in) when a piece of faulty gear sent the camera to the ground. I was lucky it didn’t happen during a creek crossing or while I was on a precipice. With some clever MacGyvering and ample duct tape I was able to get my Nikon D7100 to work. I had to manually focus and torque the lens at times to get it to work for the remaining 12 days on the trail, but my efforts paid off over the spectacular terrain to come. During September, my lens was in the shop and I therefore had no real photos to share for this month. I took this photo while camped at Evolution Lake on the last day of July.


More cheating with a diptych from Mt. Tam to illustrate the sad state of the mountain’s creeks. Webb Creek flows along Steep Ravine Trail and while it’s usually low in October right before the rainy season begins, hiking down the trail, while still beautiful, was a bit melancholy because of the meager trickle of water. Four years of drought weighs heavily on the collective conscience of many. It gets to the point where seeing bright sunshine day after day becomes depressing, while clouds and even a 20% chance of rain in a forecast raises the spirits. For months, a huge El Niño winter has been in the forecast and we’d been hopeful. This made the dry days of October even harder to bear. But as I write this in January, the forecasts have proven correct so far and we’ve the wettest season since 2011 (our last non-drought year).



Icicles on a Lodgepole Pine, Cathedral Lake, Desolation Wilderness

I was forced to delay my yearly Autumn Foliage Photo Safari up in the Tahoe area for so long that I missed the aspens changing, but instead timed my trip to take advantage of the first significant snow of the season (November 3 & 4). Not a drought-busting amount by any stretch, but it was fabulous. I hiked up the Mt. Tallac trail to just past Cathedral Lake in Desolation Wilderness. I took my full pack and snowshoes, but got by with just microspikes. The area received about a foot and a half of snow, a decent amount for early November.



Wild mushroom on the Bootjack Trail, Mt. Tamalpais

December stayed wet as moderate storms continued to drift in from the Pacific. It also stayed cold, making it feel like we were actually getting a proper winter. The last few Decembers many of us were walking around in t-shirts and shorts and searching the horizons for a cloud, while applying our sunscreen. December also saw my John Muir Trail photo essay published in Marin Magazine, a definite high point for me professionally. Or at least my highest since my photojournalism days of the mid 80’s, back when Joe Montana still roamed the football fields. I’m certain that when I’m old and gray (or grayer!), I’ll look back on 2015 with fondness. And I now look ahead to the excitement of the coming months of 2016, more adventures to look forward to, some planned, some unforeseen.

Happy Trails to us always,

Victor Volta


About victorvolta

I am a freelance photographer/writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up in the very suburban city of Santa Clara. Education: San Jose State University (class of '84) BA degree in Journalism with concentrations in Photojournalism and English. Favorite Foods: Ribeye steaks and Stan's Doughnuts (separate plates, usually). Favorite Drinks: Strong gourmet coffee and Trader Joe's Blood Orange Italian Soda (separate cups).
Gallery | This entry was posted in California State Parks, Desolation Wilderness, John Muir Trail, Lake Tahoe hikes, Local Hikes, Miscellaneous, Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Whitney, Muir Woods, Wildflowers, Yosemite and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 2015: My Year on the Trails (better late than never)

  1. Chris says:

    Always great to read your blog, and happy to hear you had a great 2015! Happy belated 55th by the way! That evening (day before mine), I was celebrating my 60th at Echo Summit. Have a wonderful 2016! I have a feeling the wildflowers will be crazy this year! Look forward to more of your photos!

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