Saturday, August 4, 2007

John Muir Trail Record, 2004

When the moon shone on a pale granite boulder, it looked like a tent. I could imagine a well fed, snoring hiker in his warm sleeping bag dreaming of the meadow he’d eaten lunch in that afternoon. I could almost smell the warm campfire around which the day had been reminisced and plans for tomorrow made. I drifted hopefully toward it but as my sleepy mind snapped back to attention I knew it was only a cold rock, that there was to be no company for me that night, and that I still had to reach the Evolution Creek ford to camp. Where was that crossing? Why was I out on the John Muir Trail at 10:30 at night, two days and 107 miles from Whitney Portal, alone, cold, and down to one Clif bar and a pack of instant mashed potatoes? Where the hell was that crossing?!

It all started because of my father’s love of the mountains. From the Canadian Rockies, to Washington’s Cascades, and his most beloved Sierra Nevadas, he had hiked, climbed, and backpacked as his education and career took him south. He had first taken me when I was 5, and by the time I was 7, we went backpacking every summer weekend and for one or two week trips each year. In the weekend we backpacked one weekend a month in the coastal mountains. We post-holed to higher country starting in May and were often caught by an early season snow long after Labor Days’ unofficial end to high country travel.

In 1971 my father backpacked the JMT unsupported in nine days, not to set any records, but because it was what his vacation schedule would allow. He carried a 2 pound Coleman stove and a 5 pound Dacron sleeping bag as part of the 65 pound weight of his “Trapper Nelson” pack that didn’t even have a hip-belt. He had survived a cold rain storm in a plastic tube tent at Thousand Island Lake and faced a sleet and snow storm in wool and coated nylon raingear over Donohue Pass. My mother and I waited for him in Tuolumne Meadows as the rain poured down on our car. I still remember how scared I felt as I saw my soaked daddy head for the valley.

There must be something addictive about backpacking. My father still goes out nearly every summer weekend, and takes several longer backpack trips each year. He plans his vacations around backpacking and has traveled to Peru, New Zealand, and France. “Yes Kevin,” he said after returning from France, “The Louvre was impressive, but let me tell you about the Alps.” With his retirement upcoming (he’s 65) he’s heading to Alaska for three months of travel and backpacking, then back to New Zealand, his current favorite foreign land. I’ve even made some inroads into lightening his backpack.

Nine years after his own trip, my father dropped me off at Whitney Portal as a 14 year old boy to start my own solo trip on the John Muir Trail. I had spent so much time in the mountains, even my mother had few concerns for my safety. Not that there weren’t challenges: I had to wait at Selden Pass for two hours for dynamiting and make up the time at night to keep on schedule. The 33-mile final day was my longest ever. The trip was a wonderful adventure. Neither my father or I realized it in Yosemite Valley nine days later but he picked up a very different person. Despite medical school, victories in many ultramarathons, and eleven 100 mile race finishes, backpacking the John Muir Trail solo at age 14 is still the most defining event of my life.

The John Muir Trail is 222.8 miles long, traversing the backbone of the Sierra Nevada high country. It crosses 9 major passes over 11,000 feet and has a net gain of 48,000 feet. The trail was completed in 1938 as a memorial to the great naturalist John Muir who focused the nation’s attention on wilderness. The fastest time completing the trail has progressed slowly over the years. Blake Woods ran the trail in 117 hours and 35 minutes in 1998. He hiked until 5pm, had dinner, slept (without sleeping bag) till he became cold (usually around midnight) and then started hiking again. In 2000 Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell set out to finish the trail in under 96 hours (4 days). They finished in 110 hours and 39 minutes, after being stopped by a hailstorm in Tuolumne Meadows. Their strategy included a 45 hour push without sleep, followed by a few naps over the next two days. Peter came back in 2003 and ran the trail in 94 hours and 4 minutes setting the fastest time till my run. Since he only slept briefly when he met his crew, he didn’t have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, or much at all. Brian Robinson, the only person to finish the “triple crown” (Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails) in a year, attempted the record later in 2003 and was ahead of pace at Tuolumne Meadows, but became lost at night due to sleep deprivation. He finished in 103 hours and 2 minutes. He also slept only a few hours and avoided the weight of sleeping gear. The reports of their experiences and difficulties were important in helping me set the record of 93 hour and 5 minutes on my trip. They can be viewed at: (Blake Woods) (Peter and Buzz) (Peter’s Record) (Brian’s trip)

When you talk about a “record” on a remote trail, it is important to specify the conditions under which the record was set. Backpacking without crew or re-supply is a different journey than traveling with lighter gear and frequent re-supply. Most prior records have been set with 4 to 7 crew re-supply stops. Tactics have also included sacrificing sleep for trail time, often only 4 to 6 hours total sleep over 4 days. Hiking all night means you don’t need sleeping gear which reduces weight. I had been thinking about a speed attempt on the John Muir Trail since 1993 and had slowly experimented with lighter gear. I knew I would need to sleep and planned accordingly. My first purchases were a Western Mountaineering Ultralight bag and an Ultimate Direction torso pack. I discovered titanium pots, canister, alcohol, then Esbit stoves in my attempt to lighten my “base weight”. I pared down my first aid kit to the essentials, sewed my own bivy sack, and bought an Integral Designs tarp that doubled as emergency raingear. During rainy runs I tried out the waterproofness and breathability of Gore-tex, Activent, and several other proprietary fabrics. Each purchase and experiment gave me information about the performance and protection a piece of gear could provide. The ounces and pounds dropped and suddenly the extra time and gear weight needed for sleeping on the trail at predictable hours became worth its weight. More sleep would allow me to sustain a faster pace as the days went by, particularly helpful as the cumulative hours on the trail racked up and deep fatigue set in.

Training consisted mostly of running. Since I run the Western States 100 mile race each year at the end of June, I ran 2000 miles leading up to the John Muir Trail. This was broken up into five to seven, 8-9 mile runs during the weekdays, then a 25-55 mile long run on Saturday and a 10-15 mile run Sunday. I’m lucky enough to live nine trail miles from work and turn commute time into training time by running to and from work several times each week Two of the weekly training runs were speed sessions—an interval session and a tempo run. Nearly all my runs were on hilly trails. Every four to five weeks was an easier week to aid in recovery and allow for harder subsequent training. Specific to the demands of hilly hiking, I added at least 2-3 runs each month with a backpack and focused on walking uphill fast. I also lifted weights to strengthen my upper body to help me maintain posture when carrying a pack. I held back in early season races and slightly at Western States. I knew I’d be ready for the John Muir Trail when I returned to running comfortably just one week after finishing Western States in 19 hours and 3 minutes, close to my best time ever.

Between Western States and the John Muir Trail, I continued to do the “quality” work—the tempo and interval runs--but cut back on the total weekly mileage. I went on several long backpack trips to more specifically train and to get use to the elevation. If there was one part of my training that was less than ideal it was the lack of time spent at elevation. I was able to spend only eight nights over 8000 feet spread over the month of July. It would have been much better to have two weeks just before starting to train at elevation. However, my life has become much more complicated since I was 14. I am married and have three children. I am a physician in a busy practice. Despite all the ways I’ve simplified my life to be able to train, I just couldn’t get away for that amount of time.

The plan was to run the first 45 miles—to the top of Mt. Whitney (14,496’ and the highest point in the continental United States), over Forester Pass, and part way up Glen Pass--before meeting my sister Heather and her husband Jeff at the Charlotte Lake junction, picking up my overnight pack, and continuing until 10pm. I would then get a short night of sleep. On the second day I would ascend Pinchot, Mather, and Muir passes and if all went well, camp with my father at the Blaney Meadows junction. On the third day I would leave my overnight pack and meet running and fastpacking friends Mac and Sara McKinley at a Red’s Meadow cabin before running the final 57 miles to Yosemite Valley. With this plan I would have to carry an overnight pack for only 1/3 of the trail. Each day I would be able to re-supply and adjust my gear. The specific timing of the run was also carefully considered. I wanted to have 4-6 weeks between Western States and the John Muir Trail so I could recover and adjust my training for backpacking. I wanted to start after most of the snow was gone, but before the small side streams dried up. I also preferred to leave as close to a full moon as possible to take advantage of natural light for night hiking. Leaving on July 28 would have been ideal as it was before the full moon, but I couldn’t be choosy; I hadn’t gotten a Mt Whitney permit despite trying the four previous years. I also had to plan a schedule that correlate with my crew’s availability. As it turned out, I got everything but moonlight.

On July 31 at 5:05 a.m., I began my journey on the John Muir Trail at Whitney Portal. The sense of dread and excitement was soon replaced by wonder for the deep granite of Lone Pine Canyon, the high mountain streams, and delicate meadows. I needed my flashlight only briefly in dark stream canyons then began passing even earlier morning Mt. Whitney climbers. Just before Trail Crest Pass, I was surprised to see Chris Scott, Coyote 4-Play race director and VHTRC (Virginia Happy Trails Running Club) friend, with a group of three other runners finishing a 3 day fastpack trip with an early morning fastpack ascent of Mt. Whitney. After brief hellos, I arrived at Trail Crest Pass at 7:58 a.m. and Mt. Whitney after 11 miles at 8:44 a.m.

When I decided to run the John Muir Trail, it was with mixed emotions. On one hand, it seemed sacrilegious to rush through such a beautiful area. John Muir used the word “saunter” to describe his travels through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and spent hours developing an appreciation for its glacial carved canyons, flowered meadows, and rugged peaks. I would certainly not be sauntering and felt a sense of sadness for what I would be missing. On the other hand I’m an ultrarunner, the John Muir Trail is a premier rugged mountain trail and has an established speed record. It helped that I knew it well enough to plan support. The trail is very difficult for crew to access, requiring overnight backpack trips of 14-20 miles except in two locations in the last 57 miles where it crosses roads.

I left Mt. Whitney at 8:47a.m. after signing the register and catching my breath. With my 2 bottle running pack laden with the day’s food and drink mixes (as well as a small cigarette lighter to start a fire and a garbage bag for an emergency tent), I was able to make decent time. I walked the uphill and rocky downhill, ran the easier downhill and level ground. Maintaining a conservative pace early would be important in preserving myself for the later days. I had an eating schedule that included one tortilla or pita sandwich every 2 hours, and a Clif bar, jelly beans or corn nuts every 30 minutes. I kept to this schedule throughout the trip even as the food I was eating progressively lost its appeal. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen even more variety. Things I loved to eat early in the trip, were so repulsive by the end that they were left for Marmots. I had decided against the weight and time water filtration would require. My father and I hadn’t treated water in the 70’s and 80’s and had never gotten ill. We had been choosy about water sources and I counted on my experience to avoid illness. Giardia usually takes a week to strike, so even if I became ill, it wouldn’t affect my trip. Had I decided to purify my water I probably would have taken Iodine tablets and neutralized the Iodine after 30 minutes with Vitamin C powder. (The commercially available neutralizing pill is ascorbic acid which is the same as Vitamin C—the powder is widely available and works faster since it doesn’t have to dissolve.) Aqua-Mira is probably better for common mountain bugs, but has to sit for 5 minutes to activate. I considered taking a Steri-Pen but it hadn’t arrived. My impression, now that I’ve used it, is that it works well for one person, but is slower than a pump or gravity filter for larger volumes of water.

Crossing Wallace (11:47 a.m.) and Tyndall Creeks (12:59 p.m.) allowed me to soak my shirt and head to keep cool in the hotter afternoon temperatures. I was careful to clean my socks, shoes, and feet every few hours. There were already hot spots on my feet, and I knew that blisters could quickly end the trip. The multiple five minute foot care stops took valuable time, but without them, even more time could have been lost. I had chosen Montrail Hurricane Ridge shoes (Gore-Tex XCR) to try to keep dirt out of my shoes and prevent blisters. It kept the dirt out but blistering still occurred. I’m still not sure whether more breathability and dirt would have been as good.

The second major ascent of the trail, Forester Pass (13,200’), was much more difficult than I expected. Around 2 p.m. I became sleepy and lay down for a 10 minute nap beside the trail. I took several of these naps during my four days on the trail and usually found them refreshing. On the final 1000 feet of Forester Pass my pack felt more like the 70 pound packs I carried for week long trips in my youth. The trail surface and running was much better after leaving the pass at (3:00 p.m.). I met Jeff at Viedette Meadows hiking up the trail to meet me. He radioed ahead to Heather to start dinner. I spent 30 minutes with Heather and Jeff at the Charlotte Lake junction. In my 30 minutes with them, I ate, repacked into my overnight pack, and taped early blisters. Three days after I finished my 93 hour trip, Heather and Jeff started their seventeen day through hike on the John Muir Trail with their one year old daughter Sierra. These things run in the family. I left them, partially restored, at 6:10 p.m.

The overnight pack I carried for the next 70 miles had a base weight of just under 8# and with 1 ½ days of food and water, it weighed about 13#. I had settled on a modified version of the GoLite Speed. I had replaced the helmet holder with lightweight compression straps to save weight and allow better adjustment for smaller loads. The Speed isn’t the lightest pack available, but for running it has a usable hip belt and load lifters. This really helped keep the pack from bouncing when running. I could have traveled faster with running gear but this would mean not sleeping again till I met my father.

Heather accompanied me to the top of Glen Pass (7:03 p.m.), snapped a few pictures, and sent me alone into Rae Lakes and the canyons beyond where I would spend my first night. I got water from a trailside spring and enjoyed the last rays of sun on the Painted Lady (a beautiful formation guarding the Rae Lakes basin). I got my headlamp out at 8:40 p.m. and arrived at South Fork at 9:45 p.m. after 56 miles. I would have liked to go farther since it was another 59 miles from there to my father and they would be harder miles carrying a heavier pack. South Fork had the advantages of low elevation and a bear box (metal box to keep food protected from bears). I was also in need of some foot care after descending the rocky trail. Although a handheld light casts better light and shadows while hiking, a headlamp is far superior for working around camp. I typically hold a Petzl Tikka in my hand while hiking and wrap the strap around my wrist. I quickly set up camp next to Redbeard (a PCT through-hiker), ate the zip-locked remains of my dinner, patched my feet, and went to bed.

One of the final adjustments to my lightweight kit was replacing my much beloved Western Mountaineering Ultralight sleeping bag with a custom 13 oz. Nunatak bag. I had worked with Tom Halpin of Nunatak to make a narrow and fully enclosed 1/3 length foot box and a slightly smaller dimension upper bag. Nearly a pound of weight was saved with this change. This bag and a home-made Epic/Sil-Nylon bivy sack has given me plenty of warmth down to 25 degrees F. I left my Integral Designs poncho/tent, its Fibraplex poles, and titanium stakes with Heather and Jeff. The weather forecasts suggested I wouldn’t need them.

I awoke at 3:50 a.m. without an alarm. Almost immediately a meteor shot in the direction I was heading. I took this as a sign, packed, and started hiking. I was still a bit tired, but still felt excited about the trip though a bit worried about how far I could get that day. I convinced myself that another day of acclimation, lower passes, and less overall elevation gain I could reach my father. Blister repair was required in the dark 15 minutes down the trail. Later, as the moon set and the sun rose, I stopped for a quick breakfast before arriving at Pinchot Pass at 7:28 a.m. With only10 miles between Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass I was hoping for a 3 hour crossing. Additional blister repair and mounting fatigue lost me nearly one hour. I left Mather Pass after a 10 minute nap on a shaded rock ledge at 11:18am. I then ran quickly downhill on mostly good trail to the beautiful alpine Palisade Lakes (12:13 p.m.) then into the manzanita and willow lowland at the base of Muir Pass which was 11 miles and 4000 feet away. Time and distance dragged and I left the top at 6:53 p.m. With 19 miles between me and my father at Blaney Meadows, the chances looked poor for a full dinner, companionship, and an “easy” 50 mile third day. I decided I’d try to reach him only if I continued to hold a good pace. Otherwise, I felt I should at least ford Evolution Creek, so I could start the day with dry and repaired feet. When my pace slowed, I camped 8 miles short of my father after 52 miles and fording Evolution Creek. Because there was no way to let him know I when I would arrive, it was fortunate we had agreed that he would wait for me until noon the next day. After a dinner of instant mashed potatoes (cooked with ½ of an Esbit fuel tab on a Vargo Ti stove in a MSR Ti teakettle), I fell asleep wondering, given my blisters and aching legs, what the morning would bring.

I woke at 5 a.m. and spent nearly 30 minutes dressing blisters and getting packed. It hurt so much getting my shoes on that I expected my trip would be over when I met my father 8 miles later. I resolved to walk for 30 minutes before trying any running. Five minutes down the trail, my shoes and feet had stopped arguing, my legs warmed to an unnoticeable ache and thoughts of meeting my father and a good breakfast had me running the switchbacks down to Goddard Creek. I arrived at the Blaney Meadows Junction at 7:20 a.m., met my father, and plowed into a good meal.

I left Blaney Meadows at 8:02 a.m. feeling great! The good feelings were fueled by a can of river cooled Coke, a breakfast of chicken noodle soup and salmon pasta, and the tender card my wife had hidden in the pack brought in by my father. The euphoria lasted as I carried my smaller Platypus pack up Selden Pass and imagined meeting Mac and Sara at Red’s Meadow, having a shower, and sleeping in a real bed. The good feelings faded in the heat over Bear Ridge, but the good running down to Mono Creek (2:34 p.m.) kept me close to my ideal schedule despite increasing trail dust which necessitated more frequent foot care.

As I started up Silver Pass I began to get sleepy so another 10 minute nap was ordered and delivered on shaded granite. The nap didn’t fully refresh, so I took a caffeine pill in preparation for what now looked like a late arrival at Red’s Meadow. The good feelings were now a distant memory. I reached Silver Pass at 5:07 p.m. and ran into Cascade Valley. At Tully Hole I stopped and spoke with three women backpackers, hoping for some leftover hot dinner. They couldn’t offer this, but it was nice to talk for a few minutes. Although I passed people regularly, I rarely gave more than a friendly greeting. There simply wasn’t time to exchange stories and plans with incredulous hikers. As evening came and I arrived at Virginia Lake I thought of how nice it would be to set up a tent and enjoy the sunset, the alpenglow, then gaze at the stars and moon in their spectacular but subtle light show on the Silver Divide. I really wished I could slow down and enjoy the country I was rushing through.

The trail to Red’s Meadow was filled with numerous small climbs and descents. Sand and cinders repeatedly filled my shoes and a certain desperation developed as twilight slipped into darkness. It was on this section I discovered that every syllable of the “ABC” song can be replaced with the “F” word and I must with shame report that I sung this song repeatedly as I descended into Red’s Meadow. The singing finally stopped at 11:58 p.m. when I arrived at the cabin.

Mac and Sara provided a very welcome respite. The hot shower was heavenly and the pasta filling, but the company and chance to decompress was most appreciated. From Heather and Jeff, to my father, and now Mac and Sara it was friends and family that had made a trip this fast possible. Mac and Sara had even taken off two work days to support my trip. My wife, who could not leave our three children and directly support me, served as the “Where’s Kevin” information station. After a crew met me and got back to a phone, they would call her so she could inform others how I was doing. It helped to know that Mac would be with me all the way to Yosemite Valley. It took a while to fall asleep, but the soft bed was somewhat more comfortable than the thin insulite of the prior two nights.

After a tentative sleep, I woke at 6:15 a.m., dressed, and ate a quick breakfast. Mac and I packed the pre-made sandwiches (Thanks Sara!) and headed off through the valley cold on the final day. The excitement of being only 57 miles from Happy Isles held back the growing fatigue—a little. I took a quick nap by Garnet Lake but it didn’t refresh me so I took a caffeine pill. We arrived at Island Lake Pass at 12:01 p.m., Donohue at 1:52 p.m. and carefully descended the steep, rocky trail to the flats of Lyell Fork canyon. Although I hoped to run this easy section well, the 85F temperatures, tired legs, and a 10 minute foot repair at Ireland Creek ate into the pace. We arrived at Tuolumne Meadows at 6:00 p.m. and had a dinner of chicken noodle soup (delicious after the increasing impalatability of bars and pita sandwiches), sushi (Thanks Sara!!), and nearly 2 L of Dr. Pepper.

By 6:38 p.m. we were ready to go--nearly. With another long night facing me, feet hurting and 22 miles to go, I became scared and thought about quitting. What if I was reduced to a painful limp and couldn’t stay warm? What if I got lost and wandered around in the dark? What if I really got hurt? With the help of Mac and Sara, I screwed up my courage and headed toward the valley with hand bottles of Dr. Pepper and Chunky Man soup.

The evening light on Cathedral Peak again found me pining for a campsite. I repaired my feet for the last time at the Cathedral Lakes junction (8:10 p.m.). It got dark just before Cathedral Pass and we took an unplanned tour through Sunrise camp (9:48 p.m.) before re-finding the John Muir Trail. The five miles to the Merced Lake trail junction looked easy on paper with its 800’ net loss, but this didn’t account for the 1000’ climb that came first or the rocky 1800’ descent that followed. When we finally arrived at the junction, I got a boost from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mac and I then made good time to the Half Dome cut off. I lost the skin and toenail of my right small toe just before Little Yosemite Valley, but figured I couldn’t do much about the pain and just kept going. Below Nevada Falls we descended past several early morning Half Dome climbers. At 2:01 a.m. with 1 mile to go I ran my fastest mile of the trip to try and beat Peter’s record by a full hour. We arrived at the official John Muir Trail start at 2:10 a.m., 93:05 after leaving Whitney Portal.

It’s been several weeks since I finished the John Muir Trail. The mouth sores and blisters have healed. The cold and sore throat that lingered for a week is gone. I’m running again. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. I’m sure my time will fall someday, but no one can take the experience of four days of living so close to my limits. There will always be those who push themselves to greater levels of misery for greater measures of glory. My next trip to the Sierras will take a bit more time. I will stop to enjoy the stillness and faded colors of twilight, the dappled patterns of shadow edging a warm flowered meadow, and the penetrating crispness of morning air. Life is a process not a destination and there are some beautiful destinations I’d like a bit more time to experience.


Time heals all ills and I’ve been able to think about how I could prepare better for another try. I think the most important factor would be a sustained period of training at elevation. With this I probably could run more of the trail and gain significant time. Some advantage could be gained by lightening my load. I picked up too much food from my first re-supply (and left half of my Pita sandwiches with Redbeard at my first night’s camp). On a future trip I would take a little less food but chose more variety. I would carry less water as I nearly always had a full bottle. Depending on the weather, I might leave my down vest at home (it did make a nice pillow but didn’t get used otherwise). I could probably find a lighter pack comfortable enough for running. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again, but if I do, I’ll be better prepared. The Tahoe Rim Trail might be an interesting challenge………

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