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 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
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
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
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
The John Muir Trail is 222.8 miles long, traversing the backbone of the
http://www.run100s.com/JMT/jmt98bw.txt (Blake Woods)
http://dimensional.com/~buzz/JMT/story_peter.html (Peter and Buzz)
http://www.geocities.com/pbakwin/jmt2003.html (Peter’s Record)
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.
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
On July 31 at , 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
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
Crossing Wallace () and Tyndall Creeks () 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,
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
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 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
I woke at 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 , met my father, and plowed into a good meal.
I left Blaney Meadows at 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
As I started up
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 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
After a tentative sleep, I woke at , 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
By 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
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………