The question was posed by our friend Derrick, whom we called to share the good news on Tuesday morning, a few hours after breaking the supported record of the John Muir Trail. As I tried to articulate in my wasted state that yes, overall it really WAS fun, my crew Deborah and Chris burst out laughing, shook their heads, and responded in unison "NO, IT WASN'T!"
Ever since thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 1994, I’d wanted to hike California’s John Muir Trail, which runs over 200 miles from the summit of Mt. Whitney to Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. Real life and my involvement in the sport of ultrarunning placed any JMT plans on the back burner until this summer, when I finally had the opportunity to not only backpack the Trail in the traditional sense but to speedhike it, too. Originally my target was the women’s record, around 5½ days. However, previous record holder Peter Bakwin suggested I shoot for the current overall supported record of 3 days, 21 hours, 5 min., held by Kevin Sawchuk. (Sawchuk’s time from Whitney summit has been reported as 3 days, 17 hours, 23 min. For whatever reason, supported JMT speedsters have traditionally started the clock at Whitney Portal, while those of the unsupported variety seem to start the clock on the summit.) I figured the overall record was a long shot but still possible. I decided to go for it.
Crucial to success would be putting together a dependable support team. I’m not one who is comfortable with an “entourage” but realized that because of the remoteness of the Trail and long access approaches--and with my intent to take regular sleep breaks—two crews would be necessary. Chris Scott and Deborah Askew, both JMT veterans themselves, agreed to help. Deborah helped crew Peter during his successful record-setting hike of 2003. She also once thru-hiked the JMT in about 7 days and is intimately familiar with the Trail, its side trails, and the various permit requirements, as is Chris. The plan we worked out was not without contention (!) or anxiety on my part, but in the end it all worked out.
Realizing this was a sort of postgraduate adventure and wanting to properly do my homework, I backpacked the Trail northbound from July 31 through August 9. This was a wonderfully mellow trip for the most part, one in which I was able to linger in beautiful spots and get to know the Trail, discovering where water sources may have dried up, which sections might be particularly challenging, etc.
Many JMT books are available on the market. I used the latest edition (July 2007) of the Wilderness Press’s John Muir Trail, by Elizabeth Wenk. This is where I got my stats list mileages, but as I discovered mileages depicted in the various books, maps, and trail signs can vary widely, a bit frustrating at times! I also carried the handy Tom Harrison JMT map pack, 13 individual pages which allowed me to take only those maps needed for a particular day.
The weeks leading up to the speed attempt were filled with trepidation, anxiety, self-doubt. Could I really pull this off? Fearful that I’d “fall flat on my face,” I announced my plans to none but my closest friends and family.
At precisely 4 a.m. on August 24, Chris dropped me off at Whitney Portal. I jokingly weighed my Nathan Women’s Intensity pack on the trailhead scale (4 pounds!), and was off. The ~6000 foot climb up Whitney felt effortless, adrenaline no doubt helping propel me up the mountain. Upon reaching the summit in 4:09, by happenstance I had the pleasure of meeting the previous unsupported JMT record holder, the colorful 66-year-old Reinhold Metzger, with whom I could’ve spent all day talking! (His lead in: “Hey, are those DIRTY GIRL gaiters?!” [They were!]) After 20 minutes of yakking, I finally interjected “I’m sorry, Reinhold, but I HAVE to get going now!” [Note: In early August, Michael Popov broke Reinhold's unsupported record, completing the Trail in 4 days, 5 hours, 25 min. Wow!]
Off I went--back to Trail Crest, down to Guitar Lake, through Crabtree Meadows, across Wallace, Wright & Tyndall Creeks, and finally up Forester Pass. The afternoon sun was quite warm, and although I’d assumed I was pretty well acclimated to the altitude, I was feeling a tad woozy and having to force myself to eat—definitely out of the ordinary for me! I was having no such problems with fluids, drinking both plain water and HEED, downing ten 20 oz. bottles before the day was over. I made good time through spectacular Center Basin and along Bubbs Creek in anticipation of a quick reunion at Vidette Meadow with my dear friend and JMT vet, Richard Park of Chattanooga, Tennessee, with whom, coincidentally, I had run my very first ultra, the 1992 JFK 50 miler, AND who along with wife Pam had driven me to the start of the AT in Georgia back in 1994. Along with three buddies, Richard was doing a five-day backpack on the JMT. After a quick hug, some freshly pumped water, and their well wishes, I headed up Glen Pass and beyond to my night’s destination, Dollar Lake, 48.2 from Whitney Portal.
Chris accessed Dollar Lake via Kearsarge Pass. I arrived only ½ hour after turning on my light, at 8:37 p.m. In retrospect, we should’ve planned on Woods Creek via Cedar Grove, but in my stubbornness to “keep things simple” by doing all crewing from the east side, I’d insisted on Kearsarge Pass… meaning that Chris had to haul a 40+ lb. pack complete with tent, two sleeping bags, two pads, a bear can, stove, food for both of us for that night and the next day, clean clothes (!) for the next day, and my toiletries over both Glen and Kearsarge Passes TWICE, about 15 miles and 5000 feet of climb each way.
A note about sleep: I knew I needed it and wanted to plan regularly for it. Some before me had tried to go long before sleeping, but I chose a more deliberate approach to sleep intervals. While I realized it wouldn’t exactly be a nice, full 8 hours, I strived for at least a few hours of quality sleep each night. What I hadn’t taken into consideration was the interim between reaching camp and getting into the sleeping bag--that 45 minutes or so of transitional time where I seemingly spent half the time staring blankly at my pack trying to figure out what to put into it, while trying to force some food in. All told, I probably got about 8 hours of good sleep.
That first night I slept about 4½ hours, awoke at 2:30 a.m. feeling rested, and after some hot coffee hit the trail at 3:16 a.m. The 3.7 miles to the Woods Creek Bridge passed quickly, and I was pleased to feel no soreness in my legs and feet. Five minutes after leaving camp, however, I realized I’d left my bandana behind. “Maybe I’ll find one on the Trail” I thought, not really believing it. About 15 minutes later, I happened across an “Austin Wranglers” bandana hanging in a tree. This kind of weird, coincidental stuff seems to happen to me frequently, and in my rested, alert state of mind, I uncharacteristically started to get the Willies: the bouncy, squeeky Woods Creek bridge seemed eerie; I passed a newly erected cross next to the trail (somebody DIED here?!); I envisioned the ghost of “Ranger Randy,” who DID die near this area, chastising me for being a “trail stomper” (Google The Last Season by Eric Blehm); AND I started to think about mountain lions just as a mule deer decided to wait until I got within 10 feet before bolting away. This would be the only time during the entire trek that I felt scared. Fortunately, my imaginary fears would disappear with the rising sun.
I crested Pinchot Pass just as my period started. Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but I felt it a not insignificant part of the whole story as it was one more thing to deal with!
The day’s “events” were not yet over. Shortly after beginning the climb up Mather Pass, my right nostril decided to start gushing blood. Oh no! Having had problems with nosebleeds at altitude before, once to the point of requiring medical intervention, coupled with the fact that I was, oh, about a dozen miles from the nearest road, I was duly concerned. Trying to remain calm, I soaked my new Austin Wranglers bandana in a cold stream and applied pressure. After many minutes, the flow slowed to an ooze which persisted throughout the day, but at least I didn’t bleed to death.
The rest of the day went rather well in contrast. After passing by scenic Palisade Lakes, descending the Golden Staircase, soaking my feet in the Middle Fork of the Kings River, and a very long climb up LeConte Canyon, at 6:45 p.m. I topped out at Muir Pass, where my friend and crew Deborah was waiting. The previous day Deborah had hiked in 17 miles via the Piute Pass Trail with a very heavy pack and set up camp at the junction with the JMT, hiking up 16 miles to Muir Pass to meet me the following day. To say Deborah was a welcome sight is a woeful understatement. She even brought me a Starbucks Doubleshot! We had 16 miles yet to go, mostly downhill but still requiring almost 6 hours. However, the almost full moon rising over Evolution Valley is a vision I’ll forever cherish. We finally arrived at the night’s destination, the Piute Creek junction, at 12:30 a.m., just shy of Wenk’s 60 miles for the day. It sure felt like well over 60 to me! (The next day Deborah trudged back over Piute Pass, for a three-day total of about 66 miles.)
After several coughing fits and a restless few hours with probably only an hour or two of good sleep, I left Deborah at 4:27 a.m. and headed up Selden Pass. With somewhat sore feet and feeling not quite as rested as the morning before, the climb up Selden seemed harder than I’d remembered its being just three weeks earlier, so I took it easy, finally topping out at 8:13 a.m. Fortunately, there is some good, runnable trail in this stretch; at times I actually felt rather like a runner, making good time along Bear Creek and all the way to the start of the Bear Ridge climb. Bear Ridge reminds me not of the John Muir Trail but of an Appalachian Trail “PUD” (pointless up and down) because it takes the hiker up a ridge with no real views. However, I was happy to be going north as I got to run the smooth, nicely switchbacked 2000-foot drop to Mono Bridge, quite pleased to have done the entire Bear Ridge section in just over 2 hours. I decided to forego a break until about 2½ miles into the climb up Silver Pass, when I paused to soak my feet in the cold creek for a few minutes. Heaven!
I was feeling strong on the rest of the climb up Silver Pass, especially after being interrogated--and consequently a tiny bit agitated!--by a backcountry ranger as to “where my pack and gear” were, assuring her that I had enough survival gear to spend a night out. (I don’t think she believed I was going all the way to Red’s Meadow to meet friends that night!) On the descent of Silver Pass, I was determined to not miss the righthand turn to Tully Hole as I’d done during my reconnaissance hike, when I mistakenly headed all the way down Cascade Valley, then had to ascend the Purple Lake Trail back to the JMT, thereby missing 5 miles of JMT. This time I made the correct turn and headed into one of the most beautiful valleys of the entire Trail, suitably named “Horse Heaven.” The steep but nicely switchbacked climb out of the valley toward Lake Virginia was a real eye opener, but I occupied my mind with the lovely views, all the while scanning the trail ahead for my running pal, Howie Stern of Mammoth, who had said he might come out and join me for a few miles. Unfortunately, our timing was off as Howie had to return home in order to prepare for his first teaching day at school. (According to two hikers at Lake Virginia, we missed each other by just ½ hour.)
The final miles to Red’s Meadow were relatively easy, and I ran or power walked most of it. With about 5 miles to go, Chris surprisingly appeared to accompany me through the potentially confusing intersections in this area. I was very anxious to reach Red’s Meadow as we’d reserved a CABIN, complete with a SHOWER!! Arriving at 10:45 p.m., I spent at least ½ hour in the shower scrubbing off the grime, hurrying my pace only when Chris told me he had a famous Red’s Meadow chocolate milkshake sitting in the freezer waiting for me. Oh boy! Deborah was at the cabin as well, having hiked out of Piute Pass earlier in the day. I’d hoped she would accompany me the next day. She said YES! I popped the couple of blisters that had formed on each of my fourth toes, polished off the milkshake, ate some ramen, and with revitalized anticipation for the next day, hit the sack--in a real bed!
Deborah and I hit the trail for the expected final day at 3:07 a.m. I was a little concerned that we should’ve begun closer to 2 since I knew that the success or failure of the record attempt would all boil down to this last day. However, Chris and Deborah both assured me that an extra hour spent sleeping would be time well spent and that the payback would be worth it. They were right. Physically I was doing well: most of my body was tired, but only the bottoms of my feet were sore, and I had only 3 blisters. Mentally I was still having fun and revelling in the experience for the most part. After negotiating the numerous intersections near Red’s Meadow, I began to get sleepy for the first time and started staggering a bit. A caffeine pill and fast-approaching daylight woke me nicely, such that I began to enjoy this “Ansel Adams” section, including beautiful Lakes Rosalie, Shadow, Garnet, Ruby, Emerald, and Thousand Island, with imposing Banner, Ritter, and Minarets towering in the distance. Deborah and I made good time as we chatted all the way up Donohue Pass. It was great to have company!
After cresting Donohue things got tougher. On my shakedown hike, the Donohue-to-Tuolumne section had proven to be the most challenging, to the point of my having a bit of an emotional breakdown upon reaching Tuolumne Meadows. This time I was determined NOT to allow that to happen, trying my hardest to dissociate body from mind. Deborah kept me entertained for quite awhile with her (very interesting!) life story; however, the long, flat miles out of Lyell Canyon were absolutely mind numbing. We tried to power walk as quickly as possible; I had no desire to run as my feet were pretty tender at this point. After what seemed like days, we finally reached Chris at 3:28 p.m., downed some mashed potatoes, ramen, a Starbucks Doubleshot, and some Coke, and were off for the final section!
Compared to the death march through Lyell Canyon, the climb up and over Cathedral Pass went very well, and we moved at a good clip. Deborah maintains that I was having auditory hallucinations, but we really DID encounter an elderly woman wearing very thick eyeglasses who asked her husband “Do those girls work here? They’re both wearing helmets.” (We were both wearing white baseball caps.) I started laughing so hard. Our next goal was to get past Sunrise High Sierra Camp before darkness, happily reaching that goal by 7:28 p.m. In this section we were sprinkled on for about an hour, which after several weeks of not experiencing rain, felt both alien and refreshing.
With darkness upon us, my mind went into “git-er-done” mode. Deborah expertly kept us from getting lost and on track to break Sawchuk’s record, both of us checking our watches frequently. The only minor glitch occurred while trying to cross a stream on a wobbly log about a half mile before the Half Dome Trail. Deb crossed safely; I fell in. Two sounds were heard: a loud SPLASH and a loud expletive beginning with the letter “F”... which I immediately regretted due to the fact that we passed four tents ~10 seconds later (oops). We reached the Half Dome Trail at 9:54 and Nevada Falls at 10:56. Finally I allowed myself to believe we had it in the bag! The trail surface from Nevada to Vernal Falls is very uneven, with a mixture of rocks, dirt, and deteriorating asphalt; all I had to do was keep from tripping and getting hurt. The closer we got to the finish, the faster I ran, trying now to finish before midnight. Out of water and very thirsty, I stopped at the one-mile-to-go water fountain and partially filled my bottle. From here on the trail smoothed out, and I started *flying* down the trail (in actuality probably doing a blistering 10-minute mile).
The finish was sweet. I hit THE gravel road, stopped running, and felt nothing but a deep-seated fatigue and an intense desire to just SIT. My final time from Whitney Portal was 3 days, 20 hours, and a few seconds, while my summit-to-Happy Isle time was 3 days, 15 hours, 32 min. Although my crew wouldn’t necessarily share my opinion, *I* truly enjoyed almost every minute of it!