Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?
By Michael Lanza
“Umm, hey buddy, you okay?”
It’s 4:30 a.m., a time of day that puts us in the questionable company of cat burglars and alpinists. Our headlamp beams seem to bounce off the inky black of a moonless night in Yosemite Valley. Four of us are taking the first steps on the 221-mile John Muir Trail. And my friend Mark Fenton is staggering like a frat boy on a weekend bender.
“No problem, just a little vertigo I get hiking in the dark. I’ll be fine.” As if scripted for a sitcom, he then lurches too near the edge of the trail—which drops off into the dark roar of the Merced River far below.
From that moment on, he becomes known as Stumbles.
We laugh, because the nickname’s funny and appropriate, and because our packs weigh in at only six pounds, and because the four of us have trained and trained some more for the insane undertaking we’ve just begun—so we’re practically running uphill effortlessly, feeling as fit as racehorses. But mostly we laugh because we are only at the beginning of an odyssey that seemed impossible when we first contemplated the idea. We haven’t yet entered the zone of constant pain, so it’s easy to delude ourselves into believing that we aren’t pursuing an ambition of fools.
Besides, we’re in Yosemite, a place crazy with distractions. In the faint first light, 600-foot Nevada Falls looks like a wavering white apparition, and our inability to see it well seems to amplify the sound of the free-falling water sheering through air like a liquid guillotine. Deer bound away silently in the chilling dawn. At mid-morning, from ledges at 9,000 feet, we go slack-jawed at a shark’s grin of peaks: Tenaya, Tressider, Cathedral, Matthes Crest. We’re giddy as little girls, knowing this is just a scenic appetizer for the feast of alpine vistas awaiting us over the course of the week ahead on the JMT: snow-draped mountains and jagged granite spires, passes from 11,000 to over 13,000 feet, and a constellation of lakes reflecting it all upside down.
That’s right, I wrote “the week ahead.” We’re out here as guinea pigs testing a theory that, by arriving ultra-fit and going ultralight, we can collapse a hike normally stretched out over three weeks or more into seven days. We’re taking what Ray Jardine preached in The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook back in the 1990’s—a then-controversial gospel that called for drastically slashing pack weight and ramping up daily mileage—to a questionable extreme. The math sounds pretty simple: trim pack weight by two-thirds (or more), and hike three times as far. A lot of Ray’s disciples have since embraced the ultralight strategy with great satisfaction, including many Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, who would not complete that 2,600-mile thru-hike in one season without going light.
I’ve made a steady evolution into that style of backpacking, going from regularly lugging 50-pound loads for eight or 10 arduous miles a day to carrying sub-30-pound packs on 15- or 20-mile days. Instead of suffering under an unwieldy load and taking five days to hike 40 miles, I’d walk more comfortably and finish in three days, or hike farther in the same five days, and feel less taxed physically. I’ve found it easier to train for walking farther with a moderate load than for walking less distance with a heavy one. And based on personal experience and what I’ve seen happen to other hikers, I’m convinced that backcountry injuries are more often attributable to excessive pack weight than to excessive miles.
To purist backpackers who object that I’m not stopping to smell the roses—or whatever it is one smells when bent double under a huge pack—I point out that I’ve simply gone from walking 2 mph to walking 3 mph. I’m not missing anything; in fact, I’m going farther and seeing more than I used to. But just finishing a day on the trail feeling great was evidence enough for me.
For a few years, the idea of speed-hiking the JMT had been stabbing the button of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, demanding my attention like a tiny thorn in my sock. I learned that fit hikers going überlight were sailing “America’s most beautiful trail,” as the JMT is often called, in just 10 days; it sounded reasonable, given the Sierra’s dry, mild summer weather and the trail’s moderate grades. Then I bumped into one ultralight guru who suggested cranking it in seven days. Another Muir Trail veteran told me that “30- to 40-mile days are totally doable.”
Unfortunately, where another hiker might think that pounding out 31 miles a day for a solid week sounds just slightly over the top, my admittedly altered brain chemistry rationalizes, “How hard could that be?” I also had the ulterior motive of simply wanting to hike the entire trail, but knowing I couldn’t possibly abandon my working wife and two young kids for three weeks. Before long, I’d convinced myself that a seven-day thru-hike of the JMT—221 miles including the 10-mile descent off Mt. Whitney (the 211-mile JMT terminates at its summit), with more than 40,000 feet of elevation gain—was not only feasible: It would even, quite possibly, be fun.
Right now, anyway, my prognostication is looking pretty good. At the risk of sounding cocky, we’re chewing up ground. We roll into Sunrise High Sierra Camp—nearly 13 miles out—by 10 a.m., as fresh as if we just did a 10-minute warm-up. The afternoon heat drains us, but we refuel on burgers, fries, and milkshakes at the Tuolumne Meadows café at around mile 22, and rendezvous with Mark’s wife and kids, who’ve driven there with our camping gear and a food resupply for the next two days. Then we set out again with 18-pound packs to hike into the evening.
In the mountain dusk of 7 p.m., we pitch our tarps near a windswept, unnamed alpine tarn at 10,180 feet in Lyell Canyon. We pass the ibuprofen like we’re doing shots, rub tired-but-not-aching feet, and take stock. On our first day, we’ve walked 34 miles, with 7,000 feet of uphill. Mark’s pedometer reports the day’s mind-boggling tally: 72,376 steps. We should look like enemy combatants with indefinite leases at Guantanamo, but instead, we’re just tired.
As we take an icy dip in the lake, below a skyline of granite cliffs, Stumbles tells me with an ears-wide grin, “You know what? I can’t believe how good I feel.”
I smile, naively thinking: We’ve got this thing licked.
“Subject: Re: You’re going to do what in 7 days?!”
That was Mark’s response to my e-mail months earlier, baiting him with a passing mention of my plan. Mark, who lives south of Boston, is an author of books on fitness walking and a former U.S. race-walking team member who’s now, like me, past 40 with a demanding career and a young family. I wanted him in, but knew I couldn’t just invite him outright. Mark’s a hyper-analytical MIT guy: He would react to this supremely irrational idea in a very rational way—dismissing it as a plan for masochists.
I knew that before agreeing to this level of insanity, he would have to go through something like the stages of grief: First there is denial (“No way I’m doing something that stupid”), then anger (“Why me?!”), followed by bargaining (“Okay, I’m tentatively in, but I reserve the right to back out at any time”), depression (“Oh, my God, we’re actually going to do this”), and finally, acceptance (“I’m an idiot”).
Honing my sales pitch as Fenton chewed on my proposal, I started recruiting a team of the blissfully ignorant.
My fellow-Idahoan friend Todd Arndt takes hours-long trail runs and still fondly recalls the time we hiked 8,000 feet up out of Hells Canyon—108° F., no shade. Todd’s a doctor, so if one of us perished—assuming it’s not him—at least we’d have someone who’s qualified to pronounce the time of death. When I called him and broached the idea, there followed a long pause, then he said slowly, as if he’d just bumped his head very hard: “That. Sounds. Great.”
Heather Dorn, mother of two girls and living at the time in Pennsylvania, exhibited impeccable judgment—a valuable wilderness asset—by avoiding my calls and e-mails for weeks. But proving demonstrably that a Y chromosome is not a prerequisite for bad judgment, she ultimately gave in to the lure of the impossible disguised as plausible.
And Mark Godley, of the Bay Area, was tough enough for it: He had hiked with me through the rugged Bailey Range of the Olympics carrying a sleeping bag the size of a prize-winning pumpkin. In a two-career marriage with three preschool children, he couldn’t escape for a week, but would join us for our last two days.
And a month after that first e-mail to Fenton, he was in. Defying reason, I had a team.
We set out to get in the shape of our lives in four months—going out on 5 a.m. speed hikes, grinding out 25-mile dayhikes in blistering heat, doing ridiculous numbers of lunges. A few weeks prior to meeting up in Yosemite Valley, Fenton and I banged out a one-day, 32-mile jaunt in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with 10,000 feet of ups and downs.
We were ready. Or so we thought.
“This is the best I’ve felt on this entire trip.”
Todd announces this as we bask in the sun after a frigid mid-morning swim in Purple Lake, pinched within a horseshoe of unnamed 11,000-foot peaks. It sounds strange and a little bit shocking, because since leaving Yosemite Valley exactly 54 hours ago, we’ve walked 72 miles. But we all nod in enthusiastic agreement.
We’ve been hitting the trail by 5:30 a.m. to take advantage of the cool temps. Manic, we pass tents still closed up in the prehistorically quiet forest. All morning, we practically hurtle past backpackers humping packs the size of body bags and sweating salty rivers. We overhear comments like, “Those guys are bookin’!” We repeatedly explain our big-mileage game plan. And not one person we meet calls us crazy. In fact, they all say, “You guys have it right.”
The JMT in August is not a place you normally go to find solitude. But all those traditional backpackers, with all their gear, don’t get moving till mid-morning and quit by late afternoon. Which means that during the day’s finest hours—early and late—we have the Sierra all to ourselves. The sun casts long shadows across alpine gardens littered with thousands of granite boulders. Waterfalls that would be famous landmarks in other states are too numerous here to have names. Alpenglow paints summits gold as we walk long past sunset. We gawk at amphitheater views over Donohue Pass, Thousand Island Lake, Silver Pass.
Still, every day is very, very hard—though in a schizophrenic way. This may sound like the musings of a brain addled by trail dust and too much water-treatment chemicals, but when you’re hiking 30 miles a day, the first 20 aren’t that bad. The only problem is that our mornings of frenzied energy always warp into afternoons of withering heat. And calling the JMT dusty is like calling K2 breezy.
As early as our second afternoon, inhaling swirls of chalky earth, I turn to Stumbles and say, “I hope this isn’t starting to feel like a death march.”
He pauses—too long—then deadpans, “It has some aspects of that.”
Every day, our feet ache a little more. We spend more time trying to manage our expanding blisters. On our fourth afternoon, we stop beside the South Fork San Joaquin River and peel off our shoes and socks for a therapeutic soak. I half expect our dirt-blackened, overheated soles to boil the water, cartoon-like. Instead, I get a blessed reprieve—it’s never felt so damn good to not feel my feet. Then we commence The Ritual of the Tape: I strategically cover hot spots. Todd and Mark tape over wounds that look like small stratovolcanoes. Heather’s feet look the worst: She’s wrapping all 10 toes.
By that evening, Stumbles and I are climbing the switchbacks along Evolution Creek’s fantastically endless succession of roaring waterfalls, which almost make me forget that my legs feel like wood. The scenery is morphine, and I’m a lab chimp constantly pushing the button for another dose. I’m also doing my best to ignore the deeply troubling thought that we’re only halfway through this hike.
Then Stumbles looks at me with sunken eyes and confesses, “I’m pasted.” We wait an hour for Heather and Todd to catch up; when they do, at dusk, it’s clear that Heather’s struggling. Still, she insists we hike until 9 p.m., because we’ve fallen behind schedule.
So we limp—and Stumbles staggers—in the dark up to a smooth granite slab near Evolution Lake. We lay our bags out under a sky machine-gunned with stars. Utterly prone, our legs and feet resting, the world instantly becomes a better place, the many miles almost forgotten. Comforted by the silence of a wilderness night, we remind ourselves we’re another day closer to realizing our goal. Pain and exhaustion may be acting as powerful hallucinogens, but we’re clinging to a frayed rope of belief that we just might pull this off.
At some point, The Thing That We Want To Do morphs into This Thing That We Have To Do. It may have happened way back on that second afternoon, when Stumbles and I deliberated the precise meaning of “death march.” Maybe it happened this morning, our fifth, when we went bipolar: Our mystical sunrise hike past Evolution, Sapphire, and Wanda lakes turned into an endorphin-charged rush up and over 12,000-foot Muir Pass (“Big rebound for me!” cried Stumbles), which devolved into a pathetic two-hour power nap beside a creek in LeConte Canyon waiting for terminally blistered Heather, who dropped miles behind after we left camp at first light. Or maybe it’s when we bid farewell to her, after she finally limped up to us and promptly announced she was done, and would hobble out a side trail tomorrow morning.
Then again, perhaps it’s simply because we’re so far behind the eight ball we can’t even tell what color it is anymore. We’ve blitzed an amazing 135 miles in four and a half days. But our long layover in LeConte cost us precious time that we don’t have—we’re miles behind schedule. And the prospect of another 86 miles in a little over two days seems, to say the least, daunting.
But we pick ourselves up and struggle on, like Napoleon into Russia, toward the JMT’s hardest climb—a brutal, 13.5-mile, 4,000-foot ascent to 12,100-foot Mather Pass. We scale literally hundreds of switchbacks, shooting-gallery ducks ticking back and forth. The slog takes six hours. Squinting into the nuclear sun, my brain insists there are turkey vultures circling overhead, waiting to peck my blisters.
I’ve known tired intimately. College wrestling practices that left me unable to lift my arms. A mountain climb that turned into an all-nighter, without food or water. A 7-day ski traverse in Yellowstone made epic by a midweek dump of five feet of snow. But this takes tired to a new level. My mind feels separated from my body, one constantly insisting on another uphill step, the other screaming silently in pain.
I reach the wind-chilled pass at 7:30 p.m., today’s mile 27. The sunset sets ablaze lenticular clouds that float like halos above nearby peaks. The lakes below shine like costume jewelry. It’s spectacular. My legs feel like cement posts. Todd waits in a thin down jacket; Stumbles has forged ahead alone to find a campsite as darkness falls. We don’t pause to wonder if that was a good idea.
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Morning six. We’re descending mutely from Pinchot Pass—because conversation has become a nonessential use of energy—when a voice calls from below. Mark Godley snaps us from our walking coma; his energy level gives us a vital psychological lift, and just in time: only 60 miles to hike by tomorrow night.
Afternoon six. Again, the Sierra resuscitates us: We take a quick dip in Dollar Lake (and repeat The Ritual of the Tape for the gazillionth time); then, a bit later, find the inspiration to scramble onto enormous glacial-erratic boulders for an elevated view of the pearly Rae Lakes.
On the 3,500-foot, nine-mile ascent to Glen Pass, at 11,978 feet, we string out, each of us finding our own pace—a personal compromise between what we can sustain and the knowledge that stopping may mean never being able to start up again.
Alone, Stumbles pauses to grab a snack from his pack’s lid pocket and notices the stuff sack containing his eyeglasses and contact-lens kit is missing. He is suddenly consumed by the terror that he’ll be unable to clean his hard lenses for the rest of the hike, and they’ll dry out and get itchy and sticky and cause him permanent corneal damage and blurry vision and quite probably blindness.
Moments later, Godley trots up to find Stumbles’ pack contents strewn over the ground and him raging like a madman: “You gotta be kidding me! So stupid! I can’t keep going! It’s over!”
Speaking slowly and calmly, as one might to heavily armed hostage-takers, Godley reassures poor Stumbles that he’ll be fine, somehow talks him out of his delusional plan to backtrack, and persuades him to continue on.
“My feet hurt too much to stop anymore. I’m going to just keep moving. I’ll see you at Whitney Portal.”
Todd tells me this, gravely, with wide, unblinking eyes. I try to comprehend, but the throbbing in my soles is sending tremors to my ear canals, or something. He’ll be fine, I guess. It’s day seven. We’ve just dragged ourselves over the stunningly stark granite moonscape of 13,120-foot Forester Pass, and it never occurs to me that Todd, a competitive distance runner, might actually run roughly half the 30 sun-baked miles left on this megaschlep (which, in fact, he’ll end up doing).
All I can say is, “Yea, okay, good luck, bud.”
Exhaustion has sapped all of our ability to distinguish the logical from the ludicrous. When I mentioned at one point that I’ve developed a soreness that transcends one specific hurt and pervades my whole body, Todd turned to me and asked, quite seriously, “Are you fatigued?” On day seven, as the Marks and I take a short break in the blazing heat at Crabtree Meadow before starting up Mt. Whitney, Godley lets us know he may stop to camp alone that night if he can’t make it to the trailhead. Fenton offers him this pearl of wisdom: “Don’t walk if you’re tired.”
Hours later, in the warm, slanting rays of evening, Stumbles and I lumber up to Trail Crest junction, a wide ledge chiseled from Mt. Whitney’s cliffs at 13,620 feet. Godley labors somewhere behind us. The JMT continues to the 14,495-foot summit, highest in the Lower 48, an out-and-back hike of four miles, and obviously optional. Todd’s pack sits here; he’s gone for the top.
But it’s not for me, not today. My legs are cooked. There’s a red stain blossoming on my sock. My shoes could qualify as biohazard. Stumbles isn’t going up, either; he dreads the approaching nightfall like a vampire dreads the dawn. When he removes his shoes to examine his battered feet, his blisters practically snap like flags in the wind. All that stands between us and salvation is descending the Mt. Whitney Trail: more than 5,000 feet in 8.5 miles.
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But that’s nothing. We’ve taken half a million strides this week. Our trek will culminate at 10:00 tonight with its longest day: 35 miles and 18.5 hours. By chance, Stumbles and I will reach the trailhead just minutes ahead of Todd and Godley, who will meet up on the descent. We’ll feel elated over what we’ve done, because there’s something bizarrely redeeming in reaching the brink of self-destruction without quite falling over the edge. Something rewarding, in that twisted, unhealthy way that makes mothers worry and spouses shake their heads.
And, if nothing else, we answered this trip’s motivating question for ourselves: The ultralight movement isn’t all hot air and hype, sawed-off toothbrushes and wafer-thin sleeping bags. Our gear was tops. Our training was solid. Otherwise, we never would have made it at all.
In fact, the only piece of equipment that has yet to be engineered for this kind of daily mileage is the human foot. We learned—the hard way, you could say—that a perfect fit in shoes and meticulous attention to foot care are critical to comfort and success in something so ambitious. (Case in point: By having really well-fitting shoes, keeping my feet dry, and using after-market insoles, I avoided any blisters until the last day.) We also learned that your biggest enemy on the JMT is the afternoon heat. To finish this without getting badly spanked, it would make an enormous difference to be able to kick back in the shade by a mountain lake for a few hours each afternoon, eating and recovering, then hiking in the cool of evening.
So with straight faces, we reached a consensus on a JMT itinerary that seems more realistic: stretching it out over 10 days, about 22 miles a day, with a pack that comes in a hair under 25 pounds (see Make It Happen, below). A hike that still doesn’t take away all your vacation days, but doesn’t turn your feet into ground beef. A hike that’s faster and lighter and more humane, so that you can still experience all that is great about John Muir’s wilderness without the fog of pain.
Or sleep deprivation. Or, for the unlucky few, a case of vertigo. As Mt. Whitney’s towering granite spires and cliffs fade into darkness, it’s time for our recurring metaphor for this hike. Sure enough, from behind me comes the sound of something large crashing through brush, and I spin around—though I’m perfectly, wearily calm. I know it’s not a bear.
My headlamp beam falls upon a pair of legs sticking out, upside down, from a bush. It’s Stumbles, of course, kicking like an overturned turtle. “Go ahead, I’ll be fine, don’t wait for me,” he says, his voice somewhat muffled by what sounds like leaves in his mouth. I extend a hand to him, thinking it’s been a very, very long week.
See my story “The Simply Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun” for more tips that all backpackers, ultralight or traditional, will find useful.
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Click on the next page button below to see my tips for planning a JMT thru-hike.Pages: 1 2
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