I first hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT) in 2009 with my dad, uncle and cousin. As a Boy Scout I started backpacking at the age of 11. The JMT was my first thru-hike and I loved every minute of it. I can even go as far as to say; it was life changing. I loved the raw feel of the Sierra and climbing through and up beautifully exposed granite bowls. It felt easy, as the allure of getting to another summit, and its views, propelled me onward. We finished that trip in 14 days, and I always dreamed of just filling my pack with food and heading out alone to see what kind of miles I could handle on my own.
On that trip, I met up with my party at Reds Meadow after finishing cross-country camp in Big Bear, California. My group had fortuitously run into Reinhold Metzger on the first day of their trip. He was hiking the trail with his wife and they would pass each other back and forth the first few days. They told me how Reinhold told them all about his exploits on the JMT, and, his speed record attempts. I was bummed I did not meet him. However, luck was with me, when to my surprise he showed up the morning after we arrived at Vermilion Valley Resort for a resupply. He was a blast to talk to and for some reason, as we parted, he said; “you have to go for the JMT speed record.”
And so it goes. Ever since the summer 2009, I have had those exact words in the back of my mind “you have to go for the JMT speed record”.
The years went by and I continued to hike, soaking up the immensity of the Sierra Nevada. After spending 2 years living in Panama I finally had the chance to go out on try a solo trip on the JMT. I wanted to see what I was capable of. As noted in my trip report that I posted that year, I finished in just over 5 days. I wasn’t going for the record, but rather, testing the waters to see what it would be like. I had some mishaps; such as my shoes being too minimalist; my diet being off; and just plain lack of experience. Experience that would be gained on a my PCT through hike.
While in school (Brigham Young University) during fall semester of 2013, I woke up one morning and told myself, “I’m going to do the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) this summer.” It took some time to break it to the family, but, they were all on board. Before I knew it, I was at the Mexican border in Campo, California starting the 2,655-mile PCT in the uncomfortable desert heat. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but, as the miles flew by, I could feel my level of experience and endurance growing. I still had the idea of the JMT in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t until I admitted it to my hiking partner Spencer (aka: Pig Pen) that I had the idea of going for the JMT record that it began to dominate my thoughts (about mile 1500). I began strategizing with him; he began to motivate me; and I was visualizing myself actually on the trail going for it.
The PCT traverses almost all of the JMT which helped me even more to visualize where I was going to be. I was determined to go home, and then give it a shot. It came as no surprise to my parents when I told them my plans. The miles continued, and we finished the PCT in 93 days. I got home from the PCT thru hike on the 18th of August, began sewing my first Pa’lante Pack (a pack based off of ideas that I had come up with on the PCT) and begin the JMT a week later. Surprisingly, everything went basically according to plan. I found myself at home rushing to get my pack done, food ready, and trying to get to Lone Pine. School was starting the next Tuesday.
On Monday morning, my departure day, I made a final checklist on my iPhone. A little rushed to beat traffic, I hurry over to the sewing machine, make some final reinforcements on my pack, gather my food (3 probars, 2 candy bars and 2000 calories maltodextrin per every 10 hrs.), and gather my pack essentials (sleeping bag, etc.). After checking and double-checking, we leave the house and begin the 3.5-hour drive to Lone Pine. Luckily it only took me 20 minutes to realize that I had forgotten my hiking poles, so we turned back. Again, I double-checked, thought I had everything, and we headed out. 10 minutes down the road my mom asked if I had the Leukotape; I had forgotten that also! (Nerves maybe!) She saved the day and met us down the 210 freeway and brought me a roll. This time we were actually ready to go, and we continued the drive up to Lone Pine. I really was hoping nothing else had been forgotten. It was about 7 pm as we began the approach up to Whitney Portal. The closer I got to Whitney, the more nervous I got. When we got to the parking lot my heart was pounding. After I got all of my stuff together, my dad gave me a fist bump just like last year before my JMT fast pack and said “good luck.” I chose a small spot down under the parking lot nestled in between two rocks and tried to sleep. It was already 8pm and I planned on leaving at 12 midnight, so falling asleep quickly was a high priority. I remember having read Brett Maune’s trip report and sleeping those few hours before was almost impossible for the anxiety of what was to come. So, like him, I decided to take some Tylenol PM after not being able to sleep. I managed to drift off for a couple hours. At 11:40 I was up and moving. I got my pack ready, ate as much of my Subway sandwich as I could, and waited until it was exactly 12 am to start. I was surprised at the number of day hikers that were going up to see the sunrise on Whitney. I got in front of a group of about 10, and began.
Day one: Whitney Portal to Mather Pass
I was off. I let out a quick “woohoo!” out of excitement and started the climb. Sometimes, when I hike alone, its hard for me to maintain a 3 mph pace because I tend to push myself a little harder to get up the passes quicker. This time, pace was essential, so, I held myself back to what I thought felt like a 3 mph pace. Time went by pretty quickly; I passed about 4 people, cruised past the base camp, up the 99 switchbacks, and before I knew it, I was on top. I signed “Handy Andy” in the register at 3:50; almost right on a 3 mph pace to the top, so I was satisfied. I managed to drop my phone and get a nice crack in the screen, and had to hold myself from thinking that it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. I also had noticed that my SPOT batteries were dead already. This was weird considering I only changed the batteries on my SPOT while doing the PCT a handful of times. My plan was to ask people for extra batteries, and only use the spot while taking a break to conserve battery. Going down trail crest and the switchbacks on the backside of Whitney was a treat. I saw a good amount of JMT hikers finishing their journey. One group was surprised that I didn’t stay for the sunrise, and almost seemed offended; a reaction that Spencer and I received many times towards the beginning of the PCT as we put in our 30-mile days. After Guitar Lake, I found a friendly group and a lady kindly gave me a couple batteries that I would be able to use for my SPOT.
Next on my mind was Forester Pass. As I began the approach I realized that I wasn’t going to be cruising up and over all of these passes like I usually can manage on 25+ mile days. The air thinned; holding a 3 mph pace began to be tough. I remember being surprised that I was saying to myself, “I hate you Forester. Be over already Forester.” At the summit I met a mother and 2 young girls that were out on the JMT. It always makes me happy to see parents starting them out young. We chatted for a while and I got motivated and started working towards Glen Pass. I let myself fall down the backside of Forester and down into Vidette Meadows. I passed the campsite that I camped at last year on my 5 day trip and was surprised to know that I was barely halfway done with the day. Glen, Pinchot, and Mather were still standing there waiting for me. The slight downhill leading to the uphill before Onion Valley cutoff made it easy to make up the lost time on Forester, and I began the steep switchbacks up to Onion Valley. I only had a couple miles left until my first break and managed to finish my first 40 mile stretch at exactly 1 pm as planned.
After having hiked the PCT, I became pretty accurate with estimating arrival times and pace. I found a nice shady spot under a tree one mile under Glen Pass, did my chores (got the food out for the next stretch and pressed the SPOT), took my shoes off, pulled my Z Lite out of the pack and instantly fell asleep.
After naptime, I got moving at 2pm. The first few steps are always the worst; my feet hurt; I was sleepy; I’d rather be napping. Nonetheless, I moved onward. I was pretty beat up from the first 40 miles. Getting over Glen Pass was slow, but I knew I could catch up on the downhill. Coming down Glen to Rae Lakes never ceases to amaze me. I could hike there every weekend and never get tired of it. That little ranger cabin above the lakes has to be the best location of any cabin I’ve ever seen. Getting down to the suspension bridge before the Pinchot climb was a breeze and I began the climb up to Pinchot Pass. At the beginning I met Zoo Zoo, a southbound PCT hiker, so, I had to talk trail for a bit. She was excited for me and what I was doing and that got me moving and motivated to crush Pinchot. Soon after that encounter I met 3 other JMT hikers with Z packs. They treated me almost like a celebrity. Took my picture and all. They were very supportive. It surprised me just how much the encouragement of fellow hikers kept me moving throughout the day.
As I ascended Pinchot, the light turned gold, accenting the contrasting reds and greys that are only seen going up that individual pass. The light began to dim on the backside, I turned my light on, and zombie mode began. I knew the approach leading to Mather was an easy one and I would be able to maintain a good pace, but, I also had been hiking for 20 plus hours and I was ready for bed. As I got closer to the switchbacks of Mather I reached a level of fatigue that I had never experienced. The trail went on and on, almost playing tricks on me. The switchbacks never came.
Finally, after putting my Dri Ducks top on, I reached the first switchback of Mather. I was wasted. It was going to take a while to get up that thing. And so it went, one step at a time, stumbling, even falling down on my hands, almost losing my poles down a switchback. I also experienced a semi hallucination the closer I got to the top. I was imagining a secretary in my mind that was not me. She was a woman, organizing my thoughts, telling me about my energy levels and helping me choose a place to camp. Now that we were two, not just one, I began to take into consideration places to camp that would not only be good for me, but for my secretary also. We made it to the top of Mather, I sat down, filmed a short clip on my GoPro, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to get to Palisade Lake. I found a rocky spot close to the pass and set up camp.
Day 2: Muir Pass, Selden Pass
I had set my alarm to wake me a little before 3 am and as soon as that alarm went off I realized my knee was throbbing, my shoulder was sore, and I actually felt like a had a fever. Honestly, my first thoughts were, “I quit.” I then began thinking of exit points and where I could call my family to come pick me up. This brought the thought of all the faces of the people that I had told I was going for the record and I just couldn’t do it. I put one foot in front of the other, kept maintaining my forward motion towards Muir and soon enough, my mind was beginning to clear, blood was flowing through my knee therefore feeling better and I began to realistically look at the possibility of still finishing at around 3.5 days. I noticed that as the days and miles passed, the uphills were consistently harder. Muir is a relatively mellow pass but getting up it was pretty tough. There was a woman that had climbed to the top of the Muir Hut just as I was passing and she was doing all sorts of yoga poses looking for the best instagram post. I got a pretty funny video of me passing her while she was doing a nice bear-in-the-woods on top.
My next destination was McClure Meadows where I would rest up for an hour. I was really excited to be stopping there because the Evolution Valley is my favorite part of the trail. It was all downhill from the Muir hut. I cruised on down to the Evolution Lakes where I met Mike and Kam, a south bounding PCT couple that I never got to meet. I picked up the pace to make an extra half-mile and made it to McClure meadows for my one-hour nap at 1 pm. It was exactly the place where I rested while on the PCT for a few hours after getting up very early to summit the snow capped Muir Pass.
Naptime is always too short while in the Sierra. I got rolling a little after 2. Like usual, the first 10 minutes were very painful. Knee, shoulder, cough, wheezy, sick, but, for some reason, every time I started walking it was as if my body kicked into gear and started making those little pains go away, eventhough I was very tired. It’s interesting passing by all of these places because at almost every body of water or scenic spot I have memories of taking pictures, enjoying the scenery, and swimming in whichever swimming hole looked appealing to me. In August, the South Fork of the San Joaquin develops many swimming holes that I have enjoyed on different trips. I was actually pretty excited for this next stretch because I knew how easy Selden Pass is, and really the only part I wasn’t looking forward to was going up the random, unnecessarily steep switchbacks up to Bear Ridge.
I began to love the flats and downhill because maintaining a 3.5 plus mph pace was no problem to me. I was most excited for the run I was going to have down Bear Ridge to the steel bridge at the VVR trail junction. When I passed the Paiute bridge, I blew an overly aggressive snot rocket and my nose began to bleed. I passed MTR and then began the long switchbacks up to Sallie Keys lakes. Those switchbacks took some out of me, but the rest of the pass after Sallie Keys it was easy to maintain a 3 mph pace, and, up and over Selden Pass I went. I leaned forward, and let my momentum carry me down the pass (a technique learned in high school cross country). When I got to the switchbacks leading to bear ridge, I forced myself to keep calm, not get to angry at the switchbacks, and maintain a decent pace. I even took a couple breathers as needed while ascending through the shimmering aspens. I was very happy to get to the top and was ready for a quick downhill stretch, then brief uphill to end the night. I put my headphones in, blasted Empire of the Sun, and enjoyed the descent. When I got the steel bridge, I powered through to the uphill and almost held my same pace going downhill for 25 minutes to the Mono Pass Trail junction. This was one of those nights where I really felt the endorphins in the end, and almost had to remind myself to go to sleep instead of sitting back and appreciating the 63ish miles I had just walked in 20 hours. I was so satisfied with the way everything was working; my pack; my shoes; my own body; everything.
Day 3: Silver Pass, Island Pass, Donahue Pass
I wake up, this time naturally, not to the dreaded sound of my alarm. I notice that it is kind of light out and I hear myself say under my breath, “oh no.” It was 6 am and I had slept in. I was planning on sleeping 3 hours like usual and then doing another 21-hour day until midnight. Again, this morning, my immediate thoughts were: “I quit. I can’t make it. I lost it. How dumb.” I quickly pack my things up and begin walking up to Silver Pass. I was more winded than usual, probably, because Silver Pass is almost a staircase with oversized stairs in some sections. I was wheezy and my right knee was hurting like it usually did after a few hours of not hiking. I continued up the pass, crunching numbers and checking my Halfmile PCT app to see if I could still pull this off. After a while, I began to realize that it was ok; I was still going to make it, but I just needed to hike a little later this night to make up that time. I started to convince myself that the extra sleep was good, and I would feel it helping me later.
I met some JMT hikers on the north side of Silver that got me back in high spirits, and down the pass I went. Time went by quickly as I headed up the switchbacks to Purple Lake, and I started to enjoy the scenery as I was closing in on Reds Meadow. At the Duck Lake cutoff, I met a big group of people my age. They were all on the JMT and were really stoked to see me and ask about my record attempt. As I filled up water with them, they had some questions, cheered me on, and then I was off to Reds. As I was getting getting close to Reds, I called both of my parents to tell them my ETA. My dad of course knew exactly where I was and basically could tell me when I would arrive; my mom on the other hand was teaching a class of elementary students that yelled in the phone, “good job!” I walked the last couple miles before I would take a break at Vivian Lake. I stopped at 4, soaked my feet in the warm, shallow water, then, popped a nice juicy blister.
This next stretch would be my last 10-hour stretch before the home stretch. I was looking forward to getting over Donahue Pass and having basically the rest of the trail be downhill to Happy Isles. This must have been the most enjoyable stretch of the whole trip; I can never get over the immense beauty of the Minarets and the immensely beautiful Garnet and Thousand Island lakes. It was kind of sad to me that it was all coming to an end, and, by all, I mean my whole summer; it had been a summer packed with long distance hiking through the prettiest parts of the country on the JMT and PCT, and in just a day I would be packing up and getting ready to leave for college. Luckily, the sun was just setting over Thousand-Island Lake and I didn’t have to enter zombie mode with my headlight until the ascent up Donahue. For a brief second, I saw a red light. My immediate reaction was that it was a camper with a red headlight, but I never saw it again. I have been told that mountain lions have red eyes, but also my mind could have easily been playing tricks on me.
Donahue went by pretty quickly, and I sat down for a couple minutes next to the sign on top to take a video. Reaching the top was extremely motivating because it almost symbolized the end of the trip. “It’s all downhill from here,” I kept repeating to myself. The backside of Donahue carried me downhill quickly, and I began the flat walk to Tuolumne Meadows. I expected this part to be easy, which it was physically, but the flat monotony and darkness made me want to fall asleep as I was walking. Time slowed down and I had to restrain myself from looking at my watch and not get discouraged. I put on two long albums; a Charles Bradley album, and, then a Josh Ritter album. The music seemed to help a bit and I would even sit down every 30 minutes or so and just shut my eyes for a minute or two for a quick break.
Battling boredom and fatigue, I neared the junction to Tuolumne meadows and Yosemite Valley. The turnoff to Yosemite Valley always confuses me so I took a couple minutes to figure that out. I kept following the signs to Cathedral pass, and continued walking. I had told myself that at 3 I would find a place to take a nap and then finish the rest of the hike. My goal by now was to finish by noon to have a 3.5-day pace, so I had to leave by 5 at the latest to get the last 22 miles done. At 3am I found a bridge, sat down for a bit, then decided to sleep a little bit for the last section. To be honest, I probably just could have kept walking, but a whole night of walking didn’t seem too appealing to me so I decided to get some sleep. I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t hear my alarm or I would sleep in, so I set about 10 alarms.
Day 4: Cathedral Pass, Sunrise and home
All of the alarms I set annoyed me enough to get me going by 5am. I was off for the final stretch. This morning I was more wheezy than the rest; the flem in my throat made it hard to breathe, not to mention the heavy layer of smoke from a nearby forest fire that had made its way to the Cathedral Peaks area. My plan was to try and finish this last 22-mile stretch in 6 hours by jogging the downhill and potentially running the last 5 miles or so. I stuck to the plan, coughing and wheezing my way uphill, and then jogged the downhill. My knee was acting up, but in only a few hours I would be sitting down and eating a sandwich. I also hadn’t really eaten for a long time. I had been drinking my maltodextrin, but eating a pro bar or candy bar made me gag just thinking about it. I kept moving quickly downhill and began to see and smell the freshly showered day hikers. I was getting closer. As I passed the 2-story bathroom around half dome, I became very antsy and began jogging the flats. I turned the corner and then saw the Mist Trail, then the bridge before Nevada Falls. It was there; it was so close; I had done it. My jog instantly turned into a full run down the semi paved John Muir Trail down to the bridge. My knee was hurting, but nothing was stopping me now. The excitement electrified my every step and I was deeply admiring Half Dome and the granite peaks that lay in front of me. While I was running down the path I saw a friend I had made on the PCT that gave Spencer and I trail magic, so we chatted for a bit. She asked me “what are you doing back here?” I replied, “I am about the beat the JMT unsupported speed record.” She gave me a high five and I was off.
I tried to run, but couldn’t. I tried to walk, and I struggled. I had overdone it on my knee and I began limping down the trail. The pain was awful, but I was only two miles away so I kept going. After a slow 10 minutes, I got some blood flowing and began walking at a steadier pace. I got to the bridge and immediately saw my dad waiting there, very excited for me. I told him about my knee and that if we got moving I could get to the road after the sign before 11:00am. I pushed on to the road, arriving at 10:59:40am.It was over. I had done it! A goal I that had been nagging me since high school was finally made reality. I walked to the other side of the river, made myself a sandwich that my dad had kindly brought, and shut down.
We drove home later that day. I didn’t sleep much in the car most likely because my mind was racing with the thoughts of what I had just been through. My friend that met me at Happy Isles last year told me I needed to treat myself with Jack in the Box again. So I did. When we arrived home in Los Angeles, I soaked my feet and watched some of the videos I had filmed along the way.
I woke up the next morning with swollen sausage feet, deep blisters that needed healing, and a very sore IT band on my right knee. I knew this would happen, but it was somehow all worth it to me.