John Muir Trail -- July 31 - August 5, 2000
Peter Bakwin

Each of us defines our own game and what constitutes "winning". The goal might be to finish or win a 100 miler, or the most 100 milers in one year, or in a lifetime. "Style" is an important element of the game -- it sets the rules. For example, some feel that using a pacer or crew lessens the experience of a 100 mile trail race. The rewards for success in your own game are simple personal satisfaction. This year Buzz & I defined our game to be: Run the John Muir Trail from Whitney Portal to Yosemite Valley in 96 hours. If successful this would beat what we understand to be the previous fastest time by a large margin.

Often the best (and worst) adventures are done by the seat of one's pants. Buzz & I knew rather little about the JMT -- neither of us had been on any section of the trail. Much of what we knew about the route was gleaned from Blake Wood's excellent account of his 1998 fastpack (Blake ran from Whitney Portal to Yosemite in 4 days and about 22 hours.) We were happy to be entering on this adventure rather blind -- ready for a voyage of discovery.

Backpackers traditionally start at Yosemite because the JMT gets higher and harder as you go south. For this same reason, the fastest trips will always be done from south to north.

The events of this last week are swirling uncontrollably in my head. What's below will certainly be colored by my own faulty memory. Anyone who is interested in details of the JMT and what its like to fastpack it should read Blake's account:

We were supported by Buzz's son Galen and our friend John Richardson.

We started from Whitney Portal at 1:14 a.m. on Monday, July 31. We got to the summit of Whitney in about 5 hours and left there at 6:34 a.m. (the official JMT starts at the summit.) We traversed high, rugged and starkly scenic country and under very hot, dry conditions. This region of the southern Sierra is extremely barren. Since we were heading north each of the climbs faced south and we baked in the sun. I became rather dehydrated that first afternoon and had to work very hard to correct that.

Cruising down Bubbs Creek after Forester Pass we ran by some backpackers who were sitting on a log for a rest. "Is this a race?" called out one backpacker, and when I responded in the negative he said "So, you're doing this for fun?!" Looking at his giant backpack I had to ask the same question of him!

We climbed Glen Pass and descended into a somewhat more verdant zone. At Rae Lakes we took a wrong turn up the trail to Arrowhead Lake, but only lost about 15-20 minutes before realizing our error. Crossing a creek near Rae Lakes Buzz demonstrated the "Twister" method of creek crossing, using his hands and feet to balance on rocks to avoid wet feet. We used this method very successfully during the trip and had only two "wet" stream crossings.

A little after 8 p.m., about 50 miles from the start, we took a break of about 1.5 hours near the junction of South Baxter Creek and Woods Creek. We bundled up against the voracious mosquitos and slept on the ground for about an hour.

We climbed Pinchot Pass in the dark. Near the top of Mather Pass at dawn we looked at each other and realized that we both really needed a nap. We lay on the ground and caught about 30 minutes of very good sleep. Climbing the last switchbacks up Mather Pass at 7:30 a.m. it was already very warm in the sun. The descent off Mather was typically steep and rocky, with a lot of switchbacks, but also with some "cruiser" sections.

The hike up Le Conte Canyon to Muir Pass seemed endless. I was very tired and becoming discouraged. But, this area is also much wetter and more vegetated and very very beautiful. Water pours into the canyons in hundreds of small rivulets and creeks. Muir Pass is not quite 12,000 feet, but the climb started at 8,000 and seemed extremely long. I felt it would never end, and there would be no way I could continue after this impossibly long day. I thought constantly about my wife, Stephanie, and imagined that her energy was beaming through the cosmos stregthening me. This helped a lot.

The descent through the Evolution Valley to the San Joaquin River was also very long. We waded the river at dusk and plodded the last few miles to Piute Creek in the dark. We were extremely weary and eager to see our friends in camp at Piute Creek. We arrived at the camp just before 10 p.m., after almost 45 hours of nearly continuous travel, and covering 108 miles. Exhausted! But, it was really great to see Galen and John and they took excellent care of us. We had a nice supper of beef stew and went right to sleep.

I slept soundly for 4.5 hours. The alarm woke me at 3:10 a.m. and I had the most intense feeling of dispair I have ever experienced! "I can't do that again!" I thought. But fortunately this only lasted for a few minutes and pretty soon I was going through the routine of taping my feet and getting my gear together for another day on the trail.

We climbed out of Piute Creek in the dark. We started and ended each day in the dark, but it was always much easier before sunrise than after sunset. In the morning we were rested and looked forward to the sun coming up, while in the evening we were totally beat and the minutes and hours would drag on endlessly as we anticipated camp.

At Sallie Keyes Lakes we met ultrarunner Denise Ellestad. She was camping with her husband and recognized us from our posts on the ultralist. It was great to talk to some one who could relate to what we were doing, rather than the backpackers and rangers who would look at us like we were crazy or stupid or both.

Seldon Pass was very beautiful. We had a longish break while I worked on my feet. The area on the north side of Seldon Pass is accessible from Lake Edison and is popular with horse packers. As a consequence the area was thick with mosquitos and deer flies. We took off our shoes to wade a stream and were nearly driven mad by the flies.

Descending towards the Bear Creek trail we encountered a backpacker going the other direction. "How far to the JMT?" he asked. "I think we're on it!" I said, but we had to sit down for a while to be 100% sure that we had not turned down the wrong trail.

Climbing Bear Ridge my confidence was returning and I felt very good. I did some calculations in my head regarding our schedule for the rest of the trip and realized that we were very tight for a 96 hour finish. Discussing this with Buzz we resolved to push hard and minimize break time.

The switchbacking descent off Bear Ridge was very good running. Climbing Silver Pass we were again plauged by heat, mosquitos and flies. Near Lake Virginia we ran into Sue Johnston's friend Al who was through- hiking the JMT. He was excited to see us and very enthusiastic and did much to buoy our tired souls.

>From Duck Lake to Red's Meadow, where we would finish the day, looked like good running on the map, but actually there was a lot of gradual up-hill and flat. It was difficult for us to run as tired as we were, and in dark. The trail was extremely dusty from horsepacking, and our throats became raw and sore from breathing the combo of dust and pulverized horse shit. The slog to Red's Meadow in the dark seemed endless.

At the store at Red's we found a note directing us to the campsite that John and Galen had set up for us, and we arrived at camp at about midnight. Another nice dinner of canned beef stew and baked potatoes. We were chasing the cut-offs for the 96 hour finish, and decided we should leave 21.5 hours for the final 60 mile push to Yosemite (Blake Wood had done this section in a little over 20 hours). This meant we would get only 2 hours of sleep.

In the morning we were ready to go on schedule, but Buzz put on his shoes and found that he could no longer wear the shoes he had been wearing. He took a new pair of Ascics and used a swiss army knife to cut a hole in the heal cup to take pressure off his achillies (he has had some bursitis trouble) and to a hole in the toe to take pressure off a bad blister under his left big toe-nail. This work cut about 45 minutes off our buffer, but was of course absolutely necessary. Finally we were back on the trail at at around 4:35 a.m.

As time went on I seemed to be getting stronger. My legs were tired but not really sore and it was no problem to run downhill. The lack of sleep would manifest itself as powerful waves of sleepiness that lasted only a short time.

The scenery up to Island Pass was the best yet. The view of Banner Peak reflecting off Garnet Lake has to be one of the finest anywhere. The weather was cooler, with clouds and some squalls. We made good time taking very few breaks. We felt like we were chasing cut-offs in a 100 mile race.

We climbed Donahue Pass on rocky trail and entered Yosemite National Park. The descent off Donahue was extremely rough and hard on our tired legs. We finally reached the flat bottom of the Lyell Canyon, and jogged slowly towards Tuolumne on easy trail. All the way down the canyon we could see thunderstorms perched right over Tuolumne Meadows. The thunder was nearly continuous for about 2 hours as we approached, and finally we had to put on our rain jackets against hard rain and hail. Galen met us at the bridge over the Lyell Fork and guided us in to the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in a fierce downpour. We figured we needed at least 7 hours for the last 23 miles, which meant leaving Tuolumne by 6:14 p.m. We arrived just before 6:00, 88.75 hours after starting our epic journey.

The rain and hail continued and became even stronger. The parking lot of the lodge was flowing with water. The road out of Tuolumne was closed due to flooding. Wet hikers were packed into the lounge area of a tent cabin owned by the logde. We gathered around the wood stove and discussed what to do next. This was one of those key moments. What to do? I was totally wound up and ready to go back out. There was no thought process involved with this, only an inate need to keep moving. Go go go. But, Buzz calmed me down and reasoned that attempting the climb up Cathedral Pass under these conditions was marginal at best, especially in our exhausted state. This was interesting as I am normally the analytical part of the team, while Buzz is more intuitive. We were rapidly losing momentum -- we needed to either run or sleep, but could do neither. There was no place to stay at the lodge and the car was packed with gear. Camping was out of the question (at least without a snorkel.) The 96 hour dream was dashed, but we could still easily beat the existing record for the JMT. Finally, we heard that the road was open and we decided to drive to Yosemite Valley, where we had reserved a cabin.

The alarm woke us at 3 a.m. John lept out of bed, "What needs to be done and how can I manifest it?!" You need support people like this! John drove us back to Tuolumne and we were underway at about 6:30 a.m. The carnage from the storm was everywhere: the trail was deep with hail and eroded in many spots.

With the 12-hour break Buzz & I had lost our drive and no longer really cared much about the record. We moved at a leisurely pace, stopping to talk to backpackers about how they had weathered the storm, to tour the High Sierra Camp at Sunrise, and to work on Buzz's blistered feet. We marveled at the incredible scenery and huge trees. A forest fire had burned a large area a year or two ago, and some trees were burned right into the ground, leaving a only a scorched hole. We jogged the easy downhill sections, passing many day hikers. We stopped to photograph the granite hulk of Half Dome. After Nevada Falls (the official JMT follows the Nevada Falls Trail, not the Mist Trail) we traveled increasingly crowded trail. We finally jogged to the Happy Isles trailhead at 3:53 p.m., 4 days 14 hours and 39 minutes after leaving Whitney Portal (4 days, 9 hours and 19 minutes from the summit of Whitney.) The last 23 miles had been an incredible anticlimax as was the actual finish. With tourists everywhere we felt entirely anonymous, and I liked it that way just fine!

That's all folks. After it was over we did what anyone would do: Drank some lemonade. Had a beer. Ate. Showered. Slept and slept and slept.