THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY – Speed dating with John Muir Trail.
Home is not a physical reference to a specific three-dimensional place on the certain spot of land, home is never ending expansion of one’s self-awareness. Home is where you are. And in my case – my home at the time was there, on a John Muir Trail, being one with the trail and summoning powers of it to help me but at the same time burning out for too much knowledge of it. Everything speaks out aloud and all you can do is listening. Rocks, steps, elevation gain, whispering dark, dry tainted air, crystal dirty water, bad weather, more rocks, thick fatigue, vicious cold, unbearable heat, horsecrap-laced dust… You feel like a speck in the universe against the overwhelming tsunami of the elements knowledge, but still… this is your home for now. And you try to adjust. This is all you can do for now in a place with no air conditioning, news channels, room service, and caramel macchiato. You adjust and try to summon the knowledge. The knowledge of the TRAIL. Because you are at home, in your supposed place of comfort where there’s a rock to sit on and a patch of grass to sleep on. Only by knowing you can find comfort that will carry you through.
The first few days at Whitney were supposed to be the acclimatization days. And they were. As soon as I got to the Portal I sorted my gear, left some for my crew member Alex Grabovetsky to bring up to the Crest from the Portal, and took off for Lone Pine Lake with 76 lbs pack. 76 lbs, you ask? Yes, I had mostly food in there, and mostly veggies and fruits, which took up a lot of weigh and space. I thought - if I’m living it up high, might as well make it healthy. Well, all the food has made it through, except for an encounter with a Whitney ranger named Nathan, which kept cool and friendly throughout the incident when the excess food was left out for marmots to harvest on. This was my genuine mistake, and I had no intentions to give away my hard earned food to marmots, so clearly there was some misunderstanding about the regulations on my part. Oh well. Lesson learned.
The first day after making Trail Camp I decided to hike up to Mt. Muir. The morning was beautiful and I set out late knowing that Muir is close and roundtrip will not take long. By the time I got to Trail Crest it started to get cloudy and there was a storm closing in. Great! I felt like making Mt. Muir would be the good sign for the upcoming trip, so I proceeded to the approach and started going up. I hoped there would be other climbers, but there were none. The approach to Muir is very easy until you get to the last section of 100 yards or so. At first I was a little wary about climbing class 3 rocks alone. But then I found a good line and made it to the top. There was a metal box to sign in to. I have to say, Whitney views fade tremendously compared to Muir views. You can see 360 from the perch of 4x7 at Muir. You can see the Hitchcock lakes, Lone Pine, all the 99 switchbacks, Glacier Lake, Consultation Lake, every single needle. Beats the ubiquitous Whitney top by tenfold. I have to wonder why not a lot of people try Mt. Muir for the views. Whitney just does not deliver much, except for the elevation prize.
While hiking back, I have met a group of people who recognized me. Why, of course! These guys, Tom Bracken and Brook, helped me out last year on JMT, when they gave me the knife to cut out the part of the shoe out at Donahue Pass. What a random encounter! With them were Rita and Janet Bracken and we exchanged a few words along the way.
Second day I decided to dayhike down to the Consultation Lake. It was beautiful, there was some spooky trout at the lake outlet and the possible campsites outshined the swampiness of Trail Camp. I had some good time there at the lake, and soaked myself in the icy waters of the glacier meltdown. All natural ice bath, so to say. While soaking I got circled by the hummingbird which looked a little out of place there. The tropical bird in an alpine tundra setting. Wonderful contrast.
I knew I’d have to commit to this beautiful trail totally, almost reverentially. I’d either make it in chunks of 62, 72, 87 miles respectively, or completely break down and retreat before it’s too dangerous to go on. And dangerous it was. There is no room for mistakes. Any mistake you make early on would have you paying dearly in the later stages.
The day before the start I wanted to go down to Lone Pine Lake, clean up, shave and spend the night there before rendezvous with Alex Grabovetsky, my crew member. The pack was considerably lighter, most of the food was eaten at Trail Camp. Walking down was literally a walk in the park with a pack now weighting 45 pounds. I came down and set up sleeping quarters. This is where the “bad” has happened. After a little fishing using a trekking pole, line, hook and some bread for bait, I got tired from easy fishing and decided to go for a swim. Diving in, I started to do the freestyle stroke and suddenly… CRRR-shhh… The slurping sound of the shoulder bone being sucked under the shoulder blade… The shoulder dislocation! Just what I needed before the start! One handedly I swam out to the shore and yelled out to a couple of day hikers, who just happened to come by the lake. The guy was German, named Aaron, and his friend, Christina, became a little sick when she saw the gaping hole in the side of the shoulder. I tried to show them how to make the readjustment in the field, but it just was not happening and the shoulder area started to stiffen. Pain emerged. The only solution was to hike down and hitch a ride to the ER. Aaron and Christina offered to carry down the essentials in my backpack, and I started running down the Whitney Trail. On the way down I called Badwater Ben Jones and he was on his way to the Portal immediately. Thank you!
Eventually, almost 4 hours later, after the friendly chat and pictures with the doctor and the nurse, I got the shoulder fixed back without any anesthesia. The doctor was that good. Ben was around taking pictures and was a little concerned about my not starting the trail now. But I assured him that it’s just a minor inconvenience and wait…what? Wearing the sling for a month now? Ha! I threw it away immediately.
I spent the evening in the Jones residence, enjoying some great time with such wonderful people like Ben and Denise. We shared stories, talked shop, and Denise gave me a couple of blister lessons. Who else to go to for these lessons, but to “Blister Queen” Denise? Thinking back, if it were not for the accident, I would have just spent the night at Lone Pine Lake instead of a cool den at Joneses. A little word about the den. When I walked in, I not only got bombarded by the array of Badwater 135 posters on the walls, but also by 95 degree temperature inside. Sure, it had an AC, but Ben joked, in his typical manner, that if I wished, there was a wooden stove in case 95 degrees feel too cold. Good training for Badwater, he said.
I took a shower and went to bed, but the night was restless due to the shoulder pain.
Early in the morning, we drove up back to Portal and I hiked up to Lone Pine Lake again to meet Alex in the afternoon. Alex came and suddenly the place became mayhem, he was too energetic and excited about the project. Took pictures of the discharge papers from the hospital and posted them online immediately. But everything went well, we sorted out gear and he started up to the Crest, and I started down to the Portal. I needed to sleep there before the midnight start.
The most sleep I got was a little over an hour in the back seat of Alex’s car. That was not nearly enough, but the pain was there and that was something I just had to deal with. Badwater Ben came in around 8 pm and slept in the back of his brand new Colorado truck. By the start, I knew I nearly had not enough sleep in my reserves, and wondered what it would mean 2 days later. Little did know about the upcoming brush with death.
I started just past midnight, Ben was there taking pictures and sending me off. My pack weight at the start was less than 1.5 lbs, including water. The way I did it was pre-stashing the little 10 oz flasks with plain water in strategic locations along the main Whitney trail. By the time I got to Trail Crest, Alex was waiting there for me with some extra water and the main pack for the rest of the trail. I made my way to the summit, in 4hrs 6mns, going conservatively slow compared to last year. This way I hoped to save energy and go a little faster on the rest of the trail. Temperatures on the summit were below freezing and wind blew quite strong. I still feel that midnight start is the most balanced in terms of where and when you travel across the hottest parts of days later on. And the coldest parts. And the parts where it’s easy to misnavigate the trail at night. The midnight start allows for passing these obscure areas at daylight when you can see the trail up ahead.
Coming back to Trail Crest I grabbed my Salomon XT Wings 5 pack, which weighted around 11 lbs with water and started on the switchbacks down to Guitar Lake. Shortly before Guitar, the sun slowly rose and colored the mountain range up front in the rosy glow. A brand new day! Except I was already 6 hours into the run and closing in on Crabtree Meadows. At Crabtree I took off extra clothing and proceeded for the long 13 mile approach to Forester Pass.
The area between the Crabtree and Forester is possibly my favorite part of the trail. The grade is very forgiving and the area around Diamond Mesa is just stark and beautiful with open vistas and old growth, separately standing pines. The wind felt good against the skin, sometimes picking up to little gusts, skittering across the landscape of rocks and open areas under an enormous blue sky across which sailed gray-bottomed clouds. I tried to eat gels every half-hour and it was working out fine until the start of Glen Pass, which seemed to be extremely steep and never ending. I don’t remember it being that steep!!! Somebody added steps there too, for sure. Must be the trail crew, I just know it. One of the harder passes on JMT when not fresh, when rested – it’s really smooth. The hard part is the initial approach until “4 corners” junction; after that it’s rocky and steep, but short enough to have some energy left for a quick descend on the north side to Rae Lakes.
I crossed the Woods Creek Bridge with a few daylight hours to spare. By this point I averaged 3.3 mph and felt great. Thinking that it’s best to make use of daylight as much as possible I attacked Pinchot approach immediately. It was going on and on and on along the canyon and I started to question the trail. “Is it the right trail I am on? Don’t remember any spurs off of it. Hmm... Oh, it’s finally getting dark. My goodness, where did all these mosquitoes come from? They are everywhere!! So, wait, it’s coming up and over the ridge. Now I remember!” It got dark and I passed a backpacker’s camp, they played the guitar softly and sang. I enjoyed the sounds for as much as could hear them in the growing distance and went for Pinchot. The pass was not easy to tackle, but I made it to the top around 9pm and knew that there was Alex somewhere down there by Taboose Pass junction. Only an hour away, my last hour of the day, I thought. 62 miles done.
After crewing at Trail Crest, Alex rushed down to the Portal and drove to the Taboose trailhead to make his way to JMT from there. It’s not an easy approach, with over 6,000 ft elevation gain in an exposed area and in only 6 miles. The feat in itself. Well, backcountry crewing is, err, painful, but this is JMT and there’s no easy approach from either side. Needless to say that he made it there at the same time I did, and was frantically yelling out for me thinking I had just passed. We’ve located each other and the sigh of relief could be heard from both sides. His backpack was just leaning against the tree, untapped. I sat down on the ground and let him do his preparations.
Unfortunately, the yells attracted the nearby young ranger, who happened to be a little grumpy and paranoid in general and attacked us about the noise pollution, legality of permits and presence of bear canisters. He did not seem to grasp the concept of running from point to point on the trail and covering that much ground in a day and kept pestering us, being quite rude. At one point he let out that he does not care for the trail runners in general and does not understand why run when you can walk. “If I hear you again, I’ll be back”. Well, sometimes to stay alive you yell, and sometimes you use a whistle. I used both. Unfortunate incident that cost us 20 minutes of staying in the cold and not getting the hot food in immediately. Finally I fell asleep and slept until after 2am.
After parting with Alex in the morning I started the second leg of the run, 72 miles to Lake Thomas E. Edison, where I’d be met by Aaron Sorensen. The going was smooth, and I have witnessed the most beautiful sunrise on the top of Mather Pass at 6 am. The whole pass was to myself and I lingered for a minute there, taking a panoramic picture of the sunrise. Coming down I have met my first backpackers for the day, a young couple who were pretty excited about their long, 16-mile day. I did not tell them how long my day was going to be and wished them luck. It’s better not to tell not to ruin mood, in certain instances.
Going down the Golden Staircase I decided to pull over and eat a ham avocado sandwich that Alex made for the road. The lack of sleep started to show already and I napped for 30 minutes, hiding from the trail view in a sunny spot.
While going up Muir Pass, I encountered a trail crew at work and marveled at the amount of time and energy it takes to build and maintain such a corridor as John Muir Trail. Really astonishing, when you think about it. Of course, I inquired about additional steps on the Glen Pass and was rebuffed by smiles and jokes. Now, that’s the spirit!
At the top of Muir Pass it got cold and windy and there were several little snowfields to cross. I hurried up to the hut, in hopes of someone being there to take a picture since there was a never ending procession of backpackers coming down the pass my way. No such luck. I snapped myself with my camera and started down the Evolution Basin. Of course, soon enough I met people just approaching the pass.
The air and water of Evolution Basin is horrible. The air is so dry that it turns your lungs into beef jerky and your throat gets extremely parched in the process. Add to it the harsh quality of water that has all the minerals leeching into it from all the rocks of the Basin, and you know that it does not only look prehistoric, it feels this way. I could never get rid of the parched throat syndrome from that point, and pretty soon started to develop the so called “JMT cough”. Most runners who tried running JMT developed this cough at some point on the trail, which is when your lungs become contaminated with some sort of a greenish mass, and you just cough out solid chunks of it out of your trachea. It can get rather violent in the later stages of the run, especially when aggravated by the dust of Reds Meadow and often it keeps you from getting sleep at crew stops.
Your self being becomes oversimplified, all the emotions are there, but the thoughts are reduced to the – “Where’s the next water?” “Where do I place the next step?” “Do I have enough food? This does not taste good anymore.” “I know I need to drink, but is the water here bad?” “I see people. They can take a picture.” There are very little multi-dimensional philosophical thoughts there, these come days after. Most of the thinking is spot-on practical bullet-points.
By the Evolution Creek crossing I started to feel the fatigue coming on pretty strong. There were no logs to cross on, and I hesitated for a second walking up and down the creekside. The mosquitoes must have felt the sweat and hesitation and started attacking in swarms while I was taking my shoes off for a creek forge. Mile 102 - no blisters. The trick was the Injinji toe socks with Blister Shield powder inside. But after I got my feet wet I knew it was not going to last longer this way.
Hurriedly, I put the shoes back on and started down to the Piute Creek Bridge. I knew after I would have made the bridge, the terrain would become mellower.
I started to climb the Selden Pass in the dark already. Not very technical, which was nice for a change, but by this point I became seriously tired.
I saw no one. I pressed on, moving swiftly through the forested area of Selden approach, following the beam of the headlamp. The discomfort was offset by the sight of the moon creeping across the sky, suffusing the rugged mountain landscape with an ethereal light. Eventually the moon became obstructed by the trees and only certain spots stood out like silver-colored alien bulges fueled by the inner fluorescent color. Here’s the silver log… Here’s the silver boulder. The collection of silver spots was painting an eerie picture around me and soon there were silver figures in the trees and in open spots. They were just silently observing my movement and I knew better not to talk to them at that point. Just one more pass and I’m there. Just hold on for one more pass.
Finally I made over the pass and started on the downhill section to the Bear Creek. This is when it got cold and mild hypothermia started to set in. Somehow, I started to break down at that point. I was shivering and fatigued, with no means of survival and more than 10 miles to go in the dark. Eyes started to close themselves along the Bear Creek traverse and I groaned aloud just to keep from falling asleep. All I had on was short tights and a thin windbreaker. Soon the trees started to whisper. I could hear them saying things which were drowned out by the sound of the Bear Creek. I soon realized what they were saying. The bark, the leaves, the foliage and dry pine needles on the ground. I could use those things to pile on top of me and get some rest in a makeshift shelter. The trees were offering help and I really was considering it at that point. But somehow I did not want to stop just to be found in the morning by hikers. And besides I had less than 10 miles to go.
The dance of silver bulges continued. They have become bigger and more defined. Pretty soon I made out a silver Toyota Prius right by the trail but knew it was a vision. It was not going to give me a ride and I knew it. So I kept going right past it, and somehow it was not morphing back into a boulder. It was really a car. Silver shining car, right by the trail. And somebody was inside it. I turned away and picked the pace. That was not very good what I saw inside. I’m still unsure what and why it was there, but still hope it was the figment of my imagination. I just needed some sleep.
Finally I made it to the everlasting switchbacks going down to Lake Edison. Still falling asleep, but knowing that the end of the running day is close. Somehow, while running down the switchbacks, I registered in my mind that I need to “dig a cat hole”. Next thing I remember - I woke up squatting.
Finally arrived at Edison Trail Bridge. Aaron was there and tended to me right away, serving a wonderful home-made soup with chunks of sausages and homemade sandwiches on top of that. I quickly wiped down my feet and spaced out immediately for a 3 hour sleep inside the warm sleeping bag and on the comfy Thermarest. Sometimes all you need is very little.
I blacked out completely for the next 3 hours, and when I opened my eyes it was daylight. Panicking that I slept for too long I yelled out to Aaron and started to wiggle my way out of the sleeping bag confines. No, he assured, it was 8:30 in the morning and I was still on 85 hour pace. Food was heavenly, I ate some more and prepared to head out for a 9 hour stretch between Lake Edison and Reds Meadow.
There were only two considerable bumps along the way, Silver Pass and climb out of the Tully Hole. Having rested, the Silver Pass was not an enemy at all, but merely a morning warm-up.
On top of Silver Pass I noticed the low flying clouds above Tully Hole and remembered the weather warning: snow as low as 9000 feet. That did not sound right when I heard it the day before, but soon enough, climbing out of Tully Hole I got pelted by hail. Actually, it felt refreshing and somewhat exciting. You don’t get wet - the hail just rolls down on the ground, and the air is suddenly so fresh. The area around the lakes was cold, but comfortable.
I stopped eating on a regular basis due to parched throat syndrome and even gels were painful to swallow.
The rest of the way into Reds was non-eventful; it follows the ridge line before dropping into the Meadows itself. I refilled my bottles in a Duck Creek, the last reliable source of water for the next 12 miles. There are more water crossings as you approach to Reds, but the water quality is a hit or miss due to lots of horse traffic. The running is good, this is a gradual descent into the Reds Meadows. Area around Reds Meadows has volcanic origins and there’s plenty of molten lava along the trail. Also, the trail converts from rocky to dusty, and it’s this deep volcanic dust mixed with vaporized horse manure that makes me shudder just thinking about it. Every time you make a step, it’s a mini explosion of a horsecrap-laced dust that has a very specific sour nauseating smell to it. And it tries to make its way deep into your lungs and settles down on your sweaty body and even your eyelashes. It settles inside your sunglass lenses and obstructs the view. The closer to the Red Meadow buildings, the worse it gets. I accidentally slipped on one of the stones while crossing a stream in a “Dead Forest” and submerged my foot ankle-deep. Instantly, the shoe was covered in a thick layer of wet dust and fine sand. Not a whole lot of fun. I think the hospital mouth cover might help for this section. No, it’s not SARS. It’s REDS.
In Reds Meadows I have met up with Aaron, who got there shortly after me, around 7 pm. He had to drive from Lake Thomas E. Edison to Reds Meadows and catch the last bus into the rendezvous point. Good timing, but alas, I needed dry socks, club soda to freshen up and maybe even something hot to eat. The little nap would have been beneficial as well, but it was not happening. Aaron brought some warm clothing and himself. Reds is not a very convenient point of access logistically, but a crucial one before the last push. I worked on my newly formed blisters and we took off almost immediately. Along the way we have met a group of backpackers, staying on the other side of the bridge. Wonderful people, very considerate and helpful. They knew we were coming through and even set up a mini aid station right by the trail from their own reserves. We rummaged through and picked a bag of goji berries trail mix, somehow it seemed like the least irritable option for my throat. Thanks, Matthew! Hope your journey was fun!
Aaron was pacing me for this section and kept the conversation going from the very beginning. It was nice to talk for the first couple of hours of brisk walking uphill, but then around 9:30 pm I started to feel it again. The heaviness and fatigue set in and from now on it spiraled downward hard into a complete irreversible meltdown. This section, Reds Meadow to Tuolumne Meadows was the worst night of my life when I really did not care whether I'd live or die. I was not moving because of fatigue, and it was impossible to sleep because of freezing temps. Throat was extremely parched from the air of Evolution Valley and even gels were getting stuck midway through. I was falling backwards while trying to go, and have seen amazing things including "the tunnel" itself. I don’t remember much of the night, there are blank spots everywhere. I remember looking around aimlessly for a flat spot to crash. I remember frost on the ground and shivering. I vaguely remember posing for a picture at Garnet Lake Outlet.
I do remember that at one point, lying on the ground, I stopped fighting fatigue and 28 degree cold and suddenly there were waves of warmth flowing through every cell of my body. I relaxed and prepared to get carried away.
At this point, from Aaron’s account, he tried to hold my head in his hand and shined light into my face. Somehow, by accident, he dropped my head and it slammed into the ground. I don’t remember all of this happening. He then started shaking me and yelling that he’s freezing and I better to wake up if we are to make it. That helped. Sudden shaking forces and muffled voice from far away brought me back. I got up on my knees first, straightened out and started to move, but still barely making 1 mph and falling backwards. The whole night was a blur. The sunrise that came soon after warmed the air a little and conscience came back, but the crash was certainly beyond recall. There was still time to get under the record time, but not at this rate of movement. I felt like laying down most the time, not to sleep, but just to lay motionless in the sun. Three miles before Donahue Pass we sat down and I had to decide to withdraw from the chase. The dream would have to wait. There was a long walk-out to Tuolumne Meadows up ahead.
The inner struggle with doubt and fear and desire was lost to external forces of nature and unfortunate accident before the start, which essentially is also a force of nature. If you ask me, would I do it all over again after what I went through, I’d say – what does not kill us makes us stronger! I did have to sleep for a few days, 14 hours a day afterwards, but I emerge with a little more knowledge and appreciation for the trail. It beckons, and I must go find my home again.