Here's my version of the adventure.
We’ve got in touch with Aaron right the day before we both were going to leave for Lone Pine, which was fantastic, and we both agreed to start at the same time, Monday at noon. Later I learned that Jon Chiappa has already tried and had to quit at mile 120, and John Stamstad is yet to come in September. So, the race came down to two guys standing on top of continental US and saying to each other – I’ll race you to Yosemite.
Not having to wait long since my arrival at the Portal, Aaron drove by and after a short but intense greeting we sorted out our gear and headed for Horseshoe Meadow, at 10,000 ft elevation. We spent a night there, and the next morning was weird in a sense that there was absolutely nothing to do around, so we decided to head back to the Portal and start a hike to the Trail Camp. And of course, we just had to make a detour to Lone Pine and get us some funky calories in a form of Heineken the size of a bear canister. (Later we regretted that we got only one).
Around one mile into the hike up the main Whitney Trail we see all these backpackers with heavy gear, joke around how fun it must be lugging 70 pounds of gear and a kitchen sink, I’m looking at all these 8-pound sleeping mats strapped to the outside of packs and then it hits me! I forgot mine!! So I had to swiftly run down and up for my Therma-Rest I used in an attempt. I simply treated it as a nice 2 mile warm-up run before hitting the trail again. Keeping a steady pace we got to Trail Camp in a little over 3 hours and crashed by the lake.
Next 2 days in a camp were a breeze. We rested, ate, drank, played cards, walked around, talked to people, fought off squirrels and went to war with marmots trying to steal our food. We chose a high ground campsite, overlooking all the others and it was fun just to watch people go by, coming back to camp from Whitney and heading off. Even at night, you’d wake up and could see the lights going up or down the 99 switchbacks. The weather had a pattern, clouds would always roll in at noon and it drizzled for about 4 hours and then it’s suddenly clear again.
On the day of the attempt we waited until Aaron’s brother Rod and his wife Maribel came by, they were dayhiking to Whitney and taking our extra camping gear on the way down. They helped tremendously, if it were not for them, we would not have such a fun time in the camp.
From Trail Camp to Whitney it took us 2 hours 9 minutes to hike and when we got there we had only 25 minutes to spare before the gun went off at noon. Aaron made a recording on his MP3 player, I took a video on a camera, we signed a book, took a few photos, and off we went whooping and scaring poor tourists off the path. On the way down I met Maribel and Rod and we exchanged hi-fives.
Now, the real deal. We cruised down the mountain at 4.5 miles an hour to Guitar Lake, our first water resupply point. My strategy was to put some time on Aaron on the way down, so that when I’m done refilling, he’d just start. This way I could disappear into the trail out of line of sight. It worked out just fine and I never spotted Aaron until Forester Pass. On the approach to Forester I met a girl who instantly recognized our effort as a JMT speed record attempt and wished us luck. She happened to be a runner and I know no further because I had to be moving. I met this girl later under funny circumstances and learned that her name is Flora.
The pace from the very beginning was fast and I intended to keep it this way, at least this is what I always do and it works. Wherever I couldn’t run – I aggressively walked, getting a full use out of my trekking poles. Several times I sat down to take a break, mostly in the woods or just over the lump, so that Aaron can’t spot me. Five miles before the Forester I started to feel a creepy feeling of cramps coming up in my thighs, so I slowed down a bit. I was sure by this point that I put some time on Aaron and from now on it’s just a steady push that was in order. I hit Forester at 19:15 and saw Aaron from the top, he was refilling at the creek down by the switchbacks. Hmmm, it would not take him long to get to the top, but he seemed to take forever by this creek. What to do, what to do? The descent is long and exposed and if I don’t want him to see me I need to move. Now. Fast. And so I went.
Halfway down into the valley I tried to take in another PowerGel and couldn’t. For some reason my body resisted any food and besides I haven’t peed since the start. I went off the trail into the rocks so Aaron doesn’t spot my weakness and threw up good. Made me feel better and I decided I’d have to metabolize my fat reserves instead for some time and just kept going for 3 hours on no food into the night until the bear boxes appeared in the dim light of a headlamp. Vidette Meadow. Here I decided to get some rest. I boiled some water, warmed up two of my Bratwurst sausages with Cheddar cheese, got these 500 calories in, inflated the mat, got into my sleeping bag and laid down with feet plopped up on a fallen tree, so that all blood from legs went back to the stomach. This is why I couldn’t keep any food – all the blood was in the legs. I fell partially asleep and at the same time I was trying to be aware of the surroundings just in case if Aaron passed by. Half hour later my legs stiffened, I laid them out straight and tried to get myself as much under the log as possible, so as to be “invisible” to passers-by.
Two hours later I woke up, packed my gear, marveled at the fact that I didn’t see anyone passing me by, and off I went. Two hundred meters of walking and I see someone bivying by the trail. Aaron? I shined my headlamp and the guy goes – PARDON??? Yeah, this is definitely not Aaron… See ya!!!
The climb up Glen was so easy after having rested. I stopped only 3 times to take a break, all the rest was pushing. My specialty is uphills, and if it’s jagged and rocky with steps – then all the better. At the top of Glen Pass I stopped to take a video and time at this point was 2:55. Cresting the Glen I looked down to Rae Lakes and saw a flashlight dancing in the rocks on the approach to the lakes. OH NOOO!!! How did I miss Aaron?! Did he see me sleeping? Does he know I’m behind?
At this time the moon was in full power and I decided to go stealth down from the Glen Pass to the lakes so Aaron can’t measure my pace. I was well rested after the sleep and hit the switchbacks aggressively in the moon light. The trekking poles played a great role in this, since you can “feel” the trail with them and measure the height of each step. This way you can move fast and fluent despite the terrain and light. Soon I was on Aaron’s heels, noting the position of his flashlight and time it took me to get to this place. First it was 15 minutes, then 7, then 3. Suddenly I make a bend in the trail and run into Aaron sitting quietly and refueling. We exchanged greetings and I learned that he is going to sleep for an hour and a half when sun comes up. He also said that he’d follow my flashlight from now on. It was like a challenge, and I stormed ahead. By the suspension bridge, sun came up; I took some pictures of the bridge and had a lot of fun going across it. Soon after, I stripped my night layers and kept pushing up the trail along the river. As the trail ventured into the hills away from the river I decided to take a break and sat down on a stone. At this point I started feeling drowsy and figuring that Aaron will be sleeping at this time too, I’d decided to crash for an hour on the dry grass using sleeping bag as a blanket. I was awakened by the bypassing hikers, one of the ladies went – “Is he still sleeping??? Oh, look, there are his poles! What with all that gear? Maybe he was hiking all night!” She was so descriptive of me and my gear, that it almost made me self-conscious and I could not fall asleep. Oh, well, 9:30 o’clock, time to roll.
Pinchot Pass was a breeze, going down to Kings River was fun, but when I hit the Upper Basin it was already 14:30 o’clock and sun was unbearable in this open space. I tried to cool down in the few streams before the Mather Pass splashing water on me, but it didn’t help much. Thankfully, switchbacks at the pass were not long and the other side of the pass had a cool breeze blowing. Oh, that Mather… - I thought to myself and looked back into the basin. No sight of Aaron.
Going down from Mather Pass into Le Conte Canyon was a highlight of the trip! The Palisade lakes were so beautiful, clear and inviting with a sandy bottom – I almost envied those backpackers taking it easy. But I was on the other mission and shoveled these thoughts aside. Le Conte Canyon was runnable practically the entire way and so I did run the whole canyon. By the time I started the climb up the Muir Pass it got dark.
The Muir Pass… This is such an inhospitable moonscape, the barren land of rocks and water. You can hear water everywhere, left and right and the trail is so unrecognizable! I got lost 2 times after crossing streams, just because there either was no defined trail after the crossing, or it could not be reached by the light of the headlamp. Time lost was about 20 minutes just to figuring out the way. I really struggled at this point and the pass had never seemed to appear. It had at least 3 false summits. Strangely, in my mind I was convinced that as soon as I crested the pass I would see the bright lights of a big metropolis the size of LA on the other side. It escaped my mind that I was in a deep wilderness. Everything was surreal. Those towering ridges all around in the moonlight with patches of snow and black water in the lakes started to play to my primeval fears. I swear I saw a quick flash of the flashlight not too far behind which turned off in a second. I thought it was Aaron, but never saw this flashlight again. Then the thought of the great John Muir playing tricks on me crept up. It seemed perfectly logical, there’s a reason people called this pass Muir, and his spirit must be somewhere around here. Stunned and quiet I kept following the trail, trekking poles in my hands so as not to make this cling-cling sound on the rocks, when I felt I needed to crash again. I looked to my right and saw a grassy patch in the rocks. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was crawling with some sort of spiders and jumpy bugs, but I did not care. I needed to sleep. And so I put on my jacket and got into a sleeping bag right there, on the grass.
Ten minutes later I woke up shivering. It was shivering on the border of shuddering; I was so cold I think I squished all these bugs in a 3 feet radius. Starting to blow inside of my sleeping bag it got a little warmer but I had to keep blowing to keep myself warm. Which was not what I wanted, I wanted to sleep, not maintain warm temperature inside the bag. So I got up, packed my gear and off I went. Losing 20 minutes to nothing was another wicked trick played by Muir on me.
I walked for less than 3 minutes and suddenly – wow! What is this? Is this a house? How come there’s a house in this godforsaken place? Oh, wait; this must be the Muir Hut I saw in the pictures!! I was so happy and at the same time so sorry to not have walked some 100 feet to the hut, crashing in the grass just below the summit. But now we are talking!! It was after midnight already and inside the hut it felt like it was at least 20 degrees warmer than outside. Now I’ll get myself some royal sleep! There is a nice wooden bench inside the Hut, which is a good insulator, and I just put the sleeping bag on top of me and rested my head against the pack. I fell asleep instantly.
Some time passed and strange dreams started to appear in my mind. I envisioned the whole crowd of people mingling around the hut, touching me, checking out my gear, talking. This was not ending and all these people started to annoy me. Some were touching my food and I thought – no way, you’re not getting my sausages! Halfway in my sleep I reached up into a backpack, pulled out my last Bratwurst and ate it in my sleep.
Around 3:00 I woke up and decided it’s time to go. Even though it felt brutal to go into the night after sleeping in Muir Hut, I pressed on. Evolution Basin was nothing spectacular in the night, same rocks and water. It felt hard to go at first, but then I found my rhythm.
By sunrise I was heading down to the Evolution Creek. People have just started to wake up and I caught a few curious glances from the regular backpacking crowd. In the Evolution Valley I knew there’d be a treacherous creek crossing and kept asking people for its whereabouts. I asked a girl first, she said it’s about 2.5 miles from here. After what seemed like 3 miles I asked another hiker again. He says it’s only 1.5 miles from where we are. Come ooon!!! Finally I get there at around 9:15, cross the creek on the logs with the help of my poles without getting shoes wet and decided to take a strategic position inside the bushes overlooking the creek. There I had cooked myself dinner, two pouches of Mountain House Pro-Pak freeze dried dinners – “chicken teriyaki with rice” and “spaghetti in meat sauce” before falling asleep for an hour. Upon awakening I brewed some coffee and was off on my way.
Speaking of my nutrition on the go. I use energy gels almost exclusively, and try to vary the flavors and practicality of the gels. In this case, the pace was not very intense, so I took 1 gel on the hour and varied those from regular to caffeinated to protein-enhanced to extra sodium ones. It’s easy to eat on the go and you don’t lose any time to stopping and chewing.
By 16:05 I was on top of Selden Pass and it was already 2 days and 4 hours into the run. I felt like I needed to move faster. I taped my feet and decided to make Silver Pass today wherever it was. Finally, it started to look like a climb. Yeah! Not so technical, so I just kept on power-walking uphill in the forest when it slowly started to go down. At this point setting sun started to color the sky all kinds of red, purple and crimson colors. It was so gorgeous, I had to stop and take a few pictures. But wait!! The trail still goes down!! And what with all these switchbacks? Where is the pass?? I sat for a good 10 minutes consulting my GPS and maps, preloaded on my camera… Aha… This looks like the trail goes down to Lake Thomas Edison and the pass is still ways from here. Well, ok. Let’s just keep moving. Those switchbacks were never ending, but I finally got to the bottom and started a climb again.
Climbing the Silver Pass I started to lose it. Sleep deprivation took its toll and it also began drizzling to add insult to injury. It was hard to go up not knowing how far to go, besides I ran out of my water and decided to bivy at the Silver Pass Lake where I could get water. But how far to go to get there? I had no idea, I just kept moving. At some point it became obvious that as soon as I stopped moving I’d fall asleep standing, instantly. So I kept my body going. At one point I sat down on a rock to check the altitude on my GPS and location on the maps… It was hard to stay coherent and I kept closing my eyes falling into micro-sleep. Glancing at my GPS again I saw it morphing into a cell phone and started to punch “numbers” to call home and say that everything is all right. Trying to talk into the unit I came to my senses, and decided that I needed to sleep. Now. But I had to have water first. And so I stood up and kept going for some more. And then some more. Until trail leveled and I felt that the lake must be right there, to my left. I found a huge boulder under which to take cover, shuffled to the lake to get some water, boiled just enough to have another Mountain House Pro-Pak dinner and to have some left for the cold morning coffee, ate in my sleep again and slept for five hours straight until 6:45 in the morning.
The next morning I jumped up, stirred coffee concentrate in the left over water, drank it, refilled my CamelBak in the lake, packed my gear and was off by 7:00. Going was so easy, I was flying down the trail, and everyone was making way for me. That was very nice of those people, thank you!
From here on, the trail signs started to get weird and illogical. They just did not correspond to the maps I had on my camera. I lost quite some time trying to figure out the right way to go, spending up to 10 minutes at every intersection. The JMT sign on the trail says right, but the JMT trail on the map goes left! I trusted the maps and that was a right choice! Forest Service needs to take care of these signs!
Coming down into Reds Meadow was not very pleasant. The terrain seems runnable, but there’s a lot of sand to conquer and this makes the going slow. During the hot day, these dusty conditions are really something when you’re all sweaty. I have to say though - I was in awe of this burned-out area just before Reds Meadow. I was going through this cemetery of trees with my jaw dropped. What a sight…
I hit Thousand Island Lake at sunset. For some reason I assumed that Island Pass would have been before the lake but it was not. Ok then, so I keep charging ahead. Night falls. There’s a couple of small lakes after the Thousand Island Lake and just before the pass, and I decided to fill up there and bivy. Again, I crawled into my sleeping bag, plopped my legs on a fallen log and fell asleep for 1.5 hours. It was nice and warm by the lake, but I had to get out of my cozy sleeping bag confines and keep moving.
It’s interesting, during the cold nights I was dreaming about hot pepperoni pizza, and during the hot days I was dreaming about the pint of cold pale ale.
The area between the Island Pass and Donohue Pass was very confusing to navigate at night. Lots of trail junctions, and you can’t be sure that you’re going the right way until you come to the next junction and recheck your position. Very tiresome and time consuming.
I sat down for three 15 minute sleep breaks before and after Donohue Pass without taking my pack off, but just before hitting the Lyell Canyon I figured that some good sleep was in order. I went off the trail into the rocks and pulled out my sleeping bag. I woke up with the first light.
The canyon path was long, weaving along the river, and even though it was absolutely runnable, I had no such desire. I just kept on power-walking the whole thing until Tuolumne Meadows. There I took a wrong turn that got me going uphill and I frantically rechecked my maps again. Oh, no, wrong turn!! 20 minutes lost to misnavigation!! I descended back to the junction and proceeded the right way.
At this point I started to feel the signs of civilization. I could hear the cars whizzing by on 120, could see people camping to my left… Starting the climb up the Cathedral Pass I was passing a lot of weekend backpackers going up or down. Here I drank straight from the creek and decided that I will not need to fully refill my CamelBak, which proved to be a mistake later on. All this time I felt like Aaron is somewhere on my back and I kept checking the trail for his prints in case he passed me when I was sleeping.
This stretch all the way to the finish was dry. I was on Cathedral Pass at 12:05, 4 days and 5 minutes into the run. I ran out of water. From here on I never refilled my CamelBak until the finish. Soon the lack of water started to manifest its results. My lips were dry, my tongue was like sandpaper and my throat was screaming for moisture. On the maps there were streams along the trail, but in reality they were all dried out. Bad hydration management, I thought to myself, and decided to push until Merced River on no hydration. Passing the meadow and Sunrise Camp it was so tempting to drop by and buy a bottle of cold crisp water for even $20, but I’d rather die than cheat 15 miles to the finish. And so I pressed on. As if there was never any camp. I thought, a human body can survive 3 days without water, so shut up and keep going. Soon the trail began to go downhill and there was some bad looking standing warm water in the pools of dried out creek bed. I pushed all the gunk on the top aside and started drinking like crazy. Feeling a little better, I kept going downhill.
Still going downhill I heard the sound of gurgling water. There was a stream with cool clean water there, and my intention was to take a good break and drink from my titanium mug instead of sucking water from the tube. So I had 2 full mugs of clean water and some beef jerky to recover on the go. I filled my mug with water again and started going down just keeping a mug in my hand and sipping from it from time to time.
Once I hit the Little Yosemite Valley, I knew that the finish was close. I was still afraid that Aaron is coming up from behind so I just kept on going without refilling in Merced River. I figured that 6 miles to the finish can be done in a bit over than an hour, and that is doable without water. Boy was I wrong!
Those switchbacks were never ending, I tried to push, but the harder I pushed my energy levels waned fivefold. I did not eat gels too. Soon I realized that I would either collapse 2 miles to the finish in front of all these people or get myself together and finally finish, before I get my fill of water at the bridge. That bridge was my life link to the finish line. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I started crying and sobbing uncontrollably. I did not care at this point. All these people can laugh at me, but they have no slightest idea what it takes to go from there to here. Finally, the bridge… I spend full 5 minutes sucking water from the drinking fountain… One mile left. Passing people again on the downhill. And finally!!! FINISH!!
I dropped on my knees by the brown board with mileages and burst in tears. 4 days, 5 hours and 25 minutes. That was a long journey and every single minute of it was worth the pain, misery, and tears I had to experience along the way. This is hard to explain what was going on in my head at this point.
Only when I got to Curry Village, took a shower, had my fill of huge pepperoni pizza and 6 pints of pale ales and hefeweisens, only then I realized to myself – John Muir Trail is a beautiful lady, but she has a bitchy character.