The author crossing the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River.
Before my attempt, Reinhold Metzger held the unsupported, unresupplied speed record for the 208 mile John Muir Trail at 5 days 7 hours. I hoped to best his time this September. After three valiant attempts, his record still stands.
I knew I wasn’t necessarily the person best suited to break Reinhold’s record, but I was drawn to the challenge and I thought it was possible. I’m not a gifted runner - I’m a passionate climber who began running approaches to free up more time for climbing. In fact, my approach to this challenge was more as a fastpacker than as a runner — a single push with no outside support, rather than a runner’s approach of resupplying at road crossings.
I explained my strategy and gear choices in my previous article. Here, I describe my three attempts at breaking the record. I hope that my account will inspire another Backpacking Light subscriber in a new attempt at the record, and serve as a “lessons learned” to increase his or her chances of success.
“I built a castle in the swamp and it sunk. I built a second castle and it sunk too. I built a third castle and it burned down and then sunk. But the fourth castle, Ahhhh! That one stood.”
—Monty Python and the Holy Grail
As it turns out, the third time is not always a charm. I could take the advice of Mssrs. Cleese et al and try one more time, but I fear I took on a 40 miles a day challenge with 30 miles a day feet.
My adventures have always been limited by my propensity for developing blisters, but I had hoped that my 8 months of testing with Injinji toed socks, Balega oversocks and dipping my feet in Bodyglide would pay off. I have extended my range considerably, but obviously not to the level of John Muir Trail unresupplied/unsupported record holder Reinhold Metzger who says that after Marine boot camp he could stick pins into the soles of his feet and not feel it.
Acclimating and Reconnaissance
With dreams of victory over the trail and Reinhold's 5 day, 7 hour, 45 minute time from Whitney's 14,497 foot summit to Yosemite Valley, 208.3 miles distant, and hoping for mild fall weather, I left 8365 foot Whitney Portal on September 7th to acclimate, train, memorize the 77 junctions (21 of them being escape routes) and water sources still running. The 2 days I had spent at 8000 feet before this reconnaissance hike helped to slightly ease the quest for oxygen during the first 10.4 mile, 6100 foot climb to Whitney's lofty summit. In 8 hours I achieved the route's high point with my 34 pound dry load (carrying 10 days of food) and descended another 7.5 miles to Crabtree Meadow. After that, daily distances quickly extended to 20 to 30 miles as I passed over 13,200 foot Forester Pass and then the unrelenting procession of five, 12,000 foot passes; Glen, Pinchot, Mather, Muir and Selden. Lowly 11,000 foot Silver Pass was barely a blip on the radar after surviving that Alpine wave train. I sprained my ankle descending from the picturesque Rae Lakes necessitating a layover at the suspension bridge crossing the cool, healing waters of Wood's Creek.
The 160 miles to Red's Meadow took me a respectable 7 hiking days. Fortunately it took no longer, as I woke up to a 23 degree morning on my last day with 90 mph winds on the ridge tops. I discovered that the JMT virtually disappears at Red's Meadow. I had no problem negotiating this section traveling southbound 2 years earlier during my 12 day unresupplied JMT hike. Northbound towards Yosemite Valley (as I would be racing in a week) the navigation was entirely different. After 2 hours of scouting and retracing the route backwards I discovered the subtle, unsigned continuation of the trail northbound that I had missed the first time in full daylight.
The author met Flyin' Brian Robinson (left, the first person to complete the AT, PCT, and CDT Triple Crown in a calendar year) during his 160 mile reconnaissance run of the southern-most portion of the JMT.
I had also gotten off trail in daylight on the south slope of the starkly barren and beautiful Muir Pass due to a recent rock fall. And at another point (where I ran into Brian and Sophie "Mrs. Flyin' Brian" Robinson) I again found myself to be a trail runner with no trail. Before I hopped on the shuttle bus to my car parked at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, I congratulated myself on choosing to do a pre-run of the challenging southern 160 miles or I would have been hopelessly lost for hours at night during my record attempt. During my initial drive to the east side of the Sierra I also pre-ran the 2 mile northern route through Tuolumne Meadows strongly suggested by the supported category competitors (more on that route choice later).
Following 5 days rest, laundry and ibuprofen therapy at 8000 foot Mammoth Lakes and Whitney Portal, where I healed my ankle and filled my sleep hump, I left the Whitney Portal trailhead with my 18.5 pound - plus 2 pounds of water - load in a reinforced Gossamer Gear G6 Whisper Uberlight pack at 11:30 a.m. on my first attempt at the record. I followed Kevin Sawchuk's strategy of not taking the time to filter or treat water (giardiasis takes more than 5 days to manifest symptoms) and pulled my disposable picnic cup from my handy front pack and dipped into the cool, clear, and likely pathogen infested waters of the heavily trafficked Lone Pine Creek Drainage. After mixing up 2 quarts of Accelerade sports drink at Trail Camp pond I bounded up the infamous 97 switchbacks of doom to 13,600 foot Trail Crest leaving the outlet free Owen's Valley watershed and entering the Pacific Drainage where the JMT resides for almost its entire length. I stashed my 12.5 pound food bag at Trail Junction a tenth of a mile later and began the 3.8 mile round trip to Whitney's summit and back.
Editor’s note: Kevin Sawchuk holds the JMT supported speed record of 3 days 21 hours 5 minutes. Read about his record breaking run in Backpacking Light print magazine, issue 2.
My elation at pulling off a 4 hour 28 minute summit (49 minutes behind Kevin's time) and discovering a good-luck note from Reinhold taped to the summit shelter was short lived as I encountered the debris field of zipper lock bags and turkey jerky fragments below my foolishly exposed food cache. The trio of cackling ravens circling above confirmed the consequences of my folly. My heart sank as I climbed above the trail to my cache spot and surveyed the carnage. Fortunately my avian foes had sampled and quickly lost interest in my Bodyglide, sunscreen and Accelerade powder. My jerky was about one-third gone but the most curious detail of the crime scene was that there was absolutely no trace of the 22 Clif Bars; not a torn wrapper or a crumb. I collected the remains into my pack and scrambled up the loose, vertical western escarpment of Mt. Muir to the culprit's aerie 200 feet above in hopes of finding their cache and retrieving my precious bars and their critical calories. Upon finding no signs of raven booty I downclimbed to the trail and decided that some human had run across my violated food supply and decided to join in on the sacking.
This, of course, necessitated me bidding farewell to the inviting wild lands to the northwest, turning east and heading back down to Whitney Portal. After a hitch to the town of Lone Pine 12 miles and 4500 feet below for resupply and a 2-day rest at the Portal I started up again at 9:30 a.m. This time I made it to mile 7 and my chronic heel blister (which I hadn't had a visit from for the past 5 months; thank-you very much) decided to make an unscheduled guest appearance. I vainly taped up and pushed another 1.5 miles to Trail Crest, but at that point it was clear that I would have to abort again.
So I burned up another 4 days of precious mild, sunny Sierran fall weather hoping for a blister miracle. While waiting for epidermal alchemy to occur I once again hitched to Lone Pine to make calls, re-provision and pay rent. My sister informed me that Reinhold had been leaving me worried emails wondering if I was lost in the wilderness. I called Reinhold and we spoke on the phone for over an hour. Most of the time was spent by Reinhold alternately regaling me with his amazing wilderness tales and chastising me for venturing into the Sierra in fall without a tent or sleeping bag.
When he left the summit note for me he was about to take a shot at lowering his time to beat even further. "It's time to pass the torch on to the next generation, Al. But I will make you work for it!" Unfortunately, running back to Yosemite at night near Wood's Creek he severely sprained his ankle and had to pull out.
Fall colors on Mts Thor and Whitney.
His own escape over Sawmill Pass to the east is classic Reinhold. After summiting the Sierra Crest and dropping almost 8000 feet to the deserted trailhead he hobbled along the frontage road paralleling Highway 395. He finally tired of this exercise, whipped out his trusty potty trowel and dug a trench in the lava rocks under the barbed wire to wiggle through and gain access to the busy highway. "Felt like I was back in the Marines", he said.
“I built a third castle and it burned down and then sunk.”
With three pairs of socks (one with an additional sock pad sewn over the heel) and taped heels I started my third run at 10 a.m. Because the clock had started on my giardiasis 8 days earlier I decided to carry 6 pounds of Accelerade treated water from the start to get me over the top and down to the tarn above Guitar Lake on the less traveled western slope at mile 15. Every time I had drunk the tainted waters from Whitney’s east slope on my previous attempts my stomach had gurgled for several hours and then gone mysteriously silent. This was making me nervous.
I comfortably flashed a 4 hour 19 minute ascent (40 minutes off Kevin's time while toting 24.5 pounds) and finally headed down and west to the exciting, frightening land of my first full night running through the wilderness.
Gliding smoothly through the forest duff and decomposed granite, past lodgepole pine clad lake shores and subalpine meadows, the last afternoon rays of warming sunshine gave notice of the 11 cold, sunless hours soon to come.
At twilight I donned my ultralight GoLite C-Thru thermal top and pants and pressed on into the 45 degree windless early evening. I resisted switching on my Tikka Plus headlamp as the one-third lunar crescent timidly illuminated the narrow hiker's highway which gradually climbed out of Crabtree Meadow past the Tyndall Plateau toward its inevitable collision with the Forester Pass headwall.
Smiling Rock in Tuolumne Meadows.
As full darkness came on I began to descend abruptly to the west. Was I supposed to drop this sharply or had I missed a trail junction in the moonlight? I frantically lit up the tranquil darkness with my light to check the map. Had I inadvertently turned off the JMT while foolishly enjoying my moonlit run? I promise I will never-ever run at night without my light on. Please don't make me turn around and climb back up this grade. How will I know when to turn around? What's that dark object? Is that a food box? Pleease let it be the Tyndall Ranger's Frog Pond bear box. "Welcome to the frog ponds. Please carry out all your trash. -Tyndall Ranger" Yes, oh yes. I remember this landmark from my pre-run. I'm saved! Thank God. Don't be an idiot, Al. That was your last mistake, Al. Perfection from here on out. No more mini-dramas. Got it?
I feel I should be approaching the lakes below Forester but I may be missing them in the darkness. No matter. The headlamp on low setting is bright enough to make out the trail clearly and I am on the right trail. I make out the cool blue glow of an LED headlamp in a glen above the trail. I'm not aware of any campsites in this area. As the trail takes me closer I wonder what backpacker would be up and about at such a late hour as 9:45 p.m. Then I hear the sweet siren's call of a distinctly female voice coming from the mysterious encampment. I'm finding it difficult to make out her words over the sound of water flowing over stone to my right. Could the seductive voice to my left be inviting me up to her camp in the pines for a warming cup of cocoa? I know the hot chocolate would disqualify me from being unsupported. Where is my crew to plug my ears with pine sap and tie me to the mast of a lodgepole pine; for alone I cannot resist her lilting enchantment. Reinhold! Help me!
As quickly as she appeared, the light and voice are gone and a dark wall confronts the impotent beam of my lamp. A mere 33 minutes later I stand atop 13,200 foot Forester Pass. It is 11 p.m., 13 hours and 31 miles in. The air is as still as a thick August night in Mississippi and the thermometer hovers at a balmy 40 degrees. It is 49 hours until October here at the top of the Sierra Nevada.
Abandoning the Quest
Unfortunately this is where my story changes tone. I had worked myself up to 30 miles of hiking/running in 13 hours in preparation for my quest. With 11 hours rest I can do it all over again. Without the rest however, my feet rapidly break down with blisters, pressure injuries and lots of pain. At this point I was on a 60 mile first day pace. With the pain in my feet rapidly increasing as I descended from Forester, my pace began to slow. Adding insult to injury, this was the exact time that the zoological petting zoo incubating down in the mail room for the past week decided to make its "explosive" entrance. Accompanying this unwelcome intestinal outburst was a sudden dearth of energy.
I should have taken this as a sign from above that this challenge wasn't for me and hung a left and made the hike west to the Road's End trailhead at King's Canyon to escape the route. Remaining true to form, however (being a few cans short of a case) I turned northeast and headed up Glen Pass. Between the steep switchback-free trail to the high saddle and the devastating lassitude, I slowed to a complete stop on many occasions, breathing deeply in search of fuel hiding in some cellular crevice that my 20 million new best friends had missed.
The eastern sky began to glow with the soft purple of the promise of a new and hopefully better day as I arrived at the western shore of the Rae Lakes. I sat on the trail stairs for a brief rest and quickly fell into uneasy seated slumber, my wrists locked in my trekking pole straps. Moments later I awoke sweating and nauseous. I took two long draws of toxic Accelerade through my Camelbak bite valve, gummed a carrot cake Clif bar and the symptoms quickly vanished. This scenario would repeat itself for the next 16 hours as I descended for 25 miles along another route to Road's End along Wood's Creek.
Even with my maladies I reached the 50 mile mark at the end of day one (where I snuck in a one hour nap) and 75 miles at the Road’s End trailhead at 10 p.m., 36 hours in. However I was in considerable pain from feet and gut and absolutely lacking any energy. Stranded in a deserted, cold and dark parking lot that I didn't want to spend a shivering, sleepless, sleeping bag-less night in I hitched a miracle ride from Yosi, an Israeli expatriate who'd just had a bear encounter and wanted to sleep in a city - thank God.
A night of foot soaking under the watchful eye of Jerry Springer in Fresno's finest Hotel No-Tell followed by a day of fruitless hitch hiking led me to the sad desperation of a 2:15 a.m. rendezvous with a Greyhound Scenic Cruiser to a Merced connection with YARTS, Yosemite Area Rapid Transit System.
My patiently waiting Subaru whisked me out of Yosemite Valley and over 10,000 foot Tioga Pass through a substantial rain storm on Sunday - which would have been my fourth day on the trail. With only thin leggings and wind pants on my lower extremities and a body beyond exhaustion and rapidly collapsing - that would have been a rough day and night.
Perhaps it was foolishly ambitious for me to attempt such mileage with chronically tender feet. The problem is that my endurance, stamina, drive to succeed, vision, self-confidence, sense of adventure and desire to explore the unknown have never been a good match for the durability of my feet.
So in retrospect it was an expensive, committing, time consuming, foolish adventure. It was Lionel Terrey who referred to mountaineers as "Conquistadors of the Useless." Some say, "It's like having fun - only different." The late, great Bardini (Alan Bard) summed it up by asking, "Got a bad memory? Have I got a sport for you!"
Looking back on the entire experience, I have to say that one of my most profound and touching memories will be of the outpouring of advice, concern, criticism and support not only from family and friends, but from the Backpacking Light community. I have cherished the opportunity to get to know many of you even better as a result of this adventure through the miracle of cyberspace. Many thanks for your assistance, concern and friendship.
About the Author
The author all packed and ready for his record attempt.
Born June 13, 1957 in Buffalo, New York and raised in Sacramento and Marin County, California, Al Shaver first backpacked throughout California's Sierra Nevada (John Muir's "Range of Light") as a Boy Scout and as a scout camp merit badge counselor. He first climbed Mt. Whitney at age 13 with a scout troop. An Eagle Scout with Troop 81 in 1975, he was Marin County wrestling champion that same year. He graduated from the University of California at Davis with a B.S. of Applied Behavioral Sciences in 1979.
He sold photocopiers and computer control panels in the Silicon Valley, and eventually followed the example of the protagonist in Tom Robbins' novel "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." He called in 'well.' "I'm fine now. I don't need this job anymore. Thank-you." in 1983. Al traveled to Peru and Ecuador to learn to climb on 21,000 foot peaks in 1986. Fortunately, he survived the experience. From 1986 to 1991, he spent summers touring, climbing and skiing in Europe, the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska, and wintered at Rocky Mountain ski resorts. While waiting tables at a brewpub in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from 1995 to 2000, he began to dabble in trail running to the 12,600 foot summit of Santa Fe Baldy. In 2001 he moved to Monterey, California to be a full time Uncle to his then 10 and 13 year old nephews. He continues to hike with Boy Scouts as Assistant Scoutmaster for troop 93. On his own he likes to solo his favorite technical rock climbing routes on Yosemite National Park's Half Dome and Mt. Whitney's East Face.
He began carrying a small postage scale and a 10 pound baby scale into backcountry stores almost 20 years ago - well before it became fashionable. Arriving without his standard paraphernalia, store employees have actually asked, albeit rarely, "Dude, where's your scale?"