BackgroundThis trip report describes my record breaking run of the John Muir Trail September 3-6, 2009. Although this was an unsupported attempt, I was fortunate enough to break both unsupported and supported records. My time from Whitney Portal to Happy Isles was 3 days 14 hours 13 minutes. The time from Whitney Summit (true start of the JMT) was 3 days 9 hours 58 minutes.
The record breaking run was my second attempt. The first attempt was in August and ended on the first day after 'bonking' or something similar due to nutrition problems. This report starts after the failed attempt. The trip report from the first attempt (along with this report and much, much, more) can be found in this BPL forum thread. A few references in the trip report refer to conversations within the BPL thread.
Regarding movie links, most of the movies are included for record verification purposes and are merely me reciting times at significant points along the trail. For these I named the links as places (e.g. Glen Pass). The more interesting videos have links with additional descriptors (e.g. Glen Pass Discussion). Hopefully this will be useful to some readers.
Planning for 2nd AttemptMy first attempt at the JMT record ended with a meltdown near Pinchot Pass, which I believe was due to the 11th hour change towards a Snickers dominated diet in order to save a few pounds. My first priority was to fix the diet. I once again tried a variant of Mark Davis’ Perpetuem based diet, but the experiment went very badly. The experiment was conducted on a day hike from Bishop Pass trailhead, to LeConte Canyon, Mather Pass and back. The equipment I ordered based on Mark’s recommendations hadn’t arrived yet and I lacked an effective means to mix the concentrated Perpetuem and ended up consuming ‘Perpetuem balls’--goopy on the outside and powdery on the inside. It was so repulsive. I starved myself that day and ate the absolute least possible required to make it back to my car after 22 horrendous hours. I still think Mark’s Perpetuem diet may be optimal, I just required more experimentation with it.
I still needed a diet but ran out of time for testing a new one! I never had a problem with the Hammer gel products on any of my reconnaissance hikes so I decided to use the gel with an appropriate amount of cliff bars to approximate the protein and fat concentration in Perpetuem. Eventually I settled on a gel/cliff bar caloric ratio of 4:5, to help save a bit of weight by using more cliff bars. At the expense of adding a few pounds I felt this diet had the best chance of success without testing it in the field.
After my first attempt, the BPL community was kind enough to suggest alternatives to my not-quite-so-UL equipment. I followed all of them and now had a completely pimped out rig. This was nice because the weight savings in gear mostly offset the increased food weight from the higher carb based diet.
Acclimation and PreparationI learned a lot from the acclimation fiasco on the first attempt—like bring a tent…and a chair! Don’t sleep in a bivy sack. I again acclimated at Horseshoe Meadows. That place is great—elevation on demand.
After Michael’s recent failure report—later echoed by Jeff—the point was finally hit home that sleep deprivation was serious! I started the last attempt with perhaps an hour of sleep and that was not acceptable this time around. I vowed to start after a full night’s rest. I hoped to start Wednesday, Sept. 2 from 12AM-2AM and so needed to sleep starting in the afternoon on Tuesday. I brought eye covers so I could sleep during the day but I never could really sleep. At night military jets flew over every 15 min or so which further prohibited sleep. Mission aborted.
The next morning I decided to rent a motel room in Lone Pine. I felt the benefit of a decent sleep outweighed the cost of lost acclimation. I started trying to sleep at around 2PM but couldn’t. I noticed my pulse was elevated and eventually concluded it must have been due to the anticipation of the run! Wow, this didn’t happen last time…At 4PM I was still wide awake in bed and the situation was becoming critical and so I decided to seek the aid of some drugs. But what? Ah, Nyquil! I may not be coughing now but I suspect I would be soon…I headed to the store two blocks away and bought a bottle. The clerk said “Boy you look like you need this. Just got down from the mountain?” “Um, actually I’m about to start,” I replied. Geez, I know I was wearing my hiking outfit but do I normally look like a mess??? Anyway, I got back to the motel and took an adult dose. I felt my pulse slowing. 30 min later I took another. Now there was a kid incessantly riding a scooter back and forth outside my window. Gulp. Another half dose on the way…The Nyquil worked. I was awakened by my alarm at 11PM. I felt I could sleep more so I did. May as well, it was going to be the last decent sleep for half a week. I awoke at 12 AM and was out the door and headed for Whitney Portal in less than 5 min.
First Period of ConsciousnessAgain I started with the traditional pack weighing—27 lbs—same as last time and exactly what I expected. It turned out that the pack was really 2 lbs heavier than in my previous attempt, I cheated by removing a liter of water. The increase in food weight was not offset by the weight savings from the expensive new UL gear. I did not take well to the idea that after spending even more money on the second attempt (50 lb bag of Maltodextrin anyone?) that my starting pack would be HEAVIER. So, I decided to fudge it by using a Powerade bottle for hydration in conjunction with the 3L camelback. This way I was able to start with 2L—one in each the camelback and the Powerade bottle. The Powerade bottle also enabled rapid hydration turnaround between frequent water sources, whereas the camelback was still used for long haul sections as well as at night when I did not want to stop for water anyway. I originally only intended to use the bottle during the first day to save a couple pounds here and there but it turns out I used it extensively for the whole hike—and the use of this little bottle alone saved the entire trip, but more on that later [ Whitney Portal Pack Weighing].
I began hiking from the scale precisely at 12:45 AM, Thursday Sept. 3 and made steady progress up Whitney. Eventually I needed to fill the bottle for the first time. I dunked it in a stream, put an Aqua Mira tablet in it and was done. The whole process took about a minute vs ~8-9 min for my camelback. So I saved about 5 min/per 3L. That was about an hour savings for the full trip! Cool. In my excitement with the increased efficiency I raced off without my new UL Titanium Goat trekking poles! I soon realized my error but lost about 5 min. This happened ~5 times during the entire trip with a total time loss of ~15 min. Not Cool [ Start From WP Scale].
Like last time, as I ascended toward the switchbacks the air became progressively cooler. This time, however, I started with the intention of adhering to my revised time sheet and resisted the urge to accelerate with the falling temp. I noticed my pulse increased as I reached the upper switchbacks. I think the 12 hours spent in Lone Pine immediately before starting had a fairly significant detrimental effect on the acclimation. Oh well. At least I was wide awake...for now!
I reached the summit after 4:09—exactly on target and matching Sue’s time on her record breaking run. As I approached the hut I saw there was a light inside. Someone stepped out right as I began signing the register. “This is really fortunate,” I thought to myself. During my last attempt (as well as this one) I passed everyone on the way to the summit and had no one to verify my starting time from Mount Whitney. “I have a favor to ask…,” I started saying when the man asked “Are you Brett?” “Um…Yeah” “Hi, I’m Ian.” It was Ian—another crazy guy from the BPL forum about to start an unsupported attempt! He said he was starting at 6 AM which momentarily confused me as I was writing the time in the register (I wrote 5:54 AM instead of 4:54 AM. Oops!) Fortunately the mistake was caught and corrected in the register. Ian was gracious and offered the following as verification of my summit departure [ Whitney Summit Wrong Time!, Whitney Summit Verification With Ian, Whitney Summit Start].
In the mad rush to have all the ‘business’ taken care of before 5AM (an obviously convenient time to start from the summit) I forgot I never actually tagged the summit. I realized this with about a minute to spare and ran the few steps to the actual summit. The clock struck 5 AM and I was off! I jokingly shouted “No offense, but I hope I don’t see you again Ian!” as I started jogging away.
Returning along the ridge on the way to Trail Crest I was treated to a spectacular blood red moonset caused by distant forest fires to the west. I started running down the steep descent towards Guitar Lake in total darkness and passed no one all the way to Crabtree Meadow, and reached there at 6:57 AM (~4.5 mph). This is where the trail turns towards Forester to the north. I soon settled into a steady pace with the goal of trying to match the pace on my revised timesheet. Since the last attempt, I increased all times by ~10% which produced an overall trip time of 84 hours (3.5 days). This adjustment was implemented to increase the margin of error by encouraging me to operate at a lower overall intensity. I had mixed feelings about this adjustment. On one hand, given all the time and energy spent preparing for the JMT record attempt, I certainly would not have liked to experience another trip ending meltdown on day 1. On the other hand, I did not want to do a run significantly slower than my fitness enabled. On my way over to Forester I grew increasingly frustrated at what I felt to be an artificially slow pace. I reached the pass in 6:04 from Whitney (16 min ahead of ‘schedule’) [ Forester Pass].
During the long march towards Forester I kept mulling whether or not I should adhere to the timesheet. When I reached the pass I decided to completely abandon it. I did not want to complete a JMT run haunted with the feeling that I could have done it much faster. If I were to fail so be it, but I would fail on my terms. On the way to Glen, the throttle was pushed to the floor. In some ways I felt I needed to make up for the ‘lost time’ from the Portal to Forester. I aggressively climbed out of the valley towards the pass. Last time I was blessed with a cold light rain during this part. No such luck this time. I had the mid-day sun blazing down on me and I was hot. I refused to slow down though. At every stream crossing I dunked my hat in the water and poured the cold water on top of me. My entire shirt was soaked with a combination of water and sweat. As I approached the first junction above Vidette Meadow some hikers were resting at the side. They saw me approaching and one of them suggested I stop and rest. I could not muster a decent response and sort of grunted as I passed by them. I eventually topped out in a blazing 3:30—32 min ahead of the abandoned timesheet, and 12 min ahead of my first attempt with the cold rain [ Glen Pass].
The trip down to Wood’s Creek was uneventful [ Woods Creek Bridge]. This long descent always seems to take longer than it should, but the terrain is pretty rocky and largely un-runnable. The ascent up towards Pinchot started fine as the sun began to set. I passed the spot where I stopped from last attempt’s meltdown and felt relieved that I at least made it farther this time. In some sense a monkey had been on my back until this point. Unfortunately, though the pleasant feelings did not last long. As I headed towards the pass I noticed I lost the desire to eat and my stomach was bulging. “Crap. What does this mean?!?” I immediately suspected an electrolyte imbalance. Did I drink too much with too little salt? Or was it the opposite? Argh!!! This needed to be corrected NOW! I eventually convinced myself my hydration and electrolytes were probably fine and that the problem was…how should we say…a food/waste flux imbalance. I had eaten a lot over the past couple days but not much had come out. Once I reached Pinchot Pass in good time, I tried to fix the situation but to no avail. I probably spent a total of 45 min on this ‘wasted’ effort before the end of the day [ Pinchot Pass].
I did not know what to do. It was still too early to stop but my condition was steadily worsening. I felt I had to continue towards Mather. So, I probably did the worst thing possible. I stopped eating. My energy began to wane as I passed the Taboose Pass Trail junction and descended into the valley. The climb out towards the pass was not so bad, but it is when you have stopped eating a couple hours ago. My pace slowed and I finally made it to the base of the final climb to the pass at 12:15 AM and decided to camp the first of two planned times. Before going to sleep I ate my sausage and drank some Recoverite. The food would stay down only if I lay on my back, not on either side. I went to sleep knowing that I was on the ropes and comforted myself by thinking that I may still be able to hang on to contend Mike’s unsupported record if a miraculous recovery wasn’t imminent. In the morning I expected what would still be possible to be clear.
Second Period of ConsciousnessAs anticipated, I slept through my dinky watch alarm (I neglected to set my louder cell phone one) and awoke at first light—2 hours late. I immediately felt a heavenly urge to finally correct the matter ingestion/expulsion flux imbalance and was a new man after the business was done. Life was good again and I soon headed off for Mather Pass. I reached the top at about 30 hours from the start. I was very annoyed by this because oversleeping and the digestion issues annihilated all the fast hiking from the previous day. I estimated the loss to be three hours [ Mather Pass Annoyance].
My annoyance quickly dissipated though as I started running down towards LeConte Canyon with dawn illuminating the enormous valley below. I was having a blast at this point and felt as fresh as when I started. I eventually reached Middle Fork Junction and began heading up canyon towards Muir Pass [ Middle Fork Junction]. Everything was going great in the warm sunny canyon. As I began rounding the left hook in the canyon after the ranger station, I glanced back and was caught completely by surprise by what I saw. Dark storm clouds were forming at the southern end of the canyon! I immediately realized the danger this posed, as I was still quite far from the pass. I quickened my pace and kept an eye on the sky. Soon storm clouds began forming everywhere around me and I feared the situation was becoming hopeless. To make matters worse, Muir Pass is like no other pass on the JMT. Instead of being steep and abrupt, it is very flat and exposed—which is probably why the protective Muir Hut is at the pass. Coming from the south, the approach has an endless series of short hills followed by long flat stretches. By the time I reached these short hills the situation was dire. The entire sky was dark grey with clouds. At this point I turned on the afterburners. I even went anaerobic on the short hill sections and then recovered on the flat stretches. I absolutely could not go any faster at this point. All of this exertion was taking its toll. I had run out of water a long time ago and was in desperate need of a drink. I quickly dipped my bottle in a stream, dropped an Aqua Mira pill in it, and resumed hiking in about a minute. Finally, the hut came into view and the storm clouds still had not started releasing their energy yet—I did not know what they were waiting on but I wasn’t about to complain [ Muir Pass (MP), MP-Wind, MP-Storm Discussion, MP-Blister Discussion]!
I reached the hut and decided to keep going based on the lack of precipitation and, more importantly, the absence of thunder. I knew that soon the trail would start its descent into the safe confines of Evolution Valley. About five minutes later the hail started. At first the hail was refreshing. I was hot. It was cold and dry. Life was great…until the hail downpour started. The hail pounding started to hurt my exposed arms and so I put on my rain shell. I was nearing the edge of the first plunge into the lower canyons as the thunder started. Given the aspect ratio of the canyon, I thought it was safe to continue onward and so I did. After all, why would lighting strike me instead of the much closer mountain peaks to my sides (Though passing groups of hikers huddling under boulders etc. did not boost my confidence—I was the only person hiking through the storm)? To counter my increased feeling of safety