The hardest athletic and mental challenge I have ever attempted: completing the 220 mile John Muir Trail in 9 1/2 days. I’m still in slight disbelief that I did it!! I had gained a lot of confidence solo hiking, after completing the 170 mile Tahoe Rim Trail in 5 1/2 days a few weeks earlier. But the JMT makes the TRT seem easy. The JMT has HUGE passes. Like really HUGE. On many days, I was doing two per day. On the TRT one can get cell phone reception in most places and there are road crossings every 20-30 miles. The JMT is one of the only 220 mile stretches with a single road crossing in the US. It is incredibly remote and the options to drop or quit the trail are very few, usually involving a very long, hard hike out. I knew I would have to handle any situation I encountered all by myself.
My pack was heavier than usual, due to the required bear canister and my tent with rain fly. On the Tahoe Rim Trail I didn’t bring either. But the weather is extreme in the high sierra and I was grateful for my one man tent.
My adventure began very early on Saturday July 18 as I drove from Tahoe down to Mammoth. As I drove by Spooner Lake, I thought happy thoughts for all of my fellow DPMR who were running the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance races that day. I arrived at Mammoth and parked my car at 10:45am, in plenty of time to take the 11:30am YARTS bus to Tuolumne Meadows. It was the last bus out for the day, but I didn’t anticipate any issues. I stood by the bus stop and confirmed that the metal sign read 11:30am for the bus I needed. I decided to run back to my car and switch hats at 11am, knowing I still had 30 minutes until my bus left. As I ran back to the bus stop, I saw a YARTS bus pulling out of the lot. Uh-Oh. I had a bad feeling that was my bus, even though it was 11:05am. I still waited at the bus stop hoping another YARTS bus would come. Four friendly backpackers arrived, and confirmed that they had also checked the online bus schedule, which said 11:30am. The five of us stood there waiting outside the Mammoth Mountain Inn. When we asked at the front desk, we were informed that was indeed our bus which had left early. WTF? The other four backpackers were also headed to Tuolumne, but had two cars, (which they were hoping to leave at Mammoth)and offered me a ride to Yosemite. In exchange, I was able to use my National Parks Pass to save them paying the $30 per car park entrance fee. They dropped me off in front of the Tuolumne Meadows grill, a buzzing hub of PCT and JMT backpackers all re-supplying and having a hot meal. I noticed the bus we missed pull up minutes later. I couldn’t help asking the driver about the schedule. She showed me her schedule, which read 11am. I informed her that the website says 11:30am and so does the bus stop sign in Mammoth. She said people had been telling her that all week and I should call YARTS and tell them. WTF? Oh well, I had made it to Tuolumne. Now I had to get on a free bus to Curry Village. I didn’t know it was a two hour bus ride. I also didn’t know that there was only one more bus heading there for the day. It would leave at 7pm and arrive near the backpackers campground at 9pm. I looked at my watch. It was 1pm. I had 6 hours to kill at Tuolumne. It was going to be a long day. I hung out there and read, chatted with backpackers, and enjoyed my last restaurant meal for awhile. Once I finally arrived at Curry Village, I was told I needed to catch another park shuttle to the backpackers campground. This time I had a really friendly bus driver, who I told I would be starting my hike from Happy Isles in the dark the next morning. He gave me perfect directions to the trailhead, which was one mile away from where he dropped me off in the dark at the backpackers campground, at 9:30pm. I never saw what the campground looks like in daylight. I arrived in the dark, and would leave the next morning at 4:30am. I’m sure it’s a nice place, but I never saw it. It was packed full, and I literally set up my tent in the trail and went right to sleep.
I was up at 4am (the latest I would sleep on any of the next 9 mornings) and was making coffee and oatmeal, my pre-hike morning ritual. As I left the campground I discovered that one of my collapsable hiking poles was would not lock closed. I fought with it in the dark for awhile, and then finally put them in my pack. Apparently I needed to do a gear check at home. I hadn’t used them in two years. I was starting the JMT and had one broken hiking pole, essentially rendering them useless. I had no choice but to continue on. I arrived at the Happy Isles Trailhead at 4:50am. The hike started at 4,000 ft of elevation, and ended at Tuolumne, after going over Cathedral Pass at 10,000 ft. That first day was a great preview of the hike I was in for. After 22 miles, I was back at Tuolumne Meadows. (I couldn’t seem to escape that place.) Exhausted I set up my tent and slept in a secluded place by a beautiful rock dome.
The first three days had afternoon rain and thunderstorms, which meant I was reduced to sitting under tress waiting out storms. It was too dangerous to attempt going over a pass through each storm. I lost a lot of time, in which I had planned to be covering more miles. The fourth day brought hail! I hunkered down under a group of trees wearing every piece of clothing I had, as marble sized hail rained down. What the hell was I doing out here, I wondered? And I thought, as I always do, what would my mother say if she could see me now? (She tends to worry a lot.) I was really behind on my hiking schedule by day 5, due to the storms. I knew I had to step it up if I was going to meet my goal of 9 1/2 days. I did the math and realized I would have to complete a marathon or better for the next four days on trail.
So day 5 I did 28 miles, day 6 I did 26 miles, day 7 I did 26 miles, and day 8 I did about 29 miles.
I would set the alarm on watch for 3am each morning, make coffee and oatmeal, then hit the trail by 4am. (Badass or totally insane??? I’m still not sure.) My first few hours of hiking each morning were my favorite. I really never saw anyone else from 4am until 8 or 9am. The only evidence I saw of other humans was walking by numerous tents. By 7pm, I would be at my camp for the night, make dinner, and be asleep before I ever needed to turn on my headlamp. I did only one re-supply, at Vermillion Valley Ranch, where I picked up a box I had mailed to myself. That meant hiking three miles off the trail each way, and taking a water taxi. It should have been two miles each way, but the water level is so low, that hikers have to walk further. At the other side of Lake Edison, we were then loaded into a cargo van and driven the rest of the way to the resort. I wasted half a day for this re-supply. If I had to do it over, I would have instead chosen Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), despite the fact that they charge $80 to hold a hiker box. MTR is only one mile off the trail, with no water taxi involved.
I thought that in July I would see tons of other insane early morning hikers trying to complete the trail in a pretty quick manner. Nope. I’m sure they were out there somewhere, but in the 9 days I was on trail, I didn’t meet one person going at my pace. I met people who were taking 2 weeks to a month for the whole JMT. Some people told me I was crazy to attempt it so quickly. One man laughed at me and said I would never be able to keep up my pace as the trail grew increasingly hard, and the passes I hiked over were now 12,000 feet, 13,000 feet, and Mt. Whitney at 14,500 feet. I was determined to do it! I hiked over a few passes so early in the morning it was completely dark and I never saw them, like Island Pass. I was at many passes completely alone, because of my schedule. I was alone at the top of Muir Pass at 8am on Day 6, and the loneliness and weight of the whole trip felt huge. I sat outside the Muir hut and cried for a few minutes.
But by Day 8, I was back on track for mileage. I had to get over Glen Pass and Forester Pass, and I would arrive at the pre-planned meeting spot on trail where Sam Skrocke would hopefully be waiting, after he hiked in on the Shepards Pass Trail. I was exhausted mentally and physically when I approached the trail junction.
I literally dropped to the ground in relief when I saw Sam waiting in the shade smiling. The best Trail Angel and Pacer I could have imagined to get me through the last 24 hours of the JMT. Just seeing him and getting a hug from Sam brought such a sense of relief and joy. He brought muffins, Odwalla smoothies, eggs, bagels, avocado, and even vegetarian sausages! I had been eating oatmeal for 8 mornings in a row and pasta for 8 dinners in a row, and the treats he brought were incredible!
We hiked 7 miles further that night, then camped at a creek by Crabtree Meadow. The next morning Tuesday 7/28, it was finally time for Mt. Whitney. The final 4,500 ft of climbing. Sam had brought the crossword puzzle from the newspaper that we usually do each week. As we hiked up endless switchbacks to Trail Crest, Sam was behind me reading the crossword clues out loud and writing them in as we hiked. An amazing distraction. We made other hikers laugh as we passed them, seeing shock on their faces that we were working on a crossword puzzle as we hiked.
It was amazing to arrive at the summit of Whitney. I couldn’t believe I was almost done.
Instead of hiking down the 10 mile trail to Whitney Portal with the thousands of tourists, Sam patiently guided me down the Mountaineers Route off the summit. (I only cried twice on the descent.)
I was still in disbelief that my first JMT backpacking trip was completed in 9 days, 8 hours.
A few years ago, I couldn’t have even imagined this.
I am already planning my next JMT hike in reverse, with a goal of 7 days.
Huge thanks to the Donner Party Mountain Runners for inspiring me and making me UNAFRAID!!!!!! Without you guys, I would never have even thought I could attempt something like this.