Before long, I’d convinced myself that thru-hiking the JMT in seven days was not only feasible but would even, quite possibly, be enjoyable. Honing my sales pitch, I assembled a team of the blissfully ignorant. I told them to get in the shape of their lives. I gave them four months. Fenton took 5 a.m. speed hikes on the rocky trails of the Blue Hills Reservation outside Boston. Todd Arndt did hours-long trail runs in the Boise foothills. Heather Dorn, from eastern Pennsylvania, ground out 25-mile day hikes in blistering heat on the Appalachian Trail. I eventually built up to a one-day, 32-mile jaunt in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with Fenton–10,000 feet of ups and downs.
Now, on the JMT, it’s paying off. Not to sound cocky, but we’re chewing up distance. We roll into Sunrise High Sierra Camp–nearly 13 miles out–by 10 a.m., as fresh as if we just walked around the block. Come afternoon, the heat is draining, but by then we’re chowing on burgers, fries, and shakes at the Tuolumne Meadows café at around mile 22. Most JMT thru-hikers take two days or more to get here.
But we’re far from done with this day: Picking up our camping gear and a resupply of food in Tuolumne, our full loads now weigh a skimpy 18 pounds. We hike until the dusk bleeds to dark, pitching our tarps near a windswept, alpine tarn in Lyell Canyon. We pass the ibuprofen like we’re doing shots, rub sore-but-not-too-sore feet, and take stock. On our first day, we’ve walked 34 miles, with 7,000 feet of uphill. Mark’s pedometer reports an astonishing tally: We’ve taken 72,376 steps. We should look like boot-camp washouts, but instead we’re just kind of tired. As we take an icy dip in the lake, below a skyline littered with granite cliffs, Stumbles tells me giddily, "You know what? I can’t believe how good I feel."
I smile, naively, thinking: We’re gonna make it.
"This is the best I’ve felt on this entire trip." Todd announces this as we bask in the sun after a frosty mid-morning swim in Purple Lake, pinched within a horseshoe of unnamed 11,000-foot peaks. Which is strange, and maybe a little bit shocking, because since leaving Yosemite Valley exactly 54 hours ago, we’ve walked 72 miles. How? We hit the trail by 5:30 a.m. to take advantage of the cool temps. Manic, we pass tents closed to the prehistorically quiet forest. All morning, we hurtle past backpackers humping huge loads, sweating salty rivers. We overhear their comments–"Those guys are bookin’!"–and repeatedly explain our big-mileage game plan. No one calls us crazy. In fact, they all say, "I gotta try that, too."
The JMT in August is not a place you normally go for solitude. But all those traditional backpackers–with their big loads and deluxe kitchens–don’t get moving until mid-morning and quit by 5 p.m. Which means that during the day’s finest hours, we have the Sierra to ourselves. Early and late, the sun casts long shadows across alpine gardens littered with granite boulders; alpenglow paints summits gold; and stillness pervades amphitheater views over Donohue Pass, Thousand Island Lake, and Silver Pass.