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December 2007

The Hike: John Muir In a Week

Got a few days off, a pair of healthy feet, and a pain threshold higher than Dean Karnazes? You can (possibly) blaze the length of America's Most Beautiful Trail

"My feet hurt too much to stop anymore. I’m going to just keep moving. I’ll see you at Whitney Portal."

Todd tells me this, with madman eyes. I try to comprehend, but the throb in my soles is sending tremors to my ear canals, or something. He’ll be fine. It’s day seven. We’ve just dragged ourselves over the stunningly stark granite moonscape of 13,120-foot Forester Pass, and it never occurs to me that Todd, a competitive distance runner, might actually run half the 30 sun-baked miles left on this megaschlep (which, in fact, he does).

Hours later, in the warm, slanting rays of evening, Stumbles and I lumber up to Trail Crest junction, a wide ledge chiseled from Whitney’s cliffs at 13,620 feet. Godley labors somewhere behind us. The trail continues to the 14,495-foot summit, an out-and-back hike of four miles. Todd’s pack sits here; he’s gone for the top. But it’s not for me–my legs are too cooked. There’s a red stain blossoming on my sock, Curt Schilling-style, but I can’t summon his strength, not after days of this. Hobbled by his own blisters, Stumbles dreads the approaching nightfall.

All that remains is the Mt. Whitney Trail’s 8.5-mile, 5,000-foot descent. It’s a big day by any normal measure, but we’ve taken 500,000 strides this week, so it doesn’t sound so dismaying. Our trek will culminate at 10:00 tonight with its longest day: 35 miles and 18.5 hours. We’ll feel elated over what we’ve done, because there’s something redeeming in reaching the brink of self-destruction without plummeting over the edge. Something rewarding, in that twisted, unhealthy way that makes mothers worry and gives masochists a reason to live. And, if nothing else, we answered this trip’s motivating question: The ultralight movement isn’t all hot air and hype, sawed-off toothbrushes and tissue-thin sleeping bags. Our gear was tops. Our training was solid. Otherwise, we never would have made it at all.

In fact, the only piece of equipment that has yet to be engineered for these kinds of daily miles is the human body. Or maybe the human foot. Sure, we trimmed down our loads–but what we really did was trade the throb of sore shoulders for the bark of badly blistered toes. Maybe there are a few people out there with some combination of superhuman endurance and heavily cushioned insoles who can make these miles in a modestly pleasurable fashion. The rest of us will want to take the ultralight movement and adapt it to something more realistic: say, a 10-day assault of the JMT, about 22 miles a day, with a pack that comes in a hair under 25 pounds (see "The Plan," page 78). A hike that still doesn’t take away all your vacation days, but doesn’t turn your feet into mincemeat. A hike that’s faster and lighter and humane, so that you can still experience all that is great about John Muir’s wilderness without it being obscured by a fog of pain.

Or by lack of sleep. Or, for the unlucky few, by a case of vertigo. As Whitney’s granite spires fade into darkness, it’s time for our mascot to perform. Sure enough, from behind me comes the sound of something large crashing through brush, and I spin around–though I’m perfectly, wearily calm. I know it’s not a bear.

My headlamp beam falls on a pair of legs sticking out, upside-down, from a bush. Stumbles is kicking like an overturned turtle. "Go ahead, I’ll be fine," he says, his voice muffled by what sounds like leaves in his mouth. I extend a hand to him, thinking it’s been a very, very long week.

Northwest editor Michael Lanza’s next trip is an AT thru-hike with no shoes.

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