"Umm, hey buddy, you okay?"
It’s 4:30 a.m., a time of day that puts us in the questionable company of cat burglars and alpinists. Our headlamps probe the inky, moonless black of Yosemite Valley. We’re taking our very first steps on the 221-mile John Muir Trail. And my friend Mark Fenton is staggering violently, like a frat boy on a weekend bender.
"No problem, just a little vertigo I get hiking in the dark. I’ll be fine." He lurches near the edge of the trail–which drops off into the dark roar of the Merced River far below.
That’s when we dub him Stumbles. It was funny, at the time, because everything is funny and fun and easy when you’re motoring effortlessly uphill at the outset of a long hike and your pack only clocks in at about six pounds. Besides, we’re in Yosemite, a place crazy with distractions: In the faint first light, we stride beneath the ghostly shimmer of 600-foot Nevada Falls. Deer bound away silently in the chill air of dawn. Stars twinkle. Mountain winds whisper. At mid-morning, from ledges at 9,000 feet, we go slack-jawed at a shark’s grin of peaks: Tenaya, Cathedral, Matthes Crest. The breathtaking thing is, we’re lording over just a small taste of what’s to come on the JMT: almost-constant alpine vistas of snow-slathered mountains and jagged granite spires. Passes at 12,000 and even 13,000 feet. And a constellation of lakes reflecting it all upside down.
We’ve all dreamed of hiking this trail, but we’re also out here testing a theory: that, by going ultralight, we can collapse a three-plus-week trip into seven days of vacation. We’re taking what Ray Jardine preached in The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook back in the 1990′s–a then-controversial gospel that called for traveling 30 miles a day with a base pack weight of less than 10 pounds–to a questionably logical extreme. Back when I used to carry 50-pound loads on a regular basis, I could barely hike 10 miles a day. When I trimmed things down to 40 pounds, then 30, then even less, hikes of 15 or 20 miles felt close to effortless.
Which, inevitably, started me thinking about long trails. I soon learned that fit hikers going überlight were sailing "America’s most beautiful trail," as the JMT is often called, in just 10 days. A Muir Trail veteran told me that "30- to 40-mile days are totally doable." Unfortunately, where another hiker might think that pounding out 31 miles a day for a solid week sounds just slightly over the top, I’m like Evel Knievel contemplating the Grand Canyon: My altered brain chemistry rationalizes, "How hard could that be?"