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"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?"
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.
But then our mornings of frenzied energy bend into afternoons of withering heat. And calling the JMT dusty is like calling K2 breezy. As early as our second afternoon, inhaling swirls of chalky earth, I turn to Stumbles and say, "I hope this isn't starting to feel like a death march."
He pauses too long, then deadpans, "It has some aspects of that."
Every day, too, our feet ache a little more. Our blisters start to pulsate. On our fourth afternoon, we stop beside the South Fork San Joaquin River and peel off our shoes and socks for a therapeutic soak. I half expect our dirt-blackened, overheated soles to boil the water, cartoon-like. Instead, I get an elated jolt of frigid energy–it's never felt so damn good not to feel my feet. But then, reality: We commence The Ritual of the Tape, strategically covering hot spots. Todd and Mark tape over wounds that look like small stratovolcanoes. Heather's feet look the worst: She's wrapping all 10 toes.
By that evening, Stumbles and I are climbing the switchbacks along Evolution Creek's fantastically endless succession of roaring waterfalls, which almost make me forget that my legs feel like wood. The sound drowns out my creeping doubt; the water, tumbling downhill, somehow keeps tugging me up. The indifferent wilderness has seen countless struggles here, but it buoys me anyway. The scenery is morphine, and I'm a lab chimp constantly pushing the button for another dose. Then Stumbles looks at me with sunken eyes. "I'm pasted," he confesses. We wait an hour for Heather and Todd to catch up; when they do, at dusk, it's clear that Heather's struggling. Still, she insists we hike until 9 p.m., because we've fallen behind schedule.
So we limp–and Stumbles weaves–in the dark up to a smooth granite slab near Evolution Lake. We lay our bags out under a sky machine-gunned with stars. Utterly prone, our legs and feet resting, the world instantly becomes a better place, the many miles a deluded memory. Comforted by the almost-silence of a wilderness night, we cling to the loitering hope that we still might pull this off.
At some point, The Thing That We Want To Do morphs into This Thing That We Have To Do. It may have happened way back on that second afternoon, when Stumbles and I deliberated the precise meaning of "death march." Maybe it happened this morning, our fifth, when things nearly unraveled: Our mystical sunrise hike past Evolution, Sapphire, and Wanda Lakes turned into an endorphin-charged rush up and over 12,000-foot Muir Pass ("Big rebound for me!" cried Stumbles), but then it devolved into a pathetic two-hour power nap beside a creek in LeConte Canyon. (We were waiting for terminally blistered Heather, who dropped hours and miles behind after we left camp at first light.) Maybe it's when we finally bid farewell to her–after she limps up to us, promptly announces she's done, and decides to hobble out a side trail. Then again, it might just be because we've blitzed 135 miles in four and a half days, and we like resting in the LeConte shade, but resting costs us precious time. And we have to move. And moving is starting to suck. The prospect of another 86 miles in a little over two days seems, to say the least, daunting.
But we pick ourselves up and struggle on, like Napoleon into Russia, toward the JMT's hardest climb–a 4,000-foot ascent to 12,100-foot Mather Pass. We scale literally hundreds of switchbacks, shooting-gallery ducks ticking back and forth. Squinting into the nuclear sun, my brain insists there are turkey vultures circling overhead, waiting to peck my blisters. I've known tired intimately: College wrestling practices that left me unable to lift my arms. A seven-day ski traverse in Yellowstone made epic by a five-foot dump of snow. But this takes the feeling to a new level: My mind seems separated from my body, insisting on uphill step after uphill step while my flesh moans silently. I reach the wind-chilled pass at 7:30 p.m., today's mile 27. The sunset lights up lenticular clouds that crown nearby peaks like orange toupés. The lakes below sparkle like costume jewelry. My legs are cement posts. It's absolutely spectacular. Todd is waiting in a thin down jacket; Stumbles has forged ahead to find a campsite in the dying light. We're too gassed to wonder if this is a good idea.
Morning six. We're descending mutely from Pinchot Pass when a voice calls from below. Mark Godley, a friend who'd planned to meet us for the hike's final two days, snaps us from our walking coma; his freshness infects us. He's arrived just in time: We have 60 miles to go by tomorrow night.
Afternoon six. Again, the Sierra resuscitates us. We take a quick dip in Dollar Lake. Then, a bit later, we scramble onto enormous glacial-erratic boulders for an elevated view of pearly Rae Lakes. Flirting with heat exhaustion on the 3,500-foot, nine-mile ascent to Glen Pass, at 11,978 feet, we string out.
Alone, Stumbles pauses to grab a snack from his lid pocket and notices the sack containing his eyeglasses and contact-lens kit is gone. He's suddenly consumed by the terror that he'll be unable to clean his hard lenses for the rest of the hike, and they'll dry out and get itchy and sticky and cause him permanent corneal damage and quite possibly blindness. Moments later, Godley trots up to find Stumbles' pack contents strewn over the ground. The man is sweating like Chauncey Billups, swearing like Samuel L. Jackson. "You gotta be kidding me! So stupid! I can't keep going! It's over!"
Speaking slowly and calmly, as one might to heavily armed hostage-takers, Godley reassures poor Stumbles that he'll be fine, talks him out of his delusional plan to backtrack, and persuades him to continue on.
"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.