Route: John Muir Trail (CA)

Location
California, US
Description

I lay down on a rock in the sun to warm up for a bit and I dozed off. A nice middle aged woman sat down next to me and looked at all my gear. She said, ‘Looks like you have some decisions to make.’ I said yes, I am trying to finish this trail but I have a plane to catch that I really can’t miss and tons of work to get back to and I’m trying to decide if I can/should try to make it. She replied, “Why are you here?” I went into a long explanation of how I was running the 225 mile John Muir Trail and I was doing it unsupported and I was trying to set a record. She smiled and looked at me with warm penetrating eyes, “But why are you here”. And then she just got up and walked away... -- John Stamstad, 2005 (from his report on a failed attempt at the unsupported JMT record in September 2005)

The John Muir Trail (JMT) runs 223 miles from Whitney Portal to Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, crossing some of the most rugged and remote country in California. The JMT traverses Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks, and the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness Areas (Inyo National Forest). The southern terminus of the JMT is "officially" on the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,495'), and hikers/runners must traverse an additional 11 miles between the summit and the trailhead at Whitney Portal (8,500 feet). Click here for a profile of the route. For FKT purposes we consider the JMT to be a TH-to-TH (pavement-to-pavement) route, but we also report Whitney summit times.

NOTE: There have been issues with people not following the "official" route. Going forward (from September 2017) we will NOT recognize any FKT that does not use the official JMT all the way. There are many places you can get off route, if you do you need to return to where you got off and continue from there. There are 3 main places where people have had confusion:

1) Red's Meadow. The JMT does NOT go to or through the campground or to the store, but stays mainly west of the Middle Fork San Joaquin River through Devil's Postpile National Monument. Follow the blue line on this map, NOT the red line.

2) Tuolumne Meadows. The JMT stays south of the campground and road, as per the blue line on this map. If you leave the JMT to go to the campground (etc.) you must return to the JMT at the same point!

3) Yosemite Valley. The JMT is on the south side of Nevada Falls. On a northbound trip you must cross the Merced above Nevada Falls at an obvious sign. DO NOT take the Mist Trail! Follow the blue line on this map, NOT the red line.

Speed attempts on the JMT have largely been done south-to-north (Whitney to Yosemite). This makes sense because the Whitney Portal TH is 4300' higher than the Happy Isles (Yosemite) TH. Also, NoBo trips get the higher, harder terrain over with earlier, while the hiker/runner is still relatively fresh. On the other hand, the majority of all JMT thru-hikes are done in the other direction (SoBo), probably because that direction allows for hikers to acclimate to the higher, southern altitudes more gradually. We report FKTs separately for each direction.

There have been many amazing, fast trips done on the JMT over decades. I have a lovely email from Mrs. Christine Speed, who's husband, Robert Speed(!), apparently set the speed record in 1948 when he was just 16 years old. Unfortunately, Mrs. Speed didn't know the time. Here's an exerpt:

I think that to hold a record in 1948 you had to at least jog the trail as late into the night as you could see, eat very little and drink out of streams. My husband was exceedingly self-reliant, fearless and needed very little in nature. He could just throw himself down anywhere on the ground and go to sleep. But someone must have timed him and obviously, his time was formally entered because he knew he had set the record. All he did say, in self deprecation, was that the record was superceded virtually immediately in the next year or two. - Christine Speed, June 15, 2005.

In the age of the internet it has become much easier to keep track of the records. Nevertheless, prior to the FKT trip of Peter Bakwin & Buzz Burrell in 2000 the actual record was murky. They concluded that Jim Knight held the record from Whitney to Yosemite (around 4.5 days), while Blake Wood held the car-to-car (from Whitney Portal) record at 4d22h, Aug. 9-13, 1998 (Jim had slept on top of Whitney.) Burrell & Bakwin beat both times on their trip (4d14h39m from Whitney Portal), but didn't reach their goal of 96 hours, car-to-car. Their trip reports are archived here. Some interesting discussion of the Portal vs. Summit issue, and other JMT items, is on at this thread.

We later learned via John Rosendahl that Don Douglass did the JMT supported in early August 1982 in 4d21h30m from Whitney Portal to Happy Isles. This time would appear to beat Blake Wood's 1998 time. The run was reported in the LA Times (8/11/1982). Douglass started with 6 companions. Nicki Lewis and David Hermitage finished the trip in 5d16h, while Greg Laval, Bob Holtel and Fred Copeland did not finish because of injuries. Lewis' time may have been the fastest by a woman up until Sue Johnston's 2007 trip, though Catra Corbett apparently did the route in 5d15h50m in 2004 as the first leg of a yo-yo (which she completed in 12d4h58m, which I think is the overall yo-yo FKT).

Peter Bakwin went back in 2003 and did 3d22h4m solo, supported, Whitney Portal to Happy Isles. His trip report is here. About a month later, Flyin' Brian Robinson failed to beat Bakwin's time due to getting lost in a sleep-deprived fog on the final night. The next year, Kevin Sawchuk ran it in 3d21h5m. The record was lowered to 3d20h0m by Sue Johnston in 2007. Johnston's time was the fastest by a woman for 10 years until Darcy Piceu's remarkable run in 2017. Michael Popov took serious stabs at Johnston's supported record in 2008 and 2009, but failed both times.

There have also been many fast unsupported trips on the JMT. Some unsupported people have liked to keep their times from the summit of Whitney, rather than the Whitney Portal (car-to-car) terminus preferred by supported runners, which can make for some confusion. Reinhold Metzger claimed the record for a long time, beating his own records from time to time, with a best time of 5d7h45m (Mt. Whitney to Happy Isles, 2004). However, it turns out that John Rosendahl did a faster trip way back in 1988 (Aug. 25-30), hiking solo, unsupported and uncached from Whitney Portal to Happy Isles in 5d7h50m. Rosendahl's trip was reported in the Los Angeles Times (10/3/1988), the Irvine World News (9/29/1988), and the Sierra Club Newsletter (Dec. 1988). Mark Davis hiked solo and unsupported from Whitney Portal to Happy Isles in 5d10h8m (5d5h18m from the summit), starting on August 18, 2008 -- a fast time but not faster than Rosendahl. Davis' report is very instructive for anyone wishing to try this, so I am quoting it extensively here:

I departed Whitney Portals at 5:10 a.m. on August 14, 2008. I hiked to the Summit of Mt Whitney in 4 1/2 hours and departed at 10:00 a.m. Kept hiking till midnight and camped at Rae Lakes. The next day I felt tired going over Pinchot and Mather passes, and camped on the Kings River. The third day went better. I made it over Muir and Seldon passes. This was my favorite part of the whole trail and I hope to go back there someday to explore. The fourth day also went great and I made it to Devils Postpile for the night. Leaving Devils Postpile the next day, I came upon a small wildfire, attempted to put it out as best I could and called 911 with my cell phone - which worked! I felt very good about doing something to protect this gorgeous wilderness. That afternoon my left leg developed a horrendous cramp and I limped into Tuolumne Meadows for the night. The next morning I felt a little better and hiked the 24 miles to Happy Isles, where I was surprised to find the bridge missing. My wife and kids met me here and took me down to Cathedral Beach so I could soak the dirt off of my feet and drink a beer. My total time on the JMT was 5 days, 5 hours and 18 minutes (not that I was keeping track). This was a very exciting and challenging 5 days...and I'm thinking about doing it agian. Also, I like the way it removed my "love handles". Through the whole trip I had doubts about being able to finish this trail and I was pleased every time I passed an exit trail and kept going. This helped build my confidence and made me feel real good. - Mark Davis

Davis' starting pack weight was 18 lbs, including 10 lbs of food, which consisted entirely of the Hammer Nutrition sports drinks Perpetuem and Recoverite. In his report he discusses the bear canister issue -- Davis did not carry one.

What is this disgusting yellow crap I'm coughing up? Should I be concerned? -- Brett Maune, hours after completing his JMT record. 

Speed trips on the JMT have generated in some amazing stories.  In the honorable mention category, John Tidd did the JMT north-to-south starting at Happy Isles at 4:14 a.m. on September 1, 2017. Tidd made it to within about 400 yards and 350 vertical feet of the Whitney summit, but then turned around at 4:07 a.m. on September 4 (just under 3 days) due to being unable to find the summit in the dark & fog, exacerbated by wind and fatigue. Had he been able to continue to the summit normally (or waited until daylight???) he would clearly have bested Panilat's Summit-TH time of 3d4h30m, and almost certainly the overall TH-to-TH FKT as well. Below, Tidd sums it up as follows: "Alone near the summit with no moon, no cell phone battery and in very windy and foggy conditions with poor sense of balance from limited visibility and fatigue and I could not find the summit and after going to what seemed to be the end of the trail (a large block of rock blocked or marked the end of the trail) I could not find any indication of where the summit was and turned around. Comparing GPS files I seemed to have been 125 meters of elevation from the summit. I was warm with my puffy jacket but sitting put and waiting for others or daylight never entered my mind." Tidd posted a detailed trip report on his Facebook and here (which is on page 13 of this thread). We note that Tidd took a route variation through Reds Meadow, and was off of the official JMT route in that area for about 2 miles, which would certainly have generated controversy had he completed the JMT and claimed the FKT.

 

JMT Speed Trips (chronological order, not all are/were records):
Robert Speed 1948 unsupported(?) time unknown
Don Douglass Aug. 1982 supported 4d21h30m
Nicki Lewis & David Hermitage    Aug. 1982 supported 5d16h
John Rosendahl Aug. 25-30, 1988 unsupported 5d7h50m
Jim Knight July 1990 self-supported(?) (about 4.5d)
Blake Wood Aug. 9-13, 1998 supported 4d22h
Buzz Burrell & Peter Bakwin Jul. 31 - Aug. 5, 2000 supported 4d14h39m
Peter Bakwin Aug. 11-15, 2003 supported 3d22h4m
Kevin Sawchuk Jul. 31 - Aug 4, 2004 supported 3d21h5m
Reinhold Metzger 2004 unsupported (5d7h45m)
Catra Corbett 2004 resupplied (self-supported) (5d15h50m)
Jacqueline Florine Aug. 27 - Sep. 2, 2005   unsupported (southbound) 6d12h27m (6d6h53m)
Michael Popov Jul. 30 - Aug 4, 2007 unsupported (4d5h25m)
Sue Johnston Aug. 24-29, 2007 supported 3d20h (3d15h32m)
Mark Davis Aug. 18-25, 2008 unsupported 5d10h8m (5d5h18m)
Brett Maune Sep. 3-6, 2009 unsupported 3d14h13m (3d9h58m)
Ian Alloway Sep. 3-7, 2009 unsupported (4d5h5m)
Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe Aug. 1-4, 2013 supported 3d12h41m (3d9h5m)
Michelle Jung Sept. 16-23, 2013 unsupported 6d11h35m (6d6h5m)
Ralph Burgess July 7-11, 2014 unsupported, southbound (4d8h43m)
Jenn Shelton July 22-26, 2014 supported, northbound 4d9h30+m
Megan Armstrong Aug. 16-22, 2014 unsupported (accompanied), northbound (6d2h44m)
Leor Pantilat Aug. 15-18, 2014 supported, northbound 3d7h36m (3d4h30m)
Andrew Bentz Aug. 26-29, 2014 unsupported, northbound 3d11h00m (3d7h8m)
Kurt Achtenhagen Sep. 8-12, 2014 unsupported, southbound, different route to Tuolumne    4d8h12m (3d23h11m)
Amber Monforte Aug. 27 - Sep. 1, 2015 unsupported, northbound 5d0h37m (4d19h50m)
Amber Monforte July 22-26, 2016 unsupported, northbound 4d5h6m (4d1h13m)
Darcy Piceu Sept. 15-17, 2017 supported, northbound 3d7h57m (3d4h12m)
François D'Haene Oct. 14-17, 2017 supported, northbound 2d19h26m (2d16h31m)

Times in parentheses () are using Mt Whitney summit as the southern terminus, others terminate at Whitney Portal.
Italics indicate women.

 

Sleep deprivation is a pretty fascinating thing. Everything I could see was moving, even the rocks, they just kept shifting around... The mind also has an interesting way of coping with stress. I was starting to get a couple of blisters but in my mind they weren’t mine — they were someone else’s The one on my right heel belonged to a girl at the office which is even more strange because I don’t work in an office. I kept getting mad at her “would someone please tell her to stop smashing that blister, it hurts like hell!”, or “my god do I have to stop and bandage that for her again? Can’t she do anything herself?" -- John Stamstad, 2005

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