My wife and I backpacked the High Sierra Trail west-to-east over five days in 2006. We were not in the best of shape and got horrendous blisters from our boots before we even got to Bearpaw. As a last resort to salvage the trip we tried hiking in the sandals we were carrying. To our surprise they worked quite well. We hiked the rest of the trail with them and carried our boots. That was the last time we ever wore hiking boots.
Flash forward five years and I was preparing for quite a different trip on the HST. My goal was to break Brian and Peter’s record and to dayhike the full trail. I thought I had a pretty good chance of succeeding. In general I was in pretty good shape with the exception of not being properly conditioned for such a long continuous effort. I hadn’t done anything exceeding 20 miles for several months and suspected I could experience significant suffering by the end. I thought, “How bad could it possibly get?” and decided to go for it once I was miraculously able to arrange for transport to and from the trailheads. Elena Sherman, a coworker, would drop me off at Whitney Portal and my wife would pick me up at Crescent Meadows—if I made it.
After sleeping a few hours at the trailhead I started running at 1 AM on September 2—or at least it was my intention to run. The three days of sleeping in my altitude tent and at the trailhead apparently did little to encourage enough red blood cell production. I had to stop running after only a few seconds even though the trail at Whitney Portal starts out relatively flat. I resigned myself to my predicament and settled into a fast walk up Whitney. I made steady progress and topped out after 3:12—still well before first light. I signed the register, put on warmer clothes for the freezing descent, and started running downhill four minutes after arriving.
I decided on the early 1 AM start so I could hopefully run the long descent through the Kern Canyon in shade and before it got too hot. The consequence of this, however, was that my descent from Whitney would be in complete darkness and slowed as a result. To make matters worse I even got off trail where the trail leveled off and crossed some slabs. I ended up going far to the left and became concerned when I found myself on some pretty steep terrain. I eventually reasoned that if I followed stream drainages then I must intersect the trail. I could see there were streams (now) far to my right and so I down climbed the prominence I was on and cut back across to the streams. I soon found the trail but probably lost a good 10-15 minutes in the fiasco. I resumed running downhill towards Crabtree and in a few minutes I could tell the sky was lightening with the approaching dawn.
On the way to Wallace Creek the altitude was really starting to affect me. I felt like throwing up and had to stop eating for a bit (I can now commiserate with how Brian must have felt). As I approached Wallace Creek I faced a choice of whether to continue or not. Not only was the altitude a problem but I was already feeling the miles. I had already done more miles than I had at any point in the past several months but was only about 30% finished. Once I descended into Kern Canyon I would be committed to finishing at Crescent Meadows. I decided to go for it. The uncertainty in continuing was exhilarating.
The descent down to Kern Canyon was fabulous and was soon topped by the run down the canyon itself. This has to be one of the best forested runs in the Sierra! I was surprisingly able to run most of the way from Junction Meadow down to the bridge past the hot springs during the cool crisp morning air. I virtually never was in direct sunlight. For reference for anyone else ever wanting to do the same, I started the descent into the canyon from Wallace Creek at 7:06 AM and reached the lower end of Kern Canyon at 9:47 AM.
The ascent out of the canyon was a different story. It was exposed and hot. I trudged along up to the Chagoopa Plateau. Once I got up to the plateau I kept my eyes open for the trail junction to Moraine Lake. Somehow I never saw the junction and was annoyed when I saw Moraine Lake in the distance through the trees. I wound up taking the 0.7 mile longer detour to Moraine Lake and lost another 10-15 minutes. The hike along the Chagoopa Plateau was long, hot and uneventful, but I was able to run much of the descent down to the Big Arroyo Canyon.
I quickly hiked up to Kaweah Gap and was pleasantly surprised to only be 15 minutes behind my time sheet at this point. Mentally I had considered Kaweah Gap as the end of the hike, though this turned out to be premature. At this point no major climb remained and I still felt I could run the downhill sections. Overall I was happy with my progress and thought I would be able to easily break 18 hours. I ran all the way down to Lake Hamilton whereupon I descended into a furnace. The trail was now on the south facing side of the canyon and it was now the peak heat of the day—a payback from the cool Kern Canyon traversal. Where the rough trail permitted I still ran a lot all the way down to the bridge before the climb up to Bearpaw, but I started feeling quite bad. I’m not sure what the problem was, but now think I was dehydrated with an electrolyte imbalance. General exhaustion surely didn’t help either. Regardless what the problem was I had no energy at this point and the ascent up to Bearpaw was an endless slog. Even the descent from Bearpaw to Crescent Meadows was bad. Running was definitely out of the question and I thought I might not even finish. Each small climb was mentally devastating. Six miles from the finish I remember thinking that if a helicopter magically materialized to offer me a ride I would have gladly taken it. I resorted to counting the estimated remaining minutes to distract my mind from my condition and to keep going. The end turned into a death march. Eventually I made it to Crescent Meadows just as the last of the daylight was fading.
I started at Whitney Portal precisely at 1 AM (0:00)
Outpost Camp 1:01
Trail Camp 1:47
Trail Crest 2:32
Whitney 3:12 (Departed 3:16)
Crabtree Meadow 5:09
Wallace Creek 6:06
Junction Meadow 6:53
Kern Hot Springs 8:23
Lower Kern Canyon 8:47
Junction in Arroyo 12:13
Kaweah Gap 13:14
Bearpaw Meadow 15:20
Crescent Meadows 18:39