FKT: Kathryn Zealand - John Muir Trail via Whitney Portal (CA) - 2023-09-07

Route variation
north to south
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
6d 1h 16m 0s

The origin story: The John Muir Trail has been on my bucket list since moving to California 6 years ago. One challenge is that it wasn’t realistic that I take 2-3 weeks off work to do it normally, and about a year ago I started wondering about trail running it. I’ve got more experience with mountaineering and long-distance backpacking than with running, but was looking for a goal that could motivate me to train and get into it. Originally I had been planning a ~8 day itinerary, but when I realised that the women’s record was 6 days, it felt close enough to be worth an attempt! 

I’d been training for more than year, and yet this is objectively a terrible year for an FKT attempt. There was so much snow in the passes, and water in the rivers, that I cancelled my original permit for early August and delayed until Sept. Except now there is colder weather and less daylight. This year also saw bridges being destroyed, and in particular I had a terrible time wading across the San Joaquin river - do not recommend! 

Personally this was also a tough year, with my mum tragically and unexpectedly passing away in the spring. If anything though, this motivated to push through, and forge some good memories this year.


Prep: I was returning from a two-week work trip just the day before my permit started, and so had tried to do a lot of my food and gear prep before the trip. It still felt very hurried day-of getting everything organised, and I made some critical mistakes. 

I had planned to pick up my permit before they close at 5pm, do a final gear pack at the trailhead, go to bed early and leave about ~1am. Unfortunately I realised three-quarters of the way into the drive from home (San Jose) to Yosemite that while I’d followed a very detailed checklist of all the gear and food to go into my “JMT Box”, I had forgotten the final critical step of putting that box into the car!😱 Feeling like a right idiot, I continued to pick up my permit before the 5pm deadline, then drove back home, grabbed my stuff and drove back to Yosemite. 

By the time I got back to the park it was well after midnight, so I decided to delay my planned start time, but still only got a few hours of the sleep. It was the opposite of the unhurried well-rested start I was going for!


Friday 5.36am: Officially started! Felt good despite lake of sleep, a few other hikers around. The waterfalls were still very active and beautiful. 

Minor hiccup when I realised that in the dark I’d fallen pray to the exact navigation trap that is warned about on the JMT FKT page, were I was on the North side of Nevada Falls instead of the South side of the falls. I didn’t want to risk being disqualified, so I turned downhill and ran back down the JMT until I’d found the junction that I’d missed. This was a little frustrating, but I was feeling fresh so I compensated by running the extra triangle fast enough that I didn’t “feel” like I’d wasted too much time getting off-trail. 

7am:  Sun comes up, beautiful views of the Yosemite domes

Noon: by around midday I was running through the beautiful meadows and high country. The weather was perfect and the trails very runnable. This was perhaps my favourite section

~6pm: Donohue pass as evening set it, so did the weather. My first snow coming over Donohue was accompanied by increasing wind, and occasional hail and rain. I had intended to go all the way to Red’s on this first day, but it was very slow-going walking/running in the wind, and I was worried that I was getting too cold. I had a warm down quilt & mitts, but didn’t want to wear them when the wind was whipping rain under and around my poncho.


I called it a night at ~11.30pm near Garnet lake, hoping to sleep through the storm. I found want looked like an well established and sheltered campsite. Unfortunately the wind was sustaining 40-60km/h, and my Sol Bivvy was making a huge amount of noise. I kept considering relocation my bivy in case that made it better, but I was so cold I didn’t want to risk leaving the bivy.  Didn’t sleep at all. :-(

Saturday 5.30am Started running again as it got light, and the whole morning was a mix of hail and rain. Very cold. One of the low moments. 

Devil’s Postpile 11am: Still raining, but at least it got warmer throughout the day and I was feeling better and moving faster. 

The afternoon dried up a bit, was listening to Audiobooks and the day seemed to pass quickly 

Silver Pass 10.30pm I had intended to get over Seldon pass before stopping for the night, but it was still cold and wet and I was feeling very tired, so stopped at midnight. Turned the garmin off overnight since I had been planning on using Solar to top my the charge on my all my electronics, but it had been so cloudy for the first 2 days that the garmin was draining faster than expected and not really recharging. 

Sunday 5am. I slept a bit better that night, but found it very hard to get up an go in the morning. I probably stayed in the bivvy for an hour or two longer than planned since there was again hail in the morning and I couldn’t bring myself to get up and be so cold. I was after 5am before I was back on the trail.

Seldon pass another long runnable section, the day seemed to pass by unremarkably.


San Joaquin River 7pm With the weather and starting late, I arrived at the San Joaquin downed bridge just as evening was falling. The forest service were there starting to work on removing and replacing the bridge that was damaged by snow. Hikers I’d spoken to on trail had all forded the river instead, saying it was about thigh high.

I went for it, but quickly found the water closer to waist height (perhapsI  hadn’t found the best place to cross, or just the water level was higher later in the day). I was already cold/wet/exhausted, and found myself panicking and struggling. I slipped a few times, and had a couple of moments where I felt in serious trouble. I made it to the far side with adrenaline racing. I was also soaked, including my pack, and it was getting dark. I couldn’t feel my feet, and knew I had to keep moving to avoid hypothermia.


8.30pm as the light faded, I discovered another problem… my light wouldn’t turn on. I was using a waist light that ran directly from a battery pack, and although I’d thought I had plenty of juice left earlier in the day, it seemed that now the battery was totally dead. It must have short circuited in the river crossing. Of course in hindsight I should have had all my electricals in a waterproof bag, but the battery had been in a chest pocket, and I hadn’t imagined I’d have gotten wet upto my chest…

I briefly tried to continue by moonlight/starlight, which sort of worked until the trail when into the trees and I was tripping and getting lost. I also knew that soon should be the Evolution Meadows river crossing, which felt impossible and unsafe to do in the dark when already cold.

Frustrated but not feeling like I had a choice, I stopped, felt around with my hands to find a flattish/dry spot to sleep and had to wait until daylight. This was another cold night, I was nervous about getting into my quilt while still so wet from the river but didn’t feel like I had any alternatives. Sure enough moisture management was difficult and in the morning carried my quilt by hand for an hour to try to dry it out before putting it away.


Monday 6.30am Finally had enough light to each out again. My feet were also getting problematic. They felt constantly wet from the river crossings, and each morning I’d spend ~30mins trying to tape blisters.

The day started looking better as this was a lovely section of the trail. 

Thankfully the rain had stopped, and I was very aware that I needed some way to keep moving after dark if I wanted any hope breaking the FKT. The battery pack I was using didn’t get any visual signals of whether it was charging / what charge was left, and I couldn’t tell whether it had dried up enough to hold charge. I didn’t want to be surprised again, so made the bold decision to only use my phone’s flashlight as my light for the rest of the trip. This was obviously not ideal, but the phone was charging via the solar panel, and I liked that I’d be clearly able to see what % of battery is had left. I was nervous about using the waistlight+battery pack but being plunged into darkness on some high mountain pass or somewhere it would be tricky to recover from.

2pm Muir Pass the trail upto Muir pass was another of my favourites. Very scenic, the sun was out, not too much snow. Beautiful.

7pm Palisade Creek, the path up to Mather Pass was full of downed trees and re-routes. It was an unpleasant section, especially after dark. At about 9.30pm I managed to get quite disoriented. I think I crossed Palisade creek when I should just have crossed a side-stream, and spent ~2hrs bushwacking, in the dark, on the wrong side of the river. I had do backtrack and ended up fording the river again, resigned to another night with wet feet. My legs were all scratched up and the futility of it was an emotional low point.

2am Mather Pass finally made it over Mather, and bivvied at about 5.30pm-8am on the far side. Finally had a good night, sleep solidly.

Tuesday 8am Started hiking again, but was really feeling my body. Had bad blisters forming on my feet, my left knee was painful (unclear if that was from the downhill running, or from hitting it on rocks during a river crossing), and my achilles tendonitis was playing up - I’ve always had stiff ankles in the morning, and this morning felt especially bad. Was pretty slow going early on, but sped up as I warmed up.

2pm Pinochet Pass another beautiful day that was passing fairly uneventfully. The Woods Creek descent felt painfully slow, the glacier moraine wasn’t runnable and with a sore knee was slow going.

The climb up the south fork of woods’ creek was also very slow going at first, with many downed trees and avalanche debris. 

8.30pm Rae Lakes I was disappointed it was already dark when I hit Rae lakes, since it was an area I was very much looking forward to! But at least the path was well maintained and the weather milder.

11.45pm Glen Pass cold and windy but feeling good!

2am Bubbs Creek - bivvy’d here for ~4 hrs, took more time to do foot care and sort out food for final day

Wednesday 8am on the trail again. Was going to be a big day with Forrester and Whitney!

12pm Forrester Pass The final leg up Forrester was a slog,  and felt very slow going. But ran into a friendly group of PCT hikers at the top who were very supportive

I had underestimated the distance between Forrester and Whitney… my original hope of at least getting up Whitney in the light started to dwindle. Its 34km between Forrester and Whitney…and it took me nearly 8 hours to get to Guitar Lake. My “running” now resembled more shuffling, and I’d run out of my favourite foods. But this was a beautiful section with views of the mountains on all sides.

8pm Guitar lake. Navigation was slow going after dark on the glacier moraine, kept briefly losing the trail and having to check the phone/map.

The final section to Mt Whitney summit was longer than I remembered. I was feeling dangerously fatigued, wasn’t eating enough and the wind was brutal. Since at least it was dry, I took out my sleeping bag and wrapped it around myself, holding it together with one hand and the phone flashlight in the other. Resolving to just put one foot in front of the other.  The snow section at the top was also tricky without using poles, but being nearly finished was very motivating!

11.50pm Mt Whitney Summit. Arrived at 11.50pm on the summit, Success! The official end point of the JMT after 5 days and 18 hours. What a wild ride. I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. 

Bummer it was too dark for any views! I had been hoping to sleep for 10-20 mins in the shelter on the summit, but the floor of the shelter was covered in snow, so although it was out of the wind, it was impossible to sit for even a few mins without getting cold. I recorded a short video for my husband and decided to get off the mountain ASAP.

Thursday 1.20am back to the Whitney trail, 3am finished the 99 switchbacks. I was struggling to keep my eyes open. If I stood still I would sway, and I had to focus on leaning into the mountain, so that if I fell it wouldn’t be over the edge. That said the end was insight! Everything hurt but I just had to put one foot in front of the other.

4.14am Outpost camp - I got a bit turned around, in the dark and not thinking straight. My phone battery died so I didn’t have a map and I initially thought this was the campsite at the trailhead. Once it became clear that it wasn’t, I nearly cried. I had to wait for other groups coming up with headtorches to show me the way through the trees. Eventually the trail opened up again, and the moonlight + pre-dawn light was enough to make it the final leg home, but it was slow going and my feet felt like there was no skin left of them.

7.20am FINISHED. Collapsed into my sleeping bag without doing anything else. Slept for ~2-3 hrs before waking up, messaging family, using the bathroom etc. 

The breakfast at the Whitney Portal store was the best thing I’d ever tasted (and HUGE pancakes), and they were kind enough to let me charge my phone while I ate. I bought a new shirt and socks so I could clean up a bit before starting a full day of hitch hiking to get back to my car. What an adventure!


Gear notes:

  • Sleep: I cut down an torso length X-Lite, and paired with a 30 deg Timmermade Serpentes sleeping bag. Felt about right, I was cold but not dangerously so.
  • Rain gear: I took just a thin emergency rain poncho, nitrile gloves and SOL bivvy, because in my previous experience rain in the high sierras is more often sort afternoon storms. I ended up wearing the rain poncho for the whole first two days, and as a wind layer in the passes, it was ripped to shreds by the wind in the end. Definitely wish I’d had something more robust
  • Clothing: Given it the temperatures, I wish I had bought a proper mid-layer, since I would have worn it for 4 of the 6 days. Instead I had made some DIY down & apex mitts/vest/hat which were very light, but more finicky for how much I wore them. I was wearing a pair of montbell light tights and got sunburnt through them on day 4 and 5.
  • Food: I carried a mix of Maltodextrin (liquid carbs for runners), and classic hiker food ~15 bars/waffles, 6 peanut butter packets, M&Ms, cheese Whisps and ate them all.  I finished still carrying ~500g of food, but also being very hungry. I had too much trailmix which I couldn’t bring myself to eat (almost made me gag trying to get it down), particularly the last day on Whitney I had run out of liquid fuel, but didn’t feel like eating anything else. 
  • Electronics: I’d gone for a 5000mAh battery + solar + Nitecore UT05 waist light, which had worked before, and I prefer waist lights for running, BUT a) the first 2-3 days were overcast which gave the double problem of not much new solar power, and the Garmin was draining much quicker. b) the battery I was using didn’t have any indicator how much was left, which made planning difficult, and as I mentioned at some point it seemed to fail entirely when it got wet. The waist light is also more annoying around camp. A traditional headlamp + 20,000mAh battery might have been more robust.