FKT: Thomas Nelson - John Muir Trail (CA) - 2021-07-26

Route variation
north to south
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
4d 8h 27m 0s

Admin note:  The time of 4d08h27m is from the Happy Isles TH to the summit of Whitney, and slightly beats Ralph Burgess' time for the same.  Neither reported a time to Whitney Portal.

Disclaimer: All of the thoughts below are my own, and come a day after returning from my trip, with little room for perspective, but not wanting to forget detail in a haze of distance. 


I first heard of the JMT in September 2012 when I climbed Mt. Whitney.  I had camped just below the 99 switchbacks the previous evening with an eye towards summiting the next morning just before sunrise.  When I arrived at the summit hut I was surprisingly greeted by three folks, one of whom had just finished the JMT and had two friends meet him at Guitar Lake for his final climb.  I hiked down to the portal with them and was immediately hooked by the stories of the trail and knew it was something that I had to do.  Of course I began to check on what the “course record” was…

Fast forward to 2015…I had just been involved in a “less than healthy” relationship and decided I needed to go on a walk-a-bout to heal mentally.  My previous girlfriend and I had begun planning a JMT trip together and I decided it was best for me to still try it.  Needless to say, it did not go according to plan.  Partially it was an overly aggressive itinerary with a lack of proper training.  Mostly, it was relying on cycling fitness instead of backpacking specific fitness coupled with a lack of skills needed.  I ended up bailing shortly after my planned re-supply at VVR.  As an aside, VVR was amazing, and the culture there is incredible.  Those folks really love hikers, and I never miss a chance to tell others about them.  Money spent there is not wasted. 

By 2020, I had become a shadow of my former athletic self.  I was living a very unhealthy lifestyle, overweight, not sleeping, working too much, drinking too much, and ended up spending a month in the hospital after some health issues left me unable to walk.  It was a humbling experience that left me with resolve after needing help to walk to the bathroom that this would be the year I reclaimed my health.  I began slowly walking and building fitness.  I received a permit for early August.  I started training harder and losing weight, going on longer weekend hikes, riding, etc.  However, mentally, it was not to be.  I got to the start fit having hiked and trained quite a bit, and on the first day too off charging out of HI.  I made a few mental mistakes on day 1, including a wrong turn at Clouds Rest Junction, and ended a 40+ mile day a few miles below Donahue Pass, having hiked a few wrong way miles.  On day two, I tried to shake it off but my feet condition deteriorated and by day 3 I ended up hobbling around and had to bail through Piute Pass into Bishop.  I was just not quite there mentally yet…

At Christmas I had ballooned to 227 after breaking my leg.  I couldn’t stand it anymore and started walking again, slowly building to running.  In February, I scored a permit for HI and began training in earnest.  The weight started coming off and I got fitter and faster.  I began prepping all my gear and doing a few shakedown hikes, including the North-South Lake Loop, the Zion Traverse, and a section hike from Agnew Meadows.  I got more familiar with sections of the trail I hadn’t seen before.  I made my final preparations and travel arrangements and arrived in Yosemite Valley on July 21 to a cacophony of hikers, climbers, tourists, rule-breakers, and resource sponges.  I quickly made my way to the backpackers campground where I met Cliff, having just finished the JMT northbound, and chatted a little about our journeys.  I hit the hay about 9:30 for a planned 3:30am wake up call.     

July 22-Happy Isles to Shadow Lake

My alarm went off as planned and I quickly packed up and made my way from the backpacker’s campground to the start of the Happy Isles trailhead.  4:19am start from the sign.  As I started climbing immediately through the quiet night I thought of what I wanted to do, and where I had made some wrong turns last year and lost time, and I think the heightened awareness helped keep me mentally engaged. 

I hit Tuolumne Meadows around 11:30 and walked the section across the road through Soda Springs, sort of the first milestone for me.  They were doing roadwork along this section and even in the parking lots, so it was a little alarming to see heavy equipment adjacent to the trail.  I headed towards Lyell Canyon and on to Donahue, reaching the pass at 4pm.  I descended and into the first truly scenic part of the trail…the Ritter Range.  Saw a ranger above Thousand Island Lake who checked my permit, bear can, and poop shovel.  Did the small climb above Garnet and descended towards Shadow Lake, finding a small campsite just outside of the no camping zone.  Pretty solid first day, 49.7 miles on my Garmin. 

July 23-Shadow Lake to Bear Ridge

Alarm went off at 3:30 and I was walking by 4:30.  I had to perform some minor foot surgery…which would only get worse as the miles ticked by.  I was coming into Mammoth/Reds by about 8am and saw many hikers heading north towards Yosemite.  I didn’t really see too many folks heading south, but no bother.  Heading out past Red’s, there was a group on horseback that slowed me for a few minutes; reminded me of the movie “City Slickers,” both in attire and attitude.  The climb up to the ridge was still very shady so not too bad at all.  The climb up to Purple Lake was miserably hot, although once up at Lake Virginia the temp was pleasant again.  There were a few high clouds and I was starting to ask people about the weather on the pass, but it seemed to be holding.  I went over Silver Pass a little after 4pm and almost got turned around again at the top, maybe 1/10 of a mile the wrong direction, but managed to make the right way.  I fainted a little bit on the descent while filling my bottles, but managed to catch myself before faceplanting…however I was definitely out for a second or two.  I had made a note on my map to fill up at Mono Creek, and I took off my shoes and let my feet soak for a little bit.  This was the hardest day mentally, with the small un-named climbs taking a toll and the Bear Ridge climb still to come.  I managed about 47.5 miles on my Garmin before finding a good site along the ridge. 

July 24-Bear Ridge to 10 Miles north of Mather Pass

Alarm at 3:30 and walking by 4am.  Relatively uneventful morning on the way to Selden Pass.  I passed the spot I camped in the previous year and saw someone just breaking camp, chatted about how great of a campsite it was, and continued on to Selden, which in my mind is the most beautiful pass on the JMT.  Took a few photos looking back north towards Marie Lake, and realized I haven’t been taking that many photos because I’ve seen so much of the trail numerous times but wanted to make the ones I did take count.  Descended Selden towards Sallie Keyes and the long way down towards MTR.  The temp just increased all morning as I lost elevation.  Dipped my feet in Piute Creek and did a quick towel bath, my first of the trip (eewww).  Evolution Meadow seemed to fly by as I headed up to Muir Pass.  I chatted with two folks in the Muir hut as I changed socks and re-tapped my feet/popped blisters and headed down towards Le Conte Canyon.  I wanted to make it past the turn off for Bishop pass at a minimum.   As I was approaching what I thought would be my camp for the night, I broke out the headlamp and caught two yellow eyes in the beam.  I froze and let my eyes adjust…and I could see the bear’s fat fuzzy face behind the eyes.  I yelled, threw some rocks in its direction, and waved my hiking poles like a lunatic, at 9pm no less.  As I was about 1/10th of a mile from my chosen campsite, I decided to keep walking for another mile to a further site, although I did see several trees with claw mark swipes on them.  I found a spot next to some other tents so at least we would all be attacked together and settled in after 49.9 miles. 

July 25-10 miles north of Mather to Vidette

3am alarm for a 3:30am start.  My feet are beyond trashed but my legs feel fine.  I really wanted to avoid the three passes in one day, but it would’ve taken a better day 2 and I struggled day 2.  Nonetheless, I ascended the Golden Staircase in darkness and made it over Mather in time to see folks on the south side just starting to stir.  Next up, Pinchot, and I chatted with a guy at the summit who asked where I was camping and when I told him I still had to get over Glen, he said “go tear it up!”  The section from Pinchot to Glen is some of the most beautiful of the entire trail, so I got some good photos.  I saw a toddler at S Rae Lake and asked “how’d you get up here?” The mother responded that she walked ¼ mile herself!  My 4 year-old would’ve already given up. 

The last mile or so of Glen is vicious.  You can see the pass, you just keep walking further away from it.  It’s also the most remote feeling of the whole JMT.  And tiny.  Not really much space at the top for more than two people.  I chatted with a gal at the top briefly and told her “that sucked,” then headed down towards Vidette, finally feeling like the end was in sight, or at least within reach.  45 miles on the Garmin.

July 26-Vidette to Mt Whitney

I set my alarm for 2am and left between 2:30 and 3.  At this point I was so tired I just wanted to end it.  I went up Forester in darkness and reached the summit at 5am on the dot.  I was starting to miss interaction with people so I was excited to see the Ranger Station at Tyndall Creek, but I couldn’t see it from the trail and there were no people.  Some time between 9:30 and 10:30 I can see on my Garmin I made the last turn off the PCT at Crabtree and headed towards Whitney.  As I began the climb up towards Timberline Lake there was a ranger trail crew doing trail work, so I thanked them and continued on.  Guitar lake looked very low, yet there were plenty of tents around it.  I started the climb proper and kept looking at my watch and keeping my pace as consistent as possible.  I reached Trail Crest at 11:45 or so, and knew I had an hour and 15 min to break the FKT.  That was a long last two miles of stressing and looking at my watch, passing people on the way up, stumbling, exhaustion, and finally elation.  I touched the plaque on the summit at 12:46pm, for a total time of 4d, 8hr, 27min.  I puked by the shelter for good measure. 

After all that, that’s not very much cushion, but I’ll take it.  It was a very hard effort, and the summit was cloudy, windy, and sprinkling.  I changed some clothes, ate a little, coughed a lot, and headed down about 1:15.  I sprinkled a small amount of ashes of a dear friend and thanked him for his friendship through the years, and backtracked to trail crest, where the weather was getting worse.  It started to hail hard, and I broke out the rain jacket I almost left at home.   Hail turned to pouring rain on the 99 switchbacks, and it finally let up by the end of them towards trail camp.  It started again a few miles later, just to make sure my tender feet were thoroughly trashed beyond recognition.  It was a slow 11 miles down to the portal, finally getting there a few min after 6pm, but thankfully the store was still open for a Diet Coke and french fries.  I hitched in to Lone Pine with some amazing ultra runners I met at the summit and collapsed in a bathtub at the Mt Whitney Motel.  To say I was sore is an understatement.  Finally hearing my wife’s voice made it feel official.  I had reached my goal.