Outdoor Blog

Ralph Burgess sets SoBo John Muir Trail record

Ralph Burgess (L) with friend, Seth on Mather Pass.

Ralph Burgess (L) with friend, Seth on Mather Pass.

In July 2014 Ralph Burgess (from New York; London originally) set the southbound (SoBo) unsupported record on the 211  mile John Muir Trail (JMT) without even trying hard. Carrying all his food and supplies by himself for his entire trip with no resupplies (unsupported) he started at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park and ended on top of Mt. Whitney (14,505  feet) 4 days, 8 hours and 43 minutes later. He had hiked it a couple of times before and started wondering how fast he could do it, so with no fanfare or sponsors, set out to achieve a personal best. When he posted a brief trip report on the Yahoo John Muir Trail Group people started suggesting that he may have broken a record. After some research and jumping through some hoops he was able to prove it by communicating with the ranger who checked his permit at the start and by a photo by a bystander at the top of Whitney, for he carried no camera, phone or tracking device.

A few weeks later Steve and I hiked the John Muir Trail from Tuolomne Meadows to Kearsarge Pass, having already hiked in Yosemite and completed the last part of the JMT as part of the High Sierra Trail. I was so busy getting ready for our own trip that I didn’t have time to read all of Ralph’s details so I copied them into my Kindle to read in the tent at night. We got so interested in his accomplishment that we read and re-read his account every few days as we experienced the trail for ourselves. Our admiration grew with every section as we realized that one Ralph-day equaled 4-6 of our days. And’s he’s not a twenty-something, he’s 50 years old. We examined his gear list, dissected his mileage, wondered how he got by on so little sleep (but he did sleep every night) and perused his menu, talking about him every day. As we’d drag up the Golden Staircase one painful step at a time, clutching for oxygen, we’d say, “Ralph probably did this in 15 minutes and wasn’t even breathing hard.”

One bright, clear morning it was time to tackle Mather Pass (12,100 feet), one of the most difficult passes on the trail. Steve strode ahead and I plodded along at my usual snail’s pace going uphill above 10,000 feet. It seemed like it went on forever but as I walked up the last knoll I crested the top, a little confused as to why the clot of people on the pass were below me (was it really necessary to construct the trail so it went up too high, only to drop you down to the pass?). Steve ran to the edge, excitedly calling to me, “Hurry up, you won’t believe who’s up here!” I couldn’t imagine who could have him so excited but as I drew near, Steve said, “It’s Ralph!” “Ralph?” I said. “THE Ralph?” “Yes, it’s him, right here on top of Mather Pass,” said Steve. I walked as fast as I could (not very fast), unbuckling my pack straps as I went, peered over the other side, and there was a tall, trim man folded up, perched on a rock. “What, you had to do the JMT for a third time this year?” I asked, incredulous. He explained that he was now doing the Sierra High Route, a challenging cross country course that followed a rough, cross-country route, not a trail, so he was challenging himself with a little extra route-finding. We chatted for quite awhile, asking him questions and talking about his latest adventures.

Ralph’s amazing feat is shared below in his own words, which he gave me permission to do.

Inga & Ralph on top of Mather Pass

Inga & Ralph on top of Mather Pass


JMT Trip Report 7/7/14 -­ 7/11/14

By Ralph Burgess

I hiked the John Muir Trail for the first time in 2013. This was a regular hike, admiring the scenery and the wildlife, that I completed in 8 days, including one resupply. In early 2014, it became apparent that this might be an unusually low year for precipitation in the Sierras. I started wondering about the opportunities that this presented. One opportunity was simply to visit the Sierras early in the year with relatively manageable snow levels. I completed my second through-­hike of the JMT in early June 2014 in 10 days. On a whim (and because I had not organized any resupply), I decided to do this in unsupported fashion, carrying 10 days of food from the start. There was no intention of going fast on this hike -­ it would have been pointless and dangerous with snow still covering the high passes -­ but I enjoyed the “unsupported” aspect, leaving with everything that I would need for the entire trip on my back from the start. During this June hike, I started wondering how fast I could go unsupported if I pushed myself. Unusually, the snow would be gone by early July, when there are still 15 hours of daylight. It turned out that the permit that I had reserved earlier in the year for a SOBO through-­hike on July 7th also coincided with perfect moon conditions, so the stars were (almost literally) aligning to try a fastpacking JMT.

I am in no sense an elite athlete. I am not a competitive athlete at all. I have never attempted a “Fastest Known Time” of any kind, ever. This was intended solely a personal challenge, and I went southbound simply because that was the direction that I was familiar with, and because I have an aesthetic preference for starting low and finishing high.

The only competitive sport that I’ve participated in was cycling, road racing, when I was a teenager growing up in the U.K. I was a mediocre rider in the lowest level amateur races. I then smoked and got myself overweight and generally in pretty terrible shape for over 15 years. I got healthy and fit again in my 40’s, and I’m now 50 years old. When I can’t be on the trail hiking, I trail run on relatively benign local trails in New York for personal fitness, long distances but always at low speed. I started to discover the glories of the U.S. National Parks a few years ago, and I backpack frequently, especially in the Sierras and the Grand Canyon area.

As I posted on the JMT Yahoo Group before this hike, I was hoping to complete this SOBO trip in 5.5 days, and I thought I had only about a 30% chance of making it in that time. I set out from Happy Isles on the morning of July 7th with a pack base weight of 9.7lb and 18lb of food. I followed all wilderness regulations to the best of my ability, including taking a bearcan. I adhered to “Leave No Trace” principles, taking only water from the wilderness, and packing out all my uneaten food, trash and toilet paper. I did not abandon common etiquette simply because I was moving quickly, yielding to uphill hikers in the usual fashion.

Ralph Burgess from Mammoth Lakes 7/14/14

ROUTE

I took my start time at the trailhead sign that shows the mileages to various destinations. If the correct timing point is Happy Isles Bridge, then 3 minutes should be added to my time.

I took what I believe to be the correct original JMT route throughout, with no shortcuts. In particular, going via Clark Point (not the Mist Trail) at the beginning; and at Tuolumne, crossing Highway 120 to Soda Spring, about a half mile longer than the alternate route that runs past the backpackers’ campground and stays south of 120.

 TRIP SUMMARY

Monday 7/7/14 -­ Day 1 Happy Isles 5:33 am → Island Pass (mile 42.0) 8:40 pm 42.0 miles in 15.1 hours, average speed 2.78 mph

Tuesday 7/8/14 -­ Day 2 Island Pass (mile 42.0) 4:20 am → Mono Creek Bridge (mile 87.6) 9:30 pm 45.6 miles in 17.2 hours, average speed 2.66 mph

Wednesday 7/9/14 -­ Day 3 Mono Creek Bridge (mile 87.6) 4:00 am → Le Conte Canyon (mile 133.1) 9:45 pm 45.5 miles in 17.8 hours, average speed 2.56 mph

Thursday 7/10/14 -­ Day 4 Le Conte Canyon (mile 133.1) 3:35 am → 1 mile above Vidette (mile 178.3) 9:55 pm 45.2 miles in 18.3 hours, average speed 2.47 mph

Friday 7/11/14 -­ Final Day 1 mile above Vidette (mile 178.3) 2:07 am → Whitney Summit (mile 208.2) 2:16 pm 29.9 miles in 12.2 hours, average speed 2.46 mph Total time: 4 days, 8 hours, 43 minutes

TRIP JOURNAL

I wrote this section immediately after completing my hike, when my memories were freshest. I have decided not to edit it, except for typo corrections. I later added the introduction, and the sections on kit and food at the end.

6/30 I flew into Mammoth for a week of acclimatization hiking. Far beyond a preparatory exercise, this turned out to be one of the most gorgeous hikes of my life. From Red’s Meadow, I headed west of the JMT to the string of lakes on the eastern flanks of the Ritter Range. I followed part of the Sierra High Route NOBO to cross the watersheds between lakes, first Superior then Minaret, Cecile, Iceberg, and the western ends of Ediza, the Nydivers, Garnet and Thousand Island. From the idyllic (and deserted) western end of Thousand Island Lake, with Banner Peak towering above, I climbed North Glacier Pass to cross the Ritter Range. Just across the crest, Lake Catherine flows into a series of bleak tarns and waterfalls that eventually become a major tributary of the North Fork of the San Joaquin River. Dropping into a dramatic glacial valley, I picked up the top of the Stevenson Trail to follow this San Joaquin tributary through sculpted granite into flower-­filled meadows. A little-­used trail network completes the loop around the western side of the Ritter Range through forest and meadow back to Red’s. For those who are comfortable with a few spots of Class 3, some steep scree slopes and a lot of talus hopping, this might be the ultimate JMT “side-­trip”!

7/5 Returning to Mammoth town, I had a day to nail down my equipment and food for the JMT, leaving everything else at the hotel -­ including my phone! Leaving my phone behind wasn’t based on any notion of significant weight saving, but more as a symbolic way to focus my attention fully on the wilderness. Everything that I needed to know about the JMT was either already in my head from two previous thru-­hikes, or on a few pages of heavily annotated paper maps.

7/6 YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) from Mammoth to Yosemite Valley. My worries about being unable to book a seat were unfounded. Even on this July 4th weekend, there were only about 15 passengers. The cool calm of the bus ride was shattered as I arrived in the bustling chaos of Yosemite Valley (YV). This was, most definitely, NOT where I wanted to be. But there was little that I needed to do, other than collect my permit and eat some of the mediocre fare on offer in the Village, and go to sleep. At the permit office, my stated exit date for Whitney Portal was greeted with some degree of skepticism. But I suppose that I should be grateful that I must have looked “pro” enough that it was not greeted with derisive laughter (at least not to my face). And it appears that Yosemite permit system does not have the Grand Canyon disclaimer procedure “Note -­ Aggressive Itinerary -­ Hiker Insisted on Itinerary” accompanied by a detailed explanation of how death is the only reasonable result to be expected from such a venture. This was my first visit to the YV backpackers’ campground, and it turned out to be poorly signposted and awkward to reach. But given the crowded chaos of most of the Valley, it’s a calm and pleasant enough spot, with ample sites gracefully landscaped around a bulky centerpiece of three latrines. Since I would need to walk a Mile… Mile-­and-­a-­Half from the backpackers’ campground to the Happy Isles trailhead to start my hike, I hid my bearcan overnight (with a ranger’s permission) in the woods near the trailhead. Back at the campground, I passed a pleasant afternoon chatting with Chuck and Steve. Two great guys with a lovely relaxed manner, they were also starting the next morning and are still on the trail as I write -­ good luck Chuck and Steve! Fortunately, at my bedtime (= AARP bedtime), Chuck lost interest and went to chat up a young lady who had just arrived. So I crashed out, cowboy-­style, on the picnic table. Just as John Wayne would have done, if he’d had a picnic table handy.

Monday 7/7/14 -­ Day 1
Happy Isles 5:33 am → Island Pass (mile 42.0)
8:40 pm 42.0 miles in 15.1 hours, average speed 2.78 mph

I awoke successfully at 3:30 am for a planned 5:30 am start. My first planning failure had already become apparent at the prior evening’s bedtime, when I realized a major implication of leaving my phone behind. The alarm on my watch is nowhere near loud enough to wake me from a normal sleep, let alone from short sleeps in the exhausted state that I’d quickly reach during my hike. The problem was solved in true Ultralight Hiker fashion by improvising with the equipment at hand. I left my headlamp strapped to my head while sleeping, and fastened my watch to the headlamp strap an inch from my ear. Since I was sleeping cowboy style in bug season, this was complicated by the need for a mosquito headnet over the top. This preposterous arrangement was elevated to high comedy by the fact that I’m a side sleeper who rolls frequently, and every time I rolled over I had to pull up the headnet and wiggle the watch around the headlamp strap to the uppermost ear. Still, I feel proud that this may be the first time in Ultralight Hiker history that an equipment problem has been solved without the use of duct tape. Yes, I do feel that I looked marginally less ridiculous than that hypothetical hiker with his watch duct taped to his ear.

A relaxed stroll through the night toward the trailhead, munching on Clif Bars; a moment of relief as I find that my bearcan is still there, and I’m ready to go. Rather than any kind of adrenaline rush, there was nothing but a feeling of peace as I started. Just this one thing to do for the next few days, no need to worry about anything but the wilderness ahead of me.

I’m not too sure where the timing should start, but I’m guessing that it’s at the trailhead sign, showing all the mileages, which I passed at 5:33 am. If it’s the Happy Isles bridge, I need to add 3 minutes to my time.

The first section was the long climb out of the Valley. I’m quite good at pushing myself to my fastest sustainable aerobic pace up a hill. This approach seems natural to me -­ see a hill, go up it as fast as possible! (Yes, yes, now that you mention it, I do seem to end up hiking alone much of the time.) Perhaps it’s my affinity with the sport of cycling where big climbs are climactic in many races. In any case, these sensations were familiar.

The bigger challenge, from a mental perspective as much as physical, was to maintain concentration to push the pace constantly on the flatter sections. I didn’t think that it was productive to try to run, even on the easiest parts, since I’m not built like a runner. My legs are more like a cyclist, with too much muscle bulk to run efficiently. In any case, at this stage, a pack weighing 27lb precluded running. But you can do wonders for your average speed by maintaining the mental focus to push on through easier trail sections at a brisk walk of 4 mph without ever letting up.

I was also trying hard never to stop except for water or foot maintenance, but I couldn’t resist chatting for a couple of minutes to a nice young couple who were resting on that vicious little kick up a steep gully a couple of miles before Sunrise. We’d noticed that we had similar Z-­Packs backpacks. They commented on my rapid progress up the hill, and were surprised to learn that I’d started that same morning from Happy Isles. I’d said nothing else at that point about what I was trying to do, but out of the blue he said “I guess you’ll probably finish in about 5 days at that rate!”. Uncanny. Maybe he was just really great at mental arithmetic, and I have no idea (nor did he) how or why he came up with that precise number for his intended joke. All I could do was mumble, “Erm, yes I was trying for 5-­and-­a-­half, actually.”

Having done little but eat for the prior two days, my energy levels were great, and I was surprised to discover at Sunrise, having climbed over 5000 feet in 13 miles, that I was averaging over 2.5mph, with a charge over easy terrain to Tuolumne and along Lyell Canyon to come. I was aided by a fully overcast sky that really cooled things down. The downside of the cloudy weather was drizzle turning to rain on Donahue, where the slippery rock forced me to be circumspect with my footwork and cost me a little time. Still, my overall average speed was much higher than I had expected at around 2.8 mph. My original 5.5-­day schedule called for a first night camp at 35 miles near the top of Donahue. But I felt fine, my feet were sore but unblistered, and I still had daylight. There was no way I was stopping, especially in the rain. The best way to keep my gear dry and my body warm was to keep going. I targeted around 40 miles, which would put me in the vicinity of Rush Creek, where I knew there were dozens of campsites. Unfortunately, there were also a vast number of people. I must have passed 30-­40 tents in 2 miles, pitched anywhere and everywhere. I started cursing whatever permit system had allowed this to happen, and headed on in the dusk up Island Pass, eventually finding a dismal and inadequate few square yards to camp. The rain had abated, but re-­started soon after I settled, forcing me to scramble around in the darkness to keep my unpacked kit dry and put up my tarp. I completely failed in my aim to “fastpack” and get maximum sleep time, messing around for an hour and a half before I was in my bag.

My mood at the end of the first day was mixed. I was excited that I seemed so strong, and that I’d gone so far so fast, and without any foot problems. But the real worry was about recovery. Had I’d just gone too hard, was it conceivable that my body could recover from this to do the same thing again in just a few hours? This was completely unknown territory for me.

Tuesday 7/8/14 -­ Day 2
Island Pass (mile 42.0) 4:20 am → Mono Creek Bridge (mile 87.6)
9:30 pm 45.6 miles in 17.2 hours, average speed 2.66 mph

I had planned to camp & sleep longer in the early stages, and despite the rain and messing around making camp I still managed 5 hours sleep on this first night. In the morning, I was amazed to realize that I hadn’t suffered any leg cramps overnight (I often do after much lesser efforts) and that my legs seemed to feel reasonably limber. And my mental freshness and coordination had returned. I took off fast down the hill to Thousand Island Lake, pushing hard to see if I could do it all again.

Since I’m prone to irrationally optimistic extrapolation, I had already done the mental calculations for a revised 4.5-­day schedule, figuring that I needed to do 45 miles on days 2, 3 and 4. I figured that my average speed would drop with fatigue and terrain, but that I would compensate by reducing my camp/sleep time each night. After day 4, I would grab a brief final sleep, and set off in the wee hours of the morning of the last day, hoping to cover the remaining 30 miles to reach Whitney summit by 5:30 pm (i.e. half a day later than my 5:30 am start).

Although I had not yet reached the major passes, the terrain on this second day was challenging. I prefer a steady rhythm rather than the many short sharp climbs and descents as the JMT traverses lake watersheds. But here’s where the JMT can save you. The worst moment of my day came on the climb out of the Purple Lake catchment. Having struggled over the watershed, I was greeted by the calm exposed beauty of Lake Virginia, on a perfect sunny afternoon with a gentle breeze. I took a 30 minute break, the longest intraday break of my entire hike, lay on the grass and just breathed. Now Silver Pass came easily, and I charged down toward Mono Creek in the moonlight.

Fortunately, for this night, I knew of a perfect little single bivy spot just on the far side of the Mono Creek bridge, too small to pitch a tent, and as I had hoped it was empty. The weather was fine, and unlike the first night, I was quickly asleep in a comfortable, familiar place.

Wednesday 7/9/14 -­ Day 3
Mono Creek Bridge (mile 87.6) 4:00 am → Le Conte Canyon (mile 133.1)
9:45 pm 45.5 miles in 17.8 hours, average speed 2.56 mph

Until this point, I had not thought carefully about hiking in darkness. I had done my homework on the moonlight situation, but that’s only enough to give some ambient illumination, to see the general surrounding terrain. Even with a strong headlamp, hiking fast on difficult trails is dangerous. This third day started in early morning darkness with the switchbacks up Bear Ridge, absolutely ideal for night hiking. The trail is beautifully graded, with no rocks or steps, and traveling at uphill speed is far less dangerous than trying to fly down a hill. However, in order to make my 45 mile quota, the day would end in late evening darkness in Le Conte Canyon, somewhere on the long descent from Muir Pass. I knew that the initial descent from the summit of Muir Pass, although not particularly steep, crosses fields of bleak talus, with rough circuitous trail, rock hopping, steep steps and improvised outlet crossings. This would be fearsome in darkness, so my motivation for the entire day was to reach the Muir summit hut with at least an hour of good daylight remaining.

This third day was my strongest. The Bear Ridge climb and traverse are easy smooth trail, where I could get my “diesel engine” up to speed with a steady rhythm and push forward hard. I was also excited by the approach of some of the most wonderful terrain of the JMT: Marie Lake may be the most beautiful, and the Muir pass is certainly the most dramatic. And in mid-­afternoon, soon after the Evolution crossing, came an unexpected wildlife highlight. I’ve seen many bears in the Sierras, but none moving faster than the reluctant slouch with which they relinquish ground when an annoying human approaches. This bear announced his approach with a thunderous crashing, sounding like a herd of elephants rushing towards me. Something ahead (probably another hiker) had spooked him, and he was running at full speed through the brush. A bear going full tilt, perhaps 20 mph, is an awesome sight to behold. Just off the trail, ducking and weaving with an awesome grace and power, he was past me with a casual glance and had vanished behind before I even had time to decide if I should be afraid. I’ve never had a problem with facing down the relatively timid and small Black bears of the Sierras, but this made me feel a little more circumspect. And it certainly made me think a lot harder about any plans to visit Glacier NP or Alaska. Could anyone seriously face down a 1000lb charging Grizzly without flinching, reliant on the notion that it’s probably an abortive mock charge?

Inspired by majestic scenery and equally majestic wildlife, I pushed on hard up the Muir Pass, and made my target, reaching the summit with about an hour of daylight remaining. I descended as quickly as I could through the worst of the terrain before needing my headlamp, grateful that at least the weather was fine, with a bright gibbous moon illuminating the drama of Le Conte Canyon with the Black Giant looming above. Continuing another 3 miles at high speed down Le Conte Canyon in near-­dark was the most dangerous (and perhaps foolish) part of my hike. However, waiting for daylight was simply not an option, I would lose too much time. So it was either evening darkness or morning darkness. I decided to push on past Starr Camp, and I was relieved to come across a large easy campsite right by the trail. I collapsed in relief and elation that I’d completed my 45 miles without coming to grief. I barely had the energy to think about the fearsome day to come.

Thursday 7/10/14 -­ Day 4
Le Conte Canyon (mile 133.1) 3:35 am → 1 mile above Vidette (mile 178.3)
9:55pm 45.2 miles in 18.3 hours, average speed 2.47 mph

Mather is the most difficult of the big passes. The ascent is long, but most of the elevation is gained in short and shockingly steep bursts, including the infamous Golden Staircase. I started the day feeling strong, and (in retrospect) overconfident. I was mentally well prepared for the Staircase, and it felt easier than I had anticipated. But the undulating traverse of the Palisade Lakes seemed to go on forever, and when the final climb came, I realized that I had forgotten that the trail is extremely difficult, requiring not just cardiovascular effort but rockhopping agility and strength. I pushed on up, but reached the top exhausted. I think this was the only time that I actually stopped at the top of a pass to recover. When I was able to speak, I spent a few minutes explaining the merits of trail runners to an amicable Japanese group (with sore feet) on the summit.

I headed down from the Mather summit with much greater circumspection. Mather, Pinchot and Glen in one day. Really, what was I thinking, what was I doing up here? I was faced with a similar daylight deadline as the prior day. Glen Pass is not as dangerous as Muir, but I still needed to reach the summit in daylight in order to negotiate the worst part of the tricky descent safely. I was suffering badly, and I could feel that my coordination was deteriorating much earlier today. I was forced to stop halfway up the relatively easy ascent of Pinchot, something I almost never do, since I much prefer a steady rhythm. I decided that the best psychological approach was to push myself to the absolute limit as though day 4 were the end of the hike, with the hope that adrenaline would take care of the final day.

The worst part of my trip came on the awful, awful trail that plummets through the scree slope of the Woods Creek canyon. Huge giant steps down that pummel your legs, and a trail surface made of rubble. I was trying hard to maintain good forward momentum off the steps, not just for speed, but because it reduces the impact on your knees. My coordination was by now so poor that I imagine that I looked like a drunken man at a party who thinks he can dance like Michael Jackson. To cap it all, a freak accident: one foot kicked up a piece of rubble, and a sharp corner whacked the side of my other foot, just in front of my Achilles. An intense pain, but I kept moving, almost trying to pretend it hadn’t happened. Fortunately, it seemed to have done no structural damage, the acute pain soon abated, probably just due to the sharpness of the edge of the rock. This was my nadir, exacerbated by the conviction that I was behind schedule. I believed that I would not make the summit of Glen in daylight, and that I could not possibly make up time on this terrain. To cap it all, storm clouds were looming.

At Woods Creek junction, I looked at the trail sign -­ showing mileage to Glen Pass -­ with surprise and initial disbelief, since few trail signs show distances, and when they do they can be unreliable. But glancing quickly at my map, I realized that I had mistakenly added the 2 miles of the Glen descent to the distance I thought I still had to go to the summit. Nine miles to the summit, not eleven! Two miles might sound trivial in the context of a 208-­mile trail, but it was immensely significant at that moment. I realized that if I pushed on hard I could make it over the summit and down the worst of the descent in daylight. Rejuvenated, I powered up the easy early part of the climb that takes you up from the Woods Creek junction almost 2000 feet to the Rae Lakes. In almost clichéd fashion, the storm clouds dissipated, and the JMT presented me with the Rae Lakes on a perfect summer evening. It takes a barely perceptible adjustment of the facial muscles to turn a grimace into a smile.

Friday 7/11/14 -­ Final Day
1 mile above Vidette (mile 178.3) 2:07am → Whitney Summit (mile 208.2)
2:16pm 29.9 miles in 12.2 hours, average speed 2.46 mph

I was so exhausted and sleep-­deprived that I knew I had to bed down briefly to recover, but I was terribly afraid that somehow my alarm would fail, or that I’d set it wrong. I decided to use my old-­man bladder as a backup, and drank 1.5 liters of water before lying down. Sure enough, reliable old bladder woke me up 45 minutes before the alarm, and I decided to just leave right away and get this finished.

The steadily graded long climb of Forester is the perfect terrain to hike in darkness. I flew up, knowing that nothing short of two broken legs could stop me now. Reaching the summit at dawn, I took the switchback descent conservatively, knowing that this was the last tricky descending terrain where I really could end up with two broken legs. Upon reaching the much easier trail of the plateau below, I pushed on hard, but something strange was happening. I realized that I was actually falling asleep while hiking. My head jerked up suddenly, as it does when you inadvertently nod off for a moment when sitting. I puzzled over what would actually happen if I fell asleep. Would I keep hiking straight ahead, like a car with driver asleep at the wheel, until I crashed into a tree or fell into a ditch? Or would I just collapse in a heap? Fortunately, I remembered that I still had coffee, and dumped some Starbucks Via into my water bottle. In conjunction with dunking my head in Tyndall Creek, this seemed to sort things out.

Despite the extreme sleep deprivation, I felt physically strong, if a little shaky and disoriented, and I was making great time, well ahead of schedule for my 5:30 pm target. With a mid-­afternoon arrival, my last worry was thunderstorms over Whitney. Around 9 am I glimpsed Whitney for the first time, and was elated to see beautiful lenticular clouds over some nearby summits, but no puffy cumulus. Still early, but this looked good.

The climb of Whitney was probably painful, but I don’t remember much of that. I do remember the elegance of the trail construction of the switchbacks: looking from below, it seems almost impossible that a trail could even exist here, yet the gradient is so perfect and so consistent that this must be the least energy expenditure per vertical foot gained anywhere on the JMT. Inspired by the aesthetics of the trail construction, and vowing to put the trail crew’s children through college if they fell on hard times, I powered on up. Somehow, my coordination also seemed to recover, and I hopped quickly across the talus above Trail Junction. Three descending hikers generously moved aside despite my rather unsafe rate of approach, and I was amazed to hear the last of them call out my name. It was Bill Hegardt, who I’d met on Ned Tebbits’ snow course earlier this year. Bill was descending after climbing up the Mountaineers’ Route.

KIT FAILURES

1. PhD Smartwool (mid-­weight) socks. I started using these last year, and I love the feel of them. However, I had noticed that wtih trail runners (not boots) they wore a hole where the rim of the back of the shoe rubs against the Achilles. However, I had numerous pairs, and I had not really monitored how fast this was happening. On this hike, I found that both pairs of socks had these holes in them after less than 50 miles. The Cascadia shoe padding is soft around the “rim” of the shoe where the hole appears, and there seemed to be no ill effects on my skin underneath.

2. Sawyer squeeze mini, with tube. Since this new model is so light, I was planning to fill my Gatorade bottle, then use the Sawyer like a drinking straw. This would allow me to carry virtually no water, and to drink “fresh” stream water immediately even if I felt it needed purifying. I had tried this in the backcountry the prior week, on a much more leisurely hike, and it seemed fine. I backflushed the filter with a syringe before starting. However, it just did not work on this hike. The filter dries out quickly, and clogs quickly, and after half a day it was taking several really strong and tiring sucks to get the water flowing each time. Not such a big deal on a leisurely hike, but annoying when you’re breathing hard. And it soon developed a disgusting taste for the first few mouthfuls, presumably from the microorganisms stuck in the filter. I switched back to the Aquatabs that I was carrying as a backup. However, I judged at least 50% of water sources to be safe without purification, and I have (so far) no GI symptoms.

KIT CHANGES

What kit changes would I make if I did this again?

I would take less. No shelter at all, no sleeping bag. In an exhausted and poorly coordinated state, it was a mistake to be trying to pitch a tarp to protect me from rain. On that first night, if it had rained hard, my down bag and down top would probably have got soaked while I was scrabbling around in the dark. Given that I’d presumably be planning to hike 17-­20 hours per day in any case, the strategy would simply be to keep hiking further if it rains. And when I did camp, I would have been quite warm enough on this trip without a bag, sleeping in all my clothes including rain gear. There is some risk in this, but summer rain in the Sierras is usually short-­lived. To mitigate the risk, I would probably swap my down jacket for a “Nanopuff” (thus eliminating down completely from my kit) and take an emergency blanket. If I had a bad accident (say, broke my ankle on top of Muir Pass) a Nanopuff and tights with rain gear and an emergency blanket over the top is plenty of insulation for survival.

The only item I might add would be my phone (for the camera) or a SPOT to verify my trip. I had not imagined that this might be necessary on this trip, since I had no idea that I’d go so fast.

FOOD

My original schedule was 5.5 days, so I carried 6 days of food (to inlude the last night after summiting Whitney). 5400 calories & 3.0lb per day, total weight 18lb. During in the first day, I realized that a 4.5 day schedule might be possible. I went “all-­in” for this schedule, increasing my calorie intake slightly, and meaning that I probably could not revert to the slower schedule becuase I’d run out of food. However, I just could not manage to eat all of the extra day’s food. What I actually ate was about 5800 calories at 3.2lb per day, total weight 16lb. Since I was following LNT principles, and I felt that it was inconsistent with the “unsupported” ethic to try to give away the extra food, I carried out 2lb of uneaten food.

So, my actual daily diet of 5800 calories:

2 sachets Starbucks Via with 1oz full-­fat milk powder 5 Clif Bars 5 white flour tortillas, spread with equal weight of peanut butter 6oz “Sport Beans” (overpriced jelly beans with salt) 1.25 packages of Mountain House Beef Stew 7oz chocolate

I was eating every time the terrain eased and my heart rate and breathing dropped to a point where I could swallow. Clif Bars worked well, went down easily and taste like real food. I had thought that putting peanut butter on tortillas might be the most palatable way to leave some fat in there to keep the weight of all these calories reasonable. This was a mistake. Also, it was stupidly time-­consuming to prepare them every morning. By the end, I had to wait for longer easier sections to be able to swallow the tortillas & PB without nausea. But I did always eventually get them down, and never threw up. The “Sport Beans” are basically sugar and salt, pretty much like a hospital glucose drip. I saved these for the end of the day, or for long climbs where it would be impossible to eat anything more substantial.

I had thought that a hot evening meal would be a psychological boost. This was a mistake. With exhaustion and poor coordination at the end of the day, it was frustrating to try to cook. I spilled half my first dinner. If I did this again, I would simpify. I would definitely not take cooking equipment. Cold coffee in the morning is fine, Clif Bars and Sport Beans during the day, and something cold and easy to eat in the evening -­ maybe just more Clif Bars, or something with higher protein. I’ve discovered that when you need to eat this much, and you’re on the limits of exhaustion, you never actually want to eat anything. It’s just a question of what is the least difficult thing to swallow, and boring simplicity is the answer.

The thing that I most looked forward to when the hike was completed was not some particular food that I missed. It was the luxury of eating nothing at all. Indeed, I ate almost nothing as I wandered slowly down to Whitney Portal after my hike was completed at the summit.

–Ralph Burgess

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3 thoughts on “Ralph Burgess sets SoBo John Muir Trail record”

  1. Ralph Alcorn August 29, 2014

    Inga, thanks for the writeup. I added it as a link on my JMT records page.

  2. Inga September 14, 2014

    Thanks, Ralph Acorn. Check out the JMT records page on the Backpack45 website for more inspiring speed records: http://www.backpack45.com/johnmuirtrail.html#jmt_records.

  3. John Muir Trail: Permits, Planning and Prep | Inga's Adventures August 20, 2015

    […] and Roleigh Martin (both moderators from the Yahoo forum) and we shared our story about meeting Ralph Burgess, holder of the JMT SOBO speed record. After luxuriating in Mammoth we took YARTS to Tuolumne […]

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