My buddy Miguel is turning 50 this year, and he wants to do something “epic”. Since he’s a triathlete accustomed to concentrated pain, I responded with a tentative “I’m listening”, and waited for his definition of epic to unfold. “Let’s hike the John Muir Trail”, he said.
Well, that’s not epic in the Ironman sense, but at 221 miles and a cumulative 46,500 feet of elevation gain, it’s not a walk in the park either. I have a good sense of what the trail demands, having finished a 1984 solo-hike in the typical 21 day average for most groups. Trekking 12 miles per day on the JMT was a wonderful experience filled with idyllic scenery viewed at a comfortable pace.
What pushes Miguel’s proposal toward the epic is our age and an 11 day time limit. Yep, the quick math for 11 days reveals a 20-mile average day is required with 4,600 feet elevation gain per diem. Gives a wise man pause for thought. My one hint of wisdom in this regard was clearing the trip with my wife Ann before telling Miguel “heck yeah!”
Given the number of people since who’ve both affirmed the idea of hiking the JMT, and questioned the logic in wanting to do it so quickly, I have to wonder if Ann was really listening to me or if I was instinctively withholding details. Must have been me holding back, sorry honey! Wondering if 20 per day was really all that crazy, I went looking for validation.
Since 2013, John Ladd of San Francisco has been conducting a JMT Hiker Survey to collect post-trek information as a resource to future hikers; mileage, pack weight, problems encountered, group size, trail habits, gear selection, route planning, resupplies, hiker demographics and experience. Tons of data to baseline in planning our own hike, which John happily shared. Of the 1,403 respondents to his 2015 survey, there were 80 hikers (5.7%) who averaged 18 or more miles per day, and of those, only 16 were 50 years or older (1.1%). Starting to look pretty epic, and given the one percent hiking the JMT at that pace, at our age, guess it’s fair to ask…why do that to yourself??
When 50-year olds plan an epic adventure that tests human endurance, one has to suspect a mid-life-crisis at play, right? I’m just going to turn that elephant loose in the room, ’cause more than one of you was thinking it. If I were in crisis, the explanation for ultra-lighting the JMT might go no deeper than, “because it’s there”. However, hiking the John Muir Trail isn’t solely about endurance, though endurance is required. It’s not about speed, though some folks try for that (fastest known time -FKT- is 3 days, 7 hours). What makes the JMT truly epic is the trail itself, and the spectacular scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The John Muir Trail extends 221 miles from Yosemite Valley in the north, to the 14,494 foot summit of Mt. Whitney in the south, crossing over 11 passes that average more than 11,000 feet elevation. The Sierra Nevada is an uplift in the earth’s crust with an eastern escarpment, shaped by several glacial periods. The JMT maximizes time spent at these eastern elevations; experiencing jagged peaks, granite smoothed by time under ice, and terrain dotted by lakes and alpine meadows. John Muir himself refers to the Sierra as a “Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built.”
One could easily argue for breaking the trail into segments when constrained by a time limit. Why not sleep in, hike slow and enjoy the environment, arrive at camp early, and have extra time to fish? That may be an adventure, but it’s not an “epic” one. Yeah, I know, that elephant in the room just took a step forward.
While we could break the trail into sections, Miguel and I are a bit competitive, and we’re definitely motivated to doing “it” in one shot. In the context of the John Muir Trail however, the pronoun “it” carries all of the grandeur and beauty of the trail itself. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to admit that we’re doing the full trail in 11 days, “because it’s there”.