Leor Pantilat’s Supported John Muir Trail FKT Report
The Sierra Nevada, known as the range of light, is a magnificently rugged alpine region in California that spans 400 miles from north to south and around 70 miles across. The range is characterized by pristine granite, jagged peaks, clear alpine lakes, and relatively stable weather patterns. Most importantly, the majority of the range is designated wilderness and has been relatively unfettered by human-exploits infrastructure. Many parts of the Sierra look and feel the same as when John Muir himself first explored these peaks and canyons over 150 years ago. The John Muir Trail is a grand and aesthetic point-to-point through some of the finest mountain scenery found in the Sierra Nevada. It starts at one of the most iconic spots in the world–Yosemite Valley (4,000 feet)–and finishes at the highest point in the lower 48 United States–Mount Whitney (14,505 feet). The traditional route for thru-hikers is southbound, starting in Yosemite Valley and finishing atop Mount Whitney, but for speed purposes it is almost certainly faster to start with the large climb up Whitney and finish with the long descent into Yosemite Valley, hence I traveled northbound. While the JMT officially ends (or begins) on Mount Whitney’s summit, supported efforts have traditionally been timed from Whitney Portal bringing the effective total mileage of the JMT from Whitney Portal to Yosemite Valley to 223 miles. The rocky and rugged nature of the trail, combined with its numerous high-altitude passes, belie the mileage total and some miles feel like substantially greater distance. The JMT has a long history of notable FKT attempts, including Peter Bakwin’s monumental first sub-four-day trip in 2003, Sue Johnston’s 3 days, 20 hours in 2007 (which at the time was the FKT for BOTH men and women), Brett Maune’s smashing 3 days, 14 hours, 13 minutes unsupported trip (which was the supported and unsupported record for four years), and Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe’s supported standard of 3 days, 12 hours, 41 minutes set in 2013.
With my extensive travels in the Sierra, the John Muir Trail has always been on my list of things to try but for various reasons I was unable to put together an attempt until now. Initial aspirations for the JMT in 2013 were derailed by an Achilles injury, but recovery in the late season enabled me to do some fun adventures in the Sierra that rekindled the inspiration to make an attempt in 2014. However, the distance and ruggedness always seemed intimidating to me, and the potential aftermath of a broken-down body seemed downright terrifying. Despite having second thoughts, I was lucky enough that preparation entailed doing what I love to do anyways, which is exploring rugged and wild mountainous areas, both on-trail and off-trail. In fact, the process of preparing for the JMT was just as enjoyable as doing the JMT itself. There was no regimented training plan, instead just a lot of adventures exploring tremendously beautiful places in the Sierra, the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur and the Lost Coast of Northern California. These adventures came naturally and despite acknowledging that they would cumulatively help a possible JMT attempt, I had no specific training for the JMT. In fact, many of these adventures were groundbreaking accomplishments in themselves, including the La Ventana Loop and ‘The Drain’ route in the Ventana Wilderness, an FKT up Cone Peak on the Big Sur coast, the King Range 50 at the Lost Coast, and the Complete Lost Coast with Rickey Gates. I spent many weekends in the Sierra scrambling up peaks and designing aesthetic off-trail routes, enjoying the wonders of the Sierra off the beaten path. At the end of the day, despite all of the adventures, I still wasn’t sure if I was adequately prepared for the big task of 223 miles along the JMT. After all, I had no prior multi-day experience or even 100-mile experience under my belt. On the other hand, I rationalized that the time on my feet pursuing these arduous adventures gave me a decent shot and I knew the High Sierra very well.
I had always targeted mid-August for an attempt but grew worried when a particularly long and severe monsoon season persisted into early August. Fortunately, the monsoon finally abated in mid-August and an opportunity presented itself with virtually ideal weather conditions. On short notice, I was able to put together an incredible support crew including the following stars: my super-fast and awesome girlfriend, Erica Namba; long-time adventure partner Joel Lanz; JMT expert Aaron Sorensen (who supported former FKT holder Michael Popov on many of his efforts); ultra-veteran Whit Rambach (who paced Peter Bakwin on his JMT trip that resulted in the first sub-four-day finish); good friend and mentor Will Gotthardt; up-and-coming speedster David Frank; accomplished adventure racer Kyle Peter; many-time Kona Ironman triathlete Erik Wilde; local ultra champion Jeff Kozak; and Brian Rowlett, who provided continuous updates on my whereabouts to my crew. The days leading up to the attempt flew by as we worked out the complex crew and nutrition logistics. It all came together just in time and before I knew it I was waking up at Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Friday morning, August 15, gathering my gear and eating breakfast. A magnificent alpenglow on the way to Whitney Portal set the tone and I was eager to get started. Upon arrival to the Portal, the overnight area was filled with cars, but it was eerily quiet as most of the hikers had long ago started their trek up the mountain. I made last-minute preparations and then Erica and I headed over to the trail sign. It was 7:01 a.m. when I hit the trail on a clear and crisp morning with fresh mountain air. The hike up Mount Whitney was spectacular with superlative clarity as Whitney displayed all of its magnificence. While I avoided any running, I felt strong on the climb and reached the summit 3 hours and 5 minutes after starting. I realized this might have been a bit aggressive, especially in comparison to prior record attempts, but I would not pay any attention to prior times until much later in the JMT. I basically just went on feeling, and as I would come to find, how I felt would vary wildly over the course of the adventure.
One of the sections of the JMT I had not seen prior was the stretch from Wallace Creek to Tyndall Creek over the Bighorn Plateau. I marveled at the excellent vista to the Kaweah Range and the Great Western Divide. I continued to feel good heading up Forester Pass (mile 31.7) and took a short break on top to chat with a prolific ascentionist of the Sierra who claimed to have stood atop 600-plus peaks in the Sierra (which undoubtedly entails some rather obscure unnamed points). The run down from Forester Pass to Vidette Meadows was delightful and I soon found myself at the Kearsarge Junction (mile 42.3) where I met Joel. After a brief break we headed up to Glen Pass (mile 44.6) where we shared a sub sandwich. We descended Glen Pass into the Rae Lakes basin as the sun set over the crest and continued down to Woods Creek (mile 53.6) in darkness. The climb up Pinchot Pass (mile 60.8) proved long and I began feeling stomach discomfort. Did I eat something bad? Was it the sub? Or simply a combination of early exertion and altitude? I was looking forward to our resting spot at the Bench Lake Junction (mile 64.1) more and more. A couple miles down from Pinchot Pass we met Aaron who had set up a very nice sleep station. Aaron had generously made the trek up the challenging Taboose Pass in order for me to get some important rest on the first night. I was able to get a couple hours of sleep but the gastrointestinal issues persisted into the morning and became disconcerting. I ate as much as I could and Joel and I started off toward Mather Pass (mile 71.5). Upper Basin (below Mather Pass) is one of the most beautiful spots in the High Sierra and I enjoyed the hike to the pass. Over Mather Pass, the GI issues continued and I was becoming worried that I could not continue indefinitely with the condition. Just as things seemed dire, we met a JMT backpacking couple who came to my rescue and offered me several Pepto-Bismol tablets. I gladly accepted and learned my first lesson of multi-day adventures: always carry some stomach-relief medication!
Joel and I continued down to Palisade Lakes and took a break at the outlet of the lower lake. By now I had lost some energy and felt fairly weak due to the GI issues. I wondered out loud if I would even continue past the Bishop Pass Junction at mile 86. Joel countered my negativity and remained positive, encouraging me to just keep going and things would eventually turnaround. Joel was right. This was about the time that the Pepto-Bismol was starting to work its magic on my stomach and the jerky and oatmeal cookies I was eating were actually getting digested instead of getting shoved straight through my system. I began to feel better moving down the Golden Staircase and by the time we got to the flatter portions of Palisade Creek Joel and I were back to running at a decent clip, and more importantly, I was back to feeling good. I learned my second lesson of multi-day adventures: low points often don’t last forever and the turnaround may be closer than you think!
By the time I reached my crew of Erik Wilde and Whit Rambach at the Bishop Pass junction (mile 86.5) in LeConte Canyon, my spirits lifted all the way from dismal to sky high. With a change of clothes and shoes and a good meal I was ready to attack Muir Pass, eight miles away and 3,200 vertical feet up. That is exactly what Whit and I did. The marvelous rugged scenery of LeConte Canyon propelled us upwards and in around 2.5 hours we found ourselves at the iconic Muir Hut (mile 94.6). After a short break we ran down through the basin passing by the desolate Wanda Lake, the striking Sapphire Lake, and the spectacular Evolution Lake, all in idyllic evening light. I had secretly hoped that we would reach this spot in the evening because it is among the most scenic on all of the JMT. The views we enjoyed on our run down from Muir Pass to Evolution Lake were probably my favorite moments of the entire journey. This was my version of paradise! As the sun was setting we ran down the long stretch in Evolution Valley in good form. We crossed Evolution Creek just before darkness, a psychological victory, and negotiated a rocky, rough stretch down to Goddard Creek and along the San Joaquin River to the Piute Creek Junction (mile 114.4). As it was growing dark, we decided that it was best that I attempt to get a couple hours sleep at the Florence Lake junction where I would meet Will Gotthardt. I bid Whit farewell at this junction as he would complete his semi-loop by returning to North Lake. Whit’s positive attitude was infectious and I was feeling excellent about the prospects for the next day including some cruxy passes. I continued another 1.8 miles to meet Will at the Florence Lake Junction (mile 116.6), who had a tasty sandwich, fresh fruit and a resupply. It was great to see Will and chat for a few before I tried to get some sleep. The sleep didn’t happen. A makeshift sleep set-up proved inadequate as I was shivering. It was actually not cold outside, but I was so depleted at this point that I would need a sleeping bag and several additional layers to stay warm. Nonetheless, I got about an hour of important mental and physical rest and with Will’s positive words and encouragement, I was re-energized to make a strong push up Selden Pass. Third multi-day lesson: anticipate that you will need many more layers than you normally would when you stop to rest since the body is depleted and has difficultly regulating temperature.
The stretch between the Florence Lake JCT (mile 116.6) and Red’s Meadow (mile 162.7) was the last substantial section of the JMT I had never seen. Unfortunately, this section also comes at a time (lots of time already on feet, lots more to go) that makes it a crux of the JMT with two big passes: Selden Pass and Silver Pass. Moreover, the trail remains rocky and rough. This section is particularly remote making scouting trips difficult and more importantly (in my case) it is less scenic so I was never attracted to doing many adventures along this stretch. I found that while Selden boasts an impressive elevation profile, the grade is very manageable and I made excellent progress up to the pass. After a brief break under the moonlight at Selden Pass (mile 123.8), I was alarmed to notice that my headlamp was dimming. Crap!! How could this be? I was using expensive lithium batteries? Shouldn’t they last more than eight hours?! It was only a matter of time in the basin north of Selden Pass before I concluded that the lumens emanating from the headlamp were totally insufficient. Rather than sit on a rock and wait for the sunrise (which would entail a lot of shivering), I took out my e+Lite and navigated for close to three hours over the granitic basins between Selden Pass and Bear Ridge with the e+Lite. Fortunately, the bright moonlight combined with the e+Lite was enough for me to maintain decent forward progress. Lesson number four: always carry spare batteries for the headlamp!
Daylight arrived as I was ascending up Bear Ridge, a climb that is often overlooked on the JMT, but includes a 1,000-foot vertical push. After 130 miles, any 1,000-foot climb becomes noteworthy! Soon after the top of the climb, I met David Frank, who was running down from Rock Creek/Mono Pass to meet me for the climb up Silver Pass. We ran down countless switchbacks to Mono Creek (mile 136.8) where we began the 4,000-foot climb up to Silver Pass (mile 142.9), which turned out to be a beast and the most difficult pass for me. In retrospect we made excellent progress up and over Silver Pass, but the false summits and long slog across the basin were mentally and physically draining at the time. Just over the pass, David and I met Kyle Peter and I spontaneously decided I needed a nap. Kyle took out a quilt and I was soon getting some rest. After about 45 minutes it was time to get up, but I was still groggy and the salt/sunscreen had melted into my eyes resulting in an unsavory blinding experience for several minutes until my eyes could flush out the chemicals. Back on the trail, I was quickly falling into my second lowpoint of the adventure. The trail between Silver Pass and Tully’s Hole continued to be relentlessly rocky and my legs were feeling like jello. My body was not functioning as I would normally expect and I communicated this to Kyle incessantly. I felt dejected at my seemingly pedestrian pace. Surely people don’t set records clawing away through miles at two miles per hour?! It turns out they do! Kyle Peter has an extensive background as a champion adventure racer and was just the person I needed for this stretch. Kyle told me about his experiences during long multi-day races, made sure that our rest stops were short and kept pressing us forward. Kyle commented that my uphill climbing was still steady and that encouraged me on the climb up Tully’s Hole and the various smaller climbs over to the Duck Lake Junction. Maybe I wasn’t doing so badly after all? The fifth lesson of my adventure is a bit cliché but I found out that it’s very true: sometimes the most important thing is your relentless forward progress.
As we traversed the hillside toward the junction with the Duck Lake Trail (mile 152.4) we were both highly anticipating the moment when the JMT would become smooth, since heretofore the vast majority was rocky and not conducive to rhythmic running. We took a break and Kyle offered me a bison EPIC Bar. Kyle beamed about this bar over the phone prior to the adventure so I was intrigued to finally try it. It turned out the bar exceeded the lofty expectations Kyle had set. Unlike jerky and the other solid foods I was struggling to chew and swallow, the EPIC Bar was moist and soft. I literally inhaled this delicious bar and chased it down with some Red Bull and a chewy granola bar. This wonder combination seemed to elevate me out of my slump and we were soon jogging. At the same time, the JMT was (finally) offering up some smooth trail for me to open up my stride. As with my first low point back at Palisade Lakes (80 miles ago), I was amazed at how my condition, both physical and mental, shifted so fast. I didn’t spend too much energy analyzing the turn of events, instead focusing on maintaining a strong pace for the last eight miles into Red’s Meadow (mile 162.7). I arrived at Red’s Meadow at about 6:15 p.m. on the third day and my crew was super happy to see me. Looking strong and alert, it seemed a foregone conclusion to them that I would make the final push to Yosemite Valley, but little did they know I was contemplating throwing in the towel just a couple hours prior. Such is the nature of multi-day efforts. After a great meal cooked up by Erica and crew (chicken soup, rice, and tuna), I went into my sleeping bag at 7:15 p.m. for some critical sleep. At first I was having trouble falling asleep but when darkness came I was out cold. As I was sleeping soundly, my crew decided to let me sleep a little longer than originally planned with hopes that the additional sleep would pay dividends on the last day.
The strategy worked. Erica woke me up at 11:30 p.m. and after acknowledging that I overslept the initial plan, I noted that I felt well rested and ready. I knew that Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe were not too far behind at this point and the last 62 miles would require focus and determination to stay ahead of these amazing athletes whom I respect and admire. After some more food and preparation, Erik Wilde and I set off in the darkness. Erik did a masterful job pacing me from Red’s Meadow to Donohue Pass maintaining a perfect pace. I know this stretch of the JMT well and described to him the various lakes and peaks we were passing. He would see some of this amazing scenery in the daylight on his way back. We were making excellent progress up the climbs to Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake and finally up to Donohue Pass (mile 185.8). As we approached Donohue we witnessed an indelible sunrise as a cirrus layer over the Ritter Range and Cathedral Range lit up the sky in striking pink, red, and orange. At the pass I downed a 5-hour ENERGY with an impulsive grimace of distaste and then continued down the north side of the pass.
Not more than a couple minutes from the pass I met Jeff Kozak, coming off a recent victory at San Diego 100 and who has been involved in most of the recent JMT FKT attempts. My leg strength felt surprisingly good for this stage of the JMT and I was able to negotiate the rocky trail down to Lyell Canyon at a great pace. Jeff was impressed and this only served to lift my spirits higher. I knew that a long flat section in Lyell Canyon was next and I was determined to run this entire section. A couple miles into the canyon, Jeff pulled off for a biological break and told me to keep going as he would catch me down the canyon. I continued on and the miles started to tick off. I occasionally looked back to see if Jeff was behind, but he never was. I figured his bio break was a bit more extensive and I would see him at Tuolumne Meadows. I moved well throughout Lyell Canyon and soon found myself at Tuolumne Meadows (mile 198.9). At Tuolumne there is a rolling stretch that parallels Hwy 120 including one particularly annoying stretch of deep sand and rocks between the Visitor Center and Cathedral Lakes Junction. This sucky section was ameliorated by the fact that I knew I would see my crew immediately after. At Cathedral Lakes Trailhead I was relieved to see Erica and Whit, who were ecstatic at my progress thus far. They did an excellent job setting up this last aid station and feeding me mashed potatoes, chips, and Gatorade.
My sixth lesson of the multi-day adventure: an excellent support crew is essential for a supported FKT effort! Each and every one of the people who took time out of their busy lives to help me were amazing and essential to my FKT effort. Everybody was there where I hoped to see them, always cheerful and encouraging. In particular, I knew that I was in good hands with Erica flawlessly managing the support effort and probably getting about as much sleep as I did over those three nights while she religiously followed my SPOT tracker. Huge thanks to all of my support crew!
At the Cathedral Lakes Junction I was not ready to let up from the focus and determination that had carried me from Red’s Meadow up to Donohue Pass and down Lyell Canyon. I knew there were still 20-plus miles left and a good chunk of climbing up to Cathedral Pass. I wanted to keep the momentum going while I still felt good. After a 25-minute break of eating and rest, Jeff and I departed for the last substantial climb of the JMT up to Cathedral Pass. Jeff set a great pace up the climb and I knew with each step I was growing closer to the final downhill run into Yosemite Valley. By now the fine granite dust of the Sierra had accumulated in my throat to the point I was coughing up yellow phlegm and wheezing. This discomfort did not detract from my focus and Jeff and I kept charging up the hill. We soon found ourselves at Cathedral Pass (more of a shoulder) and cruising down more rocky, rutted trail that is overrun with horse traffic to Sunrise High Sierra Camp (mile 208.6). Jeff filled my bottles at the camp and described the last few climbs I would encounter on my 223-mile journey. I was soon off and ready to finish it out. The last couple climbs felt minor and I was back to running the downhills. As I descended it began to grow warm and I felt a twitch in my calf muscle. I decided to keep a somewhat slower downhill running pace to stave off the risk of cramping, but some Gu shots and SaltStick tabs recovered my confidence as I descended further toward the Valley.
When I reached the Clouds Rest Junction with a little over seven miles to go, it finally sunk in that I would finish under the record, and perhaps substantially so. Emotions were flowing and as with several occasions on this journey, I felt my father’s spirit and strength with me. He was as an elite track-and-field runner and coach and the person who instilled a love of the outdoors in me from before I could even walk. He took me to places that inspired dreams that later turned into aspirations. My father passed away from brain cancer when I was 17 years old and at this moment I realized that he would be immensely proud of my JMT effort.
With a little over seven miles to go I was feeling good and I knew that if I could maintain my running to the finish I would be the first person under 80 hours on the JMT. This was enough motivation for me to keep moving forward down the rocky trail as best as my body would allow at this stage. I cruised through Little Yosemite Valley and then crossed the Merced River above Nevada Falls. I marveled at the amazing granite formations including Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Mount Watkins which I have seen dozens of times, but never cease to amaze me. Soon after, I met Whit coming up the trail to intersect me and we both continued down the trail. This last stretch of downhill to the Vernal Falls Bridge is a cumbersome patchwork of obtuse rocks and badly broken pavement (who decided to pave these trails in the first place?!). We eventually met up with Erica for the last couple miles. As this was the middle of the day, it was both hot and crowded. After days on the trail in the wilderness, the hordes of people seemed foreign to me and almost claustrophobic. Whit and Erica did a great job clearing a path through the crowd and before I knew it I was at the JMT sign and then Happy Isles road curb, 3 days, 7 hours, and 36 minutes after starting at Whitney Portal (79 hours and 36 minutes).
I had lowered the record and I was the first person under 80 hours. I had done it (!) and more importantly (at the time) I could finally stop. Stop is what I did, taking a seat on the curb of the road. Within minutes my legs stiffened up and I grew sleepy. On this last day, my body and mind surprised me. After 162 miles, I was able to maintain strong energy levels and a positive mental disposition for the entire duration of the last 60 miles. I unlocked and released energy and determination that I did not know that I possessed. However, now that I was finished, my mind and body understood they no longer needed to perform and were instantly settling in for a well-deserved break. I chatted with some people and slowly made my way back to the High Sierra Loop sign to take the obligatory finish photos. After the photo session we went back to the Happy Isles road where we loaded up on the air-conditioned bus to take us back to Curry Village where the car was parked. As it was so hot in Yosemite Valley, we decided to drive home for the night, which was an excellent decision. I woke up the next morning already feeling much better. Over the next few days the soreness in my legs dissipated and I caught up on sleep. The two low points I experienced on the trail faded from my memory and the splendor of the Sierra and the amazing experience of covering so much beautiful and immense terrain grew more prominent. I am already looking forward to more adventures in the High Sierra. As for the JMT, this was my first attempt at the multi-day discipline. I came away with a healthy appreciation for what it takes and also a wealth of new knowledge gained through experience and the mentorship of my support crew. I am optimistic that I will be able to utilize this learning on future travels on the JMT and also for other FKT pursuits.
FKT attempts on such grand trails as the John Muir Trail often spur philosophical debates among other trail users. Some have the perception that by ‘running’ through such beautiful scenery one cannot truly enjoy it. On the contrary, enjoyment of my surroundings was the primary motivator to attempt the JMT in the first place and the outrageous scenery was often the chief inspiration for me to continue en route. Moreover, I have spent countless days in the High Sierra, both on the JMT and exploring some of the more remote corners in the range. The effort spent driving to and accessing these places is more reflective of my passion for these mountains than my desire to get in a good workout. On most of my adventures I will gladly sacrifice a few minutes (or a few hours) for mountain photography. Similarly, I’ve been questioned why I haven’t participated in organized races recently. Indeed, it has been 18 months since my last race. The answer is that my passion lies in the adventures to remote and wild places where I have freedom to design my own routes, access tremendously scenic places that few have the opportunity to experience, and apply disciplines like off-trail route finding and rock scrambling. I found that I could not maintain the level of motivation to do the racing circuit to my potential when it required me to forego so many adventures. While I have likely not run my last race, I’ve decided to follow my heart and focus more on what drives me the most: adventures in the mountains! As John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”