To write about a personal goal that wasn't quite complete is more of a task than I would have thought. While on the trail I had so many thoughts and ideas about the experience, what my body was going through and more what my mind was going through. I wish I'd had a voice recorder, but then again, perhaps none of those thoughts would have made sense.
There are now nine pages of thoughts typed into Word on my screen, some of them flow, others just pieces of the story. Not all of those words are included here, but this post is longer than I typically share. Eventually the chapter will come together and hopefully published for others to read. My hope that readers will find the humor and challenge captured in the stories.
In the meantime I feel somewhat of an obligation to share some of the story of our JMTFKT attempt. We tweeted and facebook'ed and talked it up on the front end, which was fun to share the excitement with so many people. Knowing that people were watching our SPOT leave a trail through the Sierra meant a lot out there, especially as it got tough. Now that we are on the flip side sharing a few thoughts of what happened out there seem appropriate.
July 22nd was on my radar for months. The plan of running the 220 mile John Muir Trail with Jenn Shelton was on my mind for about a year. Yet suddenly and not so suddenly we were laying horizontal in the Dow Villa Motel with only hours until our chosen start of 7am. A fitful night found me glancing at the digital clock nearly every hour. I felt so warm. Was the air conditioning working? My head hurts. Am I hungry?
When the alarm sounded at 5am I was asleep and as I reached to silence the chirping phone my movement went from my arm extending to the nightstand, to my whole body leaping from bed and running for the bathroom. Am I really this nervous? Soaked head to toe in a full body sweat, my guts emptied into the unexpecting porcelain bowl I sat with my head heavy in my hands wondering what was wrong. Then I quickly convinced myself it was just nerves.
… I couldn't have been more wrong.
We piled into the truck, Jenn was the last out of the hotel room and she bounced over, trucker hat turned backwards and her two thin braids framing her smiling face. That hat, red tank top, black shorts and blue running pack would be her uniform for the entire trail. A sight I didn’t see much, only when I looked over my shoulder if I didn’t hear her footsteps any longer.
Climbing up Whitney our excitement initially set the pace, but my morning experience eventually took hold and slowed us to a powerhike. I told Jenn about my serious stress response and we joked that after this many years in the sport it I once again found something at made me that nervous, although I don’t ever remember a reaction quite like I’d had that morning. We worked our way up through the beautiful granite blasted switchbacks littered with lakes and hikers breaking camp. I wished aloud that I had my phone to take pictures. Jenn let me know that if I’d brought my phone to take pictures she would have taken it, hucked it and owed me $700. We laughed. Point taken. We weren’t here to take pictures.
We were fortunate to have easy weather, a bit hot, but worth it to keep the nights warmer and skies clear of storms that have plagued Jenn in her previous three attempts. We made a quick tag of the Whitney summit and kept moving, mostly to ensure we wouldn’t have to use the wag bag. The obviously named Guitar Lake splayed out before us and Jenn noted that we couldn’t even see where we were headed next. Twenty something miles before our next pass, Forester Pass, where we would see photographer Ken again. We moved through the terrain keeping a steady manageable pace, halted by my frequent visits to the bushes not long after consuming calories.
The granite of the Sierra disguises the trail. Looking ahead at the craggy peaks it is difficult to tell where the trail winds up, yet when you are on it you wonder how you couldn’t see it. The work done to blast the trail into the boulder fields is immense. The path well worn by hundreds of hikers each summer. So many stories captured in the rocks that make up the path from Whitney to Yosemite.
The ups were slow going but steady. The downs more consistent running, broken up with forced walking breaks to ensure we didn’t trash our feet and ankles early on the rocky path and large steps on the long descent. Ken bounded along like a mountain goat capturing countless photos of that magical descent off of Forester. Each time I looked up to see what he was shooting I couldn’t help but smile or even gasp at the beauty around us – often pointing it out to Jenn as if she’d never been there before. She probably knows the views better than anyone.
Our first crew point near Kersarge Pass was a dialed machine of mac-n-cheese with salmon, emptying and resupplying our packs, plenty of humor between the tired bodies and an hour of sleep right at sunset. Jenn stirred early and Aaron and Beth scrambled to make hot drinks before we set off into the night. We hiked past countless waterfalls and the cool air from the water kept us alert. Jenn ensured me that I would definitely want to come back to see that section in the daylight.
Just before sunrise we crawled into the tent of our second crew point near Sawmill Pass and slept the hour before sunrise. Hoping the sleep would completely reset my system I ate heartily of the mac-n-cheese served in the bear canister by Kevin and Monica. As we surfaced and made to leave our system was little less dialed as we were groggy from our nap. Packing up to leave took longer than hoped and I definitely carried too much food out of that spot. Monica made sure we had wiped our dusty faces and sent us off with big hugs. Kevin snapped the photo now on my home page and we moved along feeling somewhat refreshed as the sun rose on the second day.
Day two found us in hours of conversation about life, relationships, and topics that will forever stay on the trail. Jenn insisted I set the pace and that she wasn’t in any hurry day one or day two. Inwardly I was incredibly frustrated at my weakened state and slowed pace, especially on the climbs. I was forced to use my poles since the first climb up Whitney and couldn’t stop the vicious cycle of diving into the bushes each time I tried to eat. As the time between input and output shortened, my frustration built. It was hugely demoralizing and hard not to associate that I was not gaining the needed energy from my calories. Jenn assured me another crew stop, a big meal and rest would help. And we trudged on through the heat of the day.
Ken met us a few miles from the Le Conte camp. For miles we had longingly looked at the creek just off the trail to our left to cool off. Ken said there was a great pool just ahead that we should take advantage of and we easily warranted the down time by wandering off the trail to fully dunk in the cold stream. Just cold enough that I couldn’t force myself to dunk I hesitated. Jenn seeing my hesitation counted out loud. “Krissy! One! Two! Three!” and without resistance we plunged under and popped up to the sound of Ken’s camera clicking through shot after shot.
The long walk up to camp with the constant “it’s just up ahead" from Ken got in our heads a little bit and we let him know it. Jeff and Rick were ready for us with separate tents, gear laid out, encouraging conversation and water boiling for mac-n-cheese.
When it was time, Jeff led us out of camp ready for the rest of his mini-adventure. He’d backpacked in our gear, set up camp, fed us and then set off to take us over Muir Pass and down to where the trail split. We went on to Seldon Pass and he diverted out over Pinchot Pass. It ended up being a solid 12 hours together complete with a couple hour bivvy in our mylar emergency bags somewhere past our Evolution Creek crossing. After he left us he still had an 18 mile hike out to his pre-planted truck and a drive back to Bishop.
Leaving us was no easy task. I was convinced I was done. Our pace had slowed so dramatically due to my faltering energy and ridiculously frequent pit stops. It stressed me more to think that I was slowing Jenn from finishing her goal and I wanted her to continue on without me. I thought I should hike out with Jeff. She convinced me to go one more stop. It was a tough conversation, our group of three completely sleep-deprived and my body depleted even more than I realized. Jeff made coffee, we traded food for options that might work better for my guts and Jenn and I wandered down the trail waiting for the sun of day three to warm us once again.
The climb up Seldon Pass was the final stake in my run. Our pace was so incredibly slow, the 6 miles up took us nearly five and a half hours. The entire climb I had multiple conversations with Jenn that she needed to leave me. Some were outloud with her, others were in my head. She repeatedly said she couldn’t live with herself if she left. She believed I would come around. What if we made it to the next crew point, ate and slept and I felt better? She wanted that chance and believed in it more than I did. At one point I was trying to yell at her to leave. Just freakin leave me! But those words were never uttered. I’m not one to yell. And when I told her my idea she said she would have laughed at me.
At the top of Seldon Pass she easily convinced me to sit on a rock with her. It was 11:30am and she looked right into my eyes and told me she didn’t have enough food to continue at this pace. I honestly felt relief. I wanted her to go. We looked at the maps, we fought over who would take the SPOT, we swapped a few calories and I stood to give her a huge hug. I caught a glimpse of the bracelet we each wore, given to us hours before we started by Deena. Destiny is what the bead says. She’d done everything she could to get me this far. Now she needed to take care of herself and get herself to Yosemite. I would leap ahead and jump in as crew. This was her project now, really always had been.
After watching Jenn pick up her pace and lope down the switchbacks off the top of Seldon Pass, I gave a whoop and marveled as the red tank top and off-kilter trucker cap disappeared from sight. 11:30am. I had 14 miles to hike out and I could make the most of it, or be depressed by how slowly I had covered the previous 6 (one mile an hour). With that I looked up. I was surrounded by some of California’s most beautiful terrain, little lakes pooled as the stream running through backed up in places. The sun was beating down making everything glisten. The green grasses contrasted with the massive granite boulders and wildflowers dotted the landscape adding color and depth to the whole visual experience. All I had to do was hike out. I was no longer stressed about getting Jenn to the next crew spot, she was to take care of her and I needed to deal with only myself.
I wish I could say that I kept a positive attitude for the next seven and a half hours that it took me to descend Seldon Pass to Edison Lake. A highlight was stripping down to only my shorts and jumping in the creek a couple hundred yards off of the trail. The cool water was a bit startling, and necessary. I only gave myself 10 minutes time off the trail, and was sure to soak head to toe. As I hiked back to the trail buckling the straps of my pack around my chest, I let my wet hair hang on my shoulders under my trucker cap, both to cool and protect me from the beating sun. The fierce rays burned my already toasted skin and I decided to use my chapstick all over my arms to hopefully prevent further damage. The mosquitoes indulged in my slow moving figure, an easy lunch even though I put up a valiant effort swatting and smashing too many insects to count. It was easy to transcend from pure bliss to utter despair and back again.
Many of the hikers approaching knew my name. Tonya, our crew person at Edison, had let nearly everyone know what we were up to. People cheered, and even took pictures. I was thankful to be wearing my sunglasses so they didn't see the defeat in my eyes. Those that were chatty learned about Jenn going all the way to Yosemite and my end at Lake Edison. Others offered trail mix and their already filtered water. JMT hikers are a great group of people.
The hallucinations were by far the most entertaining piece for my final hours on the trail. While still with Jenn I asked her what plant/low bush was framing the trail. We thought maybe Manzanita. I was able to piece together that the round, brown, dried leaves from that scrubby bush were what my eyes made into all of the heads-up pennies that littered the trail. I saw a man on the switchbacks above us struggling to make a deep step down from one rock to another. He was using trekking poles and my mind marveled that someone out here was hiking with a prosthetic. But as soon as I blinked I realized he had two normal legs and his heavy backpack made the descending steps difficult. There were beautiful trout in the lakes as we neared the top of the pass… those might actually have been there, but its hard to say looking back now. None of my hallucinations scared me, I was coherent enough to know that I was hallucinating and even if I couldn’t make the joker in the rock go away, I could at least be entertained by his funny face.
My final hallucination came after my last water refill and head dunk. Two rounded granite rocks sat perched on the slope between me and the last switchback. I saw them and then the sun flashed through the trees and in their place was Mark, my boyfriend. He sat clear as day, smiling at me in a long-sleeved white linen shirt, sleeves rolled up (funny thing, I've never seen him in a linen shirt). His elbows rested on his splayed knees, feet close together fingers dangling somewhere around his shins…. And then he was gone. I had this reassuring sense that everything was going to be okay. I knew it was a hallucination, but it was the most familiar thing I’d seen all day. The most confirming and reassuring sight that everything would be alright. I continued my slow walk, completely dependent on my trekking poles, calm face and far-off gaze, blinking now and again to bring me back to reality. Two switchbacks later Tonya and her dog Journey were hiking up towards me and I crumpled against my poles, uncontrollable tears streaming down my face, body quaking. An overwhelming realization that it was over. Well at least this part.
We hiked the final mile down to camp, spent another night in the woods, - literally I was running from the tent multiple times - a 2 mile hike and a boat ride across Edison Lake to Tonya's car the next morning. I had the good luck of joining two doctors, a father and daughter, on our hike out. I was unable to keep pace with the backpackers, but Tonya ran my current state by them. When we clamered out of the boat on the other side, Father Doc was pretty certain I had giardia and dug in his pack to give me 4 days worth of doxycycline. He promised I should see immediate results. Anything to help the long car drive around. Pretty amazing to meet up with the right people just when you need them the most.
After an 8 hour drive around we finally landed in Yosemite. It was a long trip around to the east side, I was in and out of sleep while Tonya managed the miles. As soon as we found cell service I was madly texting crew people from Tonya’s phone to find out how Jenn was doing. Did she keep going? Did Jeff find someone to run back on the trail and meet her? Jenning had crewed Jenn through Reds Meadow and she was moving well. She also let me know that Scott was on the trail with her. Scott who? Jeff must have found someone in Bishop to run with her. “Scott Jurek!” she texted back and I could hardly believe it. Jenny and Scott had flown out to surprise us and they had perfect timing to help Jenn through her fourth night on the trail.
I marvel at how people come together to help others shoot for the stars. It had amazed me the last three days that we would be hiking along in the middle of nowhere, no road access and we would come across our crew people, all of our prepacked gear, tents, sleeping bags, hot food and mostly warm hugs from these friends that were psyched to have adventures of their own in order to help ours along. Absolutely unreal when you think about what each person put into our being out there on the JMT. From sponsors supporting the effort through cash, special products and last minute shipments, to friends following along refreshing the SPOT link madly at home. All of the energy in our immediate presence to those wishing us well from thousands of miles away, there is a lot of love to be felt. I am a lucky girl.
We landed back in Yosemite and I was hanging out the car window waving at Jenny, Toph and Kim. All had come to surprise us on the trail and all were amazing support even when I arrived in a car rather than on foot as planned. I became familiar with the overwhelming emotions that rocked me the next few days, and these three were the first to witness just how raw I was. We made food and shared stories. Toph had just run the High Sierra Trail through some wicked storms. As night fell we found a place on the trail to crew Jenn and waited for Scott’s familiar ‘whoop’ when they arrived around 3am. We all slept till sunrise and then made a group effort to feed Jenn and send her down the trail. She was loopy and tired and absolutely determined. It was awesome to see. We set up one more meeting spot about 5 miles down the trail and fortunately Beth and Aaron from our very first crew spot had made their way around. Aaron, ready to run, loaded up my pack and signed on to bring Jenn down the final 20 miles to the valley floor.
Writing now the wait for Jenn’s descent seems minimal. I slept with my feet up on a log for a while. We paced around a bit. When we finally met up with the rest of the crew it all happened fast. We wandered a short distance up the trail and I spotted that off-kilter trucker camp and red tank bouncing along through the mass of people. With a stride that would impress most 5k runners, Jenn loped down the final stretch with all of us in tow. We made a bit of a scene running amidst all of the walkers and hikers as one might imagine after four plus days. The girl finally got to sit down for good, 4days, 9hours & 30some minutes after starting with me up out of Whitney Tuesday morning.
This was something else, an experience I will not soon forget and my body continues to remind me as I recover. Returning home, reconnecting and writing being the most helpful pieces in processing the time away. I am left with a few bigger thoughts to ponder, mostly about my own direction. But one thing is for certain, seeing myself that raw I know what is important to me and that is the people that I surround myself with. I am so thankful for the voices of family and friends, hugs and checking in. Cheering us on and supporting no matter the outcome. Spending time on the trail with my #polarduo and finding a friendship that many rocky JMT miles solidified. Of all the things to be reminded of, lessons to learn, I am the most thankful for relationships.
Ultraspire Titan 2.0 Pack, Patagonia M10 Rain Jacket, Patagonia Houdini Pants, Black Diamond UltraDistance trekking poles, 12 pair Patagonia lightweight merino anklet socks with Blistershield in each one, Patagonia Tsali 3.0 shoes, Julbo Access Sunglasses, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, Patagonia Merino 1 tank, Patagonia Velocity Running Tights, Patagonia Wool 2 quarter zip long-sleeve, Patagonia Nano Puff half zip, Black Diamond Icon, extra lithium batteries, SPOT device & extra batteries, Ultraspire fast draw handheld, Patagonia R1 beanie, Patagonia lightweight merino gloves, Raidlight waterproof mittens, Emergency bivvy, baggie of Desitin, TP, baby wipes.
First Endurance EFS Gel, Trail Butter, Bearded Brothers Bars, Clif Bloks, Clif Kids Fruit Twists, Annie's Deluxe Mac-n-Cheese, Patagonia's Salmon Provisions, Epic Bars, Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes, Starbucks Via's (hot & cold), moose meat summer sausage (courtesy of Monica at Sawmill), pizza (courtesy of Jeff & Rick at Le Conte), Rice balls (courtesy Deena's kitchen)