The Range of Light. Just saying it out loud makes my pulse quicken and my eyes look to the horizon. The term was coined by John Muir himself, and is a wonderfully visceral description of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains that he roamed and loved. "After 10 years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunburst of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light". So well said, and so true. Verdant valleys, towering passes, barren moonscapes…dizzying in its contrasts and enormity. I have walked trails all over the planet and there is something unique about the Sierras that make me feel connected to and yet exquisitely dwarfed by the landscape surrounding me.
The John Muir Trail is the best the Sierras have to offer. Shadowing Muir's footsteps, the trail runs 212 breathtaking and treacherous miles, from the depths of Yosemite Valley to the top of 14,505' Mount Whitney (the highest point in the Continental United States). A through-hike voyage of the JMT will change you deep down in your nooks and crannies, as if each pass gained or spring guzzled rounds your edges a bit more. Afterward you might stand taller, be quicker to smile, or worry a little less because you've seen and done things that most people only read about. But you will earn it. Boy howdy will you earn it. Something I learned the hard way. Twice.
I first discovered the joys of the backcountry when I was seven. I spent two weeks with my dad in Cascade Valley (Mammoth, CA) waking up at sunrise, eating freshly caught trout with garlic and wild onions, and telling ghost stories in the dancing shadows of the fire until my eyes grew heavy. After that the wild was in my blood. Countless backpacking trips and hiking adventures later I decided it was time to brave the entire John Muir Trail.
I was in my early 20's and threw myself at the idea with naïve exuberance. I trained for a few weeks by loading up a pack with rocks and walking up and down the American River Trail in Sacramento. I had no clear idea about how long the trip would take or realistically how many miles I could cover in a day, but I brought enough food for roughly two weeks. I decided to hike the alternate route that starts below Mount Whitney and hike the trail south to north - which in hindsight should have been a red flag. I was determined to hike 212 miles but wanted to skip the top of Whitney because it would be too hard? I was excited to challenge myself and enjoyed the attention I got for attempting something bold, but I clearly wasn't invested in doing whatever it would take to be successful. Which is why I failed the first time. And the second time. Well that, and the ridiculous amount of weight I was carrying.
Like the good Eagle Scout that he is, my dad taught me to venture into the backcountry with anything I might possibly need, including the kitchen sink just to be safe. This is inarguably the most luxurious way to backpack - once you are in camp. But moving with that much weight on your back is a grueling death march that compresses your vertebrae and your spirits alike. When I began that first JMT attempt all those years ago, I distinctly remember the first few steps and the crushing realization that I would have to carry that behemoth of a pack for at least two weeks and crest 11 passes. I trudged toward my first pass and when pain and loneliness stealthily crept over me (which was inevitable), I grabbed onto a low-hanging excuse and quit. A year later the wandering spirit struck me again and I returned to the JMT once more. Except this time I was even less prepared, took even more weight, and sulked off the trail in defeat even sooner. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be.
Fast forward a decade to 2013. I was a different man in a completely different place. I'd spent time in the forge of endurance sport, and had transformed by body and brain into tools capable of completing Ironman triathlons… or perhaps even more audacious endeavors. My life was exactly where I wanted it to be, but the John Muir Trail was still whispering softly to me:
"Do you have what it takes?"
I honestly didn't know. I had pushed back the boundaries on my capabilities, and strongly believed in my mental strength and athletic ability. But the John Muir Trail scared me. Which is ultimately why I decided I had to make one last attempt. And I wanted to put an exclamation point on the experience, so I planned to run it.
In looking back on my past attempts, it was clear why I failed and what I would have to do to finally stand on top of Mount Whitney with my hands held high. What I've outlined below is exactly how this moment became a reality, how I conquered the external and internal demons standing in my way - and how you can too.
An endeavor such as this must be properly planned and prepared for. I know that may grate against your adventurous spirit, but it is the only way to hold success in your grasp. I hate detailed planning more than most, and how I finally got over this was by focusing on and getting excited about the end result, rather than the minutiae in between. I gave myself slightly more than a year to plan and train for this third JMT attempt, and I focused on three key factors:
- Brain Training
- Body Training
- Going Light
- Brain Training
- Cultivating gratitude
- Positive Self Talk
- Body Training
- Going Light
- Main Gear
- Sleeping "bag"
- Bear Canister
- Water Purifier
- Other considerations
- Trip Length
- Author Bio
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