Great story from a new client of mine!
In Gear I Trust:
Record Female Unsupported Solo Hike of the John Muir Trail, 2005
Even urban mothers of two have dreams. Mine was of danger walking in the Sierra's. In the dream this mother no longer bossed, corralled, cajoled, instructed, vacuumed, or laundered. She just enjoyed miles of mountains, sky, rocks, trees, flowers, and water. Sitting in the comfort of home, I refined my strategy. Owing to my chronic under training, I thoroughly invested in my new motto, "In gear I trust." I reviewed the latest gear specs. Then scrutinized every ounce. I ruthlessly cut straps and tags. To remove the water bladder pouch on my brand new backpack I don my high-powered reading glasses. Rummaging through the long unused big wall climbing gear, I retrieve my toothbrush. Its handle already shortened and drilled for lightness. Yes, I even weighed everything using a postal scale. I packed and repacked. The final outcome? A total pack-weight of twenty-three pounds. That included trail shoes, clothes and ten pounds of food. If I could repress my conservative nature and avoid carrying too much water between sources, I'd only have twenty-five pounds at most on my body. My husband witnessed this dance of planning and belief in gear over actual training and declared, "Just do it!" That's easy for a super freak to do. For this average Jill, I needed a secret weapon, the ipod shuffle! Oh! And an external battery pack, extra headphones, and batteries.
Starting in the dark of a new moon, I checked my watch at the sign for Happy Isles trailhead. It was 6:14am on August 27, 2005. Thanks to being married to "Hollywood" Hans Florine, I was a sponsored housewife. This meant I could lay claim to his Nike ACG Alti-Compass watch. Like other members of the over forty club, my eyes needed large type and bright light to make sense of watch faces and maps. That meant I also "borrowed" his Petzl Myolite 3 headlamp. There would be no excuses for getting lost. The blame would lie solely upon my feeble navigation attempts.
I began hiking on the Mist trail, which enjoys two extraordinary waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada. This certainly made the start even more beautiful and steep. After Cathedral Pass, I stayed south of Tioga Road. All of the stream crossings were casual. The mosquitoes even behaved themselves. I slept two nights high on mountain passes. Given the light pollution that exists in the cities, it was a real treat to experience the Milky Way in all its glory every night. The stars were incredible! In Evolution Valley, I discovered wild strawberries! Yum! Coming down off of Glen Pass, a northbound hiker warned me of a recent bear attack in Vidette Meadow. He also tells me that a hunter has been asked to destroy the animal. Yikes! Then I became preoccupied with bears. Of course, I've seen their "calling cards" all over the place. Particularly alarming are the trees sporting claw marks high on their trunks. I was already avoiding camping in the meadows. This just reinforced my preference for high and dry bivys.
Each day, I was averaging roughly thirty-four miles a day. The John Muir Trail surmounts eleven mountain passes ranging in altitude from 9700' to 13,484'. It culminates on Mt. Whitney's 14,4991' summit. That adds up to some strenuous hiking. To fuel my adventure, I packed nine Power Gels, two Protein Plus bars, six Snickers bars, one roll of Lifesavers, crackers, Indian Nan bread, seven ginger cookies, two Pria bars, seven packets of Uptime, three cups of grits, two packages of mashed potatoes, three packages of bean soup, jerky, nine cheese sticks, ½ cup of oatmeal, one package of chicken noodle soup, 12 slices of salami, three organic raw food bars, ½ cup of raw almonds, and ½ cup of dried fruit. I had considered leaving my beloved Jetboil at home, for about three seconds. The thing is amazing! In less than a minute you can be chowing down on mashed potatoes. Pop some beef jerky in there with the wild onions you picked on the trail and you've gone gourmet. Because it is so fuel efficient, I only needed to take one canister of fuel. Never underestimate the power of a hot meal!
For a solo unsupported effort, one of the most daunting concerns is food weight. Add the weight of food protection and you already feel like staying home. The current approved bear resistant canisters weigh almost three pounds! Ursack offers a responsible alternative. My older model weighs just eight-ounces. The soft bag of bulletproof fabric offers light weight, pack ability, and security.
Last year, I hiked the JMT for the first time. During the eight days it took I encountered snow, hail, rain, lightening and blisters! The blisters were a surprise since I usually have very stable feet. My mistake was in getting my trail running shoes in too stingy a size. I obsessed over the problem for a year. The solution was simple, go big. I mean really big. For the first twenty miles in my Nike ACG Cascades I tripped all over the place. I was hiking in clown shoes! There was another element to the shoe strategy, toe socks. The fashions of the seventies really are back. Even in sportswear. Apparently, many ultra distance runners are using them. I can tell you that toe socks are the way and the light. No kidding! My Cascades were wonderfully agile and the socks cuddled each little toe protectively. Slide in some Superfeet insoles and you're in bliss.
Experience is a great teacher. Last year, I got thoroughly schooled in the inadequacy of my sleeping bag. The end of every day brought with it the certainty of another cold night of stoic contemplation. I figured I had done enough of that. On this trip I took a twenty-degree bag. Thanks to Mountain Hardwear warm oblivion was mine. To handle any inclement weather I relied on my old faithful 'suffer' sack, also know as a bivy sack. The weather turned out to be classic California. Beautiful bluebird skies, sunshine, and warm breezes graced each day. To counter the UV exposure, I used two Kinesys products, fragrance free sun protection stick & spray. This small family owned company makes sunscreens for people who don't like to wear sunscreens. I like their products because you can apply them without having to get your hands greasy and because my skin doesn't react to the ingredients. No matter how fast you go, you can't outrun the sun!
When I was planning my hike of the JMT I wanted to treat it as if it was a big wall climb. To do this, I would need to take everything I needed with me. There would be no re-supplies, food drops, pacers, telephones, GPS or masseuses. The only difference would the availability of water along the way. I read several books on the subject of lightweight backpacking. The most informative book I found was "Beyond Backpacking" by Ray Jardine. Another was "A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning" edited by Don Allison. Without these resources I would have actually had to know something about hiking and backpacking. Other sources of information on moving fast were my husband Hans Florine, Russ McBride, Patty Haskins, and Jim Ficke. Thanks everyone!
I reached the traditional southern terminus of the JMT, the summit of Mt. Whitney at 1:07pm, September 2, 2005. That sets the women's solo-unsupported record at six days, six hours and fifty-three minutes! I was feeling pretty sassy about all this and decided to descend via the fourth class Mountaineers Route. Yikes! The route was really loose and uncertain. Here I had decided to go for a proper finish to a super aesthetic hike only to wish I'd opted for the mind numbing switchbacks that the day hikers were enjoying. At 6:41pm, September 2, 2005, I stopped the chronograph on my watch. "Good! Just enough time to get to the Whitney Portal Store." Then I ordered the meal I had been looking forward to all day, a cheeseburger and a beer. Doug Thompson Sr., the owner, asked me the same question he has asked thousands of other hikers, "How was your hike today?"
And then he listened with a huge smile on his face.
While waiting in town for my friend Mike Ayon to pick me up for a weekend of celebrating and climbing, I called home. It was then that I found out about Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster our country has ever endured. Considering the enormous losses suffered, I am especially grateful for the simple joys of walking alone in the wilderness, hot showers, family and friends.
Happy Isles sign to Mt. Whitney Summit; 6 days, 6 hours, 53 minutes.
Total time; trail head to trailhead, 6 days, 12 hours, 27 minutes.
August 27, 2005
Happy Isles Trailhead
September 2, 2005
Summit of Mt. Whitney
September 2, 2005
Trailhead at Whitney Portal via Mountaineers Route