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Shifting Goal Gears: From Western States to the JMT to a Smokey DNS

October 08, 2015 5 min read

Photo of the mountains

Around 8am on the morning of August 9th, the 3rd day of a 3-day, 100-mile fastpack tour of northern Yosemite and the Hoover Wilderness, Chris "Prizzle" Price and I stood on the summit of the Matterhorn at the southern end of the Sawtooth Ridge after a stimulating earlybird scramble, to reap our reward: stunning views in all directions. The disappointment of two others arriving on the summit ridge from the Horse Creek side exactly when we did from the opposite side at the head of Matterhorn Canyon was quickly overshadowed by the realization that the entire southern horizon was shrouded in smokey haze. Mt Lyell and its milky-white glacier should have been punctuating the skyline proudly; instead, we could barely tell it, and the neighboring peaks, were there. On this day, I never would have imagined the future ramifications that the fire creating this initial wave of smoke would have on both my plans and the plans of many others.

Photo of the mountains
The Rough Fire started with a lightning strike during the evening of July 31st in Kings Canyon National Park just north of State Route 180 between Grant and Cedar Groves. Looking back it was somewhat symbolic of the transition between two distinct phases of this particular Sierra summer. The first half was very wet; so wet in fact that, other than the conspicuous lack of lingering snowfields everywhere in the high country, one could be persuaded that the range wasn't four years deep into a severe drought. Flowers bloomed in abundance, springs and tributary creeks flowed with stormy recharge, the high country was often draped in ragged cloud cover, and all of my fastpack outings had weather-induced itinerary changes.
Photo of hiker on a trail
The trip Prizzle and I did started wet and cold, with even a dusting of snow on a few nearby peaks, but by the time we rolled into Tuolumne Meadows it was dusty, dry, and warm. On my final overnight outing before the planned JMT attempt, to Selden Pass and back from North Lake a few weeks later, I couldn't believe how different travel in the backcountry felt. It was hot, the ground seemed parched, and most trails were dust-filled concavities snaking past rapidly-disappearing or receding creeks and springs. And there was the unavoidable smoke...
Fighting Fires
The Rough Fire to-date has burned over 150,000 acres. It is still burning, however, thanks to a mid-September weather front that brought in, briefly, cooler weather and a small-but-effective dose of precipitation in an otherwise hot and dry month, and a more recent and significant storm, firefighters finally have a handle on it (89% containment as of today) and the Sierra has returned to Range-of-Light-worthy skies. The six weeks prior though were another story, a diurnal story that almost always ended each daily chapter with smoke pouring through the canyons and passes into the Eastern Sierra valleys from Independence to the Mono Basin, and, eventually, often began with smoke-choked skies as well. At its worst the smoke was a campfire-scented fog that reduced visibility in Bishop to less than a mile and made it difficult to believe the fire was on the other side of the Sierra.
Smokey highway

In the week leading up to my planned start date of August 26th, somewhat frenzied preparations piled on top of an already busy work and life scene kept me delusionally-distracted from the smokey-reality surrounding me, but eventually there was no denying the subconscious swirls of impending surrender. During my last few days of work backpackers poured into the store, having just abandoned there JMT through-hikes, with tales of view-less days, ash-covered tents and respiratory problems. I texted my friend, Phil Kiddoo, newly-appointed head of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, for professional confirmation of what common sense already knew. From a health standpoint he said simply that it would be "reckless" to do the JMT in these conditions, like adding several packs of unfiltered cigarettes to my daily fueling program.

On the afternoon of the 25th I hiked up to Bishop Pass in full JMT-dress for reasons I wasn't particularly sure of. Initially, I had rationalized that I would head to Whitney Portal and start regardless of the conditions, hope that they would improve or only be horrendous in short sections, and continually reassess with the choice to bail or continue presenting itself at each trail junction heading east. Deep down though, where sensibility still held sway over stubbornness, I knew this was ridiculous.

Mountains concealed in smoke

The South Reservoir parking lot smelled like a massive bonfire; the hike to the pass felt labored relative to the casual pace. From Long Lake I could barely make out Bishop Pass and from the pass Dusy Basin was a grey void. If not for the smell, the scene had all the look of an imminent snowstorm. Darkness fell before I regained the trailhead and the headlamp glow revealed a very light ash floating down like fine ice crystals in a drying and frigid airmass. The smokey smell lingered in my truck for days. Perhaps, the hike had been symbolic of starting the attempt, without the hassle of actually driving to Whitney Portal.

Disappointing as it was to put so much energy into training for and planning this unsupported JMT attempt only to "D.N.S" (Did Not Start), there are plenty of silver linings in the smoke. As with competing in organized events, the training and preparation comprises the bulk of the total effort, and if joy is found in that process then there really is no such thing as wasted time. I intentionally avoided the actual John Muir Trail as much as possible in training and, as a result, I explored more new Sierra backcountry than I ever have in a single summer.

I also realized two things regarding gear and nutrition: I had waited too long to completely dial in choices for both and this had netted me more stress with less relaxation in the weeks leading up to the attempt; and, I still have a ways to go in paring down my kit to a weight suitable for an FKT attempt. A 17-18 pound starting weight needs to slim down to 14-15 pounds, or less, between now and whenever I get my shot.

And, finally, I learned a lot about ultralight gear, caloric density, how a decision on one item can, and should, affect decisions on other items so as not to be weighed down by redundancy, and the various angles from which to approach making choices about what to take and what to leave in the closet gear pile while still being safe and self-sufficient in any situations other than dire emergencies. Not only will this be of value to me personally when my attempt does finally happen but it will make me a greater resource at work. This series of blog posts has hopefully been beneficial in that sense as well, as the main goal of writing them was less to talk about myself and more to use my plan and background as a framework on which to build ideas and possibilities for others who are interested in traveling lighter, and potentially faster, in the mountains.

When will I get my shot? As with everything in life, only time will tell. In my mind, the ideal timeframe is as close to the summer solstice as possible in order to maximize daylight hours, during which you simply travel faster. This is only really possible in drier winters, otherwise the passes will hold too much snow for fast travel. We've just had four of those "light," to put it mildly, years in a row and, if there has been any wasted opportunity, it has been there. Odds are, next year an early summer attempt won't be a sensible option. I am also heading back to the Angeles Crest 100 for the first time in 13 years on August 1st, which means, given adequate recovery time, next September is most likely the only possibility for 2016. Only time will tell. No doubt there will be many others taking their shots as well. One thing is for sure: Fastest Known Time attempts are here to stay.

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