Early Monday morning on July 7, Ralph began his hike of the John Muir Trail by stepping off at the official trailhead at Happy Isles. That night he camped at Island Pass. You know Island Pass: it’s the one well past Donohue Pass, more than forty miles from Happy Isles. Early Friday afternoon he was standing atop Mount Whitney. He carried everything he needed for the duration of his trip (except water) on his back and didn’t stop at Tuolumne Meadow, Red’s Meadow, or Muir Trail Ranch for resupply—or even a cheeseburger!
I had the opportunity to discuss the hike with Ralph. Here’s what he had to say.
Four days, eight hours and 43 minutes. I guess the first question is, “Why?”
Perhaps there’s serenity to be found in doing what we were designed to do. One of the key strategies of our evolutionary ancestors was “persistence hunting”, in which we’d use our endurance running skills along with our tracking skills to exhaust faster animals by chasing them relentlessly. There’s a parallel in all endurance sports, and particularly so in the combination of physical and mental qualities required to fastpack 200 miles over a few days. So—although the Sierra is more marmots than antelopes—my African ancestors made me do it!
So, I assume you are in your twenties, are a highly conditioned athlete, and have less than 8% body fat?
I just turned 50, and I have no idea of my body fat percentage. I’m not any kind of competitive athlete, but I do keep myself fit enough to hike fast and far, because that opens up more possibilities for reaching interesting and beautiful places.
What surprised you as being easier than you thought it would be? What was harder?
I was surprised that I recovered so well day after day on just a few hours sleep. The only difficult and tiresome thing was having to eat constantly, almost 6000 calories per day.
What lessons can you draw from your experience that would be useful to those of us who aren’t in such a hurry?
Whatever your pace, if you want to enjoy a hike the length of the JMT, take plenty of tasty comfort food. Try to keep your body fueled even when you don’t feel like eating.
It appears that you may have a southbound, unsupported, record. True?
Yes—but only because it’s quicker going northbound, so that’s the way the elite athletes go. Brett Maune’s unsupported record from Whitney Summit to Happy Isles is an amazing 3 days, 9 hours, 58 minutes. Having said that, it seems that it’s only in the last few years that elite distance runners like Brett have mastered the unusual challenge of the JMT. My “tortoise vs hare” approach—I didn’t run at all, I just hiked at a steady pace—would have held the overall record until just a few years ago.
Last, while the response to your hike has been overwhelmingly positive, there are always a few who cast aspersions. What do you say to the people who insist that you did this all wrong? That you missed the point of hiking the JMT?
I really have nothing to say to people who think that I’m enjoying the wilderness incorrectly! However, an important issue is that we don’t want the JMT turning into a racetrack. I feel strongly that anyone going fast should maintain a commitment to adhere to all wilderness regulations (e.g. take a bearcan, camp legally), follow Leave No Trace principles, and maintain common etiquette such as yielding to uphill hikers.
To learn more about Ralph’s hike I encourage you to check out his trip report.
Good hiking, Ray
July 11, 2015 I ran into Ralph Burgess on the summit of Mt Whitney around 9am (actually he was the one running) in his new attempt to break the unsupported FKT on the John Muir Trail (Whitney Portal to Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley) held by Andrew Bentz, established last summer at 3d10h59m40s. He asked me to post an online comment to verify he was on top of Mt. Whitney. I wished him well.
Thanks for the update, Alan. Great news!