Gain Access: Tom Robertson documents the journey of North Face ultrarunners on the John Muir Trail
Post written by Tom Robertson.
In the summer of 2013, North Face ultrarunners Mike Wolfe and Hal Koerner set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the John Muir Trail (JMT) in the Eastern Sierra Mountains of California. The trail begins on the top of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48, at 14,505 feet. It crosses seven passes over 11,000 feet and ends 211 miles away in Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. To get to the start of the trail, Mike and Hal had to run an additional 12 miles from the base of Mt. Whitney, know as the Whitney Portal, consequently setting a new FKT from that point as well. They ran the 211-mile trail in 3 days, 9 hours and 5 minutes.
As for me, it started one afternoon over coffee when I asked Mike what sort of adventures he had planned for the summer. He told me he and Hal were going to attempt an FKT in a North Face-sponsored expedition. I told Mike I wanted to be a part of it. I joined them for ten days as they prepped, planned and ran. In the three and a half days of documenting them on the JMT, I ran and hiked 62 miles with camera gear and supplies over 12,000-foot high passes.
In order to document Mike and Hal completing the JMT, obvious challenges were the remoteness of the trail and physical fitness. It was imperative for me to run and hike long distances with gear, along and in the dark, to meet them at strategic points along the way. On the 12-mile hike to the top of Mt. Whitney, I carried minimal food, one camera and two lenses. After photographing their start, I ran back down and drove to the nearest sandwich shop. I bought enough food for three people and ate it all myself as I hurriedly drove to the next trailhead. After sending a few images to North Face, I headed out at 8PM with gear and food to resupply Mike and Hal. The 11-mile hike over a 12,000 foot pass took me 8 hours. I got a few hours of sleep before they arrived at daylight.
I made them a hot meal and coffee as I continued shooting video and stills. When they departed I headed down the trail with them for a bit before retracing my steps to break camp and hike back out. I was able to get closer road access at the next few points which allowed me to carry more gear and spend more time with them on the trail. One of the most memorable stretches came on Day 3, while running with them at night with only their headlamps illuminating the dusty trail. As I documented the last few miles, there was a kind of relief and euphoria that only comes after pushing one’s body to the limit.
The experience was surreal. Utterly epic.
And finally… Mike Wolfe is giving a presentation on campus in March, and I’m going to present a bit as well from my part. Here’s the information for those of you in Missoula that are interested in attending.
Tom Robertson graduated from RMSP’s Career Training Program in 2008. He is currently a commercial and editorial photographer with a special fondness for documenting cycling races internationally. He is a true adventurer in both his lifestyle and in his photography and it’s no surprise to me to find him working on this North Face project as Tom is one of the most adventurous and generous collaborators on every level that I have ever known. In addition to working as a photographer, Tom recently gave a lecture to our Career Training students in 2013 and I am hoping that he will continue to teach for us in the future. Thanks Tom for a fascinating story!