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What a feat: Ken Posner hikes California’s John Muir Trail barefoot

August 31, 2022

Kenneth Posner, age 59, lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, where he has been hiking barefoot since 2015; his many remarkable barefoot achievements include summiting the 35 Catskill High Peaks, the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, and 36 of the 48 4,000-footers of New Hampshire, as well completing the Catskills AllTrails Challenge, which entails covering every single hiking trail in the Catskills Park (total of 350 miles).

This is a person who enjoys a good challenge!

And even though it took three tries in the last three years, Ken finally achieved his goal of shoelessly backpacking California’s 210-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) through the High Sierra this summer.

Ken on the John Muir trail

Here’s some of Ken’s hard-won insights: (all photos by Ken as well)

Q: What were some of the most challenging aspects of the John Muir Trail 210-mile through-hike?

KP: Logistics for the John Muir Trail are complex. 

First you have to secure permits, which are in high demand. For each of my JMT adventures, I had to enter the trail in the middle and complete the north and south sections separately, since I couldn’t obtain straight-thru permits. Second, you need to develop a route plan indicating how many days it will take to complete the trail, because this will in turn drive your requirements for nutrition as well as travel logistics. And finally, you need to have a good backpacking kit, where you make careful trade-offs between weight and essentials.

The trail conditions vary. In the north there are miles of soft sandy trails and trails of packed dirt. These are ideal for barefooting, and on these surfaces I’ve been able to cover 12, 15, almost 20 miles in a day. In the south, however, the mountain passes are steeper and taller, and the canyons deeper, and the trails are full of rocks and gravel.  Sometimes I could get no further than 6 miles in a day.

Editor notes: Ken made a ten short videos during his JMT through-hike; this one is a little lesson on dealing with the rough trail: “Walking on Cobbles” . . .

Ken titled this short video “hellacious descent from Senger Creek” because of all the (you guessed it) rocks. Takeaway quote for all barefoot hiking (and life?): “the goal is the experience.”

This next video is called “Tired of Rocks” . . . watch it and you’ll see why Ken called this area “a purgatory of rocks.”

Back to KP: While rocks are difficult, the greatest physical/mental tests for me all have to do with sticking to the route plan, because I had a limited amount of time to complete the trail (I used up most of my vacation days!), and a limited amount of food. (Editor’s note: hiking the JMT requires self-sufficiency: you must carry all your gear and food on your back.)

The worst days were when I’d budgeted what seemed like reasonable mileage, but was surprised—either because I’d forgotten how hard the terrain was, or because maybe I wasn’t having a great day for other reasons—and found myself falling behind.  At one point, I was 10 miles behind plan, which was enough to jeopardize my ability to finish the trail.  Fortunately, I was able to catch back up, but it took a sustained effort.

Sunrise from Mt. Whitney

Q: Can you describe your barefoot ascent of Mt. Whitney (elevation ~ 14,500 ft / 4421m)?

KP: The barefoot ascent of Mt. Whitney is going to surely rank as one of the most surreal experiences of my life.  I started at midnight in order to reach the summit by dawn.  At first the trail was steeper and rockier than I expected, and the path was wet with ice-cold running water which stung my feet.  Thanks to these conditions and a cup of instant coffee before heading out, I found myself getting out of breath and becoming extremely anxious.  I had to say to myself, “please stop.”  Gradually I got my breathing under control and proceeded more steadily.

As I moved along, the next section of the trail consisted of a series of six long switchbacks leading to a trail junction at 13,600 feet.  Here the path was mostly sandy, and I made steady progress, although the trail was quite steep.  I kept count of the switchbacks to pace myself.  I would have used the altitude and mileage reading on my watch, but it quickly ran out of charge and stopped working.  I could see headlamps of other hikers ahead of me and behind me, but otherwise the night was pitch black.  It was like walking through a void.

From the trail junction, the trail passes alongside the crest of the ridge, and here the trail deteriorated into a jumble of rocks and raw granite slag, and in some places it was clear that big rocks had tumbled down, blocking part of the trail and forcing you to clamber over them.  It was, in places, more like climbing on a jungle gym—not that you’d need ropes or mountaineering skills, it’s just you had to step and climb over piles of rocks—and when barefoot you can obviously not afford to slip or stumble—not to mention to the sides there were steep drop-offs of 30, 40, 50 feet or more (that’s as far as my headlamp’s beam played out).  At one point there are some gaps in the crest, and you can see the lights of Lone Pine, 10,000 feet below and 20 miles away.  In between some rocks, Sky Pilot (Polemenium eximium) showed its beautiful little flowers with clusters of blue petals.

Eventually I got through this stuff, and the final climb to the summit was on a sandy trail (easier on the feet)—ahead of me I could see the sky beginning to lighten. A small group of us perched on the summit and waited quietly for the sun to appear.

And then I put on shoes and descended the 6,000 feet (in 10.7 miles) to Whitney Portal, which took all day.

Whitney Summit

Q: Do you have any training tips for someone eager to duplicate your John Muir Trail (JMT) feat? (Ouch. It’s difficult to write about barefoot hiking without at least one pun.)

KP: The mountain passes are steep and tall, and people should be prepared to climb up to 3,000 feet in a day and descend that much as well.  For climbing, I did a lot of stairmaster sessions, which I think were helpful.  For descending—which I find often to be much more difficult while barefoot since you have to lower yourself down each step or rock quite carefully—I do single leg step-downs from a raised block. 

I would advise doing plenty of practice hikes with a full pack.  And finally, I made a point to take a lot of walking breaks during my work days; the rough paved road outside our house, which is scattered with gravel in places, was a great place to gradually adapt the feet to rough conditions and to get used to moving fluidly.

Q: Looking back at your three adventures on the JMT, is there anything you would do differently on a fourth attempt?

KP: Ideally more time.  Completing the JMT in 22 days was a wild experience, with a mix of easy days and some that were frankly quite difficult.  But “miles” don’t mean much when conditions are variable.  I found that after climbing through rocks and/or walking on hot sand and gravel, my feet could only take so much friction before walking became very painful—and sometimes I had to take a break for a few hours, or just let my feet recover overnight, and start again the next day.  If I had enough vacation time to do the JMT in 30 days, it would be a dream.  

Q: What were some of the best (or worst) footwear-related comments people had for you on your JMT adventure?

KP: Many shod hikers reacted very positively.  My favorite comments were “Respect!”  and “Next level!”  I met a couple of people who run barefoot but never thought about backpacking that way.  One fellow from Japan asked if this was my “meditation practice,” which made me smile.

Some people asked if I was OK—which was a fair question on those gravelly sections where I was moving quite slowly and sometimes struggling.  A couple of people offered to give me their camp sandals or crocs, which was nice, but I would tell them the sizes (or in some cases the colors) didn’t suit me.  One person said he was going to call 911, which I did not appreciate.

What got tiresome was “Where are your shoes?” and “Who stole your shoes?”  I told these people that a bear cub had taken my shoes, which I think they believed.

Q: How does through-hiking the JMT compare to your thousands of miles of New York/New England trail adventures?

KP: The JMT trails are generally not as steep, since they’re graded for stock.  And they’re beautifully constructed with thousands of stone steps and retaining walls, whereas New England trails are comparatively rough, crude, and often washed-out.

However, a lot of the JMT is above treeline, which means you’re exposed to the sun—and on those trails with a southern aspect, which get the full brunt of the noonday sun, the sand can turn quite hot, which is not going to happen in New England.

Q: What’s the next barefoot adventure you are planning?

I’d like to finish the 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers (12 to go) and maybe bag Maine and Vermont’s high peaks, too.  But otherwise, I don’t know. 

I think there is something special out there waiting for me, but I do not yet know what it is.

Q: Thanks for your insight, Ken! I’m inspired and hope others are too. (You can follow Ken’s barefoot adventures on his blog, “The Long Brown Path.“)

Happy (rocky) trails!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2022 8:04 pm

    thank you for sharing Ken’s experience! Thank you Ken and enjoy future adventures!

  2. September 1, 2022 8:44 am

    I appreciated the video/lesson on navigating cobbles. What a feat! Congrats on your achievement, Ken!

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