A 23-year-old climber who waits tables at Priest Station Café ran and walked what may be the most difficult 72 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite to Sonora Pass, in under 28 hours in drift smoke from the Ferguson Fire.

Matt Cornell, who does big walls like El Capitan and Half Dome and recently climbed Cerro Torre in Patagonia, wanted to try something different. He’s done some trail running on approaches to climbs like the demanding Evolution Traverse on the north edge of Kings Canyon National Park.

But this was his longest trail run ever.

It was also his first time on this section of the PCT.

He got lost nearly halfway into his trek, more than 30 miles in, around Benson Lake.

“I fell in the river, got soaked up to my head,” Cornell said in a phone interview Thursday, speaking from Priest Station. “I was in a frantic hurry to get back on the trail and went about a half-mile out of my way. This was around 5 a.m. before sunrise. Added half an hour, 45 minutes to the time.”

To get ready for his ordeal he spent all day Tuesday eating to store energy, and swimming at Tenaya Lake. He started out 7:40 p.m. Tuesday at Lembert Dome off Highway 120 and took a cell phone with a GPS app for mapping distances and altitude and a battery pack.

He carried some snacks and a half-liter of water to start. He refilled from streams along the way and didn’t bother filtering the water.

Out there on the high spine of the Central Sierra, the water’s so fresh and clean he felt he didn’t need to worry about its purity. He had a headlamp for after sundown.

“I stayed on the PCT the whole way,” Cornell said. “Leaving in the evening, going into the dark was very interesting.”

In the dark

Cornell said he saw lots of deer as he ran and walked, but he felt like he was moving so fast he couldn’t take time to observe everything around him.

He saw some marmots here and there, little trout in the streams he crossed, occasional smaller birds flitting by, maybe some blue jays, and alpine chipmunks and squirrels running off the trail.

He said he was moving so fast he probably scared a lot of wildlife away.

He realized how far out there he was near Virginia Canyon. He knew he was near halfway when he got to Benson Lake.

Once past the halfway point he felt there was no turning back. The shortest way out now was to finish. But he was many miles and hours away from Sonora Pass.

‘Keep going’

He said he tried to stay focused and clear-headed. He listened to music on headphones to distance himself at the same time.

“A lot of it was trying to think how to conserve energy and stray fresh,” Cornell said. “Listening to Soundgarden, other grunge, some rap, Jewel. Trying to distract myself from the pain you’re feeling in your legs and feet. After you run 50 miles your legs get sore and you’re like trying to forget about the pain and keep going.”

He ran most of the 72.98 miles he covered, especially the flats and the downhills, and he walked fast on uphill sections.

The highest elevation point he crossed was 10,800 feet, right below Leavitt Peak, about five miles south of the finish at Sonora Pass.

By that time he was thrashed.

“I was surprised at the end, just with my body,” Cornell said. “I'd never driven myself to total exhaustion like I did on this. The last 10 miles my legs just gave up. They didn’t want to move. A lot of pain. The last 10 miles took seven hours.”

He said he felt like he had energy, but his legs could not keep up. It was a struggle to continue.

‘I have to make it’

He kept reminding himself how far he was from any road. When you’re in remote backcountry like this, near Benson Lake say, you’re 30 to 40 miles from the nearest road.

Any type of injury, as simple as a sprained ankle, can place you in jeopardy because help is so far away.

“I didn’t really process that until the last 10 miles,” Cornell said. “I was thinking you have to go on. There's no other choice. I have to make it.”

Through the entire trek, Cornell said he consumed four packs of Gu energy gel, four Larabars, one clementine and one pack of peanut M&Ms.

At 11 p.m. Wednesday, he stumbled stiff-legged the last few steps from the PCT trailhead at Sonora Pass to a waiting vehicle.

‘He could barely walk’

He’d just done more than 72 miles on foot in 27 hours and 20 minutes.

“He woke me up,” Steve Anker, Cornell’s boss at Priest Station, said Thursday. “I was asleep in my sleeping bag. He could barely walk. He could barely get in the car. He was exhausted.”

Anker had food for Cornell: Breyers ice cream and some sandwiches from Kennedy Meadows. Cornell ate real slow while they drove back to Priest Station.

Cornell’s not sure if he set a record because no one keeps speed records for this section of the PCT, which follows a path through Yosemite Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and edges of the Emigrant Wilderness.

By Thursday afternoon, Cornell was dozing and eating and dozing some more, recovering at Priest Station.

Anker shared photos of Cornell with his head on a table in the café and leaning back with his arms crossed and eyes closed, one captioned “Tired pup” and the other “He’s about to pass out.”

Where did he come from?

Cornell grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He got his first taste of climbing when he was 13 and went to summer camp on the Upper Peninsula. The camp had rock-climbing courses, basic toprope single-pitch climbs.

Something clicked, and it stuck with him. He went back a couple times, and when he got his driver’s license at age 16 he started driving to places with bigger rocks, like Red River Gorge in Kentucky. There he found multipitch climbs up to three rope-lengths high, primarily sport climbs with a focus on difficulty. He climbed very steep, vertical and overhanging rock and worked his way up to routes rated 5.12 and harder.

With more exposure to rock climbing and the hills and the mountains, by age 18 Cornell was a high school graduate dedicated to living out of his car to pursue climbing and mountaineering full time.

“It took off from there,” Cornell said.

Anker’s brother Conrad introduced him to Cornell four years ago, saying here's this great kid who wants to spend the summer in Yosemite. Cornell came to Yosemite Valley for the first time when he was 20. His first route was The Nose on El Capitan and his second was Half Dome.

“He’s been working here the past four summers,” Steve Anker said. “He’s part of the community. Everyone knows him at the café and he knows all the climbers in the valley.”

Cornell climbed the West Face of Cerro Torre in Patagonia in January this year. Other teams from Europe got some publicity, but Cornell believes his climb didn’t get promoted in the U.S.

He said he tests some gear for Smartwool. Otherwise he’s not sponsored or supported by any major climbing gear or outdoors gear manufacturers. He said he works four days a week, Fridays through Mondays at Priest Station, and he’s able to save enough money to travel and climb each winter.

More backcountry, more ascents

Steve Anker said he’s encouraged Cornell to get outside Yosemite Valley and discover new things away from the climbing crowds. He was skeptical at first when he thought of Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass in one push. He initially doubted Cornell could make it.

“I told Conrad about it, and he thought it was a great thing,” Steve Anker said. “It’s different. The PCT people and the climbers, they’re pretty separate. But this was trail running.”

Cornell credits his older sister, Breanna Cornell, 25, for inspiration when it comes to trail running. She runs ultra distance events, including 100-milers and longer races like the Badwater 135, which starts at 279 feet below sea level in Death Valley and ends at 8,360-foot Whitney Portal, the trailhead for Mount Whitney.

He’s still keen for climbing.

“The second column of Dana, off Dana Plateau, he free climbs that,” Steve Anker said. “Now he says he wants me to load up some mules and bring climbing gear. More backcountry, more ascents.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.