Opening Statement

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Sunday, September 23, 2018

PCT Risks - Real and Imagined


You can count on questions about bears and mountain lions, and even whether you are planning to carry a gun as soon as people hear that you are planning to hike the PCT.  Hardly anyone will ask what you plan to do about blisters.

This post is a quick overview of common risks that you will actually face, and some of the less common risks.  You shouldn't hesitate to get on trail because of these risks ... just be aware of them and take precautions when you can.  When I use the term "serious risk," I mean things that take people off trail.  I've added some brief comments about my own experience.

The most common serious risks:

Overuse Injuries - Shin splints, joint inflammation, painful neuromas, and other over-use injuries plague long-distance hikers.  These common injuries tend to kick in after the first few hundred miles of hiking and can take you off trail for weeks at a time.  Conditioning before the hike helps and taking zero days early in the hike can also help.  I had to take 15 days off trail in 2017 to recover from an overuse injury to my left knee, and it seriously impacted my hiking schedule.

Hiking Falls - Many, and maybe most, hikers trip or slip and fall resulting in a scrape or two, and a few percent of hikers have serious falls resulting in injuries that take them off trail.  Falls happen on all kinds of terrain, but especially on steep snow, and in icy conditions.  I met one woman in 2018 who had broken her leg in the first two miles of trail the prior year, and met many hikers sporting obvious fall injuries.  I tripped and fell on trail myself, but was lucky not to be injured.

Water Crossing Problems - Due to the high snow levels in 2017, two PCT hikers drowned in the Sierras.  This is unusual and was probably preventable; however, many people get wet, and some people have close calls every year.  Lost footing during a water crossing can result in anything from a serious injury to simply a water-soaked backpack and unusable phone.  I fell off a log at a smaller crossing in 2018 in the early evening and had a cold night with wet gear.

Exceptional Weather - You may be fine 99% of the time, but you are likely to catch at least one exceptional weather event, especially if you start early or finish late.  High winds and hail can both shred lightweight tents.  A heavy snow can obscure the trail, and white-out condition can be deadly since you won't be able to safely navigate.  Multiple rain days in a row can make it impossible to get dry and warm until you make the next town.  These events can cause falls, navigational problems and hypothermia, and these all can have serious consequences.

Hyper and hypothermia - These are almost always the result of unusual weather, poor judgement, risk taking, and/or inadequate gear -- been there, done that.  Once the process starts, you start to lose the mental and physical capabilities that you need to get yourself back on track, so these are serious backcountry problems.  The early stages are common and the late stages thankfully rare.  One simple rule:  at the first hint that you are getting overheated or chilled, take action or make a plan to resolve the problem quickly.

Homesickness, Boredom, and Lack of Motivation - You won't likely stay on trail if you are lonely and homesick, feel like your relationships at home are deteriorating, are bored with the trail, or feel like your hike has no purpose.  I used a Garmin InReach to stay in touch with my wife and listened to audiobooks or music on my phone for a few hours most days.

Anti-social Behavior - While most PCT hikers have a positive experience, anti-social behavior can really "kill the vibe" for others.  Some women and LGBTQ hikers have commented on encountering an uncomfortable "bro-culture" on trail.  Also, some women have had other uncomfortable experiences, and make a point to not camp alone.  The dialogue on the PCT pages on Facebook can become critical, disrespectful, and dispiriting.  You may see some hikers not practicing LNT.  One older hiker commented to me that he felt "invisible" to younger hikers, although my own experience was almost the opposite.

Common, usually less-serious risks:

Blisters - Although very common, blisters are often preventable by taping your feet immediately when you start to feel a hot spot.  But, since most of us wait too long, blisters are a common source of misery on trail.  To minimize problems, break in your shoes for 100+ miles before getting on trail and carry blister-preventative tape.  Switching to a new pair of shoes the week before your start date is likely to result in blisters!

Sunburn and UV damage - Some people get badly burned every year, and a lot of people get an unhealthy overdose of UV during the trail.  Most of the burn problems happen in the first few weeks.  I am very susceptible to burning, so I hike in long pants, long sleeves, a hat, and sungloves.

Poison Oak and Poodle Dog Bush - You are going to encounter poison oak encroaching on the trail in California and Oregon, and poodle dog bush near the trail in Southern California.  Most people sidestep these plants and don't get exposed.

Rodents - When you camp at heavily-used campsites, mice and squirrels can be more aggressive than usual.  Hikers that don't take extra care can end up with chew holes in their tent or backpack.  Rodents, and even deer, will sometimes chew trekking pole and/or backpack straps.

Uncommon, but serious and real:

Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalance - Most of us are fanatical about carrying enough water for a simple reason:  dehydration is very uncomfortable, and then it leads to difficulty hiking, and can spiral down from there.  When you are sweating a lot, electrolytes can quickly get out of balance, so you should take electrolytes daily.  I met a woman who had to go to a hospital to recover just because she was not taking electrolytes in the desert section.

Snow Blindness - At high altitudes on snow it only takes a short time to "sunburn" your eyes.  This can result in temporary blindness, which is obviously a dangerous situation.  A good pair of sunglasses will eliminate this problem.  I only mention snow blindness here because another PCT hiker told me about his hiking buddy becoming snow blind and having to walk him down and set up a tent for him so he could rest his eyes.  Opticus can make great sunglasses for trail use to your prescription.

Getting Lost - The PCT is such a major trail that it's unusual to "lose" the trail, although it can happen occasionally.  Also there are only a few situations when you will be intentionally off the PCT, such as when digging a cathole, hiking over snow, or when on a fire-closure alternate.  Still, getting lost can lead to tragedy, so it's important to stay aware of where you are.  My phone, with GPS, always worked.  In addition to Guthooks, whenever there was a significant alternate, I loaded the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map covering the area into the Avenza app.  I also carry a Garmin InReach, a physical compass, and a whistle.

Giardia - A few people get giardia or other waterborne illnesses every year because they didn't treat their water.  Probably 80+ percent of hikers are very careful about this.  My personal options:  filter it, use chlorine dioxide tablets, boil it, or trust it (primarily at water caches or campgrounds).

Insect bites - There are ticks on the PCT and especially if you wear shorts, there is a good chance of getting a tick on you at some point, and tick bites can lead to serious illness.  While spiders are mostly harmless, some are poisonous, and can make you ill.  You are almost guaranteed to get mosquito bites, but I have not heard of mosquito-borne illnesses on the PCT yet.

Bee stings - Every year some people get stung by bees or wasps.  If you have an allergy that makes a bee sting potentially serious, you should probably carry some form of protective gear, such as an insect bonnet and/or medicine to counteract the sting.

Lightning Strikes - Especially in the high sierras, you can encounter late-afternoon thunderstorms.  If you are coming up over a pass during a storm, it can be pretty scary.  A few PCT hikers were struck and survived in recent years.

Cars - PCT hikers have been struck by cars while roadwalking, so while we don't spend that many hours walking on backcountry roads, these winding roads with narrow shoulders seem to be especially dangerous.

Hitch-hiking - This is an area where most people have great experiences, but there is always a risk that it won't go well.  Women usually make a point to hitch with at least one other person to reduce their risk level.

Theft - Since hikers are carrying over $2,000 in gear, and some cash, you might expect more robberies and thefts.  This turns out to be fairly rare, but it does happen.  Cameras and electronics are more at risk than your water filter.

Very uncommon, but not impossible:

Bears and Mountain Lions - Kind of like a shark attack, very high fear factor, but very low incidence.  I'm not aware of any actual attacks on PCT hikers ever.  Bears will sometimes false charge hikers and mountain lions will sometimes follow hikers though, both of which can be very scary.

Snakes - I saw over a dozen rattlesnakes in both 2017 and 2018, but there wasn't really any danger from them as long as you didn't get too close.  People aren't part of the "prey template" for a rattlesnake ... we are just too big to eat.

Avalanche, Rock falls, Pine Cones, Branches, and Tree falls - I would like to say that this never happens ... but sometimes nature just seems to fall apart.  It's very rare that PCT hikers get caught in the actual event.  Once I had to dodge a heavy falling oak branch, but not on the PCT.  Burn areas are the worst for tree falls.


Please let me know if I've left off any important risks that you would mention, or if you have other comments about this topic.  Thanks.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Calendar Math: Straight Talk about PCT Start Dates and Hike Planning


Hiking the PCT in 2018 I met quite a few hikers who had no schedule for their hike, or even a way to realistically assess their chance of finishing--they had never "done the math".  For very-fast hikers this would not usually be a huge problem, but for slower hikers, the schedule for a PCT thru-hike can be tight, and some hikers have to abandon their hike every year due to weather.  This post focuses on the calendar issues around a PCT hike so you can have a better chance of finishing the hike that you want.

In the end, there are four primary actions you can take related to your schedule that will improve your chance of finishing a thru hike:

1)  Increase your Average Hiking Pace:  Get lightweight gear and do some conditioning hikes before your start date.  That will help you to hike longer miles without injuries, and average daily hiking distance turns out to matter a lot.  To comfortably complete a thru-hike, you need to hike 22+ miles on a typical day--conditioning before your start date will get you there faster.

2)  Get an Earlier Start Date:  Get a start date with some wiggle room in it, appropriate to your hiking speed and plans.  If you get a May date, understand that this implies an average pace of 25 miles per day or more, which not everyone is really prepared to do.

3)  Watch your Schedule and Zero's:  Watch your schedule and notice if you are hiking slower than expected or taking more zeros or resupply days.  Balance zeros with your schedule priorities.  If you have to take time off for an injury or personal reason, re-assess your schedule.  It can be hard to fix issues after you are already in Washington and the snow is falling.

4)  Restructure your Hike if Needed:  If you get behind schedule for any reason, and don't think you can catch up, consider doing a temporary skip forward or a flip or converting a thru-hike into a section hike.  I saw a few hikers get off trail in a funk instead of redefining or restructuring their hike.  Remember it's YOUR hike, you can do it however it works for you.  You are the primary person who decides whether your hike was a "success."

Calendar issues for the PCT pivot on the major trail sections and something I'm going to call "average pace."  You can think of your average pace as your typical number of miles hiked per day, and we will discuss the calendar implications of different average pace levels.  For the statistically minded, this isn't exactly your average, it's more of a representative pace.  Of course your actual miles hiked will be affected by the trail conditions in each section.  For example, I've assumed that you will hike at 80% of your average in the Sierras and 120% of your average in Oregon.  These are in the ballpark for most hikers, although everyone has their own experience. To make this more specific, the schedule table below includes slower thru-hikers hikers with an average pace of 17.5 or 20.0 miles per day, moderate hikers at 22.5 miles per day, and fast hikers at 25.0 or 27.5 miles per day.  You should have a good handle on which group you are closest to by the end of the desert section when you will typically have reached or be near your average pace.

The Desert (Campo to Kennedy Meadows):  702 miles, 3,754 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  NOBO's can start this section as early as mid-March, although early to mid April is fine for most people.  This is the "warm up" section of the hike.  You can actually take as long as you want to hike it as long as you finish by early June.  Most people can finish it in mid-May and take a week or two off without wrecking their schedule.  The reason you can take your time in this section is that you have very limited options for hiking other sections until the second half of May or even into June.  If you are a slower hiker, you might want to add a week or two to your hiking schedule by finishing this section in mid-May and flipping up to Dunsmuir or Ashland rather than sitting in Kennedy Meadows while the snow melts.  Since most people are still getting conditioned, I'm assuming an average hiker does this section at 80% of their average pace.

The Sierras (Kennedy Meadows to Sierra City):  493 miles, 3,632 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  This is the core of the Sierras, and contains all of the 8,000+ ft. altitude hiking for the entire trail.  The main schedule issue for the Sierras is the snow pack and high water crossings until some point in June, and snow returning again in October.  See www.postholer.com for data on the snow pack and safe entry dates.  In most years, it's feasible for moderate and fast hikers to simply wait for a safe entry date and hike north from Kennedy Meadows into the Sierras and continue with a northbound hike.  In 2017, which was an unusually heavy snow year, many hikers upset their thru-hiking schedule by spending too much time pondering what to do about the Sierras, waiting for conditions to improve, skipping ahead anyway, and then simply not having enough time to finish the trail.  Due to the altitude, steep trail sections, and snow travel, the Sierras slow most hikers down significantly.  I'm assuming an average hiker does this section at 80% of their average pace.

Northern California (Sierra City to Ashland):  514 miles, 3597 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  This is a lower-elevation portion of the trail that is often hikeable two or more weeks before the Sierras, and is usually hikeable at least through the end of October.  So, whether hiking north from Sierra City, or south from Ashland or Dunsmuir, this trail section is a popular and usually accessible one to skip up to after finishing the Desert section.  It's also a section that you can "bank" for later if you want to do Washington earlier in the hike and finish with this section, although you may get some rain in October.  If you are a slower hiker, or run into schedule issues, a flip or skip can make a thru-hike feasible when a straight-thru hike isn't in the cards.  I'm assuming that the average hiker does this section at 100% of their average pace.

Oregon (Ashland to Cascade Locks):  435 miles, 2,707 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  When people say that Oregon is "flat," they really just mean that is is a bit flatter than the rest of the trail.  However, most of the trail is gently sloped and is comparatively easy to hike.  In addition, the resupply locations are convenient, and most hikers find that they move through Oregon at a much faster pace than other trail sections.  While this section is hikeable through October, you can expect to get some rain during that month.  Again, this section can be "banked" until you finish Washington if you get behind schedule.  I'm assuming that the average hiker does this section at 120% of their average pace.

Washington (Cascade Locks to Manning Park):  515 miles, 4,319 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  This section has the most climbing per day by a big margin, but it's also the last section for most hikers, and with 2,000+ miles already hiked, many hikers just motor up the hills.  Most of the trail is also very well built and switchbacked, so it's not as hard to hike as you might expect.  The big issue with this section is weather from about mid-September on.  In the North Cascades, the last two weeks of September often include cold rain and light snow.  By early October, heavy snowfall usually closes the northernmost section, and some hikers miss finishing due to these snows.  If you can make it work, this is a wonderful section to hike in August.  I'm assuming that the average hiker does this section at 100% of their average pace.

So, now let's bring the two ideas together along with start and finishing dates.  In addition to hiking days based on the average pace, I've added one zero/resupply day for every seven days of hiking, and set all of the hiking speeds so that the hiker arrives at Kennedy Meadows on June 5th, which would be a day that a hiker could get up into the Sierras if the snow was fairly light, or get on trail in another section.

Average Pace in miles per day
NOBO Milestones 17.5 20.0 22.5 25.0 27.5
Campo (start) 8-Apr 15-Apr 21-Apr 25-Apr 29-Apr
Kennedy Meadows 5-Jun 5-Jun 5-Jun 5-Jun 5-Jun
Sierra City 15-Jul 10-Jul 6-Jul 3-Jul 30-Jun
Ashland 17-Aug 8-Aug 1-Aug 26-Jul 21-Jul
Cascade Locks 10-Sep 29-Aug 19-Aug 12-Aug 6-Aug
Manning Park (finish) 14-Oct 27-Sep 14-Sep 4-Sep 27-Aug

These dates are unlikely to exactly match up to your hike, but they should give you a good idea of how hiking pace maps back to your schedule and how tight or comfortable your schedule will be.

An average pace of 17.5 miles per day would result in an October 14th finish in Manning Park, which isn't feasible due to snow.  If you expect to be hiking at that average pace, you could skip ahead and hike Washington earlier and finish with Oregon or Northern California.  Or, get an earlier start date, get to Kennedy Meadows earlier, and flip up to Ashland or Dunsmuir and hike Northern California and the Sierras southbound, for example.

If you are hiking at an average pace of 20.0 miles per day, your schedule for a straight-thru hike is extremely tight.  If you get off schedule, or want to hike up into the Sierras and wait a week to do that, you will need to either pick up your hiking pace, or tighten up your resupply and zero days.  Again, some form of skip or flip could make sense for you.  

At an average pace of 22.5 miles per day, you have a very realistic chance of finishing the trail in a straight-thru hike, even if you have a schedule slip of a few days, but if an injury takes you off trail for a bit, take a close look at your schedule.  Getting off schedule by more than a week will put finishing a straight-thru hike at risk.

Faster hikers won't have any problem finishing the trail in an average snow year, but watch out if we have a repeat of the high snows that we had in 2017.

As a general suggestion, it makes sense to get an earlier start date than shown above so that you have a buffer for recovering from a minor injury, for a home visit at the end of the desert section, for dealing with fire closures, or simply for taking some zero days.  I had an April 2nd start date in both 2017 and 2018.  In 2017 I finished 2,000 miles, and I completed a full thru-hike in 2018.  The main difference for me was having a higher average pace in 2018.

If you have questions about this "calendar math," please let me know.  Good luck on your hike!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Hiking the PCT after 55 -- Considerations for Older Hikers


The great majority of PCT thru-hikers are from 20 to 40 years old, so most of the forum discussions are aimed at recommendations from and for hikers in this age range.  Hiking 2,000 miles on the PCT in 2017 and thru-hiking the PCT in 2018 at 62, and talking with other hikers, I found that some of the advice we had read before getting on trail missed the mark a bit due to age-related differences.  I know that some hikers at 70 are stronger than some other hikers at 25, but most of us lose some faculties as we age, and this post is really about adjusting to that reality.

Especially if you are over 55, some age and life-experience differences could change the way that you decide to hike the trail.  For example, compared to when I was 25:

  • Conditioning takes longer
  • Recovery from injuries takes longer
  • When I get chilled, it's harder to warm up
  • I now need corrective lenses to see well
  • My joints and feet aren't as robust
  • I'm not as competitive or achievement oriented
  • I have a lot more family responsibilities

If any of this resonates with you, here are a points to consider:

Goals and Announcements
What is motivating you to get out on trail?  Is it to see the trail, to enjoy being in nature, to get away from the pressures of your ordinary life?  Is there something special to you about "achieving" a thru-hike vs. doing a longer section hike?  I met one over-60 thru-hiker in 2017 who had hiked 2,575 miles in 2016, but described her 2016 hike as a failure, because she missed a thru-hike by 70 miles. She had announced to her friends and colleagues that she was absolutely going to thru-hike the trail and was mortified that she couldn't achieve her goal.  Suggestion:  with all the uncertainties of weather, fire closures, and personal injuries, consider your goals and what you announce to friends and family.  There is nothing wrong with section hiking till you complete the trail, or even leaving out sections of the trail entirely (gasp!).  The hike takes on the meaning you give it.

Schedule and Start Date for a Thru Hike
It's hard to make sense of the widely divergent views on the "ideal" start date.  Of course, the ideal date is dependent on snow levels, and until the snow pack is fully in place toward the middle of April, no one really knows when it will be feasible to enter the Sierras safely, so you will have to pick your start date far in advance of this information.  If you have a start date in early April, you can always take a week or two off after the desert section, but if you start in early May and possibly have an injury that requires a rest  period, you could end up "schedule challenged."  A lot depends on how fast a hiker you turn out to be.  Suggestion:  If you won't be fully conditioned when you start, or think you might be a slower hiker, go for a start date during the first two weeks of April.  That way you have adequate time to condition on trail and take rest days.  It's much more pleasant to finish in Manning Park during early September than after the weather has already turned cold and wet.

Skipping and Flipping
As you think about your plan, how important is a "straight thru" hike vs. skipping sections and returning to them, or doing part of the hike northbound and part southbound?  If it's compatible with your goals, you can hike the trail sections in any order, modifying the order to improve the safety and weather conditions of your hike, and extend the hiking season.  For example, going northbound up into the Sierras early can result in more dangerous water crossings, while instead you could be hiking south from Ashland or Dunsmuir in late May and beat the heat in Northern California while you let the snow melt and water levels fall in the Sierras.  Likewise, you could finish hiking Washington in August before the rain and snow shows up, and leave parts of Oregon for September or even October, missing the mosquito season as well.  Suggestion:  be open to skips and flips, especially if you are under 5'5", have joint issues, or find that you are a slower hiker.

Conditioning
You might have read something like: "it takes about three weeks to get your trail legs."  This is both true and ridiculous.  You will notice a difference after about three weeks on trail, but you won't really reach a high level of conditioning that quickly.  It took me about 1,000 miles to really feel conditioned.  When I asked other older hikers what they would recommend for older hikers, every person mentioned conditioning as the number one area to focus on.  Suggestion:  invest as much time as you can on your conditioning before getting on trail.  It will pay dividends in speed, enjoyment, and reduced injuries.  If you are comfortable hiking 12 miles with your loaded pack on, with 2,000 feet of climbing, you are likely well enough conditioned to start the trail.

Injuries
Of course you can fall or twist an ankle, but the most common injuries, by far, are over-use injuries.  Shin splints and joint inflammation are common, and can cause intense pain as well as take you off trail.  Over-use injuries seem to pop up most commonly after the first 300 miles of hiking, so it can be hard to predict these from your conditioning hikes.  Ibuprofen, sometimes referred to humorously as Vitamin I, can help a lot, but over-use can lead to kidney damage, so it's not a silver bullet.  Rest, is the most reliable cure for an over-use injury, and it's often necessary for older hikers to take 7 days or more off trail to recover from an over-use injury.  Suggestion:  leave enough time in your schedule that a two-week hiatus to recover from an injury won't prevent you from achieving your hiking goals.  Since injuries most often occur in the desert section for NOBO thru hikers, this could just mean getting on trail by the third week in April.

Equipment
The equipment that you need doesn't vary that much from younger hikers, with a few areas to pay special attention to.  I was happy to have warm clothes, even when some hikers were shivering to save weight.  I have a really good headlamp (Fenix HL12R), because I'm a relatively slow hiker and tend to break camp before it gets light so that I have a longer day--anything that puts out 70 lumens plus is fine.  I needed corrective lenses in my sunglasses, so I had some great glasses made by Opticus, a company that specializes in glasses for outdoor activities.  And, with family responsibilities it was important for me to have a Garmin InReach and text with my wife every night.  Suggestion:  lighter IS better, but also take seriously staying warm and other areas that might be important to you.  It can be hard and expensive to make a lot of changes once you are on trail, so at least have your base weight under 20 pounds before setting off on your PCT hike.

Nutrition and Resupplies
Good nutrition is important, and you will often have a better chance of getting food that you consider nutritionally sound if you mail yourself resupply boxes vs. trying to resupply locally.  Brenda Braaten's article "Pack Light, Eat Right" is worth reading.  There are a lot of resources to help with resupply planning, so I'll just leave you with that thought on resupply boxes.


You will meet hikers of all ages on the trail, and I found myself chatting and enjoying breaks with hikers from 18 to 80.  My age never seemed to limit me socially, and that was one of the nicer aspects of being on trail.  If you have additional thoughts about tackling the trail after 55, please share them in the comments section.  Also, if you are interested in my 2017 and 2018 hikes, I've written blog posts for both years.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

My Accidental Thru-hike -- 2,661 PCT miles in 2018


My Accidental Thru-hike

I wasn't planning to thru-hike in 2018 ... I just wanted to get out on trail and enjoy hiking the PCT.  Over the course of five months, the miles just rolled by and pretty soon I was within a few hundred miles of hiking the whole trail.  At that point, finishing fever did set in, and I buckled down to complete the whole trail in 2018.  It was strenuous, fun, and satisfying.

What I learned

A backpack, a good reason to get up every morning, and the beauty of nature were enough for me to be happy.  Being able to text with my wife every night and a few home visits helped me from getting home sick.

I didn't need a house full of possessions, constant entertainment, or to be competitive with other hikers.  I didn't need the "achievement" of a thru-hike, although I admit to feeling absurdly self-satisfied when I finished the whole trail.  Luckily, I was surrounded by other people who also finished, and people who didn't hike the trail don't really care that much, which is just as well.

What I Found Extraordinary
  1. How incredibly beautiful many trail sections are, ranging from lush rain-soaked forests in Washington, to the stark and forbidding lava fields in Oregon, to the granite citadels in the Sierras.  The pictures only give a faint hint at the soul-satisfying experience of being inside these beautiful landscapes.  Every part of the trail has its own distinct character and beauty, and taken together they give a sense of the complexity and richness of the earth's ecosystems. 
  2. That the PCT was created in the first place, and that it is maintained over the entire distance every year mostly by thousands of volunteers -- it's marvelous and remarkable.
  3. That our relatively soft, urban bodies can adapt quickly to the rigors of hiking 25 miles per day and so many people can physically get in the miles to finish the trail in a season.
  4. That so few people get seriously injured hiking the trail, despite many close calls, including many falls and scary water crossings.
  5. That it takes less than 20 pounds of gear to hike 2,661 miles, with most of the gear making the whole trip without repairs or replacements.
  6. That so few human conflicts on trail spin out of control, and that thousands of hikers manage to get along without the aid of any visible authority.
  7. That so many "trail angels" appear spontaneously to provide unexpected snacks, or to provide rides to hikers. Given the remoteness of the trail in places the rides make a huge difference.

What I Enjoyed the Most

To restrict myself to a few things:  being in nature for so much time; pushing myself and finding my physical limits; and, the jaw-dropping beauty of so many places along the trail.

My Gnarliest Days

I had only a few really tough days.  Here are the ones that I remember most vividly:
  • Night hiking out of Hiker-Town with Shorts to get a jump on a waterless stretch of the Mojave.  We stopped at sunset and were mesmerized by the display of colors over the desert.  That day ended finally after 10 PM when we pitched on a dirt road, only to get up before daybreak the next day to beat the heat.
  • Pushing miles to get over Dick's Pass southbound in the Desolation Wilderness before sunset.  It was a race against time to make it over a large snowfield before it got too dark to make it to a campsite at Gilmore lake on the other side of the pass.  While it was exhilarating, I would not have minded another 30 minutes of sunlight.  
  • Starting my hike up Mount Whitney by headlamp to beat the expected thunderstorms.  I summited at 9:40 am and the thunderstorms started by 10:15 am as I was descending back down from the summit.  Some other hikers turned back to avoid being hit by lightning.  When I got back to the Crabtree Ranger Station camp, I just crawled into my tent and went to sleep.
  • Stumping down 35 miles in a single day to Kennedy Meadows south because it was raining so hard that I couldn't face pitching my tent in the downpour.  It finally was just misting when I pitched at 10:30 PM at the campground.
  • Falling off a log crossing at Lemah Creek right into the water at 6 PM, banging my shin hard enough on a rock to make my leg swell up, and soaking my clothing just as the temperature was plummeting for the evening.  I got a few hours of sleep that night but then packed up my camp at 2:30 AM and hit the trail a few minutes after 3 AM just to get warm again.  In the afternoon I was able to dry everything out on a huge rock in the sun.  It took a week before my leg no longer looked swollen.
  • Walking southbound out of Castle Crags to the I-5 crossing under the cover of a heavy smoke cloud that dimmed the late afternoon sun into near darkness.  I-5 was closed due to the nearby fire, and the trail that I had just hiked was closed the day that I hiked it.  It was all a bit eerie.
My Typical Day

Most of my days included incredible scenery, but nothing else dramatic.  I would typically get up early enough to start hiking around first light, sometimes using my headlamp for just 10 to 15 minutes.  At day's end, I would pitch my tent while it was still light, cook some dinner, and crawl into my tent for a well-earned rest.  "Hiker midnight" is around 9 PM, and I was usually asleep by then.

The first 1,500 miles of the hike, I was mostly hiking around 20 to 24 miles per day.  After getting through the Sierras, I was fit enough to hike longer days.  In the last 1,100 miles I hiked 27 or 28 miles on 12 days, 29 or 30 miles on 8 days, and 31 or more miles on 4 days.  These aren't extraordinary distances by thru-hiking standards, but they were long days for me.  All of these days also involved thousands of feet of climbing.

I had about 12 days of rain to deal with, mostly in California as it turned out.  A few of those rain days included grapple or hail, but I somehow avoided getting snowed on directly in 2018. The rest of the days were basically dry, which was great.  We had a few days where it was below freezing in the morning, but that was rare.  In the desert there were a few days that were especially hot, and then we just found some shade in the afternoon, and carried a lot of extra water.

My Trail Name:  Lickity Split

I got my trail name in 2017 from a fun group of younger hikers.  They noticed that I was always out of camp early and that I took short breaks.  Basically, I like to be on trail and hiking, which is necessary for me anyway since I hike a little slower than most people.  When I protested that I'm a slow hiker, Grim just laughed and said, "Yeah, in that way it's a reverse name.  Like calling a really big dude 'Tiny.'"  So, Lickity Split stuck, and I kind of like the rhythm of the name, and that it's a little anachronistic -- a bit like me.

Volunteering and Crowd Sourcing

During my 2017 hike I had met Pete Fish, a member of the Trail Gorillas, who take care of the southern-most 702 miles of trail.  Pete recruited me to do trail scouting, mostly recording the location of downed trees, washouts, and other trail obstructions.  I did this trail scouting for about 1,000 miles of trail in 2018, reporting the obstructions to the PCTA through John Shelton, another Trail Gorilla who was tech-savvy enough to convert my GPS readings into something more usable by trail crews.

For the rest of the trail I regularly sent in updates to the crowd-sourced water report that is maintained by DoubleTap and HalfMile.

For me, volunteering in this way made me feel more connected to the larger community of volunteers, and helped me to feel more connected to the trail itself.

Future Plans

A lot of long-distance hikers are drawn to doing other long trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.  At the moment I haven't been intrigued by either trail, but I'm sure I'll get interested in some type of hike by next season.

A More Detailed Review of my Hike

When I finished my 2017 PCT hike of 2,000 miles, I was happy, and was just thinking of finishing up the last 661 miles of the PCT in 2018 as a section hike.  Then, in early October 2017, while my feet were still sore, the phone rang and my friend Lori asked what kind of PCT permit I would be getting for 2018.  She was starting a thru hike and wanted someone to hike with, or at least to get started with.  I agreed to start with her and probably to hike the whole desert section, but didn't intend to thru-hike the whole trail.  So began my accidental thru-hike in 2018.  As has often been said, a journey of 2,661 miles begins with a single phone call.

Lori and I got thru-hiking permits and started on April 2, 2018.  We had great weather, cool and mostly dry.  Around Lake Morena, just 20 miles into the hike, we picked up three younger hikers who had the unexpected idea that hanging out with Lori and me would be a good way to start the trail.  That made for a fun social group, and we stuck together until mile 209, at which point one of our group split off.  Then after Big Bear, at mile 266, we stopped trying to hike as a group, although we did stay loosely in touch.  Lori had been experiencing a worsening pain in one of her heels, and at Big Bear decided to take some time off trail to recover.  That was the last time I would hike with her in 2018, although we didn't realize that her recovery would be so slow until much later.

So, I just continued up the trail on my own, chatting with other hikers along the way at water stops and camps, forming a few trail friendships, and texting every night with my wife using an InReach satellite communicator.  Hiking the desert section, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it even more the second time around.  There was less stress, and I could appreciate the nuances of the trail more fully, a bit like re-reading a book.  I reached Kennedy Meadows south on May 18th, and needed to decide what to do next.  Even though 2018 was a low snow year, it was still too early to go up into the Sierras safely, especially with a storm coming, and with my arthritic knees, so I decided to take a home visit in Richmond, California.

I arranged a ride to Inyokern with Bob from Grumpy Bear's, and Lori generously drove up to Inyokern from Barstow, giving us a chance to catch up, then dropped me at the Barstow Amtrak Station, and from there I got connecting service directly to Richmond.  My wife Christine was travelling on the east coast, but I still made good use of the home visit, creating resupply boxes for the 796 mile hike south from Dunsmuir to Kennedy Meadows, during which I would pick up most of the miles that I had missed from 2017. I also got to take both my daughters for birthday dinners, as they each have a June birthday that I would miss.  Taking an Amtrak up to Dunsmuir gave me a chance to start my onward hike on May 25th at a low enough elevation that snow would not be a problem, and this also proved a fortunate choice since that section was later closed due to wildfires (aka forest fires).  My one small miscalculation was that on May 25th it rained steadily most of the day, so it wasn't the ideal day to get back on trail, but it wasn't a big issue since the next day was sunny by the afternoon.

On June 10th I had reached Donner Pass, which is right on I80, an easy drive from Richmond, and since Christine was now back from her own travel, she picked me up for a few days at home.  We had a nice home visit, and another birthday celebration for the June birthdays.  This was the first time that I really started thinking about doing the entire trail in 2018.  Christine said that it would be OK from her perspective, so I put together a rough plan for hiking the last 1,100 miles of trail, although I still needed to hike south from Donner Pass to Kennedy Meadows before I would be ready to start in on it.

Christine drove me back to Donner Pass on June 14th, and I continued south.  The hike through the Sierras was both beautiful and physically demanding, with big climbs most days, and both hiking and camping at higher elevations than anywhere else on the trail.  In this section I also carried a heavier pack, a bear canister, water crossing shoes, and trail spikes for snow, so my pack was extra heavy.  Although I didn't really think about it at the time, going through the Sierras boosted my conditioning so much that the entire rest of the trail was physically easy by comparison.

I finally made it down to the Kennedy Meadows campground on July 11th, having hiked until 10:30 PM the last day due to an unrelenting rainstorm that made pitching a tent unappealing.  Although it was tiring, I hiked 35 miles that day, which is still my longest day ever.  With some good luck with hitches, I actually managed to get home to Richmond just 12 hours after reaching the paved road through Kennedy Meadows.  Since I was now planning to hike the rest of the trail, I worked on resupply boxes along with visiting at home.

By this time, wildfires had started to affect access to the PCT, with closures in southern Oregon, which I would be hiking into if I started back on the trail at Dunsmuir.  So, to avoid these fires, I got on trail 320 miles north of Dunsmuir at Crater Lake, and started hiking north toward Washington.  Christine drove me to the trail on July 16th, and I was back on trail on the 17th.  This was a good time to hike through northern Oregon, since we had good weather and only moderately irritating mosquitoes.  By the time I was at Cascade Locks, it was a good time for a break, and I visited friends John and Mary in Portland briefly, getting off trail on July 29th and back on trail on July 31st.

By this point my conditioning was very good, so hiking Washington wasn't especially difficult, but it was sometimes hard to stay motivated due to heavy smoke from nearby forest fires that obscured many of the most dramatic views.  There was a short fire detour due to the Miriam fire just before White Pass, but that wasn't problematic.  When I reached Steven's Pass, Lori and her husband Bill plucked me off the trail for a zero day at their home, which was refreshing.  There was a second fire detour just south of Stehekin, which again wasn't difficult to navigate, and was interesting for me since I got to see some different trail.  Unfortunately, a third fire closure starting at Rainy Pass popped up just two days before I would get to Stehekin, and hikers were anything from upset to distraught, as this closure involved an "alternate" that had us hiking a shorter, less-scenic route than the PCT normally follows, and not being able to actually reach the Northern Terminus or enter Canada.  It was a very second-class route, and many people, including me, were reluctant to hike it, especially with continuing smoky conditions.  This alternate route also required special National Park Service permits, but the NPS had not yet sorted out how to issue these from Stehekin, so everyone that hiked it when I went through just did it without the required permits.

I put off a final decision by just hiking up to Rainy Pass then travelling back down to Crater Lake to pick up the 320 miles from Crater Lake to Dunsmuir, as the southern Oregon closures were now open again.  To get back to Crater Lake I got a miracle hitch from Rainy Pass all the way to Marysville, near Seattle, took an Airporter Shuttle to SeaTac, flew to Medford, and then negotiated a ride to Crater Lake for $120 with a local taxi driver.  I had originally planned to hitch to Crater Lake, but learned that "no one is going to Crater Lake due to the smoke."  When I got there, it was pretty quiet. I got on trail and started hiking south, just a day after getting off at Rainy Pass.

The hike from Crater Lake to Dunsmuir was smoky on the first and last days, with mostly clear skies in between, and hardly a single mosquito.  That made hiking southern Oregon a lot more enjoyable than during the peak thru-hiking season, and I enjoyed hiking that section even more than last year.  As I mentioned earlier, the final day of this section was a bit eerie since I hiked down off of Castle Crags on September 5th to a crossing with I-5, which was silent due to a fire-related closure that started the day I reached the freeway.  The trail section that I had just hiked was also now closed, but the closure wasn't posted until I was already on the trail, so I didn't know about it.  I had expected to go home directly from Dunsmuir, but by this point the trail from Rainy Pass to Manning Park had opened back up, and I decided to hike that last trail section.

The I-5 closure stopped the Amtrak, local bus service, and Greyhound service so I was ostensibly on foot.  Still, by getting a hitch to Weed and some luck finding a more informal bus ride to Portland, then a Bolt bus on to Seattle, I was able to get out of the fire zone and nearer to Rainy Pass.  A ride from friends in Seattle plus three hitches had me at Rainy Pass, and I got back on trail on September 8th.

The last trail section was now clear of smoke and stunningly beautiful.  Hiking this last section was the perfect way to finish my 2018 hike.  Well to be more exact, it would have been absolutely perfect if it didn't rain so much, but who's sweating the details?  I reached the Northern Terminus on September 10th in the early evening, and camped just over the border in Canada.  One day before reaching Manning Park, I met Bomber, another hiker who was finishing the PCT, and he offered to give me a ride to Bellingham, WA from Manning Park the day after we would arrive on September 11th.  That was a big help in getting home, and I was able to get an Airporter Shuttle from Bellingham, then a flight to Oakland on September 12th.

My section-by-section blog posts have a lot more detail about the hike, as well as links to all the pictures that I took along the way.  Please let me know if you have any questions.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

P18.17 Rainy Pass to Manning Park, 70 PCT miles


With this northern-most section of the PCT, I completed a thru-hike in 2018, hiking all 2,661 PCT miles from Campo at the border with Mexico to Manning Park, BC in Canada -- in a single season.  I'll post a more reflective bit on my overall experience this year in a day or two, so this post will just bring you up-to-date with this section and surrounding travel.

The journey from Dunsmuir to Rainy Pass was a bit of an adventure.  I shared the first part of this in my last post.  Without going into too much detail:  I hiked down out of Castle Crags State Park to where the PCT crosses I5, hoping for a hitch into Dunsmuir to catch an Amtrak train.  I5 was eerily quiet because it had been closed due to the nearby wildfires.  Unbeknownst to me, the trail section that I had just hiked was now also closed, it had just not been posted as closed when I hiked onto it that morning.  I5 seemed the safest place to hike, so I started hiking the three miles into Dunsmuir along the shoulder, with the occasional firetruck or police cruiser my only company.  After 15 minutes or so a combination backhoe and front-end loader rumbled up behind me and I was able to hitch a ride in the cab for a mile or so.  After another mile of hiking I was in Dunsmuir and spent the night at the Dunsmuir Lodge. 

After phone calls to Amtrak and Siskiyou County, I determined that neither the trains nor local buses were running, so I was on foot until I could get a hitch.  Greyhound claimed to still be running a 7:10 AM bus to Seattle out of Weed, which is 18 miles north or Dunsmuir, and was past the I5 fire closure.  A local Dunsmuir resident gave me a ride into downtown Dunsmuir and after we shared a breakfast burrito she generously offered to drive me into Weed.  I think she was aghast that I was actually planning to walk the 18 miles if I couldn't get a ride.  Since my bus wasn't until the morning, I stayed overnight at the Sis-Q Inn, which was surrounded by 18-wheelers that had been diverted by the I5 closure, and across the street from where the Cal-Fire crews were staying and parking their fire equipment, giving the whole place a very industrial feeling. 

In the morning I learned at the combination Mexican Restaurant / Greyhound Station that the Greyhound bus had been cancelled.  However, the waitress said that a "Mexican bus" would be coming through in a few hours, and for $77 cash I could get a ride into Portland.  Although this all seemed a little informal, it was better than hitch hiking up I5, so I rode the bus into Portland, probably the only person on the bus that was not fluent in Spanish.  In Portland the "bus stop" was just some open curb near a Burger King.  From there I grabbed a Lyft and had a very quick visit with friends Mary and John before catching the Bolt Bus up to Seattle.

In Seattle, friends Beverley and Bill picked me up from the bus-stop and took me in for the night.  In the morning, Bill generously drove me up to Sedro-Woolley, from where it seemed likely that I could hitch to the trailhead.  Like magic, ten minutes after Bill dropped me off, three gnarly rock-climbers picked me up in a very-experienced RV and took me over 50 miles up the road.  Two hitches later and I was at the Rainy Pass trailhead at 2 PM on Saturday.

The timing was just about perfect for getting on-trail and into the mountains.  Last year it was misty and raining when I hiked up from Rainy Pass, so I was really delighted that it was clear enough this year to see the extraordinary mountain views on the hike up.  I also passed a group doing "goat packing," which was a first for me, and a little humorous.  While I only hiked in 10 miles the first day, it was still a surprise that I didn't see any other PCT hikers on trail Saturday.  The next day it started raining lightly in the early afternoon, and kept up with intermittent rain or drizzle the rest of Sunday and on until Monday evening.  While I didn't push crazy miles, I did hike pretty steadily on both Sunday and Monday, making 56 miles in two days from my first campsite to the Northern Terminus (aka Monument 78).  Due to a fire closure, there was a detour from Hart's Pass to Woody Pass that added 4 miles to the usual trail length, but the alternate trail was well-marked and maintained, so it wasn't a problem.  I felt a bit of "finishing fever" during the last day of the hike, but mostly it was just wonderful to be up in the North Cascades enjoying the mountains. 

On Monday night I camped just over the border in Canada, then tramped the last 8 miles into Manning Park in the morning.  I stayed overnight, did laundry, and dried out my gear at the Manning Park Hostel, then rode on Wednesday morning with fellow-hiker Bomber (Rick) and his wife Emily into Bellingham, WA, and on to SeaTac by bus, and then home via Southwest Airlines.  All of that travel was uneventful, although I did feel very out-of-place by the time I was at the SeaTac airport, with my unkempt hair and worn, if reasonably clean, clothing. 

The scenery was amazing in this section, and I hope you enjoy the pictures:  Photos for Rainy Pass to Manning Park

As I mentioned before, I'll do a wrap-up post for the whole hike later. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

P18.16 Crater Lake to Castella, 320 PCT miles


When I reached Rainy Pass the PCT was closed ahead due to an active fire, so I decided to head down to Crater Lake and hike this section, hoping that the trail would reopen.  I got a single hitch down Hwy 20 close enough to SeaTac airport to make it onto a flight to Medford the next morning.  On the way down Highway 20 we stopped at an overlook for Ross Lake where Poseidon, another PCT hiker, was considering canoeing to the border due to the closure. There isn't any public transportation from Medford to Crater Lake, and the smoke was keeping tourist traffic to a minimum, so I paid a taxi driver $120 to get me to the trailhead, getting back on trail just one day after leaving Rainy Pass.

The trail through southern Oregon has fewer big climbs than most sections, and the weather was mild.  Except for the first day hiking south from Crater Lake, the smoke wasn't too bad, just creating a haze that obscured the more distant mountains.  I made good time to Callahan's Lodge near Ashland where I expected a resupply package to be waiting for me.  My package had not arrived yet, and it turned out to be making a tour of Oregon, complete with stops at Eugene, Spokane, Portland, and Medford before getting to Ashland the next day.  Since I was tied down waiting for my package, Christine drove up and we had a relaxing day together at the lodge.

Hiking on, the trail crosses into California, then goes through Seiad Valley, the Marble Mountain Wilderness, the Russian Wilderness, the Trinity Alps, and Castle Crags before dropping down to I5, just north of Castella.  This section from Seiad Valley to Castella is one of the most spectacular parts of the trail with long high traverses through beautiful mountains and water from clear flowing springs.

The last day hiking through Castle Crags there was an enormous smoke plume from a nearby forest fire, and so much light was blocked by the smoke that it seemed like dusk had settled by early afternoon.  I had been "pushing miles," covering 89 miles in three days, so my feet were tired when I reached I5, expecting to hitch into Dunsmuir for a hot meal, and to catch a train to Seattle the next morning.

You know something is amiss when you reach a major interstate highway and instead of roaring traffic you just hear the wind blowing softly through the trees.  For a few minutes it was as quiet as the set of a movie scene in a dystopian future without cars. 

After determining that I5 was closed to normal traffic, I shouldered my backpack and started up the on ramp, sharing the huge Interstate with occasional fire trucks and police cruisers.  After 15 minutes of walking, a combination backhoe and front end loader rumbled up behind me.  The driver invited me up into the cab and got me about a mile down the road before dropping me at the next exit.  He was evacuating by backhoe to save his equipment from being burned up.  I continued on foot one more exit on the Interstate then walked into the south end of Dunsmuir where I grabbed a sandwich at Manfreddi's Deli and got one of the last rooms at the Dunsmuir Lodge shortly after night fall. 

In addition to the freeway being closed, Amtrak had cancelled the Coast Starlight train that normally stops in Dunsmuir, and Siskiyou County also suspended their local bus service.  Greyhound still claimed to be running a bus from Weed to Seattle, so the next morning I started walking, prepared to road hike the 18 miles into Weed if necessary.  After 10 minutes I got a hitch from a very nice Dunsmuir resident who progressed from I'm just going a mile up the road to "I guess I'm driving to Weed" as she contemplated my plan with an empathetic shake of her head.

Finding an inexpensive hotel near the Greyhound stop in Weed,  I had a relaxing day, feeling confident that I would be traveling on the once-a-day 7:10 am bus the next morning.  In case you are seeing a pattern here ... Greyhound was happy to sell me a ticket and even check me in for the bus, but when I reached the bus stop I learned that the bus had been cancelled from a waitress at the Dog Amigos Mexican Restaurant next to the Greyhound stop, who had checked the bus tracker.  But, not to worry, for $77 in cash I could get a seat on a "Mexican bus" to Portland in a few hours, and get onward transportation from there. 

So, as I write this on a Friday, I'm sitting in a very nice, unmarked, nearly-packed bus, where English is definitely a second language at best, cruising toward Portland.  Either Saturday or Sunday I hope to be at Rainy Pass, so I can hike the last 75 miles of trail for this year.

You can see the photos for this section here:Photos for Crater Lake to Castella