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

Friday, September 15, 2017

PCT 20 - 2017 Wrap Up

This year I retired on March 1st, then started on the PCT April 2nd.  I hiked two thousand miles on the PCT, three-quarters of the trail.  This is more backpacking than I had done previously in my life.  In this post, I'll share some of my reflections on hiking the trail.

But first, I picked out some of my favorite pictures and put them in slide shows of about a minute and a half each:

  Campo to Kennedy Meadows (California South)
  Quincy / LaPorte Rd. to Oregon Border (California North)
  Oregon Border to Santiam Pass (Oregon)
  Cascade Locks to Canada (Washington)

The Pacific Crest Trail
The trail itself is one of the best built and maintained trails anywhere.  It's hard even to imagine the amount of effort that volunteers, the Forest Service, the Park Service, and others put into the trail each year to keep it so easy to hike.  The quality of the trail makes a huge difference in speed and effort when hiking long miles.

As my trail hobby and contribution to maintaining the trail, I did an "obstruction survey" for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, using the GPS on my phone to note the mileage point of over 1,000 downed trees during 1,800 miles of my hike.  The list of obstructions was used by trail crews to help plan and prioritize removal projects.

Experience vs. Achievement
In a long-distance hike of the PCT you spend months living out of a backpack, your life becomes very simple, and you get in-tune with nature.  You are doing something you enjoy and have chosen yourself; for most people it's a magical experience and memorable time.

Hiking a long distance can also be thought of as some kind of athletic achievement, but it's probably better not to dwell on that too much.  After all, so many other things in life require more than five months of focus and effort.  I met one hiker who said that he thought people hiked the PCT for "the glory" of finishing the trail.  That did not ring true to me.

Deep thoughts
I was genuinely surprised by how physical the experience was for me, and how few "deep thoughts" I had while on trail.  When out hiking for a week or weekend, there is plenty to think about from your ordinary life.  Hiking for months at a time, mostly I was just thinking about hiking and enjoying nature.  Before getting on trail someone said to me "It's more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge."  That did not seem at all descriptive to me of the experience.

You naturally have a lot in common superficially with others hiking the trail.  This makes it easy to strike up casual friendships.  Also there is an unwritten "no whining" rule on the trail, which is probably the best part of trail culture.  I enjoyed the social aspects of the trail and will probably keep up with a few of the people that I met.  "Trail angels" also add a lot to the trail by providing an unexpected cold drink or ride into town.  Other than their interest in hiking, and ability to take several months off from their ordinary life, people hiking the trail seemed pretty ordinary or average to me.

Light and Ultralight Gear
Many hikers use "light" or "ultralight" gear on the PCT.  This makes sense as PCT hikers are unlikely to run into extended spells of snow or freezing rain as long as they start in April and finish by the end of September.  My "base weight" was about 25 pounds, which is heavy for the PCT.  I would like to reduce this for my next hike.  Carrying less weight translates into faster hiking speeds, which means more miles covered in a day (or more time watching the sunset).

Health and Pain
Almost everyone loses weight on a long hike.  I lost 25 pounds (yikes!), and also brought my cholesterol within the normal range.  Maintaining those benefits will be another challenge.

A large percentage of hikers have some pain from over-use injuries.  With arthritis in both knees, I anticipated some difficulties.  After 500 miles of hiking, I had to take eighteen days off to rest my right knee, after which my knees were "OK" for the rest of the hike.  My left foot developed pain that almost took me off the trail, probably from Morton's Neuroma.  I was finally able to get some relief with Moleskin foam, but still had a sore foot for about 700 miles.

A lot of people worry about dangers on the trail; however the trail is relatively safe most years.  My own hike was uneventful.  Here's a perspective on a short list of dangers:

Giardia - A few people get giardia every year because they didn't filter their water.  Probably 80+ percent of hikers are very careful to filter all their water.
Insect bites - Everyone gets bitten by mosquitoes, and a few people by bees or wasps.
Falls - A few percent of hikers have falls that cause some injury, usually scrapes or sprains.  Deaths of long-distance hikers due to falls are very rare, but can happen.  One PCT hiker died from a fall this year, and a few other hikers died from falls near the PCT.  Steep snow can be a little scary.
Drowning - Due to the high snow levels this year, two PCT hikers drowned in the Sierras.  This is unusual and was probably preventable; however, a lot of people had close calls this year.  Several non-PCT hikers drowned near the PCT this year.
Getting Lost - The PCT is such a major trail, that there are only a few situations when you will be off trail, such as hiking over snow.  Still, getting lost is probably the biggest single cause of back-country tragedy, so it's important to stay aware of where you are.
Hyper and hypothermia - These are almost always the result of poor judgement and/or inadequate gear.  One PCT hiker died this year related to overheating, and there were several rescues due to hypothermia or the risk of it.
Bears and Mountain Lions - Kind of like a shark attack, very high fear factor, but very low incidence.  No cases this year that I heard of.  I only saw bears once.
Snakes - I saw over a dozen rattlesnakes, but there wasn't really any danger from them as long as you didn't get too close.
People - Since hikers are carrying over $1,000 in gear, and some cash, you might expect more robberies and thefts.  This turns out to be very rare.

Coming from a sedentary job and just a moderate exercise regimen, I found that my personal fitness level improved every week that I was hiking, right until the end.  At 61 years old, it would have been much better if I had spent more time conditioning myself before starting.  The popular idea that you can get conditioned while on trail is more accurate for people under 40, who will find that their body responds faster.

Section-hiking vs. Thru-hiking
In an average year, perhaps fifteen percent of PCT hikers with a thru-hiking (entire trail) permit actually are able to finish the whole trail.  This year, due to the high snow in the Sierras, and the many fire closures, very few hikers will complete the entire trail in 2017.  I'm happy and satisfied to have completed three quarters of the trail and it has made me think about whether thru-hiking is really the best goal to have.  Personally, I now think that doing the trail over two years makes more sense for people who have that flexibility.  The short weather window makes a thru-hike very difficult to achieve on the PCT for all but the fastest hikers, and pushes other hikers into hiking later into the fall than they might want to, or trying to push into the Sierras before the streams have gone down to safe levels.  Also, fire closures (like we had this year) can prevent a thru-hike even for the fastest, most-aggressive hikers, so fixating on achieving a thru-hike can be frustrating for that reason as well.

Next year I hope to hike 650 miles to have completed the entire trail.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

PCT 19 - Final Push - Rainy Pass to Manning Park - 69 PCT miles

2,000 miles into my hike, the last mile felt like any other.  As I came down the trail, I saw the large sign for Manning Park Canada, stepped up onto the roadway, and that suddenly my PCT hike was finished for 2017.  Probably it will take a few days to sink in.

This last 69 mile stretch was extremely scenic, with long open mountain vistas, a famous traverse showing off fall colors, beautiful streams, and low clouds in fascinating shapes.

After our friends Penelope and Monte generously ferried us to the trailhead we started our final section into Canada.  The first day my hiking partner Robert and I staggered up into a mixture of smoke and clouds, but by mid-afternoon we were treated to blue sky in patches and clearing smoke due to a change in the wind.   The second day we had good visibility, but also a light rain for five hours, which ended about six in the evening.   We pitched our tents about 20 miles from Monument 78 at the border with Canada.  Also at our campsite we met Jan and Nancy, two former NOLS instructors, who we enjoyed chatting with.  The third day we had beautiful scenery, but might have been rushing through it just a little in our eagerness to reach the border.  Finally at the monument we took pictures and then crossed over into Canada, setting up camp just over the border, just 8 miles from Manning Park.  A few other hikers camped with us, including a semi-famous hiker named Optimistic Turtle, who writes a popular blog about her PCT hike.

At the Monument there is a book for comments, and I snapped pictures of my own comment and quite a few pages of comments from other hikers.  You will see those in the album for this section.

The Manning Park Lodge gave us free showers and let us use their coin-operated guest laundry, so we were able to clean up.  The Greyhound Bus left Manning Park at 2 am, bound for Vancouver.  From there I will catch a flight onward to San Francisco.   Needless to say, I am looking forward to seeing my family after two and a half months away.

Thank you to all the people who have followed my blog, and especially those of you who have made comments.   Connectivity has been pretty spotty, so I couldn't keep up a dialogue, but I did appreciate and enjoy the comments.

Sometime soon I will write a wrap-up post, for my hike, so if you have questions feel free to let me know.  Otherwise you will just have my personal reflections.

Here is a link to the photos for this section:

Thursday, September 7, 2017

PCT 18 - Yo-yo Climbing - Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass - 127 PCT miles

This is really two sections:  Stevens Pass to Stehekin of 107 miles, and then just 20 miles onward to Rainy Pass.

The first 107 miles was the most difficult section that I have hiked on this trip.  We went up and down several ridges, getting to see spectacular views from the ridges, and finding great campsites and water in the valleys.  Here are my notes showing the mile points, the distances traveled, and feet of climbing between campsites/trailheads.

2461.74 Stevens Pass trailhead
... 16.98 mi, 3970 ft
2478.72 small campsite
... 20.77 mi, 5659 ft
2499.50 Foam Creek trail junction
... 18.76 mi, 5510 ft
2518.26 Mica lake
... 22.03 mi, 5751 ft
2540.29 small campsite
... 20.97 mi, 4844 ft
2561.26 Swamp Creek
... 8.17 mi, 965 ft
2569.12 High Bridge Ranger Station at Stehekin

We were lucky to just have a small amount of smoke during most of the hike, but it really rolled in once we made it to Stehekin.   It seems like the forests are on fire all around us, and we are just lucky that the PCT is still open in the section we are hiking.  I just have four more days of hiking to make it to Canada, so I am crossing my fingers that I can make it through. 

To my surprise, I ran into several hikers that I had not seen since California,  including Robert, Gourmet/Sarah, Jim and Jodie, and another hiker that I had not seen since southern Oregon, named Megaphone, and a couple from Oakland named Jeff and Meg that I last saw in Etna.  Gary Pegg also passed us on the trail with his horses; I saw him last in Goat Rocks.  Everyone is worried that the trail may close due to fire danger, but we are OK so far.

Once we arrived in Stehekin, Robert and I shared a room at The Ranch for two nights to rest our feet and recharge with great food from their kitchen and the Stehekin Bakery, which lived up to it's reputation for amazing pies.  

Hiking on to Rainy Pass, we were enveloped in smoke.  I had called ahead to friends Penelope and Monte, who picked me and Robert up at the trailhead and brought us to Penelope's ranch in Twisp for dinner and a chance to clean up again.  It's a great treat, and I am writing this from a spare bedroom at the ranch before dinner.

Tomorrow Robert and I will get back on trail for the last 69 miles of hiking into Canada.  

Here is a link to the photos for this section: