Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Farewell To Angels

I learned recently that a few of the most prominent and well known Trail Angels of the Southern California PCT were stepping back or retiring altogether, and it struck me that their absence signifies the end of an era, and one that will likely have a profound effect on most future hikers.

I attempted a through hike in 2018, and was fortunate enough to have encountered these amazing people who selflessly opened their lives and homes to thousands of people who try to walk the entire trail in a single season.  My experience was greatly enhanced by their generosity.

To anyone who is not familiar with the idea of what a Trail Angel does, imagine incredible generosity and thoughtfulness offered by someone you’ve never met and who wants nothing from you in return.  In everyday life this sort of unsolicited kindness is not commonplace or expected, so to encounter so much of it on my PCT hike was a real eye opener.

I have to admit that I had always been somewhat of a skeptic when considering the concept of altruism and doing something for your fellow human that did not in some way benefit the giver.  But even before I took one step on the PCT I was to learn just how wrong I was.

Frodo and Scout

Let me begin with Frodo and Scout (their original trail names), a couple living near San Diego who helped countless NOBO hikers begin their odyssey by arranging transportation from whatever depot (bus, plane, or train) the hiker arrived at to their home.  There they were welcomed with a place to stay and an inaugural dinner before driving them the next day a not insignificant distance to the trailhead on the Mexican border.

Hiking the PCT is hard enough, but when you consider the logistics of just getting to the trailhead the help given by Frodo and Scout was invaluable. The amount of coordination and energy these folks put into assisting the “stranger in a strange land” was impressive, and they had managed to recruit an impressive number of volunteers to facilitate the effort.  Looking back on my experience I can truly say that beginning my hike was almost too easy, as all I had to do to was show up.

To express my appreciation I offered Frodo a donation to help with their operation.  He politely declined, and instead suggested I make a donation to the PCTA (the non-profit that helps administer the PCT in all facets).  I also recall Frodo making an impromptu speech after dinner about the increase in “hiker entitlement”.

This occurs when those who offer help and assistance are taken advantage of by some who feel that just because they are through hiking the PCT this somehow makes them “special” and deserving of a free place to stay, rides to town, and being fed.  Most Trail Angels do what they do without expectation of a donation or any financial consideration, but at the very least you should not take what is offered for granted.  Thanks to Frodo I had a better appreciation of what constitutes good through hiker etiquette.

Carmen

My next significant encounter with a Trail Angel who no longer practices deliberate acts of kindness was in Julian at Carmen’s Restaurant.  I was supremely fortunate to come through when I did because in the spring of 2018 Carmen had already sold her business, and was waiting for the transaction to close.  In the interim she was allowing hikers to stay at her place, either on the patio or inside the café after it closed.

What I really remember most about the whole experience was two things:  First, Carmen hung a banner on the railing in front of the business which proudly stated “Hiker Trash Welcome”.  The second was that after shutting down for the day she allowed upwards of 30 people to just camp out in and around the café, displaying absolute trust in complete strangers who had access to the property after she went home.  This demonstration of faith in people is as amazing to me today as it was then. 

Hiker Heaven


In much the same way as Frodo and Scout took the Trail Angel ethos and industrialized it, the Saufleys hosted an oasis in the desert of Agua Dulce called Hiker Heaven.  On their property they created a combination Post Office, campground, shower and laundry facility, a haven from the relatively inhospitable environment surrounding them.

They accepted resupply boxes and helped hikers to send “bounce” boxes from their converted garage, while also providing an endless supply of loaner clothes so filthy hikers could wash their stinky shirts, pants/shorts, socks, and underwear.  Outdoor showers helped wash miles of trail dirt from grungy bodies, and briefly improved the appearance and smell of legions of hikers.

They also had a cadre of volunteers offering rides to and from town, which was welcome in that they were a few miles off the beaten path.  Although I did not stay with them I made a pit stop for the express purpose of cleaning my attire and person, and was extremely grateful for the opportunity.  I was also able to send a vital birthday card from the trail which otherwise would have required a visit to the Post Office.

Casa De Luna

In many ways Terry and Joe epitomize just what makes the Trail Angel so special.  Like the others mentioned above, these good folks took it upon themselves to open their arms as wide as possible and to welcome every single through hiker to their place, season after season.  Having a unique manzanita forest as their backyard, hikers were given the chance to rest and recover while enjoying a variety of couches and loungers in the front yard.

Evenings featured the signature “taco salad” dinner, where the required attire was the provided Hawaiian shirt, and after supper hikers were given the opportunity to dance for Terry to earn the coveted and highly sought after PCT bandanna.  She also had only one absolute requirement for those who came to stay – a simple hug.  In addition, a bedsheet hung in front of the garage to serve as a canvas for through hikers to record their visit – a visual trail register.

Thank You

As I encountered these incredible people, I always took a moment to express my gratitude for what they gave.  I hope others also said thank you.  Before I set off on the journey of a lifetime I had no idea people could be so gracious, caring, and generous.  Besides the obvious benefit of refuge, food, and simple luxuries like clean clothes, these amazing folks gave me another gift I had forgotten existed – the kindness of strangers.

To all of you who helped make my experience so memorable, please accept my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation.  I know you’ve earned your rest, and I hope other PCT alumni join me in saying how meaningful your time, energy, and dedication was to them.  You will be missed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The PCT and Me - Part Two (The Beginning and Gear)

The Beginning

As I said in the previous post I had conceived the idea of hiking the PCT some 33 years earlier but failed to do anything other than buy some gear and guidebooks.  After failing to launch all those years ago, in the interim I had become somewhat of a hiking fanatic, which indirectly prepared me for the challenge as I now had direct experience and insight with lots of equipment and the practicalities of what worked best for me.

It was late in the summer of 2017 when I "rediscovered" the idea of doing the hike, and the very thought was just what I needed to lift me out of a period in my life where inspiration was sorely needed. I immediately began searching the internet for updated information which led me to the Pacific Crest Trail Association website.

There I discovered a wealth of resources, including blogs and journal of others who had done the trip, as well as planning tools, suggestions and many very helpful tips - pretty much anything you'd need to know in fact.  One thing that had changed since I initially learned of the trail was the need to have a long distance permit to traverse the entire route.

The process to obtain a permit is time sensitive, with applications for the following year being accepted beginning on a specific dates in November and January.  The permit is free but only a total of 50 permits for any particular day are issued, and competition for certain dates can make getting your chosen departure date difficult.

To show you how unfocused I was about actually doing the trip, when the moment arrived to submit my application I was on top of one of the local peaks doing a day hike.  In the middle of the trail I suddenly realized what time it was and silently cursed myself for poor planning. Despite a terrible cell phone signal I was able to complete the process after several failed attempts, and afterwards I waited uncertainly for the 3 week review process to be completed.  Fortunately my application was approved for my chosen date, and I was one step closer to making the trail a reality. 

I've alluded to the idea that planning for such an adventure can take different forms, from extensive months long preparation to a sort of "let's just do it and see what happens" approach.  In my case I knew for much of 2017 that I wanted to do the thing but wasn't completely committed to it until January when I finally went online and bought my plane ticket to San Diego.

That "purchase now" click really was the precipice, and once I finally made the leap a lot of what needed to be done had to occur in the two and half months that followed.  It was odd in many ways because until that moment even though I had a permit I knew I could always change my mind and just keep thinking about it.  Once that flight was booked I was galvanized into action.  As a person who already spends much of his free time hiking the local backcountry, I had most of the gear but I needed to consider if it was up to the challenge I was about to embark on.

Shoes, shoes, shoes

I have challenged feet.  My love of walking is absolute, but my resolve is constantly tested by less than ideal physical fitness in my pedal extremities.  Many years of working in the snow have cumulatively damaged the nerves in my feet to the point of neuropathy, which essentially means I have to constantly monitor, treat, and be aware of what's going on down there.  Consequently I need sturdy shoes with a roomy toebox,  and I always replace the crappy insole that comes with new shoes with a particular type that helps alleviate some of my condition.

Knowing that the trail is 2600 miles in length I figured I would probably go through at least 5 pairs.  Again as an avid hiker I already use up a lot of shoe leather in the course of a year, so having extra shoes on hand is second nature to me.  I prefer a low cut "approach" shoe vs. an above the ankle hiking boot for various reasons, and have identified certain characteristics shared by this class of shoe to select what I need.

So I truly began my preparations in earnest by stocking up on shoes.  I am mentioning all this because I will learn a very important lesson early on in the hike that will make my all my initial shoe choices pointless..  One last note about shoes: in addition to hiking shoes I carried a pair of relatively "lightweight" water shoes for crossing creeks and use around camp.

Packs, Tents, Sleeping Kits

What we choose to carry on our backs is important for many different reasons, and the selection of what essentially will be your house for the next six months is a decision of critical importance.  I am not going to devolve into a debate over "traditional" backpacking equipment vs. "ultralight" gear, but pages and pages of internet resources exist and are devoted to this very topic.  There are cogent and meaningful reasons that reinforce the arguments on each side, and the adherents for both are passionate and well informed, but what it really comes down to is personal choice.

Having been a backpacker for over 30 years I recall the "bad old days" when packs were external frame, sleeping bags were bulky, and tents were heavy.  Much has changed, and materials and construction have revolutionized the gear.  When I first began it was normal and expected that a pack would nominally be 50 - 60 lbs. in weight, and that was O.K. - maybe not fun, but it's what we had.  Today the minimalist can have a pack, tent, and sleeping outfit that weighs as little as 8 lbs. (before food, clothing, water, etc.)

My choices were easy - I wanted a sturdy pack with a volume of at least 65 - 70 liters.  My sleeping bag had to be down (for maximum compression and and a decent warmth-to-weight ratio), and my tent had to be big enough for me and my gear, with enough height to be able to sit upright in the event I was stuck in my tent for an extended period due to bad weather.  Because of these personal requirements my base weight would be heavier than most other hikers on the PCT, something that I would hear about again and again.
Osprey Zenith 75

The pack I selected initially was smaller, but eventually I settled on an Osprey Zenith 75.  As a manufacturer Osprey has the best warranty in the business, and I have used another pack of theirs for several years that I really like.  In terms of capacity I carry a lot of stuff - probably way more than needed, but quite frankly I would feel unprepared if I left some of it behind.  Again, personal choice.

One important consideration for me in a pack is the capacity for a hydration bladder and a drinking tube.  The Zenith has a unique design in that the bladder can be removed/filled without having to access the main compartment, and this also factored into my choice.

For water capacity I used an MSR 2 Liter Dromedary hydration system along with a 32 oz. Nalgene water bottle, and also carried a 4 liter Dromedary bag for camp use and water storage on long waterless sections.

REI Magma 10
The sleeping bag I chose is the REI 10 degree Magma.  Winner of the 2017 Backpacker Magazine award, the Magma offers a warm, comfortable bag that weighs in at a modest 2.0 lbs.  Although the hike was planned for the relatively temperate spring through fall season I knew that the higher elevations and early/late months were likely to see temperatures below freezing  - and in retrospect I was very glad I chose a warmer bag.

One of the most essential things to have been improved in the last 30 years is the sleeping pad.  I well remember the days of egg crate foam and ensolite pads, and I don't miss their demise one little bit.  When Thermarest introduced the first "self-inflating" sleeping pad I was an instant fan, and I don't know how I ever slept without one.  For the hike I used my current pad, a Thermarest Neo-Air full length pad.  I also brought my inflatable Sea-to-Summit pillow, another small backpacking miracle.

Marmot Tungsten 1P
I found a Marmot Tungsten 1 person tent that met my basic criteria: free standing for use where tent stakes could not be used, with a no-see-um upper body for a no-fly pitch on fair weather nights, and enough interior height to sit upright in the event of extended use. At 3.8 lbs it was somewhat heavier than the lightest tents most people were using, but again it was what I wanted, and it proved it's usefulness on more than one occasion.

 Clothing

Finding the right combination of clothing to meet the ever changing conditions of trail life was more difficult than choosing gear.  Do I bring convertible pants (with zip off leggings) or do I pick conventional pants and a pair of shorts?  Do I need 2 pair of underwear or 3?  Base layer?  Down jacket and rain jacket? Gloves?  How many socks?  Eventually I came up with an ensemble that worked for me, but there was indecision right up until the day I left.

Of paramount importance was that no article of clothing could be cotton (except for the 2 bandannas I carried).  Cotton is one of the worst outdoor clothing choices possible unless you are 100% certain there will be no rain or snow, and only perpetual sunshine.

Conventional wisdom also dictates that you carry at least 3 pairs of socks, so you can alternate when one pair gets dirty, and also have a clean dry pair to sleep in.

OR Cathode Jacket
I ended up with 3 jackets.  The first choice was the jacket I lived in for much of the hike - an Outdoor Research Cathode jacket with Primaloft insulation.  Warm enough to be worn on cool mornings and most evenings but not too heavy when climbing steep rocky trails.  The synthetic insulation kept me warm even when wet, and it was really was my go-to choice for all but the warmest days.

My main cold weather jacket was also an OR model - the down Trancendant Hoody.  If temperatures really dropped in the high elevations of the Sierras (especially when camped on a large snowfield prior to crossing a mountain pass) this low weight jacket was a welcome addition to my wardrobe.  When not in use it packed up snugly into it's own pocket, taking up minimal space in my pack.
OR Transcendant Down Jacket


Last was a rain jacket - a Marmot Precip model.  Like the OR down jacket, this unit packed into a pocket making it easy to store.  I used it infrequently but it was comforting to know it was there if needed.

I ended up choosing a pair of long pants from North Face.  The synthetic fabric was woven with spandex so that the pants were stretchy and unconfining, which was useful in the Sierra where trails were built with LARGE steps that required long extensions of the leg.  They were also water-resistant and for that reason I decided against rain pants.

To complement the pants I carried shorts for warmer weather and desert environments.  Like the longer version they were polyester blends that shed light rain and provided great flexibility in dressing for the day's weather.  To round out the insulation for my lower extremities I also had a pair of lightweight thermal base layer pants I could wear under my long pants giving me additional warmth on cold nights.

I carried three shirts - one short sleeve and two long sleeve.  One of the long sleeve shirts was lightweight and the other was midweight for colder weather.  In the coldest weather I could wear both long sleeve shirts for a layering effect - with the down jacket I was comfortable even in sub-freezing temperatures.

Rounding out the clothing I used were 2 hats - one a knitted hat for cold wet days and the other a broad-brimmed model to keep the sun off my head - very important.  I also carried a pair of light gloves, and 3 pair of underwear.  Add two bandannas and the list is complete.  As I write this I find myself wondering if I could have done it with less (one jacket vs. 3 for instance) but I can't recall anytime along the way where I thought to myself "why do I have this?"

Other Gear

I suppose it could be argued that most of what I have detailed so far is considered "essential" and anything else you might bring is elective, but as I've said before each person has to be comfortable with what they have.  In my case the selection met my needs.

Snow Peak GigaPower Stove
Some hikers elect not to bring a stove and consume all of their food cold or uncooked.  For me this would never be an option, as the thought of not having something hot to eat or a morning cup of coffee takes away some of the pleasure I derive from being out there.  For cooking I carried a Snow Peak Giga Power that I have used for many years.  It is very compact and lightweight, although it uses a propane cartridge which is not.

In order to prepare food one needs a pot, and I have two aluminum nesting pots from MSR.  They have a shared lid and pot grabber (handle), and these make it possible to boil water, which is really the extent of cooking practical in the backcountry.

Additionally I possess a full set of Lexan cutlery; knife, spoon, and fork.  I also have a small scrubber pad, a tiny bit of dishsoap for greasy pots, and a small packtowel.  My kitchen ensemble was rounded out by my old favorite insulated coffee mug, used of course for coffee in the morning and hot chocolate at night.

I always have and always will carry a full size first aid kit, with lots of stuff beyond mere bandages.  This is an outgrowth of my years as Wilderness First Responder, where I am trained to handle medical situations in a backcountry setting.  This also incidentally includes lots of tape and other supplies to keep my feet from falling apart.

I have a mesh bag of miscellaneous things, like a magnifying glass, firestarters, lighter, spare parachute cord, a signal mirror, whistle, earplugs, extra lip balm, a headlamp, extra batteries, and a tent/sleeping pad repair kit.  Add multiple packs of chewing gum, a Gerber multi-tool, my cell phone and charger, and you have most of the contents of the top lid.

I am not a fan of trekking poles which had me solidly in the minority on the trail, but I recognize the utility of having at least one pole for sections of the hike which feature either large steps going downhill or assisting with stream crossings over logs and stepping stones.  To that end I used an adjustable (can be extended or shortened) pole which was strapped to the pack when not in use.

Contingent Gear

When assembling my clothing I made sure to purchase back-up articles for things like pants, shirts, socks and of course shoes.  These items were available to be sent to me if needed wherever I came to towns with postal service.

I also knew that when I entered the high Sierras I would encounter large snowfields where some form of on-snow traction would be needed, and had Kahtoola Microspikes and a pair of OR snow gaiters ready for delivery.
Kahtoola Microspikes

Just in case I also put aside a pair of heavier winter gloves in the event I needed more protection than the minimalist gloves I was using.  Other things I had but would not need initially were an over the hat bug net and Picaridin based insect repellent - mosquitoes are a well known hazard in the northern Sierras and beyond.

Non-necessities (aka luxuries)

Everyone has their little pleasures that to others may seem like unnecessary weight, but as someone who knows what makes or breaks the experience, I definitely had my luxuries.  I am an avid reader, and take great pleasure in reading a few pages before slipping off into well deserved slumber.  I have carried actual books on previous adventures, but finding a compact novel worth reading is not easy.

Enter the magic of technology in the form of the Amazon Kindle, and you have not only a compact reading platform that is backlit at night (no headlamp needed!) but that is also capable of holding entire libraries of reading material.

In addition to being a bibliophile, I also love to listen to music and podcasts.  Thanks again to innovation and electronic miniaturization  another gift has been bestowed upon humanity - the MP3 player (or DAP as it is sometimes called).  I have a Cowon M2, a splendidly small but powerful and efficient model which has a long battery run time of around 90 hours.  With a pair of Koss PortaPro headphones I can rock out for hours at a time with my favorite music, or listen to stimulating podcasts from a variety of sources.

With inclusion of a smart phone I have a bevy of electronics in my portfolio, hence the necessity of a power source to keep them energized.  Folks in similar situations often elect to carry a rechargeable battery pack that can be renewed when electrical power is available, like on zero days in towns along the trail.  I thought about it but discarded the idea in favor of a more elegant solution - a portable solar panel.

RAV4 Portable Solar Panel
Advances in solar technology have continued to shrink both the size and cost of such units, and I found a suitable panel to mount on my pack, which enabled me to alternately keep my phone, Kindle, and MP3 player fully charged.  Having one less thing to be concerned with on infrequent visits to town was a real plus.

My final concession to comfort was my chair.  Yes, I said chair.  Not a conventional chair of course, but a chair nonetheless.  This particular item is an extended back Crazy Creek "sling chair".

Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Chair
This innovative little marvel weighs just over a pound and folds up compactly when not in use.  Almost no one else on the trail had a chair or thought to bring one, but I definitely got more than a few jealous looks from others perched on rocks, logs, or the ground.

Toiletries

Personal hygiene is pretty limited on the trail.  In fact it is impossible to avoid becoming quite funky while hiking 20+ miles a day, day after day.  Access to water is limited in many places to finding enough to drink, and bathing is uncommon.  Basically using a toothbrush and toothpaste is the extent of most people's daily routine.

Besides the previously aforementioned items, I carried a lens cleaning cloth for my glasses and an ample supply of Kleenex Travellers tissue packs.  For a little more thorough cleansing of the nether regions after pooping I used Wet Ones pre-moistened wipes, but that's about it.

I used ziploc baggies to store used toilet paper and other trash (even in the backcountry I generated a lot of trash).  The last item of consequence in the toiletries department was a bottle of SPF 30 sunscreen.

In total it sounds like a lot of stuff, and in reality as well as description it is.  But living on the trail means everything you need must be carried in order to manage a wide variety of environmental conditions.  You could do it with less and I certainly saw people doing just that.  But I am not particularly fond of enduring discomfort just for the sake of carrying a few less pounds.  In my calculation everything I had was necessary, and not once did I think of sending anything home.

That's it for gear - in the next installment I'll discuss food, resupply, zero days, and some other things that are a consideration.  Until then keep on keeping on!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and Me - Part One

I'll let you in on a secret.... I love to hike.  Seriously.  If you have spent any time at all reading my posts here you might have picked up on that, but my passion for hiking is actually more of an obsession. In recent years my life has been dominated by a need to make miles on foot, and accordingly I have consistently logged 50+ miles per week in all seasons and all conditions.  It's my thing.

So it should come as no surprise to learn that the Pacific Crest Trail has been on my bucket list for a while now - actually 33 years.  At the tender age of 23 I first heard of this thing called the PCT and despite having no actual backpacking experience decided that launching myself into a six month adventure was just what I needed.

I bought the gear, the guidebooks, and devoured whatever information I could about the newest National Scenic Trail (the other being the long established Appalachian Trail in the East).  A local newspaper published a story featuring a man who was hiking the PCT over a period of several years, taking the 2,651 mile journey and dividing it up into more manageable chunks of around 500 miles each summer.

Of course I looked him up in the phone book (remember those?) and out of the blue called him and asked if we could meet to answer some of my questions.  He readily agreed and gave me his home address.  Although I did not know it at the time that was a turning point in my life, but not the one I had imagined.

The individual in the article was named Dick, and he was quite an interesting guy.  At 70 years of age he was running marathons and trekking long distances each summer.  He was happy to answer my questions and offer tips to make my journey easier.  He was very easy to talk to and we spoke for several hours.  Before we parted company he mentioned he had an upcoming backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in several weeks, and that one of the participants had to cancel.  He wondered if I might be interested in going along, and I of course thought it was a splendid idea.

That summer I went to the Grand Canyon with Dick, his friends and grandson, and began a lifelong love affair with that amazing and spectacular landscape.  Sadly, I did not hike the Pacific Crest Trail that year, or the next year, or any year after that.  The reasons were many and don't matter all that much, but in retrospect I'm sure I wasn't ready for such a monumental challenge.

Fast forward to now.  For over 30 years I kept thinking someday I would actually hike the PCT, and for a variety of reasons this year was it.  I want to share some of the experience and some things I learned. This will unfold over several posts, and instead of being a travelogue like many previous entries, I want to try and give readers a sense of what it is like to live out of a backpack for weeks on end, and offer thoughts and ideas of just what this was all about for me.


The PCT

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of several National Scenic Trails designed to preserve long distance routes that traverse areas of particular natural beauty.  The idea of the trail surfaced in the 1920's and over the ensuing decades eventually coalesced into the route we have today.  This was accomplished over many years as devoted advocates and sponsors worked tirelessly with land managers and property owners to develop a seamless trail.

The  PCT was granted official recognition by Congress in 1968.  The route attempts to follow as much as possible the higher terrain found along a north - south line that travels the length of California and into Oregon and Washington.  The terminus at either end are the international borders of Mexico and Canada.

The trail is listed officially as 2,651 miles in length, but every year slight modifications occur due to reroutes or closures in the event of fires or other environmental issues.  54% of the trail is located in Federally designated wilderness areas, and it visits several National Parks including Kings Canyon/Sequoia, Yosemite, and North Cascades.  It reaches a high point of 13,200 feet above sea level in the High Sierras at Forester Pass, and hits a low of 180 feet at the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon/Washington border.

The topography is incredibly diverse as you might imagine, as the trail travels through 16 degrees of latitude along the way, and environments range from Mojave desert to sub-alpine forests and just about everything in between.  The elevation changes encountered along the length of the trail are the equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest 17 times from sea level, with a significant amount of that occurring in the southern and central sections of California.

In the southern reaches, challenges involve primarily water or the lack thereof, and long stretches of shadeless terrain as the trail climbs and descends isolated mountain ranges punctuated by broad desert valleys. Once the path reaches the typically well watered High Sierras in central California, hikers often must contend with problems involving snow covered passes and crossing cold, swift flowing creeks and rivers fed by melting snow.

Northern California is characterized by heavily forested sections and evidence of ongoing volcanic activity, with mountains and valleys dominated by summits like Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen.  When the trail crosses into Oregon, the elevation changes become less pronounced as the path continues a relatively level trajectory until descending into the Columbia River Gorge at the Washington border.  Along the way views of more volcanic mountains like Mt. Hood, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt. Mazama (Crater Lake) and many others dominate the skyline.

Crater Lake in summer - Photo courtesy of NPS.gov
Once the path crosses into Washington the character of the trail reflects the rugged nature of the North Cascades, with many high passes and ridges and frequent descents into river valleys.  This is likely to be the wettest section as well, since the mountain ranges lie directly in the path of storms that occur throughout the year, and snowfields and small glaciers abound in the northern half of the state.  There are also some impressive summits reaching lofty heights including Mt Adams and Mt. Rainier, which tops out at 14,410 feet.

Mt. Rainier - photo courtesy of NPS.gov

Beyond simply covering a very long distance especially to those on foot, the trail offers challenges that vary from day to day, and a hiker's experience will be influenced by a variety of factors that can greatly increase the difficulty of the journey.

WHY?

The reasons for attempting a through hike of the PCT are likely to be as different as the people who are doing it.  For many, the idea of the physical and mental challenge (and whether you're up to it) may be the reason.  For some, it could simply be the desire to see and experience some beautiful scenery up close and personal.  Others may be seeking answers to personal questions or perhaps hoping that the time spent in quiet reflection will provide insight into what direction the next steps in life should be.

I met many hikers in my time on trail, and "why?" was a common question among participants.  As I thought about my own reasons for doing it, I realized that my "why?" was not as straightforward as seeking answers, or testing myself against the rigors of trail life, or even just to experience the landscape in an intimate way.  Although I can't really give any meaningful insight into my motivations or what brought others to make the effort, I believe most people really just wanted to do something amazing with their life.

Logistics and Planning

When I first envisioned tackling this grand adventure many years ago, the conventional wisdom was that planning and organizing the trip should take almost as much time as actually doing the hike.  This was in part in response to the fact that in those days few people were actually attempting a through hike, and resources along the route were scarce and undeveloped.  Over time that has changed dramatically, and now it is possible to make the effort with far less forethought.

That said there are still many things to consider and plan for, and personal experience has led me to the conclusion that a thoughtful approach will result in a far better outcome.  Of course everyone is different and there will be those who plan the trip in exquisite detail while others will truly "wing it", but I believe that to be better organized with greater attention to details will reward the hiker in the long run.

In this day and age of unlimited (and unfiltered) information it is possible to find all kinds of advice and anecdotes about every aspect of the hike, from gear, to food, to technique and everything under the sun.  To the unwary the amount of material out there is truly daunting, and to use a popular metaphor can seem like drinking from a fire hose, but in my opinion the absolute best place to start is with the Pacific Crest Trail Association.  This non-profit organization offers an amazing variety of information and resources to individuals who want to experience the PCT, and serves as the official permit issuing agency for through hikers.

In the next part of this series I will detail some of my preparations, including my methodology for resupply, gear choices, and training.  In the meantime I hope you visit PCTA.org and start dreaming of your own adventure.  Happy Trails!