Saturday, May 27, 2023

PCT Part 2: Idyllwild to Kennedy Meadows


I must confess, I wasn't looking forward to the first 700 miles of the PCT. While I'm certainly a desert enthusiast, I've never been particularly taken with the arid landscapes that the PCT visits in southern California. To be blunt, if you're looking for a desert hike, you can do a lot better than hiking the southern PCT. Sure, it has its nice parts, but the PCT still doesn't hold a candle to desert classics like the Arizona Trail, Hayduke, or Desert Winter Thru-Hike.

Despite the meh scenery, the first 700 miles of the PCT made for a delightful hiking experience. The trail was smooth and cruisey, the water carries were a snap in this very wet year, and logistics were easy. The trail was rarely resplendent, but I still relished it.

Adding to the interest this year were the extended sections of snow. San Jacinto was a snowy wonderland with great views and challenging snow conditions. The San Gabriels too were absolutely buried. I carried an ice axe for the majority (400 miles) of the so-called 'desert'. I truly enjoyed the snow miles, as a beautiful and interesting change-of-pace. 


Funny enough, the weather really did not cooperate in the desert. It seemed like whenever I was at high elevation, we had unseasonable cold weather, including rain and snow. Every time I'd drop down to the desert floor, a heat wave would hit southern California. The mercury reached 105 degrees on one occasion. Thankfully, I crossed Mission Creek 31 times that day, constantly wetting my shirt in order to stay cool. 

When I came to the infamous LA Aqueduct section, another heat wave arrived. Nearly everyone opted to hike this section at night, and I was no exception. I teamed up with pals Cruise and Shine to do 19 miles starting at 5pm, following the aqueduct across the Mojave desert floor as the sun set. Around 12:30am, I crawled into a ditch and instantly fell fast asleep. But I was hiking by 5am the next day in order to beat the heat. We did 23 miles by 4pm, having hiked 42 miles in 24 hot and exhausting hours. We caught a great ride into town and made a beeline for the swimming pool. Needless to say, the next day was a well-earned zero day.

More so than on other trails, I've been pretty aggressive about taking a siesta on the PCT. I generally get up when it's still dark and am hiking shortly after first light. But I take several hours' lunch in the shade, and hike deep into the evening. I figure that I've got 14 hours of daylight to use however I want, and I'd much rather avoid the heat of the day, even if it means getting up earlier and hiking later. It's no wonder why many hot-weather Hispanic cultures embrace the siesta - it's a survival strategy.

The Human Factor

When I mentioned to some experienced hiker friends that I was hiking the PCT, they looked at me askance. After all, I typically hike trails that see few (if any) other hikers. Even on more popular trails, I typically roll solo. So it was natural to assume I'd be a fish-out-of-water on the popular PCT. 

To some extent, that's true. Sometimes when I get into town and a large 'trail family' has taken over a laundromat, it's a bit off-putting. But mostly, I've been able to find a surprisingly amount of solitude on the PCT. Most hikers camp exclusively in campsites that are shown on the Guthook PCT . By keeping my eye on the terrain and choosing a site that's not on the map, I'm virtually assured of solitude, not only at night but also during the day, since I'm 'off-schedule', so to speak.

I've also met my fair share of great people on the PCT. First and foremost are my friends Cruise and Shine, who I met at the border and hiked with on-and-off until mile 650. I was able to congratulate them as they finished their PCT hike there - an accomplishment 13 years and three sections in the making. 

I also ran into my pal Fenway for the third time on three different trails. I didn't even know he was on the PCT until I came around a corner and heard that distinctive northeast accent. The long-distance hiking community is truly unique in that you're never more than two degrees of separation removed from anyone. I constantly ran into friends of friends from other trails. Turns out that ten years of inadvertent 'networking' pays off! 

Hard Decisions

I'll spare you the drama: I'm flipping. The Sierra is still blanketed in a record-breaking snowpack, and I frankly don't trust the river crossings during the big melt. Through the hiker grapevine, I've heard of a few groups who've already gone into the Sierra and come out alive, but by my calculus, the river crossings will get worse before they get better over the course of June and July. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I've cheated death once already in the backcountry, and frankly to push through the Sierra with this level of objective hazard would violate the sacrosanct Mom Principle that I use to keep myself safe in the backcountry. 

Is it perhaps possible (say, 10-20% chance of success) to hike through the Sierra right now? Perhaps. Could I ever tell my family with a clean conscience about the risks I was taking? Absolutely not. 

So instead, I'm going southbound (SOBO). Southbound was always my preferred direction to hike the PCT (my 2020 permit was for a SOBO hike), but at the time I obtained my permit last winter, I wasn't confident that my foot could maintain the pace necessary to successfully complete a SOBO. But my foot has pleasantly surprised me, and I'm reasonably confident that I'll be able to pull it off. As an added benefit, this itinerary means I'll be able to finish the PCT - and the Triple Crown - with perhaps the definitive crown jewel of American backpacking - the Sierra Nevada.

Northern Washington is melting quickly. I've got to stand up in my best bud's wedding in early July, and once that's done, it'll be time to turn on the jets. I'll only have three months to hike more than 2,000 miles before the weather window slams shut - an ambitious pace, to say the least. I've overhauled my gear for the first time in a decade in order to drop some additional packweight. In order to minimize town time, I'll prepare and mail myself a lot of resupply boxes ahead of time. A pace like this could perhaps be considered the 'final exam' for the Triple Crown - and Lord willing, I'm ready.

In the Meantime

Between now and then, I plan to keep my legs by hiking a section of the North Country Trail in northern Michigan while the PCT melts out. Although I grew up in Michigan, I didn't really become an outdoors adventurer until I moved to Utah, and consequently have spent very little time exploring my native state. These few weeks offer me a chance to rectify that oversight. I've swapped out the sub umbrella for bug spray. Let the games begin!

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

PCT Part 1: Mexico to Idyllwild

The adventure has begun! I'm about 200 miles deep into the Pacific Crest Trail, fresh off my first "nero" day in a charming little town whose mayor is a golden retriever. I've traversed the first section of snow, and much more is in the future!

Reunion Tour 2023

This spring was a whirlwind. After moving out of my apartment, I criss-crossed the country, visiting family along the way, both nuclear and extended. I did about 60 miles on the Appalachian Trail with my pal Blue Moon, and then about 300 miles on the Arizona Trail, also with Blue Moon. Along the way, we battled back-and-forth in a 21-game set of Rummy, which was only decided by a lucky deal of three aces in the very last hand. Like my 2019 hike, 2023 featured a super-bloom of legendary proportions in the Arizona desert. 

A Strong Start

By time I got on the Pacific Crest Trail then, I had a few miles on my legs. Over and over again, I've found that starting a trail already in hiking shape drastically improves the experience for the first few weeks. And so it was this time. The PCT is graded for horse traffic, and its tread is impeccable. From the very beginning, I found myself doing 20-mile days entirely by accident. The foot certainly appreciates the kind hiking experience!

While the PCT is certainly crowded at this time of year, I've been surprised by how much solitude I've been able to find. I've camped alone almost every night so far (by choice), and I don't see too many folks while hiking. Of course, when I get to town, everyone comes out of the woodwork. 

Snowpocalypse 2023

In case you've missed it, the West has a lot of snow. Virtually every monitoring station in the Sierra Nevada is at record levels, and in most cases, the silver medalist isn't even close. The snow has even buried much of the high terrain in the so-called 'desert' Southern California section, leading to ridiculous scenes of hikers carrying ice axes past prickly pear cactuses in ninety degree heat. But such is 2023, a certifiably bonkers year.

The PCT in a high snow year is a significant challenge, and 'high snow year' doesn't even begin to describe just how crazy this year is. So before you ask: no, I don't know what I'm going to do when I get to the Sierra yet. The creeks will almost certainly be swollen and possibly hazardous to cross. The immense snows have damaged a key bridge over a river with no easy bypass available. In short, the prospect of hiking through the Sierra in June looks gnarly at best and impossible at worst. 

So what am I planning to do? I don't know, to be honest. I'm not worrying about it quite yet. I've got 500 miles of Southern California left before I get there, and I plan on enjoying it thoroughly. Once I get to the southern gateway to the Sierra, I'll figure out the next step. All options are on the table.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Ten Years Ago Today

Ten years ago today, my Aunt Paula dropped me off at a road crossing less than a mile from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia. I had no idea what I was signing up for.

Well, that's not entirely true. I'd learned about the Appalachian Trail during the spring semester of my freshman year of college, and immediately I was hooked. Not even a bungled spring break trip to the Smokies - lost shoes, hypothermia, a stuck truck, and bearanoia - could dampen my enthusiasm. I re-framed mundane daily tasks in thru-hiking terms. When I studied for exams instead of procrastinating, I told myself that I was disciplining myself to endure the hardships of the AT. When I left the familiar Midwest for a summer internship in Utah, I spent my weekends climbing mountains.

It was therefore no momentary flight of fancy that led me to the top of Springer Mountain, Georgia on that drizzly last day of February 2013. It was a culmination of several years of hope and planning. Still, my actual backpacking experience was slim - a grand total of 3 trips, two of which ended in failure - and my enthusiasm greatly exceeded my capabilities. The trail was about to swiftly punish that exuberance.

March is ordinarily a rough month on the AT. The grizzled trail veteran I met at the first road crossing reminded me that it was "still winter". In a normal year, he'd have a point. In 2013 however, he was downright prophetic. I hiked through three major snowstorms in the first month. On one occasion I hiked with a posse of about 10 shivering hikers, taking turns breaking trail through waist-high snowdrifts near Erwin, TN. On another morning, the mercury read five below zero. I woke up and started hiking at 3am just to stay warm. The suffering was intense, the dropout rate was high, and morale was low. 

But somewhere in Virginia, something clicked. Weather and terrain still presented plenty of challenges, but I felt better equipped to deal with them. I was more comfortable in the environment and found my groove. My daily mileage increased, I made several great friends, and was generally relaxed and confident. The circumstances hadn't changed too drastically, but I had. 

When I therefore had to quit the trail in southern Maine that year to start a job that I'd agreed to months prior, I was heartbroken to be leaving this marvelous adventure but confident that I'd be back to fill in those missing miles. And over the next two years, I did finish the trail during a series of vacation-length hikes. 

Growing into It

I began the AT as a complete beginner. By the end of that first journey, I was comfortable and confident in the outdoors. But it would be a mistake to call me an expert. I'd learned what I needed to survive in one particular environment (namely, a well-trod trail with tin-roofed shelters and plenty of water sources), but my education was 100-level at best.

Over the following years, that all changed. I didn't do any long-distance hikes, but I made a concerted effort to hone my skills. I went through a brief ultralight-zealot phase, cutting my pack weight in half. I learned about snow travel, navigation, mapping off-trail routes, water management, and dozens of other topics that hadn't ever surfaced on the Appalachian Trail. I absorbed a steady drip-drip of knowledge and experience, and eventually I emerged from the chrysalis as a competent backpacker and outdoorsman.

N+1 Adventures

Right around the time I hit my stride in mid-Virginia on the AT, I had decided that long-distance hiking was my cup of tea. I wanted more. So after working and saving for several years, I left my job in 2018 to begin another thru-hike - the Continental Divide Trail. One thru-hike turned into three years spent almost entirely on trails.

But despite having spent a good long while scratching the adventure itch, something keeps gnawing at me - the Pacific Crest Trail. Although I've schemed and dreamed about the PCT for a decade now, it just hasn't happened yet. In 2018 and 2019, I prioritized other more demanding hikes. I drew a PCT permit for 2020, but then 2020 happened. This year, I've got a fresh permit and a golden opportunity. I've put it off long enough. It's time for the PCT.

Fear and Trembling

It turns out that the decision to do "harder" hikes in the 2018-2019 window was providential. Most hikers see the PCT as the easiest of the Triple Crown trails (AT, PCT, CDT). And it doesn't even hold a candle to grueling DIY routes like the Route In Between, Hayduke, or Greater Yellowstone Loop. Yet though the PCT has a cakewalk reputation, it's perhaps the most daunting challenge I've faced since that drizzly 28th of February, 2013. My foot's still on the mend, and a restoration to full pre-injury function seems like a pipe dream at this point. I'm preparing to walk 2,600 miles with a doubly-surgically-repaired foot that hurts every time I go out for a hike. Even before we factor in the burly 2023 snowpack, the PCT is a leap of faith.

I'm not going into this completely blind however. I did a pair of hundred-mile hikes in 2022, one of which shared about 50 miles of tread with the PCT. Those walks went fairly well. I'm as confident as I can reasonably be that a bionic foot can withstand the rigors of 5+ months on trail. But until I get out there and spend days postholing in the Sierra, there's no way to know for sure. It may be that the foot just needs to do shorter days, or needs more days off. Perhaps it just can't maintain the pace needed to stay ahead of  fires that are an annual occurrence in our current mega-drought climate. In short, a sober assessment of the circumstances would lead any reasonable observer to conclude that the odds are stacked against me.

Yet I go. The foot probably won't get any better as I get older (arthritis and entropy only operate in one direction). I'm single and relatively financially stable. If I don't take this opportunity now, I'll forever wonder whether long-distance hiking was still a possibility. I proceed in the knowledge that God saved me from a seriously pissed-off grizzly. He brought me back from a shattered heel bone to a point where I can at least walk again. Clearly he's got a plan, I've got an opportunity, and it's time to see the tricks he's got up his sleeve. I embark on this journey because it's something I'm created to do.

What's Old is New

But first, a return to roots. Tomorrow morning, I'll again stand atop Springer Mountain, GA, ten years and a day after that first journey began. My good pal Blue Moon and I are celebrating a decade of adventure with a week on the AT. Having learned absolutely nothing from our previous experiences here in early March, we're once again daring the weather to thrash us with rain, snow, sleet, and all manner of chilly unpleasantness. There will be joy in our shivering.

After that it's out to the desert for some relaxed hiking on the AZT. Two years of relative inactivity has taken a toll on my fitness, and I'm hoping to use the AZT as a pleasant warmup for the main event, the PCT. 

A Programming Note

As is typical on my Mexico-to-Canada forays, I'll probably update this blog a handful of times over the course of the trip. My on-trail posts tend to be pretty banal, disjointed, and stream-of-consciousness, so I apologize in advance. But my grandparents enjoy them, so everyone else will just have to deal. You can also view additional photos at my Instagram.

Finally, for those in a praying mood, I'd appreciate a little intercession. If I manage to pull this thing off, it'll be nothing short of a minor miracle - and not one of my own doing! Hope you'll follow along this year!