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!

1 comment:

  1. "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. "

    My first desert hiking experiences spoiled me - I went to Escalante back in 2001 (I;m old ;) , and a few weeks before I left for the PCT in 2002 I went to the then new Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness on the UT/CO border. Talk about a high bar for desert hiking!

    Needless to say, I got spoiled and, as with you, somewhat underwhelemed with the PCT in SoCal versus my previous experiences.

    But, as with you, I enjoyed my time, made great friendships, and certainly don't regret my time out there!

    Good luck with your continuing PCT jaunt and the NCT walkabout. And ending the PCT in the Sierra? Awesome!

    As you know, our door's open if find yourself in this neck of the desert!