My pack was heavy, weighing approximately forty pounds. It’s been restocked with five liters of water and food for another eight days, and while most of the hikers were staying the night in town on the lawn under the shade trees, I headed out of town. I needed to make miles while there was still daylight. I would loved to have stayed in town under the shade of the big oak tree, to just kick back and relax and enjoy the company of the other hikers, but for the entire 2,665 miles of the hike, that will never be my lot.
Even though I was getting a head start on the little bubble of hikers I would walk with for the next fifty miles, I knew they would all pass me before noon tomorrow. They can afford to sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, leave camp around 8:00 a.m., and still make their twenty miles for the day. I can’t. I’m cursed with the Old Man Shuffle, which required me to be on the trail from 4:30 in the morning until seven or eight at night in order to make my mileage.
It was the late afternoon and the heat of the day had passed, so hiking was not so hard. The trail meandered along a creek bed, under giant oak trees, and across wildflower-covered meadows. I walked until almost dark and then chose a campsite away from the trail, next to a well-traveled Jeep road. I was not picky about my campsites, as I only had two requirements – (1) that the ground be relatively flat; and (2) free of ants, but inasmuch as these requirements were rarely met, more often than not, I slept on an incline and had to contend with ants crawling up my legs and running across my chest.
I had two years to prepare for my PCT hike, and I used this time judiciously in learning about the trail and preparing the items I felt I would need to be successful in making the journey. My goal had been to begin hiking the trail in the spring of 2012; however, a fall from a ladder and subsequent injuries delayed the beginning until 2013. To some, two years may seem like a long time to prepare for an event, but I took to heart the scripture that reads, “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.”( Doctrine and Covenants 38:30) It took me ten years to prepare for my row across the Atlantic Ocean, and even then I was successful only on my second try.
There is not much drama in an adventure that is well planned and well executed, which would be the case for most PCT thru-hikers. It’s only the ill-conceived, poorly planned, and poorly executed expeditions that garner attention and grab headlines, as people love to read about the misfortunes of others.
A prime example of this would be the race to the South Pole between Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen. Most people recognize the name of the Englishman Robert F. Scott, primarily because he and four of his comrades perished on the return trek to their base camp. Less well known is the winner of the race, Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who led the Norwegian Expedition and arrived at the South Pole on December 14, 1911, some thirty-three days before Scott and his team would arrive. (Amundsen)
Amundsen’s expedition benefited from his careful preparation, good equipment, appropriate clothing, an understanding of dogs and their handling, and the effective use of skis. In contrast to the misfortunes of Scott’s team, Amundsen’s trek proved rather smooth and uneventful. (Amundsen)
Years ago, I enrolled in a real estate class taught at the local community college. I never went into real estate, and I’ve forgotten more than I ever learned, but one quote from the class that has stayed with me all these years and has served me well was, “Figure out what you don’t know and then learn it.” (Stringham)
Information is the key to any successful venture, and this would certainly hold true for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Googling PCT yielded a plethora of websites to investigate. In the spring of 2011, I began reading trail journals posted on postholer.com and trailjournals.com. For weeks and months I followed the accounts of hikers as they blogged about their plans for the 2011 season. I followed their journal entries through Southern and Northern California, the Sierras, Oregon, Washington, and for the relatively few who made it that year, the jubilation these hikers experienced crossing the Canadian border. The year 2011 was a heavy snow year, making it difficult and dangerous to cross the high mountain passes of the Sierras, and to ford the swollen rivers and streams.
I quickly became aware of potentially dangerous geographical features such as the San Jacinto Mountains, Fuller Ridge, Forester Pass, Evolution Creek, Bear Creek, and Falls Canyon Creek. The journals talked about losing the trail under several feet of snow and having to navigate with map and compass or GPS; of having to cross rivers that were eight to nine feet deep, of making human chains to help each other ford raging streams, and crossing major mountain rivers on downed trees that spanned the river because bridges had been washed away.
Wow, was all I could say as I finished reading the last of the journals that finally ended in October, 2011. I was both astounded and electrified at the courage and tenacity these hikers showed in moving forward and conquering what seemed like insurmountable odds. To be sure, many hikers left the trail after encountering heavy snow in the Sierras, but who could blame them. Only the very stalwart and physically fit were capable of postholing mile after mile through knee-deep, and sometimes waist-deep snow. And if you’re a short person, crossing an eight- to nine-foot-deep stream with a fast-moving current could be very problematic.
For five months, I would be living out of my backpack. All my needs and wants would be carried in the package on my back. My survival on the trail, my day-to-day substance, my success at crossing the Canadian border would depend on the items within my backpack. I knew I had to choose carefully. For each item chosen, there would be numerous choices. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. So I studied, read reviews, made comparisons, engaged in field testing, and fretted. I fretted about the weight of every item; in fact, I became obsessed with how much something weighed. I fretted about down vs. synthetic, single-wall vs. double-wall tents, stove or no stove, what kind of shoes to wear, what kind of socks to purchase?
There was the issue of clothing – shirts, pants, shorts, underwear; how many of each item to bring. What type and temperature rating should my sleeping bag be? Do I need a ground cloth; if so, of what weight and material should it be? The backpack itself; there were so many on the market, how shall I choose? What whistles and bells can be eliminated and still have a functioning pack? Oh, the questions went on and on. Ultimately, each choice was decided on the basis of weight.
In the beginning of my research, I read the well-written and humorous book Ultralight Backpackin' Tips, by Mike Clelland. His writings explained the difference between standard backpacking, lightweight backpacking, and ultralight backpacking. He starts his discussion on backpacking by defining the language of the sport:
“Base weight,” he said, “is the weight of the pack plus all other items in the pack that won’t change during the course of the hike, i.e., the pack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, ground cloth, tent, and cooking utensils.” Consumables such as food and water were not included in the base weight. By Clelland’s calculations, standard backpacking has a base weight of twenty pounds or more. Lightweight backpacking is twenty pounds or less, and ultralight backpacking has a base weight of ten pounds or less. (Clelland)
I desperately wanted to be in the ultralight backpacking category. I didn’t want to carry any more weight than was absolutely necessary. To begin with, I had a brand-new North Face Expedition pack that I had planned on using for my Great Wall of China trek. Alone, with nothing in it, the pack weighed seven pounds. I scrapped it for an ultralight backpack that weighed four pounds.
With modifications to this pack, I reduced the weight to two pounds, which ended up being just a floppy bag, much like a rucksack.
I spent a lot of time researching sleeping bags, tents, stoves, and other outdoor gear, and in the end, I could only get my base weight down to twelve pounds, and even then I wasn’t carrying a stove or cooking fuel. Add in a few extras like a satellite phone, phone charger and battery, cell phone and spare battery, Spot (GPS) Tracker and extra batteries, and my base weight shot up to fifteen pounds. To this I had to add rain gear, thermal underwear, hat, gloves, synthetic jacket, and my base weight was now hovering around eighteen pounds.
For consumables, Clelland recommended as a minimum two pounds of food per day, coupled with as much water as you’re willing to carry. Most of my resupply boxes were packed with food and supplies for six to eight days, and when I left a water resupply source, I usually walked away with five liters. Adding these weights together, my backpack averaged forty pounds and only got lighter as I ate the food and consumed the water.
Forty pounds is a lot of weight; I would have been much happier if my pack weighed half that amount. But by the time I reached Kennedy Meadows – seven hundred miles into the journey, I hardly noticed the weight of the pack, and could walk all day without it being much of an issue. Only in the late afternoon did the pack start to weigh heavily on my shoulders.
From my camping spot beside the Jeep road, I was back on the trail by 5:00 a.m. Well, almost. I left so early that it was still dark, and even with the aid of my headlamp, I missed the main trail several times and had to backtrack to relocate it. Because I had no stove with me, I didn’t have to take time to heat water and prepare a meal. However, I never left camp without eating something, and this morning that something was a five-ounce concoction I prepared at home and pre-packaged in two-by-three-inch plastic bags that resemble a PowerBar. It’s a recipe I found in Mike Clelland’s book that contains chopped almonds, cashews and walnuts mixed with raisins, cranberries, dates and rolled oats and held together with brown rice syrup, coconut oil, almond butter, and vanilla extract. Later in the morning, I stopped for a half hour and ate a bowl of hydrated rolled oats sprinkled with mixed nuts and dried fruit, powdered milk, and protein powder.
The sandy trail moved steadily upwards, crossing ravines and gullies, and undulating through dry brush land, dotted with shady oak trees and occasional Coulter pine trees. Despite the presence of these shade trees, the land was essentially dry and barren with chaparral being the primary ground cover.
On and on I trudged, methodically placing one foot in front of the other, at the same time scanning the hills in front of me for signs of the trail. If the climb was steep, I tried to avoid looking at the grade, as it just seemed to make the climb longer and harder. It was like watching water boil; the more you watch it, the longer it takes.
My method for climbing was to put my head down and look at only that part of the trail that I could see just in front of my feet or just inside the brim of my hat, which was usually no more than twenty feet. Then, I would count off eight steps; at the end of eight steps, I would start over and count another eight steps. Sometimes I would go to sixteen or thirty-two, but always in increments of eight.
Eight just had a nice cadence to it. I tried counting steps in increments of ten and twelve and starting over, but the cadence never felt right and I always found myself returning to counting in units of eight. Doing so helped me get to the top of a climb, and no matter how long or how high, I always made it to the summit.
Counting to eight also told me when I could stop to rest. If it were a moderate climb, I would try to go to forty-eight, fifty-six, or sixty-four steps before taking a rest, and if significantly steeper, eight, sixteen, twenty-four, or thirty-two would dictate when I rested. No matter how slow my pace, by counting steps, I could always see that I was making progress, and although others might pass me, which was a given, I was always moving forward, one step at a time.