40 days in the desert/that’s no moon

It has been a LONG time since we posted on our blog, and we apologize to the 3 people who read it. (Also, because of limited wifi, there has also been some difficulty uploading photos so there are fewer than usual). Because we have limited our zero days and increased our mileage we have had less time on our hands. Our last post was from Wrightwood around mile 369 and (spoiler alert) we are now at mile 700 after making a big push to get here on May 31 (but more on that later).

The last 340 miles or so have seen us through some of the most beautiful places yet. From Wrightwood we hit the peak of Baden-Powell in perfect cool, sunny weather before meandering the length of the Angeles National Forest.  We enjoyed days of wonderful weather with the notable exception of our day going up and over Mt Glieson (sp?) in a newly opened area of trail that had previously been closed for the 2013 Station Fire. Much of our day was spent under cloud cover, but as we ascended the mountain we entered the cloud. The rest of the day involved crashing through the overgrown trail in the hail, rain and snow while dodging the poodle dog bushes (a plant that grows in recent burn areas and induces a severe hypersensitivity reaction on contact). As we approached our intended campsite we realized it was right in the thick of the storm at the peak of the mountain. We made a quick unanimous decision to push another 7 miles down the mountain to. Ranger station to get out of it. It made for a long day but we were treated to good weather, water and pit toilets down at the station! 

Even better, it put us only 8 miles from the Acton KOA – a campground just off trail with a store, showers, laundry, and a pool! We spent an incredibly restful day at that oasis, before pressing on through the Vasquez Rocks (famous from Star Trek and likely other films) towards Agua Dulce. We didn’t linger in Agua Dulce long – only enough to gull some hashbrowns and buy our food for the next stretch of trail to Tehachapi. We had a long, hot climb out of town through rolling hills of tall, golden buckwheat to get back into the mountains. It was strenuous, sweaty, exhausting and glorious climb. It was on that climb that I had one of those brilliant moments of perspective; a moment of confidence where I felt assured I was doing the right thing at the right time. It reminded me of a quote from Robyn Davidson’s book, Tracks: “There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know that you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track.” It is in moments like that I feel immensely grateful for opportunity and privilege I have been given to walk this trail and experience our beautiful world with my loving and adventurous husband. We are the luckiest.

A few days later, the cool cover of the forest eventually gave way to the edges of the Mojave desert. We spent an afternoon at a bizarre place called Hikertown preparing for our excursion into the desert. We ventured out in the evening for our first night hike and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the Joshua trees and the California Aqueduct. It was a strange experience hearing the rush of water under our feet in the middle of one of the driest stretches on the trail. As the sunlight faded we watched the stars twinkle on one by one until they lit our way through the desert. We walked by starlight until midnight when we set up camp near the cottonwood creek bridge. We fell immediately into a deep sleep until the morning heat woke us at 7 AM. We retreated into the shade of the bridge, the only real shelter from the sun for miles around. 

We spent the day napping under the bridge and eating while we waited out the heat of the day. Around 6 pm some cloud cover developed and we set off for our second contiguous night hike with a plan: to hike through the entire night until we reached the next town. The other hikers looked at us skeptically, and with good reason. It started well with a beautiful sunset hike through a wind farm and into a river canyon. 

The sky darkened as we topped off our water in the canyon and we set into the night. We then had a big climb out of the canyon up soft-sand switchbacks that kept giving way under our uncertain steps. We were forced to slow our pace significantly and didn’t arrive at the peak of the climb until midnight. We stood shivering on the peak, desperate for a break, desperate for a nap, desperate for some warmth. We settled for huddling on our sheet of Tyvek and sharing a pack of gummy worms before resuming our walk. If the uphill was tough, the downhill was harder. Our bodies and minds were tired from lack of sleep and the mind-numbing monotony of plodding step after step in the dark. Eventually we came around a corner and saw a power station and a road! We must be close, we thought. Cute. As a tiny set of lights passed by the power station, its scale and distance from us dawned on me, much like Han Solo’s realization that the Death Star was, in fact, no moon. Unfortunately, our station had no tractor beam to pull us in. We spent the next 3 hours stumbling towards it in the dark wondering why we were doing this to ourselves. When we reached the road at 4 am, we spread out our Tyvek in the ditch and promptly fell asleep. 

We awoke to the first light on the horizon and began hatching a plan to get into Tehachapi, 8 miles down the road. It was 6:30 am when a man driving the other direction with a PCT bumper sticker pulled a U-turn and offered us a ride into town. He didn’t want to get to work on time anyways, he explained. We were eternally grateful when he dropped us off at Denny’s for breakfast. 

The next couple days were spent in preparation for both our next leg of the journey, which would take us through the last of the desert section of the PCT, and for the Sierra Nevada. When we departed in the evening a couple days later, we were leaving from the exact place that Cheryl Strayed started her PCT adventure (now famous in the book and movie, Wild) almost 20 years ago. 

The next section highlighted the extremes of Southern California as we woke in a cloud of cold mist the first morning out. We were down out of it shortly and later that afternoon had to endure the usual heat of the desert. In spite of the extremes of weather, the section from Tehachapi to Kennedy Meadows has been one of my favorites. The scenery varied between high desert, slopes of joshua trees, pine forests and high meadows. Even the blisters from my new shoes couldn’t dampen my spirits for long. Our hiker hunger also hit a new level, forcing us to bail out at Walker Pass to get more food at resupply. We spent less than 24 hours there but ate in true hiker fashion and over-resupplied at the Stater Bros there. When we got back to Walker Pass we were greeted to a long uphill with inappropriately heavy packs. We took our time on the way up, enjoying the scenery and digging into our new delicious snacks. I reveled in the last of the desert, and eagerly looked forward to the mountains. 

In what was to be our second-last day before reaching Kennedy Meadows, we were taking a leisurely lunch at a spring 14 miles into our day when Everett announced that he would like to do a 30 mile day before reaching Kennedy Meadows. With less than 30 miles left to KM, it was now or never. The idea was not particularly well received by our group of hikers, but luckily the weather helped to persuade. As we reached the high point of our climb at 8000 ft, it began to rain hard. We donned our rain gear, and scampered down the hill alternating walking and cruising (a sort of speed walk/run hybrid) to make better time and get out of the cold. As we reached the bottom and our intended camp spot, we were only 5 miles from the 30 mile goal and only 9 miles from reaching Grumpy Bear’s restaurant and bar in Kennedy Meadows. The rain had stopped but the cool weather persisted into the evening hours. The restaurant closed at 9 and we decided we would need to arrive at least 1 hour before to make it worth our while. So, we had 3 hours to do 9 miles for a reward of burgers and beer. We decided to go for it.
I set the pace to ensure we were doing at least 3 miles/hour. Although we were already 25 miles in, we felt strong somehow and arrived at the 700 mile mark ahead of schedule. Shortly after we turned onto the dirt path that would take us away from the PCT and towards the restaurant. Dirt path led to dirt road and finally to the main road. After about half a mile on the road, a nice local offered to take us the rest of the  way to the restaurant and we arrived by 7:30! Let me just say, burgers have never tasted so good. The wonderful owners of Grumpy’s treated us so well and even let us set up camp on their property.

Since then we have been hanging out in KM, eating our fill, organizing our cold weather and snow gear, sending forward our warm weather gear and checking snow/weather reports. We are excited and apprehensive about tackling the Sierra in this high snow year. The first section from here to Onion Valley via Kearsarge Pass has been reasonably well travelled this season already so we are have some reasonable reports on the conditions and likely some tracks to follow over the high passes. We are also well prepared to turn around or bail out if the conditions have changed to be less favorable or beyond our skill level. Wish us good luck everyone!

“The mountains are calling, and I must go…”

Stove troubles, gulling McDoubles, and the shaking of the snow globe

After leaving the beautiful Whitewater Preserve, we began a very hot walk alongside Mission Creek to head back into the mountains. We felt lucky for the high snow/rain year as we crossed the creek several times that day, taking time to soak our feet and replenish our water (we were drinking up to 1 L every 2 miles!). We came across a man named Rick during one of our creek stops, who was keen to see our reaction to his news of snow in the forecast. I think it’s safe to say we disappointed him with our glee at that prospect. 

We continued our push into the mountains, with San Jacinto ever looming in the background. It is one of the best and worst features of this trail (depending on your mood and fatigue level) that you can often see where you are going and where you have been for MILES. We enjoyed the cooler temperatures and forest shade as we climbed. As we reached the peak of our climb at Onyx Summit, we encountered a lovely surprise: a couch! It was such a wonderful treat to sit on a couch for a spell.

The next day, we finished the last few miles into Big Bear Lake. We headed straight for the McDonalds before tackling our resupply. The details of the town stay are altogether boring (and repetitive), but mostly involved eating, shopping, eating, laundry, eating, showering, and eating. Getting skinnier (and colder!) by the day, we searched out the biggest breakfast we could find. The Grizzly Manor Cafe answered the call spectacularly.

Saturday afternoon we set off back to the trail under blue skies, but with the promise of a snowstorm looming. We were looking forward to this next leg of our journey not only for the snow, but also for the promise of the only on-trail McDonalds at Cajon Pass. We hiked 9 miles to a cozy camp spot and dove into our sleeping bags just as the snow began. We slept warmly and woke to a light dusting of snow blanketing our forest surroundings. 

We enjoyed a day of hiking in the cool temperatures with it snowing on and off for most of the day before setting into a beautiful tent site near Holcomb Creek. As Everett started a campfire, the clouds began to part and treated us to a beautiful evening. As we took out our stoves to prepare a meal of macaroni and cheese, we discovered that we were out of fuel, having forgotten to buy a new canister in Big Bear. Not keen on the idea of cold macaroni, we managed to heat some water by the fire instead. With at least 70 miles between us and our next chance to buy fuel, I began mentally scanning our food and calculating just how quickly we could make it to McDonalds for our next hot meal. 

We had another cold one that night, with temperatures dipping into the negatives. Luckily our gear has kept us warm and mostly dry (aside from some condensation issues we’re still workshopping – any Zpacks tent owners please chime in re: condensation in colder climates!). It has been a good pre-Sierra test of the tent and sleeping set up.  That day we looked forward to a beautiful hike through the Deep Creek area. It is a stunning rocky canyon cut into the desert hills with a clear, cold creek running through for miles. Unfortunately, any place as wonderful as that quickly becomes accessible by road and ruined shortly thereafter (Warning: rant ahead).  The amount of graffiti and human garbage (both literal and figurative, if I can be harsh for a moment) was disgusting, especially at the hot springs. This is why we can’t have nice things. It really led me to reflect on all the reading I’ve done and lecturing I’ve had on leave-no-trace principles in the backcountry. We pack out every snippet of garbage we bring (yes, including used TP – it does NOT biodegrade well in a desert environment) and take care not to contaminate water sources with our own waste or soap products. I can say with confidence that the only things I have left in the backcountry are my footprints. So, to have walked 300 miles only to see graffiti at every turn, abandoned footballs and pool noodles floating down the creek, and heaps of garbage piled under trees at the hot spring was upsetting, to say the least. But enough on that for now.

As I mentioned briefly, Everett and I have now passed the 300 mile marker (and are actually approaching 400 in the next couple of days!). We ended our deep creek day camped in a burn area only 24 miles from the McDonalds. In the absence of fuel for our stove we enjoyed a supper of Lucky Charms cereal complete with rehydrated milk served in a ziplock bag. It was perfect. The next day we left early in our push to arrive at the McDonalds that afternoon. To be honest, much of that day is a blur for me. I took a break from fantasizing about hash browns to plan my assault on the McDonald’s menu. However, the final four miles served up a beautiful and extremely windy descent into Cajon Pass (a major destination for PCT hikers, but in reality, a fairly unremarkable intersection of freeways and rail lines). 

It was around 3 pm when we saw the Golden Arches. Everett made quick work of 5 McDoubles, fries, root beer and a Mcflurry, while I settled for two double quarter-pounders with cheese (lettuce-wrapped, of course), a large fries, coke and a hot fudge sundae with peanuts. It was hiker-trash heaven. My only regret was I didn’t eat more ice cream.

Heavy and exhausted after the hike and the meal, we rolled ourselves over to the nearby Best Western hotel for the night. The weather was rolling in, and shortly after our arrival it began to rain. Although the notion of a hotel stay just two days short of Wrightwood was judged by many of our fellow hikers initially, we watched as the majority of them followed suit. Sometimes the promise of a hot shower, laundry and a warm bed is too good to pass up. 

The next day (after complimentary hotel breakfast AND McDonald’s second breakfast) we were treated to a cool, foggy morning as we started our ascent back into the mountains. We have been so lucky for the moderate temperatures on this leg of our journey! It was a beautiful but steady climb that day for an ascent of over 5000 ft over 22 miles. Around noon we broke through the clouds and were treated to spectacular views of the mountains ahead. Unfortunately, an arson fire had razed much of the hillside last fall. As we climbed we met some volunteers who were working on restoring and rebuilding the trail through this burn area. It is only thanks to the tireless work of volunteers like these that such a beautiful trail exists for us. (Check out one of the volunteers’ instagram account at: mountainsoles). Eventually climbing out of the burn area, we enjoyed a pine forest for the rest of our day before camping a mere 5 miles from town. The next morning a quick scamper down the hill put us at highway 2, where we were promptly picked up by a forest service worker named SpiritWolf. He took us into the town of Wrightwood while giving me a lesson on the medicinal plants of the area and their uses. After dropping us off, we made a beeline for the nearest breakfast place to try to fill the black hole that once was my stomach. We are looking forward to a couple days of R&R here before heading out on the trail again! Next stop, Agua Dulce!

What goes up must come down

When Sir Isaac Newton first described the effects of gravity, little did he know that this principle would conveniently apply to both the physical and emotional reality of the PCT.

After a dizzying, exhausting, but overall gratifying day climbing San Jacinto, we were riding that high as we started our descent from the mountain the next morning. It probably should have been a harbinger of what was to come that our bodies felt sore and tired as soon as we started hiking, but we felt optimistic nonetheless. Cute. Before long, someone had cranked the thermostat as we wound our way down to the fiery depths of hell (which for those of you who are unfamiliar with the PCT, or hell for that matter, is the valley where the I-10 runs between Cabazon and Palm Springs). I tried to occupy my mind with the view, silly songs and taking photos, but I soon found my thoughts degenerating into a downward spiral of negativity. The dry heat was relentless. We could see our destination and hear the traffic from the highway all day without it seeming to get any nearer. To add insult to injury, I noticed that the army of windmills on the desert floor were still; there was not so much as a breeze to cool us. I was utterly demoralized. There was no way I would be able to complete this trail! I searched for a spot of shade on my descent, but each one I found had a dusty, exhausted hiker squatting in it. I counted 8 occupied shady spots before I finally came across an empty one where I could cower out of the sun’s glare and have a good cry. It was a terrible waste of water when I was down to half a liter. 

We finally made it to the bottom of the hill where there was a water fountain!! As I crouched in a slice of shade behind a boulder and drank some water I started to come back to my senses. We had made it down the hill, and the worst was over. It had to be. We were absolutely exhausted. With a hot road walk ahead of us towards the I-10, we made the decision to head to town for the night for a good meal and a shower. Within 20 minutes, Everett and our hiking buddy, Martyn (never Marty!), had arranged a hotel and an Uber to take us to Palm Springs. I count this as one of the best decisions we have made yet.

That evening consisted of showers, steaks, and a float in the pool after the sun went down. The next day, we were absolutely new people. With above average temperatures in the forecast though, we decided to save hiking for the evening hours (when it would still be 40 degrees, but the sun would be less intense). We caught a ride back to the trail around 4:15 pm and enjoyed a very warm but beautiful 9 mile hike to the Whitewater Preserve. Everett was so rejuvenated by our stay in Palm Springs that he ran the final 4 or 5 miles. We were treated to a beautiful campspot near the whitewater creek – the site even had a wading pool to soothe our feet! We camped under tree cover and felt lucky to be on this journey. We still had another three days of hiking before we would arrive in Big Bear Lake for our next resupply, but we were looking forward to heading back into the mountains.

I think I’ve made a horrible mistake.

That was bouncing around my head when we approached Fuller ridge at 4pm, with 5 miles still before camp.  Then “Onyong!” which is the actual name of a colleague but also super fun to say loudly from the bushes when your partner is having a potty.

Fuller Ridge – not graded for livestock.

At that point I had no energy left and was a bit lightheaded from an inner ear thing and dehydration +/- the effects of altitude (its only 10,834′ you babyman – yeah I get it.  Living at sea level in almost arctic Canada and being generally slothlike for the preceeding year probably deconditions one enough to feel something at higher than 8000′) not a great combo after the fear mongers tell you that you need an ice axe to traverse the thing (which inconveniently I had sent forward because the bros at the Idylwild gear shop down played the risks).

Sloth life.  Last day in Goose Bay before the Trail – April 1st.  I miss Gryffin.

We had started the day already late at 6:30am with a 5 mile / 1100 foot ascent out of Idylwild to the trailhead and apologized after declining the nice man who offered us a ride.  Who does that shit?  Another 7.5 miles and 4400 feet in elevation on a sometimes trail, sometimes unprotected pitch of slippery corn snow in places 1.5 meters deep and covered in the crisscrossing deluge of many tourists who took a tram up from Palm springs on the other side of the mountain to hike the last mile or so – saw us to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto by 1pm.  We wore MicroSpikes and they are surprisingly pretty handy. Actual crampons would make the already tenuous traction between my foot and the inside of the innapropriate tennis shoe I was wearing less reassuring and likely more cumbersome and awkward.  In any case they were probably placebo – but thats still 20% at worst.

Fat stubby trees with tops that look like Bonzai.  The diameter at the base would make a 200′ tall tree in BC.

A giant Sequoia for comparison.  I put a small 2×4 there for comparison then Kathryn jumped in to show some context.  But the bloddy 2×4 is what we make out those things.  Shameful.

We spent a few minutes at the summit and left rather quickly as one of the afformentioned tourists was loudly making a meal out of her achievement and flung herself dramatically over the pinnacle for long enough to read a littany of her considerable mountaineering (tram riding) experience to everyone within earshot.  Less(?) annoyingly a local from Idylwild ran by wearing shorts and sandals citing that he summited every morning… which seemed… improbable at 1pm but I gave him a buy as his company was preferable to the the lady spreading out her memoirs on the peak.

San Jacinto Peak and our summer cottage.
We made the next 3 miles down to Fuller Ridge without too much difficulty – though there were several sections of icy slope that had no protection and a fall would have meant several hundred feet of ice rash and/or shrubbery damage.  Being deliberate and slow is your best friend here.  By the time we hit the ridge – which had been described by the afforementioned naysayers as “trecherous”, our feet were numbed by an icy river crossing with a sketchy approach across an ice bridge (which we learned later collapsed as a hiker named Deathgrip was crossing).  The 5 miles to camp was a bit onerous, and we plied a very carfeul delerious concentration to the task – making it in to camp by 6pm.  

The ridge was much kinder than had been expected, however our pace had slowed considerably.  By that time – the onerousness of the climb then descent had eaten holes in the flabby sinew of my pins (thats legs for a Townie), and made phyllo of the soft dough on my feet.

Camp was suuuuper handy with about 15 other hikers and a small pit fire (which was a great help to spread our foot odour).  When discussing the day – it was apparent that everyone else knew better than to kill themselves in the same way and all but one (our buddy Martyn who is a 75% high contrast facsimile of Robert Redford) had taken different and shorter routes (most accepted a ride from that nice man with no appologies).

Martyn eating the biggest breakfast of his British  life.

Settling to bed meant agreeing to wake the next morning to a 17 mile, 6700 foot descent – so I stayed awake as long as I could keep my eyes open.  Which was about 15 minutes.

Apple pies, chafing thighs, and walking a marathon

Sunrise after our climb up from Scissors Crossing
The morning after my dreaded heat rash, we woke at dawn to hustle down the mountain to hit Scissors Crossing before the heat was too much to bear. It would not be entirely inaccurate to say I was closer to a run than a walk as we knocked off 4 miles in an hour that morning. As we arrived at underpass, we were greeted by Bangarang, a thru-Hiker from 2016 who had driven all the way out from Vegas to make coffee and pancakes for weary hikers. What a guy!

We got a ride up to Julian – a town 13 miles off trail that is famous for its apple pie – easily, and before we knew it, we were eating breakfast and pie at Granny’s Kitchen. We spent an amazing nero (a day with nearly no miles hiked) and zero in Julian eating our fill, hiding from the sun, and hanging out with our new hiker buddies, Tim and Sharon.

We arranged to be picked up from our hotel at 3:30 AM on Monday morning to be brought back to the trail for an early start. We were hiking by 3:45 AM under the light of the Milky Way and countless stars in the moonless night. We had over 1000 ft to climb to get back up into the hills and we were keen to do it in the cool of the morning. We were treated to an incredible sunrise as we crested the mountain and began our ridge walk. We reached the Third Gate water cache (14.5 miles from our starting point) by 9 AM and filled up on water. This cache is a crucial water source on private land that is generously maintained to break up a long dry stretch of trail. 

Side trail to third gate water cache

Given that the day was cool and it was only early, we decided to push on from the cache. The next water source was Barrel Spring, up and over another mountain. Our plan was to potentially make it there for a total of 24.5 miles – our biggest day yet. We had a beautiful hike in the cool, windy weather and came across the 100 mile mark on the trail! We only need to repeat that another 25.5 times and we’ll be in Canada!

100 miles!

When we arrived at Barrel Spring, we filled up on water and took a break to air out our feet (not a pretty sight or smell). It was still only early afternoon, and it occurred to us that if we hiked just another measly mile and a half, we would have walked a marathon distance for the day! The challenge was too tempting to dismiss so early in the day so we laced up our shoes and pressed on. 

I honestly don’t know how it happens…

We walked on, and soon the trail brought us to some amazing grasslands. Before we knew it, we were approaching San Ysidro creek – a perfect place to camp after a whopping 28 mile day. The creek was flowing and we were able to sponge off the day’s dirt and grime before heading to bed for an early night.

The next day, we took a relatively late start (6 am!) to hike the final few miles to our resupply destination of Warner Springs. It was cloudy, windy, and cool – a perfect day for this Canadian! We passed through some more grasslands and the famous Eagle Rock before rolling into Warner Springs just before 9 am. With hashbrowns constantly on my mind, we made our way to the golf course restaurant to enjoy a warm meal before picking up our package at the post office. We spent a couple hours at the Warner Springs Recreation Center sorting out our resupply of food and planning our approach to the mountain fire closure (an area of trail that has been closed since a fire in 2013). We set out from Warner Springs around 1 PM to tackle the next big climb before nightfall. We found an awesome campsite nestled between boulders just as the sky began to darken. 

We had another sunrise start the next morning after far too little sleep and the pressure of getting ourselves as close as possible to Mile 151, where the trail crosses a road that leads one mile to the famous Paradise Valley Cafe. Unfortunately, our luck with the weather had run out and we had to tolerate 30-plus degree temperatures (yes, Celsius, you crazy Farenheit weirdos) by 11 am. The cycle of sweating and drying in the hot dry air coated me and all my things in salt, and my heat rash reared its ugly head again. I discovered that even SPF 50 zinc sunscreen is no match for the desert sun when it comes to my skin. In an effort to let Everett keep his shirt, I took his leg compression sleeves instead to protect my lower legs and coated the rest of my exposed skin in my impotent sunscreen. We made the push to put in another few miles before camping so that it would only be a short 8 miles to the cafe the next day. By the time we found a camp spot we were exhausted, and the aforementioned salt crust had turned my shorts into a thigh-chafing crisp. We have all the type-2 fun!

My impressed face re: heat and thigh chafe

The next morning we keenly set off for the cafe, and the miles flew by! Last year, these were the last miles were able to hike due to my injured foot. We marveled at how much more enjoyable these miles were with all my bones aligned properly, and with Everett only needing to carry one pack (last year he carried mine on top of his for about 4 miles). We arrived at the cafe too early for burgers, but I was happy to eat hashbrowns, hashbrowns, and more hashbrowns! From there, began our alternate route to circumvent the Mountain Fire Closure while still maintaining our uninterrupted footpath from Mexico to Canada.

The alternate route was better than expected, especially because it was enjoyed in the presence of hiker friends, Kaylee, Alex, and Martin. Even better, though, was arriving in Idyllwild (the town where we ended our trip last year). It felt amazing to walk into town on my own two feet, feeling tired but healthy. We are so grateful for our good health this year, and are looking forward to continuing our adventure into new territory tomorrow! 

Gear redux – while watching ‘Chamber of Secrets’

Some banal and wholly uninteresting ways of thinking began (*likely continued) for me when we first entertained and then committed to hike the PCT (our buddy, Roel, pronounces this PEE-see-tee, with the emphasis in a weird Dutch place God love him).  There were unknowns that needed to be prepared for, ie; gear suitability, food consumption necessary per work output, how much weight I needed to gain, weather conditions to suffer (see Blousers), which cookies keep best at desert temperature without turning to crumbs by the constant drudgery etc..  Essentially I spent altogether too much energy developing spreadsheets and overthinking questions that really can only be answered by experience.

Hiking / skiing / snowmobiling out of reach in Canada’s backcountry makes one consider those questions with an eye on gravity.  “If a snowstorm blows up, will I survive?” and “If I blow up something on the sled, can I fix it well enough – or worse abandon it and still make it home alive?”  Canada tends towards blowing things up and seeing if you live through it.  Not so much on the PCT.

Truthfully, the weather here is so stable, the services so available, the trail so established, and the trail information so easy to access that it isn’t nearly so necessary to plan for the worst (to a degree – some sections actually are sort of gnarly).  You wake up, hike, then go to sleep.  Unless you break your foot on the second day … which you can’t really prepare for anyway.  Nothing blows up here.  Except carbon fiber / titanium tent pegs in 160km/h winds.  I find this a difficult ringtone to answer.

A very nice man named Rolling Thunder – who is also quite a wonderful Journalist / Photographer, and prior thru-hiker we met at Scout and Frodo’s in San Diego shared a similar sentiment.  His years climbing under the highly unpredictable weather of New Zealand’s alpine made the ultra-light ethos common to PCT’ers seem a foreign language.  It took him years to loosen his grip on extra worst case gear.  His trail journals are highly entertaining, and his “Humans of the PCT 17” are true to form (though if you spot an entry with Kathryn and I, read it as if we are both smiling otherwise I seem somehow more of a jerk than normal), and they are well worth a look.

There are two points I think worth establishing here.  The first is that the mode of thinking I adopted prior to our first try last year – was too baked in uncertainty and an overpreparing mentality served by more consumption than is necessary.  And I mean, holy crap you should see our basement.  The second, is that there are many unnecessary, uh, ‘necessities’ that will weigh you down.

It is a mistake to get too tied up in gear.  You will make do with what you have.  It’s usually better to get rid of things in your pack than buy something lighter – (with some obvious caveats that must be learned rather than explained).

And there are plenty of people out there who will try to sell you on all kinds of stuff and believe in their superiorty for making ‘better choices’.  Too much choice makes a cesspool out of small talk.  I hate myself sometimes for knowing ‘how many grams is that Guy’s jacket’ and try now more vigorously to protect myself from that game and its participants.

I sent my camera home.  It was too heavy and I couldn’t see my feet.  My tired body would stumble multiple times a day because my chest pack interrupted the visual continuity of foot placement and it became a risk to finishing safely.  I sent my GPS north to Kennedy Meadows since I have cell service mostly every other day.  I no longer have pants.  My pack is miraculously 5 pounds lighter (which is huge after 28 miles a day #notsohumblebrag), but slightly less… lighter because Kathryn’s pack also became lighter.  And it didn’t cost me a cent!  I’m likely safer now than before.  I carry and use heavier safety items when necessary, but the USPS is so good there is no need to over carry in the desert.

Of course you get to a point where the convenience of certain items outweighs their… … weight.  For example, my headphones weigh a lot (25g), but sound so much better than anything lightweight (8g).   My shoes are super heavy, but they fit my awkward feet (and FFS WTF Altra – now I don’t even fit your newly stupidly narrow stupid size 14 stupid Lone Peaks).

My gear spreadsheet was updated a while ago but it’s a all just a bit boring.  When you lay down your head at night, the less you have to think about packing up and carrying in the morning, the better.

*Bonus: I say ‘likely continued’ above – because I often find myself reflecting on the differences in our approach this year – but cannot say for sure that I haven’t previously done because the greater part of my memory was outsourced to Kathryn when we got married.  

Heat rash, a swarm of bees, and the invention of the blousers

Hot, shadeless descent to the Anza Borrego desert

If you’re looking for a quick synopsis of day 5 on the PCT, refer back to the title of this post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in a more detailed account, read on.

We got a late start today (out of camp by about 7) after a cold night last night. I found myself donning all of my warm clothing in the middle of the night including my puffy and toque to stay warm enough. After a bit of a sleep in, we headed out into a breezy, but quickly warming, morning. The hiking was beautiful, but I had a bit of a cloud hanging over my head at the thought of dropping out of the mountains and into the desert heat. My body is struggling with the fact that we’re not in Canada anymore and it still needs to function in this climate. It’s a tough sell. We had a couple of stops early in the day to deal with blisters, and so by the time we descended off the ridge there was much heat and little shade. On a long exposed piece of trail, I discovered that the trace of heat rash that had begun the previous day on the back of my knee was metastasizing to the rest of my leg in the mid-day sun. The burning was intolerable. After progressing through denial, anger, tears (which were incredibly unsatisfying as they evaporated directly from the corners of my eyes), and self-loathing, I finally agreed to accept Everett’s help in doing some damage control for my rapidly evolving heat-rashed, sunburnt legs. After tossing around a couple ideas, Everett literally took the shirt off his back so that I could swaddle my sun-tortured legs in protective cloth. And thus, the blousers were born (please reference photos). What a difference they made! I can’t even say how grateful I was to Everett for completely salvaging the day of hiking. 

The blousers in action
Posing in my blousers #hikerfashion

After another couple miles, we reached our next crucial water source – a large tank periodically filled by a fire truck. We filled up and spent a couple hours breaking in the shade. While we sought refuge in the patchy shade provided by the chapparal, suddenly a loud hum interrupted conversations and naps. As I looked up into the sky, about 10 feet away a swarm of what must have been hundreds of bees had appeared. Happily they quickly moved on without incident. A fellow hiker who keeps bees explained that they will travel in a swarm like that when looking for a new home, and aren’t dangerous unless interfered with. In spite of the bees, it was difficult to set out again at 2 PM, but we wanted to put in enough miles to make the next day an easy one to Scissors Crossing where we would catch a ride to Julian, a nearby mountain town. Let me tell you now, it was only the thought of getting nearer to Julian and eating apple pie (the town’s claim to fame) that got me back out into the heat of the day to put in another 5 miles of hiking. Some of you are probably thinking, “why are they doing this? It seems terrible!” Well, that’s fair. However, it amazes me that even when I am burning and overheating and sweating and itching and generally failing to cope, I look up at my desert surroundings and they are stunningly beautiful. The desert is not a barren expanse of sand and rock; rather, it is full of life and painted in shades of green and gold, with blooms of purple, orange, and pink from the recent rainfalls. And that evening, our tent pitched between boulders on the hillside and a warm breeze blowing as the sun set, I looked over the Anza Borrego desert and thought to myself how happy I was to be there. It’s amazing how quickly the mind forgets what the body has endured. Now, as I lie in the tent with the doors thrown open to let the breeze through, I watch the stars twinkle on one at a time and look forward to a sunrise hike tomorrow to beat the heat to Scissors Crossing. 

Panorama of our shady campsite

PCT 2.0: The Re-Boot

At the Southern Terminus, Photo credit: Rolling Thunder

Once again, Everett and I have decided to take a walk. A 2650-mile walk on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border near Campo, California to Manning Park, BC. As many of you know, our attempt last year was foiled by bones falling out of feet and a nasty case of Salmonella that landed me in the excellent care of the doctors and nurses at Huntington Memorial Hospital. So, having more sense of adventure than just plain sense, we thought “let’s do that again!”.
For the second time, we found ourselves enjoying the hospitality of Scout and Frodo, trail angels in San Diego who open their home to thousands of PCT hikers every year. With most of our preparation done, we had a chance to relax and chat with other hikers and trail angels, Peppa and Rolling Thunder. Rolling Thunder completed the PCT in 2006, another high snow year, and had some valuable insight into the conditions we’ll be facing this year. 
Before we knew it, April 17th had arrived. We were on the road by 6 AM sharp, and by a little after 7 AM, we were standing at the southern terminus of the PCT. We had our photo taken with the monument, signed the register and then turned northward. 
We’ll be updating our blog periodically to keep you all posted on our progress! Wish us luck! 

Still so fresh and so clean at Mile 1

Sunrise start from Mount Laguna

Enjoying the ridge walk before dropping down into the desert

An Unexpected Ending

I know it’s been a long time since our last update so we wanted to let you all know that our journey on a PCT has come to an end. Unfortunately, we have had to end our hike for medical reasons. We are both okay, and will be coming home to Canada soon. 

We are in good spirits and have no regrets about our trip or it’s premature ending. We feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to hike this beautiful trail, and meet wonderful new friends from all over the world. We have endured difficult times – aches, pains, tent failures at 3 AM in 140 km/HR winds, waterless stretches and 7 L water carries, freezing rain and scorching temperatures. We have also had the great privilege to climb mountains, hike through pine forests and fields, witness the desert in bloom, sleep under stars, and wake every morning side-by-side with nothing to do but walk. But most importantly, we have been humbled by the amazing generosity and kindness of strangers: Scout and Frodo, who hosted us in San Diego and drove us (and hundreds of other hikers!) to the trailhead; the folks at the Warner Springs Resource Center, who go out of their way to feed and provide for hikers at their own expense; Carmen who gave us free drinks at her restaurant, just for being hiker trash; Howdy Doody for the leukotape; Travis and Steven, who stopped for us – smelly, dirty bums – on the side of Hwy 2 to take us to the hospital; and so many others. 

So, we aren’t sad that this is the end of our trail. We are thankful to have had this beautiful experience, which has rejuvenated our love of the wild and renewed our faith in humanity. We feel lucky to return home to family, friends, and socialized health care, and we’re excited for our next adventure!

Broken Feet. Aces Full of Sevens.

Just a quick update – presently we are resting in a little town called “IdylWild, CA” (which incidentally is the source of the misnomeric Yosemite Decimal System utilized in categorizing walking / hiking / climbing difficulty) nursing what seems to be a stress fracture in Kathryn’s right lateral foot.  Potentially this is a cuboid stress fracture which might keep us off the trail for the next few weeks (in the first few weeks of a stress fracture there is only 10% sensitivity with x-ray to demonstrate the fracture per Dr. Veldman).  Kathryn did injure her foot in a climbing accident a number of years ago – so this potentially could be a re-injury of a ligamentous structure (“an itis of the enthesis”) – however it has persisted over four full days of rest without improving.

We are currently planning for likely 2 weeks off trail to re-consider our options which include:

  1. Snorkeling.
  2. Trail angeling for other hikers for a few weeks.
  3. Driving to Vancouver.
  4. Hiking south from Manning Park in July.

In any case – we think it better to take a few weeks off to make sure she heals well enough to continue.