The Pacific Crest Trail is quite a well-known trail on the West Coast of the United States, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the country, and probably most people reading this from the US have a sense of what it is and might know somebody who has “thru-hiked” (i.e. start-to-finish) the trail.
For those of you that don’t, or those who do but just want to see it in my words, let’s do a who/what/where/when/why/how of my planned trip.
If you’re reading this close to the time of writing (New Year’s Eve 2018), you’re probably a close friend or family and know full well who I am. In the off chance that this blog gets some traction beyond my closest circle, I’d better introduce myself.
My name is Søren (the ø is not optional). I’m 28 years old from Davis, CA, but I’ve lived in London, UK for the last five years. I currently work in energy economics (mostly electricity-related) for a consulting company in London, from which I’ll be taking a leave of absence this summer.
Aside from mountain activities (hiking, skiing, running, climbing), my other main hobby is music. I just bought a little lightweight carbon fiber guitar which I’m super stoked to bring along with me.
I’ll be joined by my friend and soon-to-be-former colleague Chris. He’s 28 years old, from Northern Virginia, and is fully quitting his job at the same consulting firm (but different team from me) and moving back to the US in the process.
I also have a few friends who are planning to join for sections in the middle, and my brother is going to start the trail with me, but I’ll leave out those intros for now.
If you’re not from California or otherwise don’t recognize the reference, my domain name is a reference to the Soarin’ Over California ride at Disneyland/California Adventures in Anaheim, CA. It was definitely a hilarious joke in high school when I went there with the band program and/or cross country team. “Look, it’s ME over California!” My back-up domain name would have been a High School Musical reference (sorenflyentheresnotastarinheaventhatwecantreach.com), so thank god that my first choice was available.
It might have been easier to start with this one, but the ordering of who/what/where/when/why and sometimes how is incontrovertible.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a long distance hiking and equestrian (horsies) trail which runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. The southern terminus is just this side of the wall on the Mexican border (yes, there is actually quite a bit of wall that already exists), while the northern terminus is in the clearing of trees which separates the US from Canada. The nearest road access is about 10km into Canada, so in practice, people who finish the PCT at the Canadian border always go a bit further into the Great White North.
In between the termini is about 2,650 miles, 4,300 km, or 4.3 megameters (Mm) of mountainous trail, from the (mountainous) deserts of Southern California, the high alpine Sierra Nevada in Central and (sort of) Northern California, and the temperate rainforests in the Cascade range in Oregon and Washington. The high point of the trail is Forester Pass in the High Sierra, at just over 4,000m (13,000 ft), but nearby Mt Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states at c. 4,500 m (14,500 ft), is a short side hike, so I understand that most people add that to their itinerary (I intend to, at least). The low point is just above sea level as the trail crosses the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington at Bridge of the Gods.
There are a bunch of other people who have written some pretty serious blogs and vlogs about the trail if you want to learn more. I particularly recommend halfwayanywhere.com, which is both highly informative and entertaining.
There are also two other similar trails elsewhere in the US. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is the oldest and most established, running from Georgia to Maine. It’s the most “civilized”, making it easier logistically, and is the shortest, but I’m told the terrain itself is the most difficult, so it’s no easier in total than the other two. The Continental Divide Trail (CDT), by contrast, is the newest, least-developed, longest, and gentlest, running from Mexico to Canada through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana (I think). The PCT seems to fit right between the AT and the CDT in all of the metrics above. Completing all three is called the “Triple Crown” of thru-hiking, and a small handful of people (including a couple of people in 2018) have managed to complete a “calendar-year triple”, which is totally insane.
I think this has been covered in the “What?” section.
The average hiker takes 4-6 months to complete the trail. The record is something like 45 days, but that involves running for basically every waking hour, and having most of your stuff carried for you.
Exact dates TBD, but looking to start in early May. It’s generally best to start in mid/late April, which is hopefully: early enough to avoid heat and water scarcity in the desert (CA sections A-F/G in the map above); late enough that the High Sierra (CA section H, mainly) is clear enough from snow that it’s passable; and early enough that you make it to Canada before the snow hits again in early/mid October.
For various reasons that I don’t feel like getting into, April is not quite possible for us, so we’ll be starting in early May. Being relatively young and fit, hopefully we can soon catch up to the optimal schedule and can finish by the end of September or very early October. We shall see.
This probably deserves its own post, and maybe I’ll write that soon. The short answer is that I love being outside, I love and miss the American West, I’m feeling increasingly disconnected from the natural world, and I’ve grown up near the PCT, so it seems natural to want to link up the whole of the West in one long epic hike. This has been kicking around in my mind for probably 10 years, so I’m really excited to actually do it.
There are a lot of wider philosophical questions about why humans decide to undertake arbitrary and decidedly unproductive challenges, whether that’s running a marathon, climbing Everest, or dragging months of supplies behind you on a sled across Antarctica. If you have a couple of spare hours, I recommend this New Yorker article which explores some of these questions, and, sadly, ends in tragedy with the death of the story’s subject near the end of his quest: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/12/the-white-darkness
It definitely comes from a place of privilege though. I can only imagine the reaction of generations past, or of people living paycheck-to-paycheck today, to the absurdity of paying a bunch of money (the gear ain’t cheap!) and foregoing months of productive work/salary just to give up most of the hard-earned creature comforts of Western society.
Left foot, right foot, repeat.
In all seriousness, though, in between resupply stops every five days or so, we will be completely self-supported. That means carrying tents and sleeping bags, a few days’ worth of food, and filtering water directly from natural sources of varying quality.
Weight is a huge concern, so people, myself included, typically invest in lightweight equipment (especially backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags, the so-called Big 3) and try not to take too many unnecessary things like spare clothes, chairs, and food high in water (you’d rather addthe water when you get to a source). I’m bringing a travel guitar, which I think will raise a lot of eyebrows amongst the seriously ultra-light hikers, but that’s a cross I’m willing to bear.
Anyway, that’s a sort of overview of the key elements of the journey. I could (and will) go into more detail in separate posts. Ideas for future topics include: gear, food/resupply, exploration of existential questions about thru-hiking, the trail culture as viewed from afar, etc. Comment below or email me if you want to hear about anything in particular!
I’ll pepper these posts in during the next 4 months before I start hiking, at which point it will move to more of a travelogue of the hike itself, I assume.
In the meantime, hit the “follow” button so you get email notifications when I post new things. Thanks for reading!
Søren over Califørnia