Days 11-12: Paradise Valley to Idyllwild

Day 11: Paradise Valley Cafe (152) to Idyllwild (179 + 3 mile side trail)

Day 12: Hanging out in Idyllwild

Highlights: Most beautiful bit stretch of hiking thus far; Zero-day in a town that has a dog as a mayor.

Lowlights: Forced 30-mile day right after 26 miles was kind of demoralizing.

Paradise Valley Cafe to Idyllwild

Given the inclement weather recently and knowledge of an incoming storm the next day, the group that stayed at Paradise Valley Cafe the night before decided we would push to close to Idyllwild the next day so that we could arrive early on Day 12 before the weather turned bad. Additionally, due to the exposed nature of most of the hiking between those spots, it was necessary to make it to within about five miles of Idyllwild to find a campsite that was safe in a storm, which meant at least 25 miles of hiking, right on the back of a 26 mile day the previous day.

We all got breakfast at Paradise Valley Cafe, so didn’t get on the trail until close to 10. In order to make 25 miles, that would mean hiking until at least 6 pm, assuming a pace of 3 mph (which is pretty quick), and no breaks. I resigned myself to hiking after dark, but that seemed preferable to hiking exposed ridges in a big storm.

I started a bit slowly, because I was somewhat dejected by the requirement to do a second big day in a row, and also because the hike was mostly uphill into a sub-alpine ecological zone.

At some point I ran into Barry, the Irish guy who I’d eaten dinner with the night before. We both independently suggested trying to hike all the way to Idyllwild that night, since we’d be getting so close anyway. That would mean hiking until at least 9:30, if we walked quickly, but it again seemed better than being up a mountain in a storm.

The hiking was epic for the rest of the day, but definitely not conducive with moving quickly. We traversed a series of knife-edge north-south ridges separating the Inland Empire from the Coachella Valley, with steep climbs in and out of the low saddle points, heavy winds blowing from the seaward direction, and awesome views down in each direction.

Overlooking the Coachella Valley, preparing audition material for the eponymous festival

Barry cresting a particularly dramatic part of the trail

Serious engineering required for this trail

Progress was slow, but we eventually got off the ridge section (about 22 miles in) just before sunset.

Right around sunset

After sunset we were more protected from the wind, and also I got a couple of epic pictures of Palm Springs with a full moon. Can’t decide which is my favorite.

Eventually, just before descending into Idyllwild around 9:30, we ran into one of Barry’s friends who had done an evening hike of San Jacinto Peak with his group. This was a very fortuitous encounter as they had floor space and a ride arranged at the trailhead.

We descended the last 2.5-3 miles down about 3,000 feet to the parking lot, where a trail angel Roland was there to drive us to this little cottage in Idyllwild. He even stopped at a restaurant so we could get takeout food.

In retrospect, it was definitely the right decision to push through into the night. The people who camped out up the mountain got caught in snow this morning, and somebody got treated for hypothermia. Others turned back, which means that, in addition to wasting energy not making it through the section, they have to choose to either skip this section (which means finishing out of order or not doing the full trail) or wait for about four days for the next window of sufficiently good weather to make it through. Meanwhile, tomorrow’s weather is supposed to be good enough that I can push through the last stretch of the San Jacinto mountains before I descend towards I-10. I think there’s enough ice and snow on the ground that I’m going to skip the alternative loop which goes to the top of San Jacinto Peak, which is a bit disappointing, but hardly an existential threat to my plans.

Idyllwild

I spent Day 12 in the little town of Idyllwild, doing my first “zero” – i.e. zero miles. I’ve done two “nearos” of 5 miles each, but this is the first day in about 2 weeks that I haven’t hiked at all.

I have three errands to run while I’m here: (1) buy enough food to last the next 5-6 days to Big Bear; (2) pick up a package from the post office of things I left behind in Julian which Chris has kindly shipped on for me; and (3) visit the laundromat. I did (1) already, but the post office isn’t open on Sundays, so I’m going to hit the laundromat and post office tomorrow morning before heading out.

Idyllwild is a cute, idyllic mountain town comprising mainly of refugees from the flatlands and second home owners. They love hikers here: Our trail angel from last night is retired and spends his days driving around hikers at almost all hours of the day, and accepts no money in exchange; I was offered a hitch earlier today when I wasn’t even sticking out a thumb (I declined as I was nearly home).

However, the town’s real claim to fame is its mayor, Maximus Mighty-dog Mueller II, aka Mayor Max. Unlike most mayors, Max is a dog, specifically a golden retriever who just had his 6th birthday party yesterday, with free food for everyone around. I sadly was bashing 30 miles, but I got to meet him earlier today during his office hours.

As I understand it, Max is Idyllwild’s second-ever mayor, the first being his uncle Max I. With a population of about 3,000, I guess they never needed a human mayor.

Max has tens of thousands of followers on social media, including Barry, who was a follower before he’d even heard of the PCT.

Tomorrow, I’m going to finish my errands and head back up to finish the San Jacinto mountains, then brieflydown into the lowlands. With any luck, the inclement weather will mean it’s relatively cooler down below.

Days 8-10: I’m so cold right now

Day 8: Barrel Springs (101) to some super exposed ridge somewhere (122)

Day 9: Exposed ridge (122) to Mike’s Place (127)

Day 10: Mike’s Place (127) to Paradise Valley Cafe (152)

Highlights: Longest day so far, and feeling pretty good physically; Stopped by three PCT institutions.

Lowlights: Why is the desert sooo cold and windy?? Also, thinking I was going to get mauled by a mountain lion (spoiler: I didn’t).

Barrel Springs to Warner Springs

Got a pretty late start on Day 8, and was off hiking at around 9. Very easy hiking, with mild weather and gentle rolling grassland, with a shady stream mixed in.

Within a few miles, I came across Eagle Rock, which, surprisingly, looks almost exactly like an eagle.

It’s about 9 miles from Barrel Springd to Warner Springs, a small community in northern San Diego County with a very hiker-friendly community center. They let us do laundry in the sinks and take bucket showers out back, which was very much appreciated. They also had spare clothes to wear while ours were drying, so we all looked real fly too.

There’s also a restaurant in town, and most people decided to camp at the community center for the night, while I charged out for another 12 miles at around 4 pm, so that’s the last I’ve seen this far of Jordan and Chelsea, and the twins from New Mexico. We’ll likely cross paths again soon though, possibly in Idyllwild.

My decision to leave seemed like a terrible one about 5 hours later, and a brilliant one 24 hours later.

Warner Springs to Mike’s Place

I left Warner Springs around 4 pm, with the ambition of going another 12 miles. I wanted to make it to Idyllwild (Mile 182ish) by Saturday afternoon before the post office closed, so this meant doing 4 consecutive 20+ mile days. With a planned stop to cook some food, I knew this would mean hiking after dark, but the moon was nearly full, so it seemed sensible.

The trail rose up through some pretty lush canyons up into some hills/mountains (name unknown) about 2,000 feet above Warner Springs.

At some point once I got up in the mountains and the moon was up, the weather suddenly shifted and became windy and cloudy. And by “cloudy”, I mean that I was in a cloud, so I could only see about 5 meters in any direction, and I was on fairly exposed slopes (at least it felt that way at night, though there were waist high bushes most of the way. This in itself wasn’t a huge issue because I could still see the trail and I literally had shelter on my back if I needed to hunker down in a pinch. Knowing this, I kept walking, seeing no clear deterrent to hitting my mileage target, but I was in a very unsettled and jumpy mindframe. That’s when it occurred to me that mountain lions could live in these mountains, so I spent the next hour or two looking over my shoulder and jumping at any sound around me (mostly birds rustling in trees, I think). I was so relieved to finally arrive at a suitable tent site, and one that was pretty well protected from the elements.

I awoke the next morning planning to do another 20+ day, with a stop at Mike’s Place for breakfast. I walked about five miles along the north side of this unnamed range, through damp, windy whether, until I finally arrived at Mike’s Place.

Mike’s Place

Mike’s Place is apparently an institution of the PCT, and the weirdest of them, as far as I can tell. Some dude Mike (presumably) owns this property in this unnamed mountain range, which has a house, a garage, a trailer, and more junk in the garage and yard than you can imagine. Members of the Christian family will understand when I refer to the other houses in Camptonville. It’s also a common stop for hikers, who are allowed to stay, collect water, and consume Mike’s food, beer, sodas, and herbal products in exchange for donations which procure the consumables for the next set of hikers. So it’s 50% white trash country home, and 50% hiker stop.

Mike doesn’t live there, but he has a caretaker named Scott who is a bit of an oddball. I had heard that Scott sometimes makes pancakes in the mornings, so I arrived after a 5 mile hike hoping for a nice warm breakfast in the dreary weather.

As I arrived, the weather got more cold, wet, and windy, and there was no one there except a few other hikers out on the covered patio. I guess Scott had gone out to buy a new water filter or something. Then it started to get really cold, and we were locked out of the house, so four of us huddled up on the couch on the patio under a sleeping bag to wait out the weather. Eventually Scott returned and let us into the house by the fire, and then moved us into the garage with a space heater.

The rain and wind intensified (felt like 60 mph or 100 kph), to the point where hiking would be not just unpleasant but unsafe due to the risk of getting blown off the mountain. Our small group around the space heater grew to about a dozen, as the hikers who had stayed at Warner Springs the night prior started to arrive. And that’s when I came to not regret leaving Warner Springs earlier – the weather didn’t become awful until I had shelter, while others arrived with completely drenched clothes and gear.

The winds never did let up, so I stayed the night on the garage floor with several other hikers.

Mike’s Place to Paradise Valley Cafe

While it was frustrating to only hike five miles on Day 9, I’m pretty sure it was the right decision safety-wise to wait out the high winds. In order to stay close to the schedule I’d made myself, I set my targets for Day 10 on Paradise Valley Cafe, a diner 25 miles ahead on the trail. I was a bit worried about how much food I was carrying, so making it to a diner for dinner and then breakfast seemed like a good idea.

I was hiking by about 6:40, my earliest start yet. I was feeling a bit down to start the morning, since I was mad at myself for having such a short day the previous day, but once I started really getting going, I quickly switched into my competitive runner’s mindframe, and I was happy again.

The morning involved descending out of the mountains, and I was almost running the downhills. Aside for a brief stop to collect more water, I basically walked nonstop for about 6 hours and 16 miles before I took a lunch break.

I stopped and hung out for a bit over an hour with a couple other hikers who were also going from Mike’s Place to Paradise Valley Cafe, including an Irish dude named Barry who went two miles in the wrong direction coming out of Mike’s Place, which must of been infuriating.

Also randomly walking the other direction was Mac, the creator of Halfway Anywhere, one of the staple blogs of the hiking community. I knew he was hiking this year, but didn’t expect to see him going southbound at this point (he’s got a funky itinerary, where he’s doing about 70 miles southbound where I am now, then his dad is driving him to the border where he’s going northbound, but skipping the 70 miles he’s already done). Anyway, it was fun and random to meet him in person and talk about plans etc.

9 miles later, plus a 1 mile side trail, we arrived at Paradise Valley Cafe, a classic roadside diner, having walked a full marathon (25 trail miles, plus 1 mile side hike to the cafe, plus at least 0.2 miles from Mike’s to the trail). Everybody had massive burgers, beers and shakes, and Barry was loving how much it exactly like in the movies, complete with waitresses calling you “hon”, signed pictures of celebrities who had apparently stopped by (Bruce Springsteen was the only one I’d heard of), country music, American flags, and Vietnam veterans the exact nature of whose service was detailed on the baseball hats they all wore.

It being cold and windy again, the owner let hikers sleep on the floor of the cafe, so I’m currently on a bench outside the bathroom typing this up.

I’ve got another big day ahead, I think. I want to get close to Idyllwild today so that I can take most of a day off on Sunday, and also because it’s supposed to rain on Sunday and I’d like to avoid that. However, the campsites in the 20 mile vicinity are pretty exposed and pretty high up, and it’s supposed to be cold and windy again tonight, so I may have to do another 25 mile day to make it to a more sheltered valley. First, though, is breakfast in this diner.

Days 5-7

Start: somewhere in the northern Laguna Mountains, mile 62
End: Barrel Springs, mile 101
Stopover in Julian CA, with a hitch from mile 77
Highlights: finally got my money’s worth of desert sun; officially adopted a trail name; first hitching experience; delightful (though very touristy) trail town.
Lowlights: the desert sun actually sucks to hike in; soul wrenching descent out of the Laguna Mountains

Laguna Mountains to Scissors Crossing

After a somewhat restless night camping alone, I began hiking the 15 miles down into Scissors Crossing, a meeting of a few roads in between the Laguna Mountains and San Felipe Hills, where hikers often hitch a ride into nearby Julian.

The first few days of the trail had been at fairly high altitude and with cloudy whether, but 12 May was the day the desert heat returned, just as any semblance of shade disappeared from the trail as the elevation dropped below 3,000 feet. I finally had to break out my sunbrella, which ironically had gotten its first use the day before, but for rain.

The trail could have easily been 30% shorter, but for some reason, instead of going towards the road crossing, the trail insisted upon tracing the very bottom edge of the Laguna Mountains. Especially in the heat, it was pretty frustrating to be able to see the intended destination down and to the left, only for the trail to go up and to the right.

Some of the more desert-like scenery was cool, but overall it was a pretty tough day mentally.Around 3pm, I arrived at Scissors Crossing, I went into the dry riverbed beneath the road where a bunch of hikers who I didn’t know were congregated relaxing in the shade and drinking the water that was cached there. After hanging out with them for a bit, one of them suggested my trail name of American Pie. It being the second time someone suggested it, I figured I ought to adopt it. So forget Søren, I’m American Pie now. It feels really weird to introduce myself just as that, but them’s the rules.

Julian

A bit later on, another hiker and I hitched a ride into Julian, an old mining town which seems to be a major tourist attraction for the residents of San Diego County. For those of you from or very familiar with northern California, it reminded me a lot of Nevada City, but smaller.

Its tourist board evidently decided one day that its thing was going to be apple pies, because just about every third building was a pie shop. It’s also a very hiker-friendly town, and one of the pie shops gives out free slices tT hikers.

Genuinely delicious, and not just because I’m now a vagrant

I found the local hotel and optimistically booked a room for four, assuming that I would find other hikers with whom to split it, and I told the front desk to refer any such hikers to me. Lo and behold, Jordan and Chelsea, whom I stayed with in Laguna, turned up in town about an hour after me, and called the hotel to find that a Søren was looking for roommates. I split with them and these twin brothers from New Mexico, after spending the evening at the Julian Beer Co, the local brew pub and restaurant.

There I also discovered that Chelsea had acquired a gnarly blister on her heel.

Sorry, I was holding my phone upside down

At some point during the evening, one of the twins bet me that there had been grizzly attacks in Yosemite in our lifetime I.e. since 1990). Obviously I know this to be false, so I took him up on it. He’ll have to walk a mile barefoot once we get to Yosemite and ask the first ranger we see.

We took it easy the next morning and mostly hung around town and the Beer Co, while I waited for Chris, who was a day behind me. I wanted to surprise him with an iced tea (his thing) as a morale boost, so I watched him on his GPS tracker as he walked into Scissors Crossing and hitched into town. He was happy and surprised to see me, though I’m still at least one day ahead of him as he was planning to take a full day off the next day.

We hung out at the beer co for a bit, where he acquired his trail name MIND FREAK, for his ability to make pizza slices disappear, then watched Game of Thrones on the TV in his hotel room with a few other hikers, then I hitched out to Scissors and hiked about five miles by moonlight. It looked like a god awful ascent, so wanted to do it out of the sunlight, if possible. I slept under the stars sans tent (“cowboy camping”) for the first time at around mile 82, which was pretty beautiful.On Day 7, I got up early and was hiking by 7 am. It was another 9 miles to water and the weather was supposed to be hot, so I wanted to get to the water early. We’re in a pretty dry section of trail, so this water source was actually a bunch of jugs of water left by PCT Association volunteers at the end of a truck road. It was quite a natural place to congregate, so there were several hikers there.After chilling there for a couple hours, I set off for the last ten miles of the day, for the next water source. Along the way, I caught up with Jordan, and we crossed the 100 mile marker. He’s already done the whole Appalachian Trail, but making the first 100 miles was obviously a big accomplishment for me, and doing so within one week bodes well for the rest of the trail.We eventually arrived into Barrel Springs, a natural source at mile 101, with a bunch of trees around, which aren’t very characteristic of the area.We were greeted by more trail magic at barrel springs, marking my third receipt of trail magic, all by the same dude Bill. His son is hiking about a day behind us, so he seems to be driving up with his RV to approximately where his son is, and giving out stuff to passing hikers, which has been me three times. This time it was beer and salted foot baths.And that’s it for now. I’m planning to do 20 miles on each of the next four days until my next stop in Idyllwild, though there’s a store I’ll be passing today for resupply.

Days 3-4, 10-11 May

Start point: Kitchen Creek, mile 30

Night 1: Mt Laguna, mile 42

End point: Somewhere in the north Laguna Mountains, mile 62

Highlights: Camping alone, great desert views, new friends, awesome trail runners

Lowlights: (temporarily) separating from Chris, rainy weather

I don’t think I’ll quite manage to write daily posts, but I’ll try to do at least every other day. So here is one such post.

Kitchen Creek to Mt Laguna

Our goal for Friday was to get to Mt Laguna, a little mountain town, by lunchtime to chow down on mac and cheese, and then put in a few more miles after that in the afternoon.

Wiki very kindly stuck around and stretched while we slowly packed up our camps (we’ll get faster with practice). Once we got on the trail, we hiked faster, and so quickly lost Wiki. I feel kind of bad about that because they waited for us at camp, but on the other hand, it’s important to walk at a pace that’s comfortable for you, and we wanted to go faster. I haven’t seen them since then, so hopefully no hard feelings there.

We climbed gently for a few miles, and then more steeply. As we rose in elevation above 6,000 feet (c. 1,800 m), the surroundings became less and less desert-like, and really started to remind me of northern California, down in the Yuba River canyon (Sierra City, Downieville), with lots of deciduous trees and some pines.

In fairness, I knew this was coming, but still, wtf.

Surroundings early in Day 3
Wildflowers on a lush background
Basking lizards

We were making pretty good progress up the 12 mile ascent, but Chris’s calf started to bother him (moooo!) so he wanted to slow down. I took a 5-10 minute break to let him get ahead. As I charged up the hill behind him, a middle aged guy who was sat on the trail pointed at my guitar and asked me to play him something. He soon admitted that Chris (tricksy bastard) had told him to stall me, as I was hot on his tail. Preferring to play a bit of music and let Chris get a bit further ahead, I indulged the stalling and played Led Zeppelin’s Going to California, which I learned recently for a gig in London (he had requested Stairway to Heaven, which I don’t know, so I figured I’d at least do Zeppelin). The guy then found out I was an economist and used that as a launching point for an anti-socialist rant. 20 minutes later, I managed to put a cork in that and proceeded to chase Chris up the hill.

I caught him about half a mile before Laguna, and he was really struggling with his calf, and wanted to call it a day there. We went to the restaurant for some mac and cheese, where we were joined by Jordan and Chelsea, a hilarious southern couple who live in Johnson City, Tennessee, and Atlanta, respectively (disclaimer: I don’t actually know for a fact that they’re a couple, and I’ve traveled with platonic female friends several times and been victim to that assumption). Jordan is a veteran of the Appalachian Trail, and has subsequently gotten Chelsea into hiking.

Chelsea had tweaked her ankle, so we invited them to split a room with us at the Laguna Lodge (?). So we walked down the road, grabbed some beers and a pie, and rented out a little two-room cabin for the night. We hung out for the evening, drank some beers, ate a boysenberry apple pie, played some tunes on the guitar, did laundry in buckets, then went to bed.

A multi-use paper plate: two Cherokee place names that Northeast Tennesseans have had their way with, pronunciation-wise; lyrics to The Tractor Song, which our new friends were all about; pie stains

Chelsea and Chris
Using rope as a makeshift drying rack

Laguna to wherever the hell I am now

In the morning, Chris and I decided that we should separate, at least for the time being. His body clearly isn’t yet ready to be hiking 15 miles per day, every day, while I’d prefer to go more like 20 per day. No sense breaking him or frustrating me by trying to find a compromise in that. Chris is going to take it a bit easier for a little bit to let his calf recover and build up some of that endurance, and we’ll work on getting back together once he’s capable of doing 20 miles in a day. His attitude has remained very positive throughout his difficulties, so I’m quite confident that he’ll have a great time doing his own thing for a bit. He did I think 8 miles today, so he’s not completely immobilized or anything.

Leaving the cabin this morning. Though his legs may falter, that grin will never go away.

Mt Laguna was in a storm cloud today, which made for some interesting hiking. I finally got to rig up my sunbrella to my pack, but its first use was ironically for the rain.

Airing out the socks during a break

Also today was the PCT 50, a 50 mile ultra marathon going 25 miles out and back on yesterday’s and today’s stretch of the trail. It was a little annoying having to step off the trail constantly, but I gotta say, all the runners were so friendly that I really didn’t mind. About half said at least a sentence to me (keep in mind they’re in the middle of a race), and probably a quarter wished me well on my trek or told me to enjoy Canada. I took a picture of one runner Shane (?) and his friend Tyrell, and then asked if I could put it on my blog. We chatted for 30 seconds or so (hence how I know their names), and then on the way back (it’s an out-and-back race, remember), he asked me the name of my blog. I doubt he’ll have remembered it, as he still had 22 miles to run at that point, but if you ever read this, Shane, I hope your race finished strong, and props for representing the trail running community so well.

Shane and Tyrell emerging from the mist

Unnamed runner emerging from the woods

I also got two breakfast burritos from the turnaround point, which, as far as I can tell, were intended as a thank you to the hikers for tolerating the runners for the day. The trail runners love the PCT and its thru hikers, and thru hikers (this author, at least) love them back.

Thanks, San Diego Ultra Runners, same to you!

The clouds lifted in the afternoon, revealing the most epic scenery so far in the hike, and probably the best desert views I’ve ever seen, with a view several thousand feet straight down the escarpment to the Anza-Borrego Desert.

After snapping these pics, I put my head down and didn’t break stride for about an hour and a half, which felt super good. I eventually made it to a campsite (by which I mean an area where people have placed tents before, not an actual campground) about 20 miles down the track from where I started the day, marking my first 20 mile day of this hike. No one else was there (I weirdly only saw four other hikers today after I left Laguna), so I claimed it for my own.

My bedroom for tonight, and it’s all mine.

So here I am in my tent, alone on some desert plain. It’s some pretty great solitude, though I put on the rain fly because I saw some suspect clouds coming over the mountain, so no stars for me this time. I think this is also the first time I’ve camped totally alone, which is a little bit scary. There’s a light breeze which is fluttering my rain fly, and it’s easy to let the imagination fly to wondering who or what is on the other side of it. I should fall asleep fine, I think, but a slight lingering fear of the dark is simmering in me at the moment.

Tomorrow I go 15 miles into the little hiker town of Julian to top up my food. It’s Sunday, so I’m hoping to split a hotel room with a couple other hikers and watch this week’s Game of Thrones episode. For now, I sleep!

Day 2: Settling in

Day 2: 9 May 2019
Start point: Hauser Creek, Mile 15
End point: Kitchen Creek, Mile 30
Highlights: Getting to know a few fellow hikers, not rushing ourselves
Lowlights: I feel like we could have taken fewer long breaks

Hauser Creek to Lake Morena

We started the day at Hauser Creek, at the bottom of a fairly sizeable canyon. Ordinarily, most people push through Hauser on their first day, but this is a very wet year and there’s actually water in Hauser, so it was quite a crowded spot.We left camp around 7:30 and climbed out of the canyon. Around 10 or so, we arrived in Lake Morena, a San Diego County Park, with campsites, boating, etc. We stopped in for breakfast burritos at the local general store and hung out there for a while. There we met Wiki (trail name, derived from Wikipedia), a queer (they/them) materials scientist from Oregon, who hikes in flip flops.(And often with no socks)

Morena to Kitchen Creek

We more or less stuck with Wiki for the rest of the day. They did 800 miles of the PCT in 2016, and so had a lot of hiking wisdom to impart upon us which was hugely appreciated. They suggested the name “American Pie” as my trail name, because I’m recording that song every day, in order to stitch them all together. I like it as a name, but I feel like it’s a little too early to know what really fits, and I’ve only really chatted with a few people. I’ll mull it over for a few days and see if it feels right.Today marks a couple of milestones: our first trail magic, where some dude who just dropped off his son at the terminus was out giving fruit, and our first freeway (under)crossing, as we passed I-8.(I-8)Eventually we made it to Kitchen Creek, where we scrambled down from the trail to the creek for dinner and sleep. Unlike yesterday, which was crowded, our campsite was totally empty when we arrived, and by a very charming creek.(Kitchen Creek)Before too long a couple other guys arrived, finishing off their first day (a 30 mile push). These guys are insane (though independently so, as they only just met this morning) – one of them is 15 years old, aiming to do the trail in 80 days, and is carrying 4.5 pounds on his back, not including food and water. We hung out with Wiki and this kid Milo for a bit, sang some songs, then went to bed.We took a pretty leisurely pace throughout the day, so we actually went slightly less far than we did yesterday, and had quite a lot more time to do so. I found that to be a bit frustrating at times, but I think both Chris and I feel physically and mentally better today than as night, so I think it was wise to relax a big more.Tomorrow we push to Mt Laguna by lunchtime, where we can do a partial resupply and gobble up the local mac and cheese.To sleep now in order to wake up super early to make it to Mt Laguna by lunchtime. Thanks for reading!

Final PCT Prep!

[Warning: post contains shirtless pics of yours truly]

It’s late Sunday night in Davis, CA, and I’m pretty much all packed up to start driving down to the border tomorrow morning, to start hiking on Wednesday morning. A couple of logistical items aside, it’s all taking shape pretty well, and I’m really excited to finally be out there.

Also, this is the first blog post I’ve made on the phone using the WordPress app. I still have computer access, so I could easily type this out, but I figure I’d better get used to blogging on my phone as I’ll soon have no other option.

Update: I fell asleep before finishing this post. It’s now Tuesday morning in Santa Barbara CA, which is such a beautiful place that I’m tempted to ditch the whole PCT thing and bum around on the beach for five months instead. We had a beautiful drive down Big Sur yesterday, which is also a completely ridiculous place and totally worth the extra two hours of driving to take Hwy 1 instead of 101 (or even I-5, god forbid!). Today we drive to LA, where I’ll meet a London friend for lunch, then San Diego to meet several Davis friends for dinner, then off hiking tomorrow morning!

The gear

Over the last few months, I’ve been gradually filling out my gear list. I live in London, so I’ve pretty much ordered it all for delivery to my mom’s house in California. I therefore saw much of it for the first time last night.

With it all together now, I thought I’d share with you the contents.

All (most) of my gear

For the ease of going through it, I’ve split this into two pictures, both of which I now realize are basically on top of such a textured background as to be impossible to make out.

Starting top left, and working down and then to the right, I’ve got with me:

  • Osprey Exos 58L pack. Lightweight yet quite comfortable, weighing about 1kg empty. Only issue so far is that it doesn’t have hip belt pockets, so I may want to get a fanny pack (bum bag) for my phone and snacks.
  • Charger and permits. I still actually need to sort out my charging set-up on the way down.
  • A sun umbrella and hiking poles (hardly visible). Keeps me comfortable while I hike!
  • A knife. Lightweight yet deadly, like Arya Stark.
  • Solar panel and battery pack. At least in the desert, I’ll be charging my stuff as we go using solar power.
  • 50 ft of rope. Useful for lashing my guitar to my pack, hanging my food bag, and maybe other things.
  • A personal locator beacon, for sending for help and pinging my location.
  • A white Columbia Silver Ridge button up hiking shirt. It’ll get super dirty, but should provide good sun protection.
  • Small blue towel. May still ditch this, but potentially useful to wipe/dry things.
  • The Deuce of Spades titanium camping trowel (orange), for digging nature’s hygienic toilet.
  • Cooking gas (propane/butane), and a 750ml pot.
  • MSR Pocket Rocket 2 (hardly visible) camping stove (don’t forget to buy a lighter, Soren!)
  • A titanium spork. Always get multi-purpose gear.
  • 2 2L water bladders, which will be spare water capacity in addition to 2 c. 1L SmartWater bottles (not purchased yet).

And pt 2

Starting in the bottom left now and then jumping up:

  • A Sawyer Squeeze water filter. Screws on top of a water bottle, and you just squeeze the water straight into your mouth.
  • An assortment of hats for different contexts.
  • A buff/snood (navy blue). A great multi-purpose item.
  • Gaiters (dazzling tie dye pattern) for keeping sand out.
  • An outer shell (light blue)
  • A puffy down jacket (in blue stuff sack)
  • Long underwear, in case it gets cold
  • Ex Officio boxer briefs x2 (one for wearing, one for washing)
  • Rain pants (in black stuff sack)
  • Running shorts with liner removed
  • White running t-shirt decorated by some of my friends in London, probably for sleeping.
  • Socks x2
  • The red thing is the box for my stove, which I already mentioned.
  • Big Agnes Copper Spur Platinum 2-person tent. Comes in around 900g with everything included.
  • Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20F quilt (a quilt in this context is like a sleeping bag that doesn’t zip up and over your head.
  • Sit pad, for sitting on (obviously)
  • Thermarest neo air xlite sleeping pad. Weighs around 200 grams, but is only 3/4 the length of my body.
  • Sea to Summit inflatable camping pillow.
  • My Klos Carbon Fiber travel guitar, which weighs probably 1.2kg. It’s a pain to pack, but I think a good decision to bring along to keep me/others entertained, and to let me write music. Klaus (as I’ve just tentatively named it) will surely feature heavily in future posts.
  • A Sainsbury’s shopping bag to hold my food (not yet purchased).

Not pictured:

  • Shoes (Altra Lone Peak 4 trail runners, plus flip flops)
  • A headlamp (rechargeable usb headlamp from Black Diamond)
  • Toilet paper (which has to be packed in and out!)
  • Food
  • First aid kit
  • Toiletries
  • Charging cables.

Some people are real gram counters (e.g. will cut off the handle of their toothbrush to save weight). That’s not me, partially because I don’t know exactly what I can live without yet, and partially because I don’t have a scale not made for weighing humans.

Anyway, altogether this weighs about 20 lbs (9 kg). This also represents my “base weight”, which refers to all the non-consumable weight you carry (so excluding food, water, and, though I’ve got it here, stove gas).

The most absurd people get their base weight down to about 8 lbs (4 kg), but I’m honestly not sure how people can survive so minimalistically for so long.

Here’s the packed up look, though I’ve reformatted the guitar placement:

The hiker: Before

Hiking 20 miles a day and only eating what I can carry, I expect to be a shadow of the person I was before when all is done.

Here’s what I look like today:

And some body measurements:

Weight: 229 lbs (104 kg)

Bust: 43.5 inches

Belly button: 43 inches

Hips: 41.5 inches

Derierre: 44 inches

Calves: 16.5 inches

Wrists: 7.5 inches

We’ll see how the after numbers stack up. Until then, many miles ahead. Can’t wait to get started in the morning!

Søren

On the trail!

Day 1: 8 May 2019
Start point: US-Mexico border, mile 0
End point: Hauser Creek, mile 15
Highlights: Finally being out here; unseasonably cool, damp air well-suited to my current Londoner sensibilities.
Lowlights: Loaded down with too much food and water, and now my shoulder hurts.

Near the border

Our morning started relatively early, and we left my friend Lauren’s house in San Diego around 8:30. After a long hearty breakfast in El Cajon, we made it to the border monument a bit before noon. (Huge thanks to my sister Katya for driving us down and being really good company at that).We took some customary border photographs:(Chris and me)(Staring through the fence into Mexico.)(Staring at Canada in the distance)The first few miles were relatively flat and meandered around near the border. Got captured and tied up to the railroad tracks by one Snidely Whiplash, but was saved in the nick of time by my Dudley Doright.(Little progress, much left to do).(Impending doom)(My Dudley Doright!)The trail then turned north and began heading into the Laguna Mountains. The weather all day (and all week, I hear) was cool and foggy, making it feel more like a summer day in the western half of San Francisco than something which is called “desert”. That was a real boon, as I was worried about the harsh transition to both a strenuous lifestyle and baking heat. The latter will come before long, but hopefully I’ll be on board with the former by that point.Flora is a mix of some bushes, small cacti, some super rad ancient manzanitas, petrified forest.Fauna so far includes some funky looking bugs. Cold weather meant the rattlers were nowhere to be seen. I did get a bit of a fright coming around a corner to see a skunk baring its teeth at me. Fortunately it scurried off instead of ruining my day/week.(A beetle)(A retreating skunk)At the end of the day, we descended into Hauser Canyon, which has a little creek running through it. Chris wanted to go a little slower to ease the strain on his knees, so I scurried ahead to make camp and cook his food. I was feeling pretty good and wanted to see what a 3 mph pace feels like, so I basically power-walked the last 4.5 miles and let my body run short downhills. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have done that, as my left shoulder is pretty sore now from the repeated bouncing of a heavy backpack. Shouldn’t be a problem long term, as my pack will only get lighter, but I’ll need to be a bit more careful over the next few days.There’s a pretty good sized crowd here hanging out, including a dude Nate (?) with a mandolin, so I played with him a bit and chatted with some of the others. Judging from accents, of the maybe 10 people in our immediate campsite, there are probably 8 Americans, including 2 southerners, 1 Canadian (not including me), and one German-speaker. We’ll presumably cross paths again, but there are countless people still to meet, so who knows who will stick.For now (and “now” is now Thursday morning), it’s time to pack up and hit this climb out of Hauser. I’m told there are breakfast burritos at Lake Morena a few miles down the track, so we’ll probably hold off on eating until then. Today will probably be another short day (10-15) miles, but with all day to do it, so should let both of us recover from the stresses of day one.

5 Sections of the PCT, Part 2: Northern California, Oregon, and Washington

A few weeks ago, I did a little write-up of the first two “sections” of the PCT, what I expect to see, how long each is, what I’m excited nervous about, etc. In this post, I’m going to finish that up and talk about the final three sections of the hike: Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.

For reference, here’s that map I’ve put up a couple of times already.

Northern California

Starting Point: Sonora Pass (End of CA Section I)
End Point: CA-OR state line
Distance: 680 miles
Most excited about: (at least within 100 miles of Lake Tahoe) being in very familiar territory, being able to catch some friends for short stretches.
Most nervous about: The more northern part of the section, where I’m no longer close to home, and still have half the trail left to do.

The Norcal section of the trail starts in the Northern Sierra Nevada, and is defined at first by the gradual softening of the geography, as the rugged High Sierra gives way to lower canyons replete with roads and (some form of) civilization.

For most people, this section (as well as Oregon) is the least popular, and can be a bit of a letdown after the epic High Sierra and the really unique desert sections.

I know I won’t be in that camp, at least for the first couple hundred miles. The Northern Sierras are sort of home to me, having spent a whole lot of time growing up at the summer resort my extended family operates in Sierra County called Salmon Lake Lodge (in Section M above). Growing up in Davis (near Sacramento), it was also about a 2-hour drive to the Lake Tahoe region, so I’ve spent a lot of time around there with various family and friends. So I’m very excited to be in familiar territory at the halfway point of the hike.

It’s going to be really tough to leave Salmon Lake though, as that marks the last and most familiar spot for me in this section, and it’s not even the halfway point of the trail.

Not only will that mark the end of familiar ground to me, the hiking also gets more annoying: In the higher sections of the trail, the big climbs are to get over high mountain passes, and you’re rewarded with great views and a sense of accomplishment. In Northern California, the big climbs are quite often out of a low canyon, probably fully loaded from a resupply in the town that’s on the river, and you don’t get the same sense of accomplishment. There’s also a step down in the sense of isolation, with a lot more evidence of human habitation, logging, etc.

Still though, I think hiking the whole length of California is pretty neat, so the push to the Oregon state line will be exciting.

Oregon

Starting Point: CA-OR state line
End Point: OR-WA state line
Distance: 456 miles
Most excited about: Everclear is legal, representing the most booze you can get for the least weight.
Most nervous about: Generally the least popular section of the trail. It’s far enough in that I’m unlikely to be still giddy about hiking, but too far from the end for the finish line to be in view.

Oregon is a very lovely state, and in my experience, Oregonians are a fiercely proud people. However, the trail through Oregon is generally regarded to be a necessary and uninspiring obstacle on the way to the much more popular Washington. While Oregon is home to several major Cascade volcanoes (Mt Hood, Mt Jefferson, Three Sisters, Crater Lake), the trail generally goes around rather than up these features (except for Crater Lake, which is one of the world’s most beautiful places). Instead, the trail is mostly flat and wooded, so not a lot of great views. Surprisingly, there are also a few noteworthy dry stretches.

Crater Lake, Oregon: A beautiful place of some personal significance

Thus, with the uninspiring scenery, the flat terrain, and the fast-approaching Canadian winter, the name of the game is to rack up mileage. There are two distance challenges that hikers often partake in: the 10-day 300-mile challenge, and the two-week all-of-Oregon challenge (the latter is a bit more difficult).

Some upsides to Oregon, though: Everclear (95% grain alcohol) is legal, and it might just be weight-efficient enough to be the only time I’ll carry alcohol with me on the trail (obviously excepting champagne and/or whiskey for the finish).

Upside: Can also be used to sterilize or set fire to just about anything.

Also I’ve got some friends in Bend and Portland (including Meeza, the designer of my logo, whose wedding I’m missing to be on the trail), and it’ll be nice to briefly catch up with them.

Washington

Starting Point: OR-WA state line
End Point: US-Canada border (+9 miles into British Columbia to the nearest road)
Distance: 505 miles to official northern terminus, 514 miles to end of the hike.
Most excited about: Return to stunning, glaciated scenery.
Most nervous about: Beating the winter; returning to the real world 😦

The final section of the trail is the state of Washington, generally regarded to be the second best section of trail (after the high Sierras). Like Oregon, Washington is in the Cascade range, defined largely by volcanoes. The volcanoes are somewhat larger (like Mt Rainier, which is an awesome peak), and the terrain outside of the volcanoes is much more rugged, largely having been carved by glaciers in past ice ages.

Mt Rainier from Tacoma: The 21st most topographically-prominent mountain in the world.
More of the day-to-day in North Cascades National Park

Hopefully I’ll have made good time in Northern California and Oregon, because I’d love to take it a little slower in Washington and appreciate the final weeks on the trail. However, the first snows usually hit in early October, and in the interest in avoiding a Donner Party-type situation (unlikely to be effective, given how emaciated most of us will be), I’ll need to blast through it if I start the section later than early-mid September.

The official northern terminus of the PCT lies in a clearing of trees at the border with Canada. Like with any finish line (whether literal, like the end of a race, or metaphorical, like a graduation), I’m looking forward to celebrating, but am also nervous about returning to civilization. Post-hike depression is a real thing, and I’ve struggled with similar finish-line-type life changes before.

And that takes us to the end of the (preview of the) hike! Can’t wait to re-do all of this in real time as I hike it!

Potential future posts (in the two months remaining before I hit the trail): How I define success and failure (and coming to terms with the possibility of failure); Why the hell am I doing any of this?; What am I bringing with me on the trail?

The five sections of the PCT, part 1: Desert and Sierra

Minor housekeeping: Start date is now looking pretty set on Wednesday 8 May. If you’re in San Diego on the 7th, I’d love to grab a last meal with you.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the PCT runs the height of California, Oregon, and Washington. Living in Europe (the UK is and always will be part of Europe, no matter what anyone says), a lot of people I speak to think that California is just beautiful beaches and don’t really know anything about Oregon or Washington.

The reality of the PCT is very different: I’m fairly certain that the ocean is never visible from the trail (maybe on an exceptionally clear day with no smog you could see over the Los Angeles basin?), and you’re in some form of mountainous region for the vast majority of it, even when you’re in the desert. Anyway, I thought I’d describe the route of the PCT in a bit more detail, with a section on each of the five sections the trail is typically split into: the Desert, the Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. I’ve covered the first two below, and will talk about the other three in a subsequent post.

I’ve spent varying amounts of time in each of these places (mostly in Northern California), but my descriptions are largely based on stuff that I’ve read rather than firsthand experience, and none of the photos are my own (yet).

I’ve posted this map before, but it’s useful here, so keep it handy:


Section 1: The Desert (702 miles)

Beginning: Mile 0 – Campo (Mexican Border), CA Section A
End: Mile 702 – Kennedy Meadows, in CA Section G
Stokedest about: Finally being on the trail, interesting scenery that I don’t know so well, the occasional visit with SoCal friends.
Scaredest about: Heat, water, getting into the routine of just walking every day.

The first 700ish miles of the PCT are categorized as the desert. While the word “desert” conjures images of Wile E. Coyote and tumbleweeds drifting along a deserted highway, this section is actually quite mountainous, traversing most of the major Southern California mountain ranges (from the south: Laguna, San Jacinto, San Bernardino, San Gabriel, and Tehachapi mountains).

While the section is characterized by heat and dry stretches, especially in the lower portions, it also has some of the most dramatic changes in elevation, dropping up to 9,000 feet at a time into low passes occupied by major interstate freeways (8, 10, 15) and large scale wind farms. The biggest of these is from the top of Mt San Jacinto* at 10,600 feet down to San Gorgonio Pass at 1,200 feet (where I-10 connects Riverside/San Bernardino to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley), over just 25 trail miles.

*Technically the PCT doesn’t go to the top of San Jacinto, but it’s a very popular alternate route.

Apparently the inspiration for Mt Chiliad in GTA: San Andreas. Goodbye, knees.

Beyond just finally being out there, I’m excited to see something a little different. Most of the hiking I’ve done has been in pretty alpine, forested areas (or cold and damp UK), so the desert scenery should be a nice change.

Another big upside of this section, beyond being situated in a pretty novel ecosystem for me, is that it has by far the best access to civilization, with the outlying towns of the greater SoCal urban conglomeration never more than a few days apart, and with pretty reliable phone service. Later on in the trail, I think this would be a drawback, but I think I’ll appreciate having the logistical training wheels on at the beginning of the trail.

The section is also supposed to have quite a lot of exciting fauna, like rattlesnakes that think that trails are pretty well-designed for basking, and scorpions that think that shoes are pretty well-designed for sleeping.

Eyes on the ground, always. (p.c. The Hiking Tree Blog)

In the lower elevations, heat (90s F/30s C) and water are a concern, so I’ll try to avoid hiking in the middle of the day, opting instead for getting an early start, taking a siesta from 12-4, then hiking into the evening. In the worst sections (like crossing the floor of the Mojave desert), I may go completely nocturnal. I’ll also need to load up on up to 8 liters of water for the longest dry sections, which adds 8 kg (thanks, metric!) or 17.6 lbs (boo on you, imperial) to my backpack.

The section ends as it rises into the southern extremeties of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The traditional end is a place called Kennedy Meadows, a tiny little town with a general store where hikers tend to swap out their gear for more mountain-specific gear.

Section 2: The Sierra (317 miles)

Beginning: Mile 702 – Kennedy Meadows, in CA Section G
End: Mile 1,018.5 – Sonora Pass, end of CA Section I
Stokedest about: BEARS! Also, HUGE mountains, HUGE views, true wilderness, and plenty of water.
Scaredest about: Carrying lots of additional weight (more food, snow gear, bear cannister), stream crossings.

The second, and most popular, section of the trail is the Sierra Nevada mountains, known to PCT hikers as simply The Sierra. I have a slight quibble with the nomenclature, on the basis that the Sierra Nevada continue about another 200 trail miles to the north of Sonora Pass (which is well south of Lake Tahoe – unambiguously in the Sierras), but I understand that these 317 miles of trail have a lot in common in terms of the hiking, with high passes, snowy conditions, and a general sense of wilderness.

This is the highest and most rugged section of the trail. When non-Americans balk at the concept of mountains in California, I generally tell them two facts: (1) The 1960 Winter Olympics were hosted by Squaw Valley, CA (this is less impressive now, since apparently Beijing is worthy of hosting winter olympics); (2) the highest point in the contiguous (i.e. no Alaska or Hawai’i) United States is not in Colorado, but in California (granted, numbers 2-4 and 7-17 are in Colorado). Said peak, Mt Whitney, stands at 14,505 ft/ 4,421m above sea level, and is a short side hike off the main PCT.

The Sierra (Mt Whitney on the right) from the Owens Valley far below and to the east

And approximately the opposite view: The Owens Valley from the summit of Whitney

This section of trail is by far the most remote: the distance from Kennedy Meadows to the next reliable re-supply that doesn’t require a substantial detour is about 180 trail miles. Those that push through that stretch will go 9-10 days without crossing a road or even seeing a power line. Most hikers will instead take one of a few side trails down into the Owens Valley, and then have to hike back up into the Sierras. The former approach sounds pretty appealing, but I’ll make up my mind on that later.

This section of trail stays almost exclusively (maybe entirely?) above 10,000 feet, and crosses several high alpine passes, including the highest section of the official PCT at Forester Pass. The scenery is pretty grand up there (though I haven’t seen it with my own eyes). Here are some pictures I’ve scoured online, but looking forward to replicating (probably not the Ansel Adams one…).

Kearsarge Pass & Pinnacles
Mt Williamson. p.c. Ansel Adams
Evolution Valley

In terms of big tourist destinations, this section of the trail also overlaps with almost the entirety of the John Muir Trail, named after possibly the most important person behind the creation of the national parks system in the US, and passes through the Ansel Adams wilderness. It also crosses through three national parks: (from south) Seqouia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite (though avoiding the most famous valley portion of it).

Along with this beauty comes some definite hazards though: black bears (which are more of an adorable nuisance than a danger, and mean that you have to carry a heavy plastic bear cannister to protect your food), potentially snowy treacherous slopes (tackled with the aid of spikes and an ice axe, if necessary), and, most concerning in my opinion, stream crossings.

Due to the remote location of the trail and the severe winter conditions, there are almost no bridges across any of the myriad streams and rivers fed by the high mountain snow. Sometimes a log will conveniently straddle the creek, but in many cases, the only option is to ford the river. Those of you who have played Oregon Trail know that that’s not an ideal option, and this is especially true in June when snowmelt is at its peak and when many PCT hikers are passing through the section (the optimal time for hiking this section, if not bound by getting to Washington by October, is probably July or August, when the snowmelt has subsided). The most likely consequence of all of this (besides being cold and wet often) is that I’ll have to spend a lot of additional time looking for a slow section to swim, or waiting for a bigger group to cross with, or waiting for morning to cross (these streams will peak in the afternoon, as the sun melts snow more quickly). However, worse consequences do happen: two thru-hikers drowned in seperate stream-crossing accidents in 2017, which was an exceptionally high snow year. The snow (and creek) levels will almost certainly be a lot lower this year, but I’ll do well to remember the very real consequences of these hazards when considering whether its worth spending the additional time required to make a safe crossing.

This section ends at the next road north from Yosemite, Hwy 108, as it crosses Sonora Pass (approximately due east from Stockton, CA). At this point, I should be able to ditch my Sierra-specific gear (snow and bear-related).

Ok, I think that’s plenty of text for a single post. I’ll write up Northern California, Oregon, and Washington in another post.

A thank you, plus my planning thus far

Hi, I have some followers now (and have discovered how to make the first letter HUGE)! I don’t anticipating writing that frequently in the next four months, as I’m not quickly accumulating experiences worth writing about, but I’ll occasionally give you updates on the prep process.

I have a logo!

The keener observers will notice (assuming I’ve clicked “save” enough times in enough places) that my page now sports an awesome new logo, inspired by but not identical to the official PCT logo. In case you haven’t (or I’ve failed to properly upload it), it looks like this:

Is that a beard at the top, or an owl celebrating its victory in the ski jump (h00t!)?

This is a creation of my good friend Marisa in Portland, OR, and I can’t thank her enough for it (Thanks Meeeeza!). In return, I will spend the day of her wedding hiking through the sun-scorched Southern California desert, thinking of nothing but the pleasantly damp, cool air of hers and Derek’s event in Oregon.

Planning thus far

It’s a little presumptious to expect you to come all this way just to read about modifications to my nascent website, so I’ll add to that and describe a bit of what’s gone into to preparing for my PCT hike up to this point, and what I expect to need to do in the coming months. Of course, without having put this to the test, I really can’t yet say whether my level of preparation is over- or underkill.

Long-term life planning

I’ve been planning to do the hike for several years now, at least as early as summer 2013, when I remember articulating the concept to my cousin Caitlin. My plan at that point was to go to grad school (which was about to start), pay off loans, save up some money, accumulate gear, and then go. I’ve now done the first 3.75 of those 5 things, so I think I’m doing alright.

It’s definitely not necessary to plan 6 years in advance, but most employers don’t love the concept of you leaving for 5-6 months, so people often fit the hike around major structural breaks in their lives: graduation, retirement, quitting a job, a big move. I’d planned for it to fit around the latter two items of the above list, and did in fact put in my notice at work, but for a couple of reasons changed my mind and agreed to an unpaid leave of absence instead (it was a rollercoaster of emotions in my office that week).

Anyway, I’m grateful that I’ve got all of that big stuff more or less in line, and glad that the rest of my life is simple enough that I can put it on hold for half a year. I can’t imagine how people with children manage it (if they do even).

Getting gear and trying it out

Over the last year and a bit, I’ve slowly accumulated most of the gear I’m going to take out with me (another post on that, I’m sure). I went up Kilimanjaro with a few friends in September 2017 and used that as an excuse to invest in some nice warm hiking clothes.

However, I’ve mostly had stuff sent to my mother’s house in California (while I live in the UK), so I haven’t had much chance to hike with it. My first (and only) big test for my gear was last summer, when I hiked for three days along the PCT with my brother and four of my friends, from Donner Pass to Upper Salmon Lake, where my extended family owns and operates a lakeside summer resort. (Pics from that hike below).

We’d be lost without David. Also pictured, and with far more interesting names (from left): Bernat, Lauri, Etienne, me, Torsten.
Deer Lake, very near the end
Completing the hike with a jump in the lake.

That was a grueling trek (basically PCT pace of c. 20mi/32km/0.032Mm per day, but with no chance to ramp up to it), but it was a good opportunity to see whether I liked walking that far (I did, my feet didn’t), and also an excuse to get some trail-ready gear together. In advance of that, I bought me a new backpack (the Osprey Exos 58), a new tent (the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 Platinum), a new sleeping pad (Neoair X-lite short), and some cooking supplies (stove, gas, pot, spork) and decided I was happy with all of them, even if their names are impossible to say or remember. At that point, my gear was probably half complete, but I’m glad I was able to get at least that much in the bag (haha) so I no longer have to stress about it.

The process of buying the right gear is, of course, time consuming. Because you don’t bring a lot with you, and because you carry every single thing you do bring, it’s very important to maximize the ratio of function to weight. Fortunately, that means that there are a whole lot of reviews and recommendations out there from other long-distance hikers.

Christmas gifts this year were very PCT-focused, so I’m now probably 80% of the way there, but haven’t tried out any of the new stuff, so I may still need to make adjustments on the fly when I get out there.

Permits

I won’t spend too much time on this because it’s really not that exciting, but these days I’m sorting out permits. The big one is the PCT long-distance permit, which is technically not required, but basically gets you out of needing other permits in national parks and wilderness areas along the way. The catch is that the PCT Association (PCTA) only releases 50 per start day (to prevent hundreds of people starting on the most popular days), and due to the increasing popularity of the trail due to the book/film Wild!, it’s now pretty tough to get a start date in April, as is preferred. (I verifiably wanted to do the trail before the film came out in 2014, and maybe before the book came out in 2012, so Reese Witherspoon can go get mauled by a bear, and Cheryl Strayed maybe can too.)

Anyway, for that reason plus constraints on my leave of absence, we’re scheduled to start on the 11th of May. I’m hoping we can move that up 3-4 days, but in any case, we’ll want to carry a pretty good pace to catch up to the ideal window.

I also have to get a permit to enter Canada via the trail. That should be straightforward – just need to scan a couple of things and email it to them.

Various relevant skills

Two big ones here:

When thru-hiking the PCT, you’ll inevitably do some snow travel in the High Sierra, and maybe also in Northern Washington. As I won’t have my skis with me, I wanted to get some training on how to hike through snow. So my friend Marissa (not the logo one, and in any case, spelled differently) and I did a winter skills training course in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland last Easter weekend. I now know how to avoid avalanches, walk with crampons and an ice axe, kick and/or chop steps, and self arrest.

And the other thing I haven’t done yet. I’m probably going to do some sort of wilderness first aid training, as there’s a good chance that something will go wrong with somebody at some point, and it can’t hurt to be prepared.

Getting in shape!

I haven’t technically started doing this yet, and there’s a school of thought that says you should just try to pack on as much fat as you can to give you fuel later on, but I think I should strengthen my legs/cardio before I start so I can do longer distances earlier on. I’m planning to enter in a half marathon sometime in March/April, maybe in Wales. I’ve done full marathons before, but I think that verges on over-working your body so I don’t think that gives myself the best chance of completing the hike. Plus, training for a full marathon totally takes over your life of 3-4 months, and I don’t want to give up my life for that long.

After that, I might do a few days of walking into work (about 10km) with a pack on in order to strengthen my back/core. I think I’ll need to wait until it’s light that early, or else I’ll have no hope of actually doing it.

So what else do I have to do?

Not much, unless there’s something big I’m missing. I’ve got a bit more gear to buy, including a new phone; I need to sort out food for my first few days on the trail (including my first re-supply box); I need to do some visa/immigration stuff for the UK; I need to get travel insurance; I need to go to the doctor to make sure I’m not going to die on the trail. I think that’s about it, but I’m sure something else will jump out at me.

Anyway, hope you’ve enjoyed reading all of that. Any questions??