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A thru hiking veteran describes his 2013 PCT odyssey from Mexico to Canada
By Stephen Olshansky
Hi, you can call me Otter, that’s my trail name. Everyone gets one when they become a thru hiker, going for the really big distances. I have been a long distance hiker for over 40 years.
This season, the 2660-mile Pacific Crest Trail is my goal. It will take me anywhere from 90 to 180 days.
The perfect place to begin my epic journey was the official Pacific Crest Trail gathering the weekend of April 26th-28th. This is the start of the trail for most Northern bound hikers or “nobos” as they are called. The gathering is held at Lake Moreno County Park in Campo, California. Lake Moreno Park is located 20 Trail miles from the southern terminus of the PCT at the Mexican border.
Editor’s Note: This article was sent to us via cell phone from the trail.
Upon registering at the entrance one could not help but notice the colorful lightweight backpacking tents of every shape, concept and design. Hikers, volunteers, trail alumni and vendors from some of the ultralight companies were milling around talking about the adventures ahead. Word was, permit applications were up quite a bit from years past, and the question at hand was “Why?” Was it the popular PCT thru hiking book, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild? This entertaining read was a New York Times bestseller, and the author also appeared on Oprah, so it’s safe to assert some influence.
While there is no doubt that notoriety from Wild will increase the popularity of the PCT over time, I would say the main reason for the increase in permits this year is the changes in the permitting process (permits are granted to individuals now, not groups) and the lack of early season snow on the trail. A lean snow year makes a huge difference for hikers, as abundant snow on the trail increases the difficulties exponentially.
This year, the people attempting the PCT were diverse: old (up to age 70!), young (teens), male, female, fit, fat, experienced, newbies, and long time legends like “Billy Goat” who has hiked the trail more then a dozen times. Many more women take to the trail nowadays than years ago, and older couples as well. There were big packs and small, light and heavy, and every size in between. Several musical instruments were carried, small guitars and a ukulele. Many lightweight equipment manufacturers had booths set up to display their wares, including Hyperlight, ULA, Gossamer gear, Six Moon Designs, Dirty Girl gaiters and more.
There was also a “shakedown” booth where inexperienced hikers could have the gear that they intended to carry examined by an alumnus, who would tell them what to leave behind, or replace, if it were too heavy. Big packs weighing more than 3.5 lbs, and heavy tents and sleeping bags are the most likely to be changed out. You can tell pretty much by a newbie’s pack how they would fare: a big pack with stuff hanging all over the outside was not a good sign. On the other hand, a small streamlined pack with nothing hanging off usually indicates the person has some concept of what they are doing.
It was a grand weekend but, in the end, the hikers have to hike, and the first day is a big test.
Since our camp wasn’t right on the Mexican border, trail angels (people who volunteer to support the hikers) give rides first thing in the morning to the starting point at the actual borderline. It’s twenty trail miles to get back to Lake Moreno, and it’s extremely hot, hilly, and mostly dry. The prudent hiker would break it up into two days, but few do. Most opt for trying to do the full twenty miles back to the park, and it is tough. At the 15-mile mark there is a good climb out of Hauser canyon and this point is reached right in the heat of the day. The trail was littered with people lying in the limited shade trying to cool down.
When I arrived back at Lake Moreno the hikers who made it ahead of me applauded as I walked in, a nice tradition. A great percentage of hikers developed foot problems of some kind. The heat, sweat, and lack of callouses created an epidemic of blisters.
Twenty miles down, only 2640 to go.
The first 702 miles of the PCT in California is desert. Water — where to find it, and how far it is to the next source — is the primary concern. A lot of leg and foot problems also characterize this section for many hikers. Luckily, there were over 50 water caches positioned at key dry points along the way by trail angels to make it easier and safer for the hikers.
The next section of the PCT begins with the High Sierra. Words and postcards cannot express the power of this place, and thru hikers get to soak it in for weeks and weeks at a time. The blue sky, evergreen trees, and alpine setting create an unforgettable experience. The area north up through Yosemite is so exquisite that we are reminded of the huge debt of gratitude we all owe to John Muir, that wandering man with the stick and the white beard who testified before congress in order to save this area for future generations.
Hiking on granite presents problems. New muscles and tendons are activated and hikers report lots of leg, knee and foot problems. The huge climbs and descents are compounded by the extra weight of the mandatory 2.25lb bear canister.
Mosquitoes started appearing a couple of days before Mammoth, and they kept getting worse as the trail headed north. Veteran thru hikers know that mosquitoes present a major challenge in this section of the PCT, and one better have a plan to cope. My plan was bite-proof clothing, a bug net for my head, and a body net to sleep in. Any bare skin is targeted mercilessly. Besides clothing, insect repellent is another defense, but I don’t like chemicals all over my body.
The middle PCT continues through the Carson/Toyiabe wilderness, which is spectacular. Vistas, soft trail, abundant wildflowers, and lots of flowing water are the highlights. Then the trail swings thru Lassen Volcanic Park with it’s boiling mudpits, and over Hat Creek Rim. Heading west, the trail crosses Interstate Five, and this section from Castella thru Ashland Oregon should not be underestimated. The Marble, Russian, and Trinity wilderness areas are rugged, steep, and remote. Climbs exceeding the standard PCT 12% grade are common and it all starts with a thirty-mile climb from I-5. Don’t expect to make up any time here.
Crossing the Oregon border brings easier terrain. Due to the relatively mellow grade, most hikers increase their daily average by two to five miles per day while in Oregon. In fact, there is more flat ground in the first hundred miles of Oregon then in all 1702 miles of the PCT through California!
The Cascade Range in Oregon is a volcanic landscape, with a gentle rise that is fairly constant. The only sharp elevation change in Oregon is the final descent into the Columbia River Gorge, which amounts to a loss of over 3000 feet.
After the trail crosses Crater Lake National Park, the main attraction for this stretch is glacier-robed Mount Hood (elev. 11,239 feet), Oregon’s largest and most active volcano. Heavy precipitation in this section produces dense, shady forests dominated by Douglas, Silver and Noble fir at lower elevations, and Subalpine fir higher up.
The state of Washington is the final section for nobos, and the great majority of hikers have one thing on their mind — finishing their epic adventure before the snow starts to fall. Being caught unprepared by the season’s first snowstorm can be deadly.
The Washington section of the PCT begins with a lengthy climb out of the Columbia River Gorge and skirts many lakes then continues around the base of gigantic Mount Adams and then 14,410 feet Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the state.
Farther North, the challenges increase. As it says on the official PCT website (www.PCTA.org): “The North Cascades offer many challenges. Not only is the North Cascades Range rugged, it is the wettest along the route, lying in a storm track most of the year. This precipitation has produced about 750 perennial snowfields and small glaciers, which collectively account for about half the snowfield area in the lower 48 states.”
The highest pass for PCT hikers in Washington comes at the very end. Eight miles before the Canada border is Lakeview Ridge, with an elevation of 7126 feet. Spectacular fall colors greet the thru hiker who celebrates a remarkable feat that few can claim: hiking the full distance from Mexico to Canada.
As of the submission of this article I still have 260 miles to go in the beautiful Northern Cascades. With a little good fortune I will make it soon. Over the years, PCT hikers have told me that completing the PCT forever changed the course of their lives, and that the experience taught them there was nothing they couldn’t do. As I reach the end of my epic journey I am humbled to say that I feel exactly the same way.
Life is a hike!
Editor’s Note: The last we heard from Otter was September 13th. He said he was having phone issues but he was within days of the Canada border. He also said he was thinking seriously of doing a yo-yo, i.e., turning around and hiking all the way back to Mexico. This has rarely been attempted, and for good reason. The PCT is incredibly arduous and dangerous in winter conditions. Otter we hope you are safe!
UPDATE! We heard from Otter via email a few days ago. He is home safe and sound. Click here to reach his final unedited journal entries.