Adventures In The West - Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike
By Vic Hanson
How do you put a five-month hike into a trip report of a few pages? Most of my daily journal entries are about a page each. That is the main reason it has taken me so long to get around to writing this - it seemed like an overwhelming task. So I will mostly hit a few highlights and share some thoughts and feelings.
Why would anyone want to spend five months walking from Mexico to Canada? Most thru-hikers get asked that question over and over. It's like asking a mountain climber, why do you climb mountains. For me it started when I was active in the singles group of my church in Manhattan Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles. Jason, one of the class members, started leading monthly hikes for the group, usually in the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Los Angeles. I was already mountain biking, roller blading, and rock climbing; and enjoyed the mountains and the other group activities, so became a regular on the hikes as well. This was the start of my love of hiking. Jason also organized a few camping trips and backpacking trips, including to the Grand Canyon. I had been brought up camping but had never done any backpacking before. One trip and I was hooked on that too.
On many of the hikes in the Angeles National Forest, we would see signs for, and hike on part of the Pacific Crest Trail. When I found out that it went from Mexico to Canada I thought that would be something fun to do someday. In the years that followed, I joined an adventure racing club and the outdoor activities progressed to longer, harder and more frequent. In the summer of 2002 I went to Peru on a two-week hiking mission trip. That turned into a three-year stint the following year. In 2005, knowing that my term would be up in January of 2006, I started making plans to thru-hike the PCT. The timing all came together, no job, no mortgage or other expenses, and some money in the bank from selling my house when I went to Peru.
I started my hike on April 28 at the Mexican border. I was trying to finish in four months and I had already purchased my return ticket to Peru based on that schedule. The first week went well, and then I started getting blisters. I was also hiker faster than most of the others so I was passing a lot of people but not spending much time with them, and wasn't making any friendships with other hikers. After two weeks I had to take a few days off to let the blisters heal. I also realized that I needed to slow down and spend time with other hikers if I wanted to make friendships, which was one of my goals for the hike. After leaving Big Bear, CA, I did slow down and started hiking with four other people. Two of them were section hiking and one had to stop due to injury, but I hiked with go-Big, the other one, most of the way to the Oregon border.
The desert areas of Southern California were hard; I told myself then that I never wanted to hike them again. We had to constantly be aware of where our next water source would be, and many times carried three to four liters of water. And yet they had their own beauty, they didn't last forever, and they provided bonding experiences. They were also broken up with the snowy mountains and beautiful trees. The town stops were frequent and gave us time to relax with other hikers as well.
Just after we started the High Sierra, we met Swiss Miss and Pang. I hiked together with them the rest of the way to Canada. Along the way, I spend varying amounts of time with other hikers as well. A group of 12 of us left Yosemite together - The Dirty Dozen! Half of us were from the U.S. and half were from other countries, so it became a very international experience. Each of us had strengths and weakness, and we learned to work together as a team, and to help and depend on each other. My greatest fear before starting the hike was crossing the rapid flowing, icy cold rivers. They turned out to not be as terrible as I had expected. We had a few close calls and some struggles, but the teamwork was amazing and we did it together.
We entered the Sierra Nevada on June 11, in a very heavy snow year, so we spent about a month hiking through snow, sometimes only getting down below snow level in the evening to camp. I had very little experience hiking in deep snow, and no experience navigating when the trail was covered with snow most of the day. Mostly we did it with map and compass but we did use a GPS some to pinpoint the trail location, and to confirm which was the right pass a few times. I had crampons at the beginning of the Sierras but soon lost them off the back of my pack before I ever used them. One thing we didn't have to worry about was water. We got spoiled by only having to carry a liter or two of water. We often drank directly from springs and the snow melt streams, without bothering to treat the water.
We carried ice axes but after the first couple of passes, they were used mostly for digging cat holes. The sun cups were one of the biggest problems, along with post holing in the soft snow in the afternoons. Almost everyone used trail running shoes, except the Europeans who wore mountaineering boots. We had wet feet the whole way through the Sierras from the snow and river crossings, and much of Washington from the rain and new snow, but surprisingly it wasn't much of a problem. We did get tired of the snow and needing to be constantly on the search for the trail. I would like to go back and hike the John Muir Trail (most of which is the same as the PCT) in the fall, when you can actually walk on the trail.
You realize how long California is when you hike the whole way, it took three months and one week to reach Oregon, but I never got tired of the continually changing and always beautiful scenery. From Mt. Shasta on we had numerous forest fires, causing hazy skies, beautiful sunsets, and closed trails and detours. For the last month we weren't sure we would be able to finish the trail at Manning Park. We did have to skip a section in Oregon due to fires, but the final section before the Canadian border reopened just before we got there. Unlike some just ahead of us, we were able to finish at the official terminating point, and get our pictures at the border monument. That is the thru-hiker's "summit" moment, similar to when a mountaineer reaches the top of the mountain.
Oregon was only three weeks and Washington took four weeks, and then it was all over, except for the very emotional goodbyes. Unlike the mountaineer, who still has to get down the mountain after the summit, the hike ended on an emotional high, with nowhere to go, no descend time to unwind. We spent a couple of days there, not wanting to say goodbye and go home. It's hard to describe the feeling of watching the mountain peak landmarks pass below on the flight back to L.A, five months going by in fast reverse in a couple of hours! And then came trying to go back to a "normal" life, when our main concerns for so long were just walking, eating and sleeping. Now we were home, at least our bodies were, but our minds keep wandering back to the trail.
Many people have commented on it as being "The trip of a lifetime". I understand what they mean but I have a problem with that. There is a common disease that affects many long distance thru-hikers. I have the disease and there is no cure. It is only alleviated to some degree by going on another long hike. When and where I don't know, but I'm sure it will happen. It's been 11 months since I finished the hike and I can still spend hours looking through some of the thousands of photos, or watching someone's slide show, and every time I do, I wish I could grab my backpack and head back to the trail. Just writing this and thinking about it causes me to get emotional and longing for the "simple" life on the trail. Of course like most difficult, but rewarding experiences, it's easy to forget the hard times and only remember the good.
From the Mexican border to Manning Park, British Columbia, Canada, took 151 days. It was an experience I will never forget. God showed me His faithfulness and provision every step of the way. The friendships made on the hike are very special, the shared experiences of the joys, hardships and dangers of the trail made for deep and lasting bonds. I could not have completed the hike without the help of many of those I spent a lot of time hiking with. Others added a rich dimension to the experience and made it a delight, even through the difficult times. I give thanks to God first, and then to each one that He provided to make the hike such a wonderful experience.
If you would like to see a photo album of the hike, there is one available at Summit Post, please click on the following link:
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
If you are interested in your own adventure in Peru, check us out!
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