As the bone-rattling dirt road came to an end, the van suddenly stopped. In front of us were five posts driven into the ground at differing heights marking the trailhead. Within minutes, we had all jumped out, geared up and taken a large group photo. This was the class of 2015. While we were all beginning at the same time, it was very likely we would never meet again, as we all hiked at differing paces. Each day for about a month in late April and leading into early May, hikers go through the same ritual before setting off on a journey of a lifetime.
The first thing I noticed when we started to walk was just how hot it was. We had arrived early. It couldn't have been later than 9 am and yet it felt as if the midday sun was already beating down on us. We quickly learned that sun and water would dictate much of how we would structure our lives when traveling by foot in the desert.
The key to achieving long distances with little access to water was to rise early before the heat of the sun had a chance to warm the desert. Waking at 4:30 am became a part of our daily routine, allowing us to hike late into the morning under relatively cool conditions. Towards noon and for the first few hours in the afternoon, the intensity of the sun made it next to impossible to continue hiking with such a limited supply of water. As the shadows began to grow longer again, we would pick up our trekking poles and continue to hike until darkness began to close in.
In 2015, California was still in the grips of one of the worst droughts of the last century. Water sources that could usually be relied upon had long since evaporated, leaving lifeless, dry and mud cracked riverbeds. With the advent of smartphones, hikers have developed a simple way to crowdsource information about upcoming water sources in the form of a shared Google spreadsheet. Hikers who arrive at a source (some of which can be upward of 20-30 miles in distance from one another) update the spreadsheet with current conditions. This allows one to have a rough estimate of the reliability, volume and purity of upcoming water sources. With such scarcity of water, your tolerance for purity shifts after weeks in the desert. We ended up filling and filtering water from a few unpalatable sources, such as cow troughs and holes dug in the mud to expose underlying water. Thankfully, because we carefully filtered our water, we were able to avoid any potential waterborne illnesses that could occur through drinking untreated water.
As we began our journey over those first few days and weeks, I was amazed to discover just how varied the landscapes, flora and fauna were. When we had flown over the desert at 30,000ft, the landscape had looked barren, monotonous and impenetrable, however, with two feet firmly planted on the ground, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The desert was a land of stark contrasts. We climbed high into the clouds and walked through forests of ponderosa pines, incense cedar and giant sequoia trees. We hiked all night to traverse a flat and sandy basin, wandering through the eerie silhouettes of joshua trees illuminated by the moon and stars. Quite the opposite of my expectations, each day was wholly unique and memorable, as the trail wound through a constantly changing landscape.
We were lucky to have met a number of unusually kind people living unconventional lives in the desert. People like Monty Tam, whom we first encountered barbequing hotdogs for passing hikers beneath an underpass. It had been one of the hottest days and my shoes were killing me as we trudged across a field devoid of shade. Ahead we saw an underpass, which we knew would be a short respite from the sun. We had spent much of the morning descending into the valley and it was hard to imagine that we had been in Canada only two weeks ago living such a completely different life.
I yelled up to Sam ahead, "I hate these shoes. We have to break so I can wrap these blisters." It had been a particularly difficult day on the trail. The shoes I had purchased at home were just not the right fit for my wide feet. Each step was agony. When we rounded the corner of the underpass, I was greeted by a dozen hikers with whom we had been traveling alongside and getting to know over the past few days. Monty called out to us, two hot dogs already in hand, "Would you like ketchup and mustard?" I couldn't believe it. After days of eating unappetizing trail food, we came across this kind soul offering to help us at no cost and for no personal gain.
A veteran hiker himself, Monty had spent the last number of years giving back to the community. I'll never forget the small lesson he gave us about saving weight when packing for a trip. He talked about some of the many ways you can shave off a few grams from your 'base-weight,' or in other words, the total weight of your gear minus any consumables. He seemed to have mastered the art of packing light, so I found it strange when he talked about carrying two spoons. When I asked him about it, he responded: "Have you ever tried to eat a meal out of a hot pot with no spoon?" To this day, it makes me smile to think of Monty in the wilderness on that fateful day when he lost his only spoon.
Less than 100 miles down the trail, we ran into our own misfortune while encamped on the North face of Mt. San Jacinto. Rising 10,834 ft from the desert floor, the trail from the peak to the base of the mountain descends a knee-breaking 9,000 ft. We were about a third of the way down when the wind and rain began. Our hopes of reaching the bottom before the storm reached us were dashed, as violent gusts threatened to push us off the trail. Luckily we found a small patch of relatively flat land where it looked safe to pitch our tent. We set to work quickly, in the driving winds and rain, attempting to secure the tent to the ground. After several minutes of frustratingly slow progress, we managed to pitch the tent well enough for Sam to crawl in and get our gear out of the torrential rain.
I continued to shore up the guy-lines and tent pegs, using rocks to reinforce the holds against the pummeling winds. By the time I climbed in, I was soaked to the bone but satisfied with the pitch. We spent the next two hours supporting the free-standing tent with our arms, as each gust came in harder than the last. The sun had long since set, and outside the tent we could hear water flooding down the mountain slope. Luckily we had selected a site where the water would, for the most part, drain around the tent.
As the night progressed, the wind direction shifted and we were now feeling the full force of the gales barreling down the mountainside. "I don't know how much more of this the tent can take!", I yelled to Sam as I braced the side from another burst. Suddenly, we heard an awful tearing sound as we felt the tent rip through. It was now held to the ground now by just three points. The seriousness of the situation quickly dawned on us, as our gear was getting soaked and our shelter was no longer usable. Since the storm had begun, the temperature had plummeted and the rain was freezing cold against our soaked skin.
It's often thought that the greatest risk for hypothermia exists in very cold and snowy conditions. In fact, hypothermia is perhaps even more likely to set in during cold and wet conditions, where the temperature hovers just above the freezing point. As the weather continued to get worse, and our body temperatures began to drop, we knew we had to act quickly. With no place to find shelter nearby, we would have to gather our things and descend the narrow and treacherous trail by the light from our headlamps.
We had a mobile signal, so we made a panicked late-night call home to let our families know where we were and our intended route, just in case anything should happen. We spent the rest of the night scrambling down flooded switchbacks until we finally reached the bottom of the mountain at dawn. As the morning sun climbed in the reddened sky, the top half of the mountain appeared through the clouds, buried in a deep blanket of fresh snow. Utterly exhausted, and left holding a destroyed tent, we had no choice but to hitchhike to a place where we could purchase a new one.
Rita was another kind soul we met in the desert. Our paths crossed about 70 miles north of Tehachapi where the PCT crosses Hwy 178. We saw an elderly lady, standing beside a white pickup truck. We didn't pay much attention at first, thinking she was perhaps waiting to pick up a friend hiking one of the nearby trails. As we drew nearer, she called out in a thick German accent, "Hello, would you like at a hot meal, shower and a bed to sleep on for the night?"
As a thru-hiker, you get surprisingly used to waiting with your thumb in the air for a hitch into town. Towns are often 15 to 30 miles from the trail, so without a car and no public transit, hitchhiking becomes your only real option. There is always an inherent risk in accepting a ride from a stranger, however Sam and I had a hidden signal to alert one another quietly if we ever felt something was wrong. We also attempted to travel in groups whenever possible to further limit our risk.
As we chatted with Rita, we learned that she had opened her home every year to thru-hikers on their way to Canada, so we felt assured that all would be well. When we walked around to the rear of the covered pickup, we saw it was already almost full of hikers. Each person was eager to shower off the patina of dust and dirt that had accumulated from miles of hiking. We climbed into the bed of the pickup and squeezed between bags and hikers covered in the red dust carried by the wind. Following a bumpy ride down a dirt road, we arrived at Rita's a short while later. During our brief overnight stay with Rita, we couldn't get over the hospitality and kindness she had shown us. We showered, washed and hung our laundry in the evening sun to dry, and eventually sat down for dinner with the other hikers, sharing stories of the people we had met and the challenges and delights we had experienced so far.
After a restful sleep, we awoke to the quiet sounds of Jason ('Thin Mint') strumming a tune in the early morning air. It was hard to believe that Rita, a stranger we had met just hours before, had shown us all such kindness and had asked for nothing in return. The group pooled together a small donation to help cover the costs of hosting us all for the night. We shared a hearty breakfast and hugged Rita goodbye before climbing into the truck with her to head back to the trail.
When we walked the final few miles into Kennedy Meadows, officially marking the end of the desert section, we knew that we had really accomplished something. By many accounts, the desert was a proving ground on the PCT. According to the statistics, those who walked the 700 miles to Kennedy Meadows were far more likely to complete the entire trail. Tired and feeling accomplished, we were reunited with many of our friends as we arrived at the point that marked the completion of the desert and the beginning of the High Sierras. As each hiker walked up to the old wooden building and giant patio, they were greeted by the applause of dozens of other hikers who had also completed the journey. We looked forward to a well deserved day off, with a bucket of beers sitting in the shade of the patio.
With just under 400 miles of trail through the pristine alpine wilderness, the Sierra Nevada mountain range remains a highlight for most who hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The route alternates between expansive meadows with conifer forests and alpine lakes, to high rocky passes, exposed and well above the tree line. In stark contrast to the desert, the High Sierras is a place brimming with crystal clear water. This water is fed along thousands of tributaries and rivers, irrigating the lush and verdant meadows below the towering granite mountains.
It had already been a few days since we had left Kennedy Meadows and I was excited to see the dramatic changes to the landscape as we climbed towards the highest point on the PCT (Forester Pass at 13,153 ft). But before we reached that point (like many other hikers), we diverted from the trail to Climb the venerable Mount Whitney, reaching a height of 14,505 ft. This is recognized as the highest summit in the contiguous United States. Just a few miles east of the trail, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to give it a shot. To make the climb a little easier, we decided to leave most of our gear at a base camp we had set up near the PCT.
The day we had chosen for the climb could not have been any better, with clear skies and a cool breeze. We followed a footpath past a series of alpine lakes stepped one above the other until we reached Guitar Lake, aptly named for its striking resemblance to the shape of a guitar. From this point, the trail continued at a much steeper grade, as we followed switchbacks cut into the cliffs on the mountain face. The unobstructed views were both dizzying and stunning, as much of the Sierra Nevada range stretched before us. Not a place well suited to those with a fear of heights, the ledges cut into the nearly vertical cliff face required extra concentration, as we began to feel the shortness of breath from altitude.
As we approached the summit, the trail devolved into scrambling over giant boulders marked by cairns. Finally reaching the top, both exhausted and out of breath, we were greeted with a spectacular view. We had ascended on the western side and had been unable to see anything towards the east. As we approached the series of cliffs on the eastern side of the peak, we looked over to see the dramatic drop of just over 10,000ft towards the desert floor.
The High Sierras are a place to experience true wilderness, as large sections of the trail are devoid of roads or any other human intervention. Many of the glacial fed rivers have no bridges and require travelers to wade across where it is shallow and safe enough to do so. To compound the difficulty in planning, in the Sierras all hikers are required by law to carry all of their food within a certified bear-proof container. The container is rigid, unyielding and in practice much smaller than the food bags we had been utilizing before. I can still remember attempting to cram enough food into the small containers the night before departing from the town of Independence.
We knew we would be light on food, especially on the last day or so into Mammoth Lakes, but we departed ready to tackle the challenge regardless. Unfortunately in our calculations, we had greatly underestimated the impact that the massive elevation changes between mountain passes would have on our diets. The amount of food that had sustained us up until this point proved woefully inadequate over the ten-day stretch. As our food supply dwindled, our bodies began to lose weight at an alarming rate. Sam's ribs were clearly visible through her shirt and I felt the effects of malnourishment through a series of increasingly intense headaches and stomach cramps. By the time we reached the final pass, we were both feeling quite ill and unsteady in our footing.
On our journey through the Sierras, we were lucky enough to encounter a great deal of wildlife, including a number of black bears (we even had one visit us while in our tent)! While certainly challenging, the few weeks we spent there were some of the most rewarding on the trail.