Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Looking ahead to the Pacific Crest Trail 2016

So, I've made the decision that I will hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016.  I'd love to do it in 2015, but I am in no shape to take it on, and have not done any prep yet, other than a bit of thinking and a few mappy things, so I feel I should be more prepared.  

There are three stages to doing the PCT...  

1.  Deciding you're going to do it.
2.  Really deciding you're going to do it.
3.  Doing it.

I've been in love with the idea of this walk since I read Chris Townsend's book about his walk on the Arizona Trail.  That is a shorter, but seemingly very tough walk (Arizona is modelled on Mordor in places) which got me thinking about long distance trails.  I then became aware of the PCT and the Continental Divide Trail; read some of the books written by thruhikers and finally got round to to Keith Fosket's book "The Last Englishman", and soon thought I'd like to be the next Englishman!

Recently, a film has been released dramatising the book "Wild:A Journey From Lost To Found" by Cheryl Strayed.  In her book she describes her experiences hiking the PCT or a good part of it, following some personal difficulties leading up to her adventure.  Its a decent read as a personal story, though not much in the way of a hiking manual (she makes nearly every mistake imaginable, but toughs it out nonetheless even if she consciously concludes the walk at the Oregon-Washington border).  Perhaps surprisingly, and to her credit, the author manages to come over as likeable despite setting up a rather unsympathetic account of herself and her behaviour.  In fact her candour about the adventure has earned her some negative reactions, which seem to be based on either exaggerated or ignorant conclusions about her.  The film stars Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, and has provoked good reviews - I haven't seen it yet as it is to be released in the UK in January 2015, but people are talking about Oscars so I'd like to see it and make up my mind.  One negative review described it as a feature length selfie, which I hope is off the mark, but we'll see.  When I first read the book I did feel it conveyed the feeling of "Look how wonderful I became when I rehabilitated myself", but subsequent comparison with other books reminded me that Strayed's writing manages to deliver sentiment without sentimentality which I think is important.

I confess I am worried the film might inspire a legion of fashion hikers thinking they can just get up and go - any exposure on TV or film for a sport or activity seems to create a brief flush of mad enthusiasm for it.  You only have to try to book a public tennis court during Wimbledon to know this, but walking 2650 miles is a more serious undertaking.  I visualise lots of clueless hikers setting off into the Mojave desert with one pint of water and running screaming at the first sight of a rattlesnake.  Maybe I am underestimating people's common sense, or overestimating the reach of the film, but I go walking for peace and a certain amount of solitude, so I wouldn't be delighted to see the trail become too busy. My hope is that it will have died down a bit by 2016, though numbers on the PCT grow year on year regardless.  When I reflect on the many thousands that walk in the lake district and how few people one sees on many fells, I can see an argument that the extra numbers will not be a problem.  On the other hand, there are some aspects of trail life which might be destroyed by a big surge in hikers - not least the fragile world of "trail magic" - favours offered by strangers for no reward.  Such generosity is to be deeply appreciated but never sought, and I wonder how fatiguing it could be for the kind souls who become known as "Trail Angels" to suddenly face thousands of demanding people.  I hope its a future I don't see realised.

On the matter of potential crowding, hiking guru Chris Townsend suggested to me leaving early or late, or even doing the North to South route.  He's right of course, but at this stage I don't know how much flexibility I have for the start time, with the well known issues of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and the Northern Cascades.  Basically, if you leave too early from Campo, at the Mexican border, you risk getting to the High Sierra while there is still lots of snow from the previous winter. This could slow you down significantly, or even make the walk impassable and force you to wait for weeks - which obviously defeats the point of starting early.  On the other hand, if you start late, the High Sierra might be clear, but melt water could be an issue in some creeks running off the Sierra, and you also risk encountering next Winter's snowfall further North in Washington state, which has the potential to curtail the hike completely.

The ideal would be to start late, and walk at such a pace as to get to Washington well before the snow starts to fall.  Plenty of people do that, but they hike at a hell of a pace.  At my currently level of fitness and endurance I doubt if I would average much above 18 miles per day, even if I will do some 30 mile days at times.   And you have to factor in the "zero days" which one must take in towns near the trail to resupply.  From what I read, this is as often as weekly for many hikers, but occasionally longer on some sections.  I'll have to make a detailed resupply plan, and work how many days that represents and go from there.  If I conclude I need to average over, say, 25 miles a day then I will have to train up to that for the early section.  After a month or so, I imagine I will be as fit as I'll ever be, but the first section of the trail is in the desert, which is bound to slow things down, and I'll be getting my trail legs too.  I read in a PCT blog recently that an important early lesson to learn is that you don't have to get from Campo to Lake Morena in one hop.  Its the first 20 miles and many set out determined to be there for the first night's camp.  If that works for you comfortably, then fine I guess, but the point was you really need to listen to your body and settle into the walk if you stand any chance of getting to Canada.  This makes good sense to me, and I do not see making my feet into burgers as a great way to start the trip.  I'm hoping I can prepare well enough that water and heat will be the big challenges rather than trouble with feet. I can only recall ever getting one blister in the past which I treated with a Compeed, so maybe I have the knack of getting footwear right.  The unkown I need to better understand  is that of distance versus the weight of water its necessary to carry.  For twenty miles, with a camp at the end of it, I can see how I would be starting out with 6 litres or more. In the desert it is now common to find caches of water left by "Trail Angels" - former PCT hikers who voluntarily provide various conveniences, luxuries, supplies and assistance on the trail, completely for free.  I feel its risky to depend on water caches unless you leave them yourself and hide them well enough to be sure they are still going to be there.  I think Chis Townsend may have cached a few places in his Arizona Trail hike, which is even more brutal on water use, but I'll have to check.  Anyhow, the point is, to be safe, you have to carry lots of water, which affects your speed and distance.  If we do see a big increase in hiker numbers in the next year or two, the pressure on water caches will be severe, and put the emphasis on starting early to be ahead of the pack.

The notion of hiking North to South needs more research as I hadn't seriously considered it, but my initial reaction is that its a completely different project to the South-North approach.  It makes dealing with Snow a different proposition as the late start from the North must begin when you can comfortably navigate whatever is left on the ground, and its likely you will get to, and past the High Sierra before the next snows, leaving the desert till last.  However, the desert section would be horribly dry by the end of the summer, making dependency on water sources a bit patchy.  I hear that many hikers of the Continental Divide Trail walk North to South, and encounter this issue, though that trail is a bit longer and perhaps it necessitates the North-South route.

I may do a week in the summer of 2015 in Arizona or Nevada to get a feel for this.  There are actually some good hiking routes near Las Vegas in the Mount Charlston area, which would be easily accessible and plenty hot enough, or I could even do a hundred miles or so of the Mojave from Campo to try it out.  If I find I am going really slow, its no risk to the eventual walk, and I can factor it in my plan.  I did a little walking in Canyonlands, Utah last year and it was pretty hot.  I drank a litre of water in about two hours, and could have drank more - perhaps should have, but to be fair I had no real walking gear with me, and we stayed within two or three miles of the visitor centre on well marked paths, so could have walked out even with no water at all.  The real deal will be very different, and not to be underestimated.  I'm no camel, but I do find it possible to tolerate lack of water for a while, yet even the hottest days here are nothing compared to the desert.  I've been to Death Valley three times, and experienced crushing heat, although the hottest I ever experienced was in Arizona when I visited a native American archaeological site a couple of years ago.  The heat was so intense, it felt as though the nearly silent desert was "buzzing" - like Tinnitus.  Its hard to explain, but other hikers I've mentioned it to have agreed on the illusion of being able to "hear" the heat.  

Lately, I have noticed some soreness in my right knee when walking more than seven or eight miles on the flat, but its never a problem on the hills, so I conclude its an issue of my weight constantly bearing down on the same point of the joint - it goes away after an hour or two.  I think weight loss will fix this more than anything else.  I have a plan to monitor this over the next six months or so, and lose weight accordingly.  I have some Wainwrights left to do - about 60 or so, and will be walking the English Coast to Coast path next Summer, so this will give me some indication of any problems I might need to consider.  Funnily enough, they say don't start the PCT too skinny.  Basically, its hard to carry enough food to make up for the energy you burn, and people lose a lot of weight walking the trail.  Good.

I will have to give up work to do this, for which I can budget, but I need to work up to this with my employer.  Who knows - they might keep my job open for me, but I am assuming not.

Also, I plan to try raising money for Mountain Rescue so I need a bit of a run-up to that if its going to be effective.  I want to split whatever I get between the England and Wales MR and the Scottish MR.  I haven't yet done any walking in Scotland, but I will one day, and I've seen enough of their terrain to know it is not to be taken lightly. I'll write more about Mountain Rescue in another post so I can direct potential sponsors to it in the future.


  1. Were you able to do any hiking in Arizona or Nevada this summer?

  2. Hi there - a bit late to reply, but I was just tidying up on the blog. Actually, no I didn't but that was because my plans accelerated and I ended up hiking the PCT in 2015, albeit I suffered a number of disasters that prevented me finishing, and I am due to return in May this year to have another attempt.