While celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, Jeffrey Winchester, 46, of Pollock Pines, will likely look back on the trip of a lifetime. He spent four months thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and he beat the odds, completing his trek at the northern terminus Sept. 30. A record number of hikers applied to tackle the PCT in 2011 but only a small percentage are able to finish in any given year.
The PCT zigzags from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington and includes the greatest elevation changes of any of America’s National Scenic Trails. It passes through six of seven North America ecozones including high and low desert, old-growth forest and alpine country. It is a trail filled with diversity and extremes, from scorching desert valleys in Southern California to rain forests in the Pacific Northwest.
An experienced section-hiker whose first big adventure came at the age of 12 when he and two friends backpacked 100 miles in Desolation Wilderness, Jeffrey, the son of Kathy and Doyle Winchester of Cameron Park, grew up hiking with his father.
Jeffrey completed the John Muir Trail in 2005 and he section-hiked through most of California from 2005 until 2011. He and his wife, Julie, climbed Mt. Whitney using ice axes and crampons and they have hiked up Pyramid Peak about 20 times.
Jeffrey started dreaming of thru-hiking the PCT around two years ago when he and Julie, who both worked for the state of California, decided to take a “mid-life retirement,” which Julie made possible thanks to her skillful handling of their finances.
Planning for such a trip takes much coordination and support from home base — from preparing food; to assembling the proper gear, including, maps and a compass; a GPS unit; a solar charger for his phone and music player; and deciding when and where to send 25 resupply packages to various post offices to arrive in time for Jeffrey to pick up along the way.
Most of his ideas came from the book “Beyond Backpacking,” written by Ray Jardine, described by Jeffrey as a “genius distance hiker.” The book includes ideas on lightening back packs, food and shelter.
“Oakdale” (Jeffrey’s trail name), Julie, and Donavan Harmon, a longtime hiking companion, went to work. Jeffrey’s gear was whittled down to 11 pounds, minus food and water, for the beginning of the trek. Jeffrey only carried a couple of quarts of water and he had iodine tablets to treat water in the streams.
His trail name originated in the town of Oakdale where he and a close knit group of friends formed the “Black Bear Den” to help fellow hikers, maintain trails, protect the rights of the California black bear and educate hikers and campers about bears.
“Our motto was ‘Do one thing a day for the trail,’” Jeffrey said.
A vegetarian, Jeffrey didn’t cook on the trail. His food supply included Idaho spuds, dehydrated refried beans, protein powder and “goo balls,” which consisted of peanut butter; corn flour, “a good endurance fuel;” flax seed; dried fruit; raisins and honey.
Prior to the trip he stocked up on blue corn chips, 20 pounds of Peanut M & Ms, 20 pounds of almonds, 450 power bars and 30 pounds of dehydrated refried beans. Jeffrey ate in restaurants when he could, describing his town meals as “calorie bombs.”
“When I got to Ebbets Pass I put on an eating show — a tray of lasagna, a whole loaf of sourdough bread and a half a tray of brownies,” Jeffrey said.
While in Southern California Jeffrey used a tarp for sleeping under the stars but switched to a 2-pound tent once he got further north.
Because of the heavier-than-normal, late snowstorms of 2010-2011, Jeffrey opted to start six weeks later than most, leaving the southern terminus at the small town of Campo on May 30. He met few people in the early going as most had started in April.
“It was warmer for me and I knew the huge amount of snow we had would make it difficult,” Jeffrey said. “Snow does slow you but there were also positives — more water in the Sierra and desert sections, and no mosquitoes. I was excited when I left the terminus, not anxious.”
Even the best-planned treks are not immune from trouble, which for Jeffrey started on the seventh day with three wasp bites that left him with a severely swollen ankle. He stayed in Cedar Springs for 36 hours and recuperated while Julie mailed him a sturdier pair of high top shoes.
“I had the most doubts then,” Jeffrey said about that time. “As for the heat — the ranges in temperature didn’t bother me much but I did alter my plans. I took siestas in the hottest part of the day and walked at night with a head lamp.”
Jeffrey saw a lot of rattlesnakes on the southern section but they didn’t pose any danger — his worst run-in with wildlife was the wasps. He sighted at least one bear in each state, ran into big elk in Northern California and saw plenty of marmots.
Early in the hike Jeffrey’s pack was attacked by mice that chewed two straps. Fellow hiker, “Plant,” gave him part of his waist strap and using nylon thread and needle, it was quickly fixed.
The only other injury he incurred affected his knee as he neared the Oregon border. A friend met him and after two acupuncture treatments he was back to normal in about six days.
Jeffrey averaged 24.5 miles per day. He hiked 42 one day, and upped his average to 30 per day through the last part of Oregon and in Washington. After his first 518 miles he came to Hiker Town, which has old Hollywood movie sets around but more importantly, showers, TV and a place to sleep.
The weather and conditions were as expected. Jeffrey carried an umbrella to combat the blazing sun during the southern part. It rained twice in the Sierra and much of the way he battled swollen rivers and streams that took quite a bit of ingenuity and energy to cross. He dealt with snow and a lot of rain in Washington over the final 10 days.
“Sometimes it took more than 30 minutes to find a spot to cross a river,” Jeffrey said. “Navigation in the Sierra was the most difficult because parts of the trail were covered with snow. At one point my boots were wet for 11 days. I camped at 10,000 feet several nights and my boots were frozen in the morning.”
Fording slow-moving and deep Paiute Creek, Jeff and a trail buddy, “Master,” crossed in tandem. They couldn’t see the bottom and at mid-point they were chest-deep and tiptoeing across.
“We had to swim the last 15 feet,” Jeff said. “My bear canister was nearly empty so it acted as a flotation device but I’m not a strong swimmer so I was glad Master was there. That was a big moment for sure.”
Another time Jeff shuffled with his arms, one over the other, along a tree that had fallen across a deep creek. He and Plant bonded while crossing at Crabtree Meadows. Jeffrey ended up throwing his backpack to the more surefooted Plant and jumped from rock to rock over 40 feet of whitewater.
“I trusted him with everything I had,” Jeffrey said. “He could have just taken off.”
Julie met Jeffrey just before he entered the Sierra at Kennedy Meadows with supplies for the rest of the trip. Along with trading the tarp for a tent, he added an ice axe, gaiters, snowshoes and the bear-proof canister to his gear.
Once he left the hotel in Lone Pine, he hiked to his next resupply spot at Red’s Meadow with a considerably heavier pack — 38 pounds.
Trail angels and fellow hikers are welcome companions on any hike, but especially a 2,600-mile trek. Jeffrey hiked more than 50 percent of the trail alone, which he found very satisfying, but he also enjoyed the companionship of several other PCTers, including Plant, Master, Aqua Man, Tenderfoot, Dreamcrusher, Corduroy, Webster, Redbeard and Sags, so named because of his sagging backpack.
“I hiked from Crabtree to Vermillion Valley Resort with Plant and the second half of the Sierra to Donner Summit with Redbeard and Sags,” Jeffrey said. “I met back up with Plant in Oregon. The number of complete strangers willing to help is a real eye-opener. They offer food, water and rides, and invite you in to shower and eat.
“While I waited for the Tuolumne post office to open an older man and woman in a van spotted me writing in my journal around 5:30 in the morning in a sunny spot. She asked if I was a thru-hiker because of how skinny and dirty I was. (Jeff lost 20 pounds in the course of the hike.)
“After taking a picture of me, she invited me into the van and let me lay on two big sleeping bags and took Julie’s phone number so she could call her and tell her I was safe once she reached cell-phone range.”
Jeffrey and about 14 hikers he had met along the trail had an inpromptu reunion at Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade range in Washington. They had a big party at Harts Pass but it was raining so they took turns rotating in and out of some trail angels’ truck cabs to stay warm.
Three wildfires in Oregon forced Jeffrey to take detours. Instead of going west around Mt. Hood, he had to take a trail on the east side. The detour was 20 miles longer and he had to do some road-walking, which is hard on the body. He ran into his first fire at McKenzie and had to reroute toward the Sisters mountains. He found that route closed and hiked a 17-mile section from one highway to another. He skipped another section that was closed and he and his dad hiked it together on the ride back to Pollock Pines.
“It was 65 miles total of road-walking and I felt every step, every mile. I didn’t want to do it but … , “Jeff said.
The final miles were cold, rainy and snowy. It rained for five hours one day before changing to snow as Jeff ran 17 miles over the Suiattle Pass because of the cold and because he had to catch a bus to Stehikan, Wash., his last resupply spot.
Once Jeff neared the end of his trek he had the option of walking 8 more miles past the northern terminus to Manning Park to find transportaion. But, cold, hungry and ready to be done, he doubled back and found maybe the best trail angels of them all — a man and his son in a truck. They had two stoves going and served up hot lentil soup, plenty of coffee, trail mix and Oreos.
A high school friend who lives in Washington met Jeffery at Harts Pass and drove him to a bus station where Jeffrey caught a bus to Salem to meet his wife and parents. After spending the night in a hotel, he and his dad walked the final 17 miles together.
Jeffrey spent the first week eating and sleeping once he got home to Pollock Pines and admitted he definitely noticed the heat. Although he missed his planned ending date of Sept. 15, Jeffrey still considers the hike a “pretty big accomplishment.”
And like most hikers who achieve one goal, Jeffrey is already thinking ahead. He’s reading about the Tahoe Rim Trail. Stay tuned.