Editor’s note: Somerset’s Norm Stoldt was 63 when he wrote this installment of his section-hiking adventures. He is now 69 years old. This is part 2 of Stoldt‘s second season attacking sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Here he takes us from Donner Pass to Ashland, Ore.
Snow in the high Sierras just north of the Pacific Crest Trail head at Donner Pass delayed the start of my 575-mile trek to Ashland until the end of July.
My hiking apparel consists of a short-sleeved T-shirt, low-cut tennis shoes, shorts and a sun hat — hardly proper attire for making my way through heavy snow. Since I started so late in the season, most of the northbound thru-hikers were well ahead of me. Therefore, I adopted a new trail name for this hike, “Caboose,” the last of the north-bounders.
When I departed, the heavily forested valleys, snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes along with the smell of pine needles under foot reminded me how great it was to be back in the Sierra and not in the desert down south.
Unfortunately, immediately after starting I made a wrong turn and soon found myself on the opposite side of Castle Peak and the Pacific Crest Trail. Rather than go all the way back to the trail head, I decided to hike over Castle Peak on an abandoned jeep and little-used hiking trail.
As I ascended this 8,000-foot high ridge, the raw beauty of my surroundings was matched by the roughness of the trail. I couldn’t help but think that if I got into trouble, years might pass before anyone would come by. Once back on the PCT, I stopped for the night.
My prodigious seven hour, 16-mile detour on the wrong side and over Castle Peak meant I’d only covered a mere seven miles on the trail from Donner Pass. I was also stung by a yellow jacket on my arm while eating lunch — definitely not a very auspicious first day.
My food rations were based on averaging 15 miles per day. Consequently, my last meal before resupplying on that first section consisted of Fritos and peanut butter, the only food left in my pack. As with all my previous travels, I resupplied at post offices in towns along the way. The longest distance between resupply points was 100 miles, the shortest 39 miles.
Most of my stops were located in deep valleys. I made ear-popping, toe-jamming, knee-wrenching descents into the small towns of Belden, Etna and Seid Valley. The ascents were equally challenging. The trail out of Seid Valley was a grueling 4,800-foot continuous climb, the equivalent of walking up to the top of a 100 story building three times.
There were both equipment and physical challenges to overcome. Early on, I developed a head and chest cold. I never figured out if it was caused by allergies or that first stressful day. With 500 miles left to go, I knew I’d have to take it easy and ration my energy. Therefore, I took one full day off per week or every 100 miles to rest and recover.
I took two- to three-hour midday breaks to escape the heat, nap and have my only cooked meal of the day. I also spent some of the time mediating, or I as call it “communicating with the universe.” The cold and cough stayed with me for most of the hike, but fortunately it never developed into anything serious.
Below the high elevation of the Sierra I couldn’t believe how hot it was. For several portions of the trail, the thermometer on my watch registered more than 100 degrees. To avoid the scorching sun, I took my midday break under the shelter of trees or large bushes, first making sure that a resident rattlesnake was not at home.
About halfway through my adventure, the soft padding in the back of both shoes gave way. The rough edges wore holes in my socks and then rubbed raw spots on both of my heels. Because I have lost about 20 percent of the feeling in my feet from a prior back injury, I didn’t notice what was happening at first.
I put duct tape over the rough parts in my shoes and disinfected and bandaged both heels. I then put duct tape over the bandages to further seal the areas from dirt and prevent possible infection.
Later, I had more shoe problems when the material around two of the eyelets wore out, making it impossible to properly lace my shoe. Thank goodness for duct tape. I literally taped my shoe on each morning during the last 100 miles.
Another equipment problem that plagued me started when I broke the inlet nipple off my water pump. I was forced to bend over and hold the bottom of the pump in the water which took three times longer to pump. Small pieces of gravel kept getting stuck in the valve because I couldn’t use the filter at the end of the intake hose. Duct tape again came to the rescue. I simply taped a piece of nylon stocking from my repair kit over the inlet.
Most of the time I stealth-camped in my tent well off the trail. However, since I hiked until near darkness, there were times I couldn’t find a flat, rock-free space large enough to pitch my tent so I simply camped under the stars in the middle of the trail.
One of my more amusing camp experiences involved taking an afternoon nap in the driveway of a home belonging to a trail-angel couple in Belden. When I got to the pair’s house no one was home. It was a Sunday and I had a food drop at the post office the next day with no place to spend the night.
The temperature was a 100 degrees and I was hot and tired so I pulled the foam sleeping pad out of my pack, used my sleeping bag as a pillow, took off my shoes, put my pack under my knees and took a nap. A car pulled into the driveway four hours later..
Dirty, barefoot and ragged looking, I got up and shouted, “I hope this is the place. If not, don’t shoot. I’ll pack up and be gone.” A woman in the car answered, “It’s the right place.”
It was Brenda and her husband, owners of Little Haven, a hostel for PCTers. However with most of the hikers having already passed through, they had closed. Nevertheless, as one last good deed for the season they agreed to take me in. I doubt they would have done so if it hadn’t been for one bedraggled old man sleeping in their driveway.
The combination of being a senior citizen and having some physical problems has turned me into an ultra light backpacker. I spent one night in a campground in Lassen National Park. I was the only walk-in camper; everyone else had a car or truck. I was overwhelmed by all the paraphernalia people bring with them to camp for just a night or two. My base weight (pack, tent, sleeping bag, stove, clothing and other gear) weighed barely 13 pounds. Even with food, my pack seldom exceeded 20 pounds.
By end of my hike, I was averaging 18-20 miles per day. My longest day was 28 miles. At age 63, I credit this accomplishment to traveling light.
Hiking conditions varied. There were exposed narrow pathways blasted into rock-faced mountain sides, where one misstep on loose gravel could send one plunging hundreds of feet downward to the bottom of ravines overgrown with vegetation where the trail was choked by eyeball-high brush and occasional poison oak.
My journey wasn’t just one of hardship and depravation. I experienced spectacular views of Mts. Shasta and Lassen, the jagged peaks of the Trinity Alps, Castle Crags and the Marble Wilderness Area. I was both humbled and filled with a sense of oneness with nature that only comes from walking mile upon mile through magnificent unspoiled wilderness.
I was bothered by ever present blood-thirsty mosquitoes during the first third of my trip along with “no-see-ums” to contend with. No-see-ums are hordes of tiny gnat-like insects that cluster around one’s eyes, nose and mouth. At times I wore a head net, the only way to get relief from those pesky devils.
Then there was the mystery creature. I kept my pack inside my tent at night. One night, I awoke to feel my pack moving toward the back of my tent. I yelled and clicked on my light but didn’t see anything. In the morning I found a 3-inch hole in the back of my tent. The hole was too small for a raccoon and my pack was too heavy for a chipmunk to move. Maybe it was a ground squirrel on steroids.
Larger and more dangerous creature encounters came later. I had confrontations with six rattlesnakes in the course of my 40-day journey. Fortunately, they all alerted me to their presence well before I got within striking distance. Typically, they’d slither back into the brush but the one exception was “the mother of all rattlesnakes.” Fat and at least 5-feet long, it coiled in a strike position in the middle of the trail and forced me to walk very cautiously around it through high brush.
My first bear encounter was inside Lassen National Park. I had just turned in for the night when I heard huffing and puffing and then a large crash. It was a bear pushing over a dead tree to get termites. My food was in my pack under my knees. I figured that as long as the bear had termites to eat it wasn’t going to bother me or come after my food so I rolled over and went back to sleep.
My second encounter occurred as I was setting up camp for the night. A large cinnamon-colored head poked around from behind a nearby tree. It was a huge male and reminded me of an oversized teddy bear. I yelled and he immediately took off running. Camping in “Yogi’s” backyard is not an ideal way to spend the night. However it was getting dark and this was the only flat area for miles around.
I bear-proofed my camp the best I could. All my food was double sealed in heavy duty zip lock bags. I hung my week old, sweat-soaked hiking clothes around my camp. I further scented my campsite by peeing in strategic places. Thus, if a bear did come all it would smell was me. Furthermore, I made a bear alarm by scattering dead branches all around my tent to awake me if anything approached.
Finally, I put all my food, including tooth paste, sun block and water which was mixed with sweet energy drink powder inside my tent. It worked. I slept soundly all night and wasn’t bothered by Yogi or any of his relatives.
My scariest critter encounter took place one night while I was camped at the edge of very heavy woods. The ground all around my tent was littered with dead limbs. Soon after entering my tent for the night, I heard breaking branches as some animal circled my camp. A cold chill went down my spine. I yelled and flashed my light and heard it move rapidly away.
It soon returned and I yelled and flashed my light again. This was repeated several times; each time the animal would return to circle my tent. Initially I thought it was a young bear checking me out. Finally it returned, this time much closer, about 25 feet from my tent.
I yelled out in the loudest and deepest voice I could muster, “Nam.Myoho.Renge.Kyo” (a Buddhist mantra) and flashed my light on high power. Again there was the sound of broken branches as the critter moved away from my camp. Then I heard a bird-like scream. My unwelcome visitor was not a bear but a mountain lion. Amazingly, it didn’t return after my last shout.
The winter of 2004-2005 was a heavy snow year in the Sierra so many of the early thru-hikers that started from Mexico bypassed the Mt. Whitney portion of the PCT, jumped north to Canada and hiked back southward (flip-flopped). The first “sobo” (south-bounder) I encountered was my old friend Highlander, a retired British Army sergeant whom I had met down south during my spring hike. He had already covered some 2,100 miles.
This indomitable 65-year-old Scotsman had averaged 25-30 miles per day. I was to meet other sobos during the course of my journey: Doodle Bug, Rain Queen, Writterman, Flash and Buckeye were but a few, but none were as senior or impressive as Highlander.
These PCTers and others provided me with abundant encouragement and valuable information on water sources, trail conditions and town facilities. I am forever grateful to the hiker who left a note with a large rock on the pathway to mark an off-trail water source, saving me from near dehydration.
Trail angels came in many forms. I can never forget Brenda and her husband in Belden, Georgi and Dennis in Old Station, and Vicky and Dave in Etna. They open their homes and hearts to PCT vagabonds, providing food, lodging, showers, access to laundry and shuttle services, not to mention clothes to wear while washing our hiking apparel.
For the lucky few, there was even a tree house to sleep in at Georgi and Dave’s place. I truly appreciate a motorist and a big rig driver, who both stopped on desolate back country roads to give me a ride into nearby towns, the multitude of volunteers who perform trail maintenance, all the unknown individuals who stock the water caches along the trail and finally, a dear friend who mailed me a letter of warm encouragement and a wonderful care packet full of hiking goodies.
Without the efforts of all those individuals, my “little hike” could easily have been painfully austere and endless. My entire family supported me and kept the old homestead going in my absence — particularly my wife Tomi, who has endured five seasons of my trail hiking.
This was by far the most exciting and rewarding of all my trail adventures. I returned home with a renewed sense of appreciation for both the beauty of our state and the kindness and generosity of its people. I felt fulfilled at having successfully met the many challenges that confronted me.
I’m starting the coming year filled with hope, confidence and expectation for my next adventure — hiking southward from Manning Provincial Park in Canada to Ashland, Ore., thereby finishing my three-year quest to complete the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail.