Last year I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail by completing the northern 1,000-mile portion of the renowned trail. The Pacific Crest Trail seemed like the next logical progression.
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The PCT runs from California’s southern border with Mexico northward to the Canadian border. By air it’s just over 1,000 miles long. On foot it stretches two and a half times that distance, 2,658 miles.
Passing through California, Oregon and Washington, it climbs through nearly 60 major mountain passes and descends into 19 major canyons, traversing by or through three national monuments, seven national parks, 24 national forests and 33 federally mandated wildernesses.
The trail crisscrosses the famous San Andreas Fault three times. More people have climbed Mt. Everest than have “thru-hiked” the PCT. Part of the trail’s difficulty is that in the southern-most section, hikers must often cover 20 to 30 miles between water sources.
I decided to make the completion of the PCT a three-year project, electing to undertake the first portion in two parts. I would start at the Mexican border and hike north until I reached Walker Pass, 647 miles, where I would leave the trail and return home via Bakersfield.
After a good rest I’d start in mid July at Lake Tahoe and go south 475 miles to Walker Pass. Traveling light dominated all my thinking in preparing for this adventure, both in terms of food and equipment. I knew there would be times that I’d have to carry a considerable weight of water.
I depended upon a homemade concoction of breakfast cereal, commercial freeze-dried meals, energy bars, cheese/meat sticks and a 650-calorie powdered milkshake. I also carried a high energy, electrolyte replacement powder used by marathon runners. The result was a 4,300 calorie per day diet that weighed less than 2 pounds. I arranged for food drops at post offices along the way.
Selection of equipment was a real challenge. I had to be equipped for both 9,000-foot, partially snow-covered mountains and blazing hot deserts. Nevertheless, the weight of my pack came to a mere 22 pounds, excluding water, with five days of food.
My journey began with a short flight into San Diego. After a series of bus and trolley rides, I arrived at the small desert border town of Campo, the start of the PCT. The Lake Moreno campground, the site of a huge kickoff party and hiker’s reunion, was held was 20 miles north.
On the last rise before the lake I met Potato Picker. Everyone on the trails, both the Appalachian and the PCT, takes a trail name. Potato greeted incoming hikers with a cold beer and I humbly accepted his offering.
The campground was packed with 600 hikers, their families, friends and numerous vendors. There were tents of all varieties and colors. Campers and vans filled all available parking spaces. For the next two days I loaded up on calories, got acquainted with my fellow hikers, attended informal talks on water sources, the fauna and flora along the trail, and visited displays on new state-of-the-art hiking equipment.
Some of the more descriptive trail names I encountered were Big Ben, an individual from the United Kingdom, Aussie Crawl from Australia, Super Girl, a 20-mile plus per day hiker, and Aqua Boy, a 240-pound, 6-foot-4 hiker in his 40s who lugged 11 liters (22 pounds) of water that first day to Lake Moreno.
In addition there was Dr. Feel Good, who carried an economy-sized bottle of ibuprofen — the contents of which he liberally distributed to those in need, and Heavy Metal, a young woman with assorted facial piercings.
In my discussions with these hikers and others, I discovered that the majority were veteran Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. Many of them had done extensive hiking/cycling trips across the states and/or Europe. Others had a string of hiking accomplishments summiting mountains both here and abroad.
Several of the seniors I met had been on national-athletic teams in their youth and had remained physically active all their lives. The typical weekend athlete was definitely in the minority in this group. I began to wonder if I was out of my class.
Eighty percent of my journey was through desert. Some hikers carried umbrellas for needed shade and many covered them with aluminum foil to reflect the blazing sun. I saw only one baby rattlesnake on my 200-mile trek through the desert. I did however have a near miss after two faster hikers passed me. Minutes later they encountered a 5-foot rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail. Wow! I did come up on a buzzing brush — a rattlesnake curled up under a bush next to the trail to escape the noon sun.
To escape the scorching desert sun I started my day as early as possible, many times eating breakfast and packing up in near darkness. I hiked till noon, stopping whereever there was shade. I spent the heat of day napping, rehydrating and cooking my major meal. Around 5 p.m. I would start out again and hike until sunset.
I hiked into the evening using my headlight several times. Many hikers were afraid to hike at night because of rattlesnakes. I theorized that my chances of encountering a snake were the same whether it was daytime or night. The only difference was that at night they are more active.
I generally finished my day by consuming one of my 650-calorie milkshakes. After three nights I quit using my tent and simply slept out under the stars. Contrary to popular myth, a rattlesnake will not crawl into one’s warm sleeping bag to escape the cold night air according to a desert biologist and my own personal experience.
I was surprised to find that the desert was not a barren wasteland. It was springtime and my surroundings were alive with color. It seemed like every cactus and flower was in full bloom, making for a pleasant distraction from the sweltering heat. The desert was not flat. The PCT crossed over hills and into canyons. At times it traversed along high ridges, yielding views that rivaled scenes from my past adventures on the AT.
Finding water was definitely a problem. The longest waterless stretch I covered was 23 miles Packing extra water meant more weight and it also forced me to put in more miles per day than I preferred, actions which later would have devastating effects.
The one thing the PCT did not lack was an abundance of trail angels. Even after four years of hiking I am still amazed and overwhelmed by the compassion and efforts of these wonderful individuals who go out of their way, sometimes at considerable personal financial costs, to aid hikers.
Hiking through the desert would have been virtually impossible if not for the many roadside water caches left by trail angels. Heartfelt thanks and appreciation are due to the pickup driver who waited for me in near 100-degree weather as I trudged across a barren stretch of open desert in order to give me a 12-mile ride into town.
Many thanks are due the unselfish young woman who gave me blister treatment patches in spite of having little material left for her own tattered feet; to the senior hiker who found my map packet and the fast young hiker he gave it to. He caught up to me and returned it. Thanks are also due to the angel who stocked a remote spring with bottles of Gatoraid and to the many others who helped me, including members of the San Bernadino Search & Rescue Squad. (Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself.)
My favorite trail angels were Ziggy and Bear, a senior couple. They are beyond doubt true 21st century Samaritans. During the hiking season they shuttle hikers, put hikers up at their desert home and stock 40 gallons of water per day at a cache — all free of charge.
They had a soft and shaded fenced grass camping area for hikers, complete with washrooms and showers, along with a gazebo especially for hikers. They provided everything — towels, soap, shower shoes and clean clothes to wear while Ziggy washed our dust-covered, sun-block stained hiking apparel. They even had pans and Epson salts to use for soaking tired feet.
Ziggy and Bear also provided cold drinks and snacks along with breakfast and supper. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. When I asked Ziggy why they do all this she said she hoped that the kindness and generosity they showed would be absorbed by those they helped and in turn, be passed on to others. It helps make a better world.
My night there ended in a rather bizarre and humorous fashion as I slept under the stars. At 10:30 p.m. the automatic sprinklers came on in the camping area. For a second I thought it was raining. When I realized what was happening I rushed to the other side of the compound, proving you can run in a sleeping bag.
Almost immediately the sprinkler on that side came on. I was totally soaked, along with my sleeping bag and gear. Bear and Ziggy dried my equipment and I spent the rest of the night sleeping on their porch.
The last portion of my adventure was spent hiking through the San Jacinto and San Bernadino mountains and a fateful 8,000-foot descent into San Gorgonio Pass that separates these two majestic ranges. The scenery was spectacular.
At times I was surrounded by high, jagged mountains peaks. I tramped through scattered patches of snow at 9,000 feet and walked on narrow trails with solid rock rising skyward on one side with an almost bottomless abyss on the other side. I was overwhelmed by the work (not to mention the dynamite) it must have taken to build these sections of the trail.
The 20-mile, 10-hour days I had spent crossing the desert along with the additional weight of extra water took its toll on my knees. By the time I arrived for the toe-jamming, knee-wrenching descent into San Gorgonia Pass, I was taking 12 ibuprofen a day for knee pain. The 5,000-foot climb up into the San Bernadino mountains added to my woes. In spite of all the ibuprofen, the pain in my left knee grew severe.
My normal 2-mph pace had slowed to less than a mile. With the next town still 30 miles away I came to the heart-wrenching conclusion that I needed help so I dialed 911. To my great relief I got reception and was connected to the county sheriff’s department. I was told they would send a rescue helicopter and about 20 minutes later, I saw a large helicopter in the canyon below me.
My rescuers contacted me on my cell phone and I directed them toward me on the phone while at the same time waving a white rain jacket and flashing my head light.
The copter landed in a clearing further up the hillside. Carrying my pack I quickly hobbled to meet them. I left the trail and dragging my pack behind me, I crawled on all fours up a very steep embankment to the landing site. I was greeted by a paramedic who asked, “Are you Norm?”
Since there was not another crippled human being around for 30 miles, I felt like saying, “No, I’m Dr. Livingston.” However I kept my humor to myself.
I was flown to a landing site in the San Bernadino suburbs. After filling out some forms, a deputy drove me to a local motel and even helped carry my pack into the office. I called my wife and daughters to inform them that my hike was over.
In summary, all the wonderful individuals I met left me wanting to do more for my fellow man. In spite of only completing some 250 miles of my little walk, I still felt a great sense of accomplishment. I had walked through some of the most arid and difficult sections of the PCT and hiked over and down a 9,000-foot mountain.
My knees would heal. My doctor said I had severe tendinitus from the too steep hills and too heavy a pack straining too old knees.
With some changes I still felt that I could successfully complete the central Sierra Nevada portion of my hike in July.