You’re starting when? But the desert will be too hot by then! You’ll die out there! You’re not skipping the Sierras? Haven’t you heard about all the snow? The rivers are raging! You’ll die out there!
It hasn’t been an easy year for the class of 2017 PCT thru-hikers. Most of us started paying close attention to the weather in California months before our hikes began, watching as the snow in the mountains fell. And fell. And fell and fell. We saw the pictures of snowed-in Mammoth, heard ski resorts were predicting the season would extend through July, knowing the PCT came within miles of these areas. So we tried reasoning with ourselves: Um, sooo this means a lot of water in the desert…right?
Start too late, the desert heat will melt your soul. But start too early and the Sierras will swallow you whole. Either way, you better make it through Washington before it starts snowing in the Cascades.
People on and off the internet were ablaze with “information” on how to handle a 2017 thru-hike: when to start, how to beat the desert heat, whether or not to skip the Sierras, crampons or microspikes, which creeks were passable, which creeks would sweep you away if you so much as looked at them. Early thru-hikers posted accounts of their experiences in the Sierras, how river crossings ended their hikes and nearly their lives. We listened to a hiker, providing trail magic in Agua Dulce when the Sierras proved too much for him, tell us how they were impassable and anyone attempting this year is crazy and would basically die.
When you’re sweating on mile 454 of the desert, the snowy Sierras 300 miles away seem impossibly far, a chapter in another book. As we hiked along, we continued to hear about people skipping north to Oregon or Northern California, leaving the Sierras early, or quitting all together, not paying too much attention, yet still hoping for at least one success story. Which, is sort of funny, because just as one person failing doesn’t mean everyone will fail, one person succeeding doesn’t mean everyone will succeed. But it does mean it’s possible.
There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about the snow or the rivers, so we did the only thing we could do: take on the trail in front of us, one day at a time. We aimed for a respectable date to enter the Sierras, June 21, six days after the supposed recommended date to enter the Sierras on a normal snow year, and kept walking north.
There were basically three groups of people we heard from before we hit the silence of the Sierras: people whose job it is to care, like family, friends, organizations concerned for your safety; people who simply parrot information they’ve heard, trying to be helpful; and people who tried and failed, and because they couldn’t do it, you probably shouldn’t even try.
With all due respect internet, people of the internet, random strangers at Agua Dulce, you don’t know the stuff I’m made of. You don’t know my skill set, my secret powers, my capabilities, my breaking points, how willing I am to be outside my comfort zone, what my zone of comfort even is. How can you assume, based solely on your own personal experiences, or worse, things you’ve read on the internet, that I’ll fail when I haven’t even been given the chance to succeed? And seriously, if the first time I am hearing about all this snow in the Sierras is from a comment on one of my Instagram posts, we have a whole ‘nother issue.
If I lived my life according to other people’s limits, how would I ever test my own? How can I discover where my own boundaries lay, if I never try to reach them? If you picture your life boundaries and comfort zones as a circle around your body, mine has a bunch of hand indentations pressing around the perimeter from where I’ve pushed myself. It’s even got a few holes where I’ve successfully punched through those comfort zones, making room for a whole new bubble of boundaries and limits.
Besides, fears are almost always more terrifying than reality. Yes, the Sierras were an awesomely difficult challenge. I look back at some of the things I did, things even I might not believe if I hadn’t been there, standing on top of that pass, or on the other side of that river. I remember on some of the scarier passes (icy, steep, slushy, etc.), assessing the situation, taking a deep breath and moving forward, one small calculated step at a time, taking care not to look down the steep slope on my right, or the steep slope I could reach out and touch on my left, just straight ahead at the footsteps cut into the snow ledge. Plunge ice axe, step. Repeat until complete. Then look back at your accomplishment. We spent hours hiking through snowfields and over sun cups where a wrong step or the slip of a foot could ruin your day or end your hike.
And the rivers were no joke, especially when you’re 5’4″, rocking a 125 pound trail weight. On one river crossing, Snap and I watched G wade up to his chest in water, which meant over our heads, and opted to find a safer crossing. We hiked almost three miles upstream where the river just got wider and deeper before we found an even close to manageable way, which basically involved Snap tossing me to G like a rag doll. On another crossing, the current proved a bit too much for my frame and before I even realized what was happening, G had my runaway trekking poll in one hand and was holding me up by my backpack with the other. I have no idea how he remained standing, or how he managed to pull me across. On still another, I crossed a calm but very deep stream and started to float when the water reached my backpack, involuntarily removing my feet from the bottom. As I casually began drifting downstream, I just started awkwardly swimming toward the other side where another hiker helped pull me out. And don’t get me started on the sketchy logs. Some of those were scarier than the actual water.
On our final pass in the Sierras, a hiker behind us lost control and unintentionally began his glissade. I watched in horror as he headed straight for a rock patch, bounced off, seemingly head first. I heard him hit. I thought for sure he was unconscious, or much, much worse. Remarkably, he walked away with a scratched leg.
So yeah, shit got real out there. But in talking with other hikers, you quickly realize everyone’s experience was different. A typical conversation in the Sierras:
How in the world did you get across Tyndall?
Oh that, we found a log a bit downstream. But how did you get across Mono?
Oh, there was a log a bit upstream.
We talked with a group who said they never crossed a river with water above their knees (Actually, I believe what they said was, “The water never went balls deep,” which is apparently important if you’re a dude.) Point is, our individual choices combined with our individual abilities determined our individual experiences.
The PCT is full of all kinds of people. People with lots of experience in outdoor situations, people with little to no experience, and all the people in between. I met a man who waited two hours for another person to show up because he couldn’t find his way out of the campsite. So when organizations like the PCTA put out warnings about conditions, they are talking to all of these people. And those individuals must decide for themselves how capable they are to tackle the challenges in front of them. Because the PCTA, like most people, has no idea what your skill level is and what you’re capable of…only you know that.
So even if I personally thought it was crazy (for my taste) to enter the Sierras in May or even early June, especially as a solo hiker, I would never tell anyone else not to do so, because I have no idea who you are or what you can do. California has been in a drought for the past five years or more (don’t quote me on that) so maybe we hikers forgot something basic: high mountains are supposed to have snow. If you attempted to enter the Sierras in May in a record snow year, you probably shouldn’t have been surprised at all the snow and subsequent snow melt (i.e. rivers), and hopefully had the skills and confidence to tackle them. Still, shit happens, that I know.
Our days in the Sierras were hard work and slow going, but definitely doable. And yeah, I’ll probably still pee my pants a little every time I hear a rushing river, intimidated by the thought of finding a safe place to cross, but overall, I’m so happy we ignored the fear mongering and naysayers and hiked through, testing our own limits, creating new boundaries. I’m especially grateful for my hiking partners, G and Snap, for ensuring I came out alive on the other end. (I’m no idiot, I trapped some good ones early.) We were able to see the Sierras in a light perhaps not many do.
If you skipped this year, I totally respect that, but I hope you did so based on your own limits and boundaries, not those of someone else. Don’t let anyone put you in a box. Draw your own. Then punch some holes in it, of course.