What is this “thru-hiking” and “PCT” of which I speak?

I am not entirely sure when or why I decided walking 2,650 miles across a country would be a good idea … However, walking 2,650 miles across a country is exactly what I have decided to spend much of 2016 doing!

Like so many of my other infamously magnificent five minute plans, this latest plan probably began life as a fleeting glimpse of misguided inspiration. However, unlike previous incarnations of the magnificent five minute plan, this one hasn’t faded or been eclipsed by another, even more magnificent five minute plan. A little unexpectedly and somewhat alarmingly, this magnificent five minute plan seems to have taken root in my psyche and sprouted into a hardy perennial obsession. Thankfully I have some experience with this type of obsessive compulsive behaviour. In fact, my familiarity is such that I have even coined my very own doing word … Toad (verb): The act of systematically investigating, planning, list making, forum reading, blog stalking and generally soaking up information like an old sponge.

I was “toading” heavily when it occurred to me that quite possibly the only thing that could take me longer than thru-hiking the PCT is planning to thru-hike the PCT! So what is this “thru-hiking” and “PCT” of which I speak? What is this behemoth that seems to have percolated its way into my sense of purpose and commandeered my every waking thought? Well, pull up a camp chair, make yourself comfortable and I will attempt to explain.

At its most prosaic, the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT as it is more colloquially known, is a long distance hiking path that stretches approximately 2,660 miles from its southern terminus at Campo on the US-Mexico border, all the way to its northern terminus on the edge of Manning Park just north of the US-Canada border. The trail lies roughly 150 miles east of the Pacific coast and is closely aligned to the highest sections of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The route passes through 3 states, 7 National Parks, 25 National Forests and numerous protected wilderness areas. Elevation along the path varies from close to sea level at the Oregon-Washington border, to over 4,000 metres (13,150 ft) at Forester Pass in the Sierras. Conceived by Clinton C. Clarke in the 1930s, further defined by Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Trails Act in the 1960s and finally completed in 1993, the PCT (together with the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail) forms part of the Triple Crown of hiking.

PCT MapAccording to the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association)unsung heroes and guardians of the wilderness, thousands or ordinary folk enjoy whiling away their time on the trail every year. Most hikers choose to complete small “sections” of the trail spending anything from a few days to a few weeks out in the wilderness. However, there is a much smaller, idiosyncratic assortment of crazies who devote a significant chunk of their lives to the trail and attempt to walk the whole thing in a single season. This kaleidoscopic band of wanderers and wack-jobs are collectively known as thru-hikers and I, more than anything in the world, want to be among their ranks!

I quickly learn that thru-hiking the PCT is not something to be underestimated or taken lightly … dangers seem to positively abound out there! First off there is the climate; the trail passes through all but one of America’s seven eco-zones, exposing hikers to everything from the scorching, arid deserts of Southern California to the arctic, alpine passes of the High Sierra and the persistent precipitation of the Pacific Northwest. Heatstroke, dehydration and hypothermia and all very real and life threatening concerns out on the trail. Furthermore, the PCT is also home to some potentially lethal flora and fauna; rattlesnakes, coyotes, cougars, Poodle Dog Bush, poisonous oak, bees, mosquitos and of course, let us not forget about the bears and the Bogey Man!

Somewhat unsurprisingly, failure rates among thru-hikers are high. The PCTA estimates that fewer than 50% of those who set out with the intention of hiking the entire trail actually achieve their goal. If one of the many hazards already mentioned doesn’t get you, then injury, blisters, chronic butt chafe, Giardia, malnutrition or a simple case of psychological meltdown probably will. In fact, thru-hiking the PCT is so goddamn tough that more people have summited Mt Everest than have actually completed the entire 2,660 miles in one season! This walk would clearly sort the wheat from the chaff and I was ready to be sorted … or at least I hoped to be ready once I’d done a bit more “toading”, particularly regarding those bears and that Bogey Man!

PCT Success Rate
Source: http://www.hikethru.com
A typical thru-hiker generally takes 5-6 months to complete the entire trail and this has to be undertaken during a fairly narrow “window” of favourable weather conditions. The majority of thru-hikers tackle the trail in northbound direction (NoBo) and they usually set out from Campo anytime from early April to early May. The temptation of course is to start earlier but then you run the risk of facing significant snow pack in the Sierras. Start too late and you will get fried in the desert and possibly not make it into the Cascades before the snow starts falling again at the end of the season. This tight window of opportunity also means that a PCT thru-hiker can’t just amble along and enjoy the scenery; thru-hikers need to get a wiggle on. Walking 20-25 miles a day seems to be pretty much the going rate on the PCT, if for no other reason than the slower you go the more consumables you have to carry and the more consumables to have to carry the slower you go. Successfully getting from one end to the other is not only an amazing feat of physical endurance, but also a very fine balancing act. Once you’ve decided how much weight you are prepared to shoulder, it then becomes a tussle between the necessities that must be carried (shelter, food and water) and the luxuries that it would be nice to carry (clean underwear and perhaps a bar of soap). Moreover, one also has to deal with the endless internal confabulation regarding days off (zeros). Somehow thru-hikers must balance the need to recover, rest and re-supply with the need to keep churning out the miles. Mostly it seems to be about the miles … lots and lots of miles!

As interesting and inspiring as these facts and figures might be, what they fail to adequately convey are the intangible qualities of this trail, the qualities that somehow continue to fuel my compulsive obsession. The unique experience of living a self-sufficient and simplistic life within a tiny community of fellow thru-hikers, coupled with the phenomenon of moving inexorably forward along a narrow continuum of wilderness time and space. For now these “things” must remain implied, for it is only through my personal exploits and the development of an intimate relationship with this epic trail, that I can hope to give a voice to this profound adventure.

Only by following the Zenlightened Voyager can you too find out what thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is truly all about!

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