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Thru-hiking the PCT

Veronika Winkler, Bavaria

The Desert: 1120km

Southern Terminus
Southern Terminus

Day 1: April 21st. We are at the Southern Terminus near Campo, on the Mexican border. Other hikers are milling around; all spent last night at the house of Frodo and Scout, famous trail angels in San Diego.

The trail winds its way through the desert and hills; it is pleasant and the temperatures are not as high as I feared. After 7km we arrive at our only water source for today, a small creek where the water is still running. We each filter about five litres of water, a daily chore for the next five to six months.

We started the trail with low daily mileage so our bodies could adapt and after 25 km we stop for the night at the dry Hauser Creek. For navigation we are using  the Far Out app on our smart phones, which has up-to-date information about campsites and water sources. It rained during the night—the only rain for many weeks to come.

We quickly fall into a daily routine, starting walking at dawn.  In the desert we  make big distances in the morning, so we can spend the midday heat somewhere in the shade and resume hiking in the late afternoon. Later, when the heat isn´t a problem, we still start early, using the whole day to average 30km.

Most hikers start solo on the PCT, but normally end up in a trail family or tramily, and we soon were joined by Caterpillar and Field Trip, camping with them in the evenings. Trail names are the norm. Michael is known as Teddybear after Henro Bibbul Bear (HBB), the mascot that accompanies him in his pack. HBB was bought in Pemberton on Michael’s end-to-end and named Bibbul Bear, gaining the name Henro (pilgrim) after tackling the Japanese 88-Temple walk. I later became Osita (tiny female bear) in Spanish.

The rain causes  the desert to explode in colour; thousands of pink and yellow blossoms on the cacti and hundreds of white petals on the tall yucca plants. Tiny hummingbirds seek nectar in the flowers. Small lizards race over the trail. We saw only three rattlesnakes, one a baby whose rattle sounded like a faint hiss.

The Sierra: 640km

Day 45: June 4th. We reach Kennedy Meadows, the gate to the Sierra, high alpine areas and mountain passes. We are lucky this year because in the winter 2021/22 there was very little snow. The river crossings are only calf deep and the mountain passes have only a few snow patches  on their northern sides. Our tramily gains two more members, Choo Choo and Nudist. We are all Germans, who seem to make up the second largest nation represented on the PCT.

Day 51: June 10th. Teddybear, Choo Choo and I climb to the summit of Mt. Whitney, at 4,421m. Mt. Whitney isn´t officially on the PCT,  but almost every PCT-hiker attempts the summit. I’m  worried about altitude sickness because I had problems with elevation earlier. I am very slow, but we make it to the summit. The view is just breathtaking.

 Trailhead Sign
Trailhead Sign

Day 52: June 11th. We climb Forester Pass, at 4,009 m the highest point of the PCT.

On the top our tramily waits for us. The view north reveals an alpine wonderland of high mountain peaks. For the next week we climb one of these passes every day. The valleys are dotted with small, crystal clear lakes. Between the rocks sit fat marmots and cute chipmunks.

On the northern side of Forester Pass there are patches of snow, as on all the following descents. Most times we don our micro spikes for the frozen sections. But sometimes the snow is already slushy and we sink knee deep..

Day 62: June 21st. Naked Hiking Day! It is very cold in the morning, so Nudist and I agree to shed our clothes at lunchtime. Field Trip hesitates, but then also gets rid of her clothes (only shoes, socks, gaiters and sun hat are allowed). We start the descent, single file and naked over the snow fields, concentrating on not slipping! The three of us hike naked for the rest of the day. It is great fun, seeing the baffled faces of the hikers we pass.

Naked Hiker
Naked Hiker

Northern California: 704km

Day 85: July 14th. Teddybear and I are on our own, our tramily dissolved at the official end of the Sierra.  We cross the burn area of the Bear Fire of 2020. The trail consists of ashes, with  burned tree-skeletons which offer no shade. It is very hot, and the conditions resemble the desert again. Water  is scarce but nature is fighting back, some green on the ground and colourful flowers in bloom.

Day 88: July 17th. We start at 4.00 am. Even now it is very hot. An elevation gain of 1,800m awaits us and we don´t want to climb in the sun. Two pairs of eyes glow in the light of our headlamps and we recognize two juvenile mountain lions growling and hissing at us—where is their mom? As fast as possible we walk on, frightened but at the same time excited to have seen these beautiful animals.

Day 89: Half-way!

Halfway Point
Halfway Point

Day 101: July 30th. We arrive at a trailhead, where there are cars of day hikers in the parking lot and trail-magic for PCT-hikers; melon, cherries and water-bottles. Teddybear and I grab a juicy melon-slice. Heaven! Day hikers tell us of a fire that started last night in Seiad Valley; in their opinion it shouldn´t pose any problem to the PCT. Wrong!

Minutes later Eagle Eye, a guy from Sri Lanka arrives with bad news, the PCT is closed from Etna Summit onwards for 176 km. Etna Summit is three days away, so we walk on but quickly learn the fire is now directly ahead and close. Time to leave! We return to the trailhead where other PCT-hikers are stranded. Within a few hours everyone gets a lift back into civilization. True trail angels!

Oregon: 698km

Day 104: August 2nd.. The day after we evacuated the PCT we hitchhiked 110 km to Ashland in Oregon. Today we continue our hike. We are sad; we were supposed to cross the border from California to Oregon on foot, not by car! In the meantime the now named McKinney Fire has developed into this year´s largest fire in California. Even in Ashland the air is thick with smoke. We managed to find accommodation but our dream of a thru-hike is shattered; the fire means we have missed 286km of the PCT.

Rumours of new fires abound but we decide to walk on.

Day 110: August 8th. Today we break our rule of being purists in order to reach Crater Lake, which is said to have the bluest water in the world.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake

The official PCT stays in the forest, but the alternate trail, which most PCT hikers take, follows the 16km  Crater Lake Rim Trail. The views are incredible as is the blue colour of the water. We have just one more fire to avoid, the Windigo Fire, and we miss another  96km of the trail.

Northern Oregon
Northern Oregon

Washington State: 757km

Day 128: August 28th.  We cross the mighty Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods into Washington, the Evergreen State.  Surely no bush fires here—wrong!

Bridge of the Gods
Bridge of the Gods

Day 135: September 2nd. We are in the alpine region of the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Ahead of us lies Knife´s Edge, hugging the crest of the mountains. In this good weather it looks beautiful—in fog, rain or high winds crossing Knife´s Edge must be scary and dangerous! When we put up our tent in the evening other PCT-hikers pass by. Bad news—the last 32 km of the PCT are closed due to fire! We are devastated. But it will take us three weeks to get there. By then the closed section could re-open

Days 142 – 146: From Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass the trail passes through the most beautiful scenery in Washington. We enter the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, with countless lakes, where the trail often leads above the tree line, crossing boulder fields where cute pikas, hamster-size rodents, sun themselves on rocks. But steadily the view gets worse; fog and rain in combination with the smoke of a fire ahead of us at Stevens Pass.

Day 147: September 14th. The road to the west of Stevens Pass is closed due to a fire near Skykomish. The  Stevens Pass Lodge is closed, but thankfully the security staff  retrieve our resupply package. We are allowed to stay at the closed cafeteria, where it is warm and dry, for as long as we want. We, and our gear,  range from damp to soaking wet because of a sudden last afternoon hail storm. We spread out everything and after a couple of hours all is dry again. We hike on in the misty, smoky gloom – the hardest section in Washington lies ahead of us.

Day 151: September 18th. The day started beautifully with gorgeous views of mountaintops across alpine meadows. A black bear ambled ahead of us along the trail, feeding on huckleberries, but since we started to descend to the Suiattle River my tranquillity of mind has vanished. Hundreds of  blowdowns are blocking the PCT, many of which we must climb over or crawl under. Often we have to take off our backpacks and it  slows us down considerably. I am tired, tired of the trail, I want it to be finished!

Day 159: September 26th. We have reached Windy Pass, at 4205km. The last 41 km to the Northern Terminus are still closed due to fire and we decided days ago that Windy Point would be our finish point, but our decision wavered when we  met a group of hikers returning  from an illegal hike to the Northern Terminus, ignoring the closure. It was tempting for us to ignore the closure as well, but we didn’t want to be irresponsible and put our and perhaps the lives of other people in peril.

So we set up our tent on Windy Pass, grateful to  have made it there.

Finish at Windy Pass
Finish at Windy Pass

Conclusion: If you are considering hiking the PCT—do it! The landscape is breathtaking, the trail for the most part well maintained and the camaraderie amongst the hikers is great. The one drawback is the high probability of wild fires during the hiking season, due to which we weren´t able to do a true thru-hike. Instead we walked only about 90 % of the trail, about 3,820 km. But still we are very happy we´ve done it!