Friday, July 29, 2011

My night on the PCT

Simplicity. To pare life down to its basic necessities. This is the very reason I love backpacking and bicycle touring so much. And, paradoxically, it's also my largest obstacle to embarking on overnight and multiday excursions. I don't particularly enjoy poring over gear options and I'm especially resistant to the planning part of any trip. In my perfect world, a backpack full of gear and food would materialize and I would just pick it up and wander off into the mountains with no clue where I was or where I was going. Of course, if you want to return in good condition or at least alive, a plan-free trip is simply not realistic. But on Monday morning, as I tapped away at my computer and contemplated a hiking binge week, I wondered about the real possibility of an overnight, nearly-plan-free backpacking trip.

Keep it simple. I wrapped up my work and went to my gear closet to pull out my summer sleeping bag (down, rated to 20 degrees), Thermarest and bivy sack. A down coat, hat and mittens for the evening, headlamp and flashlight, sunscreen, bug spray, toiletries and a paperback ("Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor Frankl.) For food I simply went to my kitchen and grabbed what was available - a bagel, a packet of tuna, some smashed and resolidified candy bars left over from the TRT100, and some fruit bars. I had two liters of water and knew for extra I could simply stuff handfuls of snow into the bladder. Twenty minutes later, I had everything I needed, crammed into my little Osprey pack. (At the trailhead I realized that I was backpacking for fun, not suffering, and decided to bring my tent, which is why the Thermarest is strapped to the outside.)

Since I was headed toward Utah, it seemed most simple to connect up with an iconic backpacking trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, where it intersected with I-80. Beat and I hiked in this area several weeks ago. I remember looking over at a nearby, broad ridge and saying, "I bet that's an awesome ridge to hike." I didn't even know it at the time, but the Pacific Crest Trail follows that very ridge.

High ridge walking, sweeping views, mountains, solitude, snow and the golden light of evening. I was in Jill Heaven.

I didn't begin hiking until quarter to seven, so the light began to fade quickly. No matter. This is backpacking, where you travel with everything you need and you're not in a hurry to get anywhere. No stress about the hours or the destination or the mileage. It's a beautiful way to travel.

The hike was complicated by lingering swaths of snow that masked the trail in the trees and swept across slopes that were often perilously exposed. Traveling alone as I was, I had to gulp down surprisingly large hits of courage just to punch in my poles and tiptoe across the ramps, knowing that no one was coming to save me if I lost my footing and slid into oblivion. As darkness fell, the temperature plummeted and the snow developed an icy sheen. I came to a snow field on the bald face of Anderson Peak that sent shivers right to my core. It wasn't that steep - about 35 degrees - but it was at least 200 meters long, nearly as slick as a slip-n-slide, with a long run-out into rocks or trees that either way could only end badly. There were steps frozen in and I knew I could do it, but fear gripped me and I turned around. As I hiked back down the trail, already half sure I was just going to retreat all the way back to my car before the snow I had already crossed hardened up any more, I realized that this was one fear I could confront, and should. Danger yawned from the void below but I knew it was doable, and careful steps were all I needed. "I need to do more things that scare me," I said out loud, and marched back toward the snow. As I tiptoed onto the slope, the last hints of crimson sunlight reflected on the speckled ice. I focused in on my tiny section of the world until all I could see was snow, quiet snow, tinted in eerily warm light. It made me think of Alaska, which made me happy, and before I even realized it, I was on the other side.

Here is a section of the snowfield the following morning, slushed back up and looking decidedly less scary. But that brief night crossing was in itself a powerful experience, and I'm glad I did it.

I followed the yellow light of my headlamp two more miles to a perch just below Tinker Knob. Even though I was a mere seven miles from the trailhead, the ridge felt eerily remote, and I felt very much alone, in a good way. I opened up my small pack and set up my tent, rolled out my warm sleeping bag, and donned my down coat, hat and mittens. I walked to a high point on the ridge and sat with my back to the gusting wind, willfully oblivious to its cold bite as I munched on my tuna sandwich. The white stream of the Milky Way soared over my head as the lights of Auburn twinkled a world away, far below me. I thought about Beat, who is racing a crazy tough and technical foot race in the French Alps. I pulled out my cell phone to send him a text, just to let him know that I missed him.

I nested deep into my sleeping bag, where I listened to the cold wind and read my paperback until 1 a.m. - just because I could - but I was up with the sun anyway at 6 a.m. I climbed Tinker Knob to eat my candy bar breakfast and enjoy the views. I already knew I didn't want to hike back over the snow in the real freeze of early morning, so I decided to go for a run, continuing down the PCT toward Squaw Valley. The run turned out to be surprisingly difficult - not so much because of foot pain, which I'm still experiencing to some extent, but because I had a surprisingly strong reaction to the elevation. I started sucking wind almost immediately, and quickly became dizzy. Breathing proved difficult at even a moderate pace. Luckily, the trail dropped far into a valley, which spared me both the oxygen deficit and more snow fields. I ran 4.5 miles, and attempted to run but mostly hiked the steep return to camp.

Nine miles, and I was quite tired, but grateful for the opportunity to traverse the ridge in full daylight. The snow fields did prove to be much less intimidating in the heat of the day. Endurance mode kicked in and I really perked up after the scary snowfield, actually running most of the way back even with a pack. I didn't see a soul on the trail until two miles from the finish, where after the trail was quite crowded. A couple of hikers assumed I was a full PCT "fastpacker" and actually stopped me to ask questions. (I had to disappoint them by admitting my trip was less than 24 hours, although I'd love to go much longer with minimal gear someday.) I burned through the rest of my food and water with less than a mile to spare. 23 miles total, lots of challenging terrain, incredible scenery, and a bit of sleep, all in less than 18 hours. The perfect unplanned trip.

The afternoon was filled with the long drive across the desert, which I actually really enjoyed (those huge, open spaces inspire me.) I crossed the Salt Flats right at sunset, where the remnants of a dust storm muted the light to a deep bronze, saturating the blank landscape. Even though I was running about two hours late, I stopped anyway to soak it all in, and took a few silly jumping self-portraits. On closer inspection, I think this one turned out better than the one I posted earlier. It's sharper and I like the sun twinkle at my ankle. It was, simply, a beautiful day.


  1. I'd add some rain gear and flashlight, maybe a toothbrush...

  2. I just came back from 12 days on JMT (had to cut it short though :( ).
    All the time I kept thinking how much I love the simplicity of my life on the trail. Getting back to civilization is not easy now.
    As usual, I love your photos.

  3. Fun read and great pictures. It's been years since I've done a backpack trip. I plan to take my 12 year old son sometime soon.

  4. I am from Andalucia, Spain. I have a question for you: ¿Is the cougar a problem in the mountains that you visit?

    Thank you

  5. I love heading out for mostly-unplanned camping trips. That's more my style of camping too. I don't like to have too much time to talk myself out of things. It's better if I just stuff my backpack with whatever is around and head out! Hope you have a great time in Utah!

  6. The sunset photo is a magazine cover, or for your next book for sure! Never tire of reading about your adventures, so thank you for sharing them with us.


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