Monday, September 6, 2010

Feet to Take Me - PCT Epilogue

Some Thoughts

It has been two weeks now since I stood triumphantly along the 49th parallel, the international border between Canada and the United States, at monument 78...the Northern Terminus of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.  While many of the thoughts and feelings that I have had over these two weeks are reminiscent of those I had soon after finishing the Appalachian Trail, I have to admit, that this overall PCT experience seems to be fading with a much greater intensity.  In a way, I'm glad that I won't be sitting around, sulking and pining for the days of the long expansive trail like I did three years ago, but I am a little sad that such an amazing experience can so easily be put away into the dusty filing cabinet of my memory of life experiences. I truly thought that this entire pilgrimage (or whatever you want to call it), would leave a more permanent etching into the transcendental and philosophical region of my mind.  Perhaps I'm just expecting too much, or perhaps it's still too soon...but I kind of want to miss it all more.  I feel like I've earned the right to miss it....if that makes any sense.  Don't get me wrong, I do miss the simplicity of it all, but I have no desire to be out there right now.  With that said though, how is that I can spend four months of my life walking; four months of my life building incredible unique memories; four months of my life going through such different environments (ie snow, desert, mountains, rain forest, etc) as opposed to the long green tunnel of the AT, and yet it all seems to be one big blur in my mind?  What's more, is that when I think back to specific memories, they almost seem to be from a 3rd person point of view; almost as if I watched a documentary about it and I was in opposed to it being an actual memory of mine.

Needless to say, this is all a little anticlimactic.  When I set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, I was single in purpose, and driven by a desire to prove to myself that I could say my goodbyes and to wipe clean my much-tarnished slate.  I walked for over 1500 miles with tunnel vision.  I had chaos unfolding in my mind and heart as I asked myself countless questions...and tried to answer them over and over again.  "Why did this happen?", or "What could I have done differently?", "How long will I miss them?"...etc.  It wasn't until Vermont, mile 1700, that the answers started to come, my peripheral vision came alive, and I finally began to experience the trail for what it was: A beautiful National Scenic Trail, with gorgeous views, and stunning landscapes.  The last 500 miles of the AT, changed my entire perspective on life, and on living.  I started school that fall reborn, and with a new sense of purpose.

but, that was then.....and this is now.

This PCT experience has been very different.  When I started walking I didn't have that single-minded sense of purpose.  I just knew (or at least I thought I knew), that I needed to go walking for a while.  Over last winter while I was deployed in Antarctica, I was overcome by a horrible lull.  I have never really felt a sense of melancholy or despondency in my life that wasn't brought on by an obvious sad event...yet in Antarctica I felt sort of lost, aimless....despite many positives in my life.  To this day, I don't know why this came about or what exactly it was, but when I searched my mind to find an answer, what I came up with was that I needed another solo-walk.  Not a walk like on the Colorado Trail (a short, scenic, fun walk), but a serious AT-style walk.  So the idea of a PCT walk, which had already been on my life to-do list, became my solution.  The difference, however, is that this time I didn't have a whole slew of unanswered questions, or wounds that needed healing.  I honestly didn't know what it was that I was missing...or just how I was going to get it back by walking.

When I began the planning, it was important to me to keep the spirit of my late father alive and honor him through my the hike in some way.  I set up the memorial fund as a way to do this, and as a way to raise some money for a good that has affected my family deeply.  This was important to me...and still is, but was also not that single-minded sense of purpose on my hike like others who were hiking for charities had.  Perhaps it should have been, but it wasn't.  I found that while it was a part of my journey, I didn't advertise it very much.  If people asked, I told them, once a month I put a blurb up here about it, but I didn't evangelize it.  Again....perhaps I should have, but I would have felt dishonest if I told people it was "Why I was hiking"...because it wasn't the sole reason I was.  In the end, the memorial fund did raise over 1200 dollars, and many wonderful and kind people donated to it...something I'll be forever grateful for.  This is the truth.

The actual walking was very different on this hike.  Especially the solo walking.  For much of the journey, I kept my mind busy with trivialities and by hiking with others, but also thought a lot about people I was missing back home....something I wasn't used to.  For all of the miles that I had company, I found that the simple act of walking-while-chatting, kept me at ease.  During the SoCal sections, it was still so early on, the novelty hadn't worn off and during the Sierra, the pure challenge and focus of snow-hiking and navigation kept my mind occupied.  In NoCal, I had a small group of good hiking partners that allowed the several hundreds of miles to fly by.  In Southern Oregon I was too busy dodging mosquitoes to think about things.  In northern Oregon, I finally had 6 days of solo hiking, but treated them as sort of a mileage game...and before I knew it I was in Cascade Locks looking ahead to Canada a mere 500 miles away.  Southern Washington flew by with the help of some good hiking friends, and it wasn't until Snoqualmie when I finally hit the wall.  I was solo-hiking, and couldn't come up with a convincing reason to keep going.  I desperately wanted to go home.  I was missing certain people very badly.  But then something happened.  Against my own will, I decided to keep walking...and I finally had the feeling I was looking for.  The last week on the Pacific Crest Trail was magical.  I stopped for hours at a time to just admire the simplicity and beauty of my surroundings.  Things were back in alignment for me.  When I hit Manning Park, I had myself convinced that I was my "old self" again and that my walk was a success.  I sit here now though, wondering....was it?

This is what I've been thinking about a lot the past two weeks.  Just why was I really out there walking 25+ miles a day?  Why was I purposely keeping myself half-way across the country from people I would have much rather been with back home?  Why was I purposely missing important lab work and research in Denver?  Why was I walking?

I don't really have a good answer to these least not yet.  What I've come to realize is that perhaps this hike wasn't about the usual cliches.  It wasn't about "soul-searching", or "getting away", or "living life to the fullest", or "mentally and physically challenging myself", "proving to myself x, y, or z".

This hike was simply about being someplace, and doing something where I knew I would feel right....that would feel familiar...where I would feel safe.  That sounds incredibly ridiculous, but it is true.  I can travel the world, see extraordinary things, and spend time with incredible people.  In all cases, there are times when I feel like things are "as they should be".  For whatever reason though, over the past year I somehow shifted "out-of-phase".  Despite going to amazing places, and spending time with wonderful people, I just didn't feel right.  Walking along the winding, dusty, and often snowy tread of the PCT this summer, I felt in alignment...something I needed (for whatever reason).  I didn't have that uneasiness that I had had for the past year.  I was back in a place where I could simply breathe in, and breathe out...and live simply again.  This all sounds incredibly selfish...and in a way it is.   But, I truly believe without doing this, I would have only become more uneasy, and probably pushed away those people that are most important to me.  So perhaps it was somewhat of a "healing" process, even though I wasn't really "hurt" in a traditional sense.  I don't know if I'll every understand why it was that I fell into a sort of funk over the course of 2009, and just how this hike was the logical answer...I just know that it worked.  I am home now, happily, and I know who and what is important to me.  I hope that in time more answers will come, but I am content knowing that I was fortunate enough to go on an incredible journey, I saw indescribable scenery and landscapes, and that I'm happy to be home and to be myself again.  Despite the overall journey already starting to be filed away in my mind, and the somewhat anti-climactic sensation of it all...I am definitely in a better place, and with plenty of incredible memories to go with it.

SO....onto the not-so-philosophical stuff:

Some factoids:
Longest Hiking Day: 40.4 (Northern Oregon)
Shortest Hiking Day: 1.5 (It was actually a 10 mile day, but only 1.5 on the PCT)
Number of Days it sprinkled on me (ie pack cover and light rain coat): 8
Number of Days it rained on me (ie poncho): 0
Number of Pop tarts eaten: ~60
Number of Miles on my Cascadia 5's: 1200 and 1000
Number of Miles on my montrails before dying: 500
First time I stepped on snow: Mt Laguna (Mile ~40)
Last time I stepped on snow: 8 miles before Canada (Mile ~2642)
Percentage of visible trail throughout 500 miles of the Sierra: ~10-15%
Number of times snowed on: 2
Number of unfrozen Sierra Lakes: 1
Worst Mosquito Day: Near Irish Lake, OR
Best Food/Restaurant: Stehekin Bakery and Drakesbad
Best Town: Stehekin, Etna, and Sierra City
Best Overall Town Experience: Cascade Locks
Worst Town: Probably South Tahoe
Worst Overall Town Experience: Yosemite
Most lost I was on trail: 5 hours just south of Lake Tahoe
Worst Postholing day: Forester Pass
Scariest Ford: Probably Falls Canyon Creek (Thermarest Ford)
Most Dangerous Ford: Wright Creek (I fell in and lost GPS and pole)
Deepest Ford: Evolution Creek: Chest High
Weight lost: 18 lbs
Weight gained back: 8lbs
Longest Stretch on one resupply: Kearsarge Pass to Tuolumne Meadows
Longest Hitch: Yosemite Valley and/or Bishop
Favourite Section of trail: North Cascades
Least Favourite section of trail: South-Central Oregon (North of Crater Lake)
Coldest Temp: 15 Degrees (April 24 Near Morena)
Hottest Day: 100 (July 18 Seiad Valley)
Scariest Experience:  Chopping foot holds on a very ice chute on the climb up to Muir Pass
Slowest hiking day (most frustrating):  Climbing up to Dorothy Pass (after falls canyon creek)
Best Beer: Etna Brewery Beer, and Walking Man Beer

If there's any other factoids you'd like to know, simply ask in a comment.

What Would I Do Differently?
This is always a tough question for me to answer.  What makes the experience so unique, is that it does include some goods and bads.  Overall, I'm very pleased with the way things worked out (other than the crazy snow).  My gear held up pretty good, and I had very good experiences.  If I had to change some things though, here's what I might have done differently:
  • I would have started later.  It is against my nature to zero a lot...but with all the snow, I was forced to early on in SoCal.  In the end, there was still too much snow in the Sierra and NoCal even with all the zeros.  Had I started in mid-may, I think I would have had a much smoother experience.
  • Would have bought more food along the way and not done as many drops.
  • Probably would not have done a bounce box at all
  • I would not have worried so much about keeping up or "catching" other hikers.  Not that I was doing this very much, but in NoCal, I hiked a lot of very big mile days with other hikers who were simply faster and stronger hikers than me.  This made for some tough days for me.
  • Might have possibly done either a different stove solution, or NO stove.
  • I would have used a single 20 degree sleeping bag for the ENTIRE trail, instead of two different ones.
  • Would NOT have gone into Yosemite unless I was planning on spending more than 1 zero day there.  It's too beautiful of a place to rush through.
  • Would NOT have road-walked around Fuller Ridge and Mt. Baden-Powell.  In retrospect, these two decisions were the ones I most regretted.  The snow in both of these sections was considerably less than anything I dealt with in the Sierra...but I let other people's fear-mongering get to me.
  • I WOULD NOT HAVE LISTENED SO MUCH TO OTHER HIKERS' WARNINGS AND EXAGGERATIONS.  Other hikers have a natural tendency to talk up and exaggerate negative trail conditions.  This habit was pervasive on the trail.  No matter how much snow was actually on the trail in a certain section, or how many blowdowns I had to climb over...the trail was always reported as "Impassable!".  I wish I just would have smiled, nodded, and gone to see for myself before getting worked up about things.
  • I would have budgeted time to work for a week during my hike as part of a trail crew.
  • I would have zeroed in Stehekin, Etna, and Sierra City
  • I would have brought Flagyl with me from the start....just in case.
  • I would have tried to eat a little healthier.
  • I would have kept my GPS in a more secure place on my backpack.
  • I would have bought three pairs of Brooks shoes instead of using a pair of Montrails.
  • I would have started with Dirty Girl gaiters.
  • I would have started with a sun hat.
  • And a few other things that I'm forgetting....
Gear Review
I'm not going to review all of my gear, but I will at least go over the basics:

  • Pack:  2007 GoLite Jam2 (and 2007 GoLite Pinnacle in the Sierra).
I had seriously considered buying a new pack for this hike, and even came close at the kick-off.  In the end I stuck with my older generation Jam2 (and Pinnacle), and had a great experience with it.  As usual, it held up just fine and functioned as expected.  It is certainly not the nicest pack out there, nor the most efficient, but it works for me.  Unfortunately, it is pretty beat up now after having survived over 3200 miles and so I will have to consider something new in the future.  The newer go-lite packs have extra pockets and I may not stick with them.  The most popular packs on the PCT were ULA, Gossamer Gear, homemade Cuben Fiber and silnylon packs, and even McHale packs.  I didn't see very many golites.  Seems they are somewhat of a dying breed.
  • Shelter:  Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape and Tarptent Moment
For the first 700 miles I slept simply under a poncho tarp....on my thermarest...ona piece of tyvek.  It worked great.  It never rained, and my only issue was ants.  It would not have been justified to carry a full tent for this section.  I was very pleased with the cape.  It set up easily, and  packed small.  I never had to use it as a poncho, but did try it on several times.  Overall....great product.  It is small underneath though, and probably would not work well for people over 5'10".  After Agua Dulce, I started using a Tarptent Moment.  I had originally planned on using my old Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, but it was pretty screwed up.  I ordered a Moment while in Warner Springs and started using it after my stay at the Saufleys.  What I loved about the Moment, was how easy it was to set up.  Sure it was a few ounces heavier than a cuben fiber tarp, and required a pole, but it was so simple.  When I'd get to camp at night, I would literally have my shelter up and pitched in under a minute.  In three minutes, I'd have my thermarest inflated, sleeping bag laid out, and be starting dinner.....ALL while my hiking buddies would still be tying out their guylines, and pitching their crazy and intricate tarp systems.  No thank you.  For simplicity, you just can't beat the Moment.  I absolutely loved this tent.  The only negative comment is that mice were able to chew through the bottom meshing very easily.  It also did well the few times it got rained on....but as with any single wall silnylon tent....the condensation in the morning was sometimes quite a bit.  Nothing a trusty bandana can't fix though :-)
  • Pad:  Thermarest Prolite-3 and Neo-AIR
I started the hike with my old trusty Prolite-3...a pad that I still stand by.  It is light and sturdy.  The only downsides are that it doesn't provide that much comfort, and doesn't pack down very small.  I bit the bullet, and bought an expensive Neo-air in Agua Dulce, and never regretted it.  Not only does it give over 2 inches of soft comfort, but it packs down very small, and can even be used as a raft to help in river fording ;-)   The only down sides are that it is very expensive, and that it is delicate.  I carried a small patch kit just in case, but got lucky and had no punctures.  Also, it does take a good 60 seconds, and 30 full breaths to inflate.  This always made for a fun little dizzy spell each night.

  • Sleeping Bag:  Western Mountaineering Summerlite (32 Degree), North Face Highline (15 Degree)

Both bags performed superbly and I had no issues with either.  I would recommend them both.  The North Face bag was a bit overkill but did ok.  I think in retrospect I would have rather had a single 20 degree bag for the entire trail, but swapping out via the US mail wasn't a big deal.
  • Shoes:  Brooks Cascadia 5
Best trail runners ever.  My first pair lasted over 1200 miles, and my 2nd about 1000.  They are very light, drain well, are very flexible (ie no hot spots, rub spots, or blisters), and hold up against wear and tear very well.  I never had a single blister while I wore these.  The only weakness is against puncture.  While the meshing holds up very well against abrasion, it can puncture.  I kicked up a small stick in Oregon with about 400 miles on my 2nd pair and popped a small hole in the meshing.  It quickly spread and by the time I made it to Canada, had turned into a very large hole on the side of the shoe.  This probably would have happened with any shoe, so I'm not really putting much into this experience.  In the end, I got over 2200 miles on two pairs and in both cases, there was still good tread left on the bottoms.  As for the other 500 miles....well I hiked those in a pair of Montrails that were absolute garbage (see below)
  • Clothing:  Merino Wool and Patagonia Nine Trail Shorts (and other stuff)
On this hike I steered away from my usual synthetic clothing and went with Merino wool layers.  This was a great decision.  I wore the same Icebreaker 150 merino wool shirt every single day I hiked.  Other than a small hole which I sewed closed, it is still wearable today.  Merino doesn't retain odor like synthetics either, so I wasn't gassed out by my own B.O. every night.  In addition, I wore a Merino Hoodie that was my favourite piece of clothing.  I wore it in the desert to keep my head shielded, and all through the cold sections for that little extra bit of warmth.  By Washington, it started breaking down though and literally fell apart the last 2 days of hiking.  The quality of wool was obviously less than that in the icebreaker shirt, but it was still my favourite piece of clothing.  Merino does a great job at keeping you warm when cold, and cooler when hot.  Good stuff.  As far as shorts...I wore my nine trails shorts for the entire hike.  These are the same shorts I wear on my road and trail runs, and the same shorts I wore on the AT.  They are still the best shorts ever made in my opinion.  Good fitting liner, zippered pockets, no chafing issues, and comfortable.  All of my other clothing worked well too.  Montbell parka (same as on my CT hike) worked well in the sierra, golite virga rain coat, rainpaints etc....All good.
  • Gaiters:  Dirty Girls
My DG's and Crocs?

If you were to have told me that I was going to hike almost the entire PCT wearing gaiters, I would have laughed at you.  I don't do gaiters.  At least I didn't.  I started the trail with a pair of Mountain Laurel Designs gaiters as sort of an experiment...that ended up being terrible.  In Agua Dulce, I started wearing a pair of 15 dollar Dirty Girl stretchy gaiters and wore them all the way to Stehekin (90 miles from the end).  I now see the wisdom of gaiters.  For the first 400 miles I was constantly taking my shoes off to empty out sand and gravel.  It was pretty nice to be able to hike all day and never have that annoying pebble find its way into your shoe....hoping if you wiggle your foot just right, it might magically go away.  I am a firm believer in these gaiters now and will not hike another long hike without them.
  • Socks:  Darn Toughs
I hiked the entire AT in DeFeet Wool-E-ators and had a great experience with them.  More recently though, I had been running several ultras in the Vermont Darn Toughs.  I thought I'd try them out on a thru hike.  Overall, they held up very well.  I went through 4 pairs in total.  This may seem like a lot, but it was my own fault.  I didn't keep up proper care of my socks like I should have.  I should have rotated them more, and cleaned them out of sand and dust every night.  I severely underestimated the destructive power of the sand and dirt out west.  No matter how strong your socks are, if you don't take care of them, they will get holes quickly out west.  
  • Misc:
As usual, I loved my Casio Pathfinder, my alcohol stove, my camera, my sunglasses, sun hat, trekking poles, and headlamp.

That's it for now...(might post a few more later)

Really there's just two:
  • Gaiters:
I started with Mountain Laurel Designs half-height gaiters...which common sense should have told me was a bad idea.  They don't fit up over your calf.  So, if you tighten them to stay up, it cuts of the circulation in your legs....if you loosen them, they fall down.  Add to that...they have an elastic band that goes under your shoe that frays with less than 20 miles of walking...and you have an absolute crap product.  Enough  said.
  • Shoes:
Montrail AT Plus.  I so wanted to believe in Montrail again.  Desperately.  The hard rocks were my chariots on my AT hike.  I went through a couple of pairs and they worked wonderfully.  I sang praises of Montrail.  But then, in 2008, I bought a pair on the Colorado Trail and they were all wrong.  Something was different.  They hurt my feet, dug into the sides, and I was very upset.  Turns out, Columbia bought out Montrail and in doing so the quality of several of the shoe lines dropped significantly.  In training for my first ultras I came across the Brooks and found another solution with the Cascadias, but was nervous that they wouldn't hold up on a thru-hike.  In a last desperation attempt, I logged on to in March and noticed that there was a brand new shoe out:  the AT Plus.  Montrail stated on their website, "You complained, and we listened".  The AT Plus was supposed to be Montrail getting back to their days of "well designed shoes" and be a solid replacement to the Hardrock that lived up to the reputation of its good ol' days.  Thousands of people complained to Montrail that their shoes had gone down hill, and they responded with a new and improved shoe line.  I had hope again!  I bit the bullet and bought the $110 pair of shoes (despite having a pro-deal with brooks), and stowed them away as my "Sierra Shoes".  They were tougher and sturdier than the Cascadias, and would make for great mountain shoes.   Long story short....they were CRAP.  Within the first 100 miles, they began falling apart.  Both shoes.  Seams started coming undone, tread starting coming off, and I started getting friction spots and sore feet.  Add to that the fact that they drain horribly, and I was walking over 500 miles on some of the toughest trail, in TERRIBLE footwear.  I can't stress this enough....these shoes are GARBAGE.  Every other hiker that I ran into wearing these I asked about their experience....and they all had similar ones.  Shoes falling apart, making their feet sore...etc.  Sorry Montrail, but you've lost me as a customer for life.  I really wanted to believe that you had come back to your old ways, but you haven't.  Good luck in the future.

That's it for now...I'll try to fill in the gaps later....


Shawn Hudson said...

Thanks for the detailed post. I completely agree with you on the Montrails. In 2008 - around May, when I was in Damascus and wanted a replacement - the local outfitter wooed me with the new line. God-awful shoe. I made them last 700 miles, but damn if I didn't regret it. The best shoe I had on the AT, honestly, was a cheap-o New Balance line: the 474, I believe.

I'm looking forward to getting the Cascadia 5s and hoping that they don't change the line before 2012.

Also, thanks for the tips on the shirt. I have a hard time finding a quality trail shirt ... sounds like the one your described is worth a gander.

Now, a few questions:

Did you use an ice axe, and if so, which one?

Stoves. What kind of stoves were prevalent. Since I'll be hiking as part of a couple, we've been considering this Trangia couple's set (alcohol), but I also have a pocket-rocket-ish stove from Korea that I like. Any problems with finding iso-butane out there?

Unknown said...

Totally agree with you on the Brooks Cascadias, I thru-hiked the AT this year and have nothing but great things to say about the Brooks', I had the same issue with the mesh being punctured, however mine was on the front toe section, would've happened with any other trail runner though. Congratulations on finishing another thru-hike, well written account of your experiences on and off the trail by the way, I can relate to a lot of what you are saying. Take care.


Lakewood said...

shawn: I used a standard 65 cm black diamond raven ice axe. I only really used it a few times, but it did the trick. Most people used either alcohol or esbit stoves...although I did also see quite a few jetboils. Most people that used jetboils mailed themselves fuel (even though you're not supposed to)