Imagine hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Imagine the distant desert views, the granite Sierra trails, blue alpine lakes and layers upon layers of mountains, the green tunnels of Oregon and the lush, rugged mountain ranges of Washington. Now imagine a 202% above average snow year and a late March start date, and envision ploughing through snow in the Californian desert, waking up to frozen shoes and frozen water filters. Imagine snowstorms that chase you until the end of May, and then the cherries on top: a case of snow blindness, getting tick bites and losing your thumbnails, and somehow barely seeing any other hikers on one of the most popular long distance trails because of all the flipping you’re doing to avoid the worst of the snow.
A good amount of people finish the Pacific Crest Trail every year, but it’s still a bit of a feat – apparently, more people have climbed Mount Everest than thru-hiked the PCT, and walking the entire trail is the equivalent of going up and down Everest 17 times, elevation-wise. So I guess it makes sense that things can go wrong on trail. And when I hiked it in 2019, a lot of things went wrong.
So here is a little (big) warning tale for the next class, a chronological summary of everything that went wrong for me on the PCT, and if you do it right, it could go wrong for you as well (and then we can share in the misery):
New Gear In The Desert
These were not the biggest problems, but it all starts somewhere, right? As this was my first long-distance trail in the USA, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and order a load of ultralight gear from US cottage companies. I had it all send to Scout and Frodo’s in San Diego, trail angels who host hikers the days before starting the trail. Unfortunately, just before flying out I realised my tent was stuck in transit and I begged Tarptent to send me a new one. When I arrived at Scout and Frodo’s the afternoon before starting the trail, a bit of a nerve wreck over the possibility of lost gear, I checked the garage with all the packages. And I found not one, but two tents waiting for me. I then spent the entire evening frantically unpacking everything, entertaining all the other hikers who were watching me gather everything together at the last minute. I didn’t finish until everyone had long gone to sleep.
I Wasn’t Ultralight Enough For My Backpack
After getting dropped off at the southern monument and finally starting the trail, it didn’t take long to realise my new backpack was a torture device. Essentially, I wasn’t ultralight enough for the pack, as I kept pushing at the upper weight limit. Whenever I ate more food, the pack was great, but straight out of town it really wasn’t very comfortable.
I Didn’t Know How To Use My New Camera
But I’d downloaded the 599 page guide onto my phone before leaving, planning to read it on the flight. I didn’t read it on the flight. After a few days I looked up how to use the self-timer while sitting in the dirt next to the trail, and kind of figured it out from there. Saying that, my desert pictures are all a little bit under-lit…
My Phone Wouldn’t Work
You don’t quite realise how useful a phone is until you don’t have one. I’d purchased a 6 month pre-paid non-refundable Straight Talk phone plan for $300. It came with a few different SIM cards from different providers and I put in the Verizon one, which has the best coverage on trail, and my phone was compatible. But it just wouldn’t activate. I can’t even begin to relive the amount of hours I spent on live chats, borrowing other people’s phones to try and fix it. I even looked into buying new SIM cards and new phones. It was a huge pain, until weeks into the trail when Prince, Speedy and I hitched to an iPhone store from Cajon Junction where it took all day to find out that my unlocked phone simply wasn’t unlocked. My guess is that New Zealand didn’t bother unlocking the CDMA function and only unlocked GSM because that’s all they use in the country. I switched the Verizon SIM for an AT&T one, Prince called Straight Talk to activate the new SIM and after more than three weeks on trail, I finally had a phone. Pff.
Surviving The Desert
Too Much Sun (Rash?)
The desert was a mixed cup of beans. Hot and sunny, and also covered in snow at high elevation. I developed a sun rash on my hands early on – which I’ve had before. It usually goes away after my skin gets used to the exposure, but this proved a little different on the PCT. The rash got bad – swollen red bumps that hurt like hell. But whenever I found myself in a town where I could finally buy sun gloves, they’d disappeared. So I’d decide I didn’t need them anymore, and every time I got back to the trail the rash would return. It would bother me for about 1550 miles, until I finally got some gloves. And got rid of the rash.
Too Much Snow
We hit that 202% above average snow pack the first time ten days into the trail, when we entered the San Jacinto Wilderness. The night before was the worst on trail. I attempted to set up my tent in between some trees, trying to keep it safe from a storm that was raging on outside. Unfortunately, my tent proved not very storm worthy. I couldn’t stake it well as the ground was too soft, and there were no rocks to use as anchors. I tied the guy lines to tree branches and huddled underneath the collapsed tent fabric while it rained. It was freezing cold and the rain seeped in, getting everything wet. When I packed up the next morning, I was overwhelmed by exhaustion, and then had to spend the next few days struggling through the snow, passing by some precarious ice chutes.
I was hiking with Speedy and Prince at that point – we’d decided to stick together during the snowy sections for safety reasons, but I lost them in an unexpected traverse through endless snow fields and white-out conditions. I’d never been more relieved when I found them pitching their tents on a bare section of ground in the midst of lots and lots of snow. The next morning, I woke up to frozen shoes, and spent the first hour of walking in so much pain I struggled not to cry. There was another painfully cold night shortly after, the morning before running into Big Bear in a frenzy of frozen everything. I don’t think I’ve ever been more cold in my life – and this was just the start of the desert.
Joshua Trees Are Cool Until They Spear You
Everybody will tell you they love those darn trees, and I did too until I got up in the middle of the night to hike that notoriously hot and dry LA Aqueduct section and I just kept on walking and walking until I realised I could do my first 30 mile day. I ended up going into the mountains after the wind farm when the most insane gusts hit me. I kept getting almost pushed off the trail, until I quite literally got blown into a small Joshua Tree, which, unceremoniously, speared me in slow-motion. I still have the marks and it was so painful my whole lower leg went numb right after it happened.
When The Snow Takes Over
The Sierras Were Drowning In It
I was still with Speedy and Prince when we hit the Sierras. It was still quite early in May. There was going to be snow at that time of year anyways, but this year, there was a lot more. Courtesy of that 202% above average snow pack. The entire trail was covered in it, even the lower elevations. Entering the Sierras wouldn’t be straight forward. Extra winter gear would be required. Access roads would still be closed. Food carries would be long. You’d have to get up at 3 AM to hike as much as possible before the sun would start to turn the snow to slush by midday. We’d be hiking 10 miles instead of 20, but it would still take 12 hours. We sat down and decided this wasn’t what we wanted. It was the most difficult decision we made: we decided to flip, and do the Sierras at a later date.
Despite the flipflopping, I was still adamant to keep a northbound direction throughout and to finish at the Canadian border, but everything would fall to pieces. I flipped four times on the way up. I reached Canada after 1550 miles and went southbound, where I flipped another four times. I was at the mercy of the snow, ultimately ending the trail in Kennedy Meadows. But let’s get back to what happened after we hitched up from the desert first:
We Hitched to Northern California And Got Stuck In Snow
Unfortunately flipping around the Sierras wasn’t ever going to get us out of the snow. We knew that. At this point, the PCTA’s online snow map showed snow everywhere along the remainder of the trail, as though the gods had carefully sprinkled the PCT, just for us. Despite the snow, the plan was to finish the Northern California section and possibly Oregon before heading back to the Sierras, so we spent three days hitching and started up again in the Desolation Wilderness, where we were thrown right back into the white fluffy stuff…
I Lost My Eyes
After barely managing to make it anywhere on both our first and second day, I went to sleep and found myself overwhelmed with pain. I was in agony. I spent the night huddled forward, my eyes tearing and burning and the tears causing even more burn. It was so horrible I didn’t know what to do anymore. By the time morning came (finally), I was ready to press the SOS button on my SPOT device. Luckily I was with Speedy and Prince and they found a side-trail which led to a fire station instead. It was less than five miles, but it took just as many hours to make it out. Prince took my pack and carried it on his chest, making him posthole even more than he usually would, and I blindfolded myself, peeking out only to look at where I placed my feet, holding onto Speedy’s pack from behind. It was horrendous. Walking in the shade was painful enough, but in the full sun the bright reflection from the white snow was unbearable. I’d have to stop every five steps, overwhelmed with pain. When we finally made it to an urgent care, the doctor confirmed I’d burnt my eyes from the sun’s reflection in the snow. Luckily the damage wasn’t permanent. So I bought my first pair of sunglasses, and we decided to hitch further up – in a second attempt to get away from the snow.
And Then We Hit More Snow
We found our way to Old Station, and after three days of going northbound we got hit by a snowstorm. We’d slowly been moving up, further into the mountains, higher and higher. The continuous, freezing cold rain that started the day before turned to snow, and then it turned into a storm, everything white in front of my eyes and soon everything was drenched, and I knew I had to set up my tent immediately. I found a spot in the smallest snowless patch under a tree, wondering where the others were, as they’d been ahead. Temperatures plummeted that night. When I woke up the next morning it was quiet, and when I went outside, I didn’t recognise a thing. Everything was covered in a fresh foot of snow, on top of the thick pack that was already there. It was winter. That day I didn’t have a choice but to keep on going, fighting over snow drifts, exhausted, my feet numb like giant ice cubes. Some sections were so steep I kept sliding down the mountain side, the snow slowly turning to slush during the day. I didn’t see the others, I didn’t even see their foot prints. It was early afternoon when I realised I had reception and turned on my phone to receive a text from Speedy. Her and Prince had been on the edge of hypothermia and bailed out that morning, taking a side trail that lead to a forest road where they managed to hitch out. I never even considered the option. I was left on the mountain by myself, my only companions the giant paw prints in the snow. When I wrote my blog, I called this day ‘Snow Hell’.
And More Snow Hell
After this second unsuccessful attempt at avoiding the snow, we flipped up the trail once again. Speedy and Prince hitched up to Seiad Valley a day before I did, having had a few days to thaw in Mt Shasta before I finally crawled my way out of the snow. Although Seiad Valley was burning hot, once I reached to top of that steep climb out of town, I was surrounded by snow once again. And it didn’t stop. I spent the next few days pushing through it, and I began to run into more flipflopping PCT hikers. At this point, everyone was talking about leaving the trail. It was the end of May and we were all getting sick of the snow. It wasn’t going anywhere and we were running out of the time. Morale was at an all time low.
The day before I was supposed to reach Ashland, I set up my tent on a distinctly snowfree patch and another snowstorm hit. I woke up to a thick pack once again. When I tried to pack up, snow kept falling inside my tent. It was so cold it took ages, my fingers freezing as I put away each piece of gear. That day I followed all the wrong roads and struggled to get over the snowy mountain once again. Being a day ahead, Speedy and Prince had just avoided the weather, but they decided they’d had enough. They quit the trail. I called this day Snow Hell, Part 2.
We All Left The Trail
And that was that, for a short while. We all left the trail. Everything was covered in snow, and there was nothing significant left to walk that wasn’t. I followed Speedy and Prince into Portland where they bought bikepacking gear and decided to cycle to the east coast (and realised hiking is much more enjoyable than cycling.) I just sat there, waiting for the snow to melt, but nothing happened. I thought of hiking the Arizona Trail in the meantime, or doing to Appalachian Trail southbound instead. But after 11 restless and indecisive days off trail, I decided to return to the PCT. There was one last section between Sisters and Cascade Locks that seemed mostly snow-free, and I decided to go for it. It was June 7 the night I got back to the trail at Santiam Pass. It snowed.
Snow Hell, Part 3
The next day I hit more snow. I struggled to navigate. I was the first to carve a footpath into the snowy mountains leading towards Mt Jefferson and by the time I reached Three Fingered Jack and faced the steep sidle along its eastern side, I was petrified. The snow was pristine and it took me probably an hour to dig 0.1 miles of steps before realising I wasn’t going to make it across to the other side. It was too steep, it was close to dusk and I was completely alone. I descended into the forest below and spent the next day bushwhacking my way out, back to the PCT, only to get stuck behind the mountain before Rockpile. Again I bushwhacked down the backside of the mountain, the only way to get out, found my way to an overgrown trail and descended down another scary mountain slope, hanging onto trees and gliding across snow drifts, into the Pamelia limited entry area. I went back to the PCT, but by now I was way too frazzled to deal with the snow on the northern side of Jefferson. So I decided on a huge (and quite possible wholly unnecessary) detour around the entire area, exiting through Whitewater Creek trail, the horribly unmaintained Crag trail that cut open my legs everywhere, several sealed and unsealed forest roads, the Red Lake trail where my campsite was crawling with the biggest ticks I have ever seen, and back to the PCT once again, almost out of food, where I longingly stared through the windows of the still closed shop at Olallie Lake.
I called this Snow Hell, part 3. One good thing happened though: by the time I’d looped around Mt Jefferson and it was creeping up to mid June, the snow finally started to melt.
My Body Fell Apart
The Tale Of Getting A Tick Bite
That day after I climbed out of Seiad Valley, I found a tick stubbornly attached to me. Its little feet were moving about and I tried to take it out, but didn’t manage to keep it intact. The head remained logged inside me. It developed a light rash, so while I was in Portland I went to urgent care once again where I was put on antibiotics for 20 days. It would make me sensitive to the sun, the doctor said, although I wasn’t bothered by sunburn as much as I was by the bouts of feeling quite unwell from the medication itself. Something else happened though. During those snow filled days trying to fight my way out of the Jefferson area, my thumbnails started hurting. It was this odd, intense and burning pain that made no sense, and which made it quite difficult to complete simple tasks, like unbuckling my pack or preparing food. The pain would stay for a few days and then go again. At that point I was at a loss as to what it could be – I didn’t even know what to google.
… And Losing My Thumbnails
Until I did. I arrived at Snoqualmie Pass after my longest day on trail, feverishly running down the path as I feared the shops would be closed on the Fourth of July (they weren’t.) The next morning I noticed a change in my thumbnails: they were going white. I instantly knew what was happening, and after googling, I broke out in tears. I was losing my thumbnails. The toxins in the antibiotics in combination with the UV from the sun caused a process called photo-onycholysis, which meant that essentially, the nails were separating from the nail bed. Throughout the next weeks and months I watched them harden and curl, digging into the side of my fingers. The white turned to a translucency that showed golden brown bubbles from where the nails were detaching. Luckily, they never snapped off.
I Was Pretty Lonely
I chose the PCT because I’d wanted the experience of a social trail, but after my tiny trail family called it quits, I spent most of it completely alone. Because of all the flipping around, I seemed to always be going in exactly the opposite direction that everyone else was hiking. I’d make a friend for a day, and then lose them forever. It’s a good thing I prefer hiking solo, but it would’ve been nice to have a group of people to run into regularly and share these experiences with.
Dealt With A Lot Of Low Quality Food
Washington was a struggle. I sent a total of zero resupply boxes along the trail, so I had to do with gas station food on some unlucky occasions. I was practically in tears when I got to go into Leavenworth, where I was finally able to pick up quality food. Going up and down those overgrown mountains on ramen and crackers wasn’t easy.
I Got Chased By Bad Weather
Experiencing terrifying weather isn’t really uncommon. I faced a fair share of it in Washington. For weeks rumbling, darkening skies chased me. I watched lightning and thunder in the distance, hoping it wouldn’t come too close. But it did. The first time I’d just entered Goat Rocks Wilderness. I was on Cispus Pass when the threatening skies suddenly surrounded me, thunder filled the air and I had to run to get to safety. I set up my tent next to a few trees and stayed there for the rest of the day. And the next. Just a few days after I crossed Chinook Pass with rumbling skies and by the time I reached Sourdough Gap, the weather had caught up. Out of nowhere it hailed icy stones the size of marbles. Then lightning flashed right before me, followed by a crash of thunder. I ran so hard I barely touched the ground. I set up my tent in between a set of trees at Bear Gap Junction, hail flying inside my shelter while setting it up.
Much later, when I finally entered the Sierras going southbound, afternoon thunderstorms haunted me just before Sonora Pass. I was terrified this was going to be a daily occurrence for the rest of the Sierras, but this time I was lucky – it didn’t.
I Made A Few Bad Choices
Like when I decided to take the stock trail before the Knife’s Edge in Goat Rocks, the one thing everyone tells you not to do, especially early in the season. Learn from my mistakes. DON’T TAKE THE STOCK ROUTE.
I Met Mosquitoes
I didn’t know what hell mosquitoes could truly be. Oregon was infested. I could be running and still have an army attached to me. I didn’t have a head net, and after a few days wow did I wish I had one of those ridiculous full body mesh suits. I was so desperate for protection that I picked up a mesh sleeping bag stuff sack from a hiker box and spent the next few weeks with a Big Agnes logo on the back of my head. Then I picked up a piece of mesh fabric and tied it around my legs as a skirt. It worked surprisingly well, considering.
I Fought Time
A standard issue on the PCT – having a lot of miles to hike within a limited weather window. I had to speed up in Oregon and Northern California to leave me with enough time in the Sierras. I started to nighthike – or plan to nighthike, at least. Once it got dark I always decided it was no longer a good idea. Because, you know, it was dark and spooky and this is when the mountain lions come out and start to follow you. But I’d keep going as long as I could. I was doing 25 mile days at first, but didn’t quite allow for any resupply trips into towns. So it quickly became 27.5 mile days, and then 30. On top of topping up my mileage, I realised taking a few hundred pictures and blogging every day took up a lot of time. It was exhausting.
When I finally went southbound I had all these dreams of treating myself by staying in some of the nicer hotels I’d booked on the way up. Unfortunately, my northbound adventure had been out of season and by the time I went south, all the hotel prices had soared. My dreams of luxury relaxation did not come to fruition. I still miss you dearly, Coachman Hotel in South Lake Tahoe.
The Final Few Weeks
Injury Caught Up With Me
Actually, I was quite lucky I didn’t have many physical issues. Apart from going blind and losing my thumbnails, of course. My feet were pretty happy. I had no blisters. I did quite literally stretch myself into a knee problem in Washington (don’t stretch if you don’t know how to) but other than that, I paced myself and didn’t make my body do anything it couldn’t handle, which kept me injury free. This all changed those last weeks, when I’d been consistently pushing myself for higher mileage. When I hit the Sierras a sharp pain next to my right shin developed. Some days it was so intense I could barely walk. I still remember the days before summiting Mt Whitney – I kept having to stop because I was simply unable to move. I was in tears. It’s the only time I took painkillers. A few times they seemed to work, other days it didn’t make any difference whatsoever. There was no time left to go off trail and rest up for a few days, so all I could do was push through.
Permits Are A Thing
It wasn’t until the Sierras, the section I did last, that I finally ran into rangers who checked my permit. They were all pretty cool, until the very last one, who I met just after I’d come back from Bishop via Kearsarge Pass – my very last resupply town. It was my last stretch before finishing, and I’d only have another five days on trail. The girl checked my permit and quite resolutely told me it wasn’t valid. Technically I was supposed to northbound the PCT from late March, putting me in the Sierras from mid May onwards, but instead I’d flipped all over the place, and was now southbounding the Sierras in September. Considering this crazy year, lots of people were going through the Sierras at the wrong time and I’d never heard of anyone changing their permit to reflect this. I didn’t even know if this was possible. As it was my last stretch she let me continue, but I have a feeling she wouldn’t have been so amenable had it been any different. On a side note, the new 2020 permit rules won’t allow you to flip like this anymore, so make sure you’ve got the right documentation if you do end up doing things differently from what your permit outlines.
And that was that. The Pacific Crest Trail of 2019.
I hope that was somewhat entertaining – all this type 2 fun really deserves some storytelling to be appreciated. I wonder if my next hike will be this much of a disaster as well (I hope so.) Thruhikes are never really what you expect them to be, and I guess everything that appears to go wrong, is really just expectations not being met. So, was there anything that did go to plan? Well, I finished the PCT. In spite of everything, I figured out a way to walk all those 2653.1 miles. Because of the flipflopping, something I didn’t want to do at all, I did experience the Sierras at a beautiful, snow and mosquito-free time of year. It was quite a beautiful way to end the PCT. And on top of that, I finally learned how to use my camera and after multiple unsuccessful nights, I managed to take a picture of the milkyway on my very, very last day on trail. So I’m happy.
What about your trail horror stories? Please share them in the comments!