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PCT 2023: Reflections and Lessons

PCT 2023: Reflections and Lessons

How to sum up a thru hike. It’s hard to put nearly seven months of hiking into words, but I’ll try.

Mantis and I started the PCT on March 26th. We met so many other thru hikers right away. Everyone was just so incredible. Reminded me why we love thru hiking so much. It’s not just the beautiful views, but the people hiking it and all the people who helped us along the way. The desert was much colder than we anticipated. Especially when we got higher in elevation. Since we started early enough, and it was a record high snow year, there was still plenty of snow in the “desert” section. San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, Baden Powell and then of course, The Sierra Nevada.

Leading up to the Sierra, it was in the back of each hiker’s head, “What are you going to do when you get to Kennedy Meadows South?” Whenever someone else asked, Mantis and I usually responded, “We’ll see when we get there.” We talked about it a few times and I think we were leaning towards not going into the Sierra at all. When we got to Kennedy Meadows South (KMS) we had a few days to collect ourselves and new gear while we waited for one of our good hiking friends Dash to catch up to us because he recently got off trail to attend a family event. We knew if we were going to go into the Sierra we were going to go in with him. The more we waited the more hikers we saw getting geared up, resupplied and going in. Mantis and I decided, you know what, let's dip our toes and go in too! When Dash got to KMS our group grew with Twist, Head Start, Mini Chimi, Switchback, Android and Tough.

It felt pretty good and safer to have a larger group. We also felt safe knowing there were groups ahead of us making boot tracks and groups behind us in case anything happened to us. We made it to Mulkey Pass and then out to Lone Pine. Some of us decided we wanted to go back in. It was some of the most beautiful, but also frustrating and exhausting few days to Kearsarge Pass. I still think about the day we went over Forrester Pass sometimes and the excitement, relief, joy and so many other emotions that were felt on that day.

I’m glad we went for it and I can say I went into the Sierra during a historic snow year, but I was also excited to get out when we did. Waking up around three or four in the morning, hiking for nearly twelve hours and only making it about ten miles in the cold and wet snow was a lot. I give all my admiration to those who continued North and pushed through the entire Sierra in the snow, but I’m glad it wasn’t us. Instead Mantis and I exited at Kearsarge Pass and got a ride to Bishop where we stayed at Hostel California for a few days before our flights back East. We both spent time with our families, went to Mantis’ friends wedding and then back to the trail we went! Now the question was, “Where do we get back on?” We decided to get back on at Burney California, 622.3 miles North of where we left the trail. We met back up with Twist, Headstart and Mini Chimi as we all continued to hike North.

Even after skipping ahead over 600 miles we still could not avoid the snow and had a section of snow before getting to Shasta. The rest of Northern California and Oregon for that matter were pretty sparse of snow! Thank goodness, but something else took its place for making the days difficult… mosquitoes. I have never experienced mosquitoes at this level. At one point the only way I forgot about a bug bite was because I got fifteen new ones the next day. They were getting us through both our sun hoodies and our mid layers. The only way to be bug proof was to wear your rain gear and a bug net, but even then they were still getting your hands or even your ankles. After about a week of this it was a real mental battle to get through some of the days, but luckily it got better over time! There were a lot of highlights too. A few of them were seeing my sister in Etna for my birthday, Fourth of July in Ashland, cowboy camping at Crater Lake National Park, going from one beautiful stratovolcano to the next, Timberline Lodge (of course), and making it to Cascade Locks on a 30 plus mile day just in time to pick up a four pack from Thunder Island Brewery. Now Washington was next.

We started Washington off right by celebrating our friend, Turtle Wolf’s birthday in Stevenson. The next day we hit the trail and caught back up with our friends Twist and Head Start. We hiked with them until White Pass where we got off trail for a few days and hung out in Portland. We decided to continue hiking North and they decided to go back South and cover the miles in Northern California and the Sierra. We only hiked North for another week or so and had to get off again at Snoqualmie Pass where we spent about five days in Seattle hoping Mantis’ tight tendon would heal, but unfortunately it wasn’t at one hundred percent and the forest fires were beginning to pop up and close large sections North of us. So we decided to flip back down to Burney and start hiking South. Before that though our timing was impeccable where my sister and her boyfriend were driving through Seattle and heading to Portland so we were able to get a ride with them! We then took a shuttle back to Cascade Locks and reunited with so many friends at PCT Days! It was an absolute blast!

We weren’t sure how we were going to get to Burney from there, but it all worked out where we got a hitch with three other thru hikers back to Portland and they had a rental car with room for two! Everything just fell into place and we were so thankful and excited to get back on trail. We were in a new bubble of hikers with the occasional familiar faces going Southbound and Northbound. Eventually we made it to Sonora Pass. We had ourselves a great zero in Pinecrest where we were hosted by Sailor and Cookies and celebrated Rosh Hashanah with a whole bunch of hikers! It was truly a time to remember and a great way to prepare ourselves to re-enter the Sierra.

Going back into the Sierra was exciting, but also worrisome. This was going to be another mental and physical battle. We were pretty exhausted everyday and were struggling waking up early. Luckily there was hardly any snow now and the water crossings were not as bad as we thought they were going to be. There were a few more than usual with a few bridges being out, but it was all very doable.

The constant elevation gain and loss with the longer food carries were difficult. With the difficulties came the greatest reward. The constant views and absolute beauty that is the Sierra Nevada or The Range of Light. We were lucky again with the weather and didn’t have any issues until our last day where it snowed a few inches before we made our way out of the Sierra again via Kearsarge Pass.

We got a ride to Lone Pine where we stayed at the Motel Dow Villa for a few days. We scored two overnight permits to hike Mt. Whitney for Oct 2nd and 3rd! Even after hiking through the Sierra I still had a hard time catching my breath when we summited Whitney, but we still did it! It was the perfect way to wrap up the 622.3 miles we had to complete and the perfect send off of California, but we weren’t done the trail yet. 259.4 miles were between us and finishing the Pacific Crest Trail. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy and that the ideal weather window for hiking in Northern Washington was coming to an end, or even over, but we just couldn’t picture ourselves stopping now. We had to at least try to finish the trail. Mantis’ sister was getting married October 28th so even if the weather wasn’t rushing us we had a deadline quickly approaching to finish. We flipped back up to Seattle, got a shuttle ride to Snoqualmie Pass and were on our way to finish the PCT!

The first day and half were alright, but then the next few days were pretty rainy and when it wasn’t raining it was still cold and cloudy so not much dried off. The sun didn’t come out until the day we got to Stevens Pass. We got a ride into Leavenworth and took a zero the next day to celebrate Oktoberfest! We obviously got back to trail later than hoped the next day. While in town we bought our plane tickets home out of Vancouver. We crunched the numbers and knew we had to do at least twenty three miles a day to finish in time for our flight. The first two days between Stevens and Rainy Pass were tough. Cold, windy and wet. Luckily the sun came out the last two days, but the overgrown trail kept us pretty wet at times as did the snow by Glacier Peak that just fell the day before.

We were pretty excited to get to Rainy Pass and were thrilled to get a salted baguette from the bakery in Mazama. We stayed at Lion’s Den where we learned from Raven that we might be some of the last thru hikers heading North. There was a big snow storm about to hit with predictions of a few feet of snow. It was supposed to arrive on Tuesday October 24th and we planned on flying home on Monday the 23rd. We were just going to miss it. Knowing we did not have enough time to stop in Stehekin this was our final resupply. We also arranged a ride with friends of ours we met earlier on in the thru hike, Catch Up and Coyote. They would pick us up from Manning Park and bring us to Vancouver. It was so nice not having to worry about hitching a ride to Vancouver and making our flight at midnight the same day we finish. Our next stop was the border, then Vancouver and then home.

This was the final push and we were more determined than ever to finish the trail. We had much nicer weather for these last few days and the miles seemed to float by as did the day with less sunlight. Mantis and I packed enough food for an army and were eating as much as we could as often as we could to really enjoy these last few days on trail. We had stunning views around Harts Pass and were being congratulated by all the day hikers.

It was a surreal feeling knowing the end was approaching. Of course our last morning we packed up our gear in the rain. As we made our final ascent it began snowing. How poetic. When we reached the top of the climb though something miraculous happened. The clouds parted, the snow and rain stopped and the sun shone on the mountains and valleys around us. It was as if the trail provided this final blessing to allow us to finish in the sunlight.

As we made our final descent someone made mile markers out of sticks and rocks signifying how many miles were left. As we hiked these last few miles we reminisced. “What towns have we stopped at?” Five miles. “What was the best trail magic?” Four miles. “What gear didn’t break along this hike?” Three miles. “Who have we met along this hike?” Two miles. “How lucky are we?” One.

It doesn’t seem real when you see the monument. This thing we’ve been walking towards for the last 210 days, the countless other thru hikers who have posted their picture in front of the monument, but there it was. We stopped in our tracks, looked at eachother, held hands and walked slowly toward the five posts made of Douglas fir. We touched it at the sametime and embraced one another. It was just her and I and the monument for hours. It was an incredible moment and one we were not going to take for granted. We soaked in every second of it. Sprayed champagne, took pictures and just stared at it in admiration of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done to get to this moment. We signed our names in the register, took a few more pictures and one last look before we made our way to the campsite .2 miles away.

The next day was a frost covered morning and eight miles later we met up with Catch Up in Manning Park. We picked up another thru hiker who finished two days before. Dropped her off in Vancouver before getting to Catch Up and Coyotes apartment where we got to see Coyote again. We showered, did laundry and then went out to dinner. After dinner Mantis and I took the streetcar to the airport and caught our flight from Vancouver to Toronto. We then went from Toronto to Montreal, then Montreal to D.C. The Pacific Crest Trail adventure had come to a close. I think the idea of it being over still hasn't fully sunk in for me yet.

The experience was unlike anything I’ve had before. I will be forever grateful for who we met and all those who helped us along the way. Thru hiking really wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the kindness of others. Thru hiker, trail angel, or anyone willing to help.


What did you learn from the trail this time?

I am capable of more than I give myself credit for. I shouldn’t dwell in the past, but enjoy the present and to make the next day better than the last.


What was something that was unexpectedly hard about this trail?

The desert was much colder than expected. The mosquitos were worse than anticipated. The consistently longer food carries were tough.


How did your experience on this trail compare to your previous thru-hiking experience?

I went into this hike with a different mentality than the Appalachian Trail. When I started the AT I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish. I didn’t even want to tell people I was going to go do this insane thing because I was afraid I would fail and have to explain why. This time around with the confidence and experience of a thru hike under my belt I started the PCT knowing I can do it, but do I have the time or the money to finish. The PCT is a much different experience than the AT. Views is one thing, but there are a lot more differences. The lack of shelters, hostels and communal spaces made it difficult to create a stronger bond between hikers. We really only saw other thru hikers at water sources, towns and sometimes designated campsites. This year was also a bit odd on the PCT. Apparently there were only about 60% of the usual hikers on the trail this year and with most flipping and flopping around the snow in the Sierra and the wildfires in Washington it caused a lot of groups to splinter and go different directions. All the flipping and flopping to different sections and going different directions did lead to meeting a lot of thru hikers, but we didn’t stay with one group for very long. Just when we were getting to know the people around us we either got off for a few days or were flipping somewhere else. It was really great to meet so many people though. Many of the people we met were international compared to on the AT where most thru hikers were from the US and mainly Eastern US. Another big difference, the biggest you could say, was that I hiked this entire trail with my partner Mantis. The experience of hiking with a partner rather than solo is quite different. Planning things together and listening to each other's needs and wants was extremely important. We helped each other when necessary, but also gave each other space when the other asked for it. Experiences are better when they are shared and I got to share the experience of thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with my partner. I can’t ask for anything better than that.


How did you sleep on the trail this summer? Any Zenbivy gear thoughts or suggestions?

I was off to a rocky start because I didn’t realize how cold the desert was going to be. Once I switched my 25 degree quilt for the 10 degree in Wrightwood I was getting amazing rest every night. I loved the quilted pillow. Much more comfortable than anything I had before. The two piece system was ideal and even when the bladder was in the pillow case there was still plenty of room to tuck other things in the pillow case if you wanted. The Zenbivy mattress kept me plenty warm as well. The only thought I have is that I wish it packed down a bit better and would be a bit lighter, but I wish all my gear was lighter. The only suggestion I have is to change the thickness of the rim on the inflation sack for the air mattress. With it being so thick and heavy it was difficult at times to open it up and allow the maximum amount of air for each breath while trying to blow up the mattress. Overall these are very minor things that don’t make that much of a difference only when being used everyday day in and day out that they become a slight nuisance.


How did it feel to finish the trail? 

It was honestly a bit of a relief. It was a relief to know that we accomplished what we came out here to do and that we wouldn’t have to come back later to fill in sections we missed. We were running out of time and money in the end. From Snoqualmie Pass to the border it was a push to finish in time. To beat the weather, to catch our flight and to outrun our quickly draining bank account. I think it will take some time to fully unpack the fact that we finished the trail. I just found out that officially less than 10,000 people have completed the entire trail. I was already grateful for how fortunate we were to finish, but that put it in perspective of just how fortunate. With some grit, perseverance, determination and a bit of luck we completed the PCT.


Current thoughts on a next thru-hike?

When we talked to folks on trail it usually went something like this.
Q: “Where you from?”
A: “Pennsylvania.”
Q: “East Coast? You do the AT?”
A: “Yup!”
Q: “Congrats on the AT you going to do the CDT?”
A: “Got to finish the PCT first.”

Well now that we finished the PCT Mantis and I definitely plan on doing the Continental Divide Trail! We have to try at least. One does not simply walk two of the three major long trails. It’s either you do just one or all three. If you’re 2/3rds of the way there, you might as well try and triple crown! Unfortunately we do not have the funds to do it next year, but in a few years of having a steady income we definitely plan on getting back out there and sending it on the CDT.

Final thoughts?

I wanted to say thank you. Thank you to everyone who helped us on and off the trail. Whether it was trail magic, a hitch, or just a friendly hello. Thank you Zenbivy for helping us in this thru hike when we needed it most. Replacing my 25 degree quilt with the 10 degree quilt was a game changer. I was never cold on the trail again! Big thank you for sending the light mattress when you did in Tehachapi. I hadn’t gotten much good sleep in the past two weeks due to my Nemo mattress leaking and one night's rest on the light mattress made me feel brand new. Finally thank you to Mantis. She helped me through thick and thin. Always had my back and this would not have been possible if it wasn’t for her by my side. It was a wild ride, but wouldn’t have had it any other way! Congrats to the PCT class of 2023!

- Journey Man

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