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November-December 2015

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A Test of Endurance: Beating the Weather Challenges on the Pacific Crest Trail

On September 26, 2013, Alejandra Wilson, a young woman from Portland, Oregon, walked into the town of Trout Lake, Washington. She had started hiking five months prior and about 2,000 miles south of Trout Lake at the border of California and Mexico and was now a few hundred miles from finishing the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

“A typhoon from Japan is coming in. We're expecting monsoonal rains,” the townspeople of Trout Lake told her. “Best stay put.” Wilson thanked them, considered her background in Northwest rain, decided she was prepared, and hiked out on Thursday. In her online journal, she described the following week. On Friday night, the heavy rains began. On Saturday morning, her tent flooded, soaking all her gear. She crossed three streams swollen with silt and the color of chocolate milk on Saturday, and in the afternoon, the temperature started to drop. At 1 p.m., she stopped near Killen Creek and set up camp to try and warm up.

That night she tried to sleep through heavy winds. At 3 a.m., everything quieted down. She looked outside and saw, to her surprise, that it was snowing. She hadn't considered the possibility of a snowstorm because the word “monsoon” conjured warm tropical rain.

In the morning, the trail was invisible under the snow. Wilson walked a circle around her camp looking for a hint of trail, a shadow or a contour, anything she could use to evacuate. She saw nothing, so she set up camp and began to wait. Her dad would realize she was overdue soon and would send help.

By Monday, she felt panicky and trapped, waiting on a rescue that might never come. She got out of her tent and stamped the word “HELP” in the snow, and she lay her orange pack cover out in an open field for rescuers to spot. She studied her maps and saw that some distance away, Killen Creek intersected a forest service road, which was fat and wide enough to be hiked even when covered with snow. She tried hiking out on the next day and turned back. Conditions were too difficult. Over the next couple of days, she spotted several helicopters searching for stranded hikers.

On Thursday a helicopter flew directly over Wilson's head without seeing her, and it was then she knew she had to get herself out. On Friday, seven days after she left Trout Lake, she packed up and started again for that forest service road that intersected Killen Creek. By now the snow had melted some. She followed the creek over difficult terrain, telling herself that as long as she kept heading downhill and east, she would eventually hit the forest service road. Shortly after she reached it, a man on a motorcycle drove up. “Are you the one everyone's looking for?” he asked. He drove her to meet her friends and family, and Wilson went home, where she stayed for the rest of the hiking season.

The First Challenges: Heat and Wind

The PCT runs about 2,650 miles through the wilderness of California, Oregon, and Washington. Each year, about 1,000 people like Wilson attempt to hike the entire route in one go. They wake each day to walk a marathon's distance; eat instant mashed potatoes, ramen, and candy bars; and sleep out next to the trail when they get tired at night. Every 100 or so miles, hikers hitchhike into nearby towns to resupply, rest, shower, and calorie-load for a day or so before heading out again. It is, without a doubt, a test of strength and endurance that brings hikers many challenges along the way. One of the most salient challenges comes in the form of extreme weather, which runs the gamut from dry heat and winds to blinding blizzards to drenching rainfall. Hikers who complete the trail must find a way to work around and work with the elements if they are to succeed in their efforts to reach the Canadian border.

An overview of the Pacific Crest Trail route.

Unlike its cousin in the east, the Appalachian Trail, which can be hiked year-round, the Pacific Crest Trail's hiking season has a brief weather window. To avoid winter conditions in the mountains along the route, hikers must begin in late April and finish by the end of September. If they start earlier, California's Sierra Nevada mountain range will be impassable with last winter's snow. If they start too late, next season's snows will have begun in the Washington Cascades. Such is the difficulty of winter conditions along the route. In fact, 2014–2015 marked the first time the PCT has been traversed in winter over the 40-some odd years of the trail's existence.

The PCT begins in Southern California's deserts, where the average high temperature in May at the Borrego Desert Park weather station near the Pacific Crest Trail is 93.2°F. Natural water sources are scarce, with up to 40 miles of trail between them, in this region where annual rainfall averages only 6.91 inches.

On the first day of the hike, at about mile 15 from the Mexico–California border, there's a yellow caution road sign staked at the trail's edge. Next to an image of a sun, a cactus, and a rattlesnake, it says “¡Cuidado! No exponga su vida a los elementos. No vale la pena.” (“Be careful! Don't expose your life to the elements. It's not worth it.”) It is a warning to the immigrants who have crossed illegally into the United States from Mexico and are using the Pacific Crest Trail to move north. In April 2014, a young hiker named Timothy Nodal died of heat stroke just a few miles past that sign.

These conditions inspire hikers to begin their days as early as 4 a.m. to get some miles walked before the desert's heat goes from diffuse to piercing. After a morning's walk, hikers find a boulder or a cactus and contort themselves into its shade to sit out the hottest hours of the day before hiking the rest of the day's marathon. The problem is, as Wilson wrote in her journal, that the hottest part of the day lasts from 7:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.

The PCT tours some of the nation's biggest wind farms on its path through Southern California. At San Gorgonio Pass, 4,000 windmills capture the energy created when cool ocean air meets hot desert air and gets funneled through this gap in the mountains as high-speed winds. Wind speed through the area averages 15–20 mph, 300 days a year, and by May, the temperature often reaches 100°F, just as most hikers are coming through the area. Hiking the five miles through San Gorgonio Pass can feel like a hairdryer is blasting sand in your face at close range. For Rick DeLong, who hiked the trail in 2009, this day was his hottest day on the entire trail, at 104°F. The managers of the San Gorgonio wind farm posted a sign along the trail in 2015, an apology of sorts, inviting hikers inside the wind farm's office for a break from the elements.

Snowfall, Snowmelt, and Fire

Hikers reach mile 702, the beginning of the Sierra Nevada range, in early June, and begin to pattern their days around the snowmelt. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, which is lower than the PCT tends to be through this section, the Sierra Nevada receives an average of 140 inches of snow. In June, snow often lingers at the highest elevations and on north-facing aspects. The PCT crosses several passes over 11,000 feet, and in an average snow year, the snow that remains by summer is consolidated, avalanche risk is minimal, and the passes are traversable for a careful hiker: hikers should cross them in late morning, when the snow has softened so that it is no longer icy but is still firm enough to hold your body weight. If the snow is too icy, you can slip. If it is too soft, you can posthole, with your leg sinking through pockets of snow as deep as your thigh.

In June 2011, a high snow year, much of the 200-plus miles of the trail through the high Sierra was still covered with more than 50 inches of snow. Trying to cross the mountains in these conditions for a PCT hiker is like mountaineering in running shoes, through high alpine terrain where summertime temperatures only reach into the 50s and it can blizzard at any moment. In 2011, some hikers skipped the Sierra and resumed their hike farther north, coming back to finish up the Sierra section in early Fall.

The Sierras meet the Cascades at around mile 1,300—the halfway point—and hikers spend July walking through the warm forests of Northern California. The volcanic soil in the region receives enough rainfall—31.83 inches annually in Chester, California—to support a population of conifers large enough to fuel massive wildfires when lightening strikes. Hikers hit Dunsmuir, Mount Shasta, and Etna, California, in the heart of wildfire season, and the hiking is often smoky and view-less.

North of Ashland, Oregon, the PCT enters the wet climate of the Western slopes of the Cascades, and hikers push their mileage closer to 30-mile days. Winter is coming. “A marathon a day keeps the snow away,” was the mantra of 2014 hiker Henrik Frederiksen. At the Paradise weather station in Mount Rainier National Park, near the PCT, the average snowfall in September is 2.5 inches, in October it's 27.5 inches, and by November, it's 90.5 inches.

A Wet Slog to the End

Washington in September, when most hikers hike through it, can mean relentless cold drizzle. The average temperature at the Paradise weather station in September ranges between a high of 57.6°F and a low of 39.6°F with five inches of rain. Another weather station in the area, at Rainier Ohanapecosh, recorded measurable rain on six of the 15 days in the last half of September 2014 and eight of the 15 days in the second half of September 2011.

Rain jackets are meant for dog walks, not living outside, and even the most optimistically marketed weatherproof gloves fail. Hikers wraps their hands in those gloves or maybe socks, and then wrap freezer bags around them. They wrap their bodies in trash compactor bags. And still, they are cold and wet, and perpetually tired too, because taking a break to rest, or even to eat, in the rain is not worth it. The goal is to hang in there long enough to finish each 100-mile section of trail and get inside and regroup.

This all adds up to a degeneration in circumstances and morale that threatens to end hikes just a few hundred miles shy of the goal. “The two four-day stretches of rain in Washington really were hard to take,” says 2014 hiker Caroline Hinchliff. “It made me want to quit.”

As a PCT hiker moves north, a sort of involuntary internal calibration system calculates the ratio of good times to bad times a hiker is having on the trail. When the negative experiences become too much greater than the positives over too long a period of time, a hiker will get off the trail. There's no official data, but word on the trail is that only about half of the hikers who start will finish.

For Wilson, “Overall, the moments are pretty pleasant—it's summer hiking through beautiful country.” So Wilson's internal calibration system was set pretty high in favor of life on the Pacific Crest Trail as she hiked into Trout Lake on that day before the monsoon storm in September 2013. The bad came at her in one fell swoop.

Nobody would have blamed Wilson if she had called it quits when she got home to Portland in October 2013, having fallen a few hundred miles short of her goal of hiking the whole Pacific Crest Trail.

But one year later, in April 2014, Wilson stood again at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail outside Campo, California, looking toward Canada. “Finishing the trail just felt like something that I had to do. At the very least, I had to try. Just one more time,” she said. She was comfortable there and happy, having absolved the trail of any blame for catching her in a blizzard: “Well, it's not much use, blaming the weather, is it?” she said. “It is what it is, and I was the one who made the choices that got me there.”

As she crossed Killen Creek again, she wrote in her online journal about her memories of the year before: “The snow that fell on that long, dark night inspired a deeper kind of horror, but it was the sound of the wind that brought my heart leaping into my throat. I was so alone.”

She passed the spot in the company of other hikers that second year, and told her story as she walked. “And then we hiked past it,” she wrote in her journal, “and it was done.”

On her last day on trail in 2014, Wilson's heart was hammering. “I was almost in shock; I felt high, or like I'd recently been hit in the head. I could barely process what was going on around me.” It was September 26, 2014, when Wilson touched the monument at the Northern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, almost exactly a year to the day after she had been caught in that blizzard near Killen Creek.

CAROLINE BENNER is a freelance writer who lives in Saratoga, California. She has completed multiple sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in her quest to understand its many challenges. She would like to thank Jan Null for his assistance with the research for this article and the PCT community for its support.       

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