Unfortunately, there's often a log of fearmongering that goes on surrounding a Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hike. Many would-be mongerers of fear have never hiked the PCT (or maybe at all) before and are largely afraid of irrational things (like murderers in the woods). As a former PCT thru-hiker, I feel it my place to do some legitimate fearmongering.
Like it or not, over the course of a thru-hike (particularly during a high snow year), hikers are bound to encounter real dangers and legitimately frightening situations (as we found out that one time in Oregon). And unfortunately, with the increase in the number of PCT hikers, we've also seen more fatalities on the trail.
As part of the PCT thru-hiker survey I ask hikers if they found themselves in a situation when they were legitimately afraid for either themselves or a member of their group. Here are some of the responses (and situations future hikers can look forward to). Remember friends, it is most certainly not all puppies and rainbows on a thru-hike (no matter what Instagram tells you).
- Leaving Walker Pass during the extreme heat wave; 7 mi / 11 km north of Walker Pass I developed heat exhaustion, my heart was super irregular, I thought I might be in serious trouble. Luckily, I was able to make it back to Walker Pass and hitch back into town to rehydrate and recover.
- When we hiked out of South Lake Tahoe, we ran into a thunderstorm. Our only phone broke and with it our only maps. Further down the trail, we saw a tree that was in flames because of a lightning strike. At that moment we wished we would have stayed in South Lake Tahoe. Luckily everything went well and a nice couple picked us up, so we did not even have to spend the night outside.
- [I]n Washington I was camped in a meadow and there was a huge thunderstorm and the lightning was so close to us. Later I read that 13 fires started that night.
- A week-long period with lightning every day from Sierra City to Tuolumne. Had to run down exposed ridges almost every day.
- When I got into snow after having flip-flopped to Ashland. There was still a lot of snow and to traverse these snowfields was very scary. At one point I panicked and couldn't do a step forward or backward anymore. A friend had to come and help me out.
- A branch swept downstream caught me on the legs crossing Bubb's Creek and I thought I was going to die.
- Ascending to Forester Pass up a steep snow slope and my hands were too cold to grip my ice axe – there was no way I could have self-arrested if I fell. Also, we got off route in the Desolation Wilderness and ended up on a dangerously steep slope that we had to try to get down – a fall would have meant very serious injury.
- Mather Pass – the angle of the Pass, the snow and the risk of a dangerous fall was huge.
- Climbing up Glen Pass was the least safe I ever felt on the trail. It was late afternoon, the snow was slushy, the path was steep, and if you slipped you would fall into a lake and not be able to get out. I have never been more scared than I was on that pass and that was when I decided I'd rather get out and live to do the Sierra at a safer time than right then.
- I was pretty sure I was going to die on some of the super steep snow traverses and during our first/only difficult creek crossing.
- In a hitch where they were drunk but we were able to make an excuse and get them to drop us off early.
- Hitching into Cabazon. Trail angel picked us up in the back of his truck and after we arrived it was apparent that he was wasted on alcohol and drugs.
- Yes, crazy, well-known “trail angel” in Warner Springs took us to his trailer and things got really weird.
- I was dropped off on BLM land in Sisters and told there were homeless people in the area. I had intended on camping there but I heard yelling coming towards me and as a petite solo woman I felt very unsafe. I ultimately made the decision to splurge on a hotel.
- Getting a ride from a drunk dude. We didn't get in and he got really angry and furious.
- When I was night hiking the aqueduct alone and started hearing close gunshots I definitely felt unsafe.
- Irrational fear of bears the ENTIRE time during the night. I'm from New England and l know it's ridiculous to lie awake all hours of the night shaking in fear, but no matter how silly l knew it was, l definitely thought a bear was going to eat me. Probably all of my morbid jokes pre-hike about becoming a bear's burrito.
- One time, in Southern California, when at 10 pm, cozy in our tent and alone in the middle of this big forest, we heard something grunting and scratching the ground just next to us for a good while. We thought our hour had come and that this would be the “fight a bear with your bare hands” moment. I was shaking so much the whole tent was moving. It turned out to be someone pitching his tent just next to ours (but still, grunting and scratching!), so I guess it doesn't count really.
- When I woke up to find a black bear staring down at me.
- Aggressive loose dogs in Mojave Desert, at the water pipeline north of Hikertown.
LOW POINTS ON THE TRAIL
As a part of the thru-hiker survey, I ask hikers, “What (if anything) was your lowest moment on the trail?”
I have also written a separate post documenting my own The 11 Worst Moments On The Pacific Crest Trail. If you go into a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike believing it to be some wonderful vacation of which every moment will be more incredible than the one before, then you are in for something else, my friend (and even though some of you may return and claim that every moment was, in fact, special and incredible, we all know you're lying).
Read the following knowing that any one of these things could happen to you, should you find yourself on the PCT.
- Physically? Horrible blisters the first 300 miles. Emotionally? The fucking mosquitos in Oregon. Lord have mercy on my soul.
- Empty vending machines at Donner Pass. I cried.
- Poison oak toes to chest, fever, chaffing – all things groin, and 200 miles to nearest clinic hitch. All at once.
- Watching someone almost die. And meeting someone who would later pass away on the trail.
- I spent three weeks absolutely miserable. I came back from a wedding and was all alone, a heatwave at the end of the desert, I got giardia. Took a few days off to recover. Got back on the trail and was still very sick. Lost a lot of weight. I thought entering the Sierra would make me feel better. But when I entered the Sierra I just dreaded hiking it because I felt so physically awful. I remember looking up at the first snow-caps with my trail family and they were all so excited and thrilled. I walked away and starting bawling because, despite every effort to feel better, I was so completely unhappy and afraid. I ended up going home for 5 weeks, and I wasn't sure I would come back at all.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY SHITTINESS
- When my partner of 3.5 months decided to call it quits and go home.
- Hiking for a week alone over 35 mi / 56 km a day. Cried a lot. Lots of emotions and exhaustion and loneliness all at once.
- Lost my friends for five days and had no cell service to call my boyfriend.
- Partner left me without saying a word, no note, she went home.
- Emotionally, being alone in some long dry stretches of the desert.
- Losing my trail family in Lake Isabella when my hiking buddy (who was a longtime friend from before the trail) got a foot infection.
- Socially, one challenge was deciding with fellow hikers how many miles to try to cover each day. Some hikers were generally more relaxed about mileage (either because they didn't care about making it to Canada, or because their end date was very flexible), but I was close friends with them, so deciding with them whether to push more mileage together, split up, or cover fewer miles, was difficult. This involved some challenging conversations.
- Realizing that after 900 miles we (boyfriend and I) still hadn't gathered the ‘promised' trail family and felt alone.
FIRST WEEK SHITTINESS
- I'd say my first night on the trail was a nightmare… dehydrated, I vomited all night.
- Day one, lost the trail, fell in the bushes, spent the night thinking I would never make it out (I know, pathetic).
- The first day! I freaked out and had a total meltdown on my last few miles into Lake Morena– just overwhelmed by the enormity and unknown of what lay ahead and doubting my own ability.
- Day three, hurt a lot everywhere (blisters and knee pain) I didn't think I could make it for five more months.
- Day four, hiding under a bush regretting not doing the Appalachian Trail (no deserts out there)
- Day four coming into Scissors Crossing. I was lonely, pulled a muscle in my knee from starting out too fast, and was skeptical about my decision to hike.
- Coming down into Scissors crossing. Feet were destroyed. Only doing 15 mi (24 km) a day. Too much shit in my bag. No water. Hot as hell. Wondering ‘what the eff did I get myself into'.
- The desert. Too many people which was demoralizing. I wanted a dangerous challenge, not a social orgy. Luckily the High Sierras cleared them out.
- Mile 500, all these flies there are biting. It was horrible.
- Hiking in the desert, being blown off a ridge and my feet were exploding with blisters.
- Heat going into Acton KOA. The only time I lied on the trail itself and chugged water.
- Right after Walker Pass was my lowest mental moment. There was a lot of fear-mongering about the snow in the Sierra and I was really uncertain about going through. At this point, I still didn't have a team and uncertainty was really high. I called home from the one spot with service after climbing the ridge and fortunately, a dear friend told me “you are not quitting today.”
- Walked Tehachapi to Ridgecrest alone. Didn't meet anyone, ran out of water three times and had to walk eight miles (12 km) without water. Ended up peeing blood the next day from dehydration. I lost my mind.
- Breaking off from my best friend, whom I had planned the whole hike with, after only making it to Idyllwild, due to differences in hiking styles.
- Coming down Forrester Pass and just postholing for hours. With every step, I fell and slid. It was so unpleasant I was crying behind my glacier glasses. We hiked from 4 am to 830 pm with only a one hour break and only managed 10 miles. So hard and frustrating.
- The day after summiting Whitney. I doubted my motivation for continuing.
- Sleeping in a bathroom in Tuolomne to avoid freezing overnight.
- Got lost right before Mammoth Lakes and had to camp in the middle of nowhere alone, not sure where I was. It was the end of an 11-day stretch without a town, during which I got sick, separated from my trail family, fell in a creek, and broke my phone.
- Just outside of Tuolumne Meadows we camped below Tuolumne Falls. Turns out we camped in a granite bowl, and that night it rained and then snowed three inches. Everything that wasn't in the tent (packs, shoes, our partner's electronics bag) was floating in four inches of water. It was so cold the next morning that, as soon as we removed the tent from the puddle, it began freezing over. It proceeded to dump snow on us for the next three days, our shoes never dried and froze solid every night. It was mid-September. I cried at least once a day, every day, between Tuolumne Meadows and Kennedy Meadows North.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA SHITTINESS
- Consistently trying to hammer out thirty-mile days (48 km) in Northern California because of how much the Sierra slowed us down. I was EXHAUSTED.
- Pushing huge miles in NorCal to catch up after taking too long in the Sierra.
- Right before Shasta, I had an on-trail breakdown because it was 100+ degrees out, I was pushing my mileage over 30 (48 km), and my shoes had exploded, leaving my feet blistered and aching. Definitely had a “What the hell am I doing to myself?” moment.
- After the midpoint. You are in the middle of the whole trail but still “stuck” in CA. It was a relief to get to the CA/OR border, not because CA was not beautiful but it made a difference mentally…
- The boredom and associated depression and lunacy in Northern California.
- Lowest was dealing with fire and skeeters in Oregon. It was hard staying motivated.
- Mentally challenging probably has to be the horror-movie levels of mosquitoes which plagued us without pause from Etna to Bend.
- Literally all of Oregon was burning. We didn't see Crater Lake despite being on the rim trail looking down, we didn't see the Sisters, no Bachelor, nor any remarkable thing in Oregon until we got to Timberline. Day after day in Oregon things that normal years get to see kept being taken away by heavy smoke.
- Oregon with its ugly endless boring forests and annoying mosquitoes.
- Oregon lava fields. Fuck Oregon lava fields.
- The freezing rain in Washington and not quite having enough warm clothing for it.
- Several days of hiking through heavy smoke in Washington, and not being sure whether I wanted to keep hiking in those conditions.
- My lowest moment was in Washington when we spent multiple days hiking in thick clouds of smoke from the nearby fires. We couldn't see anything and the smoke was heavy on the lungs. I definitely wasn't enjoying hiking much then.
- Trying to go around Mt. Adams only to find 3 ft of snow after 200+ miles of road walking around fire closures…yeah, I cried.
- A cold rainy day in Washington with less than 200 miles left. I wanted nothing more than to be finished with the trail. Of course, once it warmed up and stopped raining and the sun came up I wanted nothing more than the trail to last forever.
- When I broke my foot. It happened 6 miles in. I was in denial and hiked on it until Idyllwild supporting with KT tape. Making the decision to leave then for medical support was right but it broke my heart.
- Taking out my left eye for four days by whipping it with a rebounding tent pole as I packed up at 3:30 AM the morning of Forrester Pass.
- The day I realized my leg wasn't going to get any better and I was going to have to leave the trail after only a week after years of preparation.
- Passing out after Bridge of the Gods because of an injury.
- When I got injured between Idyllwild and Big Bear and had to take a week off trail.
- Having to quit through injury.
- When Hurricane Harvey hit my hometown of Houston…decided to end the hike then.
- Sitting in LA the day after I quit, thinking about how stupid it was to go out underfunded and then waste huge amounts of time and money in towns…
- When I had to admit to myself that I could not go on.
- I went to a place out of the way just to meet up with some trail buddies after dodging fires, thinking they would all cheer me up. All 11 people quit right there and I had to find a way back to the trail to continue my journey alone.
THE END SHITTINESS
- The ending has been tough. I miss you.
- My lowest moment is now – having not completed a full thru-hike and full of disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. Also reintegrating to normal life. I've been through a lot, I'm home now, everything is the same and it's depressing and life feels dull.
- The day that I left the trail to go home. Devastated!
Have your own tale of woe from a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike? Leave a comment below and warn future PCT classes of the awfulness that awaits them on their thru-hikes.