A Journey Through Fire, Ice and Everything in Between

An incredible voyage
Photos by James Wolfe

One Palisadian’s Take on ‘Braving the Pacific Crest Trail’

As told to Gabriella Bock

I was 65 years young when I took my first step at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail in Campo, California—not knowing how many would come to follow.

Those who’ve finished the trail (and subsequently, those who haven’t) say that the first day on the trail is the true test of capability: If you make it through the first 20 miles to Lake Morena, you should have a clear understanding if you’re cut out for the long haul.

But what many first time thru-hikers don’t realize is that the day finishes in a final ascent of 2,500 feet and thus, many hikers, for one reason or another, end up needing to be rescued.

Wolfe at the Southern Terminus, May 23

On May 23, 2017, I successfully—albeit with little steam leftover—made it up to that first 20-mile marker, a good sign that I was well prepared to tackle the challenge laid out before me.

But that confidence was quickly extinguished the following afternoon.

You see, a 2,500-foot ascent only means that sooner or later, one will have to descend, and as I made my way down the steep terrain on that second day in, I sustained an overuse injury on my leg and was left hobbling down the trail for the entirety of that first week.

It was humbling, to say the least.

I was fortunate to meet my hiking partner, Rosa, a 22-year-old French Canadian and the bravest woman I have ever met, during the first 100 miles of my journey. Together we would hike the next 1,000 miles, beginning in the southern deserts and chaparral, where we encountered cool weather the first two weeks of the hike before the record-shattering heat that developed in the last two weeks of June.

We had to adapt to night hiking because of the elevated temperatures, which peaked at an “official” 113 degrees, but it was probably hotter on some of the black-rock exposed traverses.

In this climate, we would carry our water supply for over 30 miles, rationing out our life supply at a reasonable pace, although it never truly seemed like enough.

Night hiking was beneficial for rationing as it would reduce our water intake to one-quarter the equivalent of day hiking. During these nights, we were fortunate to have the full moon to guide our way north, and although we had new nocturnal predators to avoid, like rattlesnakes, we felt blessed by the boundless supply of lunar light.

The “infamous” Mojave crossing became a joy to my tribe and me. We left at sunset and experienced the Mojave at her best. Rare light winds, moderate temperatures and incredible skies generated in us a profound endorphin rush, the “hiker’s high” one reads about in the PCT literature.

It is here where the southern fork of the Kern River miraculously appears around a corner and one is officially done with the dry section of the California PCT.

Most hikers skipped the High Sierras this year because of unprecedented snows and high water fords.

But the High Sierras are truly the crown jewels of the trail so we didn’t want to skip out on their beauty. Yes, it was dangerous, but it was a calculated risk that Rosa and I accepted.

And wow, what an adventure it was.

Rosa and I were glad to have had 700 miles of “practice” to develop our trail legs before ascending the passes and crossing the fords.

As one can imagine, physical and mental fatigue can lead to serious trouble in the passes. Our strategy was to start the PCT later in the season: We’d endure the heat of the SoCal desserts and hit the Sierras after peak snowmelt. It turned out that our strategy paid off.

For our efforts, we were able to witness the most beautiful alpine terrain either of us had ever seen.

The desolate wilderness, west of Lake Tahoe

But with all of the natural beauty comes the risk for danger, especially if one is not prepared or giving nature their close, undivided attention. Without a way of “self-arresting” on the icy traverses of the High Sierras, one easy fall can be potentially fatal.

Our ice axes were an essential self-arrest tool to prevent the buildup of deadly momentum down a high-pass slope. Rosa and I practiced self-arresting on slopes that we had deemed to be “safe” as we had heard many stories about deadly fords.

While they were certainly challenging, we only encountered one high-risk crossing at the middle fork of the King River, where Rosa almost fell. It is here where the King turns into a deadly flume channel downstream, so being swept away and failing to reach shore quickly is most likely fatal. There were two fatalities and two near fatalities at this ford just this year alone.

After our High Sierra adventures, Rosa had to return to University in Quebec, so after exiting the trail at the Sonora Pass and seeing her off at the Reno Airport, I returned to the trail and continued hiking solo.

On that very same afternoon, as fate would have it, the Aug. 22 lightning storm that set off countless fires in Northern California and Southern Oregon put me into unchartered territory. My timing was terrible, and I found myself crossing a high pass at the height of the storm with lightning strikes much too close for comfort.

Six hours of hiking in the rain drowned my phone and fogged my camera’s lens even though they were packed away in waterproofed compartments.

Those lightning-started fires caused me much consternation in my final 600 miles: Because I wanted to thru-hike California with connected footprints, I decided to risk a hefty fine that came with crossing the Wallow Fire, just south of the California-Oregon border.

Posted signs at the Seiad Valley Trailhead emphatically showed the PCT closed northbound.  But some online research and talking to firefighters in Seiad convinced me that the crossing was still open, if somewhat risky.

I must say, it was quite an experience hiking through a 60 percent contained fire. I crossed many still-burning tree roots adjacent to the trail, a real danger as I learned that these roots can continue to burn for weeks after a forest fire has been extinguished.

Burning pine root system

Because of the difficult logistics of working around the many fires in Oregon and Washington, and the fact that snow had already begun to fall in the North Cascades, I decided to end my hike at Ashland, a beautiful and progressive town.

On that last day of hiking the PCT, I met a man who offered me a lift into town and a ticket to “The Odyssey” at the Shakespeare Festival. It couldn’t have been a more fitting end to my epic adventures on the PCT: I often thought that arriving at the funky hiker towns and sketchy camps felt like landing on strange and distant shores. There were also an abundance of “trail angels” that bestowed great kindnesses on us “hiker trash,” as well as wrathful, Homer-esque demigods that stirred up storms seemingly out of nowhere.

So, what did I learn from the trail and how have I benefited from it?

I learned the skill of vagabonding. I inhabited that world and got to know the people that live it by choice.  I enjoyed talking to them and swapping stories of our travels.

I learned the minimum set of things required to travel long distances and to carry no more.

I learned that one can resupply with (semi) adequate nutrition at convenience stores.

I learned the key attribute for long distance trekking in wilderness is durability, not endurance, though that is surely near the top of the list.

At the Oregon border, Oct. 4

I learned to always hike at my natural pace and to trust that my body will adapt and keep me moving.

I discovered a lot about California’s natural history. Hiking continuously from the Mexican border to Southern Oregon had me walking through a dozen ecosystems. I saw the landscape morph in slow motion.

From day one, I was glad to have chosen this epic year to thru-hike the PCT. I marveled at the explosion of wildflowers, which appeared to have gone into overdrive, making up for the previous five years of drought. There was, quite literally, a primrose path bordering the trail in much of the High Sierras.

It validated my love of wilderness. It led me to experience the joy of living the moment, no future, no past.

I think, most importantly, I discovered tribalism in its innate primitive form, which I believe has propelled the human race throughout history. The camaraderie on the trail harkens back to a time when us humans lived in small groups and survived by tribal cooperation. It is deeply infused in our DNA and is a survival strategy.

I have been profoundly changed by living that life.