Tuesday, December 18, 2007

PCT Talk!

There is a conversation that takes place in the household of former Appalachian Trail through-hikers. It doesn't always go the same way, but it's always something like this:

AT Hiker: "You know, the re-supply points aren't as remote as PCT through-hikers always made them sound."
Spouse: "Uh huh"
AT Hiker: "I mean really, I've been reading the PCT journals and the worst stretch is the Sierras. Outside of that, you got roads every sixty or a hundred miles or so, and it's a twenty-mile hitch, max. PCTers I met on the AT were all like, 'oh, you have to bury food caches' and 'there are no hostels' and all this crap. There's stores and kickass hostels, they were just being pompous bastards. Whatever, most of those PCT people dropped out in Virginia mumbling profanities about rocks and trail maintenance."
Spouse: "You've been reading the trail journals?"
AT Hiker: "Yeah, but it's not like I'm, y'know, planning to through hike the PCT or anything."
Spouse: "Uh-huh."
AT Hiker: "Yeah, anyway, it sounds like the hitches are a lot easier, too. Some of the campgrounds sound pretty sketchy, but there were some sketchy people near the AT, too."
Spouse: "So when are you going?"
AT Hiker: "No, I'm not going to through hike. Not for another, like, ten years. Maybe longer!"
Spouse: "Uh-huh"

I'm not saying that anything like this conversation ever happened in my household. I am, after all, not planning on through-hiking the PCT. As part of my not-planning, a couple of observations about the PCT, the 2,650 mile western sister of the Appalachian Trail

>>The cold is colder, the hot is hotter, the highs are higher, and the lows are lower- physically and psychologically. The Sierra- the most gorgeous stretch of the PCT, by all accounts- is a psychological low for a lot of PCT hikers. Chalk it up to a devil's mixture of altitude sickness and isolation. I can sympathize with the latter. 200 miles is a long way between towns.
>>The wets aren't wetter, though. It's a very dry trail until near the end, and an eight-liter water load is standard. Rule of thumb: when you hit water, act as if it's the last water you're ever going to see. Guzzle a couple of liters, cook supper, fill your bottles- do everything that needs water- then move on. Don't be afraid to dry camp. It's a race and thirst is the timer.
>>The water you do find is awful. We can be honest here: a good thirty percent of AT through-hikers don't treat their water. I was pretty lax about water treatment myself. This is not an option on the PCT. Water sources are, more often than not, lakes that have no outlet and have been hiked and camped on for hundreds of years. Water-borne sickness fells a larger proportion of PCT through-hikers than it does AT through hikers.
>>In spite of its vertical scale, the PCT is suprisingly mild in grade, rarely exceeding 5%. It's also missing the boulder scrambles that slow down AT hikers below the dreaded 2 MPH marker. The PCT was designed for pack animals, God bless them, and you can see it when you pan over the trail in Google Earth- the path actually tries to follow contour lines, as opposed to going up and over every piece of high ground it can find. Because of this, the PCT, although longer, generally takes less time than the AT.
>>The southern section needs special tactics to make miles in unshaded desert. Pack umbrellas are very cool, as long as their locking system can stand the wind. Desert walkers should siesta in a shady spot during the heat of the day (I did this myself on the AT in PA), and consider night hiking when the moon is out (with no rocks, it's not as dangerous as it was in Maine).
>>As always, ultralight wins the day, because it makes room for more water. I'm already pretty close to bottom on the pack scale, but there's room for improvement. A lighter pack like the Mariposa could take off another 30 ounces or so. Replacing raingear and shelter with a poncho tarptent shaves off 15 ounces. Swapping out the sleeping bag with a lighter model, a very expensive 15 ounces. I can ditch a lot of gear in the desert, and mail the cold weather gear to myself before the high Sierras. It seems sort of unfair that the coldest stretch is also the longest between resupplies, sticking you with a ten day food load along with your cold weather gear and your bloody freakin' ice axe.
>>The bears are not really bigger. You don't cross grizzly territory. You do need a kevlar bear cannister, though, not because the bears are more ferocious but because there are not many trees to hang a bear bag from. Everyone cautions about Yosemite bears, which are canny and persistent. They've learned to manipulate friction locks on bear cannisters and unlocked car doors. They'd probably have cell phones if they could find a provider with coverage, but who needs pizza delivery when all these crazy hikers keep bringing food for free?

Anyway, definitely not planning to through-hike the PCT! There's still the Superior Hiking Trail, with all its views of Lake Superior and its adorable Fargo accents. And its quaint three hundred mile length.