Lessons Learned on a 6-Day Pacific Crest Trail Shakedown Hike
From 8/23/2015 to 8/28/2015, three friends and I covered the ~70 miles between Snoqualmie Pass and Stevens Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail. This trip was my primary shakedown hike for my Appalachian Trail thru next year, and man oh man, I learned some serious lessons about long distance backpacking.
A few stats for you, as a teaser for the rest of this post:
- Miles Covered: ~70 over 6 days
- Thru-hikers who blazed by us: 3
- Trail names earned: 2
- Deep knife wounds: 1 (but, tears shed: 0, so we’re all good)
- Whiskey imbibed: 1.5 liters
- Cuben fiber and other lightweight gear conversations: Far too many, considering the amount of whiskey we were carrying clearly offset any weight savings from our gear.
Day 0 – 8/22, Arrival in Seattle
I packed up all my food and gear, threw it in a hockey bag, and flew to Seattle on the morning of 8/22.
Here’s my full food spread. I picked up a brick of cheese in Seattle to add to my pack as well, but the rest is shown here!
And here’s my full gear spread!
Lucas, Matt and I met up at baggage claim at the Seattle airport to grab our bags, and we were picked up by Shane (who is from Seattle).
We ran errands, buying last-minute groceries, books for the trail, and most importantly a veritable ton of whiskey. Two 750ml bottles of whiskey should be enough to dull the ache in the legs while on trail, right?
We brought our packs to Shane’s dad’s shop who gave us a gear shakedown.
We added and removed a few items to reduce redundancy (Do we really need four first aid kits? Nahhhh… What could go wrong?) and add redundancy where needed (Two stoves, two water filters, two bear bagging kits).
We went back to Shane’s place to do one final gear check, load up the car for tomorrow morning, and get settled in for the night.
We were treated to some amazing Mexican food for dinner! Bellies full of beer and guacamole, we retired to bed.
Day 1 – Snoqualmie Pass to Park Lakes (14 miles)
I woke up at 4:15am, wide awake and anxious to hit the trail.
My stomach had been giving me issues over the last few days, a result of some bad BBQ I ate on Friday. As my butt cheeks touched porcelain for the last time in 6 days, I wondered if my stomach would be an issue on the trip. “Nah, it’ll probably clear up before we hit the trail,” I thought to myself. (Ahhh! So! Much! Foreshadowing!)
The plan was to get picked up at 6am and drive the 45 minutes to Snoqualmie, stopping for one last breakfast before we left the real world behind.
We watched the sun rise as we wove our way through the National Forest to Snoqualmie Pass.
And of course, there was a Michelin Star-rated restaurant right at the trail head!
Just kidding, it’s clearly a truck stop diner.
After a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes and coffee, we stopped by the convenience store right next to the restaurant for what was unanimously voted the funniest view of the trip.
We reached the trail head around 8:30am and it was PACKED with day hikers! Apparently there is a ridge around 6 or so miles up that is a popular destination.
With fresh legs and bellies full of bacon powering us, we proceeded to haul ass up the mountain.
“This is backpacking! This is easy!” was my predominant thought, as we churned out the first 3+ miles in an hour, without a break. Up, up, up we climbed! Switchbacks, back and forth, back and forth, and our fearless pace-setter Shane continued to climb…
Hey, now would be a good time to introduce you to my good friend Shane!
Shane is really, really into fitness. Not like “muscle-head, bicep-curls, Arnold-Schwarzenegger” into fitness… More like “ultra-marathoning-on-the-weekends, quietly-doing-24-hour-fitness-challenges-run-by-Marines” into fitness. Seriously, have you ever heard of a GoRuck challenge? Yeah, he’s done it.
Lucas, Matt and I were in pretty decent shape, but it quickly became apparent we weren’t operating anywhere close to Shane’s level.
As I struggled to keep up with Shane’s pace, my predominant thought went from “This is easy!” to “Oh shit. We let Shane plan our daily mileage. We’ve made a terrible mistake.”
We continued to climb and got our first good views of the trip a few hours into our day.
It quickly became clear that the wildfires raging to the North would choke off any sweeping views. Still, we felt on top of the world as we made our way along the ridgelines.
Our first and last water source of the day came 6.5 miles in, at Alaska Lake. We settled in for a quick break and a water resupply.
The remainder of our day would be picking our way along tall ridgelines and rocky trail, with breathtaking but very smokey views of mountains and lakes nestled far below us in the mountains.
Two quick notes from this part of the day.
One, my stomach bug did NOT go away before hitting the trail. It was… not pretty. Imagine squatting over the edge of a cliff and letting loose. I’ll let you paint your own picture, just like I painted the sheer drop-offs to my right.
Two, these were the most difficult miles of the entire trip. The rocks bruised my feet, the elevation change hurt my quads, and having the heaviest packs of the entire trip with over 10 pounds of food per person really came back to bite us. Despite having 7500′ of elevation change in the day, we continued to push an aggressive pace. Matt and I were clearly floundering towards the end of the day and struggled to maintain a 1 mph pace. The benefits of backpacking alone at your own pace begin to show themselves in times like this.
14 miles in, we hit Park Lakes turnoff, with another mile down to the lake.
We set up camp and filtered water as the last light of day left the sky, ate dinner in the dark, and crawled into our beds.
My last thought as I passed out from exhaustion was “My God… I can’t believe that was only 14 miles.”
Day 2 – Park Lakes to Waptus Lake (via side trail) – 16 miles
I awoke at 5:45am, dawn creeping into the sky, with my stomach rumbling.
First thought of the day: Hmm… Hunger, or tapeworm?
Oh shit. It’s the tapeworm.
I grabbed my trowel, flew out of my tent in only my boxers and bounded like a gazelle over the grass to a squat spot up away from the lake and the tents.
Second thought of the day: Whew, made it! Maybe today will be better than yesterday after all!
Third thought of the day: Uhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaafuuuuuuuuck, I forgot the TOILET PAPER!
Glamorous, eh? Ladies, I’m single, by the way.
Terrible start to the day aside, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise as the sun lit up the peaks directly over the lake. If you look closely you can see the PCT winding its way down the mountain.
We ate breakfast, drank coffee, packed up and were on the trail around 8:15.
The legs felt great, surprisingly. Zero soreness. I made sure to crush a ton of food the night before, which I’m sure aided in muscle regeneration.
We hiked back up the side trail to the PCT, and within a mile of hopping back on the main trail, we were treated to some of the best views of the entire trip – Spectacle Lake. The pictures don’t do it justice. It was nothing short of magical.
The remainder of our morning was down, down, down through switchbacks, crossing over a large stream and passing by lots of burned trees.
There are no more pictures for the rest of the day hiking, for reasons that are about to become apparent.
We turned off from PCT for lunch at Pete Lake via a side trail. This side trail is where we met our first thru-hiker. We didn’t catch his name, as he was cussing and yelling about going down the wrong trail for a half mile. (In his defense, the trail signage at this part of the PCT was abysmal.)
Lunch is where things got a little more… life-threatening. And more importantly, where two trail names were earned.
As we settled in to the cove near the water for lunch, I began to notice bees buzzing around the other guys making peanut-butter lunch wraps. As I unwrapped my summer sausage and cheese and started cutting with my pocket knife, the bees became progressively worse.
I started swatting at them as they buzzed closer and closer to me as I cut my cheese. Then, a few came directly at my face, and I flailed wildly and jumped up.
Ouch! Hey, one stung me on the arm! Wait… That’s not a sting…
Oh shit oh shit oh shit I just cut my arm open with a knife.
I looked down, flexed my fingers, and could see white things moving vertically in my arm. So that’s what tendons look like, I had time to think, before red replaced white, and blood starting gushing out.
Yep. I took a big chunk off of my forearm and sacrificed it to the West Coast Wilderness Backpacking Gods.
What came next was a flurry of bloody towels, hand sanitizer being sprayed everywhere, and the consolidation of any and all first aid equipment into the hands of my new friend Matt.
Hey, now would be a great time to introduce you to Matt!
Matt is Shane’s friend from work. He’s a good guy, very laid back, good sense of humor, and an experienced backpacker. Matt is an engineer and works with cars during the day. His other skills, fortunately for me, also happen to include full wilderness first aid training, and the ability to save the life of anyone who sticks themselves with the business end of a knife.
Matt cobbled together a kit of antiseptic wipes and butterfly stitches and put my arm back together. I wish we had pictures of this, but I was too concerned with my impending death. Looking back, if I had hit a vein, I almost certainly would have died. It’s a weird feeling, knowing how close I came. It’s pure luck that I didn’t hit anything vital. Absolutely pure luck.
Matt was the MVP of today. His new trail name: Doc.
The next day, Lucas would dub me with my new trail name: Slice. I like it. I made it out alive from the knife wound (spoiler alert), so it’s a great story to go along with the name.
Matt wrapped my arm up, told me to keep my heart rate down and the arm above my heart for the rest of the day. He stayed with me during the next section of the trail (a vigorous climb) to help me take it slow and keep an eye on the bloody gauze wrap while Shane and Lucas went ahead. What a great guy. I highly recommend bringing him along for your next camping trip.
All I could think as we left the scene of the accident was: Now I know how Nicholas Cage feels about the bees.
We limped into camp around 6pm, bloody, hungry and ready for a rest. More excitement had happened in the previous 48 hours of this trip than in the previous three months of my life. But, I guess this is what we signed up for, right? Breaking out of my comfort zone, and all that jazz.
We camped at mile 31, at east shore of Waptus Lake. Gorgeous.
I was wiped – Acknowledging your own mortality is exhausting work!
We ate dinner next to the lake, slugged some whiskey out of our camp mugs, laughed one last time at my skills with a knife, and crashed around 9pm. I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to climb into my sleeping bag.
Day 3 – Waptus Lake to Bushcamp near Deception Lake – 16 miles
Is this really only day 3? How long is this post going to be?
We awoke to the coldest temperatures of the trip, and the most beautiful sunrise yet. We huddled around the camp drinking coffee, packing up, and watched the sun rise and illuminate two huge peaks over the lake.
We backtracked about a half mile along the lake until we reconnected with the PCT, and followed the trail about 5.5 miles to Deep Lake, where we stopped for an early lunch.
We flip-flopped with a thru-hiker named Pennylane for most of the day. It was great getting to know her during breaks!
Our task after lunch was to go up and over that peak you see in the picture above.
As the afternoon wore on, we found ourselves at a river crossing. We carefully crossed over the two logs near Matt in the picture below (left). Sadly, no one fell in the river.
We pulled off the trail a few miles short of Deception lake and made camp near a small stream. Another long day had been hard on us (well, three of us, at least). We decided to make the next three days easy days, doing a straight shot out to Stevens Pass instead of taking a big side trail to Robins Lake, as we originally intended.
As night crept into camp, a thru-hiker named F Bomb came down off the trail and asked if we had room for one more. Of course! We had a fun night of drinking whiskey and listening to his stories from California and Oregon. F Bomb was from North Carolina and had also hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back! When asked what he remembered most about the Appalachian Trail, he shook his head and responded, “The PAIN.”
…2016 AT NOBO or bust, right guys?
Day 4 – Bushcamp near Deception Lake to Glacier Lake – 5 miles
Oh happy day! Only 5 miles all day, and in camp before 1pm! Is this what heaven feels like?
Matt, Lucas and I were ecstatic at the prospect of a short day. The previous three days, we barely had enough time to set up camp, do chores, and eat before the last light fled from the sky and our bodies shut down on us.
A key part of the backpacking experience is having time to hang out with the other guys, drink some whiskey, play cards, and enjoy yourselves. Our schedule the first three days was all business – it was time for some fun as well.
We took our time heading out of camp in the morning, it was well past 9 by the time we finally hit the trail. Our new friend F Bomb was long gone, having packed up at 6 and taken off for Stevens Pass.
My body immediately started to rebel from the abuse I had put it through the last three days. I didn’t have enough of an appetite to eat all of my breakfast. My legs were landing funny, like dead weight. I was wiped. I knew I had to be careful, but despite my intentionally slow pace, I rolled my left ankle twice. (I would later have to go get an x-ray once back home to rule out a fracture, as it still hurts as of this writing.)
If you look closely at the picture below, you’ll see Lucas picking his way carefully down the rocks. Zoom waaaay in and look at the right side of the shot. The path was almost hidden, but there are switchbacks all the way down the face of the rocks.
We got a stunning campsite right alongside Glacier Lake, and set up camp at 1pm. This was just what I needed to recover from the last three days.
We had a family of deer come past us at the campsite. Deer out here aren’t skittish at all. They saw us and knew we were zero threat, so they just ambled their way past us along the lake shore, over the course of a few minutes.
In the afternoon I felt my body give out. The combination of the stomach bug and exhaustion killed all my energy.
I went down for a little nap, then woke up an hour and a half later, feeling just as tired as if I hadn’t slept at all, with no appetite.
I went down to sleep that night at 8:30, and didn’t wake until 7:30 the next morning. Including the nap, that’s over 12 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. Looking back, I have to acknowledge that my body was absolutely destroyed. I did too many miles too fast over the first three days, and I was paying the price.
Day 5 – Glacier Lake to Mig Lake – 6 miles
We had another super easy day today, as Lucas, Matt and I recovered from the brutal start to the trip. We had to tape up Lucas’ feet as his blisters were coming in hot and heavy.
We took it nice and slow while Shane jetted ahead to the lake. That man is a machine.
We rolled into camp around 2pm and had lots of time to screw around, read our books, and play cards.
We met a Washington Thru-Hiker named Nature Beast (??, I think that was her Trail Name). Had some good conversation with her before bed.
Day 6 – Mig Lake to Stevens Pass – 8 miles
We awoke to the sound of rain for the first time on the trip. During a break in the morning rain, we ran out of our tents, packed up in 15 minutes, and were on the trail by 7:15. Only 8 miles to Stevens Pass. There was going to be a lodge at the pass. And the lodge had bacon cheeseburgers.
Trail cravings are weird. On day 1, I was fine with my organic pumpkin seeds and cous cous. On day 2, I started craving McFlurries for the first time since I was in middle school. On day 3, I started thinking about bacon. And cheeseburgers. And bacon cheeseburgers. With french fries, and extra salt poured on top. I thought about nothing but bacon cheeseburgers for the last three days of the trip. I wanted to lick a salt shaker so freakin’ bad (which is probably the first time that sentence has ever been typed or said in the history of humanity).
And now, bacon cheeseburgers were within striking distance. Oh man, you read about how thru-hikers look forward to town day, but you just don’t know until you’ve experienced the thrill of waking up and knowing that today is the day. No more granola for me, this guy is getting fresh ground meat!
We flew down the trail, feeling no pain, with the prospect of food and beer only a few short miles away. It was wet, but we made quick work of the rest of the trail.
We started to pass chairlifts, and cars were heard in the distance. Almost home!
Finally, the last sprint down to the lodge!
Now that we were at the base, it was finally time to take the duct tape off and assess the damage to Lucas’ feet.
Oh, I forgot – you haven’t met Lucas yet, have you?
At last, it’s time to introduce you to the third member of our fellowship: Lucas, better known among his friends back home as Nard Dog. Or, as he became known to several thru-hikers during the week, “That guy with the worst blisters I’ve ever seen.”
By day 2, Nard’s feet were pretty torn up. By day 3, Nard’s feet were absolutely destroyed. By day 4, Nard could barely walk downhill, and his knees had started to give out from compensating for his sore feet. By day 5, we had almost run out of duct tape and ace bandages, and began to seriously consider if we’d have to carry him out on our backs. (That would have been Shane’s job, by the way, and he still would have beat us down to Stevens Pass.)
“It’s not looking good, boys,” Nard would say of his feet, with a grin. That smile never reached his eyes. He had murder in those eyes. Murder for the boot company CEO, his family, and all of the company shareholders. And their families. And their dogs. The blisters were that bad.
“I’m going to write them a strongly-worded letter.”
Nard, you’re a better man than I. Enlarge the photos below at your own risk.
We hung out with a few thru-hikers until the restaurant opened upstairs at the lodge, then we absolutely gorged ourselves on bacon cheeseburgers, fries, and coca cola.
Life is good, guys. Life is good.
- Think you want to do a thru? Do a big shakedown trip first. Despite all the absurd things that went wrong this trip, the stab wounds, the sore feet, the hunger, the cravings, the blisters – at the end of the trip, I was still absolutely fired up about my thru next year. Discovering that you don’t have the fire in your belly for a 6-month trek while on a 1-week shakedown hike is so much better than figuring it out on a thru attempt, after you quit your job and leave your family and friends behind.
- Setting a conservative pace for yourself for the first few days will let you get your trail legs under you with minimal risk of injury. Super tired legs = Not paying attention to footfalls = Landing weird on tendons that aren’t accustomed to strain = bad stress injury to ankle / foot / knee that takes weeks to heal. Cool your jets, we’re in this for the long haul. Go for 10 miles a day your first week, then ramp it up after that. Your body will thank you.
- Pack yourself delicious, easy-to-make food for the trail. Screw healthy food. Screw complicated cooking. Your best intentions at home will absolutely fall to hell after 24 hours on trail. I was so tired and craving salt so hard that by the end of the trip I was ready to see if my Trader Joe’s Raw Organic Almonds would make a good fire starter. Convenience and tastiness are king in the wilderness.
- Immodium. Take it. You won’t need it ’till you drink some bad water and you’re 3 days out from town, squatting over the side of a cliff letting it fly in the wind. Then you will be really, really glad you have it.
- Take any blogging notes in an offline app, then transfer over to WordPress or your preferred blogging platform once back in civilization. I took all my notes out on the trail in the WordPress app with my phone on Airplane mode. As soon as I took my phone off airplane mode, the drafts all deleted. Just imagine how long this post would have been if I had all my original source material.
- Screw bees.
- Be careful with knives, too, I guess.
It’s been a pleasure writing for you all. Looking forward to doing much more of this on the Appalachian Trail next year.
-Vinny (now also known as “Slice”)
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