24 Hours in the Life of an Older PCT Hiker
For the first time in a long time, I’m living in the moment. I don’t have to be anywhere but where I am, I don’t have to do anything but the hiking I’m doing, and I don’t have to think about anything except the next turn or the next campsite or the next water source. I could get used to this because it’s a pretty darn nice way to live. But thoughts about my life and lessons to be learned, even at the ripe old age of 70, still cross my mind as I meander along.
5 PM I’m back on the PCT, after climbing up the beautiful Deer Springs Trail from Idyllwild. The trail is located on the west face of San Jacinto Peak and is thousands of feet of uphill. I stopped often to catch my breath and enjoy the views and cloud undercast.
The climb took me a long time. I rarely hike with other people anymore because between my stopping frequently to take photographs, my shortness of breath on the uphills, and multiple orthopedic injuries, I’m really slow. The truth is, I was never a fast hiker and always struggled to keep up with a hiking group. Now, my damaged foot with torn tendons and ligaments really objects to the uphills, and a torn meniscus in the opposite knee often causes major pain on the downhills. Too bad my mind and spirit still want to be hikers!
I am tired from the climb and a poor night’s sleep while camped in Idyllwild last night, so I just hike a few more miles after reaching the PCT and make camp fairly early. I know it will be cold tonight because the whole day has been pleasantly cool and I’m so high up there are patches of snow around. I think about stopping to build a little snowman, in honor of really fun memories with my young grandkids, but I know it would make my hands too cold and I don’t want to get my gloves wet for the night ahead – so no snowman, but the memories are lovely. It’s early when I stop, with a clear sky and a half moon rising, and it’s beautiful out. The sun is low in the sky, and it’s getting really cold now at my elevation of just under 9,000 feet. It will most likely be in the low thirties within a few hours.
I pick out a beautiful, unofficial camp spot all to myself. I pitch my Big Agnes tent on a deep bed of pine needles, taking care to avoid a few widow-makers in some of the pines around me. I have to dig down 3 or 4 inches through the deep pine needles to find firm enough ground to anchor my tent stakes, and because the stakes are buried, I lace my 50-foot bear hang cord through the pull loops of each stake so I can find them in the morning if the guy ropes come loose.
6:10 PM Dinner is lovely tonight. I eat early so the sun still warms my campsite. There are several rocks nearby and I pick a nice flat one to “cook” my simple but yummy dinner on. Cooking consists of boiling water, pouring it in the freeze-dried dinner packet, giving it a stir, and waiting about ten minutes for the food to rehydrate. I sit on my rock in the sun and eat my hiker version of Pasta Primavera with my all-purpose camp spoon – the single utensil I have with me aside from my pocketknife. The sunlight is still shining through the trees in front of me, and off to the side, there is a wonderful undercast with a dense cloud layer, surrounded by trees. It’s peaceful and absolutely beautiful here, with the setting sun lighting up the huge pines and gigantic rocks all around me. I can feel the dense cold starting to creep in. I finish off dinner with a mix of nuts, dried cherries, and chocolate.
7:30 PM I’m in my tent and put on pretty much every article of clothing I have with me. This is the first time I need to use everything I’ve got. I have on my hiking pants and my sleeping tights. I also have on the short-sleeve shirt I hike in every day, the long-sleeve lightweight shirt I wear over it, and the light shirt I normally sleep in, which is long-sleeved and has a hood. The three shirts are topped off by my down puffy jacket, my wind/rain jacket over the puffy, my fleece hat, the hood from my sleep shirt, and my down hood. If I need to, I’ll pull up the wind jacket hood, but it sounds a bit crackly and I hope I don’t need it to sleep in.
Oh, and let’s not forget hands and feet: I have on my gloves that I hike in – they are fingerless but pretty much cover my whole hand, and as soon as I put down what I’m writing with, I’m going to add on the one pair of fleece gloves I carry. If I can’t keep my hands under my Enlightened Equipment sleeping quilt tonight in their two pairs of gloves, or if I’m still cold, I’ll pull on my last pair of socks, which I’m saving for my hands just in case I need them.
My feet have on a cleanish pair of Injinji toe socks, a pair of Darn Tough socks over them, and my heavy fleece sleep socks. They usually stay pretty cozy dressed like that and stuffed into my quilt toe box. In the morning, I just have to take off the fleece socks to be ready to put my knee compression sleeves and ankle braces back on under my pants and boots. I could also stick my feet inside my pack since it’s pretty much empty, but the closed toe box on my quilt has so far been warm enough when I have all my sock layers on.
I stuff my camera batteries and other electronics down in the foot box every night to help preserve their charge with my generated body heat. I also hang a few damp items on my makeshift clothesline: my ankle and knee braces, and the two handkerchiefs I stuff under my bra straps to pad my shoulders from the heavy pack weight. The sunset is over, and I can’t stop yawning. I’ll probably be asleep by 8 or 8:30 PM.
I did all my chores earlier tonight. My camp is clean, my food is in multiple bags and stuff sacks and inside my tent, and my nearly empty pack and boots are down by my feet. I’ve written in my journal and texted a few people to let them know my location and that I’m safe and well. Reception is very spotty here, so I don’t know if they’ll get the messages. I hope so! Other chores included getting tomorrow morning’s snacks and breakfast oatmeal ready. That involves simply dividing up the snacks into smaller pocket-size baggies and emptying two packets of my really yummy oatmeal into a plastic baggie. In the morning I’ll add water to the oatmeal, double-bag it in an outside pack-pocket to protect against leakage, and let it cold-soak for a few hours. When I get hungry later in the morning, I’ll find a nice rock in the shade to sit on and enjoy it. Ah, the small pleasures of trail life!
I cleaned off my camera lens, took out the battery, and put the battery in my pocket where it will stay warm overnight. Soon my cell phone and charger will join the battery in the pocket of my down puffy. I don’t mind sleeping in the campsite alone, but two hikers who pass by ask me if I’ll be all right, which I find surprising. I know them slightly, and they can certainly see I’m older, so I would guess that’s why they wondered if I would be ok. Or maybe they’re thinking about mountain lions. The terrain here seems like it would be great for a big cat – all giant rocks and downed trees, lots of places to hide. I’m really hoping I don’t ever meet up with a mountain lion on my PCT hike, much as I’d like to see one in the wild. Because they are so rare, thoughts of mountain lions won’t be keeping me up tonight.
8 PM I’m curled up in the tent in my wonderful quilt with a warm bag liner inside it for a bit of extra warmth. I’m a cold sleeper but like the flexibility of the quilt with the closed toe box. It works for me. I use a foam pad under me, with a second small section of foam (my sit pad) under just my hips to give extra cushioning. I’m also hoping the bed of pine needles that I pitched my tent on tonight will insulate me some from the cold ground. It sure feels comfy! Much as I hate to, I’m going outside for one last pee before going to sleep. Even that has its reward, with nice moonlight and an amazing display of stars. The wind is blowing louder, but it’s at a higher elevation than where I am. I just feel an intermittent light breeze and the tent walls are peaceful tonight. Life is good. It’s 8:10 pm now. Goodnight. Lights out here.
5:30 AM I’m awake and looking forward to the day. It’s cold out, but with all my layers still on, I’m reasonably comfortable. I’m one of those people who wakes up and needs to run for the bathroom, so I head for a spot I picked out last night with my Deuce (a small ultralight trowel) and my toilet bag which has some wipes and hand sanitizer. I dig a cat hole (part of Leave No Trace hiking) and bury my waste. Business done, I get back in the tent and start stripping extra layers of clothes off. Even though it’s pretty chilly out now, I know once I start hiking, I’ll very quickly be too warm if I leave all the extra sleep layers on. My knee compression sleeves pull up over each knee, and each ankle gets a brace (they pull on like a sock, get laced up, then have straps that Velcro the ankle in nice and tight). They are extremely stabilizing, and I couldn’t hike without them. All this extra stuff is part of why it takes me too long to get ready in the morning. At least, that’s my excuse.
I’m not much of a breakfast eater, so as I pack up, I only eat a couple of pieces of dried fruit. I put water in my baggie of dry oatmeal to cold-soak it so that it’s ready to eat whenever I’m ready. I’m using Kodiak oatmeal, which has a lot of nutritional value because it’s high protein and high fiber and generally tastes quite good cold. The only flavor I don’t like is the chocolate chip one, and sadly that’s the one I have for today. There are worse things in life than chocolate chip oatmeal, so I just soldier on.
It takes me quite a long time to pack up and break camp, usually an hour and a half or a little more. When I think about it, it’s amazing that I can take that long to pack one backpack full of belongings. Breaking down my tent is the most time-consuming part of the whole process. A single hiker passes by as I pack up. It’s still early, about 6:45 AM, and it turns out when we chat that the hiker was camped just about 10 minutes before the spot I camped in, so I wasn’t really all that alone. This is going to be a big day with quite a bit of uphill and then miles of downhill. About 10 minutes after I start hiking, I begin running into fields of snow, most of which spill across the trail. The snow isn’t a surprise, since I’m at well over 8,500 feet. Spring hasn’t hit here yet. It turns out my camp location was perfect, right before the leftover winter snow started to really pile up and cover the trail and hillsides.
7:20 AM The trail is really hard to follow in places due to the snow. People have tracked all over trying to find the PCT and it’s hard to know which track to follow. Sometimes the Guthook map just isn’t that precise and doesn’t look like the terrain where the trail should be. I kind of stumble around looking for the next section of trail and make a few mistakes, as I end up following one set of tracks which goes across a very snowy and slippery section and then circles back and brings me down to the trail I was on earlier. Frustrating! I really don’t know where the trail is. I’m looking at my map and I’m looking at the terrain, but there’s so much snow that it’s hard to tell where to go next.
Finally, I spot what might be the trail a few hundred feet above me. There must be a switchback that goes up there, but I have no idea where the switchback is, so I decide to head up and across the snowfield to what I hope is the continuation of the trail. I should have put on my microspikes – I know better than to travel over large bodies of snow in bare boots. It’s a recipe for slipping, especially with the heavy pack throwing off my balance. But I think I can make it, so I try to follow a diagonal course up the hillside, kicking steps into the snow as needed. Eventually, with only a few slips and slides (none of them serious), I’m up high enough so I can see the trail really is just above me. I’m so relieved to be back on the trail! Little do I know that I’ll be repeating this exercise multiple times today.
The trail continues up and down, onto beautiful Fuller Ridge. I lose the trail completely once and end up somehow heading south when I should be going north. But I recognize a spot where I took a photograph and quickly figure out that I’m going the wrong way. Another hiker comes along and we look at the map together and he confirms which direction the trail goes. I’m glad for the confirmation. The trail is still going uphill and I am breathing hard, realizing that my legs, which had felt fine when I woke up this morning, are still pretty tired from the long climb yesterday. Fuller Ridge is spectacular – the scenery is unbelievable! You can see the snow-covered mountains in the distance and there’s an undercast of clouds that’s just magical. Most of the snow high up on the ridge trail has melted, so I’m hopeful that the rest of the trail will be snow-free as well.
9:15 AM I stop for water from the icy cold snow-melt San Jacinto River at over 8,900 feet, and chat with another hiker who arrives a few minutes later, as we take turns filling up our various bottles for another long 2-day water carry. It’s 20 miles of mostly desert descent to the next water source, and I fill all 6 liters. After a little more up and down (we call them PUDs in New England – Pointless Ups and Downs – but I don’t know if the term is used in the West), the trail finally starts to consistently descend – much easier for me given all the weight of the water I’m now carrying.
I don’t mind the PUDS as much now, because the scenery is so splendid. Generally, the elevation is slowly decreasing as I’m descending more than ascending. I’m frustrated and tired because of all the uphill climbing today. I had thought it would be a mostly downhill day. The trail makes a turn around a switchback, and there’s a lot of snow ahead. It goes on as far as I can see, probably because it’s a north-facing slope and doesn’t get much sun.
1:15 PM I do one small section in my bare boots and I have a long sliding fall. It isn’t dangerous but is sobering. I find a rock large enough to hold both me and my pack, fish out my spikes, and put them on. I need a rock for my pack because it’s too heavy for me to lift and swing onto my back – I need to be able to sit and wiggle into the shoulder straps when I’m carrying so much water. The going is much easier, and I feel much more secure with my spikes on. The snow seems to go on for a couple of miles, although maybe it isn’t as long as it seems. Finally, the trail makes another turn and moves directly into the sun, and the patches of snow-free trail start increasing. Once I’m pretty sure all the snow cover is done, I sit down to remove my muddy wet spikes.
3:30 PM The rest of the trail for several miles is breathtaking, with beautiful old growth trees and great views of the mountains all around. There is a spectacular undercast of clouds over the desert. It looks like a cloud ocean floating below me. I’m tired but glad to be out of the snow and on the long downhill. My knee with the torn meniscus is protesting all the downhill now. All the hiking uphill this morning and muscle tensing going over the snow, and now the persistent downhill, has really tired me out. I forgot to eat the oatmeal that I prepared in the morning and finished all the snacks I had in my pocket, and I’m really hungry.
I know I should keep going but I decide to stop a little after 5 PM at a beautiful campsite. My hiking day is over. It’s been difficult but magical. My tent site looks out at snow-covered Folly Peak with San Jacinto in the background.
During the long and mostly solo hiking I did today, I couldn’t help but think about some of what the trail teaches as I walked. The lessons were simple yet profound:
**When life gives you lemons make lemonade. Or on the trail, when life gives you snow, make water.
**You are stronger than you think.
**If you get burned, you can recover and thrive. I see that in all these wonderful old-growth pine trees with burn marks around me on Fuller Ridge.
**You can bloom where you are planted, or you can choose to plant yourself somewhere else and bloom there.
**We all make mistakes, but we usually have the opportunity to fix them. Don’t be afraid to accept help.
Wow! It’s been a great 24 hours.
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