50 Days Out
OK fine, technically it is only 49 days until I begin my trek from Campo, but that just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Either way, things are starting to feel real.
Insert your preferred cringe-inducing quote from your favorite 19th-century woodsman/transcendentalist here. No the mountains aren’t calling, and no I am not trying to live deliberately or to find my true self, but there is an itch that I just can’t seem to scratch. When asked why I love hiking, I routinely answer that my favorite part of hiking is that I cannot pick a favorite thing. Each aspect holds appeal, and I love them all.
Counting down the days
For many people, the hiking season has already begun. Working at Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap along the Appalachian Trail I’ve already met hundreds of hikers in the AT class of 2023, given dozens of pack shakedowns, and cooked more pizza than you could begin to imagine. As much as I love the crazy blur of Northbound season here in Georgia, I find myself becoming increasingly jealous of each prospective thru-hiker I help.
I see reflections of myself in so many of the hikers and can’t help but reminisce on those first few days of my first thru-hike. I expected that seeing all these people at the beginning of their hikes would fuel my excitement for my upcoming PCT attempt, but in truth, the customers in the store that get me most excited are the Southbounders. There is no smell in the world better than that of a long-distance hiker, and when the sobos roll through, it fills the store. That may be an unpopular opinion, but I absolutely stand by it.
If asked to describe the smell of high achievement, I would direct you towards the scent of ammonia given off by a body desperately burning already atrophied muscle, months deep into a calorie deficit, while still demanding of itself the athletic excellence of back-to-back-to-back marathons. It is the smell of the greatest feeling in the world. It is the smell of someone who can do hard things and comes back asking for more. I truly cannot wait to smell like that again.
One of the things that first drew me towards long-distance hiking was the appeal of a real challenge. One that would push me beyond my comfort zone both mentally and physically. To attempt something that I did not know I would be able to accomplish and to prove to myself that I was capable of doing hard things. The AT was just the start, and I knew instantly I would want more. After completing the Colorado Trail, a good friend asked me which hike I found more difficult, to which I responded that they both presented different challenges. That led us to a discussion of other trails we hoped to one day hike, including the Pacific Crest Trail. I remember sitting there discussing the challenges that the PCT would present and saying that I hoped it would be a high snow year, thinking that would be fun.
The Monkey’s paw curled. This is not a high snow year. It is a historic snow year.
Growing up, I would always watch the nightly news alongside my parents and would groan whenever the top story was the weather. For whatever reason, I just never cared about it. Flash forward some 15 years, and I find myself in the position of not being able to find enough weather data to satisfy myself. I am obsessively checking the snowpack in the Sierra, looking at satellite data late at night when I can’t sleep, and constantly refreshing various weather websites. With nervous excitement, I look in my closet at my ice axe, my crampons, my spikes, and my snowshoes wondering if I am up for the challenges that await me this summer. I am confident that no matter what comes my way, I will have an incredible adventure. I trust deeply in myself, my equipment, and my hiking partner Waffles.
Trekking with Caution
At the same time, I understand the reality of the situation. California currently has its highest snow levels in the last 50 years, and if trends continue it could surpass the century mark. While the desert may have shorter water carries and a beautiful super bloom, the Sierra will be unforgiving. I do not take much stake in what the fearmongering keyboard hikers have to say, and I would encourage my fellow class of 23 hopefuls to remain positive in the face of these daunting conditions, but I would be remiss if I did not use this platform to talk truthfully about what I expect the Sierra to look like this summer.
If previous years of high snow are any indication of what we can expect, then we must, unfortunately, accept that there is a good chance that a hiker will die this year. Maybe multiple hikers. It is essential that we are able to analyze and mitigate risk. Do not enter the Sierra alone. Avoid dangerous water crossings whenever possible, either through creative route finding, moving along the bank to safer crossing points, or by crossing early in the morning before the afternoon sun has had a chance to accelerate snowmelt.
Set yourself up for success by camping at the base of the high passes, allowing you to hit them early in the day while the snow is firm. Do not trust your life to trekking poles or Whippets; neither is a viable self-arrest device. Carry, and know how to use, mountaineering gear and safety equipment. Trust yourself and listen to your gut. If something feels unacceptably risky, it is. Look out for your fellow hikers, and together let’s all stay safe this season.
I hope deeply that I am successful in my attempt for a continuous footpath this year. Unless conditions are truly impassable I do not expect to flip-flop and skip the Sierra. I expect to hit the ground running in the desert and hope to make good time headed north, especially if water carries are as short as this year’s snowfall would leave me to believe.
While on trail I do not expect to write frequent blog posts, and you should assume that no news is good news. I will post more regularly on my Instagram (@moosejuicehikes) than I will here, saving blog posts for more significant milestones. I will post in a few weeks a finalized gear list before heading out, and would love the opportunity to talk about it with anyone who has questions. Until then, you can find me down in Georgia helping others chase their dreams while preparing to chase my own.
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