50 Mind Blowing Photos from the PCT (Part II)
This is part two of the two part series “50 Mind Blowing Photos from the Pacific Crest Trail“. If you haven’t already, please check out part one here.
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The mental landscape of long distance journeys changes with every step- shaping and reshaping the way you view the terrain, people around you, and ultimately… yourself.
Reaching your first hundred there’s a feeling of “Alright, I can do this.”
Then, around mile 500 you’ve settled into a groove. Your backpack’s been shaken down, finding water no longer worries you, legs are lean, you’re stomach’s a bit smaller and going through the day’s miles has become second-nature, or maybe even first.
Now, fast forward to the thousand-mile mark. There’s a euphoric feeling inside you and that spirit swirls around each night’s fire… when you look in the mirror while washing up in a diner’s restroom you see more animal than human; but most important in this perspective shift is the idea of home… at this point home is a distant notion, out of reach from your mobile life.
We rode this high into our climb up Shasta, but we didn’t descend with it.
A dark storm materialized from the clouds painted over the California blue.
Seeking shelter underneath a boulder- wind and lightning surrounded us. From our hiding spot we watched other hikers hastily make their way down.
After a discussion the decision was made- for the first time since leaving the Mexican border we accepted failure and began a rapid descent to safety.
A day’s hike from the Oregon border we found ourselves finishing a 30-miler well into the night.
Ripping thru thick summer-brush we’d come to where our maps pointed to a spring. We could hear it, but the source lay hidden from view in the undergrowth.
We began spreading out to search the area, pushing thru brush to find an easy place to access it.
Then, up ahead, I heard Ian shout… panther!
An adrenaline rush surged thru my body. Unsheathing my knife I ran deeper into the brush.
When I reached Ian he had his knife drawn too, he was shouting and his eyes were locked uphill…
About twenty feet from where we stood, slinking across the hilltop, was a California panther. Those almond eyes looked right thru us.
Shouting and clapping our knives against our trekking poles, the big cat finally broke from his trance and redirected south.
Later in camp I thought about that moment- looking into those eyes changed my perspective forever…
Out here, we weren’t above the food chain, but within it.
Crossing the imaginary line of the California-Oregon border we began a race- one that wouldn’t end until reaching Canada.
Winter was on the rise and with it, our pace. We shifted our daily miles to nearly a marathon a day. Using each ray of the fading summer sun to continue our push north.
Achieving the big-mile days ahead of us meant shedding ounces, any way we could…
Eventually we ran out of things to mail home and began experimenting with more extreme thru-hiking practices – the most dangerous… binging.
The method’s simple- guzzle down a liter or two of water at a source. Then, pack out less than half a liter to see you to the next water hole.
Binging literally cuts pounds off your pack, but when stretches between water sources span over twenty-miles there’s a good chance you’ll run dry.
This photo is of the last drop of my water bottle on one of those long stretches. A picture to remember the sacrifices we made to move fast.
An amazing spectacle unfolds when the Pacific Northwest enters fall…
Lightning storms set summer dust to flame- creating an annual brush blazes.
This ancient cycle is amazing from afar, but for thru-hikers it’s not only dangerous, it’s a pain in the ass to navigate.
Detour after detour we danced between the burns. Often finding ourselves road walking, which is faster, but a dull view compared to the wonders inside Oregon’s wilderness.
Ranging thru these dark mountains I felt like Frodo sneaking up on Mount Doom.
As we paced north the distance grew between us, along with our motivations to continue forward.
During this intense solitude I continued clicking away with my camera to stay engaged and not get totally lost in my head.
Sprouting between lava rocks, these little plants lit up the dark earth surrounding the trail.
Along with this increase in colorful groundcover came lakes. Our topographic maps were literally covered with ‘em. A welcome change and a sign we were once again transitioning into a new ecosystem.
Where this picture was snapped equaled the total distance of the Appalachian Trail. We still had nearly 500-miles to go, and our surroundings looked pretty grim.
Walking thru a burn’s boneyard for an afternoon is creepy, but when your view looks like this day-after-day-after-day, it’s no surprise we all started going a little crazy.
With eyes fixed to the ground we floated thru these strange daze one step at time.
Nature’s cycle has never made more clear to me than in northern Oregon…
The black of the burn against the green of thriving life exposed a cycle with such panache… such contrast, that I can still smell those woods, feel the light rain on my face and remember the bite of the air in my fingertips.
Closing in on Washington the rolling hills transformed into craggy peaks.
Walking next to these dark volcanic rocks, my eyes fixated on the streaks of red and tan painted in the face. These mineral veins swirled for miles, then disappeared into deep fissures within the hardened magma.
The best part about breaking camp after nightfall is having no idea what you’re going to wake up to…
When the sun broke on one such camp I groggily peaked out the door to see my surroundings. The masterpiece above is what filled my eyes.
Dumbstruck, I fumbled for the camera and ran out into the chilly morning.
The lenticular clouds, or lens-shaped clouds that manifest around high-peaks, were just beginning to form. While the clouds turned in opposite directions the early morning light kissed the eastern face of the mountain.
Standing next to the tent in just baselayers and my crocs I watched the epic phenomena play out until… coffee was served.
Besides vastly different terrains, and longer stretches between towns, shelters are one of the biggest distinctions between the PCT and AT.
On my 2009 thru-hike of the AT I stayed in a shelter nearly every night. But, out here on the PCT I hadn’t seen a single one until finding this hobbit hole.
This 10×10 abode boasted a birch roof speckled with red, fluffy moss. Even though it looked rustic, the old roof worked. Stepping onto the dry dirt was a welcome relief after hiking thru a stretch of wet days.
On the verge of breaching Cascade Locks, or the Oregon-Washington border, we stopped at a rustic camp for coffee.
About to close down for the summer the camp’s store was empty – no candy bars, no bags of chips, and no Ben & Jerry’s to fill our empty bellies. Taking pity on us, the manager offered us a free row boat for the afternoon.
We still had miles to hike that day, but oh how the sun made us forget about them as we glided across the blue siesta.
Entering the rainforest of Southern Washington was unlike anything I’d previously experienced. We cut thru the arched green tunnel with eyes wide and ears open.
Here, life lived on top of life.
Straight out of the film Pan’s Labyrinth, this world seemed to move – everything reaching towards the shreds of sunlight slicing thru the dense canopy.
With the first stretch of Washington drawing to an end, we were also reaching the end of our second-wind. The night this photo was taken was a quieter camp than normal. The silence reflecting our deep, insurmountable exhaustion.
With 400-miles left, we’d need to find another wind – fuel from a new source…
One we hadn’t yet discovered.
The next morning we reached the trailhead and saw a birdhouse nailed to a tree
At a closer look we realized it was actually a miniature Buddhist temple. Inside a card read… Trout Lake Abbey… five-miles
Hetch thought it would be a good idea to check it out… at the very least we’d get out of the rain for the night
Arriving at the Abbey we were greeted by the head monk and showed the loft we’d stay in that night.
Before leaving the next morning we attended a Buddhist ceremony… my first
The weight of our exhaustion, the anxious feelings concerning winter and the growing need to get home, dissolved once I sat down and began meditating.
After the bell struck, we hitched a ride and found our way back to the trail.
We carried something out of that Abbey. It wasn’t tangible, but the aura of the place changed us – strengthened our collective resolve and provided a deeper purpose to move forward.
Back east fall ends with brown leaves and Halloween.
In the Northern Cascades that same turn of season comes a whole lot earlier and is marked by the turning of the larch tree.
Abundant in northern regions larches look like evergreens, but are actually deciduous, meaning their pinelike leaves fall off when winter descends on the mountains.
Walking thru this change we saw whole mountainsides ablaze by these trees- beautiful at a distance, but even more breathtaking up close.
The Northern Cascades after a fresh snow are the definition of crisp, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.
Steep terrain and nightly snow squalls defined our second stretch in Washington.
But, the chill, pain, and holes in our stomachs no longer mattered. We were closing in on the end and nothing could stop us.
The mental shift after the Abbey bent towards the spiritual. This new reserve of energy only grew stronger the closer we got to Manning Park.
Meditating in the mornings cleared our minds- detaching us from the thousands of miles behind us, and ones still to come. Focusing, we existed solely within each step
This new perspective transformed the hike… and the team.
I’ve never believed in organized religion, but I do believe in the spiritual power of will- a force that can make or break you, a power reaching thru all spectrums of life.
The moment after snapping this photograph a white-out consumed me.
No dimension, no color, like walking inside a ping pong ball. It was as if the whole world bled out thru that hole in the sky.
Stumbling forward the team relied on a dying GPS to navigate inch-by-inch, mile-by-mile. The situation grew dire and our nerves grew tense.
It’s in these moments- ones filled with complete helplessness, where we look towards a higher power for strength. As I see it, what we’re really doing is looking within ourselves. Finding those last grams of strength within the thin fabric of our will.
Reaching deep… that’s how we saw ourselves thru.
Day after day we faced blinding snow squalls and freezing nights. While the team struggled to keep moving, I struggled to keep my lens from freezing over.
One of the shots I rattled off during this icy period was on break, underneath the protection of a tall pine.
This ground cover plant, nearing the end of it’s fall color transformation, was covered in a prickly layer of ice.
I laughed to myself as I snapped the shot- it’s almost as if mother nature was warning us to go dormant- saying, “stop hiking north you idiots- before I make you look like this.”
Those last days became a two-front battle- if we weren’t fighting a whiteout we were fending off hypothermia.
But that’s how it went- eyes forward, always moving- the placid presence of the mountains broken only by our breathing and the up and down of our boots post-holing towards Stehekin, WA.
With the last town behind us we came within sight of the Canadian Rockies.
We could see the finish line, now we just had to get there.
I’d never known Hetch Hetchy (pictured in the green jacket) before the Pacific Crest Trail, but here we were- less than a hundred miles from the Canadian border, back-to-back, preparing for another day.
It’s amazing how quickly you get to know someone on a thru-hike. You’re usually never outside shouting-reach and the experiences you go thru together are unlike anything anyone who hasn’t thru-hiked could imagine.
The comradery, even to a thru-hiker you’ve only met once, runs as deep as family.
I believe this phenomena is the best representation of authentic human nature.
Friendships unbastardized by modern life, personalities stripped to the core by raw experience and souls united by a common goal.
This shot was taken two-days from the USA-Canadian border.
At this point we’d been battling winter for nearly two-weeks. Each step effected my body in an inexplicable way- shifting my physical and mental being into a paradox…
Feeling the simultaneous effect of the long miles behind me and immanent finish just ahead.
I’ve never been so drained, yet so resilient…
This photograph marks the final day of a 173-day journey. A path encompassing thousands of miles, zig zagging up the Pacific Crest, thru five-distinct eco-systems and spilling out into Canada.
When I reflect on both of my thru-hikes I focus on the speed of it all – moving from place to place at just a walking pace – this principle alone forces us to see the world… ourselves differently.
A temporary time shift that changes us forever.
My thru-hike is but one of thousands, and in the thru-hiking culture the story captured in the photos above is normal.
But in reality our experiences are so rare, unique and fleeting that often thru-hikers do not realize the power within our stories and the role we must fulfill…
Like us, a man named John Muir also shared in these kinds of experiences – months spent in deep nature, discovering the substance of life – and capturing it with his pen.
Before Muir died a hundred year’s ago he asked- when I go who will report on the mountains, the valleys, and the water flowing in them?
Thru-hikers possess powerful narratives, but Muir’s work taught us that is not enough…
We must share them.
Muir’s stories, his voice, inspired the American people to rally behind the creation of the National Parks.
I believe every thru-hiker has a responsibility… become a voice for the mountains.
My voice is heard thru my music, cinematography and writing. The culmination of the three is what shaped my documentary As it Happens: Pacific Crest Trail.
I hope its story inspires people from across the spectrum to go out and take on the challenge of a thru-hike. Because the more people that enjoy the outdoors, means there will be more people to protect it.
– Andy Laub, Founder & Director of As it Happens TV
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