Badger’s PCT Tales: That Time I Was Charged by a Mountain Lion

We had been seeing large cat prints on trail every day for more than a week. One would think this might prepare me for the possibility an interaction.  It didn’t.

October 11, 2017

We woke up atop foam mattresses, stacked away in a stuffy utility closet doubling as a bunk room. This was the home of Papa Smurf, a popular trail angel located in Big Bear, a small mountain town 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

With just ten days remaining on this long journey, our PCT budgets were rapidly approaching LOL. Needless to say, we were grateful for a bed, shower, laundry, breakfast, and a ride to and from the trail for just a $25 donation. And, more importantly, meeting Papa Smurf—whose generosity greatly exceeds his means—can’t help but fill your heart with gratitude. Thru-hiking is a story in restoring one’s faith in humanity, and trail angels are the main players.

After being dropped off at the trailhead at 10am, I began to pick Jabba’s brain about where to expect cell service on the upcoming stretch.  Having attempted PCT thru-hikes the previous two years, Jabba was all-too familiar with Verizon’s on-trail coverage.  Typically, I could give two shits about service, but today was game four of the National League Divisional Series between the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs. I am a diehard Cubs fan, and consequently, this irrational affinity would dictate my tempo through much of the desert. He informed me that there would be reliable service, but we wouldn’t see it for another 10 miles.  The game was starting in three hours.  I marched.

Approximately 10 miles later, sure enough, two bars of LTE popped on my phone as I switch out of airplane mode.  This was ample service to stream the radio feed.  The game was only in the bottom of the first.  Fortunately, I had stopped for a quick lunch break before tuning in, because for the next three hours, my baseball-induced nerves* would demolish any semblance of an appetite.

* I realize how pathetic this might seem, but let me defend myself by definitively stating, I am pathetic.

It was approximately 4pm when service began to fade. This turned out to be a blessing, as the Cubs had just given up a grand slam, and were now behind 5-0. This was an insurmountable lead against their best pitcher and a driving headwind. I could now shift my focus to the trail, which was infinitely more enjoyable than listening to my team get shellacked.

desert sunset pct

A beautiful desert scene from another day, but a beautiful desert scene nonetheless.

At this point, I was 20 miles into the day and a few miles ahead of Jabba, who was hiking at a non-playoff-excitement-induced pace.  We met shortly after sundown at the junction to Mission Camp Spring.  I had just filled a couple of liters of water. Jabba was empty, but since there was water on trail just 1.5 miles ahead, he opted to wait it out.

As we crossed the first trickle of Mission Creek, Jabba unloaded his pack, and began to filter enough water to get to the campsite just a handful of miles away.  Since I still had plenty of water, I told him I’d see him further down trail, and kept moving.

A Ghost in the Darkness

Not more than a minute later, as I lifted my headlamp to illuminate the trail ahead rather than the space directly in front of my feet, a pair of green, glowing eyes appeared about 25 yards down the trail, hovering about two feet off the ground.  Naturally, I froze. Because this creature was standing between a pair of dense bushes, its eyes were all I could see, its body was hidden in the shadows.

In my early backpacking days, this would’ve been enough to incite panic. But, because this was a situation I had encountered a hundred times before, I remained calm.

That’s a young deer, I thought to myself.  I was sure of it.

Just as I was about to continue down trail to get a better glimpse of my new dear, deer friend, the creature began walking toward me. Instantly, the realization that this wasn’t a fawn overwhelmed me.

As the animal emerged from the bushes into a more open stretch of trail, the moon silhouetted the remainder of its shape.  Its head was tucked below its front shoulders, which were moving slowly yet methodically in a circular motion.  It’s head was remaining remarkably steady as it paced in my direction.

Any uncertainty at this point was now out the window. I was locked eyes with a mountain lion, and it was coming directly at me.

Not only was this my first time seeing a mountain lion, but I was also clearly being stalked. This situation was completely foreign to me.  My mind instantly assumed the worst case scenario; I was about to be attacked by a 100-pound super predator.

I turned my head to the side and gave a loud call for Jabba, knowing he was only about a hundred yards behind.

The bad news was that he didn’t respond.  The worse news was that the mountain lion was now running directly at me.

At this point, my body was overcome by adrenaline, a feeling unlike anything I had ever experienced.  My mind focused on one thought and one thought only: Alarm my hiking partner that shit was about to go down.

Again, I turned my head to the side.  With my body still facing the charging cat, I inhaled deeply as my chest and diaphragm filled like a balloon and unleashed a noise louder than I thought possible…


A primal sound escaped my body, starting at my balls (sorry for the visual) and exited through my mouth, like an exorcism.  The scream reverberated through the valley.

With that, the lion changed course and darted off into the valley below, albeit slower than I would’ve liked.

“Are you okay?!” Jabba screamed back from the direction of the creek.  I sincerely didn’t know what to say.

“Sort of,” I yelled back.

About 20 seconds later, Jabba’s headlight came bouncing along, as he ran down the trail. “What happened?”  I told him.

For the rest of the night (and the rest of the trek, really) we would compulsively watch our six, half expecting a large cat to be bounding down the trail in our direction.

Normally, after an hour of night hiking, I would grow increasingly fatigued. This is the result of the added strain caused by focusing intently on a narrow tunnel of trail.  On this night, however, I would ride the residual wave of adrenaline all the way to camp, with my heart beating at a pre-heart-attack pace.

After setting up camp and forcing some food down my throat, the adrenaline wore off.  I could barely muster the energy to pull the quilt from out of my stuff sac before falling instantly into a deep sleep.

According to the official Committee Who Ranks Badger’s Terrifying Experiences (i.e. my mom), this mountain lion encounter was less frightening than this story.

Future thru-hikers: Care to scare your mothers to near-death by way of blogging on The Trek?  You can.  Apply here.

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Comments 8

  • GEORGE TURNER (Old Growth) : Nov 26th

    Hope you had an extra pair of shorts. I know I would have needed them.

    • Zach : Nov 26th

      I am now a believer in miracles, as my shorts remained soil-free.

  • Swathhiker : Nov 26th

    I had one stalk me on the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia Kings a few years back. It showed up at dusk while I was heading to bed so I had to pack up with it staring at me and then hike back in 5 miles along a ledge to the nearest portapotty. I spent the night in there. It stalked me in the dark all the way back, somehow jumping around to the front of the trail so that I had to pass it a couple of times to get out of there. It’s eyes looked like bike reflectors in the pitch dark against my headlamp, and they were about 3 and a half feet off the ground. Here’s a video of someone else’s encounter on the same trail this year, and oddly there are several reports of encounters on that same trail. But like you, I saw the paw prints and thought “lion” and then kept walking. Saw the lion the next night. Here’s a video. I’m surprised it bounded at you. I’m glad it didn’t jump on me, I only had a water bottle to defend myself and no one else out there for miles. No phone reception and no payphones.

    • Zach : Nov 27th

      Yikes. I would’ve lost my shit had that happened to me without a hiking partner. If it’s any consolation, our house cats (all house cats?) hate water so maybe the bottle would’ve been better self defense than we realize?

  • Betsy Gathman Lewczyk : Nov 27th

    MeOW, and Yikes – WHAT a tale (pun intended)!

    Thanking God that you — and your buddy Jabba (Toe-moss to me) — are AOK!!!

  • Lois : Nov 27th

    As the mother of young lady SOBO hiker who finished the PCT a few days ago, I too, am very pleased you choose to wait to share this story! 😮 I’m assuming she may have a story or two she has chosen to not fully disclose- (and maybe it’s best to leave it that way!) I am now about to read the other story that ‘your Committee’ ranked more frightening than this one! UGH –it gets worse-????!! Well very pleased your ‘primal sound’ was effective and this story had a happy ending! Well done!

    ~Another Mother~!!

    • Zach : Nov 27th

      Thanks, Lois. It’s the stories that our mothers don’t want to hear that makes these treks so fun 😛

      And congrats on raising a thru-hiker! The mark of a job well done.


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