Learning From a Successfully Failed Thru-Hike of the PCT
In 2019, I almost thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. My intention was to hike the entire PCT, Northbound, in a single season. Five years in the making, it was cut short after less than four hundred miles because of injury, financial issues, and disillusionment. A failure of this magnitude came as a major blow to my ego, but it also primed me for a successful second attempt just eighteen months later, in 2021.
Like many others, a certain memoir introduced me to the PCT. I didn’t get swept up in the romance of a thru-hike because of that book, but I did fall for the idealism of such a trail existing. Walking from Mexico to Canada along a trail for no real good reason? Discovering the depths of your identity? Quitting your job? Sounds like something I’d do.
The foundation of my failure formed when I discovered a few documentaries about the PCT and, consequently, spiraled down the rabbit hole of YouTube hiking channels. The stories of personal freedom, struggle, and independence, discovering lifelong friendships and, most importantly at the time for me, getting to quit my job for six months — it all resonated with me on a deep level.
Over the next four years, I consumed enough content to understand that on-trail life would not be the same as the movies, but I did develop an obsession with the idea of hiking “big miles” (fifteen to twenty miles a day, for instance) that fooled me into believing that I would be fully prepared by the time I stepped foot on the trail. I’d watched all these videos, after all. But they didn’t show the work. Like most social media content, they were a phantom of the real thing and the editing made thru-hiking look not easy, but doable. This was going to be well outside my comfort zone, but within reach.
A Shaky Foundation
By the time I reached the Southern Terminus in Campo, I had already set myself up for failure. Deep down, I knew that I was justifying this hike based on circumstances in my life that I was running away from. My romantic relationship, work life, and financial situation were unstable, yet for some reason, I identified all of these as green flags in favor of stepping on the trail. In reality, these weren’t ‘good’ reasons to hike, pushing me towards the PCT, the solution to all my problems — they were reasons to stay, requiring more than my disengaged absence to resolve.
On top of all that, I had only three days of backpacking experience to my name. The Tahoe Rim Trail was another that I’d intended to complete before quitting after forty-two miles. Still, it was an important trip for me. I learned the rookie lesson that backpacking is in no way the same as watching YouTube videos about backpacking.
Armed with that lesson, and that lesson alone, I continued with the PCT despite the obvious signs telling me the timing wasn’t right. I was afraid that I would never get another chance. So instead of figuring out the meaning of life on a magical pilgrimage to Canada surrounded by rainbows and unicorns as I anticipated, I tried to force a square peg into a round hole and fell flat.
Picking up the Pieces
In the aftermath, I had the choice of accepting that maybe I wasn’t cut out for thru-hiking. However, I could also take the lessons from this failure and create a strong foundation for my next attempt. Failing left me determined to come back stronger because I knew, with certainty, how I could make my next attempt a success.
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Successful Failure Phase 1: PCT NOBO
Starting out, I had a fear of falling behind, a fear of being one of the “weaker” hikers out there. As a result, I pushed myself harder than I should have. I was trying to force my story to one where I was crushing twenties every day.
Although I wasn’t ready for the physical demands of hiking 15-20 miles a day, I insisted on sticking to this arbitrary pace set by a variety of YouTube vloggers whom I admired. One thing a lot of them say is to listen to your body, but I absolutely did not listen to my body. I listened to the mileage.
Somewhere between Mt. Laguna and Scissors Crossing, I developed tendonitis in my knee. I tried hiking through the pain until Saddle Junction, near Idyllwild, but the pain was distracting to the point that I wasn’t having any fun. I uncovered a popular saying during by PCT research, “Smiles before miles.” Well, I was milin’, but I was not smilin’.
I pulled the plug in Idyllwild and took two months off, intending to flip north and hike the rest of the trail SOBO. Maybe I couldn’t hike the whole trail NOBO, but I still had a shot at completing the rest of the trail in a single hiking season.
Successful Failure Phase 2: PCT SOBO
I started my SOBO trek from Harts Pass in early July, excited to restart with a brand new foundation. My knee was healed and I was more confident in my abilities. I understood that the miles would come with time, and if I wasn’t smilin’, I wasn’t milin’. Period.
Despite this new rule, I got to the Northern Terminus with a deep sense of disillusionment. This wasn’t how I imagined getting to Canada. I was intent on hiking NOBO because it was the traditional way to hike and I wanted to hike the traditional way. Now I felt like I had skipped a couple chapters in my story. There wasn’t a line to get to Canada, but still, I felt like I had jumped it.
Everything felt inauthentic compared with what I really wanted. However, maybe I was still adjusting from the time spent recovering. Then, turning away from Canada to head south, I stepped on a rock and rolled my right ankle halfway back to Mexico. I was back in a pain-management mindset, and I hadn’t even been back on the trail for three days.
I went into the town of Mazama after a grueling trek back to Harts Pass. There, I spent a week at Ravensong’s Roost icing and recovering my injury — again. Yet despite another frustrating setback, I was determined to continue. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be about doing it “my way.” I could accept that. There was still time.
The Final Straw: Done with the PCT
Coming into camp at the end of a long day, I knew that the sharp pain in my heel was the final straw. It was severe and sudden, and I feared that I was risking further damage. In my frustration, I experienced a moment of clarity: I didn’t have to do it this way. I could start over.
I was going SOBO when I wanted to go NOBO. My hike was going to end at Saddle Junction instead of Canada. I was in a relationship, and I wanted to be single. My family was providing financial assistance, and I wanted to pay my own way.
I was set on going NOBO because I liked the idea of tradition, and these details created a personal mythology about the PCT, about thru-hiking as a lifestyle, that I wanted to respect. Three full weeks out of the six I’d spent hiking were in pain and I could count on one hand how many of those days I considered fun. So, in the middle of the notorious Section K, between Rainy Pass and Stevens Pass, 108 miles of kick-your-ass hiking with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, I made the decision to quit. It was clear that 2019 wasn’t my year.
The Art of Almost: Turning my failure into fire
My friends and family were all supportive and proud of me. I was proud, too, but almost getting what I wanted, or not getting what I wanted, kept me hungry for a return. I couldn’t accept my 2019 outcome because I knew the final result was meant to be a successful thru-hike.
This hunger, this aching for a second chance, drove me to save my own money during the Pandemic. It gave me purpose during a time when a strong undercurrent seemed to be sucking purpose away from everyone. My first attempt of the PCT showed me that I needed to become someone different to succeed in the ways I wanted to succeed, on and off the trail, and it was this failure that provided the roadmap to become that person. It was surprisingly simple: slow down and accept that I don’t need to be a particular type of thru-hiker in order to be a thru-hiker.
Putting It All Together
Eighteen months, one breakup, and one global catastrophe later, I began my second attempt of the PCT. This time, I understood that if I started slow and made cultivating a positive experience a priority, I had a much greater chance of completing the trail.
Aside from your typical aches and pains, I stayed injury-free. If I needed an extra zero, I took the extra zero. When I thought I wanted to push a big day but was hurting early on, I would pull back. If I was having a bad mental day, I made it my mission to make myself smile before I went to bed. I didn’t care if my life felt like a YouTube video, as long as I was enjoying myself.
Like many of us after the Pandemic, I was just happy to be alive and healthy, and surrounded by a like-minded community. I was happy to listen to my body. I was happy to embrace the experience for what it was, not for something I hoped it would be. In the tumult of the Pandemic, I had already become who I wanted to be — the person who could overcome setback — and I knew that this person was destined to succeed.
My Secret: Be myself with a clear goal
In 2021 I was not a seasoned thru-hiker, but I had six weeks of backpacking experience under my belt. Yet even so, it wasn’t what I’d gained that gave me confidence — it was about what I’d lost. When I started in 2019, it was with a fear that I wouldn’t measure up to who I thought I was supposed to be. This time, the only fear I had was that I would almost complete my hike. That was still a lot to manage, but at least I wasn’t trying to be someone that I wasn’t.
In 2019, I almost hiked the PCT. But my goal was to hike the whole thing, from Mexico to Canada. When it didn’t happen, I was left questioning and now I had to know, in no uncertain terms, what it felt like to live that experience. That was my ‘why’ in 2021 — I had to hike because I had to know.
I hadn’t gone through all that noise over the previous 18 months just to be satisfied with another ‘almost’. I didn’t want to tell my friends again that I’d almost thru-hiked. Suffering a broken heart was worth more than almost. I didn’t go through the Pandemic for almost. I didn’t almost hike the PCT in 2019 just to almost hike again in 2021. In 2019, I was afraid of failure. In 2021, I was afraid of almost.
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