The Inglorious Pre-Trail Lows

I’ve barely slept in this inescapable cold, save for a few fitful hours of disturbed dreams. I lay curled in the fetal position, my down sleeping quilt cinched on top and bottom like a cocoon to keep out the freezing wind. I’m wearing every layer I brought with me onto this mountain, and I’m still chilled to the bone. 

I expect to see light as I uncinch my quilt, but my surroundings are as dark as the inside of my cocoon. Aside from the light tip-tapping sound of water on my shelter, the whirring of the wind overpowers everything. It pummels my tent, the walls caving in around me as I shine my headlamp across the claustrophobic interior.

I’m cold. I’m exhausted. My throat is dry and hoarse. My nose is completely stuffed up and my sinuses are inflamed. 

My friends are in a tent just a few feet away, but on this mountain, in the darkness, miles away from anything else, I feel alone.

I feel so alone

It’s a feeling that caves in on me like my tent walls. I intended to use this short backpacking trip to test my new gear for the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn’t realize that it would test my mental fortitude just as much. 

I don’t have to step foot on the PCT to realize that the challenges of my thru-hike have already begun.

On this windy mountain, I’m reminded of what I’m choosing by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: aloneness.

In between the good days and the glorious days, I’m choosing the days full of immense hardship and loneliness.

Hiking the PCT means choosing these days again and again- away from the safety of my home, the softness of my bed and the warmth of loving friends. 

There’s a certain sense of glorification attributed to thru-hiking, an aura of badassery that surrounds risk-takers in the hiking community. It’s the same one attributed to grand, outdoor adventures and success stories of people pursuing their dreams.

In the midst of this celebration- amongst the gear lists, itineraries and adventure accounts- it’s easy to overlook the immense mental challenges of a thru-hike. 

It’s even easier to forget that the challenges of a thru-hike begin well before a hiker steps foot on trail- and that every hiker experiences them.

These challenges are nothing close to glorious. They’re isolating. The lows are low. 

In this cold tent, long before I’ll set foot on the Pacific Crest Trail, I feel those lows already. The feeling is an ache that creeps into my body, filling my bloodstream and knotting itself in my stomach. It is an emptiness and a fullness, all at the same time. It fills me with doubt and regret and confusion.

Even before waking up on this lonely mountain top, I have spent weeks upon weeks working through the fear of a dangerously high snow year in the Sierras. I’ve felt more exhausted than ever before, amidst the hours of planning and the stress of anticipation.

The trail humbles each hiker well before the thru-hike ever begins. It tests our limits and our self-will long before seeing our first PCT trail blaze. 

It’s hard. It’s dirty. It’s messy and raw and inglorious. It’s lonely.

It feels this way as I stash my belongings in my pack and take down my tent with numb fingers on this mountain top. 

It feels this way as I cinch my hood tight and tighten my pack around my body to block out the frigid wind- as I dream of being anywhere but here.

It feels this way until I step out into the open, with the sun rising across the valley. 

It feels this way until, in an instant, the wind calms enough for me to stop and look around. 

Snowflakes cascade through the air onto the grasslands and the trees, turning the world into a snow globe. They soften the bite of the cold. They fill me with an immediate sense of calm and quiet joy.

Just as strongly as the loneliness filled my world, it retreats as the snow takes its place. Each snowflake is one of a million small reasons why the highs will always overpower the lows- why I stay on trail.

I know the feeling of loneliness will return. It’ll ebb and flow. It will reappear when I’m most vulnerable and it’ll grab ahold of me for dear life. It’s one of the only predictable things I can count on during the next five months on the PCT.

The good news? That loneliness will disappear just as suddenly as it arrived, eviscerated by a beautiful snowfall, a mountain view upon fields of wildflowers, or the welcome sight of a flowing stream on a dry day. I can count on this too.

I can count on the renewed joy of these little things- the millions of reasons why I’m out here on this mountain. They’re small, but they’re significant. 

From the time we first commit to a hike- from the first step to the last- the trail will always give us what we need. Every single day. Like the snowfall on this cold mountaintop. 

The trail provides, just in time.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 2

  • Collin Britton : Mar 27th


  • Klaudia Golebiewski : Mar 27th

    very well written 🙂 this is so real, and you’re so brave!!


What Do You Think?