Wisdom from 2019 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers: Part II

Welcome back to Wisdom from 2019 PCT thru-hikers! Today we’ll be discussing hiking as a couple, trusting your gut, and meeting Lil Sebastian on-trail!

Check out the rest of the series here:

Wisdom from 2018 Thru-Hikers

Wisdom from 2019 Pacific Trail Thru-Hikers (Part I)

Wisdom from 2019 Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hikers (Part I)

Wisdom from 2019 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers

Molly “Duckie” and Ethan “Spook” | March 27 to  September 15, 2019 (NOBO)

Favorite trail town, and why? 

Tehachapi. What a surprise?! We held up here for three days with many other hikers in our bubble. Not only was Tehachapi amazing for being filled with our friends and lovely, lovely townsfolk, but we had the best food on-trail here. The BBQ place was incredible, and Thaihachapi had such yummy dishes that we went there twice, with hiker-friendly prices, too. We were also treated to the town farmers market where we met the real-life Lil’ Sebastian.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?

We actually didn’t much to prepare for the PCT. For a couple of years prior, we had made a habit of embarking on a long-distance hike each year taking us to Scotland for the West Highland Way and Ireland for a homebrew hike combining the Beara and Kerry ways. We did it with the idea of slowly building up to the PCT, but with both trails boasting distances of less than 200 miles each, we realized there was no way of gradually adjusting to 2,660 miles. What it did do, however, was show us that we could hike through a heat wave and torrential rain for two weeks straight—no showers, no bed, and only camp food—while also carrying a ridiculous 20kgs (45 pounds) on our backs. If anything, it gave us a little confidence, though the trail was to prove a different challenge.

What were your luxuries on-trail?

Molly: I had a Columbia hiking dress that I wore around towns and LOVED. It was so nice to put on an easy-breezy dress to match my bright yellow Crocs when wandering around towns.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need? And what piece of gear did you wish you had?

Gear weighed heavy on our minds for the year prior to the trail, and we did a tonne of research into the kind of kit that people would ditch along the way. Therefore, we had a pretty good idea of what to avoid packing. All in all, we found a use for pretty much everything in our packs and didn’t send anything home besides ice axes, etc. post-Sierra. There was, however, a small tangle of rope/lace that lay dormant for the entirety of the trip, though we didn’t realize we still carried it until the end.

In terms of gear we wished we had, Molly never got on with her Granite Gear backpack. It wasn’t enough of an issue to lead to a bag change, but if she were to do it again, she would look at other brands and models.

What was your best wildlife story from your thru-hike?

Ethan: Somewhere around Burney, I had seen my first bear, a hairy butt running away from me. I was thrilled and for the rest of the day, had my eye peeled for more among the brush. Later on in the day, I was running low on water, so I marched on ahead to the next water cache, which turned out to be a mile or so ahead. While waiting there for Molly to arrive, I rested on a plank of wood at the top of a dirt road and marveled at how silent it was. I then got thinking about bears and how, considering there were some in the area, if one were to walk round the corner now, it would surely be too late for me to make noise to scare it off. Just as I thought this, there was a rustle in the bushes next to me, which drew my attention. I thought to myself, “Don’t be silly, it won’t be a bear,” so I trained my eyes back down the dirt road in front of me to see to my surprise a giant mumma black bear strolling up toward me with four young cubs trailing behind her. She didn’t notice me at all in all the silence and quickly headed southbound down the trail. I softly began to sing Jack Johnson’s Better Together in an attempt to make my presence known in a non-aggressive manner, but suddenly drop any worries for my safety and focused on the fact that this little family walk was headed straight down the trail where Molly was due to come from. I whacked out my knife—a beastly one-inch Swiss Army blade—and started singing loudly and clapping my hands as I considered running down the trail to prevent the situation. Luckily, I realized how much worse that would make it and stayed put, ensuring to make continuous noise and occasionally calling out for Molly. She eventually came round the corner, totally oblivious to the possibility of bears, to see a stressed-out Ethan holding a very small knife while pacing up and down the dirt road. I was thankful she was OK, she was bummed to have missed the bears, and the bears, well, they were none the wiser about any of it.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?

As a duo, we always hiked together or at least within a mile of each other. We dropped in and out of walking with groups, but the main two groups we walked with were through the Sierra (It seemed everyone grouped up in this portion for snow support) and then again during Washington. We walked on our own throughout the whole of Northern California. Our trail families were amazing! As a couple, we predominately walked with other couples, but we had a few awesome solo friends. It’s amazing to go through something like this with strangers; I don’t think you ever will form a bond so strongly and quickly. The best parts were when you were tired and grumpy at camp, and everyone starts making jokes, and it just reminds you that life is not all that serious at all. In the end, we’re always laughing.

What did you turn to on a rough day?

We were lucky that we always had one another to rely on. Being able to vent our emotions was important so that they didn’t get pent up inside and overflow. At times, however, being along to your thoughts was nice, and our minds would always drift to home and family. Molly had a list of reasons why she was hiking the trail on her phone, which I thought was a really smart move. Sometimes you can get lost in your mind and question why you’re on the hike, so to have that list was really helpful.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?

Ethan: There is so much I miss about being hiker trash along the trail. It brought so much freedom to every single day, and the community surrounding it was the most generous and kind I know of. Oddly, I miss spending days in endless scenes of white during our time in the Sierra. It was by far the most challenging time, both physically and mentally, but my word was the landscape awesome. It inspired us every single day, and I counted myself lucky to be that deep in wilderness. I also miss the simple routine of trail life: eat, walk, eat, walk, eat, sleep. It was so freeing to focus on the most primal of necessities every day and really helped remove the chatter in my mind that would stress me out in regular modern life—also, fellow hikers. The friends we made on the trail we will forever hold dear in our hearts. We went through real experiences with everyone we met, experiences you just can’t explain to people at home. It felt like true living.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers? 

Try it! You can always quit; you can always turn back. Do not let other people’s opinions form your own. You are the best judge of your capability and if your heart is telling you to try something, do it.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience? 

Molly: Confidence. Before the trail, I lacked confidence and believed that many things I did were simply average. However, since accomplishing the PCT, I have realized that I am made of sterner stuff, and I am extremely resilient and determined. It is easier for me to take on projects now as I believe myself much more capable. How hard can a one-week deadline for a report be when I have walked through the Sierra Nevada mountains during one of the highest snow years on record!

Ethan: Priorities. Having lived the simple and good life out on the trail, I found it hard to return to a world run by money and opinion. The trail has made me realize that what we do for green paper notes and a thumbs up from powerful or popular individuals is nothing more than just a dance. I feel safe in the knowledge that all that I need to keep me happy and healthy is a handful of belongings in a backpack and an open world. I’ll dance to get by, but the countryside is just next door if I need to escape.

What sets the PCT apart from other long-distance trails?

The variability of the environments you pass through was a real attraction to us both. There aren’t many other trails that take you through the desert, snow-clad mountains, green meadows, and gnarled volcanic ranges. It’s a feast for the eyes and challenge for the body that manages to keep your interest with the promise of contrasting scenery. Also, the weather conditions are so influential yet unpredictable. Not a single year on the PCT is the same, and that’s also the case with the challenges hikers have to face as a consequence.

How did the heavy snow year affect your hike?

When we reached Kennedy Meadows in mid-May, we were worried. No one we heard of had got through to Lone Pine by then that we heard of, and storms were still rolling through. It snowed the day we arrived. So we went on a weeklong road trip with our trail family to wait out the storms. When we returned, we had heard that a couple of groups had entered and reached Lone Pine. With many words of warning (including many hikers succumbing to frostbite!), we decided to enter the snows ourselves. It ended up being one of the hardest challenges any of us had ever done! When we climbed Forester, the Kings Canyon sign was only just peeking out the snow! It ended up taking us a month to travel the 300 miles to reach Sonora Pass. When you are slogging through thick snow for 10 hours a day, you do not go nearly as fast; if you went 10 miles a day, you were doing well! The best part was the glissading down the other side of the passes. I remember it took two hours to walk the two miles to the top of Selden and then 20 minutes to do two miles down the other side. After the big five passes came the big melt, which meant we were dealing with surging rivers as well as deep, slushy snow. Snow bridge collapse, postholing, and sun cups characterized our last week and a half in the Sierra. I would not change the snow for the world ,though. I have never felt so epic, and I doubt I ever will again.

When did you arrive in the Sierra?

We made it to Kennedy Meadows on the 18th of May, but due to snowstorms among the mountains decided to delay our entry till the 28th, just a day after they had blown out. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been in the Sierra when we were. The amount of snow on the ground was biblical, and it made for a really tough month as we trudged our way through it all, but with only a handful of others ahead of us, it felt as if we were among those pioneering the route. We are super proud to have made it through, and amazed to have seen the range coated in such a perfect blanket of snow.

A lot of the well-known PCT trail angels are closing up shop next year. How do you think that will affect the trail community? 

It’s hard to predict how it will impact the next few years, but I certainly think it will. Their support is so influential for those on the trail, and I‘m sure that for some, it was almost decisive on whether they continued or not. I think my main concern would be how it may impact the sense of community on-trail. Places such as Scout and Frodo’s, Hiker Heaven, and Casa de Luna are almost like the student union bars at a university. They are spaces where you can let your hair down, meet others, and establish bonds between a multitude of trail families. They also act as these incredible bottlenecks where you have the opportunity to catch up with people you haven’t seen for potentially hundreds of miles. Without such spots and the amazing efforts and support provided by the trail angels who run them, I wouldn’t be surprised if hikes on the PCT became more individual or that trail families become more exclusive.  That said, I don’t think it will be a negative thing. There so many opportunities away from trail angels for hikers to socialize, and anyway, it opens up space for a new generation of angels to establish themselves in the hall of fame. The time and resources provided to the trail by these angels have been unreal, and the rest they’ll receive over the coming years is well deserved. I have never known a group of people so kind and generous in my life. Thank you for everything.

Jazmin “Flame Thrower” Ortega | March 29 to October 7, 2019 (NOBO)

Photo by Sara Oddershede

Favorite trail town, and why? 

It’s hard to choose one trail town, because the ones with all the creature comforts (South Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes), aren’t necessarily the ones where the best memories happened. In my case, I had great experiences in Idyllwild, where I wish I had zeroed; Big Bear Lake, where I met my Sierra partner, Crazy Burrito; the last zero day I took, at the Stevens Pass Lodge; and Stehekin, where I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to, but where I made the most of my stay, sleeping on a picnic table after having a nice steak-and-wine dinner at the restaurant.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?

I feel as if my last 20 years have prepared me to thru-hike the PCT. I started running long distances in 1999, running 21 marathons since then. I didn’t start backpacking and hiking long miles until five years ago, preparing in earnest for the PCT in the last two years. Yet it was the mental grind of running long miles that best prepared me for the grind of hiking 10 to 12 hours a day and enduring discomfort for prolonged periods. Mental training was the most crucial in the end.

What were your luxuries on-trail?

I started with a fleece liner that was an absolute luxury, but I sent it home pretty quickly. Then there’s the town dress I bought in Mount Shasta that I carried with me until the end. It was nice having something to wear when every other piece of clothing was in the washing machine.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need? What piece of gear did you wish you had?

I carried my ice ax from Idyllwild, much earlier than most hikers, and barely needed it for Mount San Jacinto and Baden-Powell but brought me peace of mind. I also hung on to my microspikes into Northern California and bought a second pair in Snoqualmie for the final seven to ten days on-trail. There’s no piece of gear I wish I had. If anything, I overprepared. It would’ve been nice to have my GoPro for the last few days, but I don’t feel like I missed out by not having it.

What’s your best wildlife story from your thru-hike?

Going into Crater Lake, I was running a half-day behind my hiking partner and was pushing to get to Mazama Campground in the evening. I got to the road into the campground after dark and started walking down the road when I saw a short silhouette ahead of me. A passing car shed its light, revealing a mountain lion waiting for the car to pass. As it crossed the road, it looked back at me, its neon-green eyes shining in my headlamp. I froze, then started walking slowly when I saw it had moved on. My instinct was to run down the road, but I had to stop myself from doing that. I was shaking as I got into camp. The following day I saw there was a mountain lion warning on the bulletin board. A little too late for that!

Did you hike more in a group or solo? What was your trail family like?

I hiked most of my thru in a group, usually of four. I had a few trail families along the way, going our separate ways largely due to injury or skipping the Sierra. I had a hiking partner (Crazy Burrito) from Tehachapi to Sierra City, forming a trail family with two other hiking partners, one of whom was my partner for the second half. It was a fluid situation, and it worked well for me to be able to hike with others or alone.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group? 

My favorite part was the time at camp in the evenings. When we were able to, we had a campfire going, and had great conversations with my trail family and other hikers who joined us for dinner.


I liked the freedom to set my own schedule and take breaks or push ahead if I wanted to. I hiked two-thirds of Washington state solo. The rest of the way was mostly in trail families or partnered up.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven? 

I listened to a lot of audiobooks on long stretches of Oregon. For tough climbs, I had some catchy tunes on Spotify. Most of the time, though, I relied on positive self-talk to get me through sketchy snow traverses or stream crossings. I reminded myself that getting through this challenge got me that much closer to Canada.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?

I miss the single-minded focus of a goal. It’s a paradox because there’s a lot of clarity in wanting to get to Canada, yet how one gets there is uncertain, largely at the mercy of outside forces like the weather or getting that hitch into town. I also miss the tangible sense of accomplishment at getting over a mountain pass, a stream crossing, a lava rock field. At the end of the day, I could point to what I accomplished, and that kept me going.

Even more important than that, though, is having done it with amazing people who took the same chance I did, leaving comfortable lives to test their limits. We helped each other and looked after each other, and no one outside of trail life can understand it without being there. The trail angels along the way and everyone who asked about our journey in amazement were also part of this incredible accomplishment. I miss them all.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers? 

Go with your gut. People will want to tell you how to hike your hike, what gear to buy, what you should be eating. You’re the one who’s going to be living with those decisions every day, so consider different options, and make your own call.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience? 

I want to keep going! Doing a thru-hike has made me more open to change, more willing to take risks, and more focused on spending time outdoors.

What sets the PCT apart from other long-distance trails (for you)?

This is my first thru-hike (I’ve done two sections of the JMT and PCT sections before). It’s the idea that you could walk across the US and end in another country that was so appealing. Nature knows no borders.

2019 was a heavy snow year on the PCT. How did that affect your hike? The high snow year made my hike longer by about a month, and it informed the gear decisions I made.

When did you arrive in the Sierra? Did you hike straight through or not? I left Kennedy Meadows on June 4. Barring any major snowstorms in June, I had my heart set on hiking through the Sierra. When it became clear that it would be a record snowfall, I had to come to terms with the trail as it was, forgetting about how I had envisioned my hike. Once I was able to accept that it would be a slog through the Sierra, I prepared myself over the winter with snow skills and wilderness first aid courses. I was able to hike in the San Gabriel mountains in January and February, so by the time I hit the first patch of snow in Mount San Jacinto and later the Sierra, I was ready.

A lot of the well-known PCT trail angels are closing up shop next year. How do you think that will affect the trail community? 

There will inevitably be a void left by two of the most legendary trail angels on the PCT. Over time, though, that void will be filled by others who step up. Hikers have been on the trail longer than trail angels, and they will find a way to meet their needs.

Trashalope” | May 10 to Sept 19, 2019 (NOBO)

Favorite trail town, and why?

Stehekin and Warner Springs were both great given their proximity to the N/S Terminus and the fact that an area was provided for PCT camping. The excitement around both places was palpable; being with everyone after completing the first hundred miles was fantastic, there were great stories already, and trail names were starting to form. Stehekin meant most people had less than 100 miles to go. There was a melancholy excitement, a feeling so fragile that people didn’t want to acknowledge what hitting the border truly meant, but everyone was downright giddy about it like everyone knew some shared hilarious secret. Even the nasty weather we were encountering wasn’t enough to dampen spirits. Plus, Stehekin’s bakery makes my mouth water just thinking about it. And Warner Springs had some pretty friendly cows.

In terms of amenities for hikers? Bishop was great. Went there out of Kearsarge Pass for first Sierra resupply, took a zero, recharged, there was a Grocery Outlet, great hostel, great bakery, great brewery. Everything a hiker needs. So great that I went back to Bishop out of Mammoth.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?

There’s no better training for hiking than hiking itself. I’d lost a good chunk of conditioning over the winter but made sure to get back into the swing of things with plenty of all-day hikes with a weighted pack, a smidge of trail running, and a weeklong trip on the Alabama section of the Pinhoti Trail. Having a light pack didn’t hurt either.

What were your luxuries on-trail?

I carried a 1.5 ounce pillow this year that was pretty nice until it got a leak toward the end.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need? What piece of gear did you wish you had?

Originally I was planning on getting in and out of towns much faster and taking FAR fewer zeroes, so I brought a 20k power delivery battery that charges in 3 hours and change. Given a bunch of zeroes waiting for the Sierra, I kinda scrapped that plan, so I always had way more battery than I needed.

What’s your best wildlife story from your thru-hike?

Well, it’s not strictly wild, but the cows at Warner Springs managed to have a bit of a jail break and get out onto the school’s baseball field and football field, and later wander over to the area where we all were set up. I and a couple of other people spent a bit coaxing them back to their home with moderate success.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?

So I’ve pretty much always hiked alone during the day, which means my legs can do their own thing. But I had a tramily till basically Kearsarge Pass. Was solo afterward although I floated around another tramily for a bit in NorCal.

What was your trail family like?

They were great. Missed em like hell after hiking alone for a while, but it was time for me to hike my own hike. Had a blast through the desert, especially as we were trying to stall ourselves a bit to wait out the peak melt before starting the Sierra, so we took a LOT of zeroes. We started a cult/religion called Flyingtology after a wacky interaction with an interesting guy in Idyllwild who told us about “higher intelligence aircraft.” Bunch of shenanigans.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group? Alone?

Although I love my trail fams from the first bits of the AT and PCT, I’ve done the vast majority of my hiking solo; logistically it’s just easier. And I definitely hike bigger miles by myself. You get a chance to push yourself more, mentally, and physically. Funnily enough, I think you also tend to meet more people when you’re hiking on your own, at least on thru trails during thru season, since you’re never truly alone out there. That also made it purely magical the times that I was able to have campsites to myself.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?

I reminded myself why I was there that I’d been dreaming about it all off-season. That I was there for the times that things got rough and had no choice but to make the most of it. Also music.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?

Simplicity. Autonomy. It’s downright intoxicating. Also, it’s the only place that packing out a bunch of McDoubles to eat for a few days is considered half-acceptable.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?

Do it. If you’re entertaining the idea, do it. Don’t put it off. You don’t have to be in great shape or have the best gear. I’m certainly not the first to say this, but I wholeheartedly agree: you don’t grow by sitting in your comfort zone. Push the boundaries. Be uncomfortable. Make (non-life-threatening) mistakes and learn from them.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?

Not really as much as I expected this year. I became more confident and more comfortable with myself, the more I pushed my comfort zone. If that makes any sense, it confirmed and reinforced a lot, for instance, that I wanna spend as much time on-trail as I can.

What sets the PCT apart from other long-distance trails (for you)?

It’s easier/nicer walking than the AT by far. Better graded, less stuff to trip on, was able to stare at views while hiking without busting my face open. It’s also (normally) not as wet as the AT, and being able to cowboy camp was absolutely amazing. Also, the wide-sweeping scenic views were unending. Downright breathtaking.

2019 was a heavy snow year on the PCT. How did that affect your hike?

Took basically two weeks of zeroes spread out before starting the Sierra to wait out a bit of the melt. I was mostly concerned with the water crossings given I had some snow experience and was comfortable with an ice ax. By the time we went in, there was still plenty of snow, but the peak melt had passed, so the crossings were going down. There were still several that were waist high on me (6’1″), but none that made me feel especially uncomfortable, although I still searched up/downstream for more viable spots on several crossings.

When did you arrive in the Sierra? Did you hike straight through or not?

Entered 6/23, straight through.

A lot of the well-known PCT trail angels are closing up shop next year. How do you think that will affect the trail community?

Trail angels like the Andersons and Saufleys were a staple on the PCT. I cannot imagine the desert stretch without them. They provided hikers with a safe place to stay in locations that were otherwise devoid of any lodging options, and their generosity brightened the lives of countless hikers. They opened their homes and hearts to PCTers for years, and the trail will be a little bit less bright for their absence.

It was also sad to hear last year that 2020 would be the final year Scout and Frodo were hosting PCTers in San Diego. They provided an amazing start to countless PCTers from around the world and set them up for success. Although they’re not closing up shop yet, I’m saddened at the thought of a PCT without them.

Our thanks to Trashalope, Duckie, Spook, and FlameThrower for their perspective on the PCT, especially the effects that the departure of key trail angels will have on the trail. So let’s throw a thank you their way too for the many years of support and love that Scout and Frodo (retiring post-2020), the Saufleys, and the Andersons have given to the PCT. Surely others will step up to take that torch, but it won’t be the same without you. All our love.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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