Wisdom from 2019 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. I)

For the second year, we’ve sat down a bunch of thru-hikers to ask them questions about their completed 2019 thru-hikes. This is the first in the 2019 Wisdom from the Recent Past series of interviews (you can check out our completed 2018 series here). We’re starting out in the West with two PCT thru-hikers who talked to us about packing out boxes of wine, high snow years, and shamanic demon urine rituals (yep). Let’s dive in!

Karthikeya “Gulliver” Nadendla | April 30 – September 28 NOBO


Favorite trail town and why?

My favorite trail town is Bishop, California. Kennedy Meadows was full of fear-mongering and anxiety. So after finishing the first section of the Sierra and climbing Whitney, reaching Bishop filled not just me but fellow thru-hikers with a renewed sense of confidence and accomplishment. That confidence showed up in the hikers and we had a great time in hostel California. Also, they provided free bikes to go around the town, which was really cool.

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

When I spoke to those who finished the whole trail successfully, the important questions I had were: which sections did they find the most challenging, which was the lowest point on the trail mentally, and in which circumstances did their morale go down, did they feel like quitting, and when they did what did they do to get over the feeling? After listening to the answers and their coping mechanisms, I prepared myself accordingly in a way that when I faced similar issues, I wasn’t surprised because I knew they were coming.

What were your luxuries on trail?

I dialed in my gear to the necessities. I don’t have many luxuries. Maybe an air pillow, a sturdy mini tripod for astrophotography. Oh, I carried a full roll of KT tape I haven’t used much.

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

I brought an umbrella but didn’t really need it this year. Used it once. I had a Zpacks Duplex with me; I wish I only got a Solplex.

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

One night I camped alone in Northern California and went to sleep around 10 p.m. By midnight I heard an animal outside the tent. I peeped out, it was a dark night, and it sounded like a bear. All of a sudden, adrenaline was pumped all over, and I felt like a ninja with blinded eyes sensing the enemy by sound. Still lying in my sleeping bag I had a heightened sense of awareness of surroundings. I was able to sense how far the animal was, the direction the footsteps were coming from, how the crunching sounds were, when it stepped on sticks or dry leaves, everything.

After an hour I felt like it was gone. So, I got outside the tent and urinated all around it like a shamanic demon ritual hoping the testosterone would cast a spell. It didn’t. The animal came right back to the tent the moment I went inside. So I was just lying in my bag with the tripod in one hand and a small knife in the other, just in case. It left after a couple of hours for good. I had no sleep that night.

Did you hike more in a group or solo? What was your trail family like? What was your favorite part of hiking in a group? Alone?

I didn’t technically form a trail family with anyone, but I hiked with a few for most of the time, and they felt like a family to me. I balanced between group hiking and solo hiking. I enjoyed both hiking in a group and solo. When I hike I usually don’t like to engage in a conversation, and I don’t like to hike in a group with someone always right in front of my eyes. I like to have my peace and solitude while hiking, but I’d love to see my people for lunchtime and while camping. After a long day of hiking alone, going to the camp and meeting my friends was the best part. For this, we used to discuss and confirm beforehand where we would be camping.

The people I hiked with were really fun, no bullshit. We had straightforward conversations on trail, stupid jokes, and no drama whatsoever. We used to party in towns and help each other when needed. My people were pretty diverse, myself being Indian, Tank from Israel, Soultrain and Green Butters from the USA, Sombrero from Holland, and Matrix from Australia.

My favorite part of hiking in a group is motivating each other in challenging sections and laughter at times, especially after stupid jokes. My favorite part of being alone was the time I had to tap into my own ability of self-sustenance and the focus to build confidence while contemplating about my life in general.

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

I turned inward to my past and previous experiences that made me feel inferior in life. That dark energy was a great source of motivation and strength.

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

I miss the unknown aspect. Every day was different, meeting people, new sceneries, and camping in different locations overnight. The novelty never wore off. Although it got monotonous, there was still something new waiting to surprise me. That unpredictability and things unfolding by itself is something I deeply miss being in the trail. Life off trail is the same every day; everything is known.

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

Please don’t listen to the fearmongers and quickly jump into conclusions. First, it’s better to take time and hike the trail by ourselves; if you think any section is too dangerous or out of your skill set, then go with someone whom you can trust and can lead you. Make calculated risks and face the fears. Even if you can’t reach the objective, end of the day when you face your fears, your confidence levels will sky rocket.

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

I went in with an ambitious mind-set, and I still carry ambitions with me. But the hustle mentality has changed after the trail. I knew before that less is more, but in this trail, I have lived through it and found out that applies to my ambitions as well. Before I hiked the trail, I wanted everything to happen faster, which always left me in a feeling of hurry. Now I realized that it comes from a short-term mind-set. Thinking long term and being patient is the greatest lesson on trail, which changed me to be even more ambitious than before, but I take them one step at a time, much slower than before.

The truth is, to reach your goals fast, you have to go slowly. After all, if you end up rushing toward your goal, you might end up injuring yourself along the way and never make it.

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

PCT is my first long-distance trail in life, and I haven’t done any other long-distance trail. So PCT is and will always be my first love.

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

I am comfortable on snow, and I enjoy it more than anything else. So I was excited about the high snow this year. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I wouldn’t trade this year’s hike with a less snow year whatsoever.

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

By June 20, I was in the Sierra, and I hiked straight through it. I never had skipping or flipping in my mind, to begin with.

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 and community are a crucial part of the trail experience. Usually, the community is stronger in the desert, and if that closes, then I think PCT loses a part of its soul. When I think about it, staying at Scout and Frodo’s, interacting with several other hikers, and just spending time with the community prepared me to begin the hike. It opened my eyes to an alternate communal reality, which I never knew existed before. Closure of such communal support will leave a void in the heart and soul of PCT.

Andrew “Reptar” Forestell | April 11, 2017 – August 14, 2019, flip-flop

Favorite trail town and why?

In terms of people and memories I’d have to say Erwin, Tennessee. In terms of an all-around great town I would have to say Idyllwild. Be sure to say hi to the mayor!

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

For the AT I researched gear and tested it out before I hit the trail, which was a huge help. For the PCT I ate a lot of pizza, tacos, and spent time with people I cared about. I didn’t do a lot of cardio but you should do a lot of cardio.

What were your luxuries on-trail?

My Canon 5D Mark iii and Marshmallow the non-binary, inflatable unicorn

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?

My Canon 5D Mark iii and Marshmallow the non-binary inflatable unicorn

What piece of gear did you wish you had?

A Garmin GPS maybe?

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

I was sworn to secrecy regarding the mountain lion encounter but probably the night a raccoon stole my food bag and I had to steal it back.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?

I started the AT with a friend and we split up after 400ish miles. I continued the rest of the trail with my trail family. The PCT I started with my girlfriend and ended up solo.

What was your trail family like?

Over the years I’ve had quite a few and they were always some of the most interesting and kind people I’ve met. I’ll cherish the memories made with them for the rest of my life.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?

The camaraderie. It’s very uplifting to hike with a group of people experiencing the same as you are. Thru-hiking can be a big team-building sport and there are a lot of great teams out there.

Alone?

Just listening to nature, listening to books on tape or podcasts. Doing a bunch of soul-searching and discovering who you are as a person.

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

Friends, family, food, and Jack Daniel’s.

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

Waking up and having your biggest decision be where is my next water source? And the mist-covered forests of Vermont. I think about the smell and serenity of them often.

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

Plan on spending more money than you think you’ll spend, have a backup plan for when/if you don’t finish, and lightweight gear is worth it.

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

Probably that I cherish my relationships with people more. I’ve met a hundred vistas but I’ve only met one kid from Texas named Fancy Pants.

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

The desert. Hiking through roughly 900 miles of desert is pretty brutal. It’s also more remote than say the AT. I haven’t hit the CDT yet but I’ll let you know how that goes when I get there.

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

Snow equals slow. It can be sketchy on the traverses, the snowmelt makes for crazy river crossings, and your shoes and socks are wet for weeks. GPS is a necessity. Bring a second method of navigation.

When did you arrive in the Sierra?

I honestly don’t remember but we slow rolled it into August I think?

Did you hike straight through or not?

I hiked through the Sierra straight through. I flip-flopped the trail as a whole though.

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?

The trail community as a whole is wonderful and any angel that decides to move on will be missed. That being said every year is an opportunity for new trail angels to start and there will never be a shortage of gratitude for their services.

Barrett “Carrot with a B” Burns | May 7 – October 3 NOBO

Favorite trail town, and why?

This is so hard. Stehekin was like a Wes Anderson movie come to life, and I loved it; Bend and Idyllwild had me looking for places to move in; and Ashland was a dream, but my favorite trail town experience was probably Seiad Valley just because of all the hikers sitting at that picnic table trying to talk each other into and successfully talking each other out of tackling that big climb out of town. The town really encapsulated what I loved about trail life–simplicity and the community bonding over food and the challenges of the trail.  I love the State of Jefferson signs and the three buildings that constitute the “town,” watching hikers attempt the pancake challenge, delicious milkshakes, and just a good time hanging out.

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

Doing the Colorado Trail two years ago to see if I liked thru-hiking before jumping in the deep end was a big part of my experience on the trail. I had done a lot of backpacking and guiding before that, and I remember thinking I had packed ultralight, and then a former AT hiker on the CT literally asked to take a picture of my backpack because of how big it was! I wasn’t insulted; he was right, and I quickly learned that thru-hiking is almost a completely different sport. I was afraid of hitchhiking before that trip and carried more to avoid it. I got over that one real fast. It takes a lot of confidence to even start a trail as long as the PCT. At the beginning of the CT, I remember telling people, “I’m going to walk 500 miles???” having absolutely no idea if that was something I could do, but after that, I knew I could do the PCT as long as something didn’t stop me.

What were your luxuries on trail? 

I had these water socks I used as camp shoes that were essential during the Sierra when my shoes were constantly wet. I also carried a pair of down pants that were life-changingly warm and comfy, I love them so much, favorite piece of gear by far. Oh, and usually a bit of box wine.

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

Honestly, I get really cold easily, so a lot of the things I brought that people told me I wouldn’t need (gloves, extra layers, etc.), I used. Don’t let anyone tell you not to bring something to be ultralight if it’s something you know you need! Not everyone needs the same gear. A few things like a beanie I dropped early on. I ended up ordering some Neoprene socks when it got cold and rainy in Washington. The first hour of the day was just miserable, putting on wet or frozen shoes over wet socks, and when I realized I couldn’t keep my feet dry, I figured I could at least keep them warm.

In Washington, I had mice get into my food almost every night, and had a lot of nights I didn’t sleep well trying to scare critters away every 20 minutes. So if I did it again I’d get gear to protect my food from mice and small animals.

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

I really wish I had a dramatic bear story or something for how many times I get asked this. Really, I just enjoyed all the super-cute critters I got to see, a lot of which (weasels, skunks, and so many pikas!) I had never seen in the wild before. The hardest I laughed is when I woke up hearing my hiking buddy fuming to himself because a mouse had not only gotten into his food and eaten his favorite snacks but, for no apparent reason whatsoever except as a tiny middle finger to him as it left, also pooped in his coffee mug. That’s just an animal with a sense of humor.

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

Group. I spent a good amount of the desert worried I wouldn’t find a trail family, which was silly. We had a solid crew of three for the whole Sierra and onward, with other groups we would see often and hike with on and off. From about the midpoint onward, my buddy Link and I stuck together. We would split up and/or join other groups for a few days here and there, but by the end, we practically had our own language of in-jokes and trail jargon. We ended in a group of four to stay safe in the snow of the Northern Cascades.  I couldn’t have done it without my trail fam, “extended trail fam,” and the whole trail community.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group? 

Hiking in a group got me out of my head when my thoughts would get stuck in a loop (“what can I get rid of out of my pack?… what will I eat in town?” and repeat…). It was crucial when the weather was bad to keep me in good spirits to have someone to vent to and be able to distract ourselves.

Alone? 

Zoning out to music, podcasts, or the sounds of nature and just enjoying the simplicity of just walking step by step. I found it really therapeutic.

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

To be honest, I think a lot of people are successful who aren’t looking forward to going back home. I was always more excited to be out there than to be at work. There were a lot of days I didn’t feel like being out there that particular day. I remember one time just kinda thinking to myself, “Huh, I’m actually kinda tired of walking.” Being a Southern California girl and hiking through a lot of rain and snow, the weather started to get to me a lot as well. I had been dreaming of what it would feel like to get to Canada for a long time. I really wasn’t about to let boredom or rain get in the way of that. A friend told me to think of it as a series of four-day trips between towns, and that helped as well, not getting overwhelmed with the miles I had left and just enjoying each segment for what it was.

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

The simplicity of it. I was overwhelmed with advertising and traffic and social media when I got home. On trail I almost always felt contentment and gratitude. I loved waking up every day with a simple goal—walk north—and being able to accomplish it. I miss eating because I am hungry and not just because it’s noon and sleeping because I’m exhausted. And of course, I miss the lovely nomadic community that was the same brand of crazy as you, being able to follow the trail of dirt and smell of Darn Toughs and know you’ll find a friend, whether or not you’ve met that person before.

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

I know this is an ironic place to write this, but don’t read too much online! If something online is making you doubt yourself or your gear, then don’t read it. Get advice from former hikers; we are all super nostalgic and would love an opportunity to talk trail for hours to a stranger who actually wants to hear about it. I read a lot of things that made me feel like I would look like an idiot if I didn’t have this or that piece of gear. It really doesn’t matter, and you will have to switch things up regardless. Don’t plan too much, and try to go with the flow! I didn’t expect the amount of rain and snow I experienced in SoCal and had to switch early on from desert layers to be prepared for the weather. Other hikers I know from other years got rained on only a few days the whole trail. Unexpected things will happen, and that’s the only thing you can plan for.

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

Confidence is the obvious answer. I hit a lot of major milestones thinking, Huh, I didn’t really know if I could actually make it this far.” At the 2,000-mile marker, I was just kinda like, “cool.” The excitement of the accomplishments didn’t fade for me, but I was no longer amazed by what I could do. Two thousand miles felt like, “Yeah, I knew I could do this.” More than a month after finishing, it’s interesting to see what has remained for me. It’s kind of fun to be this secret badass and just have this card in my back pocket as I go through normal life that I have walked from Mexico to Canada, and no one really knows only by looking at me. I have been trying to pass on the concept of trail magic in real life. I had so much kindness heaped on me in those five months—freshly grilled bacon cheeseburgers, all the rides, and cold drinks, so many day hikers giving up their snacks! Some strangers in the lobby of a hotel were asking about the trail, and I happened to mention that my stove had broken, and they just gave me their stove! The generosity and the general spirit of goodness in the world is the biggest thing I want to live out in the world post trail.

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

I can only compare to the CT, and there’s the obvious big difference in distance (500 vs. 2,600 miles). I was alone much of the CT and camped with other people probably the same number of times I camped alone on the PCT in a much shorter amount of time. I love the spirit of the West Coast. It feels very rugged and adventurous in a way other places I’ve been don’t. The PCT takes you through some of the most famous wilderness in the country (Yosemite, the Cascades), but it takes you through the unknown parts of California that let you experience all of its quirks. The diversity of the terrain is amazing. Flying back down from the Cascades to the desert where I’m from, it was striking how different it was.

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

I was dreading the snow, but in the end, I wouldn’t change a thing. I spent a lot of the desert going slow to wait out the snowmelt in the Sierra, and so spent more time building a community there and in places like Casa de Luna that I otherwise might have raced past. In the Sierra, it added a lot of anxiety to the trip. I didn’t have a lot of snow experience and was terrified of the river crossings. It was mentally exhausting, feeling like every few miles there was something that was potentially fatally dangerous. In the end, most of it wasn’t as hard as I had made it in my mind, and I felt awesome doing Forester and Mount Whitney with that amount of snow. Finally, getting hit with snow in the Cascades was a huge mental blow with the number of people online and on trail that told us constantly that we wouldn’t make it due to the weather. The Cascades were absolutely gorgeous in the snow, and I’m so glad I got to see it that way, even though it meant picking up extra gear to be safe in those conditions.

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

June 19. Yes.

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 a sad thing to see such a huge part of the trail culture closing down, but it’s a well-deserved rest for all of them! The Southern California trail angels, especially, are such a big part of building community on trail. Without them, I don’t know if I would have felt safe going into the Sierra, and I definitely wouldn’t have had as much fun. I think I can speak for all of us hikers when I say thank you! As for the class of 2020 and onward, I think it will be a different experience, but I do not doubt that the trail will provide the same community and am looking forward to seeing how trail life adapts in the future.

Thanks to the hikers who agreed to speak to us about their hikes. Stay tuned, because there are lots more interviews to come from 2019 PCT, AT, and CDT thru-hikers.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    Sobo 2019 : Nov 24th

    Hi! You guys should really interview more SOBOs to broaden the perspectives you share — we’re not hard to get ahold of and eager to make more resources and information available to future SOBOs. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Samantha Olthof : Nov 25th

      There are some interviews with SOBOs and flip-flops coming up in this series! Stay tuned 🙂

      Reply

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