PCT Update—2037 Wolverine Miles Completed: Washington, Fire Impact and What Does It Mean To Complete the Trail?
I would venture to debate that per mile Washington is the toughest 505 mile stretch on the entire Pacific Crest Trail. With its ‘young’ vertical rugged peaks, rough, high off-the-deck, often unmaintained, remote trail sections, and moody weather, Washington sticks it to the hiker every single day. Steep, long climbs and descents. Sustained difficulty. Every. Single. Day. I would recommend hiking Washington because it is a pristine beauty of a stretch of trail for sure, but only if you are quite fit and adept at being entirely self sufficient in wilderness. The weather can turn bad in a flash (pun intended) and any sort of remote rescue out there would be one that the SAR folks would chat about for quite some time.
After a few months hiking and the cumulative fatigue that came with that 10-12 hour per day effort, I started to notice my body really breaking down after I got about halfway into Washington. Deep fatigue. Body feeding off of muscle. What I enjoyed jokingly declaring to my hiking partners was; “Washington is trying to slowly kill me.”
All that said, I’ve walked 2037 miles this summer, but am most pleased with completing the state of Washington. This stunningly beautiful corner of the lower 48, kicked my ass. My hats off to the Pacific North West, I am honored to call this gorgeous state home (part time). Wow.
If you’ve been following my progress, you may remember that after I recovered from getting sick back in early July I jumped back on the trail near Etna, CA, flipping forward from where I left off in the Sierra. My goal was to complete part of Nor Cal, Oregon and Washington while the weather leaned in my favor—which I did—and then finish the miles I jumped over in Nor Cal after tagging the Canadian border.
The problem now is that California is burning. Again. Currently (and pending evaluation) all Forest Service land is closed. Which means there is no section of PCT trail in CA, road to road, that is currently OK to hike. Most of the bits of trail I need to do that could open if they release the Forest Service land, is in between fire closures and is likely smoke riddled. This has caused all southbound (SOBO) and northbound (NOBO) PCT hikers to get off trail in CA. Sadly, this year’s prevalent fires on the PCT have become what appears to be a new-normal.
Given the yearly ever present fire issues plaguing this long trail, I took a loose poll while on trail the past few months. I asked hikers—What does it mean to say you completed the Pacific Crest Trail? Every year the configuration of the PCT trail changes due to fire issues. Every year there are sections of trail subject to fire closures. If one ignores the closures and illegally hikes these sections anyway, they are potentially subject to dangerous trail sections as well as a stiff $5000 fine if caught. No one can hike the entire trail in any given year—not even the 2021 Fastest Known Time supported male record holder, Timothy Olson. So when does one say they hiked the whole trail?
This year, in order for Tim to get his supported record he had to drive around closures, ’make up miles’ by doing out and back’s on sections of trail, or run around closures on the road—just like we did. His men’s supported record will look different than the last guy who held the record or the guy who will capture it next. So in essence his record and everyone else’s records are one-off records. Like all the records prior and new ones to come, each will need to have an asterisk after the time-period. The side note being that the record was done on a slightly or largely different trail than his or her predecessors.
If someone comes along and breaks Tim’s record*, the new record will be a unique record as well**. That doesn’t diminish his or others incredible, amazing, super-human accomplishments. It just means that each year the trail distance changes up a bit and the geography of the sections done to “complete” the trail record look a bit different.
The thru hiker is faced with the same dilemma.
So, then, what does it mean to complete the trail?
The short (and trite) answer is: There are as many interpretations of an answer to this question as there are hikers.
Some will skip large sections, maybe hundreds of miles, and still say they completed the trail. Or regardless of how many miles they have done prior, they may just tag the Canadian border and then declare they are ‘finished’. Others will painstakingly hike every inch of trail that is legal to do so, and hike around the closed areas to make up for the closed miles. Who is “correct” in saying they are complete?
I met quite a few folks who have done less miles of trail than I have and still considered themselves complete. One was a woman in the desert who introduced herself as a 2016 PCT thru hiker. After asking her a few questions about her hike in order to get some on-trail information, I came to find out that when she hiked the trail she bypassed a giant chunk of miles which included the Southern Sierra, which, as one of the toughest and most feared sections of trail, is what I consider a crux section of the trail. She never came back to finish those miles.
I met another woman who worked hard to get rides around every section of trail that was on or next to any sort of road. She figured if there was a perfectly good road by which you can bypass a section of trail, why hike? Still others will piece together various iterations of what they consider trail completion. I found it all kinda perplexing.
One might consider; if Tim Olson did out and backs or road walks not on the PCT so his miles added up to the trail’s total and he got the official record, can’t I do that too? In the end we all have to decide what it means for us to be complete with the trail, all while breathing wild land fire smoke and dodging the ever looming lightning bombs flung about by Mother Nature. There will never be one answer to the question of what it means to complete the trail. Just the one we ultimately feel the most comfortable or the trail and trail conditions presented to us in any given year.
I must note here that on trail it is un-politically-correct to call people out on skipping sections of trail. So I am acknowledging that it is uncool for me to call people out on particular iterations of their hike that I may not relate to. “Hike your own hike!”, we cheerfully say on trail. Which sort of means that it is our prerogative to put our trail experience together in whichever way we wish despite the actual length of the entire trail (2650-ish miles). But I will add that despite this on-trail politeness, if you don’t do a majority of the trail and lie and say you did, hikers will talk shit about you behind your back. Yes, they will. So after experiencing several months of trail culture it appears more accurate to use the phrase, “Hike your own hike…but…”
But seriously, if you skip hundreds of miles of trail, post your smiling triumphant face at the terminus and then call yourself complete, I’d say THAT is what is uncool. Just sayin (in that un-PC sort of way). In order to discuss what it means to us to be complete we have to declare what we think isn’t complete.
All that said, my answer to this question is that I can not declare in good conscience that I’ve completed the trail until I have finished all the miles of trail that are available to hike (miles legally open). My hiking partner offered that since the trail I’ve not completed is currently closed, I can declare myself complete. But I’m not super on board with that convenient tact. So the current plan is to complete trail sections needed as is possible. The fires will define when and if that will happen.
In the meantime the entire map of the trail still hangs in my kitchen—with the unaccounted-for sections of trail dually noted. Since I have been home, I have been staring at it often as I sip my coffee.
So I can say once again, back at you soon.
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Wolverine! I agree Washington is epic! I also was perplexed by what is considered a thru hike for the pct! I went SOBO this year and made up miles for the lionshead closure. We planned to gap the caldor closure with ins and outs. At Siead we learned NorCal was closed. I called an audible and went coastal doing a section of the California coast trail. We then rejoined at Sonora to only get to Yosemite! We were pissed to find the forests closed and then watch glampors buy firewood by the box! I wasn’t ready to go home. But now home, I plan to NOBO back to Siaed, the best part is it’ll remain in a calendar year. But I’m afraid you’re right that the new norm will skip miles irregardless due to closure! I felt I missed too many miles if I did touch Mexico- I was going to hike them on another trail to be close to 2600. But that’s just me! I had 350 this year going into the north cascades so I wouldn’t get my butt kicked too bad!😹