In April 2011, my brother Sam and I set off to thru-hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT), a 2,650-mile footpath following the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges from Mexico to the Canadian border. Along the way, we passed through seven National Parks, three states, deserts, wildflowers, burn areas, raging mountain streams, lava fields, snow fields, and spectacular scenery. The PCT is one of three hikes that make up the Triple Crown of National Scenic Trails in the US, the other two being the more popular Appalachian Trail (AT), and the even more remote Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The PCT attracts hikers looking to experience the diverse landscapes found in the Western US, those who feel the AT is too crowded, or are simply going for the Triple Crown. It took us 132 days to complete the journey, but our toughest challenge began not even halfway through in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.
The snowfall over the Sierra range in 2011 reached levels unheard of since the PCT was an established footpath. California is currently facing an extended drought; the conditions in 2011 were very different from now or ever before. The snow-covered Sierras would be a major obstacle for all thru-hikers in 2011 and particularly for our group of east-coasters in way over our heads and learning snow travel on the fly.
As thru-hikers, our goal was to complete the entire trail in one season, preferably in a continuous direction connecting every step between the Mexican and Canadian US borders. For Sam and I, this started many moons ago at Camp Tohkomeupog in New Hampshire where we were campers and eventually staff for a combined 20 summers and gained the essential backpacking skills and determination that would carry us through the PCT. Inspired by other staff at Tohkomeupog, Sam first took on the AT in 2008, where he then heard about the wild Sierras and remote landscapes along the PCT. Over 2,176 miles on the AT, he also found immeasurable amounts of self-reliance and confidence that became ingrained into his character, and, up to that point, it had been the most influential, positive, and rewarding experience of his life. The potential for further growth through an even greater challenge on the PCT could not be ignored. It offers even more than the AT: more disconnect from human interaction, the highest elevations in the lower 48 states, deserts, glaciers, and a diverse landscape of flora and wildlife entirely foreign to both of us, neither of whom had set foot in the Western US. It was impossible to conceive at once what could be gained from this, yet heartbreaking to imagine what could be missed with complacency. That alone would be enough to steer us to the trailhead, yet now we had the chance to make this a shared experience with each other.
Sam and I started out together, but a few hundred miles into the hike we joined up with thru-hikers Picker, Slapshot, and Josh to bring our group to five before entering the toughest section of the Sierra Nevada range. Picker, Slapshot, and Josh, as well as Sam, had all thru-hiked the AT from Georgia to Maine, which, although rugged, does not include the same navigational or logistical challenges of the PCT. All of them picked up nicknames, or “trail names,” on the AT, usually based on an embarrassing story or personality trait. Picker carried a guitar, Slapshot played hockey, Josh and Sam abandoned their AT names, and Sam and I were known as The Brothers. This narrative picks up 700 miles into the trek and recounts journals and photos from a 360-mile, 25-day stretch of the PCT through the snowy Sierra Nevada range, a serious obstacle on our way north to Canada and one we look back on and wonder how or why we did it.
6/5/11 — Kennedy Meadows (Tom’s Place), Mile 702
Emerging to a lightly gladed meadow, a road crossing appears in the near distance. All pangs of hunger disappear. This is our 37th day out from Mexico and we finally reach mile 702.2, Kennedy Meadows. Consisting simply of a small general store and a collection of RVs called “Tom’s Place,” it might as well be El Dorado. The next 200 miles of the PCT will take us through snowy passes, alpine meadows, and glacial valleys, but will not cross another road. Who would we see here? How bad is the snow ahead? How much for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s? These were the questions running through our head as we approached the road.
Roughly 20 idle RVs, which Tom collects, serve as temporary housing for hikers laying up before entering the Sierras. Up to this point on the PCT, we’ve made steady progress, averaging almost 20 miles a day, through the deserts and chaparral landscapes of Southern California, but the obstacle of the high-elevation Sierras will be a dramatic change and will undoubtedly slow, or even stop, our northbound progression. It’s well known on the trail this year that conditions are different and strategies from the guidebooks don’t apply. There are so many hikers paralyzed by this uncertainty that Tom’s RVs are all occupied when we arrive, so we camp. Another RV serves as a solar powered internet café. Hikers have been here for weeks recovering from injuries, giardia, blisters, or simply waiting for snow to melt. They’ve got well over triple digit tabs at the general store.
We head up to the store to grab packages which hold our supplies for the next section, mailed ahead from the last checkpoint at Mojave. We meticulously calculate the daily food intake for the next 12 days: one pop tart pack for breakfast; trail-mix, tortillas and a jar of peanut butter for lunch; one ramen noodle and half a bag of jerky for dinner; four nature Valleys, two Sunbelt bars, and one Snickers bar for snacking; and supplemental bags of cheez-its. Trail mix, at this point, tastes like cardboard, but the calories-to-weight ratio justifies its place in our food bag. The food, new ice axes, bear canisters, and microspikes push our packs to their upper limit of 50 lbs, up from the typical 30 lbs. Picker’s package hasn’t arrived yet, and he walks away empty handed.
The four days off allow us to refuel and communicate false messages of confidence to family back home, while enjoying lazy guitar playing, a swim in the Kern River and a few chance movies projected drive-in style at Tom’s Place.
The large group of hikers all in one place lends itself to many thru-hikers’ favorite activity: gossip. The hyperbole and speculation about the snowy conditions had been building amongst the PCT community as we approached the Sierras, but here no one can be certain what lies north. How could they from the view out of Tom’s RVs? Our group is apprehensive about arduous snow travel but excited by the opportunity to hike under unique conditions. Few people thru-hike the PCT, even fewer have the chance to say they accomplished it in a record-snow year like 2011. When you decide that a complete thru-hike is your goal, you accept there will be unanticipated challenges along the way and appreciate that these challenges are what defines the thru-hiking experience. To reject an opportunity like this is to diminish your own experience. As five healthy young men with no commitments for the next few months, we have no good excuse to turn away.
His package never surfaces, but Picker scavenges enough food from other hiker shipments to last him through Independence, CA, six days ahead (via 15-mile detour). Josh is getting off trail there to attend a wedding, so it will serve as a nice break day for us and Slapshot amid our 12-day section. That is assuming the terrain won’t affect our anticipated pace. The five of us decide to go for it.
6/13/11 — Crabtree Meadows (Mt. Whitney Spur Trail), Mile 767
After gaining elevation the first couple days, we reach base camp at Crabtree Meadows on the third day with plans to summit Mt. Whitney via an eight-mile-out-and-back detour from the PCT. The opportunity to grab the peak trumps the extra 15 miles off the PCT. The snowfields tenderize our feet, a stark contrast from the dry sandy conditions we had grown accustomed to through 700 miles in Southern California, and the lakes are now all frozen. Mt. Whitney would prove to be a surreal experience for our team of hikers familiar only with the woodsy and well-traveled Appalachian Mountains.
After a gentle climb along frozen lakes buried in snow, into the heart of the valley, west of the Whitney ridge, we encountered Two Fists and Thumper, an Aussie couple with whom we periodically crossed paths. They decide to bail on their Whitney attempt due to the sheer face and snow they would encounter ahead. The trail zig-zags up a steep wall to the ridgeline and is covered in vertical strips of snow that cut across the trail, providing a quick demise down the slope for anyone who takes a poorly placed step. This is our turning point. Now that we understand the conditions and see them right in front of us, we have to make a decision: proceed up the snowy wall and high ridge — certainly a long and risky day — or turn back and leave Mt. Whitney for another year. We opt to boulder directly up the rocky exposed sections.
Adrenaline masked our fatigue and caution as we watch the ridgeline fast approaching. At the top we encounter new hikers, but they’re different. They have fresh gear, clean faces, and a wonderful fragrance. They came eleven miles from the east side via Whitney Portal, the popular and heavily-permitted entry point from the arid Owens Valley east of the Sierras, for a chance to summit the famous high-point. Their sudden appearance startles me, yet I’m certain we surprised them more. We’re suddenly removed from our thru-hiker vacuum and reminded of the world that existed beyond these ridges. The drastic change in altitude from the lower trailhead — and panic — prevent them from going any higher. More hikers appear: the boyfriends are pleading with their girlfriends from the last strip of solid ground to just go another 200 feet, so the new gear and permits and the weekend journey can be worth it, but we can’t wait: we push over the last hump of snow to reach the summit at 14,505 feet in elevation. After 700 miles of build up to get to this point we are a bit more stubborn than your typical “weekend warrior.”
On top, we enjoy spectacular views from the highest point in the lower 48, check out the emergency shelter (oxygen tanks seem a bit overkill), and fend off the resident Marmot from our food bags. We are never joined by the hikers we saw on the way up. After an intense day for the group, the payoff is well worth it, and we’ve forgotten why we were apprehensive in the first place.
6/14/11 — Departing from Crabtree Meadows toward Forrester Pass, Mile 767
The fourth day would bring us to Forrester Pass, the highest point on the PCT. Mt. Whitney is higher but is not directly on the PCT and was a detour; Forrester can’t be avoided. We set out in the morning with map and compass in hand, holding conferences every 15 minutes to confirm our bearing. Staring out to the granite peaks around us, we try to find one written into the contours of our map. We can then imagine where the trail might be under all the snow depending on how far the map says it is from the identifying peak. These skills develop quickly out of necessity, as mistakes lead to hour-long (or more) detours and bickering amongst the group.
The approach is excruciatingly slow, and the granite wall and Forrester pass, our portal to the PCT north, never gets any closer. It’s taken us way longer than we had hoped, and our pace of travel brews frustration and fatigue. Picker boils over and curses the snow, rocks, blue sky, and any creature in earshot.
The sun has melted the hard upper layer of ice, and each step sinks our bodies waist deep. We must use new muscles to pull ourselves out of the snowpack. This problem, known as postholing, is exaggerated especially in summertime temperatures during thru-hiking season. You’re supposed to hit your high elevation passes in the morning while the snow is still tough from freezing overnight temperatures. This is not just another piece of unsolicited advice from bloviating bearded men who spend more time in hostels than on the trail. We should have listened this time.
The snow is only getting softer, and we still have to complete the “technical” portion of the pass once we reach the wall. We are desperate and frustrated upon arrival. The looming wall prompts what would become my ritual “pre-pass poop.” I would continue to be spooked into shedding weight before subsequent high passes, while instructing the group to keep their eyes on the pass.
The consensus route is “up.” We go vertical with ice axes until reaching bare rock near the top which we can scramble around to reach any exposed trail. The final test is the chute located just below the actual pass. The dry trail disappears beneath a 40-foot wide 500-foot long sloping strip of snow with hard Sierra granite at the bottom, just like the ones we avoided the day before going up Mt. Whitney. Luckily, there are defined steps in the snow to aid us.
Since Picker never received his maildrop at Tom’s Place, he headed into the Sierras without an ice axe, a piece of gear you never want to use because it means you’re plummeting down an icy mountainside. The idea is to be able to arrest yourself during a fall by plunging your ice axe into the snow and either stop or slow yourself enough to survive hitting any rocks below. The plan is for Picker to follow immediately behind Sam, who will arrest for the both of them. So one guy without an ice axe is following another guy who has no idea how to use an ice axe who is supposed to save both of them while the rest of the group watches helplessly from the edge of the chute for their turn to cross. That’s our plan.
But, thankfully, the steps and, just as importantly, everyone’s nerves hold. The chute was in enough of a shadow that the snow is still firm. Atop Forrester, the sun begins to set, but camp is nowhere close. After a brief celebration, we descend following a gentle ridge.
Along the ridge, Josh postholes, waist deep, and traps his foot on a rock below the surface. I drop my backpack and rush to dig him out; meanwhile, Picker, Sam, and Slapshot descend off the ridge down a snowy hillside and out of sight. By the time Josh is freed, they’re far below. After shouting for them on either side of the ridge, Josh and I are left to wonder what the hell happened, and what to do next. We can’t see their path in the dwindling light and opt to follow the rocky ridge offering safer passage, given the severity of postholing this late in the day. The end of the ridge drops off. We’re left with no option but to boulder down the rocks and soon become rim-rocked, or to the point of no return. We take turns lowering our bodies down the steep grade, using hand-over-hand climbing, while passing our packs down each section with rope. At one point, I lose my footing, facing outward, sending me in freefall until the landing 15 feet below. A hard fall from that height could have ended the trip right there for me, but I tumble forward into a small patch of snow. Josh then tosses my overloaded pack down to me and two of the auxiliary straps break on impact. Josh tosses his pack and climbs down safely, and we pause to reflect on the sheer stupidity of choosing a route without knowing what lies on the other side. The pause is interrupted by distant shouting as we catch the headlamps of our party. My headlamp starts flickering, but Josh’s still works. We shout and shine our lamps in return before descending to camp, merely a small patch of dirt within the basin. Turns out they couldn’t hear us at all from the campsite.
6/15/11 — Camped in basin North of Forrester Pass, Mile 783
The morning after is a humble one, having been shaken by the thought of needing a rescue. I never expected to be thru-hiking in these conditions. Was the decision to move forward from Kennedy Meadows made with safety in mind? What did we really sign up for? Josh heads out first to Independence and exits from the trail for a friend’s wedding, along with Picker, who, having lost his package at Kennedy Meadows, badly needs a food resupply. Josh has the only GPS in the group, although he uses it sparingly. Now the four of us would use map and compass the rest of the way, or the day-old footprints of a group ahead of us who we know has a GPS.
Sam, Slapshot, and I capitalize on Picker’s detour to take an easy seven-mile day, descending into the vast Bubbs Creek Canyon before climbing back up to Bullfrog Lake to meet Picker when he returns. We take a long lazy lunch in the canyon and jerry-rig a fishing pole. There are very few calm and thawed sections of the Creek to look for fish, so the experiment ends yielding only one small trout. It must have been too early in the season. The afternoon gives us time to reflect on the decisions we’ve made over the last few days to put ourselves in sketchy situations and strategize on how to avoid them going forward. The consensus is to stay within earshot at all times and make sure that everyone is aware of the next bearing or landmark in our line of sight. If someone travels out of sight, we’d yell and scream until we get an answer.
Finally, on our way to camp, we hear Picker yelling out across the lake. He had somehow beat us back to the lake, going over Kearsarge Pass, into the Owens Valley town of Independence, and back just before sundown with a few extra Snickers bars and Rice Krispie Treats to surprise us. As we lie exhausted, the full moon shines bright enough to disrupt our sleep, a problem that normally never faces thru-hikers.
6/16/11 — Departing Bullfrog Lake, Mile 790
The next day takes us over Glen Pass and down to the Rae Lakes basin, where a helicopter is carrying lumber to a future Ranger Station site. The pilot actually recognizes Picker from his online journal, which had become one of the only accurate sources of Sierra conditions for thru-hikers behind us. The brief text-messaged entries are not the most reassuring for those in hiker circles, nor friends and family members nervously tracking our journey.
The descent from Rae Lakes takes us below 9,000 feet and to the first dirt trail in days, allowing us to cruise into camp near a major junction at Woods Creek. Spoiled by the “normal” conditions, we get a small taste of the PCT in typical hiking season. The opportunity to zone out and blindly follow the dirt trail is a lot less stressful than what we’ve been putting up with, constantly questioning whether you are on the right path and slowly progressing. At camp, Sam and I take inventory of our remaining food to ensure supplies will last through the second half of the 12-day section while Picker serenades us by the fire on his Martin backpacker guitar.
6/17/11 — Woods Creek Bridge, Mile 800
Our camp is near a raging river, misleadingly named “Woods Creek.” The hot summer rays beating on the snow has caused an immense snowmelt and swelled all of the Sierra creeks beyond their capacity. Just like getting lost in a snowfield is a three- or four-times daily occurrence, so is the dangerous routine of crossing these creeks, many of which are not shown on maps.
The routine ones are knee to waist deep; the special ones get to our chest. All of them are freezing cold and suck the air from your lungs. Fortunately, Woods Creek is dangerous year-round so a cable suspension bridge was built along the trail. The PCT follows the main branch of Woods Creek up to Pinchot Pass, and we stop in awe of the power of this creek flowing through the sunny Sierras like a runaway train, smoothing the granite into curves to make any sculptor envious, and with force that would remove your footing so fast you wouldn’t have time to think of the words to scream nor would they be heard over its roar.
We cross over Pinchot Pass with no issues and continue to push far enough to get near the next pass, Mather, before sundown. However, our ambitious hiking backfires. By getting so close to the next high elevation pass, we are completely surrounded by snow with no place to camp for the night. We search in tree wells and rocks for a spot to lie down but nothing is big enough for even one person. Exhausted from dragging through snow all afternoon, we ultimately find solace in a gently sloped rock that pokes out exposed above the snow. I prefer to cowboy camp most nights on the PCT, sleeping under the stars, but tonight we didn’t really have an option.
6/18/11 — Rocky Outcrop below Mather Pass, Mile 814
The morning snow is still hard from the frigid overnight temperatures. Our footing holds with no postholing. Mather has a reputation for being just as difficult as Forrester, and by tackling it so easily we get a little of our confidence back.
The backside of Mather offers great opportunity for glissading, a fast, effective, and damn fun technique which entails sliding on your ass down the snowy mountain. The icy morning snow made for high speeds but raw legs. I watched Picker slide down, and the head of his guitar stuck out behind his pack and skidded along the sheet of ice behind him. Picker’s guitar has seen over 2,000 miles on the AT and another 800 to this point on the PCT; acting as an ice axe down Mather Pass is another day in the life. The glissading is a small victory in the battle against the snow.
At the bottom of Mather is dirt trail, allowing us to cover lots of ground to set up Muir Pass the next day. It has been ten days now in the snow. We add wild Sierra Onions to our dinner; the fresh ingredients supplementing the ramen noodles have substantial impact on my mental hunger. Rationing food is incredibly frustrating knowing exactly what you should be eating each day but craving about twice that. Ten to twelve hours of hiking through deep snow burns at least 5000-6000 calories, and we were lucky to eat half that in a day (for reference, a marathon runner burns about 2500-3500 calories per race).
6/19/11 — Camped at Big Pete’s Meadow, Mile 833
I wake to a single pack of Pop Tarts at 6:30 a.m. and wind through many false passes before reaching Muir Pass. We find a stone shelter perched in the middle of the saddle.
We push on, surprised to see such a well constructed building at the top and disappointed we could not time the arrival to sleep inside. It’s getting close to noon, and we know it’s a long way down, potentially all postholing if we wait around to admire the shelter. On the way down from Muir, we risk crossing a frozen lake in order to shortcut a PCT section that circumvents it. The edges of frozen lakes are normally mushy and can throw you off, but further in it’s solid ice.
We reach Evolution Meadow and dirt trail once again. The meadows offer the only wildlife aside from Marmots along the entire section, as birds and deer border the snowline until later in the season. Downstream from the meadow is one of the tougher river crossings on the PCT even in a normal snow year, so we decide to cross at the meadow where the flow is wider but much slower. We find a wide section roughly 40 yards across and go for it.
6/20/11 — Camped along Evolution Creek, Mile 853
The next day takes us to Selden Pass, one of the lowest elevations for the section, which proved to be the easiest. We chat with a new group of thru-hikers over lunch at the top with hungry marmots watching closely. The group pushes on but would provide us with a literal lifeline a few miles down the trail at another major river crossing, Bear Creek.
At the crossing, one member of the group, Pyrite, was able to rig up a line across Bear Creek. They had just sat down to dry off when we showed up on the other side and left the rope up for us to use. It’s not clear how Pyrite got on the other side of Bear Creek to set up the rope in the first place, but we’re grateful for the balance and support it provides. We grip the line with both hands and lean back so our arms are almost locked to resist the force of the water, then shuffle sideways to the other side. Using the line is a huge rush, one of the few times you can enjoy a crossing without thoughts of being swept away and under a tree trunk downstream.
The crossing is our last major obstacle before resupply and a day of rest at Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), a privately owned resort on the man-made Edison Lake, our first encounter with developed land since Kennedy Meadows, a stretch of 12 days and 172 miles. The resort is accessed by climbing onto a pontoon boat at one end of the lake that ferries you to the other side.
6/21/11 — Camped along Bear Creek, departing for VVR, Mile 873
We reach the trail crossing and discover the ferry is out of service, as VVR itself had only just opened the previous week on account of the snow blocking the access roads. A pontoon boat appears in the near distance, and we scream and wave our arms in desperation, but the boat heads in the other direction. Two nearby fisherman blast their airhorn to grab the boat’s attention, and it changes course towards us. We rejoice in knowing there is no hiking for at least 24 hours and hot food with a complimentary beer in the VVR kitchen.
The trail had thrown seemingly everything it had at us, and, in hindsight, our choices were not always in our own best interest. By ignoring conventional wisdom on the pace and timing of the high elevation passes, we found ourselves postholing up Forrester, then getting separated on the descent, and sleeping on an exposed rock below Mather Pass. It wasn’t enough to make us bail at VVR though, and we were learning. The last 12 days stretched our mental and physical abilities and forced us to adapt to extremely strenuous and unexpected conditions. The next 12 would supposedly be just as tough, and we take pride in knowing, or at least thinking, that we can take on whatever lies ahead.
- Bear Canister: Mandated by the National Park Service, bear-resistant portable containers are designed for backpackers to store food securely. They are a large and cumbersome item to fit into your pack.
- Blaze: A marker, normally spray painted on a tree or rock, that dictates a trail’s path. The Appalachian Trail has white blazes every 20-30 yards; however they are almost non-existent on most stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail.
- Chaparral: A shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily in California.
- Contour: A line (as on a map) connecting the points on a land surface that have the same elevation.
- Cowboy Camp: Term used to describe sleeping without a tent, under the stars. If weather allows, this makes for a quick and easy pitch and take down, and ideal for stargazing.
- Giardia: Giardia infection is a waterborne infection and can be caused by parasites found in backcountry streams and lakes, as well as in municipal water supplies, swimming pools, whirlpool spas and wells. Giardia infection is marked by abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea and diarrhea.
- Ice Axe: A light axe used by mountaineers for cutting footholds in snow or ice to provide an anchor point, or to control a slide on snow; it has a spiked tip and a head consisting of a pick and an adze.
- Microspikes: A lightweight crampon used by backpackers to traverse snow. The rubber jacket stretches over your boot while metal spikes dig into the snow to gain traction.
- Packages, or Mail Drops: Hikers strategically mail ahead supplies to remote outposts along the trail, such as Kennedy Meadows, which offer few or expensive grocery options. Another technique used is a “Bounce Box” which contains repair kits and supplies packed into one box which can be mailed ahead multiple times to the next town.
- Pass: Located on a saddle between two peaks, the pass is a route through a mountain range or over a ridge. If following the lowest possible route, a pass is locally the highest point on that route.
- Posthole: Inadvertently breaching through the surface of the snow, with your leg resembling a fence post stuck in a posthole.
- Rim-Rocked: A rock climber’s term used to describe the point of no return, where a climber cannot move back in the direction they came from.
- Self-Arrest: Ice axe technique used to rescue yourself in the event of a fall.
- Snow Blindness (Photokeratitis): The usually temporary dimming of the sight caused by the glare of reflected sunlight on snow.
- Thru-Hike: Hiking the entire length of a trail, specifically one of the ‘Triple Crown’ National Scenic Trails. Traditionally a contiguous hike from one end of the trail to the other.
- Trail Name: A trail name often derives from a unique characteristic or funny event associated with the hiker. A trail name is said to "stick" if the hiker accepts the trail name and other hikers begin to know him by that name. The tradition of using trail names started on the Appalachian Trail, and has spread to the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails.
- Tree Well: Areas around trees that have melted from the radiant heat of the sun on tree trunks
- Triple Crowner: Someone who has thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail.
Source for more PCT hiker terms:
//Ben Ward thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 with his brother Sam, and the Appalachian Trail in 2012. He resides in Washington, D.C. but is currently working on a construction project in Montreal, Quebec.
//Sam Ward has hiked over 5,000 miles along the Appalachian Trail (2008), Pacific Crest Trail (2011), and many more as a weekend warrior. He works as an Environmental Engineer and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Special thanks to Jeremy Wilson (Picker) for the use of his many pictures. Many thanks to Slapshot, Picker, and Josh for the memories which built this narrative.