An update on the challenges being faced on the PCT this season. Between extensive wildfires, air quality, trail closures, near-record snow levels and snowpack water content creating dangerous creek crossings this is probably the toughest year ever to thru-hike the PCT.
September 9th update: The large group of hikers trapped by the Eagle Creek fire threatening 10,000 acres had a harrowing escape but made it safely out. Currently there are at least 8 closures of PCT sections caused by fire.
September 5th update: The Columbia Gorge / Cascade Locks area where the PCT crosses from Oregon north into Washington has fallen victim to a massive fire currently covering 4800 acres which has shut down businesses in the key resupply town of Cascade Locks and forced the evacuation of over 150 hikers and day trippers. This is an ongoing situation and is leading to many PCT thru-hikers decamping all the way out to Portland to consider their (limited) options for the remainder of the season. Meanwhile the fire threatens a mid-size trail town in a manner reminiscent of the wildfires that killed 14 in Gatlinburg near the Appalachian Trail last year.
August 25th update: Austrian section hiker Mathias Steinhuber was struck so severely by lightning on Tinker Knob (mile 1145.9) that all the clothes were ripped from his body and he had to be airlifted to hospital. As this news story describes it, he was extremely lucky to survive.
August 24th update: August has seen a rash of wildfires legally shut down large chunks of the PCT forcing hikers to skip around to avoid the dangers from smoke and fire. By their nature fires like this are very difficult to track and report accurately and in a timely fashion and the slow pace of hikers makes them vulnerable to fires that may originally be some distance away plus smoke poses a health danger sometimes worse than fire. The PCTA try to keep on top of it but it certainly would be a logistical challenge for thru-hikers on the ground to a) figure out the best plan and b) execute on that plan – e.g. stay put in a town to wait it out or get rides to skip around or figure out public transport options, often in areas not covered in their pre-hike planning as they are far off trail. Any purist looking to do a “continuous footprints” hike is particularly challenged with one official alternate requiring a 40 mile road walk including such a dangerous road even I would consider foolhardy to attempt.
On August 23rd the PCTA published a pair of trail closures with just 1 open mile between them and recommended hikers skip from mile 1597 to 1716 to avoid them, a huge 119 mile skip. This obviously makes me think about how I would handle this if faced with such a problem. Fires can burn for weeks and waiting them out is usually pointless. If a reasonable walking bypass is possible (and waiting for one to become clear would mean waiting already for a day or two while the fire zone establishes itself and people figure out alternate routes) then I would definitely take it. If a trail section is closed then obviously I can’t hike it and I’m not walking an extra 150 miles on dangerous roads to get round it. Somewhere between “reasonable walking bypass” and when the PCTA shrug and say, “we can’t figure out any kind of bypass, just skip it” is the grey area where personal decision-making lies. I’ll have to take it as it comes and decide at the time. I won’t however be too religious about skipping – I would be there to hike the PCT first and foremost. Any reasonable-distance bypass through the backcountry is fine but I’m not up for extensive road-walking on 60mph roads with no hard shoulder. That’s not my bag.
August 15th update: Two 19-year old hikers, Emily Lang and Emma Place, were found dead on August 12th at the waterfall at PCT mile 2100.1 having fallen on the rocks. As they are Portland OR residents they may have been on a section or vacation hike. This location is 6 miles north of Timberline Lodge.
A hiker was reportedly rescued by SAR helicopter in the Sierras after being trapped in a creek with a damaged leg for 36 hours. He had been swept away by the fast waters and became entangled in a “strainer” downstream, a downed tree.
July 31st update: Very sadly in mid July thru-hiker Rika “Strawberry” Morita was found submerged in the south fork of the Kings River in the Sierras (mile 811), a victim of the rapid water crossing. A brief initial news article is here.
In addition on 30th July thru-hiker Chaocui “Tree” Wang was found drowned 1km downstream from the crossing with Rancheria Creek in Kerrick Canyon (mile 980.7).
By all accounts they were lively, popular and very competent hikers. My condolences to both families.
Meanwhile the search continues for Irish hiker David O’Sullivan who has been missing since April 7th.
And further appeals have gone out for hikers to keep an eye open for the equipment or any other sign of thru-hiker Kris Fowler who was lost in October 2016 around mile 2300 and is presumed to be dead.
To a much greater extent than the AT, an attempted “true thru” hike of the PCT (meaning no skips, flips or unsanctioned bypasses) is under the influence of the weather.
This year’s class watched with dismay as a long winter piled up near-record levels of snowpack and, crucially, snow water content so when the season started in early April thru-hikers were faced with dangerous wintry conditions anywhere north of mile 700. By mid June only 6 hikers were documented as having hiked across the Sierras. Multiple posts a day were seen on internet forums from hikers either bailing completely, taking multi-week breaks or asking where the best place was to flip up to and trail angels reported spending whole days on the PCT with supplies and good cheer only to see exactly zero hikers come through.
Flipping on the PCT is difficult to make work. On the Appalachian Trail NOBOs can flip up to Maine at any after June and have a clear run down to Georgia for the rest of the calendar year if required. On the PCT though the hardest (most mountainous, most remote and most exposed to bad weather) sections for NOBOs are between miles 700 and 1020 (the Sierras) and then much of the rest of the trail is still between 5000 and 10,000 feet elevation making it impossible to pick a long stretch of snow-free hiking if you want to avoid the Sierras. There’s been so much snow that one ski resort publicized it would be able to stay open until August!
It got so bad that the press picked up on it, such as in this article. The Pacific Crest Trail doles out hazards in cruel ways. Thousands of hikers on the 2,650-mile trek face perils including rattlesnakes, exposure, corneal flash burns from snow glare, and heatstroke. But 2017 is shaping up to be one of the most frightening years in the national scenic trail’s history.
The hikers that attempted the Sierras ran into deep snow, obscured landmarks, avalanches and – worst of all – rapid and deep icy water crossings (creeks, streams, rivers). Imagine postholing in cold snow only to reach a swollen creek racing at high speeds with icy water only kept liquid by its motion. The nearest town might be 50 miles away (3-4 days) so options are rather limited if things go wrong or you want to bail. Actually you don’t have to imagine it – here is a video though you need a Facebook account to view it. It’s worth watching to get a true idea of what it is really like…
Hikers have been swept off their feet, losing gear and risking concussions and hypothermia. One such hiker, Marcus Mazzaferri recounted his story here. With a single mis-step in near-freezing water about 15 miles north of Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, his plans went terribly awry. He is sharing his story now, so that others may learn from his ordeal, about what put him in such a desperate situation and the good decisions he made afterwards that led to his survival.
It probably isn’t something everyone would have guessed but California in summer isn’t all beaches and rollerblading. In the span of just a few days all these stories came up on my Facebook feed.
Plus a story of day hikers dying of exposure near the trail.
In the meanwhile back in the warm tranquil safety of London… I have moved closer to deciding on my desert hiking outfit (I’m liking ExOfficio’s BugsAway Halo shirt but their Sandfly pants are a bit too roomy) and started the process of investigating my continuing foot problems from a scan/surgery point of view – it’s still really painful. Since my ex-girlfriend had cancelled my health insurance six months earlier without telling me (fortunate I didn’t get cancer then) I have to take out a new policy and have that sorted out before pursuing it further.
I note with interest that Osprey are updating the Exos range of packs for Spring 2018 (so hopefully just in time for my hike) though details are scarce at this point. All the bloggers’ attention has been on a new ultralight pack, the Levity, which is similar to the Exos but lacks hipbelt pockets and a floating lid, and has minimal padding in the straps to achieve an impressively low weight so I think the Exos will still be the only pack to compete with my Marmot Graviton that I am currently testing on day hikes (16 miles last Sunday).