Day Fourteen dawned like the others, dark and cold, with an icy howling wind. We wolfed down some Pop Tarts and trudged into the gray bleakness of the morning, praying the movement would warm us. By the time we got to Chickamen Ridge, the snow on the path was covered with a dangerous layer of ice. We decided to split up and search for a safer route. As our diary entries noted, it was nearly the last time we saw each other.
My frigid hands grip the makeshift ice ax, as I struggle to kick steps in the hard-packed snow. Jim is nowhere to be seen. We are separated by a jagged ridge. Suddenly, my right foot slips. As I fall back into emptiness, my left hand reaches instinctively for the rock. Somehow my grip holds. I gaze dizzily down, 100 feet or more, to the cluster of boulders below. Trembling, I pull myself back up, straddle the crest and inch across.
Jesse’s brush with death has left me shaken. We’re days from the nearest help. Now, moments after his near-miss, and back on the trail, we’re making our way across a steep snowfield. I swallow my fear and hack out a step with my ice ax. A split second later, I’m careening down the snow, frantically trying to dig my ax into the ice, hurtling down to the rocks below. After a 200-foot fall, I bounce over a small ledge, and the force of my landing drives my ax deep into the snow. I stop just a few feet above the rocks.
We hadn’t considered the possibility of serious injury or death when we planned our journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. We had done climbs that were technically more difficult -- and more dangerous. This was to be more of a hike, a test of our physical and mental stamina. And it was just that, until the brush with death just two weeks into our four-month trip.
We began talking about the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, as seniors. We had known each other since the autumn of 1993, first playing side by side on the Ultimate Frisbee team and then as counselors during a summer at Stanford Sierra Camp. While there, we spent much of our free time exploring Desolation Wilderness, where we first came across the famous trail.
Hiking its full 2,627 miles was a grand dream, one that neither of us had expected to fulfill. Like our classmates, we thought we’d be lured by jobs or grad school or a trip to Europe. But as senior year progressed, the uniqueness of a summer spent hiking through the most beautiful backcountry in the West became more and more appealing. Finally, during spring break, we made the decision. We would walk.
We started meeting once a week to research the journey in more detail. Though primarily enjoyed by day and weekend users, the trail draws a few people each year who try to hike its entire length. Most of these “through hikers” begin in Mexico in early April. This allows as much as six months on the trail -- passing through the Southern California desert during cool spring months and traversing the Northern Cascade Mountains before the first snows fall in late September. Our June graduations didn’t allow this traditional approach. Instead, we decided to start in Canada, missing the autumn snows in the North and, with luck, getting through the Sierra Nevada before the September storms rendered them impassable. But this plan gave us a window of only four months to complete the trail.
Our extensive knowledge of the outdoors would be useful, but our North Face tents and Gore-Tex jackets would not. Instead of lugging such heavy gear, we put our faith in $5 wind pants, $10 jackets and a tarp courtesy of WalMart. We removed superfluous straps and excess linings from our equipment, and elected to wear lightweight running shoes instead of hiking boots. In the end, our backpacks -- including camera gear and a tripod -- tipped the scales at just 15 pounds each. Although food and water would double this figure, each pack still weighed half that of an average backpacker’s.
With graduation parties behind us, we started gathering the food three days before our departure date. It was an impressive, if not too tasty, collection: 80 pounds of corn pasta, 600 Pop Tarts, 400 Power Bars, 40 pounds of polenta and other assorted ingredients and spices good for 104 breakfasts, lunches and dinners. We divided this food and other supplies into 25 boxes, and addressed them to ourselves at lodges and post offices in towns and resorts dotted every 100 miles or so along our route.
On the afternoon of Monday, June 23, we stepped off a Greyhound bus in Manning Park, British Columbia, eight miles north of the U.S. border. As we stood dwarfed by cloud-topped mountains, the absurdity of our intentions settled in. Walk to Mexico? We were insane! The dream had become a ridiculous reality. Our small packs offered us little solace as we watched the bus rumble away.
As we started to walk, rain fell softly on our heads. The stress of exams and research projects, of moving and packing, of preparations and of travel drained away. Just three miles along the trail, we met a guy named Dave Langerson, who was trudging back to the trailhead, dressed in full winter gear. An ice ax and snow shoes hung from his pack. His blistered face and solemn demeanor didn’t betray any tendency toward humor. He had started five days earlier with aspirations similar to our own, but ran into impenetrable snow. At least six others had also turned back, he said. Though it was late June, winter still gripped the North Cascades. A record snowfall covered the trail, and rangers discouraged travel until mid-July. We decided to plow on. It turned out that Dave was the last person we would see on the trail for several weeks.
As we crossed the treeless swath marking the border between Canada and the United States, a drizzling rain and patches of snow steadily eroded our enthusiasm. Then, 15 miles further on, the trail disappeared beneath thick snow. When we stopped, we were completely surrounded by winter. As daylight faded, a storm closed in, and though our meager tarp fought off the driving rain, it provided no protection from the possibility of failure that crashed down around us.
The following morning, we began what became our most hated ritual -- pulling on cold, wet shoes and socks at 5:30 a.m. We stepped into the snow and headed off. We rarely saw the trail that day, navigating almost exclusively by map and compass. Clouds frequently engulfed us and slowed our progress as we plodded tentatively through the foggy whiteness. Sometimes we got lost and spent precious time backtracking. When the evening shadows fell across the glaciated valleys, we stopped. In 18 hours of daylight, we had gone just far enough to persuade ourselves that we should not turn back.
In early July, after 11 days of clumping through snow and slithering down icy slopes, we reached the summit of Steven’s Pass. Although the trail continued on the other side of the highway, our first resupply package was 17 miles down the road at the post office in Skykomish, Wash. Exhausted, we took turns hitching a ride. At 10 p.m., a sympathetic state patrolman pulled up, looked us over, and offered us a ride in the luxuriant warmth of his cruiser. He filled us in on the local area as we headed toward “town,” but we were more absorbed by the fact that neither of us had been delivered to a bar in a police car before.
The place was bleak, dimly lit, with a line of red vinyl stools along a formica bar. But to us, it looked like paradise. The first man we met offered us a drink, and the second, Burt Owens, gave us the keys of his house. “Sleep well,” he belched as we walked out. It was typical of the hospitality we would find on our trip. We cooked our dehydrated potatoes, washed ourselves and our clothes, and watched The Dukes of Hazzard with boyish enthusiasm. Burt wandered by every few beers to welcome us again. The next morning, clean and refreshed, we hitched back to the pass and continued on. Within two miles, however, the trail again disappeared beneath the snow. We took out the map as water seeped back into our socks. It was as if we had never left.
The rugged majesty of the North Cascades was overwhelming. We moved slowly into them, scrambling over steep snowy passes only to find more snow-shrouded winter peaks. We traveled in a solitude so profound that finding a human footprint was occasion for celebration. In our collective years of outdoor experience, we had never felt so desolate or so exposed to the power of nature. Despite the snow, we were succeeding where others had not -- at least, not this year. With each mile and day, we gained confidence in ourselves and in each other.
Then came July 6 and our near-disastrous accidents on the jagged snow-covered path along Chickamen Ridge. We were terrified and humbled. That night, we collected ourselves and assessed our situation. We knew the trail behind us was perilous and suspected that what lay ahead was no better, but we resolved there would be no heading back. The next morning, we moved on, hoping we had passed the worst and dreading we had not.
With a determination born of necessity, we plodded on from one day to the next. Finally, on the 21st morning, a clear blue sky dawned over Southern Washington. We climbed from the shadow of the trees onto a broad expanse of snow-covered tundra and were greeted with our first view of that majestic volcano, Mount Rainier. Clothed in white glaciers, Rainier was a goddess surveying her lands -- the decapitated Mount St. Helens to the west and the imposing Mount Adams to the south. A thousand feet below us, a hundred mountain goats clattered down the mountainside. We were through the snows of Washington, and the trail was rewarding us for our perseverance.
In mid-July, after covering 500 miles in 23 days, we reached the Columbia River. A well-spent 50-cent toll allowed us to walk across The Bridge of the Gods into Oregon. Eager for our first shower in more than 300 miles, we headed to the RV park in the riverside town of Cascade Locks. That afternoon, we sat on Main Street outside the Frosty Hamburger Barn and watched families on vacation climb out of their Winnebagos to order hamburgers and soft-serve ice cream.
From the Columbia, a new phase of our journey began. As the trail cleared, the miles came more easily. But without snow to cushion our steps, our feet began to suffer from the constant punishment. Calluses formed and were broken down again by our continuous walking. We spent the first half hour of each day painfully limping along as our feet struggled to warm up. Each night, we would drain the blisters and doctor our deep heel bruises with antiseptic ointment.
Minus these discomforts, we were in heaven. The open trail finally afforded us the mental freedom to contemplate the trip, women, milkshakes and life, or to walk for hours without any thoughts at all. The miles slipped by. We lost track of the day of the week and, in its place, became more aware of the phases of the moon and length of the day. We marked our progress with landmarks -- Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters appeared on the horizon and, days later, faded behind us.
Then came the killer Oregon mosquitoes. They almost made us nostalgic for the snows of Washington. At night, we donned headnets, nylon wind gear and plastic bags to cover our hands before daring to fall asleep to their threatening drone. We covered 30 to 40 miles a day, preferring blisters and sore feet to the maddening harassment from those insidious bloodsuckers whenever we stopped.
In early August, not long after logging our 1,000th mile, we reached the Northern California town of Seiad Valley, famous along the PCT for its Pancake Challenge. If you can eat five pancakes at the small café in town, we had been told, the meal is free. We began discussing our strategy in Northern Oregon. Great plans are derived from mediocre minds doing too much thinking. By the time we reached California, we had a great plan. We fired up our backpacking stove for a final meal at 4 p.m. It was 18 hours before we reached Seiad Valley. We hiked another 12 miles and went to bed without dinner -- a crash diet from our customary 5,000-plus daily calories. The next morning, we started hiking without breakfast. Ten miles from town, we stopped for a drink. After downing nearly a gallon of water each, our stomachs felt sufficiently stretched.
We reached town and headed straight for the café: “The challenge, please.”
The room grew silent. The locals turned and sized us up. “You boys don’t have a chance.”
“I made it through two this morning,” a local bragged. We smiled. After all, we were hungry.
The pancakes were slightly larger than Minnesota. An hour and a half later, only one remained on each of our plates, mocking us. But we still had the plan. We chopped them into 12 equal pieces and started again. Fifty minutes later, we conceded. Neither of us could look at the last morsels, for fear of losing the rest. We staggered outside and spent the next two hours sprawled in front of the post office. Although glory eluded us that day, we had each surpassed the season record of two and a half pancakes. During our remaining time in town, people were more impressed by our gastronomic exploits (which they all seemed to know about) than the fact that we were the first, and possibly only, PCT southbound “through-hikers” of 1997.
The Sierra Nevada crept up on us, offering a seemingly endless parade of primal nature, gushing frigid streams, stark granite peaks and deep blue lakes. Invigorated by a sense of familiarity, we hiked into Stanford Sierra Camp in late August, ready for our first full day off in 1,600 miles. It was a homecoming of sorts. The solitude of our journey was replaced by the company of friends and acquaintances. A short three days later, we were back on the trail. Though happy to be walking again, we found it difficult to leave the gourmet food and, even more so, the companionship.
Jim and Jesse hiked for
117 days through
37 wilderness areas
24 national forests
7 national parks
612 cups of granola
420 Pop Tarts
80 pounds of pasta
9 gallons of chocolate milk
6 gallons of vegetable oil.
On a typical day, they burned 5,000-calories.
10 days off.
The beauty of crisp September days in the High Sierra was staggering. which is mostly above 10,000 feet and challenged our lungs with thin but pristine air. One afternoon, during a 3,000-foot climb, we decided to push our physical limits. Our legs churned up the path as we reveled in our burning muscles and dripping sweat. The summit offered yet another magnificent vista -- granite walls dropping steeply to meadowed valleys. The trail meandered along a small creek where a round bowl had been carved from a smooth granite slab through centuries of erosion. The bowl was filled with a pool of clear water, and the stream circled it before flowing over its edge.
On the trail once more, our thoughts drifted back to the bowl. In its beauty, we saw a message. Our journey was part of a quest to find our place in the world -- not so removed from the mainstream that we might stagnate, but neither so directly in the channel that our individuality might wash away.
From the top of the 13,200-foot Forester Pass at the southern end of the High Sierra, we looked out over a landscape of tree-topped mountains rather than snow-covered peaks. It was late September, and the nights were now longer than the days. We experienced a deep feeling of relief; we had crossed the mighty Sierra before the arrival of the coming winter’s snow. Watching the Los Angeles haze creep up the gentle valleys, we basked in our success. Although 700 miles of trail remained, we knew it was relatively easy terrain. There was no doubt now that we would finish.
In Southern California, we beat the relentless heat with midday siestas. Water became increasingly scarce, and we regularly covered 30 miles or more between sources. To help ease the boredom of this monotonous, dry, dusty march, we invested in am/fm Walkmans. We enjoyed the incongruity of listening to Los Angeles traffic reports as we walked through the barren desert, surrounded only by the hum of insects. One serendipitous evening found us tuning in to Monday Night Football as we soaked beneath the stars in a trailside hot spring.
Knowing we were in the best walking shape of our lives, we set out early one morning to see how far we could travel in a day. It was the next morning before we stopped. We had covered 60 miles in just over 20 hours. During the afternoon, we listened to Mexican radio stations while we hiked, and we sensed the end of our journey was near.
One hundred and seventeen days after stepping into the United States from Canada, we arrived at the monument designating the end of our journey. Hopping the border fence, we stood in Mexico. We had done it. Even as we celebrated, the last of our footprints were fading from the trail.
Today, as we go about our everyday routines, it is hard to imagine we share the same lifetime with our travels.
Jesse Roach, ’95, MS ’97, guides rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. Jim Schoettler, ’96, MS ’97, works for a start-up in San Francisco.