Pacific Crest Trail

It seems the drought in California is over for the moment, as we’ve watched snow and rain pummel the state in the past few months. While the water was much needed in the state, up to a point, it’s likely to make things a little more difficult for Pacific Crest Trail hikers in the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains. If you plan on hiking the PCT or JMT this year, you should read Andrew Skurka’s excellent overview of what to expect with the snow this year.

Hikers approaching Muir Pass in June 2010.

I won’t recap Skurka’s points, but I’ll add something that my partners and I have talked about frequently in the past few years.

2010 and 2011 were the last years with above average snow pack in the Sierra. In 2012, we released the first edition of Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. Three weeks later, Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, was published. In the past five years, the numbers of hikers on the PCT and JMT have skyrocketed as a result of the book and movie, social media accounts from through-hikers, and an overall increase in popularity of through-hiking. At the same time, navigation became easier as the number of hikers with GPS units went from a small handful to just about everyone hiking the trail (regardless of which app they’re using).

Travel through the High Sierra section of the PCT in those years, from what we’ve heard from many hikers, has been vastly easier than what many of the 2010 and 2011 through-hikers experienced. With less snow, there was less need for difficult route-finding over snowfields and fewer dangerous stream crossings. When there was snow to travel across, abundant GPS options made finding the trail a simple task. And, whereas hikers in higher snow years strategized and schemed to delay their entry into the Sierra, recent hikers have had to pay little attention to timing when passing through the high elevations.

My fear, hopefully unfounded, is that after years of relatively easy hiking in the High Sierra, through-hikers this year may be a little too complacent of the dangers posed by above-average snow depth. Hopefully I’m just being a little paranoid, worrying without reason, but for everyone planning to hit the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, please be careful out there!

Crossing streams raging with snowmelt in the Sierra.

Remember, you will probably be fine as long as you spend a little extra time during your hike to prepare mentally and physically for the most dangerous parts of the trail. You don’t need to be an expert mountaineer for the Sierra section of the PCT in order to safely get through and have a great time, but be open to learning from others with more experience, changing your plans on the fly, and taking time to avoid unnecessary risks.

A few basic pointers to get you started:
1- Take your time in the beginning of your hike if you want to avoid hiking too long over snow. The longer you wait, the more will melt. You can always make up time north of the Sierra.
2- The PCT fords dozens of streams and creeks in the Sierra that will likely be raging with snow melt. Be extremely careful with these! Two of my friends in 2010 were swept downstream, and were lucky to get out without serious injury. It often pays off to scout up and down stream for better crossings, or to wait overnight to cross early in the morning.
3- Though an app will make it easier to find where the trail goes, if you’re walking across an expanse of snow, the exact location of the trail may not matter. Sometimes, where the trail goes under the snow is not the best place to walk. And sometimes it is. Decide based on the conditions.
4- Always have a backup plan. As they say in peakbagging circles, “the peak is optional, the car is mandatory.” For through-hiking, we can modify this to “moving forward is optional, getting home is mandatory.”
5- Know how to navigate without your phone. Bring maps, compass, star chart, whatever is necessary to navigate without the use of electronics. Whatever you bring, know how to use it because you may have to rely on it in unforeseen circumstances. Remember, your phone isn’t indestructible or immortal. Neither are you.

At the end of last summer, I spent a week on the Pacific Crest Trail with some of my old through-hiking friends. They’d all met me as “Guthook” long before I started making apps for the PCT and Appalachian Trail, but on this trip I tended to go by my real name rather than my trail name. In the past few years, I’ve started to realize that sharing my name with a series of popular apps can be a little awkward.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

On the first night of the trip, one of my friends was talking with a through-hiker who was camping near us. He was more interested in telling stories about his hike than hearing what we had to say, but when she mentioned that all of us had hiked the PCT or AT in the past, he got more interested in us, so my friend introduced everybody. “I’m Dinosaur, that’s Kentucky Blue, that’s Guthook, that’s Cough Drop, Squirrel, Tau.”

“Wait, The Guthook?” was his response. I didn’t hear the end of that from my friends for the rest of the week. They thought it was hilarious.

Though we passed about eighty through-hikers during that week on the trail, only three found out that I was “The Guthook.” My friends introduced me to one, one recognized me from earlier in the year, and one asked me if I knew Guthook (he was referring to the app), to which I replied, “Well, actually…”

I’ve had plenty more funny meetings with hikers on the Appalachian Trail in the past few years, too. I particularly like the “I thought you’d be much older” reaction (I don’t know why they would think that). Or, “I pictured you as a balding, middle-aged, fat guy with Cheetos stains on his shirt.” (I really don’t know why they thought that!).

That’s always pretty amusing, but I usually don’t like to meet current through-hikers as “The Guthook” because it changes the power dynamic of our conversations. When I’m talking with another hiker who doesn’t know my trail name, they tend to look at me as more of an equal, or at least someone not unlike themselves. I’m just a former AT and PCT through-hiker. But when they find out I’m “The Guthook”, the tone changes a little bit. Some of that could be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

More than one hiker has called me a celebrity, which I totally disagree with, but that got me thinking of the nature of Trail Celebrities.

When I was first hiking the AT and PCT, there were Trail Celebrities like Baltimore Jack, Warren Doyle, Warner Springs Monty, Billy Goat– seriously accomplished hikers that everyone seems to know because they’re always on the trail and they are very involved in the trail community. Their celebrity is almost entirely limited to through-hikers and aspiring through-hikers, and they seem to really enjoy that. People enjoy hearing about them because they are so ingrained into the fabric of the AT and PCT.

Then there are the endurance athletes and adventurers, like Andrew Skurka, Jennifer Pharr Davis, and Heather “Anish” Anderson. These folks have wider appeal because they do things that are inspiring to the general public, but also to the specialized through-hiker crowd. Either way, they tend to be more focused on doing their own thing, rather than hiking the AT and PCT over and over again. People enjoy hearing about them because what they do is astounding.

Then there are three guys whose names everybody seems to know because our names are attached to maps and guidebooks, but very few people seem to know much of anything about us as people. AWOL, Halfmile, Guthook. We each have different levels of how much we let the public know who we are (I have this blog, AWOL has the book about his through-hike), but the average through-hiker seems to have much less knowledge about who we are than they would about Baltimore Jack or Billy Goat. I assume AWOL and Halfmile are perfectly happy with that. I certainly am.

When I first started this blog, almost seven years ago, I had dreams of being a “famous through-hiker,” known around the world for my epic backpacking trips. That didn’t work out. I don’t have what it takes to break records like Anish, or to trek alone for months in the Alaskan wilderness like Skurka– in fact, I haven’t been on a really difficult long-distance backpacking trip in more than five years, and I’m only now beginning to think of trying a few in the future. And, as my interactions with hikers in the past few years have shown me, I’m not really comfortable being any kind of celebrity, even if that means just sharing my name with my creation. Rather than becoming widely known for my explorations, a thing that I’ve created has become widely known for the usefulness it provides for thousands of other people. I much prefer it this way.

For the first time since 2010, I flew out to California last week to attend the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off at Lake Morena County Park. I’d last been there as an aspiring through-hiker, nervously joining hundreds of others to meet new partners, learn about the trail, and check out new backpacking gear. This time I was attending with my partners in app-making, Paul and Alice, and setting up camp in the vendors’ area to show off our apps to through-hikers and visitors.

Setting up the vendor booth in sunny SoCal weather.

Setting up the vendor booth in sunny SoCal weather.

We arrived on Wednesday morning, on a mild, sunny summer day. Other vendors were already beginning to set up, and hikers were already streaming into the campground. We were so busy throughout the Kickoff that we barely ventured past the vendor area. With such great friends as Gossamer Gear, Lightheart Gear, and The Stick Pic, there was no shortage of camaraderie.

Not-so-sunny SoCal weather to show off tents and backpacks in the vendors area.

Not-so-sunny SoCal weather to show off tents and backpacks in the vendors area.

Alice and Ryan

Alice and I getting our game faces on. This is serious business!

Unlike 2010, the Kickoff didn’t seem to be the time when most through-hikers began their hikes. Many such hikers were already as far north as Wrightwood and Agua Dulce, hundreds of miles north. The drought in California has allowed hikers to start much earlier than usual, and to hike further into the north where snow would normally shut them out until much later in the season. Because of the spread, it seems there were fewer hikers at the Kickoff even though there are more hikers overall on the PCT.

Paul and Ryan

Paul and I took shelter from the steady drizzle.

Even with the smaller numbers of hikers, Paul and Alice and I were completely exhausted by the end of the Kickoff, after constantly talking with visitors and demoing our apps to curious hikers for four days. The weather didn’t cooperate, with cold and rain on every day except the set-up day. On our way back to Paul and Alice’s home in Idyllwild, the rain hit harder than it had in months, drenching the parched state and a lot of not-so-parched hikers on the trail.

Hikers stopped by to see the new app features on their way to Canada.

Hikers stopped by to see the new app features on their way to Canada.

Despite the fact that I was a little sick before Kickoff, and the exhaustion pushed my recovery down by a few days, I had a wonderful time out there. Paul and Alice and I have been working together on Guthook’s Guides for almost five years now, but the crazy thing is that I haven’t seen them since 2010 when we parted ways in Manning Park, British Columbia. This was my first trip out to the PCT, and my first time seeing them, since then. We spent the next few days talking plans and programming, coming up with some great ideas for the future. I’m already looking forward to next year, when I’m pretty sure I’ll make a trip out west once again. Until then, Happy Trails to the PCT Class of 2015!

The Class of 2015 getting their picture taken at Lake Morena.

The Class of 2015 getting their picture taken at Lake Morena.


From Pleasant Pond Mountain, looking toward Big Moose Mountain (a Public Reserved Land unit).

From Pleasant Pond Mountain, looking toward Big Moose Mountain.

One of the strongest memories from my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail came at the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain, a low, rocky peak just east of the Kennebec River in Maine. One of my hiking partners pointed out at the miles and miles of uninterrupted forest and lakes ahead of us, and said in awe, “I can’t think of place back home where you can stand on a mountain and see a valley without farms and houses. There’s nothing man-made down there.” That off-hand comment made me very proud to call this state home, even though I could see a few small signs of humanity nestled among the trees. He was right, though– it’s not a common thing to be able to look out on such a vast wilderness in the eastern United States.

Pretty soon, though, that view may not be so wild anymore. A large wind farm has been proposed just south of Pleasant Pond Mountain in Bingham, which would be plainly visible from mountains as far away as the Bigelow Range and Moxie Bald. Both the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, and Appalachian Mountain Club opposed another nearby wind farm (Highland) in 2011 because of its impact on the views from the Trail, but so far they haven’t officially opposed this particular project.

Why would they oppose wind farms, you may ask? Isn’t clean, renewable energy something these groups would support? Sure. And they do, but not blindly. For all the benefits of wind energy, there are plenty of downsides– you’ve probably heard of some, like the impacts on bats and birds, or the tax credit incentives for building them, or the noise issues of turbines near homes. The issue that the MATC, AMC, and ATC focus on is the impact of the view from the AT.

The view from the Appalachian Trail, or from many of our other mountains, is easy to take for granted when weighing the benefits of clean energy. But even if you don’t think 450-foot tall wind turbines are an eyesore in the middle of the deep woods, there’s no arguing against the fact that they stand out, and that they aren’t a natural sight. A view of a wind farm, despite the marketing claims, is an industrial view, not a pastoral and natural one.

Walking beneath a set of turbines in the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm

Walking beneath a set of turbines in the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm on the Pacific Crest Trail, most certainly not a view of natural wilderness.

Some people will argue that all wind farm development should be stopped, and others will argue that we should forge ahead with as many wind farms as possible right away, but neither extreme is an intelligent course of action. This issue is about balancing one need with other needs. There are plenty of places to site wind farms where there is less visual impact from the state’s most scenic vistas, and plenty of other options for clean, renewable energy in the state.

Here are some nifty links that show Maine already generates more wind power than the rest of New England combined, and Maine’s energy production is more than 50% renewable even without wind. It’s also worth looking at the Wikipedia overview of wind power in Maine to see what else is going on. As elsewhere, politics and money play a bigger role in building wind farms than any environmental concerns. In one recent high-profile case, a massive offshore wind farm project was cancelled due to boneheaded politics, though it could have tripled the state’s wind energy production– instead, we continue to see projects with relatively small production potential and high visual impact because they’re cheap to build and easier to push through the political machine.

I sometimes wonder what my hiking companion would have said had he looked out from Pleasant Pond Mountain to see an array of alien structures in the valley, with roads and construction filling the spaces between. Certainly not that he was impressed by the lack of humanity and development in the surrounding landscape. I’d rather visitors to my state fall in love with its forests and mountains as I have, than to see it as just another industrial landscape.

If you’ve been on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail in the past few years, and thought, as I have, “there are a lot of people out here,” you’re not wrong. You may have also heard that crowds on these trails increased after popular books like “Wild” and “A Walk In The Woods” were published. This is also quite true. But few people have gone further than to show anecdotal evidence of this. Luckily, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has been keeping track of this trend for decades– since long before Bill Bryson set foot in Amicalola Falls State Park.

The ATC was very helpful in sending me some graphs to show the trend of increasing hiker use on the Appalachian Trail. The first graph shows the number of people per year who applied for the 2000-miler certification (whether as section hikers or through-hikers). You’ll see that the numbers generally climbed slowly from the Sixties through the mid-Nineties, with a few jumps after National Geographic published a book and an article about the Trail.

Number of 2000 Milers on the Appalachian Trail by year.

Number of 2000 Milers on the Appalachian Trail by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Once “A Walk In The Woods” was published, the numbers jumped by more than 50% over two years. What surprised me, though, was that those numbers started to fall after only a few years, and continued to fall until around 2008. Since 2008, though, the numbers have grown steadily. The graph mentions the National Geographic film on the Trail released to Netflix in 2009, but I would also argue that the increasing prominence of hiker blogs and social media online has spurred the increase as much as any traditional media. But that’s an argument for later.

The previous graph tells how many hikers finish the Appalachian Trail each year, that’s not the full story. Conventional wisdom says that about one-third of hikers who start the AT each year will finish. Another graph provided by the ATC shows the number of people who start the trail each year (this number is probably not 100% accurate, but it’s as accurate as we can get, and the trends mirror the number of finishers, so it’s probably quite good).

Number of hikers starting the AT from Georgia by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Number of hikers starting the AT from Georgia by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Again, I was surprised to see that the numbers of hikers dropped between 2000 and 2007 (apparently my year on the AT was the least crowded of the new millenium! Who knew?) before skyrocketing again. So will numbers spike after the “A Walk In The Woods” movie comes out this summer? My money says yes. And will the numbers gradually decrease for several years after? My guess is that if the numbers do fall after that spike, they won’t fall to pre-2014 levels unless something big changes in the management of the trail, the culture of hiking, or some other major external factor.

So what about the Pacific Crest Trail and “Wild”? The PCTA doesn’t give out numbers as readily as the ATC, but I put together what I could. A recent post on their blog reports that 2013 and 2014 were record years for thru-hiker permits issued, at 1042 and 1468, respectively, but what did things look like before? I went to their 2600-Miler list and counted entries going back to 1995 and compiled this graph. See if you can tell which year “Wild” was published.

PCT Finishers by year.

PCT Finishers by year. Graph was created in December 2014, so the 2014 number is actually now 432, about the same as 2012.

Reviews for the film “Wild” were much better than for the film “A Walk In The Woods”, including nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Also, “Wild” was released in the winter, while “A Walk In The Woods” won’t see wide release until after through-hiker season is well underway.

So if you’re concerned about crowding on any of these trails, the next few years will be crucial. As the PCTA says in the above blog post, “Education Is Key”. Make sure your fellow hikers know how to protect the ecosystem around the trail, the physical treadway of the trail, and the culture surrounding the trails. Hopefully we can all enjoy the pleasures of a through-hike without crowding out the fun.