through hiking

All posts tagged through hiking

Ten years ago today, I finished my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Since then, more than 7000 people have also finished their through-hikes of the AT. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintains that the completion rate has been consistently between 20% and 30%, so we can conservatively estimate that at least 35,000 people have attempted the AT in the past ten years. Pretty crazy!

And while there have certainly been growing pains with the number of hikers on the trail, overall I’m pretty happy about the fact that more people are getting out and enjoying the experience of long-distance backpacking. I hope that leads to more people getting involved in protecting the land and environment for future generations. Judging by the big increase I’ve seen in hikers on other trails, it’s certainly translating to hikers getting interested in more long-distance hikes. Good! If even one in ten through hikes is as life changing as mine was, I think it would be a good development for the world.

I’ve had to think often about how the hiking world has changed in the years since my hike (not to mention world as a whole), and it can be overwhelming to dwell on the changes. The obvious difference, the elephant on the trail as it were, is the introduction of smartphones which have made social media and other apps (ahem…) ubiquitous in the wilderness. I’ve also noticed a big difference in the number of businesses catering to long-distance hikers, especially hostels and shuttle services, and a vast improvement in how these services run their operations. I’m pretty happy about that, too.

It’s easy to look back at the way things used to be, and complain about the way things are now. I’ve certainly bemoaned my fair share of changes, and I count myself as lucky for having hiked the AT when I did. But I also think every Appalachian Trail hiker is lucky to have hiked the Trail whenever they did, be it 1997, 2007, or 2017. The challenges are different every year, and the culture will always change.

There will always be challenges to the experience of the Trail, and as long as there are people who care enough for it (like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and every local maintaining club), I hope it will change ever more lives for the better in the next ten years and more.

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.

Oh, what a month! After spending so much of this summer day-hiking in the White Mountains and mostly dealing with app updates, I had a month of total immersion in the wilderness to set my mind straight again. There will be more to tell about the three backpacking trips in some later blog posts. The first was a week in the Sangre de Cristo Range of Colorado with my friend, Hiker Box. The second was teaching for a NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course in the Wind River Range along the Continental Divide Trail and Wind River High Route. The third was a “short” trip over Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake and Wind River Peak in the Wind River Range

Third Deep Creek Lake and Wind River Peak in the Wind River Range

It’s been a while since I’ve covered much distance and spent much time in mountains or wilderness areas that are totally new to me, so these three backpacking trips were especially refreshing. In the last few years, I’ve been so focused on expanding the Guthook’s Guides business that I felt I’d lost the joy that I used to find in exploring wild places. Most of the hiking I’ve done in the past year has been day-hikes in the White Mountains in order to fill out the New England Hiker app, which brought my hiking into dangerous territory– treating it as work instead of play. This summer and spring, in particular, I was frantically pushing through miles and miles of mediocre trails at the edges of the Whites just to cover miles.

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

So as soon as I found myself above 10,000 feet for five straight days in the Sangre de Cristo Range and then for almost two weeks in the Winds, with no plan to use my GPS or recording trails for an app, I felt an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. It wasn’t the elevation, that’s for sure, and not the depth of wilderness out there, but the fact that I could finally leave work behind and treat hiking solely as exploration and recreation again. Somehow, I’d let the fun slip away, to be replaced by work and stress.

It’s not news that taking your work home with you is a recipe for stress and overworking yourself, and that smartphones and ubiquitous Internet have blurred the divide between work and play. I realize I’ve let my work in the hiking world tip the balance of hiking too much to the work side. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I somehow forgot to take joy in being out in the mountains, but I’m just glad I’ve found that again.

Is it too early for 2015 PCT hikers to make a High Sierra hiking plan? Probably. We took a look at historic High Sierra snow pack data, as gathered by the California Department of Water Resources  (Station ID: BGH) at Bighorn Plateau. The snow depth at the Bighorn Plateau station (Google map) has been measured since 1949.

The chart below plots snow depth each year from 1990 to February 2015. You will see 4 bars in each group (except 1996, which is missing March data), representing the snow depth in February, March, April and May for that year.

Sierra Historic Snow Pack

Although February snow level tends to be a decent predictor of May snow, you should notice that you cannot reliably predict the May snow level based upon the February data. Just take a look at 1991 and 2013 to convince yourself of that.

So far 2015 looks like it may be a low snow year, but it’s too early to tell.

For your entertainment, here is all data, from 1949, taken from the Bighorn Plateau station. If you tackled the High Sierra in 1983 or any of the other big snow years, it would be interesting to hear from you in the comments.

Sierra Snow Pack 1949-2015


Paul (“Tangent”) here. After Guthook identified the steepest parts of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail, I started wondering about the overall slope, or grade, of these trails. Using south to north elevation data at the tenth-mile level, I evaluated percentage slope from point to point, then binned the data according to various cut-off values.

All data is south to north.

Here are the results:

Percentage of CDT, PCT, AT with various slope values

As you can see, the AT has a greater overall percentage of “non-flat” hiking than the other two Triple Crown trails: 59% of the AT has a grade of at least 5% uphill or %5 downhill. Compare that to 53% for the PCT and 46% for the CDT.

A further analysis of the extremes shows that the PCT is very well-graded, with only about 2% of the trail at greater than a 15% grade uphill or downhill. The AT, on the other hand, is composed of 11% of extreme slope. That’s over 200 miles of some very tough hiking!

Percentage of PCT, CDT, AT with 15%+ slope uphill

Percentage of PCT, CDT, AT with 15%+ slope downhill

And for you data geeks, here is a scatter plot of the slope distribution for the three trails (multiply the x-axis by 100 for percentage values):

Slope Distribution for the CDT, PCT, and AT