The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile-long thin ribbon through the wilderness of California, Oregon and Washington that runs from Mexico to Canada.
In recent years, about 4,000 hardy souls attempt to hike the entire trail, typically in a five-month period in one summer. Many are foiled by blisters, weather, fires or other unforeseen circumstances.
Ultimately, depending on the year, no more that about one in five to one in 10 hikers completes the trail.
Forty years ago I was considering hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. Back then, I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, but I never gave up my desire to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail at some point.
This year the stars aligned, and my wife Audrey and I decided to plan a trip on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) When asked, we told people we would travel somewhere between five miles and 320 miles, depending on how things went.
We decided, since we weren’t getting any younger, that we’d better tackle perhaps the toughest section of the PCT this year, the part running through the Sierra Nevada of California, and potentially reserve other sections for future years.
After months of planning, paring down our gear list, considering menus and resupply points and walking around town with heavy backpacks to train, we were finally headed out on the trail. Our son and daughter-in-law generously agreed to pick us up at the L.A. airport, and drop us off at Kennedy Meadows, Calif., where we began our journey.
One of the key concerns we had was acclimating to the altitude. We started by camping at 7,000 feet in elevation the first night, 8,000 feet the second night and 9,500 feet the third night.
From that point on, most of the time we were above 10,000 feet in elevation — quite a challenge for our Wisconsin-adapted bodies. But it got better every day: We were less out of breath after a long uphill, and we were getting used to taking 25,000 to 30,000 steps with a 30-plus pound backpack between sunrise and sunset.
Audrey and I were having a great time, backpacking 10 to 15 miles per day, the scenery was breathtaking and we were working together as an amazing team. We also met many interesting people on the trail, people who shared our passion for hiking and camping in the wilderness.
Many of those people were really inspiring, such as a 66-year old woman who started solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016 and planned to finish the final sections this year. We shared the trail with a couple from Canada who were about our age, who had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and were now doing the same thing with the Pacific Crest Trail, in six-week chunks per year.
We met young women and young men who were hiking all or part of the trail on their own, many couples who were out in the wilderness together and some larger groups. They were some of nicest, most generous and caring people we have had the pleasure to meet.
John Muir, a naturalist from the 19th and early 20th century, had written the following about the Sierra Nevada Range in 1899: “Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best. Though extremely rugged, with its main features on the grandest scale in height and depth, it is nevertheless easy of access and hospitable; and its marvelous beauty, displayed in striking and alluring forms, woos the admiring wanderer on and on, higher and higher, charmed and enchanted.”
Audrey and I shared those sentiments as we backpacked through the mountains. Rugged peaks, sparkling, jewel-like lakes and expansive views were all part of our experience.
Not to say that it was quite as easy as Muir had described. Our first big challenge was hiking over 13,200-foot Forester Pass. The trail was a steady uphill climb for at least 2,000 feet, and parts of it had been blasted out of the side of the mountain, so it was important to use discretion when choosing spots to look down.
As we neared the pass, we walked past the “chute,” a steep, thousand-foot drop over a talus slope where several hikers were badly injured this spring when they slipped down what was then a snowy, icy trail. With the ice and snow largely gone, that section was less intimidating, but it still gave some pause.
One might think that hiking downhill would be a breeze in comparison, but the eight-mile descent after Forester Pass was on a very rocky trail, and the pull of gravity was not gentle on aging hips, knees, and ankles.
The next major challenge was a climb out to get supplies, which required traveling over the nearly 12,000-foot Kearsarge Pass. A return trip over the pass and back to the PCT followed by a trek over 12,000-foot Glen Pass got us back into the high country.
Along the way I kept marveling at how easy it would be to bang up your feet, ankles or knees on any of a million boulders, rock steps, small rock lets or pebbles. For more than 110 miles we dodged all those obstacles without even a blister.
Often at the end of a day we were tired, but we felt good about how we managed to navigate all the challenges that nature had thrown at us, including difficult trails, fast-moving streams we had to ford and lightning storms that made their appearance almost every afternoon.
Then, after hiking several miles past Glen Pass, in a place that didn’t seem particularly challenging, it happened. Without any warning, I fell over and was exclaiming in pain.
Without any discernible effort, I used a few (actually, quite a few) choice words that I reserve for very special occasions. To add insult to injury, I broke one of my trekking poles as I fell.
Although I’d never had any ankle trouble before, I knew something really bad had happened to my left leg and that it was likely the end of our trip.
In the hope that it was just a sprain, my wife and I hobbled to a nearby stream and soaked my ankle for a while in the cold water. Then we made our way to a nearby campsite after getting some supplies from fellow hikers including athletic tape for wrapping my ankle.
The next morning, my ankle didn’t feel any better and was beginning to bruise and swell in a very pronounced fashion. My wife and I decided the best course would be for her to hike out to a ranger station that fortunately was only about three miles back on the trail.
When my wife reached the station, the ranger was already gone for the day. Fortunately, she ran into a mother-and-daughter team who happened to have a satellite device that could send text messages. (We did have a personal locator beacon that we could have used to summon help, but it wasn’t yet clear that my condition was in the category of a grave emergency that is the intended purpose for that device).
Eventually they got in touch with the ranger who arrived at our campsite just as the typical afternoon thunderstorm in the Sierras had begun. She examined my ankle and decided that a helicopter evacuation was required.
This scenario involved complications. One was that we were at high altitude, between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, and the helicopter was near the limits of its operating capacity.
The helicopter had to circle for quite a while to find a safe place to land and to burn off fuel so it could lift off with both me and my pack, so Audrey couldn’t accompany me on the trip out.
Adding to difficulties was the fact the area we were did not have a nice, flat concrete helipad every 50 yards or so. Consequently, the pilot had to land about three-quarters of a mile from our campsite, and it was a tough walk to the helicopter on my ailing ankle.
Another factor working against us was the weather. Thunderstorms surrounded us, and it wasn’t obvious there would be a clear passage out of the mountains.
When I finally made it to the helicopter, accompanied by my wife and the ranger, I felt relief but also concern. The helicopter actually moved a bit like a teeter-totter when the co-pilot got in, indicating we weren’t on a flat landing space. In addition, the hill in front of the chopper rose steeply, so they had to take off straight up, which seemed to be a bit of a challenge given the altitude and weight of the chopper.
As we navigated through the mountains, I felt like I was in an Imax movie where the helicopter dips and climbs, just barely clearing the peaks and passes. Of course the California Highway Patrol pilots were consummate professionals, and I’m sure the flight wasn’t quite as hairy as I imagined.
Within 20 minutes, I was out of the mountains and in the hospital in Lone Pine, Calif. X-rays revealed the worst-case scenario, a broken ankle, rather than just a sprain.
Because of the swelling, they could only splint the leg. At that point, I realized we would be heading back to Wisconsin to get a cast put on, something we’d have to do in the next few days. The service from the folks at the hospital was exceptional; after I was treated, the nurses called to make a hotel reservation and took me to there since there was no taxi service in town.
One of the saddest parts of this experience was having to leave Audrey behind in the mountains. She was faced with a 15-mile backpack over the two 12,000-foot mountain passes we had previously traversed to get to a trailhead, which was then 20 miles by road to the town where I was staying.
She had no cell service, so no way of knowing how I fared on my journey, and I had no way of knowing how she was faring on her trek. That night she hiked five or six miles back up the trail, the first time we had been separated in the 11 days since our trip started. She set up camp by herself. The next day she finished the trip by late morning and got a ride from a kind couple who went many miles out of their way to drop her off at my hotel.
Over the next couple of days we took two buses, two plane flights, a shuttle van and a taxi to get back home.
Once back in Menomonie, I learned that the ankle fracture required surgery to pin the bones back in place, and I was very glad to be in the care of Mayo Clinic Health System-Red Cedar.
I anticipate a longer recovery time than I had hoped, but that will give me ample opportunity to plan our next hiking adventure — in the summer of 2019.
Guilfoile is the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UW-Stout.