Reflections from the PCT: 2,658 Miles of Trail, Triumph and Trials
by Hannah Kiser and Chelan Pauly
We did it! 2017 was an extremely dynamic and logistically challenging year to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail but the roller coaster ride was worth it. Though we chose different ways to tackle the year of fire and ice, we both ran into “trail blocks” in one form or another. Ultimately we had an amazing five months hiking from Mexico to Canada.
On top of hiking over 5,000 miles between the two of us, we exceeded our dollar-per-mile fundraising goal for Inspiring Girls Expeditions. A huge thank you to everyone in the community for donating! We are keeping the fundraiser open through the end of October. If we reach $6,000 we will be able to fully sponsor two girls for their own wilderness science expedition. For more information CLICK HERE.
Q: How did it feel to walk through Washington – your home state?
Chelan: Washington was my favorite. Not only did I experience an outpouring of love from friends and family in the form of trail magic and trail angels but it was also gorgeous. We slowed down a bit to account for the more challenging terrain and take extra time enjoying the changing colors, alpine lakes, delicious wild berries, and impressive rock formations. This slower pace made the last month feel like vacation.
Hannah: I felt an incredible sense of pride hiking in my home state. I was very eager to show my trail family the wondrous beauty, familiar mountains and, of course, the Stehekin bakery. My family moved to Wenatchee when I was twelve and although I had never been to Wenatchee before moving, it felt like I was finally coming home. I’ve always had a very deep connection with this area and experiencing it on foot just made sense. In college my cross-country team’s bus broke down in Cascade Locks and we spent an afternoon there, walking across the Bridge of the Gods for lack of anything better to do. I would walk it six years later, signifying my entrance into Washington. I walked through White Pass, where Chelan and I went to Cross Country Camp in high school and where I later came back to counsel younger runners. My trail family took a zero day with my
parents via Stevens Pass. It felt very full circle to come back to these places at a very different time in my life and reflect on those experiences and my path to how I got here.
Q: What did it feel like to finally reach Canada? Did you feel different or changed?
C: It was magical. All eight members of the Naked Suncups – my trail family – reached the border together after hiking for 1900 miles as a team. Laughter, hugs, and a little bit of surprise. That’s it? We are done? For four and a half months we shed sweat, blood, and tears to reach this goal. And let’s be honest, it is a little bit anticlimactic. There is a big line of trees cleared through the forest to delineate the border. There are five wooden pillars to signal the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. But after taking photos, writing in the trail log, and sharing some celebratory Oreos there was nothing to do but pick up my pack and keep walking. As I walked those last eight miles from the terminus to Manning Park (where a warm meal and ride home awaited) I thought about if I felt like a different person. My answer: No. While I have learned and grown on the trail, it is no different than the change that happens during 4.5 months of any part of my life. I went on an incredible adventure but in the end I am not a new person, I am the same old Chelan.
H: Because my trail family was flying back down to Central California to finish the section we missed, it was a false summit in the best way possible. We didn’t have to mourn the end of our hike, but celebrate more miles and smiles to come! Although I didn’t think about this until the end of my hike, I definitely felt changed. This hike was always about enjoyment for me. For maybe the first time in my life it wasn’t a competition. I wasn’t the fastest hiker, I didn’t hike the farthest, have the lightest pack or do the craziest stuff. And I didn’t care one bit. I hiked to see the beauty, hiked to
be outside everyday, hiked just to exist. I was so small and insignificant to Nature and it was wonderful to marvel and know that I was nothing. It filled me with gratitude to live, to walk, to experience life so simply and wonderfully. I lived so presently that when we decided to call our hike early, I didn’t even realize what was left. I never idealized the end. I lived in the moment and that was huge for me. During my athletic career my dreams were always out ahead of me as I visualized the race, the win and the glory. On this hike I took in what was around me at that very moment, enjoying what was in front of me because I would never be the same person, standing in the same place ever again. When I stopped I didn’t have something I worked so hard for ripped from my grasp, my view just changed. This was monumental personal growth and something I hope to bring to my post-trail life.
Q: What were the last few days like on trail?
C: My final three days on trail were spent walking through the North Cascades. It was snowy and cold but also spectacularly beautiful. The larch trees were turning and the fall colors of red, orange,
and yellow contrasted wonderfully with the bright white of fresh snow. The snow highlighted the craggy granite peaks making the scenery all the more dramatic but it also provided closure to the hike. The incessant snow, sleet, and rain were like little voices whispering that it was time to go home. Setting up a frozen, wet tent night after night is enough to quench the wanderlust and encourage goodbyes.
H: My trail family and I were caught in an early season snowstorm just south of Sonora Pass, 50 miles north of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.. Three days from town and making slow progress due to difficult navigation, extreme cold (one night it was single digits, testing the boundary of our ultralight summer gear), flooded trail and fords, we were very much out of our comfort zone. Although we weren’t expecting those last three days to be our last-our goal was to finish on Mt Whitney 180 miles away- I still made the most of them. Whether from desperation or not, I tried to laugh at fording a creek with frozen feet and trudging uphill in six inches of fresh snow, just to do it again once my feet had finally thawed. Yosemite is stunningly unique dusted with snow but we were unprepared to continue on safely and ultimately made the tough decision to finish the last 180 miles next summer.
Q: How did wildfires impact your hike?
H: Because I flipped up to Northern California, I only had to skip 40 miles in Oregon due to fire. I had a few days of smokey hiking with no views, particularly my last two days in Canada, but felt very lucky and relieved to go back down south for some fresh air.
C: We ended up missing about 150 miles due to trail closures for fires in Oregon and Washington. Having spent four years working for the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter, it was fascinating for me to see fire from the perspective of a thru-hiker. I know that fire is ecologically important to a healthy forest and that it is valuable on the landscape. However, many hikers still view it as a bad thing. They don’t like the smoke, they don’t like the burned trees, and they especially don’t like the trail closures. Many of my comrades on trail are from
other countries or states where wildfires don’t exist. It was hard for them to understand that smoky skies and trail closures are normal and happen every year. This made it all the more important to have conversations about why fires are not evil but an important part of a natural cycle.
Q: When were you most afraid?
C: Some of the first creeks we crossed in the Sierra absolutely terrified me. Cold, wet, loud, and high consequence… it took a while to learn the right techniques and develop confidence in my ability to cross moving water.
H: Day one of the snowstorm (third to last day on trail) we made only 10 of the 20 miles planned for the day. I sat in my wet tent with snow coming down, freezing feet, starving yet nauseous, not sure if I was shaking from fear or cold. For moral support and warmth we huddled in Tai’s one-person tent, weighing our options. We were unsure about hiking the 27 miles back the way we came, as there were 60-70 mph winds on the six-mile ridge walk to get back to the highway. With snow that could mean huge drifts. On the other hand it was 47 miles to Tuolumne Meadows and we were making such slow progress, running out of food despite not eating all day because it was too cold to stop for long. Once we made a plan, I was less scared and more overwhelmed by all the uncomfortable things I would have to do the next two days (47 miles) in order to make it in time for the last bus to civilization for the week.
Question: What surprised you most about the whole experience on trail?
C: I was surprised by the ease with which everyone adapted to trail life. Before starting it sounded preposterous that I, or some of my comrades, would ever walk 34 miles in a day. Then, without
even realizing it, we started to develop trail legs. Slowly even the most helpless hikers learned how to pack their packs, walk more efficiently without breaks, and the miles started to grow. One day I woke up and that was the number that made sense. It didn’t even sound scary. It is inspiring and even a little bit comical to see what the human body can accomplish compared to what we typically ask of our bodies in a standard American lifestyle.
H: That I, for all intents and purposes, finished. The idea of finishing a thru-hike at the start seems ridiculous. There are hundreds of ways to fail — blisters, illness, injury, boredom, lack of funds, homesickness, family emergencies, fire, snow, lightning strikes to name a few. There are a million things that can make you quit and yet I and so many others hiked THOUSANDS of miles.
Q: What were the three biggest lessons you learned on trail?
C: 1) You can make plans but conditions are dynamic and things will never go according to schedule so stay flexible and enjoy the ride. 2) Clear communication can solve just about every problem. 3) Minimalism and simplicity allow you to focus on the more important things in life…
get rid of extra belongings!
H: 1) There is hope. I was constantly blown away by the generosity of strangers and trail angels. People who are sometimes, so different from me and from each other and yet they are all kind and fundamentally good. My hike would not have been the wonderful experience it was without every one of the dozens of trail angels who helped me. 2) I’m a badass! This hike gave me so much confidence. Running was the source of my confidence for over a decade and when that ended unexpectedly, I stopped chasing mountain tops and just played it safe. Now I feel like there isn’t anything I can’t do both professionally and physically. 3) Nothing should or does last forever. Thru hiking is constant adaptation and change. Embracing the temporal nature of experiences and people is a valuable lesson that helped me enjoy the present.
Q: The book “Wild” has made the PCT much more popular, what was your social experience on trail?
H: Every year thousands of people start the trail at Campo, which can be a little intimidating when seeking a somewhat social but also largely tranquil hiking experience. The desert was very social, but with the Sierra snow everybody did something slightly different. This greatly reduced the number of people in any one place making for a uniquely quieter experience. My trail family was very fluid, with three constant members but we collected many others for a few hundred miles here and there which was so fun. I also ran into so many people I met in the desert who did the trail differently a flip flop. The trail works in mysterious ways.
C: The trail community and my trail family in particular were a hugely important aspect of my hike. With little distraction from material items or technology, life becomes simple and pure. Food, shelter, and above all human connection becomes the focus of every day. As in any family, there was conflict and annoyance but it was far outweighed by the joy, laughter, conversation and love.
Q: What advice would you give a future PCT hiker? What would you do differently if you were to hike again?
C: Get out there and hike! Either in sections or as a thru-hiker but go do it. Don’t worry about being in shape or having the perfect system for your gear. You will learn and adapt as you go. If I do another thru-hike I might give the umbrella a try.
Q: After being home for a few weeks, what are some of the weirdest realizations?
H: I have way too many clothes. I loved having one hiking outfit. I also have a boiling water faucet in my apartment and it blows my mind everyday. Deodorant is useless and people wash their hair too much.
C: It isn’t normal to eat all day long and finish a giant meal with a pint or two of ice cream.