One hundred and fourteen days. That’s how long we trekked without experiencing a single drop of rain. The terrain we crossed during those four months remained as dry as the jerky on which we gnawed. We thought we might find relief when we finally crossed the snow-covered Sierras. We were wrong.
Shortly after descending the mountain range, we found ourselves in yet another barren and worn out landscape. It was riddled with herds of cattle and attendant farms, which made the few water sources we came across unsanitary. Fortunately, we were carrying chlorine dioxide drops to purify our water.
At the start of one particularly dry morning, we reached for our half-empty bottles to guzzle down some water. With the cool liquid coursing through our bodies, we struck camp and embarked on the day’s hike.
A while later, we found another contaminated water source. But we also found a tiny hole in our chlorine dioxide dropper bottle, which by now was empty. We had more than 30 kilometres to trek with not much more than a few sips of clean water left in our bottles and no sign of civilisation along the way. Weary, thirsty, tired and dizzy, we pursued the only option left to us: we hiked on.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) consists of more than 4,200 kilometres of ever-changing topography. From bone dry to sopping wet, from blazing to freezing, the PCT isn’t known for showing kindness to the unprepared hiker. Although the equipment needed to successfully accomplish a trek of this length is specialist, the most important piece of gear will be the head on your shoulders.
The PCT is divided into five distinct regions: southern California, the Sierra Nevada mountains, northern California, Oregon and Washington. Each has its own unique challenges. For example, the southern section is uniformly hot, dry and exposed. My right hand became so sunburnt that it looked like one of the sun-dried lizard carcasses that we occasionally spotted in the dust.
Bearing all of this in mind, we wanted our tent to be as versatile and comfortable as possible. We chose a three-season shelter, the inside of which was primarily made from ‘no-see-um’ mesh to protect us from bugs while allowing a cool breeze to whisper across our sleeping bags.
In southern California, we were able to sleep without the flysheet attached. Later, we protected the inner tent from rain by attaching a waterproof flysheet. Occasionally, we erected the flysheet without the inner to create a sunshade under which we sat out the midday heat.
During the daytime, my most important piece of kit was my hat. Although my leather cowboy hat – weighing in at more than 1.5 kilograms – was entirely unnecessary, a wide brim was essential: protecting my face with a little bit of shade made the world of difference. (It also allowed me to steal quick naps on the side of the trail.)
HOT, HOT, HOT
For nearly 800 kilometres, there was no relief from the blistering heat. Then, on the eastern side of California, we came to the snow-packed Sierra Nevada mountains. In 2011 – the year we trekked the PCT – the range was blanketed by the highest level of snow since records began. On Mammoth Pass, more than seven times the usual amount of snow was recorded. We traded our sun-dried fingers, parched lips and dusty packs for cold and wet boots and ridiculously steep inclines.
When we reached Muir Pass, we were engulfed by whiteout conditions, even though it was the height of summer. That night, we were fortunate to have a stone shelter to protect us. Built in 1930 by the Sierra Club and situated at more than 3,000 metres, it made for an eerie setting when the wind howled through the structure. That said, the surrounding snow- and ice-laden mountains also made it a sanctuary. It was, relatively speaking, a comfortable spot.
Our packs were weighed down by our mandatory bear cans, and with our pack weight thrown off by them, feeling secure in each step was even more important. Thankfully, our trail crampons kept us anchored to the frozen ground and prevented us from slipping down lethal chutes of ice.
The carbon-steel spikes were connected to our trekking boots by a Velcro band that stretched across the boot to maintain a secure connection. Each crampon was fitted with an ergonomic baseplate that helped to clear the spikes of snow with each step, thus preventing a dangerous ball of snow from forming under each foot, which would have rendered the spikes impotent.
We knew that this large quantity of snow would melt at some point during our hike, and sure enough, creeks that were supposed to be less than a metre wide were now raging traps waiting to whirl us away.
Chest-high river crossings came with the threat of wet gear. As we were filming the trek with lots of camera equipment, this risk was unacceptable, so we lined our rucksacks with dry bags to protect our electronic gear.
At the outset of our traverse, we used lightweight Cuben Fiber dry bags. As the months passed, we discovered that while the tensile strength of this featherweight fabric was impeccable, it offered little in the way of abrasion resistance. As they became dotted with scrapes and holes, we swapped these dry bags for heavy-duty waterproof stuff sacks manufactured by the aptly named Granite Gear. These dry bags proved to be incredibly durable. The bags’ white interiors also allowed us to find items easily, and the rubber strip at the top of each bag created a superb watertight seal when rolled down. Our gear remained dry, even when we resorted to virtually swimming across rivers.
TRIALS IN THE WILD
During our six-month journey, we enjoyed the opportunity to try out some in-development products. In northern California, we tested a knife for Buck – the Hoodlum – which is a cross between a machete and a straight blade. The hollow-core handle houses a coil that absorbs any shock through the tang, meaning that it’s comfortable to hold even when hacking at dense objects. Weighing 414 grams, it’s small enough to be a versatile tool but still reassuringly big enough to provide a degree of comfort.
One evening, we had to hike farther than we had anticipated due to the lack of water. As we pushed through the tall brush, our headlamps illuminated two golden spheres belonging to a distant feline. We yelled and hollered but the cat continued to approach steadily. With the horrifying possibility of an attack just seconds away, we unsheathed our tools-turned-weapons.
Perhaps the mountain lion caught sight of the blades; perhaps it simply lost interest in us. In the event, the beast faded into the night. Although we never saw it again, we saw multiple cat prints the next morning, around eight kilometres from our initial encounter.
It took four months of hiking to reach the half-way point on the PCT. If the strain on our personal relationships with loved ones back home didn’t provide us with sufficient motivation to complete the trek quickly, impending winter storms certainly did.
To have any chance of making it to Canada before the trail became impassable, we had to kick into high gear. And so, as beautiful as Oregon is, we took advantage of the flat lands on this section of the trail to ratchet our daily distance up to 48 kilometres per day.
With our legs in top gear, our equipment began to feel the torque. Northern Washington was so jam-packed with jagged mountains that we prepared ourselves for snow as soon as we crossed into the Cascades.
Then a whiteout hit us. This one was worse than the previous storms. With a fresh covering of snow, the white ground bled into the white sky. With no sense of direction or depth, we didn’t know if we were walking across flat ground or about to step off a cliff.
We couldn’t stop to wait out the weather. I pulled out our GPS device, stuck it in front of my face, and followed the route I had previously uploaded. The unit’s rubber buttons made navigating with gloves a breeze and the weatherproof casing ensured that it kept working, whatever the weather. By now, we were trekking with nothing but a little digital line telling us which way to go, along with a few topographic references to reassure us that we weren’t about to walk over a precipice.
It was only two days later that we finally reached the monument marking the USA–Canada border. The monument also marked the conclusion of our six-month journey. The sudden appearance of bright skies reassured us that our hike was over. Real life was just an aeroplane journey away.
Entrepreneur and expedition manager Ian Mangiardi uses his expertise in logistics and course development to organise international expeditions for private citizens, government officials and members of the Explorers Club. www.modernexplorerinc.com
A six-month trek along the Pacific Crest Trail requires careful planning. You’ll need kit that equips you for a wide range of terrains and climates, including the blistering heat of southern California and the snow-packed Sierra Nevada mountains. Here, Ian Mangiardi highlights some of the most important items that he packed for his expedition
More robust than typical traction devices, but more user-friendly than a full mountaineering crampon, it remains attached to your foot with a thick rubber harness and an over-the-toe Velcro strap. An ergonomic plate helps to prevent ice build-up under the foot
2. Camera protection
Think Tank Photo Digital Holster 10 v2.0
This easy-access padded case can be attached to a trouser belt or the outside of a rucksack. It has an expanding sleeve that accommodates zoom lenses. Ours lived on the exterior of my pack for six months and my camera still works fine
3. Communications device
DeLorme InReach SE
The waterproof, dustproof and durable InReach connects to a smartphone or tablet to provide detailed tracks, downloadable maps and the ability to send and receive text messages via the global Iridium satellite service. An annual or seasonal contract is required
4. Solar power
9W Brunton SolarRoll
Flexible, water resistant and able to charge a smartphone in just two hours, this flexible solar panel kept all of our equipment ready to use. Its twin ports enable two devices to be charged at once. Also available in a 14-watt version
5. Rechargeable battery
Brunton Sustain 2
The Sustain comes into play when the sun doesn’t shine. Capable of charging an iPad three times on a single charge, the water-resistant Sustain is the perfect battery backup when extra power is required. USB, 12V, 16V and 19V outputs charge nearly all types of electronics, from mobile phones to laptops
6. Cooking pot
Primus EtaPower 1.8 litre
Ensuring you don’t run out of fuel on a long-distance trek is a challenge, and the type of pan you use makes a difference when it comes to fuel conservation.
The EtaPower’s integral heat exchanger encourages a faster boil time and more efficient cooking. It’s fitted with built-in handles and supplied with a strainer lid
7. Sleeping mat
Nemo Astro Air Lite 20R
The durable, full-length Astro Air delivers more than seven centimetres of comfort. A larger baffle at the head end improves comfort. Supplied with a stuff sack, compression strap and repair patches
£6/225 grams (30 metres)
Significantly stronger than standard paracord, the 550 has a minimum break strength of 249 kilograms, thanks to its seven individual strands, which are sheathed in a nylon casing
9. Head protection
One of the most versatile pieces of clothing. It can be used as a hat to warm your head or keep the sun off your scalp and neck, or as a sweat band for your wrist. Or dip it in water and put it on your neck to keep cool
Suunto Core All Black
The waterproof Suunto Core knows your exact altitude and can calculate how much higher you have to go. It also boasts a weather alarm, dual time zones and a compass
This story was published in the September 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine