Thru-hike the PCT: ‘Best to do it earlier rather than later in life’

Jack Ross and his wife Barb must like each other. After all, they’re still married after a thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jack was nice enough to answer a few questions about life on the PCT, deep snowpacks, solitude, readjustments to home, and more.

Eric Murtaugh: Why did you decide to thru-hike the PCT?

Jack Ross: I read a National Geographic article from the late ’70s long ago that described it. Then the topic always came up when we were backpacking with friends. It was always in the back of my mind.

Plus, I wanted to do something really big and challenging in my lifetime and hiking the PCT is really big! It wasn’t on Barb’s bucket list but she signed on anyway (and logged over 1,000 miles before dropping out due to injury).

Jack and Barb on the PCT near Mt. Jefferson in Oregon.

EM: Take us through the preparation and planning stage of a PCT thru-hike.

JR: A lot of prep is required. Barb and I spent about six months preparing.

First you need to have the proper gear, tent, sleeping bag, backpack and clothing. We discovered that most of the things we already had were outdated. We could reduce our weight appreciably by purchasing newer products.

Then there is the food. You can either purchase food as you go in the small stores along the way or pre-package food in advance and have a friend back home ship your resupply boxes out on a predetermined schedule.

We chose the latter and had a total of 33 resupply boxes, all packed up and ready to go before the hike. We chose Mountain House dehydrated meals as our dinner staple and had four varieties.

We got a good deal on them at CostCo and never tired of the flavors. During the prep we had to figure how fast we would be hiking and make a master list of approximate arrival dates at certain towns. There is a very good online resource to help do this (Craig’s PCT Planner).

EM: You started the hike with your wife Barb, but then continued on solo. Did you get lonely at times?

JR: Yes, I missed Barb (Trail Name: Boo Boo) and I was always happy hiking with her but I also like solitude and did fine traveling solo.

When you are alone, you decide when to get up, how long to stop for lunch and how far to go each day. When you are with others, there always will be negotiating unless everyone is on the same game plan.

I did hook up with Barb on 3 occasions (Northern California and Oregon). She hiked about 160 more miles with me. It was fun.

EM: How did you handle your food boxes once Barb left the trail?

JR: When Barb got home, she took control of the resupply boxes. Each box had to be modified for only one person rather than two and I had skipped a big section of snow and jumped ahead (later to complete that section) so Barb had to ship out different boxes.

All went well except some of our paper maps didn’t find the right box. Barb, knowing the trail, also added a few “treats” in each of the boxes. I especailly loved the tins of Pringles. You get two tins, crush up all the chips and they will fit in one tin. Sprinkle it in with your dinner or just suck down the chips right from the can!

We did have some leftover food. We were able to resell the Mountain House meals at our cost and gave away the candy bars, lara bars and breakfast bars to a food bank. Back at home, it just isn’t the type of food we eat. Plus, it packs a huge amount of calories.

EM: Did you lose much weight on the trip?

JR: Yes, I dropped down from 160 to a low of 146 (in the Sierras). I was at 152 when I reached Canada and am up to a nice 155 right now. Barb didn’t lose much at all but we both have a lot more muscle weight and much less fat weight.

EM: Did you have extensive hiking experience before you started your thru-hike?

JR: Yes, Barb and I have backpacked on many short trips—2 to 5 days. We have done some rock climbing years ago, Barb had climbed Mt. Rainier and together we have knocked off many peaks in California and Colorado.

Also, we have been to Nepal twice and hiked extensively in the Himalayan region, doing the Annapurna Circuit twice, the Annapurna base camp route once and spent a month hiking in the Everest region.

“When you are alone, you decide when to get up, how long to stop for lunch and how far to go each day.” Jack finds his solitude near Crater Lake.

EM: Was the navigation difficult at times? Were you ever lost?

JR: Navigation is pretty straightforward except when you are on the snow. We had a GPS with a track of the entire trail identified along with every mile marker and we carried paper maps as a backup and still we got lost on a few occasions.

When you are on the snow, you will have to leave the trail for the most sensible route and sometimes it doesn’t always pay off. The detour route might intersect a river that is impassible and one must scout up or downstream for a suitable crossing.

Plus, one cannot run the GPS all day as the batteries would give out. So we used the GPS only as needed. On one occasion, in Oregon, I was zoning, somewhere in space, just hiking along alone and took a wrong turn. I walked for 3 miles down this steep trail before realizing that I was off the PCT.

It took me 6 miles out of my way and I had to climb back up about 1,000 feet. You can’t get upset when you get lost, just consider it part of the adventure.

EM: At times, did you feel overly ambitious? Did you ever have any doubts that you wouldn’t finish?

JR: Oh yes, I felt overly ambitious many times. I would set mileage goals every day and on a few of the segments I found myself hiking in the darkness to reach my goal.

There were also some days where you just have to say “Too difficult, too much vertical today, I’ll just have to do as best as I can, forget the goal.”

Another time in Northern California I had it in my head to hike at night as it was pretty hot during the day. So I set out from the town (Sierra City) at 5 p.m. and hiked some very difficult trail until 2 a.m. I was all alone in the big dark forest and kept thinking that a mountain lion might be stalking me—of course it was all in my head.

The next day, at about 11 a.m., I was so tired that I literally fell to the ground and slept for 2 hours. I ended up losing time in that whole event. Best to stay on your daily routine.

I figured the only thing that would keep me from finishing would be physical injury or extreme weather in Washington. Turned out I was hit by only one big storm in Washington, on the second to the last day of the hike.

Everything but my sleeping bag was soaked and at one point, I was near hypothermic but, the last morning, I put on my wet clothes, ate a lot of calories and marched on to the Canadian border.

EM: How long did it take you to finish?

JR: The total adventure took 159 days, 23 of which were zero days when we didn’t do any mileage. So I logged mileage for 136 days, Barb, who did 1,066 miles, was hiking for about 65 days.

At first we were doing 12-15 miles per day, then we were pretty excited to do our first 20 mile day. By the end of the trip, I considered 25 miles to be a daily minimum and was doing a lot of 26-28 mile days and my record was 33 miles in one day.

The zero days were always in a town where we were resting and recuperating. The original plan was quite accurate as I reached Canada four days later than planned.

EM: California had a significant snowpack last winter. Did this make your hike difficult?

JR: SNOW became a four letter word. Yes, it was perhaps the most difficult year to attempt a thru-hike.

Those that were going southbound (starting from Canada) found the trail in Washington impassible until July and we northbounders were crossing the Sierras in June, using ice axes and crampons and relying on all of our winter mountaineering skills.

Many either quit the trail or skipped this section. You would posthole or sink in soft snow, sometimes up to your waist and we would slip and fall a number of times each day.

The trail was gone, it was white as far as you could see. Barb had to set in a route on Mather Pass by kicking in steps up to the snow lip at the top. Once at the lip, we had to plant our ice axes over the top and use them to pull us up and over. It was one of the hairiest days of the entire trip.

As the snow melted, the rivers in the Sierras became fast, furious and very dangerous. I got wet twice and on one occasion was floating downstream on my back when Barb, on the bank downstream, stuck out her hiking pole and reeled me back to shore.

We are both good water people but these rivers were really cold! Our feet and shoes were soaking wet for the entire two weeks we were in the Sierras. We think the many river crossings were more dangerous than the snow.

Once I reached the area near Lassen National Park, in Northern California, the trail was pretty clear, and of course, as time passed, the snow did eventually melt out. Those that started late had an easy time in the Sierras but never finished as we had early and consistent storms sweep through the Northwest (Washington) in early October.

“You would posthole or sink in soft snow, sometimes up to your waist.” Barb gives us an excellent demonstration.

EM: If you could do something different with your thru-hike, what would it be?

JR: It was very well planned and executed. If anything, I would try to carry less weight. Many days, I would come to town with a day’s extra food, which weighs about 2 pounds.

For a 5-day segment, I would be carrying this 2 extra pounds each day. You want to time it so you are eating your last Snickers bar as you come to town.

Sometimes we carried too much water too. One liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. Ideally, you should be sucking down the last drops of water as you reach the next source.

EM: Approximately how much does it cost to successfully complete a PCT thru-hike?

JR: We spent about $1,000 each on new camping equipment. We already had good sleeping bags but got a new lightweight tent, new packs and lots of very cool clothing like very lightweight down jackets.

The food bill was big as you have to consume about 4,000 calories each per day. So we had boxed up enough food to feed four people for 150 days—but it was intended to feed only the two of us.

Our food bill was about $1,000 each. Postage was a big bill as well and then there were the towns. At town we almost always got a hotel room and ate copious amounts of food at the restaurants. The total bill for two people was about $10,600.

In perspective though, for a 5-month trip, that comes out to about $1,100 per person per month. We figure, on a shoestring, one could do this trip for about $2,500.

Almost there!

EM: Were you lucky enough to see a lot of wildlife?

JR: Yes, we saw rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, marmots, a weasel, many different birds, deer, elk and even a bear in Northern California. The bear saw us and ran away.

EM: Describe what was going through your mind as you completed your thru-hike.

JR: When I reached the Canadian border in a light, cold drizzle I felt relieved and happy. I had amazed myself that I was able to really do this.

A few days later when I was picking up a small section I missed in Oregon (39 miles closed due to fire) I felt truly sad that the adventure was finally over. I had really become one with the trail and it was like leaving an old friend, not knowing if you would ever see her again (yes, the PCT was personified to me and was a she—I called her “Mother PCT”).

She was brutal at times but she always seemed to safely get me where I was going.

EM: What was it like for you to adjust to life after the hike?

JR: It was very difficult and still is. We have so much “stuff” in our lives.

I have lived the last 5 months with only the shirt on my back and one pair of long pants and now I look in my closet and see all these clothes—how will I ever find time to wear them all?

Then there is the daily hassles of life, things breaking around the house, bill and magazines to be taken care of and read, dentists to visit (I had one cavity) and noisy shopping malls that still freak me out. Can I just go and sit in the car?

EM: Do you have any plans for another long distance hike?

JR: No. But I will not say never again. It was hard and I am 65 years old. The oldest person to hike the entire trail in a single season was 69.

Maybe I’ll do a rerun when I am 70 but my feet are still numb from the “six million steps.”I hear it is a normal condition. Something to do with the nerves in the foot.

EM: Any tips for an aspiring PCT thru-hiker?

JR: Best to do it earlier rather than later in life. And if there is a lot of snow during the year you plan to go, put it off until the next year.

Read more about Jack and Barb’s PCT adventure on their journal at www.postholer.com/jackandbarb.

He did it! Jack reaches the Canadian border after 159 days on the PCT.

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15 comments

    1. Going for the 2-peat,eh? When do you think you’ll start this year? Looks like the snowpack shouldn’t be as big of a pain in the ass as last year.

  1. This has to be one of my favorite posts about a thru hike of the PCT. Thanks for posting. My family and I have been so inspired by books we’ve read and blogs we’ve seen online that we are doing an overnight trip with our girls (ages 5 and 2) on the PCT in Lake Tahoe this summer and plan to just keep tacking on nights until they’re used to the idea. Maybe they’ll have finished half the trail by the time they go off to college. It’s fantastic that we have access to so much pristine and truly wild nature here and I love the idea of letting them experience the trail from the earliest years of life.

  2. I would love to do the PCT when I retire — hopefully in one stretch — that’s in 5 years — i will be 56 years old…..just walked the camino for the second time which is fairly cushy compared….. thanks for your site here…

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