“With disturbing frequency, backpackers die in the mountains during the first snows of the season. Avalanche danger, hypothermia and obliterated trails are a threat to your life. Snow has closed the PCT in Washington as early as mid-September. In a normal year, you should plan to be off the trail by October at the latest. Please be experts at winter travel and study the forecast and our snow information if you are traveling the Washington PCT section in the fall.”
~ Pacific Crest Trail Association, ‘Thru Hiking – Northbound Vs Southbound’
Despite clear warnings from the PCTA (and there isn’t much grey in the above quoted passage), each and every year increasingly more northbound thru hikers are continuing their journeys deep into October in hopes of reaching Canada. This rise in the number of late season aspirants, has been paralleled by a worrying growth in the amount of hikers that get themselves into trouble, and subsequently need to be rescued.
Whenever I hear these stories, like most folks, my initial reaction is always that I’m glad that the hikers are Ok. My second thought is that the majority of these instances could have been avoided through a combination of common sense, objectivity, and paying heed to the warnings of those in the know.
Let’s take a look at the whys and wherefores behind this disturbing trend, and outline what can possibly be done in order to address the issue:
Why do PCT thru-hikers continue deep into October despite all of the warnings?
A combination of border fever, overestimating their own abilities and underestimating how dangerous October conditions can be in WA. Throw in the “safety net” factor of personal locator beacons/satellite messengers (i.e. “I can always press the button if I get into difficulty”), and you have a recipe for trouble.
Ok, border fever I understand, but overconfidence? These guys have walked over 2000 miles on the PCT, and many of them have prior long distance hiking experience on the Appalachian Trail; surely they are highly experienced hikers?
In many cases they are not. Thru-hiking in regular season conditions on the Triple Crown trails does not necessarily equip you for what Mother Nature can throw at you in the Cascade mountains in the fall. Paul “Mags” Magnanti, one of the most experienced hikers and outdoors people in the US, wrote an article about this very subject titled, Thru Hikers: Specialized Outdoors Knowledge. Here is an excerpt: .
“Many people who have done thru-hiking as their only outdoor activity often-times have a narrow base of outdoor knowledge……….Reading a guidebook, following a well-defined path and having a large trail infrastructure does not make for an outdoor “expert”. It makes a person an outdoor specialist. Even the Continental Divide Trail, with its increasingly better maintained tread, defined route, specific maps, guidebooks, and smart phone apps, is becoming a very defined experience.”
With the occasional exception, PCT hikers that possess the experience to be out in winter-like conditions in the Cascades, will have already finished before October. “Why?” Because they are aware of how difficult it can be at that time of year, and they know that the best chance they have of reaching Canada, is to get their skates on and finish sooner rather than later.
Hold on, many of these ‘October’ hikers have come through hundreds of miles of snow covered terrain in the High Sierra. Is that so different to what they will face in WA?
Yes it is. There is a big discrepancy between walking over “Sierra Cement” (hard-packed snow) in the spring, and getting hit by an early season winter-like storm and a few feet of fresh powder in the Cascades. That’s not to say that the former is a walk in the park, as anyone who has spent hours postholing on a sunny June afternoon will attest. However, in the WA section of the PCT, where much of the hiking is done in wooded areas, it is easy to become disorientated if the trail is completely snow covered, the weather is coming in, and you haven’t been paying attention to where you are on the map. This particularly holds true if something goes wrong and a phone app is your only navigation tool, which increasingly appears to be the case on America’s popular long distance trails.
In regards to phone apps, it seems that most of the “rescued hiker” stories you hear, tell of phones that either died or were damaged, lost or malfunctioned. What’s the skinny?
The skinny is that paper maps are going the way of the dodo, and a rapidly increasing amount of thru hikers are tackling long trails with little in the way of navigation skills, and nothing in the way of a navigational backup.
As the PCTA, myself and countless other experienced backcountry people have said (over and over and over), Hiking Apps are not a panacea and shouldn’t be thought of as a substitute to map and compass. Batteries can die (particularly in the sub freezing temps), electronics can fail, signals don’t always come through. GPS apps have their limitations, and if you have nothing in the way of a navigational backup to call on if a worse case scenario occurs, you may well find yourself up poo creek without a technological paddle.
I’m not saying that folks should give up their GPS/Smart phones and go 100% old school map and compass. That’s not going to happen. What I am saying is that you should always carry a backup, and get in the habit of regular correlating what you see around you, with where you are on the map. That way if you do get into trouble and your phone dies, you will know where you are, where you have come from, and where you need to go.
If all that doesn’t convince hikers to carry a compass and paper maps, perhaps the words of Guthook, the guy behind the most popular app for the Triple Crown Trails, may make a difference :
“We (the Guthook’s Guides development team) are alarmed at the increasing number of people stating their intention to hike without paper maps. ELECTRONIC DEVICES AND APPS CAN FAIL. IT IS A HORRIBLE IDEA TO RELY SOLELY ON A DEVICE OR AN APP AS YOUR SOLE NAVIGATION SOURCE.
There’s really not much more to it than that.
We love technology, and we love our customers who use our apps. But please carry paper maps with you — even if it’s just as a back up — when you hit the trail.”
To Guthook’s words I would add the following; if you are going to carry a map and compass on trail, know how to use them before you begin your journey. There are plenty of helpful websites where can learn navigation basics. Once you have the theory down, head out into the boonies and practice what you have learnt. If you don’t live near the woods, go to your local park:
Let’s cut to the chase; what’s the principal reason hikers find themselves racing the meteorological clock in October?
In a nutshell – too much time off trail, not enough time walking. Obviously there are many reasons why individuals take breaks from their thru hikes (i.e. personal issues, injuries, finances, etc). However, if we are being completely honest, a lot of these October hikers find themselves behind the eight ball because they have spent too much time faffing about and partying in towns along the way. Double and triple zeros eventually add up. Before they know it, late September has arrived and they have only just reached the Bridge of the Gods on the OR/WA border.
What about all the fire closures in recent years?
In such scenarios, hikers usually have the choice of taking alternates or flip flopping up to areas that aren’t affected. Neither option is ideal, but if an area is closed, it is closed for a reason. In such scenarios the onus is on the hiker to adapt. Mother Nature never has a copy of your hiking itinerary.
Come on, mate, get off your soap box. Haven’t you heard the expression, “hike your own hike”? If these guys know the risks and still choose to continue, it’s their business.
Last year I wrote an article addressing this argument. It was titled, “When Hike Your Own Hike Ceases to Apply.” Here’s an excerpt:
“Once you make the decision to venture into conditions that you have neither the experience, skill and in many cases the equipment to handle, all bets are off. You have forfeited the right to “Hike your own Hike.”
Because not only have you put yourself at risk, you’ve potentially also placed the Search & Rescue (SAR) workers that have to come and find you in danger.
“Isn’t that their job?”
No, it’s not. At least it shouldn’t be. These individuals have more than enough to do as it is; the last thing they need is to be spending time and resources looking for ill prepared hikers, that more often than not have no one but themselves to blame for their predicament.”
How can PCT hikers maximise their chances of getting to Canada before October?:
Prioritise Hiking over Socialising: If your goal is to hike from Mexico to Canada, focus on doing just that. That doesn’t mean you have to be a monk or nun every time you hit town. What it does mean is that you should have a basic trip itinerary and stick to it as best you can. There will always be temptations; it comes down to how much you want to finish the hike.
If on the other hand, the social side of things is more important to you than reaching Canada, that’s fine as well, but be honest with yourself, and accept the fact that you may not be able to complete a single season thru hike.
Be Prepared: Unlike what some so-called experts will tell you, ‘Thru Hiking is not 90% Mental‘. Apart from being utter rubbish, this oft-heard mantra can give newbie hikers the wrong impression in regards to how much preparation they need to be doing for a PCT thru hike. Don’t get me wrong, mental strength and resilience obviously plays a part in any long distance hike, however, a balance needs to be struck. Basic skills such as navigation, how to ford swollen rivers, self-arrest with an ice axe, reading snow conditions, the importance of campsite selection, hydration strategies for the desert, etc, are all important if you hope to maximise your chances of reaching Canada in an average or greater snow year.
Accept and Adapt: Wilderness travel is by nature unpredictable. During your PCT journey, one of the only things of which you can be guaranteed is that unexpected shit will happen. Fires, storms, detours, logistical mishaps, pains, sprains and niggles. The list goes on. Try not to get too down or too up; learn to shrug your shoulders and have a chuckle. The universe isn’t conspiring against your thru hiking dreams. As best you can, accept and adapt to whatever Mother Nature and the trail throws your way. By doing so, the stumbling blocks become stepping stones, and the chances of not only reaching Canada before October, but more importantly having a great time in doing so, increase exponentially.
Be Consistent: Do you know why so many old buggers in their 50’s (I’m almost there), 60’s and 70’s finish thru hikes, while a lot of younger, faster and stronger hikers, die in the ass before journey’s end? There are a few different reasons, but the big one is pacing and consistency. Channel your inner tortoise, stay in the “85% effort zone”, and finish each hiking day with a little left in the tank. That way you will invariably wake up feeling ready to go the next morning, and there will be less need to take as many zero days in towns for rest and recuperation.
Objective Observer: When faced with tough decisions in the backcountry, try to take pride and ego out of the equation, and look at situations as an objective observer rather than a subjective participant. In the case of finishing the PCT in October, I get it; Canada is so close that you can almost see the moose and Mounties. However, ignoring forecasts and venturing into dangerous conditions for which you aren’t prepared, is simply not worth the potential price. I’ve seen it way too many times over the years. Hikers unnecessarily putting both themselves, and the people that have to come and search for them into harm’s way. Remember that Canada’s not going anywhere, and while “the heart and spirit may be the catalysts for many of us heading out into the wilderness, when worst-case scenarios occur, usually it is what goes on between our ears that dictates whether or not we return home safely.”