Saturday, April 2, 2016

PCT southern terminus to Cottonwood Creek

The journey begins.

My mom drove me down in her Smart car and took a few pictures at the Southern Terminus memorial.

So clean!
Mom posing with the border wall/road in the background.
Mom and the Smart car departing.
Just have to get a picture of the first mile marker, probably the most photographed mile marker since I imagine that pretty much everyone gets this far. It's also one of the few mile markers of significance that isn't hiker created.
Crossed these tracks along the way. My path won't be as nice and flat.

The first segment of the PCT is about 20 miles from the border to Lake Moreno. I was planning on doing ten miles a day, camping someplace along the way.

However, the day turned out to be quite hot, and by the time I got to the ten mile mark I could tell that if I stopped and cooked I'd be seriously short on water for the following day.
I had looked at the maps and water report for this section and I knew that around the 15 mile mark, at the bottom of a valley that we had to hike down into and then up the other side, there was a creek. But the creek was a mile and a half off the trail.
So, instead of stopping at ten miles, I kept going. I ended up walking in the dark for the last couple miles of trail, plus the dirt road that led away from the trail. I finally found the water source, a nicely flowing creek with lots of frogs somewhere making noise.
My first day on the trail and I was beat. 15 miles of trail plus my mile and a half detour.
I filtered water, made something for dinner and camped on bare rock without bothering with the tent, since I couldn't be bothered to hunt around for a camp site in the dark.


Back in 2016 I, along with most of the people I worked with, was laid off when our employer decided that the way to recover from a massive accounting scandal at the home office overseas was to shut down our division.

At any rate, it left me suddenly with time on my hands, and some severance money.

Since I was young, I had wanted to go on a long hike. I was probably most influenced by the National Geographic books on the Appalachian trail and the Pacific Crest Trail that came out in the 70's. When we lived out east, there was the Appalachian Trail, and then when we moved west, the "local" trail became the Pacific Crest Trail.

Now, up to this point I had not done an extended backpacking trip. When we lived back east, we used to go for week long canoe trips, but those were luxury outings, and the longest portages where we had to carry out gear were maybe a couple kilometers. We always made two trips on each portage. In the local mountains here in Southern California I had done a few one or two night backpacking trips, but again, only tangentially similar to the extended trip I was contemplating.

I did have camping gear, lots of it, but once I decided to attempt this journey, I mostly got newer, lighter, gear. The trend for long distance backpacking is to go light, and then go lighter still.

One of the planning constraints for hiking the PCT is that there is a permit system. The non-profit, non-government body that does a lot of work for the trail, is the Pacific Crest Trail Association. This group coordinates with all the parks and national forests and other bodies along the trail. One of the things this accomplishes is that you can get a Thru-hiking permit that eliminates the need to apply for hiking and camping permits from every individual park or forest division along the way. The downside is that the permits are limited. Only a certain number of permits are issued each day. Mid April is the typical starting time for the trail, mostly because hikers are planning to get to the Sierra mountains at the proper time when snow levels have dropped enough to get through, but with enough time to still get the miles in after that to be able to finish the trail before the snow closes out the northern end. I wasn't able to get a start date in mid April, but I did get a start date of April 2, 2016.
Along with the PCTA hiking permit, I had to get a campfire permit for California. Now, I wasn't planning on making any fires, but the permit is required for backcountry use of stoves, and I did carry one of those.
There was also a permit to climb Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48. Whitney has a quota system, a little like the PCT permit. There's a lottery, and it's hard to get a specific date. But, that's for climbing Whitney from Whitney Portal, the "normal" route for people just hiking Whitney as a day trip or an overnight. When hiking the PCT, we approach Whitney from the other side, and thanks to the PCTA, the PCT permit allows thru hikers to do a day hike up Whitney and back to the PCT. Of note, the PCT permit through the PCTA is free.
The last permit I needed was one to enter Canada at the end of the trail. The PCT officially goes from border to border, and although the US/Mexican border terminus is very much car accessible, the Canada/US end of the trail is in the middle of a wilderness area and miles away from roads. Most hikers continue on from the border crossing into Canada and end their hike in Manning Provincial Park in Canada. Legally, you need the border crossing permit. Applying for and receiving that was easy, thanks Canada! Interestingly, people who do the trail south bound, and there are a lot less going south, do not have a corresponding permit available from the US. If they want to be legal, they have to hike north to the border on the US side, and then turn around and start south. Or they can be scofflaws and ignore the law and start from Canada anyway. Or be creative and hike on the Pacific Northwest Trail and join the PCT Near the border then start south. But that's out of the scope of my hike...

So, for a couple moths I prepared, buying gear, doing some daily walking near my house, which was at least on a moderated hill with some dirt roads nearby.
I wasn't in great shape, more typical office worker shape. I was a cyclist, but not a runner, and I was a few pounds overweight.

My date to start came, and my mom drove me down to the Southern Terminus.


Water is one of the governing factors in a PCT hiker's routine.
How much to carry, where to find more, how to filter it. All these things are vital. A little short on food, you can get along okay. Maybe miserable, but okay. A little short on water and you're in trouble.
Fortunately there are resources available online that help with the "where to find water" question. is a primary source, and I was using an app on my phone that along with a GPS navigable map of the trail had potential water sources marked and also supported some user comments, which helps when trying to determine if a water source was actually viable (a real concern since California is perpetually in drought conditions and springs can dry up any old time.)

So, with the importance of water in mind, you'd think that I would have started the trail with a surplus of water, right?


Why? Well, I guess I was excited at the prospect of beginning this adventure and didn't think through the water situation.
Plus, water is heavy.
I started off carrying four liters of water. By definition a liter of water weighs one kilogram. Convert that to pounds and you've got 8.8 pounds of water. Add that to my base gear weight plus food (And I was carrying food for a few days) and it all adds up.

On some later stretches I carried over 12 liters of water, plus made sure I drank a couple liters before I left whatever water source I was at.

Now, the first stretch of trail is 20 miles from Campo, at the border, to Lake Morena where there's a campground and a tiny town with a store and possibility to pick up a limited variety of food stuff.

What I had planned for the first day was to hike maybe ten miles, overnight, and then hike the remaining ten miles to Lake Morena.

However, the day started hot and got hotter, and by the time I stopped for lunch I had drunk half my water, and I could see that I wouldn't have enough to drink then cook dinner and for the hike the following day.

I definitely didn't want to end up like the couple that I came across after only about three miles who were under a bush asking passing hikers for water, as they had already run out. I think I suggested that they might want to head back to Campo and see if anyone there had water available since they were only a couple miles away.

So, faced with a lack of water I made a decision. I had looked at the maps and other data for this section and I knew there was water at the 15 mile point. However, it was almost two miles off the trail.

I hiked on past the ten mile point where I had intended to stop for the night. By the time I got to the major valley of this stretch, it was late in the day and starting to get dark. Descending a rutted, rocky trail by headlamp was lots of fun.

By the time I got to the bottom of the climb I was out of water, and it was full dark. There was a tent pitched along side of the trail at the bottom of the valley and I had a brief conversation with the guy in the tent. He offered water, but he only had a liter himself. I told him that he'd need it for himself, and that I was going to go down the dirt road a the bottom of the valley to the creek that was on the map and water report.

Trudging along in the dark with only a small pool of light from the headlamp is an interesting experience. Since the light is near the axis of your eyes, you don't have a lot of contrast or shadows to make things stand out.

Eventually I heard a loud chorus of frogs, and ran into a nicely flowing creek.
I shrugged out of my pack, hauled out my water filtering apparatus and got to work. I think I drank a couple liters of water right there before filtering enough to cook with and also for tomorrow's hike back to the trail and then up the first decent climb of the trail to Lake Morena.
After cooking something, I can't remember what, I inflated my sleeping pad, pulled my sleeping bag/quilt out of its stuff sack and put it all in a bivy sack.

For whatever reason I was carrying both a tent and a bivy at this point. A bivy sack is basically a micro tent that only has room for your sleeping bag. I have a very light weight one, but after this decided it wasn't worth carrying, I'd rather use a tent in almost every case, and the rare times I didn't, I didn't need the bivy, I'd just used my quilt alone.

I didn't bother with the tent, mostly because I was too tired to try to find a place to pitch it in the dark. The area around the creek was all bare stone, so there wasn't a way to set up my tent where I was.

I fell asleep to the chorus of happy frogs all around.


Just a note, if anyone looks at this in the future. I'm writing this in 2020, finally adding a few more photos that were taken along the way. I might add some extra text, but even just four years later, memory fades. Frankly, even on the hike, some days were a blur and ran together.

I'll try to link Mighty Mouse's blog entries for each day, she wrote a whole lot more than I did.

Amazingly, we started on the same day, although at different times.

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