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Eugene Weekly : Outdoors : 10.07.10

 

Self-contained

Border to border without restocking

by Aaron Nicholson

At the foot of Mount Jefferson. Photos by Aaron Nicholson.

It takes a certain amount of dedication to hike the 460-mile Oregon section of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. It takes a bit of insanity to attempt it the way I did in July.

My goal was simple: to hike from the California border to the Columbia River with only the food and gear I could carry on my back — no restocking. No restaurants, no grocery stores, no accepting snacks from other hikers, no shipping packages of food across the state — nothing. It was a goal I’d had for years, and a goal few thought was possible to achieve. On July 10 I set out to prove it could be done.

This wasn’t the first time I’d embarked on such an insane solo expedition. My first attempt in summer of 2008 had proved a failure due to injury, but it gave me plenty of experience and made my planning and packing mistakes glaringly apparent. This time, I told myself, I’d be smarter about the whole project. I’d pack better food. I’d pace myself when I was running out of energy. I’d bring a tent so I wouldn’t have to shiver myself to sleep in a down sleeping bag soaked with rain. All the blunders of the first trip, as frustrating as they were when I first blundered them, became indispensible guides in the planning of my second attempt.

The most important changes I made were to my menu. To reduce the weight of my already immensely heavy pack, I chose foods of the highest calorie-to-weight ratio I could find. The new menu consisted of raw macadamia nuts and cashews, a mix of coconut and pecans, some dried pepperoni sticks (of the plastic jar, gas station variety), a bunch of broken tortilla chips, crunchy peanut butter, a variety of energy bars, and straight olive oil to wash it all down. With this unappetizing array I was able to achieve an average of 175 calories per ounce and a total of about 40 pounds of food. Of course, I could not justify the added weight of a stove and fuel — I would eat only cold food for the entire journey. As long as I did not consume more than 14 ounces for every 10 miles hiked, I would have enough.

I also made some important alterations to my gear list to ease some of the inevitable discomfort. My new tent would prove to be a life-saver as protection from precipitation and what would be the worst mosquito season I have ever experienced. I added trekking poles to the lineup to (hopefully) prevent another exertion-related injury to my right knee. A warm stocking cap helped ward off the chilly night air. My first aid kit actually made it into my pack this time. Back again were the very functional GPS check-in beacon, the same 109-liter pack, and the detailed albeit somewhat outdated topographical maps I printed from a website two years earlier, with my faded blue pen markings indicating water.

An early-morning start and a half-day drive to California with family put me at the border at about 1 pm. After a couple of hours in the Siskiyous, I was struck by an important realization about this season’s hiking conditions, particularly at high elevations. This attempt would be plagued by an obstacle completely absent last time — snow. Apart from the annoyance of unexpectedly sinking to my knees and the uselessness of my trekking poles with their snow baskets removed, the effect on my ability to navigate proved to be the biggest threat to the success of the undertaking. I lost the trail on the first day, and although it was quickly regained, I knew that I would encounter many higher elevations with even more snow to conquer. Fortunately, I soon dropped below 6,000 feet and had a break from trudging through the icy conditions.

My energy level soon dropped. After my body reserves ran out, I was operating only on the calories provided by my limited diet. I was definitely burning more energy than I was taking in. The food itself quickly became a chore to eat, and I began to have elaborate fantasies about baked fish, fresh green salad, and roast beef sandwiches with horseradish. The worst of it was the olive oil. Not only did it taste terrible, but it gave me unbearable heartburn. Despite my dissatisfaction with my diet and my lack of energy, I pushed on.

The snow dilemma presented itself once more on Devil’s Peak, just south of Crater Lake National Park. The north side of this mountain was quite steep and still covered with snow. An attempt to traverse this snowpack ended in an uncontrolled slide downhill. Not wanting meet with the jagged rocks below at such speeds, I quickly flipped over on my front side and stabbed my poles deep into the snow. One of them snapped immediately, but the other held. After regaining traction, I scooted the rest of the way down the slope and found dry ground — but not the trail. A good hour and a half of traipsing up and down the hillside was required before this problem was solved.

The next day I reached the southern boundary of the park, and the following day I stopped at Rim Village to replenish water. One of the most challenging segments of the Oregon Pacific Crest Trail is the 25-mile stretch from this small restaurant and tourist attraction to Thielsen Creek — through an area entirely devoid of water. I filled up both of my hydration pouches and the five-liter bag I had pulled out of a box of wine (very compact when empty, and as an added bonus, it comes full of wine). With 10 liters and well over 20 pounds of water weight, the next two days were quite exhausting.

The days and miles passed, and I began to pull out of the energy slump in which I had been stuck. My body was finally becoming accustomed to intense exertion and meager rations. It was learning to make the most of whatever I fed it, and to utilize some of its untapped energy stores — every day I tightened my hip belt a little tighter and marveled at the slightly longer pieces of excess material hanging from my waist.

The detailed journal I was keeping continued to grow. I had already convinced myself to publish a book about my adventures, and that journal, along with the one from my first attempt, will make a great starting point for such a work.

It would not be long before I would venture onto trail I had never seen before. So far, all of my hiking had been done on familiar ground — my first attempt had ended at Mesa Creek near the South Sister. I did not know what to expect after that. I could only look at my topo maps and guess.

Thankfully, I soon met an individual possessing knowledge of the PCT far surpassing that of anyone else. At Windigo Pass I encountered a trail angel — a volunteer who helps facilitate long-distance hiking, primarily through water caches and rides to nearby towns. His name is Lloyd Gust, and he was able to recite every major obstacle, campground, landmark and even waterway that I would encounter on the rest of my journey. He was surprised at my one-pack goal but was very supportive. I eagerly assimilated all the information he had, and thanked him for his time. I later learned from a through-hiker that Gust is well into his 80s and selflessly volunteers countless hours delivering water and ferrying hikers to supplies. Hiking the PCT was very important to him and his wife, and after losing her, he decided to dedicate his twilight years to improving that experience for others. I was very glad to have met him.

Before I knew it, I had passed the halfway point near Irish Lake, where an army of mosquitoes was amassing to conquer the world. A few days later, Mount Jefferson was in sight. After losing the trail under snow near Cathedral Rocks (and climbing to the top of this tall landmark to get my bearings), I progressed through Jefferson Park and then the Mount Hood Wilderness Area. I was nearing the end. 

Finally, I espied the Columbia River through the trees and proceeded down the long decline to the city of Cascade Locks. Crossing the Bridge of the Gods into Washington, I began to understand my accomplishment in an entirely new way. I had done it. I had traversed the entire state in 26 days. But I had not merely achieved something no one else had done. I had not merely gained some bragging rights. I had also proved to myself that I had a level of dedication and perseverance that would take me anywhere I could ever want to go in life. The hike was only the beginning. 

Aaron Nicholson lives in Eugene and cooks for Avery Lodge, a student co-op house in Corvallis. He’s a recent OSU English graduate and an aspiring outdoor writer.