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My first month on the PCT

Spitler Peak sign on PCT trail

Tomorrow, it’ll be May 3, exactly one month after I started at the Mexican border. It’s certainly been a month full of adventure, with many ups and downs, both literally and figuratively.

In this month, my backpack and I have covered 370 miles. My not-yet-so-very-old pack, which by now has become an extension of me, has been serving me faithfully and carries everything I could need along the way.

My first ‘zero’

I made it to Wrightwood, a small mountain community near Los Angeles, for my first ‘zero’. A zero is a day in which you walk zero miles of the trail. So, a day of rest, right?

Well, wrong…once back in civilization, you need to shower, do laundry, get groceries, catch up with the folks back home and eat a lot. And let’s not forget, zeros are a great time to re-evaluate your gear. They’re actually pretty stressful. By the time you get back onto the trail, you’re ready for a break.

The gear evaluation mainly involves trying to lighten your load. Can I get away with leaving this or that behind? Are there lighter options? Do I really need this? Can I send it ahead so I won’t need to carry it until the next section?

These are the hard decisions, and I keep second-guessing myself. I haven’t really needed my 10 oz. raincoat yet, but if I send it ahead now, it’ll surely start pouring down. I’m from a country in which it rains often and for long times, and so I am accustomed to never EVER leaving home without my raincoat. It’s so different here though.

And what about my very warm (and therefore very heavy) sleeping bag? Most nights, it’s been too warm, but then every now and then, there’s a really cold night which makes me happy to have it. The weather remains unpredictable; last week I woke up in a snow-covered tent, after spending the entire day slogging up a dusty mountain in the burning sun.

Surviving the first trials

I took it easy the first few weeks, trying to get my body accustomed to its new surroundings, but now I’m slowly increasing the daily mileage. I’m feeling more comfortable with the physical exertion and the terrain has levelled out a bit, making it easier to hike further.

At mile 150, I came across the San Jacinto mountains, my first real endurance test. Three days of climbing (including the detour to San Jacinto peak, not officially a part of the PCT, but a popular side trip), along a path that is often blocked by blowdowns. After all the climbing, you get rewarded with a 20-mile descent. A full day of knee-jarring slogging down a windblown mountain. Yes, I do this for fun.

The whole way down, a howling wind is trying to blow me off the mountain, but when I finally arrive in the valley, it seems to have died down. I’m too grateful for the respite to give it a second thought but am punished for this oversight straight away. As soon as I crawl into my tent, happy to finally get some rest after my biggest day yet, the wind picks up again with a vengeance. A wind warning has been issued. I used the biggest rocks I could find to anchor my stakes, but to no avail. The wind pulls them out without any effort, it whacks me across the ears using my own tent and the noise of the flapping Dyneema makes it sound as if I’m trying to sleep inside the sails of an ocean-faring galleon. Sleeping is out of the question, I spend the night trying to hold up my tent poles. When daylight finally breaks, everything inside my tent, myself included, is covered in a layer of sand and grit.

Those 24 hours were my hardest day yet, but I still did not regret coming here for a single second. The whole experience and the beautiful surroundings more than make up for the misery. And, to me, a certain amount of hardship makes the experience that much better. Isn’t an experience you’ve had to work for so much more rewarding than something that came easily?

You can get used to anything

It all gets easier after that. There are still ascents and descents aplenty, and there’s dust, rattlesnakes, snow and long, waterless stretches, but I get used to all of it and my days are simple and full.

All you need to worry about on the trail is your food, your water and where to sleep tonight. That’s all. Just one foot in front of the other. Every night, I pitch my tent or choose to just cowboy camp underneath the stars. I cook something simple and crawl into my sleeping bag as soon as the sun sets. And when it rises again the next morning, I admire the sunrise, roll up my sleeping pad and continue my hike. Every day is the same, every day is different.

Only 2280 miles to go and I’ll be in Canada.

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