Friday, September 7, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: McKenzie Pass to Old Station & Bucks Summit to Donner Pass

I spent 26 days backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail.  I started at McKenzie Pass (Highway 242), Oregon, and hiked south to Old Station (near Lassen National Park), California.  The trail was closed due to fires both in Lassen and near Belden (the Chips Fire), and so I jumped south to Bucks Summit (near Quincy) and hiked south again to Donner Pass.

I made three Flickr galleries of photos from my trip:

-McKenzie Pass to Crater Lake
-Crater Lake to Castle Crags
-Castle Crags to Old Station & Bucks Summit to Donner Pass

I plan to include some detail on where I took the photos, but haven't had time as of writing.

The whole trip was 730 miles of the PCT, but this gets knocked down a bit due to me hiking the Oregon Skyline Trail alternate (10.4 miles shorter), and having to hike around the Butte Fire (Windigo Pass) and the Goff Fire (near Seiad Valley).  For the first fire, I hiked the Windigo Pass Trail through Dutch Oven Camp and past Maidu Lake back to the PCT - this was about two miles shorter than the PCT route.  At the Goff Fire, southbound hikers were required to leave the PCT at Cook & Green Pass and hike the dustiest dirt road on earth down into Seiad Valley - this alternate was later closed as the fire grew worse.  The road was about 10 miles long (according to the Forest Service folks) and bypassed about 15 miles of trail.

With those deductions, I'll take credit for about 715 miles of the PCT.  I feel like the Windigo Pass Trail alternate was consistent with hiking the PCT and have no plans to go re-hike that section.  I don't feel like the Goff Fire alternate was consistent with hiking the PCT and aspire to go re-hike that section (especially because this will allow me to go back to the wonderful community of Seiad Valley and have another delicious and inexpensive breakfast at the Seiad Valley Cafe) (and also to help them celebrate the fire not destroying their town).

Also, I have to go back and hike the 108 miles from Old Station through Belden to Bucks Summit.  It's not the most glamorous section of trail, but it's the last section of the PCT that I haven't hiked (besides my planned semi-purist re-hike of the Goff Fire alternate).  That's right, I've hiked (give or take) 2555 miles along the pacific crest, and have 108 miles to go.

(I also hiked from Mexico to Kennedy Meadows twice, and most/all of Muir Trail a few times - maybe I can donate a few miles from those trips to the Seiad Valley closure.)

I thought about road-walking/hiking alternates around the Lassen and Chips fires, but I ran into both time constraints and my sense that this approach was just too major a deviation from the trail to count as an "alternate."  So, next year August, assuming the trail north of Belden is passable (the Chips Fire is a major burn, and I've been told that the area around the PCT is a mess), I'll try get back out to sunny Northern California and finish the trail.

Oh, and I'm happy to cherry-pick eight days from the trip where I maxed out my mileage (thanks for asking).  From Seiad Valley to the Hat Creek Rim I averaged about 33 miles a day.  Hey, there are a lot of folks out there who can hike further and faster, but that's pretty much my middle-aged maximum.

So...phew.  With the nuts and bolts out of the way, how do I write about this trip?  I'm sitting at a hotel-lobby computer in Reno, looking at photos and wondering what to say.

The trip was everything anyone could ask for in a long backpacking trip:

But it was also a struggle with wildfires (and accompanying smoke):

More than this, this trip was an intense brush with personal past.  I originally set out to hike the PCT in 1998 with my girlfriend at the time, and then again by myself in 1999.  Both times I left the trail, and jumping back on the trail where I quit in 1998 - and right into the herd of thru-hikers heading north - revealed a surprising amount of emotional baggage (that didn't come up when I hiked from Tuolumne Meadows to Donner Pass in 2010).  The resolution/disposal of this baggage may be beyond a public blog, although I think I could explain it (in another post) in terms of the simple cliche that not only can our failures define us in very positive ways; and that I am extremely lucky to both have left the trail for the reasons I did back then, and to return 14 years later legs and knees intact to hike the rest.

In addition to that possible squishy emotional post, I will add at least two others:

-First, I loved returning to the thru-hiking/PCT world for a few weeks - trail names, trail gossip, tiny packs, tall tales, and everything else.  My day-to-day run-ins with hikers of all stripes was flat-out inspirational - a great validation of seeing the world by hiking from point to point.  The trail is getting more popular, but the wealth of information out there about the PCT is enabling people to enjoy it in different ways - ways better suited to their own ability-levels and schedules.

-Second, the major theme of this hike was wildfire.  It seems like I'm always writing about fire, but on this trip it was a day-to-day concern.

I may also write some gear notes, but this of course would lead to pot-shots at the ultra-lightweight style, and I enjoy having a blog titled as a slight to that approach without ever writing why.

I'll close this post by thanking my spouse, Catherine, for inspiring the trip and making it possible.  Catherine led the charge for our sabbatical, and she listened patiently back in March as I explained that indeed I wanted to spend nearly a month of that sabbatical away from her - and our son - chasing an old dream.  I would not have blamed her in the slightest by suggesting that I chose to chase a different dream, but instead she told me to go for it, helped me plan, drove me to McKenzie Pass, and took over sole parenting duties (!) while I was away.  Catherine, I won't do a trip like this again, but thank you so much for helping me do it.

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