Since being home from thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, people have asked me all kinds of questions about my trip. The one question that keeps getting asked over and over is, “What was I most scared of when hiking the PCT?” Most people think my answer would be animals or creepy people on trail. Nope. Some have even guessed it would be weather. Nope again. Surprisingly all three of these were the least of my concerns on trail.
I was fortunate enough to not come across any creepy people on trail. In fact, I met the most friendly, generous and amazing people on the PCT. Nowhere else in my life have I ever met so many people who genuinely wanted to help others without expecting anything in return. This ranged from fellow hikers to trail angels and complete strangers I met along my way up to Canada. Thanks to my experiences on trail, my faith in humanity has been restored. I now know there are plenty of kind people still out in the world.
I didn’t have a whole lot of encounters with wildlife other than a bunch of friendly deer, swarms of bees in Northern California, several mosquitos in the Sierra and a couple of baby skunks, the occasional snake and tons of lizards in the desert. The only bear I saw on trail was when I was on my way into Chester, California when I saw its butt scurry down the trail as I rounded a corner while singing at the top of my lungs.
I lucked out with weather for the most part on trail. It rained on our way into Julian, down in Southern California. By the time we got back to the trail from Julian, the sun and warm weather had come back. There was one scary thunder and lightning storm Grit and I hiked through on our way into South Lake Tahoe. In Washington, from Trout Lake to Holden Valley, Grit and I hiked through several days (and miles) of fog, rain and even some snow, but nothing too crazy. Nothing we couldn’t handle.
When I first started my hike on the PCT, I thought my biggest fear of being on trail would be having to camp by myself because I’d never slept outside by myself before. On my first night on the PCT, I camped with 10 to 14 other thru-hikers at Hauser Creek. It was here where I met my Team Lagger trail family. For the next 700 miles, I didn’t have to spend a single night by myself. It wasn’t until Day 58 when I went into the High Sierra by myself when I finally faced that big fear of mine and camped alone for the first time.
In all honesty, sleeping outside by myself wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. The first night in the High Sierra was hard, but that’s only because I was heartbroken about having to say goodbye to my Team Lagger trail family. All night long, I kept thinking everyone’s tents were just outside of mine – KitKat and Amish, Punchline and Bleeder. Anytime I wanted to yell out something to one of them, I remembered no one was there to answer back. I cried multiple times that night in my tent. Since no one else was camping near me, I wasn’t afraid to cry loudly either.
In the High Sierra, I spent most nights camping by myself, all the way to Red’s Meadow. In Red’s Meadow, I was reunited with Grit again. From Red’s Meadow to Burney, we camped together on most nights. From Burney to Mount Shasta, I hiked solo while Grit stayed back in Burney, waiting to see a dentist. It was during this section when solo camping became less of a fear and more of a choice. I’d see plenty of hiker friends during the day on trail. At night, I’d purposely choose tentsites at the top of big climbs, on ridgelines or on mountain tops with epic views. Everyone seemed to spread out at night and do their own thing. I loved it when I’d have a tentsite all to myself – just me, my tent, the bees, the mosquitoes and the sunsets/sunrises. It’s funny how the one thing I was sure would terrify me turned out to be something I really enjoyed doing.
The thing I was most scared of when hiking the PCT was a fear I never knew I had. My biggest fear of hiking the PCT? Fording rivers and creeks. Before hiking the PCT, I’d never forded a river or creek. Never in my life had I ever needed to walk across a raging river to get to the other side without there being a somewhat safe way to get across. There had always been either a bridge to cross or stones large enough to walk over to get safely to the other side. What made fording rivers and creeks even more scary was every time I came up to one, there never seemed to be anyone else around. Where were all of the other hikers?
The first time I had to ford a creek was at Rae Lakes, just after Glenn Pass in the High Sierra. I hiked along the trail, all the way to where the trail ended, which was at the creek. I could clearly see the trail continuing on the other side, but there was now a body of water standing between it and my dry shoes. I looked around to see if there was a log bridge or another way to get across without having to get my feet in the water. I couldn’t find anything. Since my camp shoes were flimsy, slip-on sandals, my choices to get across the water were to either do it barefoot or get my shoes and socks wet. I took a deep breath, braced myself for the cold water and walked across the water with my shoes and socks on. The water wasn’t all that deep, but it was cold. At least my feet would be cleaned off for the evening. That was always the bonus of getting my feet wet at a water crossing.
The next time I had to ford a creek was much tougher than the first time I’d done it. This time, the trail had led me to a raging river, the South Fork Kings River. I walked all the way to the end of the trail and could see the trail starting up again on the other side. Roaring rapids stood between me and the other side of the trail. Of course, I was the only person around. I could’ve sat there and waited for another hiker to come by, but who knew when that would be? I’d have to suck it up and face this fear on my own.
As I got closer to the water, I took a look around. From where I was standing, the river looked pretty deep and the rapids were raging. Not exactly the safest place to cross. As I scanned the area, I could hear my friend, Katie’s voice in my head telling me what to do. Her voice reminded me that I didn’t have to cross the river right where the trail ended. She told me to go upstream and look for a calmer, shallower spot.
I walked upstream a bit until I found a spot I felt comfortable crossing. It was much calmer and there were hardly any rapids going through the area. From what I could see, it didn’t look all that deep either. Just like the first crossing, I decided to keep my shoes and socks on. I stuck my trekking poles in the water first and then allowed my feet to follow. One by one, I slowly stepped one foot in front of the other as I felt around the ground with my trekking poles, trying to gauge the depth of the water as I went. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. To help keep my anxiety at bay, I started talking out loud to myself, telling myself exactly what I was going to do next: “Step. Okay, you got this. Easy does it. Slow. Okay step. Slippery rock, okay maybe not there. Try another step. Easy. Slow.”
Towards the middle of the crossing, the water came up to my knees. I could feel the current of the water pushing against my legs and feet. Some rocks were more slippery than others. A couple of times, I could feel my feet starting to slip out from underneath me. I did my best not to panic. I kept talking myself through the situation and took it slow, one careful step at a time. Once I made it safely to the other side, I couldn’t help but turn back around towards the river and yell, “Not today!” I had just forded my first big river safely and had done it all on my own. I felt pretty accomplished.
Fording a river or creek never seemed to get easier though, no matter how many times I had to do it. I was scared every single time. I always seemed to be alone whenever I’d have to do it, which made the whole situation even scarier. After doing a few of these, I learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I came up with a system based on the things I had learned at previous crossings. I’d always scan the area for the safest spot to cross. Before getting in the water, I’d take a big breath to calm myself down. Once I was in the water, I made sure I was never in a hurry and took my time getting across.
A couple of times I got blisters on my feet from having to hike in wet socks and shoes after fording a river. I learned the best way to keep my socks and feet dry was to take my socks off and the insoles of my shoes out before getting in the water. This way, only my shoes would get wet. By the time I got to the other side, I could wipe my feet dry with a towel and would have dry insoles and socks to put back on and hike in. Since I hiked in my Salomon Odyssey Pro trail runners, my shoes would dry completely within a couple hours of being out of the water.
There were a couple times I forded a creek barefoot. Not a good idea! Not only did it hurt my feet, but I slipped a fair amount of times on wobbly, slippery rocks. I felt much safer and more stable with having the traction of my shoes underneath my feet instead of bare feet.
Another thing I learned was to move things in my pack I didn’t want to get wet, up to the top of my pack. For example, I usually kept my GoPro, wallet and cell phone in the hip pocket of my pack. At a river crossing, I’d move these items up to the very top of my pack instead. This way, if the water was deep enough and reached my hips or if I slipped and fell in the water, these items would most likely not get wet because they’d be further from the water.
Also, on big water crossings, I learned to unbuckle my pack before getting in the water. This way if I slipped and fell in the water or was swept in by a rapid, I could easily release myself from my pack and prevent myself from drowning.
Before hiking the PCT, I had no idea fording a river or creek would be such a huge fear of mine. Probably because up until this point in my life, I’d never been in a situation where I had to do anything like this before. My fear of fording rivers and creeks made my fear of sleeping outside by myself seem so silly. The High Sierra section of the PCT was really good about not only showing me how strong of a person I am, but forcing me to face fears I never knew I had.