I received my 2021 PCT Permit! I’ll begin one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced on April 15th. Let me back-up a bit.
It was 2017 and my wife and I were living in Chicago. We stumbled upon the documentary, “Mile...Mile & a Half”. It’s about the John Muir Trail, a long distance hike through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, including Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. We were in awe. We had to do it. (I wrote a thing about it with numerous pages, if you are interested.)
We applied for the permit lottery system, with our two friends, for a week’s worth of start dates in early August of 2018. We lost. So we bought our plane tickets anyways, and mailed our resupply buckets to the pick-up locations along the trail.
Three weeks before our estimated start date, the Ferguson Fire started. This wildfire burned 96,000 acres for over 2 months.
One week before we left for the hike, parts of Yosemite were closed due to hazardous smoke.
During our all night drive to get to the trailhead, we were turned around, rerouted, and could see controlled burns alongside the highway.
We walked up to the ranger station in Tuolumne Meadows and received walk-up permits immediately and began a 20 day, 220 mile hike on zero sleep. We were all feeling pretty beat up that first day. In fact I was feeling pretty beat up the first 4 days. Hiking into Red’s Meadow on day 4 for our first resupply, shower and laundry felt like a godsend.
I know for me, I started to settle into a groove after that. My pack hurt less. I was growing accustomed to the new routine; eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, sleep, repeat. My body was still sore and hurting in various places depending on the day, but I also felt like I could just keep repeating this new regimen, day-in and day-out, until we reached the end of the trail.
On day 7 we veered off the JMT and were waiting at the eastern edge of Lake Edison. We were waiting for the ferry to take us across to Vermillion Valley Resort. This would be the second time in a week we were treated to cold beer, hot food, clean laundry, and a hot shower. I was feeling really spoiled.
While we waited, more hikers would straggle in, relieved that they had made it to the pick-up point before the ferry had made it’s second, and final, trip for the day. This is my first memory of seeing PCT hikers, at least up this close. It felt like spotting an endangered species in the wild.
In my eyes, there was a distinct difference between JMT hikers and PCT hikers. JMT hikers looked like hikers. We had all the gear weighing us down, varying sunburns from too much exposure and too little sun screen, and a moderate level of grit layered on top of the sunscreen.
PCT hikers were on a whole other level. There were four PCT hikers waiting for the ferry that day. The first guy looked homeless except for the premium, ultralight backpack he was carrying his gear in. His pants were shredded below the knee, his trail runners were beyond worn, and his hair and beard were oily and disheveled. The second male PCT hiker appeared to have been hiking alone for an extended period of time. It seemed as if he hadn’t spoken to another human in days. He would talk to anyone that would listen, floating like a hummingbird from hiker to hiker. There was also a pair of female PCT hikers. They were much quieter. They did not need to say anything for everyone to know what hike they were on. Their gear was dialed in, with a significant amount of wear and grime, compared to the JMT lot. They seemed very focused and determined. VVR was merely a means to take care of camp chores before resuming their march on the trail.
Up until that moment I was feeling pretty confident in my acclimation to the JMT. We were on pace with our estimated itinerary, covering an average of 10 miles per day. My over ladened pack would settle into familiar places on my shoulders and hips every morning. Compared to the comforts of normal life, we were really overcoming some mental and physical obstacles on the JMT. All things are relative.
When I saw those PCT hikers that day waiting for the ferry, the seed was planted in my mind. If I was loving the daily grind paired with unfathomable views on the JMT, what could the PCT hold?
Over the past two and a half years I’ve watched numerous hikers vlog their entire PCT thru-hikes, and even other trails like the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) and GDT (Great Divide Trail). I’ve read reviews on every category of equipment, usually more than once, read blogs and books of hiker’s experience and advice, and poured over annual surveys of PCT hikers, both successful and unsuccessful. I’ve made my own spreadsheets comparing gear features, materials, weight and cost. If I spend X dollars, I will save Y ounces, because ounces equals pounds. I’ve made numerous gear lists using online tools comparing cost, weight and comfort. I’ve started a list of difficult resupply towns along the PCT, in anticipation of sending my own food resupply ahead of me. I have subjected my wife to listening to me steer almost any topic to the PCT on a daily basis. Just ask her. I have a penchant for perseverating on topics and interests. I’ve been stuck on the PCT since August, 2018.
On January 19, 2021 at 10:30am PST, I, along with another estimated 10,000+ hopeful hikers, waited in an online queue for our chance to apply for a PCT long-distance permit. I was extremely lucky and was number 780 in line. Yes, that’s a great number compared to 9,999, or worse.
The PCTA issues 50 permits per day between March 1 and May 31 departing from the southern terminus at Campo, CA. That’s 92 days times 50 per day, for a total of 4,600 permits available. I’ve read estimates as low as 40% and as high as 60% of hikers will complete the PCT in a single thru-hike.
The PCTA advises applicants to expect to wait up to 3 hours for their turn to apply. As number 780, I waited less than 30 minutes for my turn. Even better, when it was my turn, my first choice of April 15th as my start date was available. There were 37 spots taken for that day at the time of my application. Another huge sigh of relief. I completed my application and resumed waiting and hoping.
I have gathered that the application is mostly a formality. It consists mainly of your name, address, requested start date with location, and estimated end date with location. It is said the application is to confirm you know what you are getting yourself into. If you enter an unrealistic hiking window of one month to hike 2,650 miles, then they know you are clueless about this lengthy endeavour and will deny your application. Likewise if you enter a completion date 8 months later, in December, at the Canadian border, you are ignorant to the winter conditions that would make that impossible in the North Cascades.
Six days after I applied, I received my PCT permit confirmation via email. The PCT was about to get real. It will be 80 days between when I received my permit, to taking my first steps from Campo beginning my 2,650 mile journey. It felt surreal when I received my permit, and still wavers between a dream come true and just a dream. I will be a part of something bigger than me - I will be part of the 2021 PCT Hiker Class.
Holy cow! Now what do I do? I made more spreadsheets, duh. What gear do I already own? What gear can I borrow? What gear had I been gifted? What gear do I need to purchase? I went on a gear purchasing spree for the items on the to-buy list. I weighed each item on my mom’s kitchen scale, and updated that column of my spreadsheet. Did you know a 1 gallon ziplock bag weighs 0.3 ounces? One pair of my running socks weighs1.3 ounces? And my 17 degree sleeping bag weighs 38 ounces? Does it matter a lot? Probably not, I have to carry it regardless. But this is important to know when I am out on the trail, because it’s mostly what everyone talks about. If I don’t use it, mail it home or leave it in a hiker box for another hiker to use. Am I missing something crucial or just something to bring me joy? I’ll do without, or get it at the next town along the trail.
What about food? I estimated an average day’s worth of food;
Instant Oatmeal x 4 packets
Trail Mix x 2 cups
Clif Bars x 4
Flour Tortillas x 2
Dehydrated Pinto Beans x 1 cup
Protein Powder x 1 scoop
Super Greens x 1 scoop
Nuun Drinking Tablet x 1
Backpacker’s Pantry Meal x 2 servings
Olive Oil x 1 tablespoon
Total: 4475 calories
If I was able to carry this amount of food for every day on trail, I’d still be in a caloric deficit. I probably will not be able to sustain this volume of food.
Water is heavier than food! 1 L of water is 1 kg, because the metric system is cool. 1 kg is 2.2 pounds. Many hikers start with up to 6 liters of water at the southern terminus depending on the year’s water report and the next reliable source. The trail could be dry for the first 20 miles until I make it to Lake Morena Campground. That’s 13.2 pounds of water to start. That’s why I am only taking two pairs of underwear. One to wear and one to wash. That’s called “baseweight management”.
Long-distance hiking is an obsession. Some will think it’s crazy, some will find it odd. I am trying really hard not to build it up too much in my head before I start, but to me it feels like the adventure of a lifetime. I know it’s going to be difficult. It will probably be the most difficult challenge I’ve ever attempted. I’m going to be hot, freezing, sore, tired, bored, dirty and mostly hungry. I believe the trade off will be exponential to the challenges faced.
See you on the trail soon, PCT Hiker Class of 2021.