Well my feet stopped hurting, almost anyway. All of my toenails have grown back except for the one I lost somewhere on the JMT in October. The plantar fasciitis that has plagued me for 18 months, including every single day on the SOBO is kaput. So I’m back to running, in the freaking snow and cold of Anchorage. But hey I got third in my age group in the Frostbite Footrace 5K during Fur Rondy which I never do, and snowboarding has been awesome since Alaska finally has snow after three winters of drought.
Since finishing the PCT SOBO November 25, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between hiking north and hiking south from border to border in the Lower 48 (continental US). And I’ve come to some useful conclusions for the next long hike.
Living in the North, my entire adult life in Alaska, you mark special times of the year–Summer Solstice, Fall Equinox, Winter Solstice, Breakup, and Freezeup. The longest day of the year June 21 or 22, Summer Solstice, is accompanied by manic celebrations all over–people hike all night or throw parties, have soccer tournaments or drink Midnight Sun Brewing Company beer. A celebration certainly but also a wake–a celebration of a life passed, because Summer Solstice is the beginning of the dying of the light and the all too quick slide to winter, cold, aurora borealis and dark. Up here, Summer Solstice weather wise isn’t even the warmest weather, there’s still snowfields, gardens are barely greening up and the first hatch of mosquitoes are rapidly being replaced by gazillions of their quicker, itchier progeny. And it’s starting to get dark again.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) offers a shuttle service from Lordsburg, NM to the Crazy Cook start on the border with Mexico. I want to start the CDT in the last half of April or early May in order to beat some of the desert heat, but looking at weather maps, New Mexico is having an early spring, while snow in southern Colorado is at record highs. Hopefully, the early spring will sweep massive heat north and melt some of the snowpack before I get there. I’m glad I’m not hiking the PCT north this year as the Sierra snowpack is super high (some ski resorts are planning on continuing operations to July 4) which means there will be a lot more snow slogging in the High Sierra this year than 2016 which was way more than I had on the PCT NOBO 2015. The thing about the Sierra though is that you mostly go up over passes and then down to lower elevations. I never had to pitch my tent on snow even if I spent all day hiking through it. In 2015 the only pass socked in on both sides was Muir, but since I’d hiked that route three previous times, my memory combined with my maps and I navigated through snow without major incidents–I broke through a minor ice bridge and got my feet wet but only postholed up to my knees and I was able to camp on dry ground at the end of the day. The most treacherous pass was Glen because of its pitch, but I knew where the trail was supposed to go and there were plenty of tracks ahead of me.
The CDT apparently climbs high and stays on the Divide so once you’re in the snow, you stay in the snow–other than when you hitch down a highway to pick up more food and stay in a motel. That’s the impression I get anyway and that’s what I need to be prepared for. Reading hiker stories from past years (and there’s not a lot of them), this is normal if you’re going NOBO: walk through the desert for hundreds of miles, hot during the day, freezing at night, then climb into snowfields and continue hiking for hundreds of miles more. Snowshoes, an ice ax and proper avalanche training and practice are nearly universal recommendations. The other option for the CDT is, of course, to hike south from Canada. I have experience with this on the PCT as well since I hiked SOBO in 2016. Hikers going south on either the PCT or the CDT generally pick a later start date to give the snow a chance to melt up north, then run like hell to get through the High Sierra (PCT) or Colorado (CDT) before it starts snowing the Fall. A later date means June or July.
My CDT hiking strategy is based on my experiences hiking the PCT NOBO in 2015 and SOBO in 2016. I liked both hikes, but I tell people that if they’ve never done the PCT before, I think hiking north is the better choice.
To me, it comes down to this: daylight hours. If you’re going to be hiking for 4 or 5 months, and you’re relatively slow, or would rather hike without a headlamp, starting in the spring means you’ve got 2 months of gradually increasing daylight hours till Summer Solstice, then 2 months of gradually dwindling daylight hours through the rest of the summer months. It doesn’t mean you won’t be cold or get snowed on or won’t have to walk through snow, it just means that you’ll have more daylight hours to get it done.
Hiking in snow or snowfields, no matter the daylight hours is just slower. SOBO hikers on the PCT and CDT generally begin at the border with Canada in the later part of June or early July. NOBO hikers generally begin at the border with Mexico in April or early May. Another option on the CDT where there is less peer pressure to do a “true thru” is to flip around–hike as far as you want in one direction then catch a ride to a different location, hike that stretch and so forth, eventually completing the entire trail, linking footsteps, rather than walking continuous footsteps. I might do this. I get to do whatever I feel like doing, so there.
I really loved hiking with other people on the NOBO, I met and got to know so many interesting, wonderful, kind folks. On the other hand, I loved the relative solitude of going SOBO. My hiking partner for 1600 miles, Puff Puff, and I would go days without seeing other people all the way through California and were (mostly) stoked that we had each other’s company for a part of each day and could camp together and hang out in towns together. The Sierra in October was nothing like the Sierra in June–we could truly be in the wilderness without the hordes (human and mosquito) of summer. We had to discipline ourselves to get up and go at first light and often camped just as the light was going. In the last month of the SOBO we had about 11 hours of daylight. The final 700 miles of So Cal desert were cool, rarely cold, but increasingly dark, by the very end, we were in our tents by 5 pm, full on dark.
I don’t know how the CDT hike will go, but I’m going. I’ll begin hiking at Crazy Cook on April 21. I will probably take a week or two off the trail the beginning of June to let the snow melt in Colorado and to go home to Alaska to get bit by mosquitoes and because my youngest is bring his beloved for her first visit to Alaska and they want to do some hiking in my home mountains. One way or another I want to be in Wyoming August 21 wearing special solar eclipse glasses.
I’ll blog the CDT hike and will try to do a better job of it than I did in 2016. I seem to do more writing when I have fewer people to talk to, and when a trail is all new to me.