On Saturday morning my husband and I strapped on our backpacks and set out from Donner Summit heading north on the Pacific Crest Trail. The plan was to hike out 15 miles and then turn around and hike back, with a goal of hiking 20 miles the first day.
Saturday’s forecast called for breezy conditions with gusts up to 30 mph, but unfortunately for us the gusts were constant. As soon as we stepped out of the car we were pummeled by wind, and the pummeling didn’t stop until pre-dawn the following morning.
We started hiking from a dirt parking area at PCT mile 1158.6. Prior to this trip I’d hiked only a small piece of PCT Section L, having snow-shoed to the Peter Grubb hut a few years ago. This was Greg’s first time on this section of trail. Being so close to the I-80 corridor we expected to see hordes of people but the crowds were delightfully sparse – probably because we started hiking at 8 am. We encountered one couple soaking up the sun on the boulders outside the Peter Grubb Hut and we passed a few solo backpackers who were heading south.
We hiked up out of Castle Valley and straight into sustained gusts of 30+ mph. I wanted a 20-mile day, but maybe Donner Summit wasn’t a good choice. We’d only hiked a few miles and already I felt drained. How far could I hike in this wind?
The trail took us down to Paradise Valley then up onto another ridge, then down to a crossing of White Rock Creek where we saw a lovely stream-side campsite. Let’s try to hike back to this spot, we said. It would be a nice place to spend the night.
The wind was strongest when we were hiking up south-facing slopes, but it was always with us. We climbed up again into winds so strong that Greg’s hat flew off of his head twice. Our trekking poles were blown into our legs. Our bodies were hurdled to the side. Keep hiking if you can!
We reached Snowbank Spring and stopped for lunch. We ate, took a nap, replenished our water, and continued on into the wind. It wasn’t going to let up!
After a few more miles I was dragging. I performed some mental algebra and concluded that if we hiked to mile 1173.1 and then turned around and hiked back to White Rock Creek we would have a 20.5-mile day. That was far enough. That would be the farthest I had ever hiked in one day, beating my two-week-old record by 2.5 miles. Yes, 20 miles would be far enough. In winds like this I would be lucky to make it that far.
We crossed Lacey Creek, which was dry, crossed a major dirt road, and continued hiking for another mile. I checked Halfmile’s PCT app and confirmed we had reached mile 1173.1 – time to turn around. We found a nice boulder and sat down for a rest and ate a few snacks.
The next 2.5 miles would all be uphill. Not steep, thankfully, but when you’re feeling tired uphill is uphill, and I warned Greg that I was going to be slow. He hiked in front and I dropped farther and farther behind, until I saw him stop to talk with two north-bound hikers. When I caught up I discovered that they were thru-hikers! The main pulse of north-bounding PCT thru-hikers came through this area in June and July, so I hadn’t expected to see any nobos on this trip. Trail Mix and Veggie started on April 21 and were hiking at their own speed, happy to be behind the main pack.
We chatted for awhile and Greg and I shared our plan to thru-hike the PCT in 2017. I would have loved to camp near these two so we could hear more about their trail experience, but it was getting close to sunset and we needed to get in several more miles to complete our 20. We bid farewell to Veggie and Trail Mix and kept hiking.
By now dark clouds were coming overhead and the temperature was falling. The uphill hike kept me warm enough, but barely. When we reached the top I was going to have to put on another layer. In the meantime, what happened? Suddenly I was cruising! Cruising on the uphills, in this relentless wind, at the end of a long day. And I felt great!
We hiked for another 3 miles and my pace didn’t slow. When we pulled up to White Rock Creek I had enough energy for another mile or two, but we were quickly losing the last of the light, it was getting cold, and I needed to eat dinner and take my medication. We were happy to stop and set up camp. We had hiked 20.6 miles – a new personal best!
Day 2: 8.5 miles. The wind didn’t stop until the early morning hours and I did not sleep well that night. Sleep deprivation, a full day in unrelenting wind, a 20-mile hike, and PMS made for a rough walk back to the car on Sunday. I had a bad case of lead-leg and I was dragging.
We stopped a lot. Our average moving speed was only 2 mph. The uphill trudge out of Paradise Valley took a very long time to complete. Unlike yesterday, we saw day hikers. And joggers. And backpackers heading north. Lots and lots and lots of people. Where did they all come from? Sacramento? Reno? Yesterday the trail felt abandoned; today it was an amusement park.
After lots of plodding and multiple rest stops we made it to the car. I was exhausted and I didn’t feel great, but I wasn’t completely drained. I could have carried on for a few more miles if I’d had to. Despite the punishing wind, the trip was a success. I hiked my first 20, which is a huge milestone on the long trail back to health – and important milestone for an aspiring 2017 PCT thru-hiker!
As we head into fall and the days get shorter and shorter it will be more difficult to bag 20 miles per day, so I’ll back off from setting new distance records and concentrate instead on hiking long days multiple days in a row. Our next adventure will be a 68-mile trek on the PCT over Labor Day weekend. We intended to spend the long holiday weekend in the Trinity Alps but we rerouted our plans due to ongoing wildfire smoke in that area. We’re excited to spend more time on the PCT. We can’t get enough!