The 40th month

The first two weekends in April arrive with winter storm warnings, so we wait for a storm-free weekend to complete our 40th consecutive month of backpacking. When Earth Day weekend promises sunny weather, we make plans to snow camp along the Tahoe Rim Trail. Then, we both catch a cold.

For me, the symptoms are minor. After fighting off the worst flu of my life in January 2013, I rarely get sick; when I do, I develop mild, fleeting versions of the usual symptoms associated with colds and flus. This might sound like a blessing, but I’d much rather have the full effect: fever, congestion, and cough would be welcome signs that I’m not having a Lyme relapse. I’d rather spend a week knocked out by a cold than spend months cycling through Lyme disease.

Because the symptoms I experience when I’m fighting a cold mimic the symptoms I had during Lyme flares, I’m never certain if I’m actually sick, or if I need to drag myself back to my doctor for an evaluation and, possibly, more antibiotics. This time, however, one of my co-workers comes down with symptoms identical to mine – right down to having to run for the toilet. Hurray! I must be sick!

The day after I start feeling sick, Greg starts feeling horrible, so we revise our April backpacking plans. Instead of a long day of snow-shoeing the Rim Trail, we’ll take the PCT north from Highway 49.

Early on Saturday afternoon we begin hiking. The climb is continuous but well-graded. After the first two miles, we find snow across the trail. The snow patches grow and deepen as we climb. We pass a few day hikers coming down.

After 3.5 miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain, the trail reaches a saddle under the Sierra Buttes with spectacular views into the North Yuba River Canyon. We’ve reached our destination.

On this trip, we each have our own tent. One reason: I don’t want to share a tent with someone who will be coughing and blowing his nose all night. Another reason: Greg wants to test drive the tent he’s making, a roomy one-person cuben-fiber shelter still under construction but nearing completion. Nostalgia hits when I pitch my little Copper Spur tent for the first time since finishing my thru-hike in October.

We eat dinner. Greg goes to bed early. I stay up to watch the sun set. The Sierra Buttes cast a dramatic shadow on the opposite wall of the canyon. The shadow creeps upward as the sun sinks.

In the morning, Fox Sparrows are up and singing before I emerge from my tent. Greg and I have breakfast, then pack up and begin the descent. It’s a quick, easy hike down to the trailhead. Soon, we’ve completed our 40th month.

(In January 2015, Greg and I began backpacking at least once per month, year-round. April 2018 is our 40th consecutive month with at least one backpacking trip.)

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What’s next?

Transitioning out of a thru-hike is a long process. It’s not easy, physically or emotionally, to stop hiking all day, every day. There’s physical pain in the transition, mostly in my feet, which after two months has finally (mostly) subsided – foot pain primarily occurs when I’m not walking. There’s the appetite rollercoaster as my body settles into a less active pattern. There’s sadness in losing a beloved lifestyle. And there’s a strange void that appears after achieving a major life goal. For years, almost every action I took revolved around hiking the PCT. Afterward, I expected to feel disoriented, and I have. This isn’t an easy process. As far as this blog, what can you expect as I transition away from my hike?

PCT gear reviews

When I was preparing for my hike, I found gear reviews by thru-hikers to be a valuable resource. I’ll be posting reviews of my own with the hope that my experiences will help others make informed gear choices.

Backpacking in every month of the year

In 2015, my husband and I committed to backpacking in every month of the year. We enjoyed the experience so much that when 2016 rolled around, we decided to commit to another 12 months. These trips, taken in winter, spring, summer, and fall, were excellent preparation for the PCT. December 2017 marked our 36th consecutive month of backpacking, and I don’t anticipate quitting any time soon. From time to time, I’ll share our experiences on California’s backcountry trails.

Backpacking the PCT in Bucks Lake Wilderness, December 2017, for our 36th consecutive month of backpacking.
Backpacking the PCT in Bucks Lake Wilderness, December 2017, for our 36th consecutive month of backpacking.

Continuing to write

All my life, I’ve written stories. In elementary school, I wrote a series of short stories about a unicorn family. I wrote my first novel in the fifth grade, a 100+ page adventure about a race horse. I wrote a second novel in high school, and a third while working toward my bachelor’s degree. Before I started this blog, however, I never shared my writing with anyone outside of my immediate family. Posting publicly about my thoughts and feelings has not been easy, but it’s made me more comfortable with sharing my work. I’m currently working on another novel – this time, one that may be worth sharing. Stay tuned for more.

On the PCT in December 

On Saturday my husband and I set out to achieve our goal of backpacking in every month of 2015. Our destination: the Pacific Crest Trail north of Bucks Summit. We drove to the summit and parked among pickups owned by folks who were out enjoying their snowmobiles. A family was sledding where the plowing stopped and snow covered the road. We put on our packs and began snowshoeing up the trail. It was already 12:30 when we left our car.

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Bucks Lake Road and a huge fog bank, as seen from the PCT.

The trail took us just above a dense fog bank and it looked like we could walk out onto the clouds. There were ski tracks in the snow and we followed them north. After hiking many, many miles this year and conquering many long, steep climbs I considered myself to be in good shape. But I discovered that my snowshoeing muscles are not well developed. Snowshoeing uphill is hard work! Especially when carrying a 40-pound load on your back!

My massive winter pack loaded up with down parka, down pants, down booties, sleeping bag, sleeping pads, tent, snow shovel, umbrella, extra layers, food, water, and a few additional essentials.

Weighed down with heavy winter gear, the climb was slow and exhausting…but oh so pretty.

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Another gorgeous view on our way up the trail.

On our way up the mountain we encountered three skiers coming down from Spanish Peak. When we started our trek I had fantasies of snowshoeing to Spanish Peak and camping near the top, but very soon it was obvious that reaching the summit on snowshoes would require more energy than we had.

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We considered camping here to savor the view, but the fierce wind would have kept us in our tent.

When we hiked this stretch of trail back in August we commented on a lovely campsite only two miles from Bucks Summit, which we thought looked like a fine place to spend the night. Lovely in summer, this site was perfect in the snow. We had climbed up into a fierce wind, but this site was sheltered from the wind. We compacted the snow with our snowshoes and set up our tent in an open area where there was no possibility of being hit by falling trees. The forest around our little campsite was bending violently in the wind, but we were in a calm little bubble. What luck!

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Our campsite, sheltered from the wind.

After setting up the tent and preparing our beds we made dinner. It wasn’t even 4pm but the sun was already setting and, having consumed only snacks since breakfast, we were starving. After dinner we spent over an hour melting snow for drinking water. By now it was dark but neither of us wanted to get in the tent yet, so we melted water and listened to the wind ripping through the trees. The forecast predicted snow tomorrow morning. This must be the storm blowing in.

Finally our chores were finished and it was time to get into the tent. It was still very early – probably only 6:30pm – and the early hour combined with the ceaseless sound of the wind tearing through the trees made for a sleepless night. We were mostly protected from the incoming storm, but every 15 minutes or so a strong gust shook the tent. Those shakes and shutters kept me awake.

I fell asleep during the second half of the night, only to jolt back awake at the sound of snow sliding off the tent. As expected, it was snowing – and our tent was now partially buried. This was our first experience camping during a snow storm. Our heavy winter tent weathered the storm very well.

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Big Agnes String Ridge tent weathering the storm.

Eating breakfast and packing up were challenging in the snow. We managed to get everything packed and took off down the mountain. When we’d dropped only a few feet in elevation the snow turned into rain. Rain?! I strapped on my umbrella, but not before I was wetter than I wanted to be. We finished the trek in the rain – not what we were expecting! This was a great trip, but we still have some learning to do to make winter camping even more enjoyable, especially during a storm.

With this trip we achieved our goal of backpacking in every month of 2015! This is a mighty accomplishment. At the beginning of the year I could only hike a few miles per day; by the end of August I could do 20 miles in one day. I believe that all of this outdoor activity, as well as having a big goal to work toward, was a major factor in my ongoing recovery from Lyme disease/Bartonella. I loved seeing the seasons change out on the trail. I loved every adventure. What an awesome year!

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Achieving our goal!

 

Out-and-back on the PCT

The forecast promised rain (with a chance of snow), but we packed up our winter tent and lots of layers and hit the trail for our November backpacking trip. We started at Highway 49 and hiked south on the Pacific Crest Trail. The weather on Saturday was sunny and very warm and we were soon hiking in short sleeves. As we rose above the Yuba River we saw a side of the Sierra Buttes that we’d never seen before. The jagged peaks looked like an entirely different mountain range. We took lots of photos.

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The Sierra Buttes

As we continued to gain elevation we passed through deep conifer forest where sunlight was sparse and the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees. We crossed multiple bridges. We passed a few lovely campsites. We saw a huge pile of mushrooms and a few gigantic trees.

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We took a lunch break on a large granite outcropping and afterward we really started to climb. Up, up, into snow, following small canid footprints (fox?), and finally gaining the top of the ridge.

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Now we had to make a decision: continue to the next campsite or turn back for one of the creek-side sites we’d passed on the way up? Given the impending darkness and the promised storm, which was due to arrive that night, we agreed to turn around so as to have a shorter hike tomorrow in the rain and/or snow.

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Hiking through snow on the top of the ridge.

Down we went, walking back and forth on numerous switchbacks and finally arriving at a nice campsite beside Milton Creek. The sun had already set in this deep canyon and most of the light was gone on the west-facing canyon wall. As a first order of business we put on our down parkas, then we set up our tent. Then dinner, and when we were finished eating it was dark. At 6pm we climbed into the tent. We did not emerge until 7:30 the next morning, when it was finally light enough to see. When we got up on Sunday morning it was 30 degrees outside and the sky was clear. No storm? Why did I carry that heavy winter tent?

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Big Agnes String Ridge tent…great in the snow, too heavy for normal conditions.

We ate breakfast and packed up and set off down the trail. Soon patchy clouds appeared overhead. Then we heard a massive gust of wind in the distance, which grew louder and louder and finally hit us, bringing down the promised rain. We stopped and pulled on our rain jackets. I set up my trekking umbrella and we kept hiking.

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Staying dry in the rain.

It was beautiful outside in the forest in the rain but I was suffering. Anticipating rain, and possibly snow, I’d once again worn my old leather boots, and the boots were chewing up my feet. By the time we reached the trailhead I had a massive blood blister on the bottom of my big toe. There will no more leather boots for me. Ever.

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Crossing the north fork of the Yuba.

Other than this unfortunate injury we had a very enjoyable outing. The fall colors were still going strong, with golden leaves on the oaks and maples and bright red on the dogwood. We didn’t see any human hikers on the trail, and it was nice to have the place to ourselves.

We now have only one month to go until we achieve our goal of backpacking in every month of 2015. December here we come!

Desolation Wilderness Loop

I spent a fun three-day weekend hiking through Desolation Wilderness with my dad on a beautiful 26-mile loop.

Day 1: Glen Alpine Trailhead to Susie Lake (4.3 miles)

We planned to leave my house at 7am but when we woke to thunder, lightening, and heavy rain and we agreed to delay our departure. A few hours later, despite a forecast calling for continued rain, we decided to proceed. We drove through rain almost the entire way to the trailhead and we pulled over several times to discuss our options. Each time we opted to continue despite the heavy rain.

At the trailhead we agreed that we could return to the car at any time if either of us wanted to turn back. There was no point in being miserable. All of the delays meant a late start: it was 1:45 when we started hiking.

This was my first opportunity to hike with my new trekking umbrella and I loved it!

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Hands-free hiking with an umbrella!

The trail looked like one long puddle. However, shortly after we started hiking the rain tapered off. Dark clouds perched on the tops of the mountains, but we reached Susie Lake without seeing another drop of rain.

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Susie Lake

We scouted for a sheltered campsite and decided to camp beside the lake’s outlet, where my husband and I stayed on our cruise through Desolation over Labor Day weekend. Moments after we set up our tents it began to rain. My umbrella was a major asset when we set up a tarp (borrowed from my dad’s friend) under which we cooked dinner. As soon as the tarp was up the rain turned to hail. Great timing! We spent the night with intermittent rain, hail, and wind.

Day 2: Susie Lake to Velma Lakes Trail  (8.9 miles)

I crawled out of my tent early, hoping to witness a stunning sunrise similar to the flood of color I experienced here in the beginning of September. This morning’s sunrise was pretty but underwhelming.

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Sunrise at Susie Lake’s outlet, looking down at Grass Lake.

We packed up our tents and wet rainflys and began hiking toward Heather Lake, Lake Aloha, and Mosquito Pass. We saw blue sky for the first time on the trip!

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Heather Lake

Without a specific destination in mind for the night our goal was simply to hike and enjoy the scenery. Blue sky continued to peek through the clouds and we even received a few stray sunbeams on our way to Mosquito Pass.

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Lake Aloha
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Another view of Lake Aloha, with ominous but photogenic clouds.

Curiosity took us on a short detour to Clyde Lake, which was gorgeous but appeared to lack any established campsites. While contorting my body between boulders to score a photo of red berries I managed to abrade and rip one of my pack’s mesh pockets on the granite. The picture I ended up with was not worth this damage!

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Clyde Lake and mountain ash berries.

Curiosity satisfied at Clyde Lake, we returned to the main trail and continued down Rockbound Valley. We stopped for lunch at a crossing of the Rubicon River. After lunch the trail crossed multiple springs and streams and took us through a pretty meadow at China Flat.

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China Flat

When our trail met the trail to Velma Lakes we opted to set up camp rather than tackle the climb to Middle Velma that evening. We found a nice campsite and settled in for the night.

Day 3: Return to Glen Alpine Trailhead (13.3 miles)

We woke to a cloud-free sky…and lots of frost. My thermometer read 25 degrees. I dressed in my big down parka and crawled out of my tent hoping to photograph a colorful sunrise. Again, sunrise was pretty but underwhelming. We took our time making breakfast and attempting to dry our frosty tents. We eventually left camp at 10am – a late start! The trail began climbing immediately, sending us over granite slabs where our path was outlined with carefully-placed rocks.

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On the trail to Velma Lakes.

At the top of the ridge we hit the PCT, then breezed by Middle Velma Lake and climbed to Fontanillis Lake. At Fontanillis we stopped for a short snack break.

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Fontanillis Lake

Then it was more uphill to Dicks Lake and, finally, Dicks Pass. When my husband and I climbed over Dicks Pass in September it was unbearably windy, but today there was hardly a breeze. My dad and I enjoyed our time on the pass and took many photos of the stunning views.

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Enjoying the view from Dicks Pass.
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Susie Lake, Lake Aloha, and Half Moon Lake from just below Dicks Pass.
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Dicks Lake and Fontanillis Lake

After the long climb from the Rubicon River to Dicks Pass we still felt strong, so we opted to finish the trip and hike back to the trailhead rather than spending the night at Gilmore Lake (our backup plan).

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Descending from Dicks Pass.

When we glimpsed Gilmore Lake through the trees we decided to detour off trail for a better view. We ate snacks by the lake then returned to the trail and continued down to the trailhead.

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Gilmore Lake

I wore my heavy leather boots on this trip, rather than my beloved light weight Salomon trail runners, because the trail was one long puddle when we started hiking on Saturday and I didn’t want to travel with soaked feet. My feet stayed dry, but the heavy boots left my feet aching on the last few miles of the hike. Ouch!

We arrived at the car at 6pm and were treated to a light rain shower as we drove back to the highway – excellent timing once again! We were both happy that we chose to go through with the trip even though Saturday’s weather seemed so unsuitable for a multi-day hike. We experienced rain, hail, and frost but the passes were blissfully wind-free and the scenery was gorgeous. What a great way to spend an October weekend!

Health update: The down-turn in health that I wrote about at the end of September lasted for about three weeks. Some symptoms still pop up without warning: I experienced a mild sore throat for the first two days of this trip but the symptoms didn’t progress beyond irritation, and I had enough energy to enjoy the trip.

An awesome weekend with my dad!

One night in October

My husband and I spent the first weekend in October backpacking. Nothing grand or record-breaking this time, just a quick one night trip to a pretty little no-name lake. We seem to make a point of visiting this lake once each year, having camped here in 2013, 2014, and now 2015. We call it Elf Lake in honor of the elaborate stone furniture in the campsite, which looks like it might have been made by elves.

We got a late start on Saturday, which was no problem because we only had to hike four miles to our destination. The sky was clear and bright blue when we started our trek, but clouds built throughout the day and that evening we experienced a tremendous thunderstorm with rain and hail and lightening directly overhead.

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Thunderheads building over the Sierra Buttes.

This was the fifth thunderstorm we’ve weathered while backpacking in 2015, but it was the first time we experienced hail big enough to be painful when it struck exposed skin. After collecting a few photos of the storm we retreated to our tent.

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Sunset, only a few minutes before the thunderstorm hit.
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Incoming thunderstorm.

At only nine miles round-trip this hike was shorter than any we’ve done in the past five months, but it was the perfect length for the conditions we faced. After my downturn in health last month I’m still not feeling great. It was nice to get out for an October trip and spend a few days outside. Only two months remain until I’ll meet my goal of backpacking in every month of the year. I can do it!

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Posing with the elven furniture.

My first 20-mile day!

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.

IMG_1170We 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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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At Castle Peak – almost back to the car!

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!