Finishing the PCT: Etna to Castella

I haven’t blogged in ages, but we’ve been busy guiding hikes in Asheville and I never blog about guided hikes (I’d hate to embarrass anyone).  We haven’t had many personal trips since this spring, so when we realized it had been 5 years since we hiked the PCT SOBO in 2014, we decided it was finally time to finish that hike.

We have had 100 miles left to hike since 2014 – a 100 mile section which was closed due to wildfires.  The last 100 miles left was the section from Etna to Castella in Northern California.

Before we started our hike, we met a trail angel and friend, Ken, who agreed to meet us at the terminus of this section, and drive us to the start.  He and his wife were also generous enough to let us stay the night in their house before the start of our hike.

Day 1: 18.7 miles

Despite being completely exhausted from two days of travel, we woke up fairly early due to jet lag.  Ken and Theresa made us a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit and and egg casserole before Ken gave us a ride to the trail head (with a stop along the way at a local bakery).

At 9:30AM we arrived at Etna Summit, the road crossing where I quit 5 years ago after trying to make up the last miles of our southbound PCT thru-hike.  The last time we were here it was November and I was in severe pain from hip dysplasia (which I didn’t even know I had at the time) and it was freezing cold.  As we arrived to the exact spot where I had finally decided that the last 100 miles would have to wait another year, memories came flooding back.  I remembered the pain.  I remembered the exhaustion.  Mostly, though, I remembered the pain.  I had spent the last few hours crying – trying to justify the pain for the miles…for the end-goal, and it just wasn’t worth it.  Sometimes quitting is almost as hard as continuing on.

And now here we were again, 5 years and 3 surgeries later giddy with enthusiasm.  As we stepped into the forest the dry cool air assaulted my sinuses.  The forest looked so foreign compared to the lush green forest of Western North Carolina, but it felt so familiar – like we were home again.

I was nervous about being in good enough shape to finish this section in the amount of time we had allotted -5 days- which would mean an average of 20 miles a day.  Could I still do 20 miles a day?  When was the last time I did a 20 mile day?  I racked my brain and remembered that I hiked/ran the 30 mile Art Loeb trail in a day back in June.  I was probably only carrying a 5 lb pack though and that was two months ago.  Now my pack was 26 lbs – pretty light for a fully loaded pack, and so I still had my doubts.

We started walking and pretty soon I felt comfortable with our itinerary.  The PCT is easy.  I almost forgot how easy.  The ground is mostly soft, there are not too many rocks and roots, and although we had a steady climb ahead of us, it was just that – steady.

I blew my nose into my hanky and immediately got a nosebleed.  I’ve had so many nose bleeds on the PCT, it barely came as a surprise.  The dry air, the dust, the altitude…

The views were tremendous.  Large coniferous trees dotted the mountains which were rocky and ragged.  We took tons of pictures.

We also passed burnt trees – a sign of the 2014 fire that closed this section when we were thru hiking.

As the miles wore on, my giddy enthusiasm was replaced my a meditative state followed by the reality of tired legs and sore shoulders.

During the day we saw much more wildlife than I had expected.  We walked straight past a doe and her fawn.  We also saw very fresh bear scat right in the middle of the trail.  We were just remarking on how fresh we thought it must be when the bear in question appeared in front of us, scurrying up a hillside.  And then, not 10 minutes later, another bear crashed through the underbrush away from us.

We had expected to see absolutely nobody.  This is not the place to be in September if you’re a thru-hiker – neither northbound nor southbound, and even those who skipped the snow or flip flopped up to Washington probably wouldn’t be here now.  So we were surprised to pass 3 northbound hikers – a lady and then a couple.  We traded notes with each of them.

It was cold all day.  I never took off my long sleeved shirt, and I often times wore my rain jacket and my gloves as well.

When we stopped for lunch, we realized that our container for making food in had cracked.  We don’t carry a pot or a stove or fuel because we find it’s easier just to eat cold food, but we do make food like oatmeal or instant mashed potatoes in a hard sided plastic container which somehow had cracked severely.  We would have to improvise to make some of our meals.  Ziplock bags go a long way.

The clouds were beautiful as the sun started to set.  Chipmunks scurried away from us, and adorable yellow flowers dotted the hillside in shades reminiscent of sunset.  I grew sleepy quite early – probably from all the travel and jetlag.  I was surprised when we found a suitable campsite and we had managed to hike almost 19 miles.  The 100 mile goal now seems quite feasible.

Just as we crawled into our tent, it started to drizzle.  Maybe the clouds will keep it slightly warmer tonight, since other hikers told us that last night it was well into the 20’s and they were cold.  I haven’t been cold in months.

Just as I finish this entry a southbound hiker named “Hang-time” arrived at our campsite.  It’s almost dark out and we didn’t exit the tent to say hello (it’s also drizzling), but we exchanged a few pleasantries through the tent wall.  Maybe we’ll meet him for real tomorrow.

Day 2: 24.8 miles

It was chilly overnight, but with all my clothes on, I was warm.  We got up at sunrise and packed up.  Our friend was still asleep as we left camp, and we wondered if or when we would see him again.  We took our time hiking the first few miles of the day – taking in the early morning fog which had caused quite a lot of condensation in our tent, but was beautiful in the valleys below.

By midday we heard someone behind us and it was “Hang-time”.  I stepped aside to let him pass, but we quickly started chatting.  He was a young man from Bend, OR who had hiked and traveled all over the west coast and was going to finish his hike on Mount Whitney, hopefully by early October.  We traded information about the Sierras and the PCT.  Because I had let him pass, I had to keep up with his fast thru-hiker pace in order to carry on the conversation.  It was great to have someone to talk to, but at the same time I was starting to feel a sharp pain in my shin.  We stopped for lunch and Hang-time stopped too.  I tried to stretch out my calf muscle and rub my shin, but I could tell this was going to keep hurting.  We soon got hiking again, and again I found myself trying to keep up with Hang-time.  Eventually we stopped at a stream to collect water, and I realized that I was headed towards full blown shin-splints.  I told him I needed to slow down and since he was planning a 30-mile day, he forged on ahead.

I took a long break by the stream, but when I got up to start hiking again, I could only limp along.  I was mad at myself for not listening to my body earlier.  We hiked the next few miles slowly taking as many breaks as I needed, and eventually came upon a road.  At the road there were one or two cars parked there and a van.  A man jumped out of the van and asked us if we were thirsty.  I told him thanks, but we had plenty of water.  He then asked if we wanted a soda, and of course I couldn’t turn down a sugary drink.

He pulled out a couple of camp chairs and proceeded to ask us if we wanted ice cream sandwiches, bananas, pears, cookies or beer.  Our jaws practically fell to the ground.  Trail Magic!?  We haven’t experienced trail magic in years!  We chowed down on an ice cream sandwich followed by a banana.  I didn’t know it, but this was just the break I needed from my terrible shin splints.

The trail angel’s trail name was Buff and he had hiked many sections of the PCT.  We traded stories and enjoyed the magic until we were both cold and realized that we probably ought to get going to find a place to camp.  We bid Buff farewell and thanked him again for his generosity and hiked up from the road.

The trail was so easy and my shin felt better and better until I couldn’t feel the shin splint any more.  I did however feel a sharp pain on the bottom of my foot and stopped to take my shoe off.  My left foot was suffering slightly from what I think is trench foot – but I’m not sure.  Basically the skin on the bottom of my foot was folding because of wetness and the fold was creating a crack.  I decided to change my sock for a dry one.  It wasn’t like my feet were super wet, but the dirt from the PCT kind of cakes inside your socks and shoes because there is so much of it, and then makes your feet stay somewhat damp, I think from sweat.  We only had a couple more miles until we found a great camp spot among some trees just as the sun was setting.

It’s much warmer tonight, and we’re looking forward to sleep.

Day 3: 24.2 miles

I woke up suddenly to the sound of John screaming.  He told me he thought he heard a mountain lion making a bunch of noise including hissing.  I asked him how he knew it wasn’t a bobcat, and he said he wasn’t sure, but I could tell he was a bit paranoid as he peered out of the tent.

Once it got light enough, we packed up and got hiking.  We spent a good number of hours in the morning staring at the dusty trail trying to figure out whose footprints were on top ahead of us.  I could see Hang-Time’s footsteps, but I could also see a gigantic pair of Altra footsteps and I couldn’t tell if they were on top of Hang-Time’s Chaco sandles or not.  I found a really good specimen of the Altra footprint and tried to mark bottom and top of the footprint to size it against John’s foot.  It was definitely at least a size or two bigger.

“I bet they’re size 15,” said John.

We kept walking and as we walked up to a lovely water source surrounded by pitcher plants, I noticed an older gentleman resting nearby.

“Hello!”  John said.  “Do you have really big feet?”

“Yes, size 15.”  He replied.

I laughed.  “Size 15 Altras! I knew it.  We’ve been following your footprints.”  I told him.

We traded notes, and he was headed southbound and was planning to hike about 25 miles, so we figured we’d probably be seeing him again.  His trailname was “NTN” (short for “No Trail Name”), and he was from Alaska.  He had done lots of hiking over the years.

We collected our water and carried on.  It was much hotter out than it had been previous days, and we were so grateful to have umbrellas.  There was very little shade, and the sun was relentless.

Finally, we reached a road where there were many cars parked by the trailhead.  We passed a huge group of hikers who were part of a guided REI hike as well as a few other hikers.

The scenery was getting more interesting, and soon we passed a lake and got amazing views of Mount Shasta.

My legs were starting to hurt quite a lot as the miles wore on.  It was still quite early in the day when we were close to the 20-mile mark, but around that time I thought that my legs may not want to take me much further.  Of course a place to camp does not magically materialize whenever you want to call it quits for the day, and as I studied the map I realized that we were in a long stretch where there was not going to be much in the way of flat ground.  I grit my teeth and continued on.

We passed another northbounder and I asked him if there was any good camping up ahead, and he said we should definitely camp at Porcupine Lake.  He looked at his watch and said “it’s about an hour away.”

As he walked away I turned to John and made an angry face.  “He’s lying to us!  Porcupine Lake is at least 5 miles from here.  Jerk!”

I went from angry to determined and from determined to demoralized and from demoralized to severely in pain.  My legs hurt and my feet hurt even more.  I leaned heavily on my trekking poles and tried to admire the gorgeous views of Mt Shasta.

Eventually, less than a mile from Porcupine Lake, a small flat area emerged downhill from the trail, and we found a suitable place to pitch our tent.

I was so glad to take my shoes off and admire the rising moon.  We had such a peaceful view.  A half hour or so later, I heard the sound of footsteps and trekking poles approaching, and realized that NTN had made it this far too.  He was also weary and looking for a place to camp, so we invited him to tent nearby since there was just enough flat ground.

Day 4: 17.8 miles

As usual in the morning we woke up before sunrise.  Looking out of the tent door we could tell we were in an amazing spot to watch the sun rise, so we secured the door open and spent a lazy half hour or so watching the sky change color.  When eventually the first rays of sun hit our tent, we decided it was time to pack up.  Our friend NTN also got a slow start as we all decided we’d probably take a slightly shorter day.

We hiked up to Porcupine Lake, which wasn’t far from where we camped, and admired the reflection of the mountains in the water.

The trail then reached a series of road crossings, and at the first one John joked about wanting more trail magic.  NTN who caught up to us while we were snacking told us he hadn’t experience much trail magic so far this hike.  We had just told him about Buff and the trail magic we got the other day when we got to another road crossing and saw Buff’s van parked.  We ran up to it full of excitement.   On the menu was fried egg sandwiches, quesadillas, soda, beer and popsicles.   We sat down and basically had one of everything.  As we sat there savoring the magic, several other southbound hikers showed up.  We got talking with a couple named Beardo and Sweatpea who had hiked all over the place and had loads of stories from other trails.  A group of three guys also rolled up and we all hung out for way too long.  We were probably there for three hours before we finally made a move.

We managed to miss hiking during a good part of the heat of the day, but it was still very hot, and very exposed.  I was glad to have my umbrella, but I could feel the sun still roasting my legs.  I put some sunscreen on.   We had great views of Mt Shasta.

John wasn’t feeling great and kept needing to sit in the shade.  His stomach was cramping up and eventually he also started feeling nauseous.  After pepto didn’t help, I suggested he drink some water with electrolytes, and that seemed to help slightly.  Finally though, he ran off trail and dug a hole, and it turned out that that’s what was really needed.  He probably was constipated from being dehydrated.

Eventually we hiked over a hill and were surprised to see the Castle Craggs right there in front of us.   I kept taking pictures as they got closer and closer.  The trail became a bit overgrown with bushes, but it was only a minor inconvenience.  We were glad when the sun got lower in the sky so we occasionally got some shade.

Eventually, we came across the campsite that we planned on staying at, and the group of three other southbound hikers were also camped there.  Luckily there was plenty of space for all of us, and we chatted briefly over dinner.  Just as we were falling asleep, a bunch of other hikers showed up, made a racket and blinded us with their headlamps.  Once they were finally settled in, everyone fell asleep.

Day 5:  roughly 13 miles.

Our last day on the PCT was beautiful.  We had a ton of downhill to do, and I wanted to get the miles over with fast before it got too hot.  My legs went fast, and we managed to walk about 3 miles per hour until we caught up with NTN.  I was happy when the exposed trail finally led us into the forest.

We figured we would probably be giving NTN a ride into Shasta since we knew he was looking for one, so we slowed down a bit for the last few miles of our hike.

Soon we entered Castle Crags State Park, and the trails got better and somehow even easier, if that’s possible.  Just a mile or two from the very end of our hike, there was a detour – due to timber thinning.  We followed the well marked signs, and this slight detour probably added a mile or so, but I was happy that someone had a well planned detour for PCT hikers.

Once we were back on the PCT, we came across a register left on the trail right near the road.  I was surprised to see it there, and there was a small amount of what looked like bear poop on it, but I signed out nonetheless “Dormouse and Dirt Stew – DONE!”

We got into our car, which was cleverly parked at the end of our hike, and drove NTN down the road 15 minutes or so to the town of Shasta where NTN was kind enough to treat us to lunch.  A warm meal was just what we wanted in order to celebrate the end of a journey which took us 5 years to complete!

2 thoughts on “Finishing the PCT: Etna to Castella

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