In a comment on the previous post, Conrad said: “I am sure you were aware of the strenuous nature of this walk, but was it harder than you thought it would be?”, and I thought it was a question that deserved more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer (although if you don’t fancy reading my analysis below the short answer is ‘yes’).
I find that when sitting in my armchair with my laptop on my lap, looking at maps, distances, ascent and itinerary, it’s very easy to think “that’ll be hard, but it’ll be okay'” without putting too much more thought into it. We had no doubt that the section of the PCT was going to be a challenge, both logistically and physically, but we probably didn’t think about the difficulty in much detail, and the reality was that it was harder than expected (and we had it really easy this year, with no snow worth mentioning and low water levels).
As I mentioned briefly in one of my blog posts, the trail itself is easy. On the section we walked there was no navigation required (which saves a huge amount of time), the trail was usually (although not universally) an easy walking surface and the gradient was never steep (except that very last descent to Lyell Canyon). So, if you were to take away the external factors then it would be very quick and easy walking.
A few things combined to make it hard:
1) The temperature. The hottest days were (of course) in the desert, where we had it in the mid-thirties day after day, but even in the mountains it wasn’t unusual for it to be in the mid-to-high twenties. Sometimes we had shade and sometimes there was a breeze and when the two combined it was bliss, but sometimes there was absolutely no shade and no breeze. Even on a gentle slope, slogging continuously uphill for eight miles in the sunshine with those temperatures is hard work!
2) The weight. As I said in the last post, when we left Kennedy Meadows my pack was 34lb/15kg. That probably wasn’t the heaviest I carried as at the end of day 4 (albeit only for a few miles) I had 5 days of food and 5 litres of water on-board, and in the desert it wasn’t uncommon for me to have 4 litres of water. The point here is that even with a modest base-weight (mine was under 7 kilos, although in retrospect, in this year’s conditions, I could easily have gone lighter), the distance between re-supply and the lack of reliable water sources in the desert meant that our packs were almost always significantly heavier than we would carry in this country. At least I could always tell myself that every time I ate or drank, it would get lighter.
3) The altitude. I had appreciated that it would be hot and had appreciated that my bag would be heavy and knew, to an extent, that those factors would make things more difficult. What I hadn’t really thought about was how the altitude would affect us. As it happens, we got off lightly in terms of altitude symptoms (I had a headache for half a day, and spent a day feeling knackered, although both of those symptoms could have been unrelated to the elevation), but we both felt the altitude in terms of effort. We huffed and puffed up those gentle inclines with our respiration rates at all-time highs. Trying to drink and walk at the same time was folly. Trying to drink as soon as you stopped also resulted in comedy gasping. Add in a heavy pack and high temperatures and those climbs were far more difficult than they looked on paper!
4) The lack of water in the desert. Or more precisely, the constant need to think about water (so a mental difficulty rather than a physical one, as (arguably) are most of these points). Except for a couple of occasions when I miscalculated, we always had enough water to drink freely, but the water report became our bible. There was the constant need to know where the next likely water source would be, where the next reliable water source would be, how much would be needed to get there, how far that meant we needed to walk that day, and where would be a good place to camp in view of the water sources available that day and the next.
5) The relentless ups and down in the High Sierra. We’re used to doing a couple of hard days of walking followed by some easier terrain. The passage through the Sierra goes over high passes so regularly that the easy (recovery) days don’t crop up (unless you do really short days, in which case you need to carry more food, in which case your pack’s heavier…), and there isn’t the option of taking a low-level alternative route. That much daily ascent, carrying that weight, at that altitude was tiring (although possibly more of a mental issue than a real physical one).
6) The jetlag! Admittedly this factor only applied in the first week, but I had completely underestimated how difficult it would be to deal with jetlag and the resultant lack of sleep whilst walking reasonable distances each day. The 4am starts offset this a little, but in the ideal world we would have had a few more days of acclimatisation before we set out.
All of that may sound negative, which isn’t my intention because the whole experience was undoubtedly positive and hugely enjoyable (even if not always fun at the time!). Hundreds of people through-hike the PCT every year, so unarguably doable, even with the altitude, heavy pack, lack of water and continuous lumps – but it’s certainly not a stroll in the park!