Category Archives: Appalachian Trail

AT vs PCT death match

The other big lady - Harpo & Groucho's stealth spot on day 3 of their AT hike - Katahdin viewed from Rainbow Lake (July 2013)

East Coast Big Lady – Harpo & Groucho’s stealth spot on day 3 of their AT hike – Katahdin viewed from Rainbow Lake (July 2013)

Now that we’ve announced we’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, we’ve been getting some questions about how this journey will differ from our 2013 AT thru hike. For honest journalisms-sake, we’ll have to give you an update on that when we finish. But for now here are some quick thoughts based on research and good ol’ fashioned hearsay:

Mileage
The PCT is just under 2700 miles, while the AT is just under 2200 miles.

Trail Condition
The PCT is graded and maintained for pack animals and thus has more switchbacks, nicer quality trail surface, and less scrambling. The PCT traverses through higher elevation mountains (10,000-14,000 footers as opposed to 4000-6000 footers), and so there may be some brief bits of snow travel, especially in the North Cascades in WA or Sierras in California, depending on when we get to those spots.

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This is an example of the “trail” in Maine. A bare rock slab going straight up hill with crevices for foot/hand holds rendered slippery and useless by the frequent rain. The easiest way to get up, even with a 20lb pack, was literally to get a running start (i.e. sheer force of will.)

Elevation Change
We’ve seen varying numbers on the exact number of elevation gain/loss over time on the AT or PCT (or CDT for that matter). But we’ve been told by thru hikers of both treks that 30 miles on the PCT feels like 20 miles on the AT, because of trail quality and gentler elevation profiles. This recent blog post by reputable hiker/mapper Guthook (whose apps are fantastic BTW), suggests the following in this blog post:

Overall elevation gain/loss on Appalachian Trail: 917,760′ over 2185.3 mi (avg: 420’/mi)
Overall elevation gain/loss on Pacific Crest Trail: 824,370′ over 2668.8 mi (avg: 309’/mi).
Overall elevation gain/loss on Continental Divide Trail: 917,470′ over 3029.3 mi (avg: 303’/mi).

A Hard Day's Night

Harpo climbs a sleep & slippery talus slope, seemingly out of the clouds, towards Chairback Gap lean-to

Hiking Time
Who knows. Any number of things can impact how long a hike takes, including your personal pace, quality of terrain, elevation gain, your efficiency with hiking chores like water filtration or setting up your sleep system or eating, weather, length of hitching to resupply, amount of time spent in town resupplying, number of zero (non-hiking days) you take, injury/illness, trail closures due to fire, well… you get the point. But generally speaking, someone who has already thru hiked has figured out how to be efficient at hiking/camping, and so barring injury, illness, or other unexpected detours, we’ve heard that it might take 2-4 weeks LESS time to hike the PCT even though it has more miles, because of the aforementioned trail conditions and our previous experience. We’re thinking it will take 4-5 months.

time saver… we were contemplating hitching to town to go to the brewery/hostel and then some nice day hikers gave us trail magic - rejuvenating our spirits, saving us a trip to town and precious minutes!

time saver… we were contemplating hitching to town to go to the brewery/hostel and then some nice day hikers gave us trail magic – rejuvenating our spirits, saving us a trip to town and surreptitiously providing us several extra happy hours of hiking.

Traffic on Trail
Last year on the AT 653 Northbound thru hikers, and 76 Southbound thru hikers claimed to have finished the entire trail (about 20% of those who attempted it.) The PCT currently collects and publishes less data about thru hikers, but at least 336 people reported a completed thru hike in 2014 (the PCTA thinks about 50% of people who attempt a PCT thru hike finish.) Due to the cultural zeitgeist around thru hiking also fueled through the recent movies “Wild” about the PCT and “A Walk in the Woods” about the AT, traffic is increasing dramatically in recent years. However, most (like 80-90%) of those hikers begin their journeys in California and hike northbound (NOBO). Beginning in Washington and hiking southbound (SOBO) we expect significantly less thru hiker traffic on the trail than our AT experience. This should be good for our meditation practice 🙂

Views
The states of Maine and New Hampshire offer the only above-treeline hiking on the AT. While we experienced much beauty both in the NE and along the whole AT, we expect more epic vistas and geologic diversity on the PCT as we travel along ridge lines, maybe thru snow fields, in proximity of Rainer, Hood, Shasta and Whitney, and then thru the Sierras down into the desert near Joshua Tree.

Big Lady - dinner at a stealth spot just inside the Rainier National Park

West Coast Big Lady – Groucho’s stealth spot on a PCT section-hike – just inside the Rainier National Park (August 2014)

Water
For the first half of the AT, water was plentiful. We sometimes felt guilty even treating water because it was pouring cold and strong from a pure spring out the side of a mountain. Once we reached the halfway mark in Pennsylvania in September we started running into dry sources, needing to sometimes hike .5-1 mile off trail for water. This continued intermittently into Virginia and Tennessee until winter precipitation began.

On the PCT we’ll have a crazy different challenge when we get to the desert in the fall. We’ve heard about 30+ mile stretches without sources, and the need to carry 6-10 litres in the heat of the summer. Thankfully there is a frequently updated water report that we’ll be able to print out on a daily or weekly basis to help with our planning. If anyone sees a camel for sale on ebay or something, let us know…

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There was so much water in the northern section of the AT that we were often walking in/on/thru it.

Lost Letters

The homies Sam and Rie sent us some of the most beautiful and thoughtful resupply packages - complete with powdered miso and chocolate.

The homies Sam and Rie sent us some of the most beautiful and thoughtful resupply packages – complete with powdered miso and chocolate.

As Harpo and I prepare for out southbound PCT this year we’ve been going through some ephemera from our 2013 Appalachian Trail thru hike – sorting, reminiscing, recycling. In many ways, this process makes us hopeful for the experience before us, while allowing us to reflect on the love and generosity we experienced while on the AT. These images represent just a few of the lovely missives we received from friends when we were so far away from home… these things which continually draw us back, and which bathe any thought of return in golden light.

The cover of our half priced AWOL guide, which we switched to in Virginia after realizing it was a far superior tool compared to the traditional data book. Note: we burned the rest of the pages, as one does...

The cover of our half priced AWOL guide, which we switched to in Virginia after realizing it was a far superior tool compared to the traditional data book. Note: we burned the rest of the pages, as one does…

A congrats card - which we suspect of being an actual graduation card - was waiting for us at trail's end thanks to Sandy and Gerry.

A congrats card – which we suspect of being an actual graduation card – was waiting for us at trail’s end thanks to Sandy and Gerry.

Arts! An altered flyer from OnTheBoards - a venue we had recently performed at just before leaving for the AT. This accompanied a bottle of delicious whisky thanks to the lovely Ms. Jorgenson

Arts! An altered flyer from OnTheBoards – a venue we had recently performed at just before leaving for the AT. This accompanied a bottle of delicious whisky thanks to the lovely Ms. Jorgensen

A letter from our friend and fellow adventurer Tessa Hulls. It was always awesome to have a few words here and there to remind us of the comforts - and friendships - we had left behind. The letters reminded us of the possibility of return on the hard days...

A letter from our friend and fellow adventurer Tessa Hulls. It was always awesome to have a few words here and there to remind us of the comforts – and friendships – we had left behind. The letters reminded us of the possibility of return on the hard days…

A crown for every king, or queen - sent from Harpo's niece and nephew. We wore these for a full day hiking.

A crown for every king, or queen – sent from Harpo’s college friend Liza’s — made by Liza and Jason’s son Emmett. We wore these for a full day hiking.

The delightful Ms Tania Kupczak sent us our first real re-up surprise package. We were so overwhelmed with gratitude when we opened this in Connecticut outside the package store and found new socks and Arnicare and Emergen-C with inspirational messages written on them!

The delightful Ms Tania Kupczak sent us our first real re-up surprise package. We were so overwhelmed with gratitude when we opened this in Connecticut outside the package store and found new socks and Arnicare and Emergen-C with inspirational messages written on them!

One Year of Freedom

#FBF

One year ago – July 4th 2013 – we climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine. Despite our training, it was a rigorous 5 mile, 5 hour ascent to the Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Once at the top, we surveyed an endless ocean of trees and cascading horizons surrounding us, and began a 5-month southbound thru-hike of the AT, ending Thanksgiving Day, November 28 2013.

Today represents one year of embracing freedom: of loosing ourselves from our expectations; of looking for authentic, unmediated experience; of believing in ourselves and the infinite possibilities emergent in every life and at every moment; of one year of saying YES.
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Mile zero on the Appalachian Trail (SOBO-style)

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Endless Trees and Broken Shards of Water

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First Blue Blaze (side trail to waterfall)

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View of Katahdin 2 days later – 30 miles away

Groucho and Harpo in City Arts Magazine

Harpo & Groucho

Harpo & Groucho at the summit of Springer Mountain, GA

City Arts Magazine asked us to contribute a piece for their January edition, reflecting on our Appalachian Trail journey. Copies of the free publication just hit the streets of Seattle, or you can read it online. Thanks to Editor in Chief, Leah Baltus, for the opportunity.

Read “On Wasting Time”

Tale from the Trail: the Coldest Night

COLD!This week, as the arctic cold snap sweeps the country, my facebook blowing up with extreme weather stories, it seems an apropos time to share a tale from the trail – our coldest night:

November 12, 2013
Somewhere in North Carolina

We woke up before dawn at a stealth campsite shared with Taxi, Potato Shake, HeRoMate and Icepack. The forecast called for arctic winds at 3am bringing sub 20 degree temperatures and a 70% probability of precipitation. Wet clothes and freezing temperatures = hypothermia. We planned to hit the trail by 6:30am, moving quickly to keep warm and “outrun” the oncoming storm.

As we started up Flint Mountain at 10am the temperatures dropped (you lose 2.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you gain). The high winds showered us with frost from the trees above. My knee was injured, so we traveled a slower than usual, and reached Flint Mountain Shelter around 12:45, just as it began to snow. How do you know when a sprinkling of snow might turn into inches? At what point do you turn back? The cold, wind and snow heightens everyday thoughts and I worked hard to calm my mind and keep panic at bay.

Groucho and I threw on our puffy jackets and quickly ate some trail mix . Ice chunks already floated in our water bottles. On our one break, Groucho used a shelter floor for his requisite push ups (a heat building measure) and we left after only 10 minutes… too cold to stop moving.

As we climbed further up the mountain the dusting of snow turned into a blizzard. Perfect snowball quality, the snow stuck to our shoes and faces, melting slowly into our socks, but walking kept us mostly warm – a sensation we realized would cease as soon as we stopped moving.

As we crested the ridge, the AT wandered between a flat forest road and some rocky forest paths. Scant blazing and falling snow made the trail difficult to see. We faithfully followed our friend’s footsteps. As we crested a hill we saw a historic grave site situated in the middle of a clearing – an ominous sight on such a frigid day.

Finally we reached the stone shelter 90 minutes before sunset, surprised and delighted to find a built-in fireplace, where Icepack, Shakes and HeRoMate were gathering and breaking down branches. A frozen water droplet hung from HeRoMate’s nose, and Groucho sported icicles in his beard. Our shoes stiffly cracked on our quickly freezing feet. A mild panic set in… we felt really cold, and the snow continued to fall.

In discussions on our way up the mountain, Groucho and I planned to get immediately in our warmer clothes and sleeping bags, and then cook food from bed. The allure of a fire threw a wrench in that plan, but we hoped it would be worth it. We gathered wood for the fire and went for water, filling up everyone’s bottles while they manned the fire.

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I quickly realized how my body was cooling off. It was time for more clothes, quilts and food. I removed my wet socks and shoes, then put on all the clothes I was carrying – my hiking dress, two base layers wool pants, two base layer wool shirts, wind pants, two pairs of wool socks, puffy jacket, balaclava, fleece hat, gloves and later mittens over my gloves. Still feeling windchill, I put my sleeping quilt over my shoulders like a cape and looked up to check on my teammate. He was sitting where I left him…

When you stop hiking in weather this cold, your metabolic temperature falls quickly. The mind and body consort to produce the worst impulse to stop moving completely, conserving energy. Things that sounded comforting moments earlier (the idea of dry socks, more layers, warm food) seem distant and unimportant. It takes an enormous amount of energy to accomplish the simplest chore, even one designed to make you warmer. This is how people succumb to hypothermia. It simply feels natural and easier to do nothing…

I huddled next to Groucho, helping him to stop shivering. We knew warm food would help, and slowly began the process of cooking our food. Meanwhile the other three cooked, tended fire, and set up Shake’s tent on the shelter platform.

The thermometer on the shelter read 20 degrees at 5pm, just before sunset. The blazing fire just took the edge off the chill. The wind poured in the front of the 3-sided shelter and HeRoMate suggested hanging our tarps up to cover the opening to the shelter. Although this cut us off from the waning light of day, it helped tremendously with windchill. Another hiker, Stinky Jesus, arrived with more icicles in his beard then I had seen before or since. He claimed the last spot in the six-person shelter.

Hot dinner provided a burst of warmth and we hunkered down into our sleeping bags to make the most of it. We kept fears at bay with little jokes and commentary. I used the fire to boil water, and then poured it into the Nalgene for an impromptu hot water bottle. Groucho recovered from his chills and changed into base layers. As dark fell around 6pm, we cuddled close for warmth.

I fitfully drifted in and out of sleep all night. At one point I blissfully dreamed of a hot shower, before rudely awakening to another temperature drop. I covered my whole head and face, leaving a tiny ventilation by my mouth… At this point I really wished we’d gone with a two-person quilt instead of each having our own – human to human contact is where it’s at, but I needed heat wherever I could get it. I did crunches to keep my core warm, but my toes were painfully cold all night.

Stinky Jesus made a big ruckus in the middle of the night wrapping himself in his tent. Icepack asked if he was okay and he responded negatory. The condensation from his breath, frozen on his bag, left him shivering. Dehydration led to muscle cramps, and his water bottle was frozen solid. In fact, every water bottle in the shelter was frozen solid except for the Nalgene I kept in my quilt. I gave him the little water I had and encouraged him to cuddle up closer to me and Groucho.

A few times during the night Groucho laid a bit of wood on the fire. It didn’t make a notable difference in temperature, but kept some embers glowing until morning.

After checking my watch a hundred times, morning finally came. Icepack braved the cold to stoke the fire and the shelter slowly came to life. By 7am the sun crested over the ridge and the mercury of the shelter thermometer had risen to 9 degrees. The low that night on the mountain was around zero… we slept outside in zero degree weather. In our quest as hearty outdoor survivalists, we had arrived.

Our shoes and socks were frozen solid – so solid we could clap our socks together. We had to thaw our shoes for an hour before we could put them on our feet.

Temperatures were supposed to remain below freezing all day. Groucho and I decided to hike into Hot Springs, NC – 27 miles over a ridgeline with spectacular views, frozen streams and six inches of snow. We decided to retro-blaze at the end of the day, following an old AT path into town that cut off four miles. We gratefully made it to town by 6:30pm and stayed at Elmers, a beautiful historic hostel. Just down the street at a delightful tavern, we ended the day reconvening with Taxi and other hikers. While the bartender “Deez Nutz” traded inappropriate one-liners with Stinky Jesus, we enjoyed wine, nachos, pizza and vegan chili. It was the best tasting vegan chili I have ever eaten.

Gear Shakedown: the Gossamer Gear G4 Pack

wooden sherpas
One of our goals was to assess what worked and what didn’t with our gear systems – clothing, cooking, shelter, sleep, packing and safety – after having experimented and revised them over the last 2200 miles. We had limited backpacking experience before the AT, so our gear configuration was based on research, educated guesses, suppositions and hearsay. We’re still alive, so it mostly worked out, I guess…

Packs
The Gossamer Gear G4 turned out to be a great sub 1lb pack at a super affordable price. It took a minute to figure out the best way to pack it – none of the ultralight gear we used came with user instructions – but the G4 turned out to be comfortable and durable. As long as you’re not looking for a extra features, hidden compartments, compression straps and whatnot the G4 is versatile and easy to use.

We never carried more than 30lbs per resupply – only tipping the scales above 25lbs for our first 3 resupplies, which were for between 7 and 10 days. We found the G4 was most effective at under 25lbs, which allowed us to carry between 10-12lb base-weight, about 6 days of food, and a liter of water.

The simplicity and price of the G4 was appealing. Sara’s G4 was 15.2oz, and NKO’s weighed in at only 14.5 oz after removing the optional waistbelt. This meant that with 2lbs of food per-person-per-day (pppd) we could carry 6 days of food, and 1/2 liter of water, at between 23 – 25lb. The most important thing for us was learning to resupply more often – we started the trip trying to stay out of town for 7 – 10 days at a time, but quickly found that towns were easy to get to and experiencing town time was an essential part of the Appalachian Trail experience.

As with much of the ultralight gear we experimented with on this trip, a bit of ingenuity makes up for fewer features:
– walking with 1/2 liter of ’emergency’ water in the pack, and keeping 1 liter of water in hand. Simply carrying drinking water made us more aware of how much we had and kept us hydrated. It also kept 2.2 lb/liter off our backs.
– Carring the pack on one shoulder during hot ascents provided great ventilation, especially after eating through a day or two of food weight.
– The deep mesh side pockets were annoying at first. We soon learned it’s easier to loosen a shoulder strap and swing the pack around on one shoulder while still walking – in this case, the higher mesh pockets ensured that nothing fell out during this maneuver. This ended up working great, and seemed like we had easier access to our everyday gear than many of the homies with more conventional packs.

The issues with the pack:
– The top loop and tiedown strap assembly failed on both our packs at 800 miles – not a big deal since we had a sewing kit, but funny that they both failed within 50 miles of each other carrying basically the same loads.
– The actual pack straps needed more tooth. The same nylon strap materiel was used throughout the pack, but we found it slipped almost constantly, especially at loads over 15lb. While we enjoyed being able to easily adjust our pack straps, it was frustrating to continually try and keep the pack positioned with even a nominal load.

Overall, we found these pack met our needs nicely. Many people were surprised we were carrying such small packs and light weight, but it proved essential for hiking comfortably over long distances. The quality of materials and manufacture were, for the most part, superb, and we’re both looking forward to trying more of the Gossamer Gear products on our future outings.