1. The desert isn’t always…deserty. The first 700 miles of the PCT is classified as ‘the desert’ — which makes you think it’s going to be hot, dry and baron, and the majority of the time it is just that. But the trail also takes you up in to the San Jacinto mountains and above 10,000ft where there is snow. Snow! In the desert! I got caught in a snow storm, walked through rain, thunder, lightning and hail and I saw flash flooding. For me some of the coldest nights on the whole trail were in the first couple of weeks in the desert. Always be prepared for extreme weather conditions — you never know what the desert will throw at you.
2. Life isn’t always like Instagram. Parts of Oregon are incredibly beautiful, and when the wildflowers are in full bloom you get hundreds of Instagram worthy pictures. But this photo hides the fact there are around 10,000 blood thirsty mosquitos living amongst those wildflowers. They are relentless in their quest to feed and even running doesn’t stop them hitching a ride. They like to bite your elbows and the backs of your knees and they drive you to the edge of madness. Walking with the mosquitos was the closest I ever came to quitting.
3. The extra miles are worth it. Mt Whitney isn’t part of the official PCT, but the summit is only an 8 mile side trip (not that far when you’ve walked over 700 miles to get there). It’s more that worth the extra miles to be the highest person in the contiguous United States. At nearly 4,500m it’s a serious mountain, not to be underestimated.
4. Laughter makes even the most ridiculous situations ok. We knew the theory — when traversing the high passes through the Sierra travel in the mornings when the snow is hard and easy to walk on, it is easier, safer and you have less chance of postholing. I’m not entirely sure how this happened but my hiking partner and I managed to hit every pass in the afternoon, when the snow was soft and melting. We sank in the snow, we fell over, it took us an hour to travel half a mile and we even dealt with lost shoes — but we never failed to see the funny side. The mental challenge can be tough and staying positive is essential.
5. At some point you will have to face your fears. I didn’t know I had this fear before I started but it turns out that I’m not that keen on night hiking. If you ever need a test of character, night hike in the wilderness on your own. Some people love it, I found it terrifying! As soon as it gets dark the forest becomes creepy. That crack of a tree branch, which would go unnoticed in the day, would be 10 times louder and more sinister at night — no it wasn’t just the wind, it was definitely the bogeyman. A cute little daytime animal squeak would become a roar of a savage beast. Every innocent daytime tree would be concealing a monster waiting to pounce at night. But of course it’s all in the mind and taking yourself out of your comfort zone from time to time is great for developing your mental strength.
6. Always stop and watch the sunset. “Do you realise the sun doesn’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round”. Sunset. If you’re lucky you might get treated to the most spectacular one. It’s the chance to reflect on the day that has been and look towards the day that lies ahead.
7. Washington is underrated. When people talk about the PCT they talk about how beautiful the Sierra is, how wonderful Oregon is, how horrible northern California is (this is incorrect, yes it may be blisteringly hot and full of mosquitos but it is also wonderful in its own special way), but no one talks about how incredible Washington is. When hiking the trail north towards Canada you reach the Pacific North West when summer is slipping into autumn, the leaves are glorious shades of greens, reds and yellows. The forests are covered in lush, green moss and patches of fungi. Water is clear, cold and plentiful (because it rains, a lot!).
8. It will restore your faith in humanity. From my fellow hikers to the strangers who invited me into their homes, from the people who picked me up from the side of a road to the people who maintained water caches. I met some of the most incredible people there are to meet. From the kids who maybe I inspired, to the people on their 70s who inspired me. You never know who you are going to meet. The human experience of walking a long distance trail is both humbling and invigorating. This is Vince, he is section hiking the PCT. We hiked through the Goat Rocks Wilderness together (possibly my favourite part of the whole trail). After 5 days we parted ways and exchanged email addresses. When I finished the trail he invited me to stay with his family in Seattle before going back to England. People really are amazing.
9. If you carried it in you can carry it out. The main reason people head out into the wilderness is because it is beautiful. If you leave your rubbish behind, or you don’t bury your toilet paper properly and an animal digs it up, it won’t stay beautiful. Practice ‘leave no trace’ principals and protect the wilderness for future generations. If you carried it into the wilderness you can carry it out again (or at least until you find the next trash can) including all of your toilet paper.
10. 2660 miles is a really long way. If you start out on the border of Mexico thinking that your goal is to get to Canada you probably won’t make it. It’s a long physical journey, but the mental journey is longer and harder. Don’t think about getting to Canada. Think about getting to the next water source, then the next campsite, then the next town. Break it down and think of it as a series of small hikes so you don’t get overwhelmed. Never quit just because you’re cold, wet, hungry or tired. Warm up, dry out, eat and have a sleep the get back out there. Getting to the end is awesome but it’s all the days in-between that you will remember forever.
Find out more about my adventures by visiting my blog www.masonalexandra.wordpress.com and Instagram @masonalexandra