If there’s one word for what I feel these days, it’s this: anticipation. Anticipation because I know exactly what’s coming next — we’re about to get to Mount Whitney, and, with it, hit the John Muir Trail. Bucket and I hiked all 220 miles of the John Muir Trail in 2012, and so we both know exactly how spectacularly beautiful it is. The PCT follows the JMT for nearly its whole length, so we’ll get to do it again — only this time, going the opposite direction, seeing things from a different perspective.
Coming up on this stretch of mountains makes me think about the difference between that trip and this one. The John Muir Trail might well be the single most beautiful stretch of mountains in the entire country — it’s 220 miles of alpine bliss, and there’s really no part of it that I would say is anything but incredibly scenic. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to anybody who’s up for a hike of that length and who wants to see the best that nature has to offer.
The PCT, on the other hand, while you obviously see even more…it’s a different beast. You have to be motivated by a sense of accomplishment, by a desire to achieve that goal of actually hiking something of this absurd length, to do this trail. There are incredible sights, but there are also long stretches when it’s not nearly as scenic — and you have to hike uphill through deserts, carrying huge amounts of water. If all you’re motivated by is seeing beauty, I don’t think you’ll have enough to last you the entire PCT, exactly because it’s so varied. To me, it’s a bit like running a marathon: it’s easy to be motivated at mile 1 or mile 24, but, to make it through mile 15 and keep going, you have to have your eyes on the bigger picture, to want to have this great accomplishment to call your own, because otherwise it’s just not enough.
Today, in fact, we actually met our first JMT hikers — we’re just before the start of it, and they started early to work around some upcoming weather. It was funny, in fact, to meet through-hikers of a different sort, and hikers just like I’d been only three short years ago. The first thing that struck me was just how clean these four guys were — no PCT through-hiker looks anything like that at this point. They were also clearly a little bit nervous, but also excited; when I told them that I was jealous because the JMT was so incredibly awesome, they got excited and laughed.
But perhaps the best moment came at the end, when they told us something like “Oh, we’re going to skip Mt. Whitney because of weather, and just head straight for Forester Pass and really hike hard, so we make it over before the storm comes.” When they said this, I got really confused: the storm isn’t supposed to get here until two nights from tonight, and Forester Pass is only 25 miles away — a piece of cake to get done in two days. Then I remembered: yeah, I only think that because I’m a PCT through-hiker, and 20-mile days are just normal for me at this point. To them, a 12-mile day is long — when we did the JMT, we averaged 8- or 9-mile days, and so a 12-mile day was incredibly long (and our current 22-mile day would’ve been unthinkable). That’s when it really struck me…holy crap, I really am a serious through-hiker. I’m glad I didn’t blurt anything like that out, because I don’t want to be that guy…but it felt good to get that little reminder of just how experienced we are, and just how much work we really are putting in.
Speaking of which: tomorrow, Mount Whitney! Mount Whitney, at 14,500′, is the tallest peak in the continental United States. While we’ve already been up it once — the JMT actually ends at the summit of Mt. Whitney — we really want to go up it again, and it’s a relatively short 15-mile side trip. (Did I say we’re now experienced through-hikers? I just called 15 miles “relatively short”.) The trick is going to be that there’s supposed to be some weather coming through in two more nights that’ll bring some rain and snow, and we’ll need to get up Mt. Whitney, back down, then up and over Forester Pass — a significant challenge of its own, and, at over 13,100′, the single highest point on the entire PCT — by Friday evening. Since it’s now Wednesday night, that’ll make two very long days of hiking. But, we think, two very much worth-it days of hiking, because these are sights we’ll never have a chance to see again on this trail.
So we’ll wake up tomorrow morning at 4:00 AM just to hit the trail early, get up Mt. Whitney, back down, and camp. Then, the next day, do the same thing, only going up and over Forester Pass. After that, we’re off to see even more Sierras and follow the JMT all the day…but only after we stop off for a rest day and resupply in Independence, CA. I’m excited!