The Skip, Part One of (?), Day 1

The Skip: tackling Northern California one section hike at a time.  Not as exhilarating and crazy as our thru-hike attempt, however I promise a proportionate amount of adventure, misfortune, trail magic, f-bombs, and at least in this section, a disproportionate number of cat holes dug, considering the access to pit toilets & town🤦🏻‍♀️

October 2, 2020

Mile 1195.4, Highway 49, Sierra City to mile 1189.9, 5.5 PCT miles, 1.4 miles off trail from downtown Sierra City to trailhead, 6.9 miles total

Total ascent: 2205
Total descent: 1207

PCT miles this section: 5.5
Trip total: 6.9 miles
PCT running total: 1829.3
Miles left “to Canada”: 811.1 

Matt and Ali have not walked very far lately, however today we found ourselves 34lbs heavier and at the PCT trailhead on Highway 49 in Sierra City with the hopes of knocking off another 104.4miles of our 2653mile journey; we had 816.6 miles left of unfinished business, and as our pal Silver would say, the miles weren’t gonna hike themselves…

We actually didn’t think we would make it back to the trail this year- once Covid hit, we stayed the fuck at home & were surprised to find ourselves not only adapting quite quickly to the lazy couch-potato lifestyle, but also quite enjoying it- we were go, go, go for so many years, it actually felt nice to have no choice but to relax.  But as the hiking window was quickly closing, we ran some numbers and realized that we could knock out 100+ miles in a single go, with minimal contact with the outside world.  We recruited a friend, requested off from work, gathered our equipment, and decided to road trip up to Sierra City, Ca.  Our plan was to leave my car in Sierra City and hike southbound to just beyond Echo Lake, to the same place where we had skipped to last year to join our tramily to hike south through the Sierra. From there, we would hitch into South Lake Tahoe (our only planned contact with people!) to rent a car to retrieve my own car in Sierra City.  Completing this section would mean we would have hiked the first 1195.4 miles of the trail, in addition to all but the most southern 26 miles of Oregon and the last 188-ish miles of Washington into Canada.  

In the weeks leading up to our planned section hike, California caught fire and all national forests closed, forcing us to cancel our training trips and rethink our plans. It also prevented our friend Jesse from going on a practice-run backpacking trip- Jesse has extensive camping experience and is always game for adventure, but has never backpacked a day in his life. 

We invited him over one night to shop through some of our extra gear and supplied him with a hefty shopping list full of additional equipment he would need to buy, including a lightweight tent that he purchased and half set up in our living room but never fully set up until night one on trail… thankfully it worked. But now I’m getting ahead of myself… 

About a week before we had planned to start, we got word that some of the national forests in CA, including the two we would be passing through, had reopened, but with certain stipulations.  For one, fires, including camp stoves, were a big No-No.  Whatever, we could and would eat protein bars for dinner for a week- at least we would save weight by not carrying our stove and fuel!!  

We were psyched to see that Tahoe National Forest was open and permitted dispersed camping within 500feet of the PCT, but while Eldorado National Forest was open for hiking, camping outside of designated campgrounds was prohibited through November 30- I was intrigued and excited by the challenge of an epic 29 mile finale, but not everyone was.  

Matt reviewed the map and realized that we would be passing through the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, and unless they extended the no-camping order, we could obtain a permit to camp in those last 29miles, which would require a much more feasible 19mile day and a 10mile day. Matt secured a permit and we kept our fingers crossed. 

Wednesday night before our road trip north, Matt and I decided to watch netflix instead of packing.  We received the following pictures from Jesse:

The pictures were a nice slap in the face- Matt and I still needed to go grocery shopping! Shit.  (Flashbacks to April 12, 2019, the night before starting our thru-hike attempt, where we stayed up WAY too late trying to select our food and packing our backpacks for the first time…why, why did we suck at this?!)

Thursday morning Matt and I gathered our supplies, packed my car, then headed to three different grocery stores to try and find our preferred backpacking food. (We failed, but made-do with substitutions.) 

Though we had aimed for a 12pm departure from San Diego, we didn’t end up grabbing Jesse and hitting the road until after 3:15pm…woops! 

We drove to Sacramento, spent the night in a hotel, then continued our journey north to Sierra City.  At some point on this leg of the journey I realized that I had forgotten my pee rag at home…wait, did I ever confess to getting one last year?!? It took about 500 miles of alternating between drip-drying and using tp(and storing the used TP in a ziplock in my pocket and smelling like pee for days) before breaking down and buying a pee rag, which is made with antimicrobial/anti-odor fabric, buttons closed, clips to my pack, and is machine-washable.  It was incredibly useful on-trail but has lived in my closet for the past year, where it apparently still resides. Damnit. But whatever, I did 500+ miles without a pee rag, I can do 100+ more. 

We made it to Sierra City, took turns using the flush toilets at the visitor center (a luxury we would soon miss!), chugged a bottle of water from the General Store, then drove to the trailhead…only to find that there was no parking at the trailhead.  We drove back to “downtown” Sierra City, parked on the side of the road, did some last minute organizing, then threw our packs on our backs… 

Putting my pack on for the first time in over a year felt comfortable; like a familiar hug from an old friend…except my old friend weighed a lot more than I remembered. But really, who am I to judge?  I, too, have apparently grown: the embrace of the waistband, unadjusted from the time we left the trail last September, was so unbearably tight that I had to suck in my stomach and hold my breath to close it; I was only able to breathe again once I loosened the belt.  {Fun fact? Despite what my pack was telling me, I actually weigh about 4 lbs less than I did when I started the PCT in April 2019, and if I remember correctly, about 6lbs less than when I ended the PCT in September 2019- I am finally starting to accept the whole “you gained muscle” shit everyone told me when I bitched about having gained weight on-trail, and I now realize that the number on the scale is NOT a direct correlation to how my clothes (or packs!) fit or how I look or feel…}

Anyways, with our packs on and adjusted for excess fluff, we began our slog to the trailhead…

Holy. Fuckin. Hell.  It was hot, our bags were heavy, and those 1.4miles were endless.  I felt as if somebody was slowly but forcefully pulling my pack down towards the ground, trying to melt my body into the hard pavement below.  My attempts at hitchhiking failed- only one passing car acknowledged me by yelling out, “no room!” as they passed. Fuck. Me. 

It took forever, but we finally made it to the trailhead around 2:20pm, 2 hours and 20 minutes later than the boys had wanted to start and nearly an hour after my self-declared “we must leave no later than this” time.  Oops? 

Some stats: 
My base weight: 17.8lbs (everything but food and water.) 
With food: 25lbs (apparently 6-ish lbs of food for 7 days)
Total pack weight, including food and too many liters of water: 33-34lbs 

(Another fun fact! My starting base weight back in April 2019 was 17lbs. I had weighed my pack twice during our thru-hike attempt, and both times my pack weighed 34lbs with food and water- talk about consistency!) 

Despite the walk to the trail and my heavy pack, it felt great to be back on trail.  Matt and I agreed it felt as if we never left- we jumped right back into the wilderness life nearly seamlessly. 

At one point I could feel myself getting so elated that I had to rope my emotions back in- the last time I felt this excited to be back on trail was when we had started hiking south through Washington after Matt’s injury- I had just finished telling Matthew how happy I was, when I proceeded to slip and fall into a small waterfall and then get stung by a wasp…I didn’t need a repeat of that reality check, so instead of being so blissfully happy, I decided to focus on how heavy my pack was and how badly my shoulders were hurting…ugh, Ali-logic doesn’t always make sense… 

While we hiked through the forest and gained elevation, we couldn’t ignore the questionable air quality, which was definitely not ideal due to all of the active wildfires.  We had meant to check the AQI before setting off, but like many things we meant to do, we didn’t…

Though the sky was hazy and the air smelled of smoke, that gnats were out in full-force. I swatted them away as I moved as quickly as I could, praying none would end up in my mouth as I huffed and puffed.  I contemplated taking out my bug net but decided against it- we didn’t suggest Jesse get one, never imagining that there would be bugs in October! Ugh. 

We passed SO many great water sources- why did we start with 4 liters each!?!

Between the heat, elevation, air quality, and pack weight, Jesse was hurting.  His pack was definitely heavier than both mine and Matt’s, and he is a lot smaller than Matt and I.  My pack felt heavy and my shoulders ached- I couldn’t imagine how terrible Jesse felt! 

After a fairly steep section, we decided we should set up camp earlier than we had planned to to avoid a. feeling like death (and maybe real death?!) and b. arriving to camp in the dark. As I had mentioned, Jesse had never set up his tent before, so we figured it would be best to do so without the added challenge of darkness. 

Matt and I got to work setting up our own tent, hesitating briefly to remember our system- which stakes did we like to put in first? We had tried at least two different methods of setting up our tent during our thru-hike attempt, but we forgot which we liked best.  Eventually we found our rhythm and set up our mansion, while Jesse successfully set up his own coffin-sized cocoon.  

Before reconvening outside to eat dinner, we each set up our sleeping system.  I had taken my shoes off and was excited to throw on my camp shoes, only to discover that they were nowhere to be found. Dangit! I vaguely remembered thinking I’d save weight by leaving them in my car, but did I really convince myself that that was a good idea?! Ugh! Wtf?!  I begrudgingly put on my dirty, smelly trail runners to join the boys for dinner. 

We sat on some rocks while we ate. I indulged in a handful each of wheat thins, bada beans, and trail mix, a few Scandinavian Swimmers, a rice krispie treat, and a package of ritz cheese crackers. Oh my poor diet…

At one point Jesse sighed and said, “guys, I brought too much food, as you said I would” (I did) “and I’m not even hungry, like you said I wouldn’t be.” (I did.) {There is such a weird phenomenon that many experience when backpacking/thru-hiking where no matter how many miles you hike and calories you burn, eating is SO difficult in the first few days.}

We knew that the next day we would be passing by a campground, where we had hoped there would be a dumpster to ditch some of Jesse’s food to lighten his much too heavy load- poor guy!! 

Before retiring to our tents, we talked game plan: we agreed to aim for 15 miles the next day with a 7am start.  I reviewed our water sources and climbs on guthooks before closing my eyes around 8pm.

Happiness is: being back on trail. Before starting this section I had wondered if I would feel at home- I had wanted to be able to write, “how could I feel so at home in a place I had never been before?” But I never got that overwhelming “this is home” sensation- instead I felt, “this is right.” The trail is where I thrive…it is where I am my truest and wildest and rawest and happiest self.

Cathole: 1 dug, false alarm.