A Rough Start..

So, we are now out of the mountains and back in Turin. A lack of internet access and problems uploading photos precluded posting to the blog while we were in the mountains. Nonetheless I will catch up now and post the updates over the coming days.

On our first full hiking day we woke early to clear sky and sun, not the rain that had been forecast. We set off West along an undulating path accompanied by the ubiquitous cow bells that are such a feature of the Alps. The landscape here was dominated by larch and hazel and undulated through grazing pasture surrounded by imposing rocky peaks. We crossed a himalayan style bridge and continued through low scrub. Several times throughout the day we would run into herds of cattle accompanied by a herder and numerous Maremma sheepdogs, a breed that goes back centuries in close association with alpine grazing, herding and the transhumance.  

Our first big climb took us 600m up and over the Passo Delle Saline a name drawn from the pass’ history as a trade route rather than from surrounding mineral deposits. As we climbed we were chased by gathering and darkening clouds. The wind at the top grew fierce and cold and, ignoring the track up to the colle on our left, we quickly dropped down the far side descending through heather clad hillside and met our first hikers coming the other way, Germans who somehow knew before they reached us that we were English and greeted us accordingly.  We wanted a quick stop on a rock for lunch but the rest was short lived as the cold wind that we’d left on the ridge swept down behind us to meet that coming up from below. 

The sight of the darkening clouds was enough to hurry us on and accompanied by the bells of the cows below us we hurried on. The sky became darker and darker and we’d hoped to reach the Rifugio Mondovi that we knew lay on our route a short way ahead, before the inevitable rain caught us. We scurried forward and down but the valley below became darker and between the rocks ahead which hid a steeper descent, the valley had the grim appearance Mordor. The sky lit with a thick immediate bolt of light that crashed to the ground somewhere ahead that seemed directly in our path. Suddenly reluctant to push ahead we stopped and adopted rain gear in preparation for the imminent deluge. Cracks of electrified thunder burst above us and the lightening erupted around us again and again. We put our heads down, gritted our teeth and pushed forward,  the Rifugio now in sight. Despite looking quiet and dark, it was not a hard decision to stop and we were relieved when we found the door open and life inside.

Within minutes of reaching shelter the rain came. Not gently at first but all in one go as if there would not be sufficient time for it all to fall. It came in waves, pelting the windows and the temperature dropped by as much as 15 degrees. Inside we were met by friendly guy with enough English vocabulary to make our order of drinks an easy request as the rain turned to hail and the lightening moved across the sky. We’d been incredibly lucky to reach shelter. Some hour or more later,  when the worst had passed we continued, scaling our second pass of the day and began the long but incredibly scenic descent to the Rifugio Garelli, a haven perched improbably on a prominentary with a view that money couldn’t buy.

We woke again to clear blue sky and still air, a contrast to the wind and rain that had once again pounded down after our arrival the previous night. Our friendly host, had a powerful telescope trained on a distant crag where he was watching some Chamois, a mum with a couple of kids. He was running the Rifugio alone now but in a couple of weeks his wife would join him and in the Peak of the season, five people would be needed to run the place. All supplies and the food he was serving us were all hauled up to the Rifugio at 1965m by horse. 

After a sparse breakfast of bread, jam and a hot chocolate, we got going. Initially downhill, over a ridge edge, and back on ourselves to skirt a gully around the tributaries of a stream. We were out of the sun and into the shade of the towering peaks and crags around us until the narrow path skirted gradually higher diagonally up the increasingly steep slope. The undergrowth here was thick and lush with dwarf pines competing for light with grasses, shrubs and wildflowers of every colour. We were unprepared for the crest of the ridge which buffeted our sweaty bodies with a brisk wind at the most inconvenient time. A scattering of paths meant we needed to consult the map and guide as the ubiquitous red and white markers of the GTA were not immediately visible.

Further confusion ensued at a later junction that appeared to be marked incorrectly with the red and white marker of the GTA. After several days we soon learned that there is more than one GTA. It is best described as main route with a series of possible options or variants. 

As we travelled west our route began to use old military tracks initially down then past Hut Delle Ortica (surrounded by nettles as the name suggests) and then swooping a long curve back on ourselves to the next ridge system and the small concrete post marking the French border. 

As we’d been scaling the last climb to the ridge and border we were surprised by a German couple coming the other way who greeted us earnestly with the question ‘are you the English?’ unsure initially what made us stand out so or why they would be expecting us, we tentatively acknowledged and they explained that Walter sends his greetings and looks forward to meeting us. Ah.. The penny dropped. We had asked our host at last night’s Rifugio to telephone ahead for us to make a reservation at the Hotel Arrucador, a small, if perfectly located hotel with just three rooms at the foot of the days mountain, just below the Colle De Tenda, right on the French/Italian border. Walter was the owner and our new German friends had stayed there last night.

Our route then followed the border often walking in France for long periods, ridge after ridge. Again and again we past these concrete marker posts, high in the mountains, marking the boundary that was set out in 1947 at the end of hostilities. Walking a boundary in this way only served to highlight the absurdity of our human imposed division on a landscape. No change was visible as we passed from side to side, no feature nor flora or fauna characterised France more than Italy or vice versa. The wolves that once again roamed these mountains did not discriminate, any more than the prey they pursued. Yet the politics and division that we create had set neighbour against neighbour across these mountains, more than once.

The first mountain fort that came into view was Fort Pepin. Deep on the French side our route did not visit it but my disappointment would be tempered over the coming days as I began to realise just how many such forts, barracks and other fortifications remain an enduring feature of these mountains. 

After the remains of a smaller fort we made a navigation error. Missing a small path between shrubs, allegedly marked with the typical red/white base on a rock, we found ourselves on a long switchback into the French side on a gravel track. By the time we realised the only thing to do was continue as it would eventually return us to a point lower on our path but it added a couple of kilometers to an already long day.  Then we were back at last to the Colle de Tenda and the imposing Fort Centrale, a short way below which lay our destination for the night.  In our tiredness we made a further silly error and set off down the road without checking the map believing our hotel,  the Arrucador, could be accessed from the road. We were wrong and it took a feat of will power to turn around and walk back up the road twenty minutes later to select the correct descent by a broad grassy path. The day had been a lesson in diligent navigation and our tired legs made us all the more determined not to make sure errors in the days ahead.

Hotel Arrucador: Just 3 rooms, but wonderfully located, individual and luxurious and amazing food!

The Journey Before The Journey

After an early start from Abbey Wood at Lisa’s parents,  we found ourselves stood at the station, reading alerts for delays on our route. They didn’t transpire and despite initial concerns we had a smooth run through to London Bridge, an easy change and straight to Gatwick. Before checking in we went to get our rucksacks shrink wrapped to protect them. It was almost amusing. Our wrapped sacks were smaller than many folks carry-on luggage and they seemed half empty. We had nothing to carry on unlike most, and were content that we were carrying only the minimum we needed, knowing that over the coming days we would be carrying them many miles over steep mountain passes. The wrapping service provided smiley face stickers to identify our bags and we were asked to deliver them to ‘oversize baggage’, surely they must have been joking with us.

The flight was quick but turbulence hit over the Alps as we began to descend and a clear air pocket meant that the plane dropped suddenly with several people’s drinks hitting the ceiling. We landed safely, were quickly through baggage reclaim and almost straight onto the bus into Turin. The sky was dark with cloud, raining and ominous as we drove through the industrial outskirts of town. Soon however we were into the centre and the lights softly lit the arches and swirls of the old architecture. The hotel Genova in the center of the city welcomed us and enabled an amusing first attempt at speaking Italian, then after a shower and change we were off to Restaurante Marcello for dinner. 

We got in at just the right time. It was popular, touted as one of the best in Turin, and the many walk-ins were turned away. Simple local food cooked beautifully was something we would come to appreciate on the days ahead. This was followed by a walk to the piazzas, the rain had cleared, the temperature rose and it had become a lovely warm evening, clear and fresh after the rain. 

The following morning we had a chaotic start. A power cut left our phones uncharged, we were late into Porto Nuovo station and thought we’d missed our train. It seemed fate was smiling on us as we discovered our delayed train was still in the platform but we should have seen it as an omen as it not only started late but crawled and stopped, getting later most of the way. We were late into Ceva and missed the planned bus but after a short wait in this sleepy town, a later bus appeared around the corner and Lisa tackled the issue of purchasing tickets and communicating our destination of Ormea to the bemused driver. We clambered on and were whisked through windy roads higher toward the mountains. 

Ormea provided a fabulous lunch and gelato at the Bar Nazionale, but getting out of it in the direction of Viozene proved more difficult. There were no buses that ran to Viozene and it would be a 17km walk if we couldn’t find someone to drive us. We waited until 4pm for the small tourist office to open as the sign outside it had indicated, but 4pm came and went without any sign of life therein. We’d begun to wonder whether we might be searching soon for accommodation instead of transport. After several circuits of the small town looking for any information on a taxi service we resorted to stopping passers by to find a potential translator. When we did find someone she kindly enquired for us at the Bar and the name of a potential driver, Luciano was identified. Unfortunately his phone was out of connection and a further attempt to contact his wife revealed she had no idea where he was and didn’t sound happy about it! Our good samaritan was keen to get on and had to leave so we were faced with accepting that we might be stuck in Ormea for the night. Then just as she was about to drive away, our new friend leapt back out of her car, phone in hand, it was Luciano, he had returned the call. We could try to find Signore Colombo,  and if we had no luck then Luciano himself would take us about 7pm. It seemed appropriate that this detective work should conclude with a hunt for a Colombo, we were giggling as we walked down the road, picturing the detective Colombo, cigar in hand, turning back in a doorway; “before I go, one more thing”. 

We honestly did not expect to find Signore Colombo and probably looked more surprised than he was when we met outside his small garage, just locking up for the day. Of course he spoke only Italian so we did our best to make our request clear and he immediately smiled, “Si, Si, Viozene, taxi..” well, that was the bit I understood at least. We almost couldn’t believe it. He had us wait while he changed, then we loaded our packs into his car and attempted futile conversation as we wound our way up the steep mountain road to Viozene. After much thanks and hand shaking he departed and we were left at the foot of the track at the official start of the Grande Traversata Delle Alpi, which then climbed up through the beautiful little village, directly to the Rifugio Mongioie which was our first nights accommodation and the start if the real walking!

Another trip begins..

If it had not been for a conversation with Joe at Cicerone (the guidebook publishers) we might never have stumbled across the GTA. The Grande Traversata delle Alpi,  a 400 mile scenic trek forming an arc through the western Italian Alps with 44,000m of ascent (and the same in descent) over 62 passes. 

Neither of us have spent any time in Italy prior to this and neither of us speak any Italian so we’ll have the added challenge this year of ‘getting by’ with a phrase book and sign language in an area about which I’d read ‘you can count the number of English-speakers on one hand’! 

Surely that couldn’t be true could it? After all the European Alps have been thoroughly explored, commercialised and populated by everyone with the will and enough euros to go there, haven’t they? It would seem that might not be the case. The limited information available about the GTA tells a story. The original Italian Alpine Club guides are out of print, the one English published guide hasn’t been updated since 2005, and online the information that is available is primarily offered in the German language. 

First sight of the maps has been interesting too. The Istituto Geografico Centrale maps were obtained thanks to the kind people at The Map Shop in Upton-upon-Severn, they seem to be quite an old print, lacking in any grid system for point location/identification and if people out there in the land of web-forums are to be believed, are some way from being accurate particularly when it comes to footpaths! 

To add to the adventure this year we’ve decided to leave the tent at home. The Alps were once more populated than they are now and mountain villages remain scattered throughout the valleys. In the last 50 years or so the population in many of these has dwindled, in some cases to just a handful of people,  and the route of the GTA was designed to drop into these small communities every few days enabling hikers to get a wash and bed, and potentially basic supplies as well as bringing a little much-needed income into these remote communities. In between there are mountain huts, known as Rifugio, dotted around the mountains that provide very basic accommodation and we plan to reach one of these each night.

We won’t be able to complete the whole route in one trip this year as other commitments dictate that we keep our travels within the confines of an employer-friendly period of time, but nonetheless, three weeks will allow us to have what looks like it will be quite an adventure.

I don’t know yet what signal/connections will be like but will endeavour to update this site regularly with updates and photos for anyone interested in following our progress.

What’s it really like? Routines, food, equipment & clothing

Why would anyone want to hike over 2500 miles in one summer? That’s a question that I’ve been asked several times. There are potentially a lot of ways to answer that, but it’s still not a simple thing to do. I was captivated by the idea of a long journey through the mountains and wilder places over twenty-five years ago when I worked on a summer camp in Pennsylvania, hiking small sections of the Appalachian Trail with youngsters. Since then the lure of that challenging yet also peaceful experience of living and travelling, away from the comforts of the modern world and closer to the nature from which we originate, has continued to maintain a hold over me in a way that, had I been smarter, I might have acted upon considerably sooner. There is something that comes from time spent in the outdoors that builds inner strength, calms anxiety and creates peace, within and between people in a way that I have not found elsewhere. Spending time in this way has not cured me, only reaffirmed to me the value of undertaking simple journeys among the nature and landscapes that seem, time and again, to bring out the best in the people I’ve met along the trail.
I had promised to respond to the many questions we have had about food, clothing, daily routines and so on, so I have put together this post to try to answer some of these. If there is something specific you would like to know that I have not covered here, then please do leave a question in the comments box below and I will get back to you with a response as soon as I can.

The practical realities of undertaking a journey like this are, of course, inevitably somewhat less romantic than the overarching concept or the enduring memories that will remain. Questions of transport, money, equipment and perhaps above all else, a sense of insecurity about fitness; the ‘can I really do this?’ question, plagued us for months before we set out.

In the early days of the hike,  when we were still relatively unfit, we hiked anything between twelve and fifteen miles a day. That enabled a civilised start to the day with a relaxed pack-up, breakfast as the sun reliably appeared over the horizon, and a gentle pace through the day that facilitated a significant about of pondering great views and photographing unusual sights. Aches and pains were commonplace and largely ignored with as little moaning as possible. Blisters came and went and we quickly learned to recognise and deal with the early signs of dehydration. None of this could dampen our spirits, or the awe that we felt for the desert, an incredibly special place that will always remain one of our favourite environments. In many ways that ‘honeymoon period’ lasted for the whole of the desert section, seven hundred miles from Campo to Kennedy Meadows.

We were not keen to rush into the Sierra’s until a good amount of the snow had melted from the high passes so in a sense there was no pressure to achieve high mileages. Until that point therefore the whole hike had a really relaxed feel to it with all the time in the world to explore side trails or the small towns along the way. All of that began to change as we entered the Sierra mountains. Not only had we waited for the snow to melt, but we also then found ourselves taking ten days out from the trail in the hope that the pain in Lisa’s foot would subside sufficiently for her to continue. As you now know, it did not improve, it got worse and she would subsequently have to take the difficult decision to go home.When I returned to the trail, having been out to the airport with Lisa and said goodbye, I was fairly depressed. Despite being in the midst of the High Sierra, some of the most incredible scenery in the world, mountains I had long dreamed of, I was both incredibly sad for Lisa, being unable to continue, and unhappy about continuing alone on a trip we had planned together. I was also by then over two weeks behind schedule and had to maintain a much higher daily mileage to be sure of completing within the typical weather window available, reaching Canada by the end of September. Although some hikers will finish after that point, it becomes increasingly likely that the high passes in the Cascade mountains, one of the remotest and most challenging sections, would be under the first snowfall of the year. 

I tried hard to keep focused on the challenges ahead and threw myself into achieving heroic mileages, sometimes climbing two big passes over 11,000ft in a day. I camped on the high passes to minimise mosquito issues and rationed my food to avoid wasting time travelling out of the mountains to resupply in a section 200 miles long before I would cross another road. 

Throughout Oregon and Washington I was hiking typically 12 hours a day and covering anything between 25 and 35 miles each day. I would be up about 6am and aim to be hiking before 7am each morning, then hike until around 12pm for about a 30 minute lunch break, then continue until 7pm, sometimes later to find a suitable camp spot. 

We’ve been asked a lot about what we (or subsequent to Lisa having to retire, I) carried, what equipment choices we made and what clothes we took for such varied climates. The answer is essentially ‘as little as possible’, primarily because everything has to be carried, including food and water which would typically be about fifty percent of our pack weight at any given time. Many hikers who blog or have websites to share their adventures dedicate a page for each trip to equipment and list everything with detailed specs and weights for others to reference. Many will also promote their favourite kit or preferred choices to encourage others to pick the same. We have avoided doing this primarily because we have learnt that there are no ‘right’ choices when it comes to kit, only right for you. We have seen people successfully using vastly different equipment, for reasons of both budget or availability as well as preference. What is important to remember in the planning stages, as well en route, is that good equipment makes you more comfortable, and sometimes safer, however it is only determination that will.. well, determine the success or completion of a trip or adventure. Few great adventurers of the past had the luxury of equipment and clothing half as good as most of what’s available to us today. Even on one of the most iconic and dangerous climbs there is, the North Face of the Eiger, one of the four climbers to first successfully summit managed without crampons, something that would seem absurd to attempt today, yet he couldn’t afford them. What he lacked in equipment he made up for with determination.

The point I am making is not to encourage anybody to set off ill-prepared, but that choices of brand, style, material and so on are very much individual choices and are unlikely to play a significant factor in determining a successful trip, provided the overall weight is manageable. 

That said we’ve had many questions about our choices of equipment, so for those interested in gear I’ll use this post to talk a little about what we chose to take and why.

Weight is of course the biggest issue when you have to carry everything. We spent a lot of time (and a bit too much money) before we left finding lighter alternatives to most of our ‘normal’ kit. However lighter is not always better. There is a big trade off with comfort and durability.

Our ‘big three’ items are sleeping bag, tent and backpack. These have most impact on our overall weight (before food, water and fuel). We set off with backpacks we had used before; Lisa’s a Golite Odyssey and mine a Granite Gear Crown. Both packs weighed around a kilogram, pretty much at the lightweight end of the market. I subsequently switched mine out for an Osprey Atmos 65, so that I could take additional weight from Lisa while her foot was painful (before we knew it was a stress fracture). The Atmos suspension/venting back system is undoubtedly the most comfortable I have ever carried. I wouldn’t hesitate to choose it again if my typical load was over 35lbs. I then reverted to a lighter Osprey Exos 58 after Lisa had gone home. I have been extremely happy with the Exos which is both light and comfortable but can still carry a fair load. 

Our tent is made by Z-Packs in the US. Known as a Duplex (http://www.zpacks.com/shelter/duplex.shtml), it is a single skin cuben fibre ridge with bug mesh sewn in at either end and sewn in groundsheet. This is where our greatest weight saving was made. Although not cheap, it weighed just 650grams before stakes and poles. It is designed to use trekking poles for support so there is no additional pole weight to carry, stakes are Easton aluminium nails. Being smooth and round they do not fray the guy lines with repeated use. Comparing to the weight of a typical lightweight two person tent weighing around two kilograms it is considered ultralight. It’s been a great choice. A little condensation can build up on the inside as it is a single-skin tent, so we’d usually sleep with the sides open for ventilation, watching the stars! 

Finally our sleeping bags; these are also from ZPacks and were chosen for warmth, weight and design. 

Unlike most lightweight bags these have 3/4 length zippers, no baffle and no hood, to enable them to be opened out and used as quilts in warmer weather. We also use silk sleeping bag liners, on their own when it’s really hot but primarily in or under our down bags to keep them clean – it’s a lot easier to wash a liner than the down bag! A sleeping mat was something that took me a while to settle on. I began the trip with a Thermarest Neo-air Xlite. I found I didn’t like the noise (it rustled like dry leaves) nor the width that left my arms on the cold ground. At various times I tried to sleep on a Z-lite pad (too hard for my aging back) and a Thermarest pro-lite medium pad. Both of these were attempts to lower the pack weight in this area. In the end I accepted that a good night’s sleep was worth a small weight penalty and I settled on an Exped synmat hyperlite and chose the wide pad. This enabled me to sleep in comfort and weighed only a few ounces more than my original X-lite mat, but packed down smaller. 

In terms of clothing, we both wore hiking shirts at the outset. The long sleeves and collar were essential sun protection. In Washington I subsequently switched this to a Patagonia Capilene medium weight base layer which was warmer when damp. We wore long trousers in the desert too, to protect from sun, but also to protect against the many poisonous, sharp or stinging flora and fauna. However I switched to shorts as soon as possible, and Lisa, while she was with me, then wore a hiking skirt, for coolness. Interestingly we have seen a couple of male hikers wearing lightweight kilts for hiking, for the same reason, coolness and comfort. The Scottish clans were clearly on to something, although I am less convinced when it comes to evening time and there are biting insects around! Waterproof outerwear was initially Montane Minimus pants and a Rab Spark jacket, all Pertex Shield+. In a bout of minimal weight-saving fervour I switched these out unworn in Northern California for a Mountain Laurel Designs rain kilt and an Outdoor Research Helium jacket, saving several ounces. These I wore through some serious rain in Washington. The jacket was adequate and a good compromise for this trip given the low number of wet days overall, but I didn’t get on well with the rain kilt which I found to ride up, restrict stride and not keep me terribly dry. It could be argued to be less sweaty than rain pants however so I can see why some hikers prefer them, especially if hiking in shorts.

Footwear has varied a lot. The majority of thru-hikers value low weight above all else and will hike all terrains in trail-runners; the most popular being Altras. However, my feet require a little more support than these provide. I did the seven hundred miles of desert in Scarpa Zen approach shoes which were great, although I’d have benefitted from a more cushioned insole. I switched to Scarpa R-Evo boots for the Sierra’s which were fantastic. Then, seeking something lighter for North California and Oregon, I briefly went into Salomon X-Ultra mids. This was a mistake, it was mid-summer, very hot and I needed something more breathable. I also started at about that time to get some unexpected foot pains. I later discovered my arches were collapsing and this helped to explain why my feet no longer fit the x-ultra’s. I searched about to find something breathable, supportive and wide but also sufficiently protective under the soles. After a lot of searching I settled on these:

Lowa Zephyr’s. I wouldn’t previously have expected them to fit but I have gone up a full size and got wider feet since the start of this trip. I can’t help wondering whether my feet will ever return to how they were. Even though these boots are vented, I have worn them through Oregon and Washington, despite the rain in the latter stages. Wool socks (Smartwool) kept my feet warm even when wet (most of the time).

In the latter part of the desert sections I acquired a chrome top umbrella. In some areas of the Mojave there is just no shade anywhere so it’s helpful to bring your own. I would have benefitted from it throughout the desert and it would have helped to prevent a couple of bouts of heat stroke/dehydration. I guess I can chalk that up to something new learnt on this trip.

I began the trip carrying Black Diamond trekking poles, but quickly found I did not like the shape of the handle tops. I switched to Leki poles and have found the handle shape to be fantastically comfortable,  even with day after day use. I find the, almost silky, straps to be really comfortable for prolonged use too. Tip longevity was a big issue for many hikers. Obviously how you use the poles has a significant bearing on this but watching many hikers over the course of the summer revealed an interesting trend: older style Black Diamond tips typically lasted longer than the newer style of tip appearing on Black Diamond’s latest poles, which wore or broke worryingly swiftly. The tips on the Leki poles I used have lasted a full two thousand miles of continuous use and although still intact, are definitely in need of replacement now.

In the kitchen department I carried a relatively cheap Hi-Gear titanium stove burner. We’ve had it for years and can’t find a good reason to replace it. An Evernew ti 1.3l pot came with us until Lisa’s departure then was substituted for a 750ml ti cup thereafter. Breakable Sporks were swiftly switched out for long handled ti spoons too. 

Diet on the trail was limited by availability of food low in weight and high in calories. When else in life can you actually hunt down the food with the most calories? I’ve read various estimates of how many calories a hiker will burn and of course it varies from person to person, but I would guess that I was typically burning around 4500 calories a day. Replenishing that with enough food that I could reasonably carry for about a weeks’ supply was always a challenge. Oats have been a daily staple. Various pastries such as pop tarts and cinnamon rolls. Fruit leathers, snack bars, protein bars and trail mix are all good for snacking every hour. Flour tortilla wraps with packet tuna and cream cheese make a good lunch, sometimes supplemented with instant noodles. Ritz cheese-filled crackers are good too, 210 calories for just six. Evening meals were occasionally expensive freeze-dried meals designed for backpackers, but more often were basic packet rice or pasta sides. At various times I would add olive oil to a meal just to add calories, or take a tub of chocolate spread. Trail mix in the beginning was typical shop-bought varieties, but as time went on I began making my own up just for variety, including my particular luxury favourite: peanut mnm’s, chocolate mnm’s and chocolate raisins! 

The inevitable question is what would I do differently next time? My gear evolved somewhat over the summer and what I finished with was lighter than what I started with. I learned to prioritise weight over most other factors, except good sleep. I learnt that I didn’t need ‘spare clothes’, that it is normal to sit in a laundromat in your rain gear alone, and that you will smell no matter how hard you try to maintain hygiene. Most gear and clothing decisions are dictated by the environment and one of the challenges of the PCT is the wide range of climates and environments visited. However, I’ve also learnt that it’s easy to over-think the issue of gear and what is suitable. What’s important is getting out there! 

The final miles

I woke early, shivering a little and clasping the sleeping bag tightly around my face. If I released it a rasp of icy air entered the bag and stole valuable warmth from my head and neck. I’d listened hard from the depths of my sleeping bag for the patter of rain on the tent. It had rained persistently, although not hard, for several days in a row and I really needed to at least get my clothes and sleeping bag dry. Fortunately the temperature had been staying above freezing or I might have been somewhat more uncomfortable. The forecast out of Snoqualmie Pass had been favourable, however the reality had not lived up to expectations. That day was the first in several days that I did not wake to the sound of rain. It had started well but throughout the morning grey mists swirled and built as the sky darkened and eventually, in the afternoon, the rain returned.  This latter section of Washington was considered to be some of the most remote and challenging terrain on the whole hike, second only perhaps to the John Muir Trail section that we had followed through the High Sierra. The trail would see me climb pass after pass and I frequently encountered creeks and rivers to be crossed, many now a little more exciting than they’d been perhaps just days previously. At some of these log bridges had been constructed, and some had subsequently collapsed or been destroyed by falling trees, but for many such crossings the challenge was left to the individual to find an appropriate and safe crossing point, picking a way across wet and slippery rocks, dripping with moss, or accepting the inevitable wet feet. 

In the rain the narrow trail, where it climbed steeply through the dense and dripping undergrowth, had become a treacherous mudchute that required careful use of hiking poles and even the occasional use of roots and branches to ensure that upward motion was not lost to unwitting slides backward as gravity battled to hold me back. Occasionally bursting out of the undergrowth near the top of a long climb meant emerging from the trees to find oneself looking down upon a cloud inversion, out of the rain momentarily,  even if sweat and moisture-laden shrubs conspired to ensure that, even for a brief moment, I should not be dry.
That afternoon, as the sky darkened further and rain turned to sleet, I paused to fill water from a creek at the base of a climb. Despite stopping for just a few minutes, my sweat-soaked shirt quickly began to chill me and I hastened up one more long climb, resorting to my headlamp for way-finding as dusk became darkness and I stumbled over hidden rocks trying to find a sufficiently flat and protected spot to pitch my tent. The following morning was cold and clear, as well as blessedly dry, which meant a quicker and safer descent to reach Stevens Pass for resupply. This was for many hikers, a difficult section for resupply, with long hitches required on quiet roads. I was fortunate however to have been regularly hiking with another hiker who had family in the area. Their help and support with resupply throughout Washington had been invaluable and had undoubtedly saved me considerable time.

From Stevens Pass my sights were set on Stehekin, a remote habitation set at the north of Lake Chelan and only accessible by boat, float plane or on foot. No road reaches in to Stehekin, all goods must travel the four hour journey by boat and that isolation is what defines it’s character. A sense of excitement was building in me as the end was drawing near. Stehekin was to be the last supply stop in Washington. After that, all that remained was about eighty miles to the border which I’d planned to do in four days. I’d heard former thru-hikers talk about the conflicting emotions felt toward the end of such a hike, but until that point hadn’t appreciated the intensity of the conflict. A part of me was exhausted, with painful feet and sore knees, and longed to be done, to sleep in a bed again, and eat at a table. However, a side of me knew that this had been a very special summer, one that was rapidly coming to an end. I had become accustomed to watching the sun rise and set, to waking at night to the most stars I had ever seen, to observing the little rituals of the birds, animals and insects that I shared every day with, to drinking from gurgling mountain steams and stopping in awe several times each day to gaze in wonder at the beauty and grandeur of the landscapes around me. All of that would soon be over, and deep inside me I felt an almost overwhelming sadness forming that I would not shake for a long time to come. 

I pushed all that out of my mind as I set out from Stevens Pass on a gorgeous afternoon of delicate autumn sun that filtered gently through the many shades of reds and yellow and softly probed under the corners of the growing carpet of peaty leaves and pine needles. Each of these days had its own unique character and the following day could not have been more different. I set out in low cloud and persistent rain which only eased momentarily throughout the day. It was not hard but it worked it’s way through every gap, up sleeves and into my pack. The trail took me up and up all morning, climbing to the high ridges of the Cascades, precipitous slopes and rocky crags reminding me strongly of the Sierras. Long drops into thickly forested valleys were only occasional glimpses and I sacrificed the amazing vistas for which the section was known, for a wilder, wind-swept and somewhat more desolate experience, isolated in the cloud, but with a heightened awareness of the immediate surroundings and the powerful potential of the weather which periodically reshaped this landscape. 

A lone marmot was sat high on a rock. I heard him long before I saw him. A high pitched whistling, emitted in rhythmic blasts, initially had me wondering whether a fallen hiker was using a whistle to draw attention. However as I descended, there he was, sitting prominently calling out, a marmot telegram, to a neighbour in the next valley. Sure enough between his whistles came an answering blast, clearly heard despite the distance and weather. I’d never seen them do that before. 

During that afternoon the weather really closed in and after the long climbs on exposed ridges in the wind I was glad to be descending deep into the belly of the forest, among the bracken, lichen and fungus, the smell of decay and the soft moss underfoot, where the air was still and I could camp in shelter. I’d passed a small stone marker that afternoon, constructed by another hiker and marking two and a half thousand miles of trail since Campo on the Mexican border back in April. I was feeling good, if a bit wet and cold.

Stehekin proved to be a fitting final stop. A small community, nestled between the mountains, well away from the ‘real world’ included several former hikers who’d either gone no further or returned to stay close to the mountains. Despite the number of hikers still around, the lodge/store, bakery and bustling post room were clearly getting ready for winter and in just a few weeks, when the summer visitors were gone, only a handful of hardy residents would celebrate the first crisp silent snowfall that would blanket the settlement until next year. 

It was fitting that my final days on trail were every bit as memorable as the first. The sun stayed with me and nights were clear and crisp. The Aspens were at the height of their colour change, glowing yellow amongst their evergreen companions, splashing the hillsides with rich colour. Ptarmigan were dotted amongst the shrubs, their feathers showing the first white flecks of their own winter change, and occasional elk could be spotted, grazing intently in the thickets between passes. The trails of the Cascades between Stehekin and the Canadian border were simply thrilling. Good, high paths that twisted around cliffs and canyons, with distant vista’s that stretched to views of Mount Baker among other snow capped giants. Scree slopes dropped away dramatically, and on more than one occasion required some careful footwork to negotiate. The lofty aspect and clear skies made my heart soar and I felt no doubt that this place, and the memories of this journey, would remain with me forever more. 
The border, when it came, was an anticlimax. Deep in the trees, in the final valley before the climb to Manning Park and the first highway in Canada, it was marked with a small metal monument, numbered 78, and a wooden marker post to match that one I’d stood by, many months ago on the Mexican border. I’d thought that this monument marked the achievement of a long-held goal. The fulfillment of a dream. Yet somehow it didn’t seem to represent for me the culmination of everything this summer had held. It couldn’t match the peace that I’d found sitting in absolute stillness high on a mountain top, nor the exhilaration of successfully crossing a river raging in snow-melt. Neither did it capture the kindness and generosity I’d received from strangers, some of whom had never met me but who had undertaken numerous acts of ‘trail magic’ for me, and hikers like me. It is an old adage that the journey is more important than the destination, but it had never felt truer or more real.

I have made many friends along the trail and met many wonderful people and I am full of gratitude to them for being a part of my hike. For sharing the experiences and reminding me what it is to live simply and happily. Thank you to you all.

Into the North..

After two wonderful nights of recouperation, thanks to a friend of a friend with a cabin, I found myself in Cascade Locks, ready as i’d ever be to start the final push. A final burger and coke at the cascade locks ale house were followed by an ice cream, too large to be successfully contained in a waffle cone without spillage, from the Eastwind drive-in famous for being visited by hiker and writer Cheryl Strayed. Initially it wasn’t obvious how to get up to the bridge itself. The slipway off the highway curled around well above the sidewalk and aligned itself with the old clinker clad toll booth at the entrance to the bridge, but there did not initially appear to be a pedestrian walkway to the bridge. After over two thousand miles of hiking I had learned that America is built for the motor car not the pedestrian, so after climbing a wall and scrambling through the undergrowth where others had clearly gone before, I emerged by the toll booth where, true to form, a road sign instructed pedestrians to walk across the narrow iron bridge, in the road, facing the on-coming traffic, including the big trucks for whom this was clearly a major thru-route.

Emotionally the Bridge of the Gods was a huge milestone. I don’t think I really started to believe I might complete this hike until that point. Finally what had always seemed a dream, the sort of adventure that happens to other people, was coming within reach. I have dreamt, talked and read about this hike for over ten years. During that time it’s popularity and the number of people attempting the hike have increased, helped most recently by the film ‘Wild’. I had to remind myself that while Washington was the final State, the journey was far from over and Washington weather had ended the dream early on more than one occasion for previous hikers, as I was well aware.

On those first days in Washington the humidity seemed to dominate every moment. The change had seemed almost immediate after crossing the Colombia River. Lush, rich undergrowth and dark, peaty earth demonstrated that moisture was not a problem here. Sweat trickled repeatedly down my back, neck, even into my eyes which stung from the salt it carried. As the sun got higher in the sky by midday, shafts of light would catch on the dew resting on every leaf and frond. 

Rich ferns and bracken now dominated the ground around and the lichens that were tinder dry wisps hanging from the Oregon trees, were now lush lime green cloaks that clung tenaciously to trunk and branch, full of life and territorial ambition. Even the rocks seemed to sweat, droplets oozing from dark crevices and dripping from moss covered slabs. Slugs had appeared on the forest floor too. Thick, slimy specimens up to seven inches long oozed their way across the damp rock, mud and pine needles, negotiating pine cones like ships avoiding rocks on an ocean. Bracket fungus clung heroically to dead and fallen trunks, determinedly extracting every last nutrient of life from these rotting hulks. Twisted and knarled roots were disguised now, laying below the decaying leaf matter, awaiting the unwary or tired hiker and inviting a trip. The trail climbed and fell daily here and small changes started to happen. Here and there a leaf would appear out of place: red amongst its green compatriots.

Then over the coming days more and more would follow their lead until it seemed that the greens were in danger of being taken over entirely by yellows and reds. Nights had started to get colder too and collecting water began to mean freezing hands. One night I was camped with a couple of other hikers at high altitude when the mists that had hovered all day cleared at dusk to reveal incredible views of the glaciers on Mt Adams. Once wrapped up in my sleeping bag I lay awake listening to the ice cracking and breaking on glacier. Deep rumbles and sudden sharp cracks. It was the first of many nights to come when I would struggle to stay warm enough to sleep. 
It was now elk hunting season. An unnerving time to be a hiker in the woods. As well as occasionally passing other hikers, I had started to regularly see men in full camouflage, faces painted as if at war, creeping around the woods armed with dangerous looking and powerful crossbows. Many also carried guns but those I spoke to assured me that only bows were allowed to be used, for another few weeks at least. It must have been target practice I was hearing some evenings then. The elk seemed to be aware that they were being hunted and it seemed too that they knew who was hunting them. While many hunters would be seen traipsing back to their pick-ups empty handed in the early hours of the morning, the elk seemed quite content to spend the night grazing close to hikers tents. I secretly think they had adopted the guerrilla tactic of the human shield!

Along with the cold nights and cooler days there had also been an ominous development going on in the sky above. The once clear blue skies had begun to be dotted with cloud. Fluffy, white puffs at first that did little more than decorate the canvas. Then splashes of darker shades were added and these grew together until the sky hung above with a weight that could not last. All summer I had known this would come, and when it came it was a deluge. On the day I was due to hike into Snoqualmie Pass it was raining before first light. Packing up the tent was quite challenging. I’ve never figured out quite how a ‘waterproof’ material can successfully hold so much water. Quicker than I could pack, water pooled in every fold and the resulting wad of soggy material was too fat to fit into its dedicated bag as well as being three times heavier than it had been all summer. The ground cloth was no better and all the while I was packing rain stole its way into every corner of my pack. The resulting weight once lifted was significantly more than I’d been carrying previously.

All around me the steel grey cloak of mist and rain, that hid all but the nearest trees, sat heavily on my shoulders and galvanised the feeling that this was not a brief shower. The feeling was not wrong. The swirling mists would continue to lay over the landscape all day and the rain pounded down relentlessly. The trail became a series of deep pools, connected by torrents of rushing water. Suddenly my lightweight gear and well-vented boots didn’t seem such a good idea and very quickly I was soaked through. My pack cover did little to protect my pack either and by the time I reached the Summit Inn at Snoqualmie I was a dripping mess. The character of the hike had changed overnight and I could not be more aware of the weather window that appeared to be closing in fast on me. In some previous years the trail had become impassable with snow by early October. The forecast was for more rain and the temperature had been dropping daily so it was hard not to have some anxiety about what the next couple of weeks might hold.


Reaching Oregon was an end and a beginning. The end of 1700 miles of California, and in addition to starting in a new state,  the walk distinctly changed character. Pine forest dominated Oregon, particularly western larch and ponderosa pine, and almost immediately I found myself hiking in the shade of these great trees. Initially it was still hot but the air around me became noticeably more humid as the days went on. 

I’d dubbed the first hundred miles or so ‘the forest of fallen trees’. Strewn with lichen like old men’s beards, fallen trees lay everywhere, scattered like matchsticks from a discarded box, laying where they fell. This included across the trail in many places leading to frequent climbing, skirting or ducking under. I wondered, is this what happens when a forest is left untouched for a thousand years? Trees push their way skywards, breathe for a time, observe the seasons, age and fall, lying for a time like a memory, then gradually fading away again into the ground. There was no felling here, deep in the forest. No management plan, no thinning or pruning. The forest just grew, aged and died, left entirely alone. In the shafts of sunlight that found their way to the forest floor new trees fought hard, full of the vitality of the young pushing for space and sky, and among the resignation of the old, slumped on the forest floor, beatles and larvae worked hard to complete the circle of life.

However, the forest seemed too quiet, almost eerie. It took a while to realise what was missing, but there was very little bird life in this section. There was little other ground cover either, just the trees, so perhaps the lack of direct light from the sun made the difference here.

I’d started to notice the nights were getting colder and the cold lingered a little longer into the morning, before the sun’s warmth could penetrate a chilly hiker. I’d also noticed that opportunities for cell phone reception were getting rarer, an indication of the increasing remoteness of the trail as it meandered north.

Crater Lake was a highlight of early Oregon. At 7,700 years old it is the crater of a collapsed volcano that is fed only by rain and snow. Without outlets it’s water level is maintained only by the balance of precipitation and evaporation. It’s deep blue waters are among the deepest of lakes in the world as well as being considered one of the most pristine.

Much of Oregon’s forests were dotted with thousands of small lakes. While some were stagnant and uninviting, many were beautiful, turquoise jewels that provided valuable water sources as well as an opportunity to wash a little, despite the ever present whine of the mosquitoes! 

After the density of much of the forest, which continued for days at a time before crossing an occasional road, it was a surprise to enter an enormous burned area. The burn appeared old but there was little new growth yet. Hillside after hillside of it. It went on for miles. Like sentinels or terracotta warriors the remains stood, some lean, tall and bare, a few charred, but most were bleached white by the sun. Wind whistled eerily in and out of their remains. Even the insects seem to have avoided re-colonising the area. It felt like a scene of death. In pockets pretty, vulnerable little wildflowers hinted at life returning, their presence seemed so fragile in this theatre of destruction. Even the rock and dirt trail appeared to emphasis this feeling. Porus solidified lava formed scattered boulders, rounded and shrunken by the passage of time and forces of nature. Their dusty remains swept lightly across my path in the keen breeze that added a delicate soundtrack to the scene. Here and there termites had started work, reducing a stump to scattered chippings. Their task unenviable as a million more lay beyond awaiting their fate. A tiny chipmunk disturbed the peace with its high pitched chattering. Drawing attention to itself, pausing and then running away. Skipping lightly along the trunks of the fallen giants. Dotted around was a little new growth but their hold seemed tenuous up there in the open, desolate and windswept landscape. With autumn already waiting in the wings, keen to take the stage, only the hardiest and most established young trees would see their way through to another spring. 

Fallen trunks on the ground, decayed and hollowed, were reminiscent of the abandoned timbers of long forgotten ships among the rocks of shore. 

Abruptly as I descended a slope I entered an area rich with new growth. Dense and full of vigor, it was everything the higher slopes were not. New trees pushed their way from every exposed inch of soil and encroached impertinently on the edges of the trail. Perhaps this was how the forest recovered. Not at once, springing from the ground and claiming the hillside, but advancing steadily outward from a stronghold like soldiers on a battlefield. Just as suddenly the soundtrack of the forest exploded.  Birds chirped and cried, alarm calls that chimed out alerting others of my presence, chipmunks chattered and darted to and fro, and the eerie wind that had whistled so teasingly through the barren remains on the hills, now sang through the leaves and pines, making celebratory waves among the tree tops. 

There had been several moments across those days when I had noticed the small subtle differences that would hint at the bigger changes coming. This year in particular hikers on the PCT have been blessed. There had been enough rainfall early in the season to fill the creeks and lakes, and then seemingly guaranteed clear blue skies and sunshine all summer long. It had become so accepted that most hikers had long since sent long pants and rain gear home, preferring to hike only in shorts and shirt, carrying little else. But change was coming. 

One morning as I passed Shale Lake I could sense it all around me. It seemed to hang in the air like a gentle warning. A low mist hovered just above the water, obscuring the pines, reflected in the stillness that I had become so accustomed to seeing. The grass around the waters edge sparkled and bent over under a blanket of dew. Even the morning air seemed slightly different. Try as I might I couldn’t pin down exactly how, but it was there. Something small and intangible, a clue to alert the observant to the seasonal change that was coming.