Gear Check

The hard questions have been answered, so it’s time to go over my packlist and verify that everything I need is there. Clothes for the tour have been freshly washed, and I have forbidden myself to make changes to the list.

All of that has to go into the backpack or on my body. On top of that comes the bear canister, which I will rent at Kennedy Meadows and return after crossing the Southern Sierra Nevada.

A few of the bags in the picture as self made, e.g. the document bag at the front left and the food bag above it, the toiletry bag next to the sleeping mat or the camera bag. My material of choice for most of that was DCF, an incredibly light, thin and tear resistant lamitated fabric. I also replaced the original bag for my microspikes to save weight, and I struggled mightily with the slippery nylon fabric I used for that. My titanium pot is now safely nestled in a homemade pot cozy which I glued together from a silvery windshield cover and aluminium tape.

That saves gas when cooking and therefore weight. Not in the picture above is the bear hang kit. Further north where you don’t have to carry a bear canister, it’s still advisable to keep your edibles (and other scented items like toothpaste) outside the tent over the night, and instead hang it with a cord on a high branch a bit away from the tent site. This not only makes the tent site less attractive to bears, it also lessens the risk of rodents chewing through your tent’s mesh.

Not that bears are a serious danger for life and health. There’s always a small risk with wild animals, but I’m only going to encounter black bears along the Pacific Crest Trail, which are rather shy, feed mostly on plants and generally try to avoid physical confrontations. But they are opportunists, so if they have learned to associate tents with easy meals, they’ll likely get bolder, and they will damage tents and steal food, becoming “problem bears” which have to be either relocated or – wich unfortunately seems to happen more often – put down.

Here are a few images from my self made gear:

The next step is to stow that stuff in the backpack. At best in a way that carries well, but I’ll also need to make sure to have the things I often need through the day within easy reach. As this isn’t my first backpacking tour (albeit the first of such magnitude), I do have a basic idea, but gear changes with time, so it’s always a bit of a thrill.

I’ll post a detailed packing list at a later date.

T minus 8 days until my flight leaves.

It’s. Getting. Real.

It’s finally happening, I managed to reschedule my sabbatical and snatch a permit. PCT here I come!

I didn’t really dare to hope too much, but things started to shape up last year with vaccination finally a real thing and borders being reopened, and in November I finally decided I’d risk it, talked to my employer once more (a big thank you to my bosses who are so accommodating) and applied for a permit again. This time, I had to wait for the second permit round in January to get one, but I was lucky that time and got assigned to the front of the queue, meaning I had almost free choice of dates to pick from.

In a little over a week, I’ll board the flight to southern California, and a few days later, I will finally put my hand against the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail!

I’m going to hold this short, since I don’t want to spook things. I’ll add more and longer posts to this blog once my feet touch the trail.

Plans and hopes

Last year in late January, I was hopeful and nervous. I had my permit to hike the Pacific Crest Tail printed together with my California Campfire Permit, my sabbatical had been approved, and I was busy accumulating spare hours at work. My appointment at the U.S. embassy was fixed for early March, and I booked flights and pondered what gear to bring along. I was counting down the days, filled with a level of excitement I had not experienced since I was a young child.

Covid-19 was still stuff that happened in China at that time. I had a bad gut feeling about the whole thing, but the news coverage was quite inconclusive. Was it a new kind of flu? Was it dangerous? Would it start spreading faster or slow down and vanish like MERS and SARS had? I was hopeful.

February started dampening my hopes and casting dark shadows over my plans. It couldn’t be, could it, that a small molekule 300 times smaller than the width of a human hair would render my years of planning for naught? I met with other hikers who were planning big thru hikes in 2020, and we assured each other that it wasn’t going to be so bad, that a new flu strain couldn’t turn the world on its head. But the tiny virus washed through Italy with the force and devastation of a tsunami, and by late February, it was only a question of when, not if, other countries would be deeply affected.

I visited the embassy in early March as planned, keeping my distance to other visitors as good as possible and following the dozens of signs to use copious amounts of hand sanitizer. My visa got approved after a short talk, which should have been the last major step to make my tour real, but I couldn’t really enjoy it. That same day, when I drove home, I listened to the news and heard that all U.S. embassies in Europe were closing their doors, starting the next day, for an undertermined length of time.

Two days later, I got my passport back with the visa glued inside. I browsed the web, desperate for any news that would disprove what I felt was the inevitable, but I came up empty. Corona, freshly labelled as a pandemic now, was going to sweep over the world, and knowing politics and history, I had no doubt that international travel would be among the first victims. I asked my employer if I could postpone my sabbatical and was happy that they immediately accepted. I cancelled my flights and rooms hours before the U.S. President declared a national emergency and closed the borders.

I felt like I hit a brick wall at full speed. My country went into lockdown. For long weeks, the only allowed reasons to leave my flat were heading to work, seeing a doctor, buying groceries or taking a walk of no more than an hour. Instead of the big freedom and adventure I had been looking forward to, I was locked up in my small flat, sewing community masks and cooking to fill my time.

It didn’t take me long to grasp the full extent of what was happening. While others were still hopeful that summer would make things better, I knew inside that it would take the world a lot longer to return to a semblance of normality. I knew I wouldn’t get to hike the trail this year, and I was sure that 2021 was jus as unlikely. Yet I didn’t want to bury my dream.

I can’t be sure that things will work out in 2022, but I can’t not plan. I can’t not hope.

Sewing community masks at least made me confident enough in my limited skills so I finally dared to glue and sew an ultra light tarp. With Corona restrictions somewhat loosened over the summer, I even managed to take my first self-made shelter on a tour and spend ten days on a trail through the Black Forest. It wasn’t the PCT, but it was hiking at its most basic, walking until my legs tired, encountering prety views and wild animals, and most of all, dining and sleeping under the shining roof of the million-star-hotel. It was getting dirty and wet and so surrounded in the odor of the outdoors that the shy animals in the woods were merely curious instead of frightened whenever we encountered one another. I finally experienced bursts of that simple happiness that hiking brings. A comfortable spot in the sun after a cold, wet morning. Hot, yummy pasta to fill my hungry stomach. Moments of awe when a predatory bird swept past me so close I could touch it, or a stag stepped onto the paths and looked fearlessly at me.

These moments when I’m not a visitor in a foreign place called nature, but where I’m part of it with every fiber of my being, fill me with a sense of completeness that no accomplishment at work ever could provide. When the sound of drizzling water is like the sweetest melody, and a fat dormouse cackles right above my head while I relive the impressions of a 25-mile day of hiking and munch on nuts and dried fruits to replenish my energy, then the world is alright.

That feeling of alrightness carried me through a winter with increasing restrictions and stay-at-home orders, and it reminded me that, despite all uncertainties about vaccinations and mutations, I’m not ready to abandon my dream.

I’m going to keep planning to hike my dream hike, not this year but next, and even if some other stumbling block gets thrown between my feet, then the year after that. I’ll not stop planning, and I won’t stop hoping.

The second step to make it real

As of 14th November 2019, it is official: I have an official permit with a starting date to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year!

This is the second step to make it really happen, after having my sabbatical granted earlier this year. Steps three and four are to come soon – get a B2 visa for the USA and book a flight.

Despite all the hours – make that days – I already spent with planning, it still feels surreal that, in little more than five months, I will be standing next to the Mexican border, with my home for the following five months strapped tightly to my backpack.

People ask me if I’m scared once they learn of my plans. Of course I am. The best kind of scared, though, like when I stood in front of a climbing wall for the first time, watched the thin rope disappear above me and took a last deep breath before wrapping my fingers around the first hold. The kind of scared I felt as a child when the stabilizers came off my bike for the first time and I knew I was likely going to fall, but the temptation of really riding a bike and racing down the road was just too tempting to care.

People sometimes ask why I would try such a hike, and I often ask myself the same question. It is a massive undertaking, it costs quite a bit of money and so much time. I will be away from family and friends and probably feel the impact on my career. I have pondered my motives in depth and still can’t give a concise answer.

One thing I have realized, though, and that ties back into that experience of riding a bike for the first time, is that I feel that I am sometimes too far removed from that childlike, exhilarating joy for my own good. Hiking is simple enough, in a way, to bring that youthful exuberance back out, to live in the moment and just enjoy. Of course it is going to hurt. There will be blisters, there will be sores, there will be aching knees and burning calves, there will be cold and rain and dirt, but just like that very first bicycle ride, it will be worth it. Hiking such a long trail isn’t really that simple, of course. There will be planning too, careful judging of conditions like the searing heat in the desert and treacherous snow in the mountains, there will be thunderstorms to avoid and raging creeks to cross safely.

Hiking, so far, has given me the impression that the child in me and the world-wise adult aren’t mutually exclusive, something we often forget in our busy lives. The hope to rid both parts of myself of the luggage of every day life and to bring them into balance is one big motivation for this undertaking. Just one out of many.

About me

Hiking is so much more than just following a road. It is crossing countries and conquering mountains, it is suffering the harshness of the elements one moment and rejoycing in beauty the next. It is nature in its purest form.

Born in Germany in the seventies, not that far from the Alps, hiking was something I grew up with. As children, we spent days in the mountains, slept in huts with no running water, raced each other to the summit and we had so much fun.

Then, somehow, other things became much more important, other occupations filled my weekends. I moved a few hundred kilometers away from home, and when I turned 30, hiking had mostly become a distant memory.

And then I moved back home and spent a day hiking with friends, and I was hooked by the beauty of the mountains, which is so much more intense after spending years in the narrow, grey confines of a big city. It was less than two hours until I was in the Bavarian Mountains, and they called me.

I started going on hikes, finding this the perfect means to let all the stress of my IT job drain away. At first, just day hikes, then more and more often overnighters. And every time, driving back home also left me with a bit of sadness. My hikes grew longer. And I started searching for longer hikes, found that people did crazy things like walk across the Alps. Of course I had to do that too.

My first “Alpine crossing” took me 8 days, from the lovely Bavarian town Oberstdorf to Merano in Italy, from hut to hut, averaging around 1000m or 3000ft of elevation gain and loss per day. My feet hurt, I got sunburned and hailed on, and I had the best time of my life. I stood at nearly 3000m elevation surrounded by snow peaked summits and breathed the clearest air ever. And after eight days, I was once again sad to stop.

I found even longer hikes, three to four weeks, crossing the Alps and walking from Munich to Venice or from Salzburg in Austria to Trieste at the Mediterranean Sea. All these hikes were far greater than I could put into words – and yet, a few years ago, I became aware that there are really long trails out there that span thousands of miles, where you don’t have the luxury and hassle of staying at huts, where you carry truly everything you need on your back and only resupply every so often. It takes months to do such a trail, and of course, I found I had to do it. With a lot of planning and just as much dumb luck, I got my employer to grant me a sabbatical in 2020, and now all my focus in my spare time is on turning the crazy idea of walking the Pacific Crest Trail, a continuous footpath from the Mexican to the Canadian Border, a reality. And as such crazy undertakings go, they need to be shared. Therefore this blog.