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The Adventure Journals

Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

We had reached Monument 78, the northern terminus and finish line for a northbound Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker. Approaching the terminus my friend Kayla was right in front of me and Tommy was only about 20 yards in front of the two of us. We had checked the maps at the last water source and knew we only had five miles to go.

It started pouring with rain. It slowed our descent. The three of us were silent. We could hear every drop of rain. An hour and a half dragged by and at times it felt like we might never get there. But suddenly there was a large clearing up ahead. Tommy reached a switchback, turned to us with a big Cheshire cat-like grin, bouncing up and down, waving his hiker poles in the air, “I can see it, I can see it!” Kayla didn’t want to believe him, but eyes don’t lie and sure enough we rounded the corner and there it was. Tommy took off running, Kayla sung her way dancing to the monument, I was in complete shock. I had to pinch myself, 2,650.10 miles and 180 days and it was all over.

It wasn’t a vacation. It wasn't a sojourn, or a journey, trip, excursion, or trek. It was a dream. It was something I had to do it. Even now, I cannot think of a better way to spend 150 days. It changed everything for me.

Change came in the course of landscape and trail, but more importantly, I changed. And to say the trail changed me is as night and day as summer and winter. Change inside, change outside, change in appearance. Change emotionally, physically, and mentally. If there is a single word to describe the trail, it is, “Change.” The trail changed me as much as it changes in elevation.

Southern California

To me, Southern California is waking up aching from head to foot after a day that produced six new blisters. South California is being burnt to a cinder by the sun while nursing a headache reminiscent of a hangover only cheap vodka can facilitate. Watching another sunrise over a Joshua tree knowing I should have been walking hours ago. Carrying eight liters of water for a 38-mile dry section in 90-degree heat then not long after freezing in a tent at 9,000 feet because I laughed when whispers on the trail predicted a storm. The Southern Cali leg of the trail was both insanely beautiful and always surprising, a myriad of wonderment and anticipation of what was to come.

The Sierra

Every muscle hurt a bit more than usual and every step was punctuated by a sharp gasp, my body screaming for oxygen, surrounded by a whirlpool of granite peaks, extreme altitude, and a view that HD didn’t know how to handle. I had reached the Sierra.

It tested the hardest resolve. Waking up 7,000 feet above sea level and knowing in 20 miles I had 6,600 feet to climb and the same to descend, knowing at the end of the day I’d be no higher, no lower and only a little bit further towards the goal. I averaged a sluggish 9.8 miles a day for 20 days through the Sierra’s. Not because I was tired or because it was hard, but it was because I wanted to. I let my friends march ahead and I continued on slowly, a disciple praying at the church of John Muir.

I am thoroughly convinced after hiking through the Sierra Nevada that John Muir must have been a fly fisherman. You can’t absent mindedly create a trail that meanders next to some of the best unfished waters on the planet and not want to cast out at sunset. Many took off, sprinting ahead leaving me to make the 200 or so miles through the Sierra a 20-day fly-fishing odyssey.

Transitions were abundant along the PCT. The descent out of the Sierra was slow but obvious. When my highest daily elevation was a mere 7,000 feet and not 10,000 plus I knew Northern California and Oregon were just around the corner. The temperatures began to climb and the terrain eased just a little. The ascents were mellower and the days became longer. My casual pace sharpened and before long I was putting in daily marathons and even the occasional ultra.

Oregon and Washington

I’m calling this section the hindsight highlight of the trail. At first glance not as beautiful but looking back it hid the greatest secret of the trail, friendship. Some of my fondest memories are from the people I met on this section of the PCT. The passion we shared for putting one foot in front of the other was all we needed to strike up a decent conversation. A side note for all those thinking of doing the PCT, make sure you are comfortable describing your bowel movements, in detail, to complete strangers. It could be the difference between falling in love and being a loner!

We were generally happy but also confused throughout The Oregon and Washington leg. Every day brought new and often mixed emotions. We noticed the differences in terrain, we all knew we were nearing the end, the light at the end of the tunnel coming into focus. Some were excited to think it was almost over, while others, myself included, wished we could just keep going forever.

We volcano hopped through Oregon in a never-ending landscape of solidified lava. Starting back to Lassen while hiking through the sisters region made me think I was space walking across Mars.

The North Cascades

The North Cascades. The place the pain kicked in. The snowcapped spires shooting skywards blew us away, but kept us on our toes. The route made sure we had to dig deep to reach the finish. The last ten days of the trip were by far the hardest. Friends cried every day and a feeling of loss and a fear spread through the group. For sure I felt a sense of accomplishment, but not being able to look over at the mass of dirty friends every morning, or lean my pack up against a tree and take a nap because it’s that comfortable, are just examples of things that changed the way we thought about nearly everything.

I lost weight, I gained friends, I fell in love, I got sick. The trail changed me. She is the greatest teacher I've ever studied under. From dehydration and deprivation to acceptance, accomplishment and everything in-between. Nothing comes close to the way that journey made me feel - bewildered, blind and totally and completely in love with trail life.

I set off from Campo, California on April 13th at around 2 pm. I finished the trail on October the 10th at 1:20pm. Five months and 27 days or 180 days total: 2,650.10 trail miles, 2,781.16 total miles hiked, 253 trout caught, 46 passes hiked over, hitchhiked 39 times, lost 34 pounds, got 27 days of rain, took 22 showers, used 15 fuel canisters, stayed in 11 hotels, eight campgrounds, took seven buses, got snowed on six times, went through five pairs of shoes, saw three bears, climbed three mountains, stayed in three houses, two days below freezing, and one life-changing adventure.

Words and Images By

Sean Jansen

Sean is a photographer, writer, adventurer, hiker, surfer, fisherman and big dreamer. He is a Lowe Alpine ambassador based in Humboldt County, California. If he's not neck deep in an adventure he's usually planning another. Follow him on Instagram @jansenjournals and get inspired!

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