Mauled by bears. Eaten by mountain lions. Shot by poachers. Murdered by a rogue driver whilst hitch-hiking. These were some of the many fears that accompanied me onto the PCT in 2016. But you know what? During my travels through Oregon and Washington I never met a single person who departed the trail for any of the above reasons.
A wealth of information already exists regarding why thru-hikers quit. I shall not attempt to cover the same ground. If you want to read more about the PCT specifically, I recommend Halfway Anywhere’s annual thru-hiker survey. The latest survey for 2017 showed a 52% drop-out rate* – based on 556 thru-hiking hopefuls who responded to the survey. Of these, the top 3 reasons for an early trail exit were: Injury (29%); Snow (14%), Fires (14%).
*It’s worth noting that the number of people who actually quit is far greater. Based on the number of thru-hiker permits the PCTA issued in 2017 (3934) versus the number of people reported to have completed the trail (461), the drop-out rate is closer to 88%! But as a lot of people never report back after receiving their permits and there is no turnstile at the end of the trail, we can’t say for sure what the true success rate really is. Most guess-timates average between 50-60%.
Year-after-year the stats identify obvious trends, but from my own trail experience the personal stories of those who didn’t make it to Canada were sometimes surprising. A lot of this boils down to the diverse range of people hiking the PCT to begin with. The vast majority of trail stories and images seen on social media are posted by young, fit, thru-hiking hopefuls which makes for a misleading representation. Not everyone on the trail are thru-hikers. And many are older, with different backgrounds and motivations for being out walking. Let’s face it, your average 30-50 year-old with kids can rarely quit their job to go hiking for months on end! There is also a wide variety in skill levels. From your TOTAL amateur – such as yours truly – all the way to 80-year olds who have been backpacking and camping in the woods their entire lives.
I only set out to complete a 900-mile section of the northern route, so I mostly met long-distance section hikers on my travels, but there were some encounters with thru hikers who had endured everything that California had to throw at them only to call it a day once conditioned. Some stories highlight human error or poor preparation, but others prove that not every obstacle can be mitigated against. I’m a big advocate for believing that while completing a full thru-hike is a highly impressive feat, it’s more about the journey than the destination. Meaning perhaps the rationale behind a persons decision to join the trail doesn’t actually require the completion of 2650 miles for the experience to be deemed ‘successful’. Here are a few tales from the people I met who decided to head home short of their original goal. I have changed or omitted people’s names to protect their dignity…
Larry – was a veteran hiker and PCT advocate who spends a large amount of his retirement in the mountains. Over the years Larry has been gradually completing the PCT in sections – a great idea I thought – and was very close to completing the entire trail when we met one afternoon in central Oregon. Larry reminded me of a full-grown Boy Scout. He had all the gear and knew how to use everything, which I found both entertaining and highly informative. I learnt a lot from Larry from just a single shared camp, and I was sure he was about to smash the few hundred miles he had remaining. But not everything is a dead-cert. Within three days of saying our goodbyes I received an email from him confirming he had given up. He described the ‘negative fun’ of his experience brought on entirely due to those pesky little fuckers: mosquitos. Yes, their blood-crazed persistent attacks had transformed his solitude into a constant battle, one which he simply wasn’t happy to endure.
GI Joe was an 18-year old adrenaline junkie hoping to join the marines after completing the PCT. We met him in Fish Lake Oregon, as he stumbled into the resort with a bleeding head and cut up legs. Within minutes of his arrival the resort’s owner was on the deck with Joe’s mother on the phone in a frantic state wanting to report her son had an accident nearby and couldn’t be reached on his cell. After being patched up from the blow to the head he sustained whilst climbing over a fallen tree in a lava field, Joe decided to quit. Strangely he didn’t attribute his decision to the accident. Instead he declared he was simply ‘bored’. I was shocked at the time – his adventure had included ice-climbing summits on the side just for the fun of it, and he was still far ahead of most thru-hikers so he obviously possessed exceptional fitness, but conversely he had underestimated the mental grind. Maybe Joe’s hike didn’t came with high stakes. Maybe giving up made no material difference to his life. Maybe he got a better offer for spending his summer.
‘Ultra-lite’ Lucy was a lady from Alaska with years of hiking under her belt – in fact she had previously hiked the entire trail when I met her travelling south-bound through Washington. She presumably therefore knew what she was doing. But after meeting her in 2016 another hiker told me about what happened the year before. In 2015 Lucy set off her emergency beacon after getting lost in a snow field and had to be airlifted off the mountain. You see in going ‘ultra-lite’ she had made the mistake of not being adequately prepared for cold temperatures: remember what the Boy Scouts say about being prepared? She also elected to not carry a GPS which could have been used to navigate her way out of such pickle. Maybe she was over-confident in her abilities, but hyperthermia actually happens in the wild so it’s best to do whatever you can to protect yourself and carry the necessary provisions.
The Drifters. Trail life seems to attract some transient-types. Not every person who sets foot on the trail does so for the physical challenge. Some individuals who are perhaps a bit lost in life turn to the trail for solitude or companionship, uniting with strangers through the common hiking path. We met one such guy on our second day in Oregon who certainly didn’t resemble your typical hiker. He stood perhaps 3 stone over-weight – not that I’m judging – and never seemed to be in a rush. The verbal trail grapevine later reported how the big guy had made it as far as Fish Lake before getting talking to an elderly couple in an RV. They offered him some casual yard work at their home so he left with them just like that. Another drifter made it to Crater Lake (where he started from I was always unclear), before getting so smashed on $1 cans of beer that no reports showed he ever re-joined the trail. We left him in a drunken stupor in the middle of the free PCT campground ranting away incoherently, totally oblivious to the mosquitos.
Nature boy was out section-hiking through Oregon when he stood on a piece of glass in camp and had to hitch-hike out to hospital. Shame he hadn’t thought to put some shoes on.
Stevo was off to college in the fall. Beforehand, he and a group of buddies decided to hike through Oregon and Washington, inspired so it seemed by the legalisation of recreational pot in these two states. But his buddies were not committed. For them it was one big party which had lost its appeal by the time they reached Timberline Lodge. They waited until Cascade Locks though to inform Stevo they were not going any further. Stevo found himself in a dilemma because he, unlike them, was relying on the hiking experience for material inspiration for the college submission essay he still needed to write. When the others departed for Portland Stevo persevered, crossing the Bridge of Gods into Washington alone. This was it, he would show them. But in less than 100 miles he realised camping alone was not for him. It wasn’t what he had signed up for, in fact it made him very anxious, so he shared camp with us for a few nights before getting a ride back to Seattle. I hope he managed to write that essay.
Snow. Those set to hike the full PCT will expect to inevitably encounter snow somewhere along the way, but those on shorter hikes may not. Surely by late June one can enjoy a hike on the PCT without snow – right? Well this wasn’t the case in Oregon when we started on 20th June. An ‘exceptional’ snow year, meant that areas typically snow-free by then were still buried. This caught a few people out, and not prepared for the white stuff they decided enough was enough. These included an older otherwise care-free couple, who drew the line when it came to the possibility of loosing their tracking on Devil’s Peak, but also a young and highly experienced hiker. He lived in Oregon and was familiar with the mountains, but his ‘downfall’ if I can call it that, was over-ambition. You see, not anticipating how much the snow and tree blow-downs would slow him down, he overestimated his daily mileage and therefore hadn’t packed enough supplies. This motivated him to walk a 14-hour day to reach the next resupply stop at Crater Lake, which by the time he made it his legs had seized up and he was walking like a robotic Bruce Wayne. He admitted defeat and called his parents to pick him up.
Finally – and especially for any thru-hiking hopefuls out there – completing a long-distance hike often requires a large degree of luck. Take this last hiking year for example. In August, wild fires began blazing near Mount Rainer National Park closing a 70-mile section of the Washington PCT. These closures lasted long into winter. By March 2018 the PCTA still couldn’t comment on the resulting damage or say whether detours would be required in the months to come. So following miles of pain, sweat, and blisters, one may have to accept the heartbreaking reality: it can all suddenly end thanks to Mother Nature.