When a thru-hike becomes a section-hike

Many of us can relate to Bill Powning’s tale of a thru-hike cut short. In this essay, he shares his story of his thru-hike becoming a section-hike. Bill is a PCTA member and my uncle. He has been dreaming of a JMT thru-hike for fifty years. He lives, swims and hikes in the SF Bay Area.

I hiked 123 of the JMT’s 218 miles over 17 days, not including several miles the result of wrong turns and 15 miles returning to Muir Trail Ranch from Evolution Lake. I did not accomplish my goal of thru-hiking the John Muir Trail.

An equally true statement is that I succeeded in having an adventure. It included all the challenge (logistical, physical, mental, emotional) that I was seeking. I walked through spectacular high mountain country, met some memorable characters, became a traveling companion with a few people with whom I hope to remain in contact, and learned more about myself and also what it takes to do a long hike.

Granite; the ever popular backrest.

Granite; the ever-popular backrest.

The “failure” part of the trip involved not paying sufficient attention to two of the precepts I had read about in my research.

The first was to not carry too much weight. My pack weighed 50 pounds at leaving Muir Trail Ranch and lifting it reminded me of Cheryl Strayed’s description of ‘Monster.’ It felt like an insult. At the end of the day I was utterly spent, barely having the energy to get and filter water, cook dinner and lethargically consume a few mouthfuls, waiting for the drive to set up my tent, crawl in and pass out. There was no way forward.

The second problem was consuming enough calories to continue fueling the effort. It was as if eating was too taxing, so to conserve energy my body said “get that monstrosity off your back and stop this walking nonsense.” The way the body has to trump over the will to keep going is to resist eating. Eating really became a chore, however necessary.

I was in no shape to get over Muir Pass. Doubting my ability to keep up with Andrew and Margaret (hikers I met on trail), I was determined that my wellbeing and safety were my own responsibility. “Maybe” I can make it or even “probably” was not good enough. At that point I felt like I might be an incident report waiting to be written. Serendipitously, I met a former member of a search and rescue team. Tom strongly recommended following my instinct.

The next morning, somewhat revived again like an Energizer Bunny, I came up with a new plan forward. I would eat the eight days of food remaining, taking half and full days of rest as necessary. I’d move slower, eating more food and adding an additional resupply in Independence. The problem was that my heart was no longer in it. I had already swallowed my pride and disappointment and was actually looking forward to staying put and looking around me.

A spa like no other.

A spa like no other.

I found myself was in Evolution Valley — according to many hikers one of the most glorious stretches of the JMT. That day I ate a breakfast, three dinners and a day’s ration of snacks while absorbing the views of towering cliffs and mountains around me. By sitting still for an hour or two at a time, I saw: a dozen deer gingerly high-stepping across the creek in the early morning light to graze in the meadow; a flock of birds descending on a nearby bush to spend five minutes eating bugs and then take flight as one (did they come to that bush everyday at that time? I’d have to spend days not hours to find out); a frenzy of fish in the lake jumping to snag insects; the range of colors in the various marsh grasses along the lake which a hiker on the move sees only as a uniform green; an extraordinary evening light show illuminating the clouds and rock surfaces, going on for hours and changing by the moment. This is a part of the hiking experience that is hard to capture when focused on the trail three feet ahead and on today’s and tomorrow’s need to cover miles.

There is the aspect of the JMT that is an endurance event, not unlike running a marathon or riding the AIDS/LifeCycle. I am as attracted to claiming the accomplishment of thru-hiking the JMT as the next hiker. When I jump in the water on an open water swim in San Francisco Bay, I expect to see my name in the results with a time and a place number — always toward the back, sometimes last. DNF (Did Not Finish) would not sit well. The day DNF is my result I hope to be assuaged by knowing that I was not SIB (Still In Bed). My hat is off to anyone who thru-hikes the JMT, especially those who are not young, svelte, strong and carrying the latest ultralight gear.

Will I try again? I expect I will pick up where I left off and complete the JMT as a section-hiker, hopefully a little wiser about how to do it safely and enjoyably. Who knows, maybe someday I will give the whole thing another shot.

Be well. Have fun. Stay safe.

– Bill


Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.