The P3 Program’s first year: a look back

2017 P3 Hikers – top row L-R: James Bishop, Rachel Blankenheim, Heather Diaz, Laura Johnston, J.J. King; bottom row L-R: Anna Machowicz, Krystian Repolona, Owen Rojek, Karen Wang, Kelly Kate Warren.

PCT thru-hikers have always told us how much the trail means to them. Many want to give back somehow. So in the spring of 2017, inspired by this—and by increasing pressure on the trail from its growing popularity—we created the P3 program: ten thru-hikers selected to share their experiences toward the goal of helping to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest Trail.

We considered this first year to be a pilot for the program. Joining us for the venture were three of our corporate partners who help support the PCT: Eagle Creek, Leki, and Osprey. From the beginning, we wanted P3 to be different from other hiker influencer programs. Our direction to the hikers was simple: share your hikes as a way to foster stewardship of the trail.

Educating an ever-growing number of hikers on Leave No Trace ethics is just one example why I wanted to be a P3 Hiker. Proper stewardship of the varied ecosystems encountered along the Pacific Crest Trail has never been more important. Promoting a greater awareness into the fragility of this iconic trail helps ensure the current generation of hikers will preserve it for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations of outdoor enthusiasts. —P3 Hiker J.J. King

PCT sign near Campo, California

Photo by P3 Hiker Laura Johnston

Initial response to the program was enthusiastic: we received more than 75 applications for the 2017 P3 class. Choosing 10 was difficult, because almost all were passionate about protecting the trail. Our inaugural class consisted of six women and four men from nine states. The first hikers began their treks in early April.

Though all were enthusiastic about PCT stewardship, some P3 Hikers had other goals as well. Heather Diaz, a native Texan, felt it was important for others in her home community to see her doing something many of them never imagined.

It was inspiring to hear feedback from people from my home-state of Texas and my friends of color. Over 80 percent of people who camp and 75 percent who hike are white. It can be intimidating to hike when you have never been exposed to camping, backpacking, or hiking. I worried every time I climbed up or down rocks or hiked along a narrow ledge with my backpack. Every day I faced my fears, and I did my best to put one foot in front of the other.” —P3 Hiker Heather Diaz

PCT hikers above the clouds in Southern California

Photo by P3 Hiker Owen Rojek

Musician James Bishop wanted to tell the story of his experience through music. He carried a small guitar for much of his hike and composed songs along the way, which he is now recording for an album and tour called We Go Together.

For me, music is a highly relational art form. Music has this way of bringing people together. It is deeply unifying and can be an incredible vehicle for advocacy and transformation. Certainly if I believe in the restoration of the earth, then I must do my part to take care of it at the ground-level. In a way, stewardship (like music) is another thing that I find to be highly relational. So being a P3 hiker seemed like a perfect opportunity to engage in what is already happening to preserve and protect it. —P3 Hiker James Bishop

Hiking across an endless field of sun-cupped snow in the Sierra Nevada

Photo by P3 Hiker Owen Rojek

The first P3 class couldn’t have known when they began their hikes that it would turn out to be one of the most difficult years for thru-hiking the PCT. Record snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and wildfires throughout much of the northern half of the PCT challenged hikers well beyond their expectations.

June 22: We just entered the Sierras from Lone Pine and I’m writing from halfway up Mount Whitney. Creeks are intense here, no laughing matter. The first creek we crossed was raging. A hiking buddy went in chest high and was almost washed downstream not knowing a dangerous log was below. Crabtree Meadows had become a lake from Whitney Creek—I’m 5-feet, 4-inches and it went up to my hips—had to hold my pack up to not submerge it. We are getting out from Kearsarge Pass at Onion Valley to resupply—hope to have cell service again in 3-4 days. I heard the road to Onion Valley is closed to car and foot traffic so hopefully its passable. —P3 Hiker Rachel Blankenheim

The setting sun glows orange through smoke-filled fir trees.

Photo by P3 Hiker Owen Rojek

During their hikes, the P3 class described both their appreciation for the trail and the unforgettable moments they experienced in short but eloquent updates via social media. Kelly Kate Warren, who was forced to end her thru-hike after several hundred miles due to a broken ankle, offered some timeless observations.

Night creeps in as we climb an unnamed mountain looking for a flat spot to camp. We collect water flowing clear and cold from a crack in a tall, flat stone, and then rifle through damp packs in search of warmth and food and shelter. I arrange my things in a circle around my sleeping bag, fry tortillas for dinner, and sip herbal tea made thick and rich by heaping spoonfuls of powdered milk. I sit with the shadowy shapes of two kind men and talk quietly about things like life and death. We sit for a time in silence watching the stars and the mountains. The moon is full and the night is quiet and alive and there is a sense of waiting in the openness of the meadow below. It is like a stage set for some high alpine play and I realize I am holding my breath. The moon hangs like a floodlight above me and it is brighter than any moon I have ever seen, too bright to even look at. There is something unnatural in its untamed brightness, and I will wake throughout the night to the sensation of being watched. —P3 Hiker Kelly Kate Warren

A starry night over the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Photo by P3 Hiker Owen Rojek

Karen Wang reflected on the work that goes into making the PCT one of the world’s greatest hiking trails—something she experienced firsthand before her thru-hike as part of a volunteer trail crew:

I had never been so thankful for trail crews until now. You walk several miles on overgrown trail, twigs whipping your bare legs causing a sharp pain, drenched from wet brush, climbing over and under enormous fallen trees, ankles twisting at weird angles from the uneven ground, and then all of sudden, the brush on the sides has been trimmed—or I’m able to walk through a giant cut log. That feeling. It’s luxury. And then you think about all the volunteers who hiked all the way out to the middle of nowhere to cut those plants down just so you could walk smoother and have a higher average speed. Everyone, I hope we can all volunteer our hands on some trail work next season and hope it’ll bring you a new perspective on the trails you use as it has done for me. —P3 Hiker Karen Wang

Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington

Photo by P3 Hiker Karen Wang

Photographer Krystian Repolona described photography as a means to advance stewardship and conservation—and offered some insight to how he approaches his work.

A huge inspiration for my photograph style is the work of Ansel Adams. He had a significant role in conservation. His stunning photographs of iconic locations led to legislative actions to protect places such as the John Muir Trail, the Sierra Nevada, and Yosemite National Park. With my photography, it’s an exercise in noticing while I see. While hiking, I’m constantly scanning my surroundings until I notice something particularly beautiful. It could be a nearly endless landscape of mountains in front of me. It could be the soft orange glow of the setting sun to my left. It could be the vibrant tree canopy above me or a sunbathing rattlesnake on the rocks below me. —P3 Hiker Krystian Repolona

Hikers with umbrellas for shade under the blistering Southern California sun.

Photo by P3 Hiker Krystian Repolona

In many ways this group of ten P3 Hikers mirrored the larger PCT Class of 2017. Only a few successfully made it from Mexico to Canada. Others were forced to abort their hikes because of injury, or were forced off the trail by dangerous conditions such as smoke from wildfires. Anna Machowicz, this year’s lone southbound P3 Hiker, was forced to abandon her hike after a knee injury.

On July 23, I left the PCT and boarded a plane in Seattle. The day was cloudy, but as we gained altitude and soared into the sunshine I saw her—Rainier. I’ve seen the mountain many times, but never like this. It felt like I could reach out and touch the summit if I really wanted to. Suddenly, three more peaks appeared. Hood, Shasta, and Whitney I thought, although maybe I was reaching. All I knew is I was looking south along the Pacific Crest, upon which my feet should be walking. Instead, I was leaving my friends and my footsteps behind in a cloud of jet fuel.

It is impossible to hide from your weaknesses on the PCT; what else is the trail for but to show them to you? If I learned anything, it is that those 2,650 miles are not going anywhere. I will try again next year, and the year after that; as long as it takes until I feel I’ve succeeded. I will listen to my body above all else, and I will embrace all hikers as friends. —P3 Hiker Anna Machowicz

Anna Machowicz, her leg bandaged after knee surgery.

Photo by (and of) P3 Hiker Anna Machowicz

All the P3 Hikers shared their journeys in unique ways and contributed to a greater awareness of the extraordinary value of the Pacific Crest Trail—and the need to protect, preserve, and promote it. It was a pilot program for us this year, and we’re proud of every one of these hikers. They will always be P3 Hikers.

Tents on a snowy morning near Crabtree Meadows

Photo by P3 Hiker Karen Wang

Laura Johnston, a conservation professional from Virginia, shared these thoughts upon reaching the PCT’s northern terminus in Canada:

As the cliché goes, “All good things must come to an end,” even a thru-hike. My Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike ended at the northern terminus near the U.S./Canada border after four-and-a-half memorable months of hiking from Mexico and living in the wilderness of the American West. This was my second long hike, after the Appalachian Trail in 2016, and again it has opened my eyes, my mind and my heart while strengthening my legs and my belief of what I am capable of.

Of all things I learned on trail, I was reminded daily that we need to go to the mountains, because we are part of nature and need wild places and spaces. Whether you like oceans, rivers, meadows or mountains, you need these places. They call us, humble us, ground us, and connect us with other people in a way that big, busy and online places cannot.

We learn to live simply, to live with less, to confront the elements, to bow to animals, to interact with each other kindly, to keep moving forward, to enjoy simple pleasures, and to extend a hand to others simply because we can. Thank you to the PCT hikers, trail angels, firefighters, PCTA, and friends and family along the way that supported the trail and me! This thru-hike was what it was because of all of you!  —P3 Hiker Laura Johnston

Laura Johnston at the PCT's northern terminus

Photo by (and of) P3 Hiker Laura Johnston

This year’s P3 Program received generous support from our corporate partners Eagle Creek, Leki, and Osprey. While P3 Hikers weren’t obligated to use gear from our partners, many of them did—and our partners were great at replacing lost or broken gear throughout the summer. They also helped us share the P3 story through their own social media channels. It was a good collaboration, and one we hope to repeat and grow in the future!

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.