On the PCT, the last one to Canada loses

By Emmanuel Forge

This time last year I was sitting on a bit of a secret. I was planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. But I couldn’t exactly shout it from the rooftops. I had a job to keep through March.

Some days after work I’d slap on my weighted vest and hop on the treadmill. I’d pour countless hours into researching the thousands of dollars of equipment I’d end up purchasing. And all these months later, after the walk was said and done, I can honestly say I was not prepared. But the reason might not be what first comes to mind.

Five years before hiking the PCT, I rode a bicycle across the United States. And for that adventure as well as the PCT, if I was going too slow, I’d just go longer. Simple enough. In both cases I didn’t plan my stops in advance. There were no packages mailed in advance or at a later date. What I needed I brought to the starting line or picked up along the way.

When I say I wasn’t prepared for the PCT, I mean that I wasn’t prepared for what I had to face at the northern end of the PCT.

Thousands of photos after my April 24 start in Campo, California, I found myself in Washington the following October with hundreds of miles still to go.

I put myself into life threatening danger. By the grace of a few lucky breaks, I reached Canada unscathed on Oct. 24. Because of how the weather unfolded in Washington that month, and my position at the back of the pack of hikers, I believe I was literally the last set of continuous footsteps to reach the border.

The saying I heard time and time again along my hike was: “Last one to Canada wins!” But I think it’s time the trail community puts that saying to rest. The last one to Canada is more likely to die than win.

Hiking becomes mountaineering when fresh snow is involved at high altitude. And the bottom line, PCT hikers who start in Southern California do not carry the equipment needed to cover hundreds of miles in mountaineering conditions.

One of the most important lucky breaks I caught was heading into Stehekin one day before a huge storm hit the North Cascades, dumping a foot or two of snow above 6,000 feet. I was completely unaware it was coming. By this point I was so close to Canada, quitting was almost unimaginable. Fortunately, my timing was just right for me to catch the ferry across Lake Chelan, wait out the storm for a couple days, and return with snow shoes, extra thermal layers, waterproof winter gloves, rubber boots and micro-spikes. About the only reason this all fit on my back as a manageable load is the 85L Gregory pack I started with back at the border of Mexico (which is 30% larger than a typical PCT hiker pack).

I caught the last bus of the season out of Stehekin back to the trail head October 15. I was the only one on board.

In Chelan, I researched the weather closely and determined I would likely be walking into at minimum a foot of snow, with no footprints in front of me. To handle this challenge of walking blind into the wilderness, I downloaded the Earthmate app by Delorme, a GPS app that allows the user to pin way points on top of USGS quadrant maps. But I have to add again, I gave myself a break months earlier by buying a waterproof phone designed to work at higher altitudes, the Samsung S6 Active.

Aware of the danger at this point I called my dad with a plan about what to do if he didn’t hear from me in 10 days. And I set off.

After Rainy Pass (Oct. 18), constant post-holing and waypoint checking made hiking a tedious process. Averaging between 0.25 and 0.5 mph, I got up and over Cuthroat Pass in 6 hours in snow depths ranging from 1 to 2 feet.

Let me pause to emphasize how ridiculous this would’ve been to encounter without all the extra gear or the GPS app most of all! Quite easily I could’ve been a couple more days ahead of that storm at Stehekin, not purchased this extra gear, and woke up one morning to a winter wonderland that would’ve sealed my fate.

I got lucky. The next person hiking the PCT in Washington in October might not be so lucky.

It’s just a dangerous experience all around before you even start considering things like avalanche risks.

The miles at the very end were so draining above 6,000 feet that before the ascent to Harts pass I bailed on the PCT and followed a Methow River route I found on the USGS quadrant maps. From there I was able to follow the Robinson Creek Trail to the border, crossing above 6,000 feet only two more times (and maintaining continuous footsteps).

Most hikers I encountered relied solely on the Guthook or Half-Mile apps to walk the trail (myself included). But ultimately neither of these apps would’ve shown me an escape route to safety. The paper maps saved the day.

Lucky timing, access to funds and equipped gear stores, and will power helped me survive that stretch from Stehekin to the Canadian border in October. But I don’t even group those two weeks into my PCT experience. Those miles were nothing like the warm air and melting snow of the Sierra. They were about survival.

I’ve shared my experience because I want to light a fire under future PCT hikers to finish before October and to always check conditions at higher elevations as if their life depended on it. Because it might.

Moving forward, I recommend all long distance hikers carry paper maps like USGS quads to reveal more information about the surrounding areas than is provided on the PCT apps. Because this extra information alone could save a life when it counts.

Thanks to Emmanuel Forge for sharing his story. We’re deeply concerned about the safety of people who are on the trail when the first storms hit. There have been too many incidents already. Plan to be off trail before the snow starts falling. He’s right, the idea that “the last one to Canada wins” needs to be put to rest.

Follow Emmanuel Forge on his blog and Instagram. He’s currently converting a ’17 Ford Transit van and working on his Million Dollar Mountain.