Imagining the PCT in a changed climate

Editor’s note: The following article by Julio Araujo appeared in our Communicator magazine in 2017. We thought it was prescient, as aspects of the scenario the author predicted three years ago are happening now. On May 4, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officially shifted the baseline for “normal” temperatures upward—acknowledging that we are not experiencing “above normal” overall temperatures, but a new normal temperature.

Photo by Owen Rojek.

How will the Pacific Crest Trail be altered by climate change and how will this inevitably affect the hikers taking on the challenge? Will the Sierra Nevada remain the magnificent snow haven we currently know? Will the deep forests of Oregon still tower above us as we hike?

We know that climate change will affect the world around us and will most certainly impact the way we view and hike the trail. It is impossible to say that one climate future will happen—there are many variables—but we do know that the trail and trail life will change toward the end of the century.

Let’s explore a snapshot of one possible future trail experience, through the eyes of a hiker.

It is the middle of the 21st century, and the PCT has changed since my first hike in 2013. It came as no surprise that water was an extreme focus of my experience this time. I suppose it has always been the paradox of the trail: When you want water, it is never there, and when you want less, it is abundant.

Looking back at the early desert section in Southern California, I was shocked that the reliable streams that refreshed my body and soothed my soul in 2013 had dried up. How was I supposed to cover the same number of miles as before while almost entirely reliant on water caches?

For my latest thru-hike, I decided to shed the weight and comfort of my tent and rain gear so that I would be able to carry the three gallons of water necessary to survive the desert heat.

It’s as if we reverted to the “good old days” of the PCT, when hikers carried all their water across the shadeless expanse. I knew it would be difficult pushing through the desert, given that there have been more and more harsh droughts since my first attempt. It’s not like there wasn’t any water on the trail. I remember meeting up with a trail angel who told me that she has been placing an increasing number of water jugs each year so that the hikers could make it through some sections. If it wasn’t for these angels, we most certainly would have quit. The harsh reality is that there are fewer caches these days given the tight water restrictions in California.

But like the old saying goes: When it rains, it pours. We experienced this firsthand. While making our way toward the knee-shattering descent from Mount San Jacinto along Fuller Ridge, our group was caught in one of the biggest thunderstorms in memory. It was one of those times when you accept your fate and stare blankly into the distance while shivering in the pelting rain. Torrents cascaded down the trail below, making movement too dangerous. But so was sitting in the open. I was worried I’d be struck by lightning. We talked about descending to the desert, but the group lamented the possibility that we’d be washed away by the impending flash flood.

Remind me why I did not keep any rain gear or a tent? I am not convinced it would have made any difference. Some of the local day hikers explained that the storms had become more intense over the years, making it paradoxical how Southern California is so dry, when there is so much water hitting the ground during these storms. The waves of water created by these storms reminded me of attempting to ford in the High Sierra in past years.

We all knew the Mojave Desert would be hot, but it was another kind of hot this time. Scorching during the day and sweat-inducing during the night. The heat was unrelenting. I remember that night hiking “back in the day” was the best way to cover the hottest, waterless sections of trail. As we found out the hard way, the nights had become warmer than we remembered, although it was still a pleasant change from the scorching mid-day sun. It is crazy to think that during my first PCT hike, there were times when our water froze outside our tents, even in the desert. It seems like those extremely cold nights have become less common these days.

As global temperatures rise, today’s desert heat will become “another kind of hot.” Photo by Charles Noe.

One of the more tragic parts of the trail this year was that one of the thru-hikers had died a few days prior, after we left Mojave, and were hit with yet another intense heat wave. Some locals had mentioned that the heat waves have become more intense and last significantly longer. Fortunately, I carried my ultralight umbrella to provide some shade from the sun. Who knows what would have happened otherwise?

The heat also reached the High Sierra. I was lucky my group started early this year. We moved quickly through the desert and reached the Sierra in early May. Warmer temperatures affected the snowpack. Although there seems to be less snow these days, the snow melted much faster than before, so fording rivers was nearly impossible. I heard a similar experience from some of the southbound hikers we met in the North Cascades. Faster melting snow meant that the rivers were rampaging through the landscape, however the fact that there was less snow, meant that we could move significantly faster through the Sierra. Low snow in the north Cascades allowed southbound hikers to get an earlier start and northbound hikers to pass through later in the season.

Another reason pushing our group to tear through the Sierra at pace was those blood thirsty helicopters we call mosquitos. How the black cloud of buzzing mayhem didn’t kill us all is a mystery that will never be solved. They almost made me quit the trail.

Heading through the forested areas of the PCT, I was shocked that so many trees had died. The once towering greenery had clearly been hammered by drought, bark beetles, ozone mottling and a host of other diseases. Many of the weakened stand had been burned by wildfires. We spent many nights in Oregon relocating our campsites because dead trees would come crashing down in the wind. In some areas, it was like trying to escape the domino effect. By the time I reached the northern terminus, I had become accustomed to trail closures and detours as a result of the increasing number of wildfires in Oregon and Washington.

You get the picture.

Infographic by Julio Araujo. (Click image for larger version.)

Taking a step back from this hypothetical, the trail may become more difficult to hike in the future. It surely will change. In some ways, this simply suggests new challenges. However, a more difficult trail also means higher risk. It is not like things will change so drastically that you won’t be able to recognize the trail, and many things will happen that we don’t even realize.

There will still be snow in the mountains, forests in Oregon and rattlesnakes in the desert, just less of what we see today. It is difficult to say what will happen to the fauna and flora along the trail, as much depends on what occurs climatically in the future. Some research suggests that meadows will decrease and some species will diminish or disappear. The big deal with climate change is not so much that the climate is changing, but more that the changes are too fast for animals and plants to naturally adapt.

Everything that we do now has a consequence for the others after us, so it is important that we all do our part to ensure that the trail and, more importantly, the natural world around it are not adversely impacted by climate change.

In some ways, we need to accept that things will inevitably be different. Walking more softly on the earth will benefit us and the place we call home. The trail will change, the animals and plants will change, and your gear will change. The only thing that we know will remain constant is our love for the Pacific Crest Trail.

So get out there and take in the beauty of the trail, nurture the experience and do your part so that others can enjoy what it has to offer in the future.

Julio Araujo is a research fellow at SouthSouthNorth, a nonprofit organization based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is an agro-climatologist and holds a master’s degree in atmospheric science from the University of Cape Town. He is working with the government of Rwanda, providing climate change information and advisory support for its proposed agricultural expansion. In his spare time, he enjoys long-distance running, hiking and photography. Julio hiked 1,200 miles of the PCT in 2013 and left the trail after an injury.