Snow Basics Course

Growing up in Louisiana and only ever backpacking in the summer, I had zero experience with winter hiking and camping.

Well, one experience. In 2013 Andrew and I did a late-season trip in SEKI and were surprised by snow flurries on the approach to the south side of Forester Pass. We turned back from the pass and made camp, and it snowed lightly for the rest of the evening. Maybe one or two inches overnight.

We thought we were going to die.

Oh shit, what if we can’t see the trail? What if we can’t get over Forester? If we can’t get out over Forester, there’s no way we can get over Trail Pass. Holy %^&# it’s cold!!

Turns out, we were fine. The next morning, the trail was totally visible, Forester was no problem, and, after all, we had maps, two phones, a GPS, and a SPOT device.

Point being, some confidence-building was in order.

So in late January, we took a snow skills course with Ned Tibbits of Mountain Education. Ned managed to find some snow in the Sierra, just off of Carson Pass, and we joined him and three other students—two other prospective PCT thru-hikers and one guy who’d already done the PCT and is now section-hiking the AT.

The three-day class covered basics—navigating across snow, traversing a slope, camping on snow, cooking in your tent, ice axe self-arrest. It was great. The biggest takeaway was that we will not automatically freeze to death if we have to hike through or camp on snow. Fabulous. The second was: cross-country snowshoeing is fun! You don’t have to worry about following a trail, you just figure out where you’re trying to get to and then head in that direction over a smooth, soft landscape.

The snow-covered mountains were staggeringly beautiful, and we had them almost all to ourselves. And while we were definitely pushing the limits of our three-season tent and 20-degree (and 10-degree, for Andrew the cold sleeper) bags, I did discover the joy of a hot-water-filled Nalgene at my feet.

Ultimately, the most memorable part was the camaraderie. This was our first time to officially try on this new identity as PCT thru-hikers: I will be thru-hiking. I am a person who thru-hikes. For 2600 miles. But Ned, Dan, Mike, and Joe spoke the same language.

Yes, of course this is something we do.

 

Full photo set on Flickr

Do what, now?

I grew up hiking. My parents took me on my first overnight backpacking trip when I was six years old, and we returned to Colorado together every summer after that for the next ten years. These were short trips—maybe four days on an out-and-back trail—but they permanently connected “summer” and “vacation” and “where would I rather be?” to “MOUNTAINS.”

The long trails have been on my radar since college, when I read A Walk in the Woods and made an aspirational purchase of a book called Hiking the Triple Crown. I vaguely considered an Appalachian Trail hike as a post-Peace-Corps plan—I’d basically been “camping” in a mud hut in Senegal for two years, so I figured five more months would be a piece of cake—but moving to California and starting grad school took precedence.

So my first thru-hike was the John Muir Trail in 2012, 210 miles from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mount Whitney. I hiked it with my boyfriend Andrew and our friend Kalia. We went very slowly and our packs were too heavy and there was a surprise side trip to the emergency room in Mammoth, but it was amazing because helloooooo Range of Light.

Ritter_web

Andrew and I have done other long hikes since then—a loop through King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, the Collegiate Loop in Colorado—but this is the big one, for us. We’re both lucky enough to be in a position to step away from our careers for six months and do this big crazy thing that we’ve both wanted to do for years.

The plan is to walk northbound from the Mexican border starting on April 8, 2015, and make it to the Canadian border by the end of September(ish). That’s 2660 miles over six months, averaging about 20 miles a day.

What. the. shit.

The numbers still don’t sound any less insane than they did before I decided that, yes, this is something I’m actually going to attempt. But right now, this is what I want to be doing more than anything else: waking up in the woods (or the desert, or the mountains) and walking all day and then doing the same thing again the next day and the next day and the next.