Expert Consultation: PCT Dreams Get Put Thru the Paces

Words by Chris Zimmerman

What kind of person has what it takes to embark on a thru-hike like the Pacific Crest Trail? Furthermore, what matter of strength is required to complete one? Whether taking four to five months off work or straight up quitting a job to hike for over 2,500 miles, thru-hiking can seem daunting and out of reach to many. As we started asking around about the PCT and what it takes to accomplish this feat, we were ultimately surprised by the amount of friends and acquaintances who had finished the entire trek. We got curious–is the PCT only for the most athletic and mentally strong, or is it something the average person can tackle and still enjoy?

We spoke with a group of thru-hikers to learn more about their experiences, including what they would have done differently and what possessed them to attempt such a feat in the first place. From trail names to trail angels, we hope their insights prove as valuable to you as they did to us. Our group ranged from hardened backcountry warriors who have completed the Triple Crown of thru-hiking—the PCT, AT and CDT—to those who were able to fulfill a less strenuous dream by conquering a section of the PCT.

Chris Berry first heard of the PCT in 2009 and became instantly obsessed, even though it was six years before he was able to complete the entire trail. Molly Scherer embarked on the trail in the wake of a divorce and a pair of failed relationships, looking to become a “badass person who didn’t get hurt anymore.” Sam Kelly was drawn to the trail after meeting a group of friends looking to complete a 1,000-mile section. After hearing good things about the trail, Matt Hess followed up his successful AT run by heading to the PCT, en route to completing the Triple Crown. Looking for a change of pace and challenge to quell her restlessness after living in a place she hated and working a job she didn’t like, Molly Katzman completed the PCT and has since completed the Triple Crown as well. Cody Howell actually checked in with us from the trail, midway through California on his way north.

Left to Right: Matt Hess, Molly Katzman, Molly Scherer, Chris Berry

First off, did you have a trail name? What was it and how the name befell you?

Chris Berry – I was a rare breed on the trail. Most folks get their trail name in the first few hundred miles, but it was over 2000 miles before I was bestowed with the title “Mailman.” I earned my moniker from consistently finding other hikers’ lost gear on the side of the trail and catching up with the owner to reunite the two further up the trail. Returned items ranged from a titanium spoon to a tomato plant.

Molly Scherer – Yes, I have a trail name, it’s “Wind Chime”. I was hiking with a man I met a day before, we decided to do a half day and stop at Sisters Mirror Lake, just south of the South Sister in Oregon. There was a group of four middle aged men who had hiked in about six miles from another trailhead and seriously brought every luxury item you could think of: beer, whiskey, cigarettes, food, all the good stuff.

They didn’t offer one thing. Which of course they didn’t have to, but I was dying for a beer. Later on, I heard what I thought were wind chimes, and thought, “Seriously! Those jerks brought wind chimes camping! Idiots!” Come to find out it was some men who had horses. They put bells on them so they can graze and not get lost. I later met the horse guys, told them the story and they started calling me “Wind Chime.” And it stuck. We are close friends to this day.

Matt Hess – My trail name is “Easyrider”. This came about on the Appalachian Trail in 2012—my first thru-hike. A bunch of other hikers and I were eating lunch in Franklin, NC, when I happened to look around the table and notice everyone was wearing a watch except me. Then I made a comment about this and why I didn’t need a watch. I said it reminded me of Peter Fonda at the beginning of the movie Easyrider. He gets on his motorcycle, throws his watch in the sand and rides away, symbolizing not needing time anymore. I would rise with the sun and go to bed when it got dark.

Molly Katzman – My trail name is “Tick Tock”, which was given to me because doing town chores—namely resupplying at the grocery store—takes me a really long time.

Cody Howell – My trail name is “Payless” and though many people automatically go to thinking it’s due to my thrifty nature, it actually came when I got what would have been my third pair of shoes…during the first 6 days. Unfortunately, in all my prep, I decided to use the shoes I had at my disposal, which were a pair of waterproof hiking boots. I think I was only three hours into day 1 when I realized my mistake in the 90° heat. My feet quickly became a blister breeding ground. Day 4 I got a new pair of shoes but didn’t account for how much my feet would swell and that the blisters needed room to heal. So day 6, I hobbled into an on-trail outfitter and, after sizing me up two whole sizes, they fit me in a new pair of shoes that allowed me to run out of the shop.

What originally motivated you to embark on the PCT? What drew you to it?

Chris – I heard about the trail in 2009 when a friend’s brother was hiking it for his honeymoon. I couldn’t believe a thing like that existed and people would attempt to hike the entire thing in one go. I was instantly obsessed. I started making a gear list, changing it, counting more ounces and changing it again. I read guides, stories, blogs, maps, everything! It’s hard to find something about the trail that didn’t fascinate me. It checks all my “favorite things” boxes: deep backcountry, tall peaks, physical challenge, profound beauty. It took me six years before I actually touched the southern terminus and began my hike, but I had the bug for a while.

Molly S. – I had been through a divorce, moved to Seattle, then was in two failed relationships. I was broken and figured I needed to get away. What better way than to embark on a solo hike for about a month? I wanted to become that badass person who didn’t get hurt anymore and figured this might help. I was going to change my ways! Three years ago I left Seattle, was driven down to Crater Lake and dumped off. My goal was to make it to the Washington state line. I made it roughly 300 miles in 26 days.

Matt – I was originally motivated to do the PCT while hiking the AT. I had met a few other hikers that had done it and they could only say great things about the trail. I knew very little about it until then, but after the AT, I did some research and knew it was something I definitely wanted to hike, mainly due to the wonderful terrain.

Molly K. – Years ago a friend of a friend thru-hiked the PCT and I was super intrigued by it. At the time I never fathomed doing the trail was something I could do. It was this superhuman feat other people did (and not a whole lot were doing it at that time.) Fast forward about seven years and I was living in a place I hated, working a job I didn’t like, generally restless and craving some sort of change and challenge in my life. So I decided to test my theory out and see if it was really something only other people did, or if it was something I could do, too.

Looking back, do you think you were prepared for what the PCT asked of you?

Chris – I knew from the beginning you had to run 60-plus miles a week to be physically ready for the trail. I saw that as improbable and decided to “get my trail legs” in the first 2 to 3 weeks like most people do. In retrospect, it made me lazy before the hike and created a brutal acclimatization period which was heaped on top of a hot, late-season start in the deserts of southern California. Not a great plan. Any training is good training. Mentally, I had built up so much ‘stoke armor’ for the trip over those years of fixating on the trail I don’t think anything but a true life or death emergency could’ve kept me off it. Fortunately, we had very few dangerous moments.

Molly S. – I was prepared as far as food and supplies went. Actually, I took way too much. And at the time my gear was on the heavy side. I took a zero degree down bag because that was all I had. It was way too heavy and filled most of my pack. Physically, yeah…sort of. I’m active, so I knew my legs were strong, but I definitely should have trained more. My decision to do it was kind of sudden, so I figured I’d just have to wing it when I got out there. Emotionally, no. I was sad, which made it rough and lonely at the beginning, but honestly, that didn’t last long. I truly started enjoying the alone time of my trip.

Matt – I definitely felt quite prepared for my hike, explicitly because I had already done the AT. The only thing that was a little new to me was hiking in the desert with lots of heat, no shade, no water and long water carries.

Molly K. – I don’t think there are many ways to prepare for a thru-hike, physically, aside from actually thru-hiking. Don’t get me wrong, it helps to have a good general baseline of fitness, but most of the physical readiness comes from being out there, walking 20+ miles a day every day with a pack on. I saw ultra-runners and other super fit athletes quit the PCT after a week, and I saw people who had never backpacked a day in their lives finish the trail.

On average, how many miles did you hike a day? Did you feel like you had to push yourself to reach this or was it the result of your natural pace?

Chris – I was hiking 26 or 27 miles per day. The average is deceiving though because in the beginning 20 miles a day seemed unsustainable and by Washington, 30+ was pretty easy. You repeat the same physical action long enough, you get pretty damn good at it.

Sam – I can handle 12-15 per day, but I’m not trying to go at a crazy pace. I like sleep and views.

Molly S. – On average I hiked 16 miles a day. Some shorter—my first day was 8—and the longest was 22 (most brutal terrain I have ever hiked). I was offered beer and ice cream by the guys on the horses if I could make it to a certain lake, which I obviously wasn’t going to pass up. I definitely felt I had to push myself, at least the first few weeks. My pack was so heavy and I had the worst blisters of my entire life for about 18 days. I had four days with good feet until some kind of bug/spider bite on my heel appeared to finish off the trip with me. I had a pair of water shoes I wore the last four miles to keep pressure off my heel.

Matt – On average I did 25-30 miles a day. It seemed very doable. My mileage was a little less for the first week or so.

Molly K. – On the PCT, which was my first long trail, I averaged about 20-25 miles a day. This seemed to be the norm, and while it was definitely painful and challenging at first, rarely did it feel impossible. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I knew I was capable of putting in the miles from the get-go, so I began to push myself to hike faster and farther, averaging about 25-30 miles a day. On the Continental Divide Trail, I was logging about 30 miles a day and hiked one 50-mile day because I’m a glutton for discomfort.

Whether hiking, surviving, eating or staying motivated, what was one of the more challenging parts of the trail and how did you cope with it?

Sam – Any extended ascension in bad weather. That’s the hardest part. Enduring a literal uphill battle long enough for the reward the next day. Remembering the next view, the next sunset will always be worth it.

Chris – Three dudes in one tiny ultralight tent for 71 of the 110 nights we hiked. Try to be that close to someone and not have an argument or two. But seriously, everyone has their own lens they see the trail through and you have to be able to realize your own vision for the trek while honoring the vision of the others in your party. You have to…because one of them has the stove, and the other has the rain fly.

Molly S. – There are a lot of mountain passes along the portion I did. Those climbs are always brutal, and it was sooooo hot! There was only one full day of rain during my trip and a few nights of thunderstorms, but they passed quickly. I hiked 16 miles that rainy day. I was soaked and cold, but it was nice to get away from the heat for a day. I never had problems staying motivated. I was exactly where I wanted to be. I just kept going. As far as food, you never have enough, and you can only carry so much.

Matt – The desert was a challenge for me because of the heat and lack of water. All I could do was push on.

Molly K. – One of the most challenging aspects of long distance hiking for me is boredom and staying motivated to hike all day every day, even when hiking is the last thing I feel like doing. I have heard a few hikers say they never get bored on the trail, but I call bullshit. Doing the same exact thing every single day gets old, and while there are stunning views to enjoy and wilderness to experience, it can be challenging to think of new things to think about to keep your mind busy and to distract you from the tedium and aches and pains.

Suffice it to say, I was hiking those trails because I wanted to, and what a great privilege that was. I’ve heard quite a few thru-hikers say what we do is not a vacation, and while it isn’t exactly one in the traditional sense, it’s still our choice to be out there. Just because it often hurts and is type 2 fun a lot of the time, we’re still out there because we can be and because we want to be, and we’re incredibly lucky for that.  

What was one of the most memorable aspects of your experience and what made it so special?

Sam – Meeting friends at their 700-mile mark and bringing them champagne, chocolate, charcuterie – they were SO thrilled. I was glad I could help re-energize them after they passed the halfway point of their journey.

Chris – I emailed my friends and family ahead of arriving in Manning Park, 8 miles north of the Northern Terminus, and told them I was proposing to my girlfriend there. A ton of people showed up under the guise of congratulating us on finishing the trail. (Ok, maybe they were there for that too.) I was shaking and had complete tunnel vision when I started speaking. I thought it was a turn of phrase before that day, but I couldn’t see more than a quarter sized space in front of my eyes. And she said yes!

Something else happened too. Part of what kept me going on the trail was the idea that what I was doing was insignificant. If it’s not a big deal, it can’t be that hard. Seeing my new fiancé there at the end of the trail with supporters surrounding me, I realized maybe this was a big undertaking. There’s a lot of really powerful positive emotion highlighting that day. I think I just said my most exciting part of the trail was being done with it…haha, whoops!

Molly S. – My most favorite moment was one that changed my life forever. I was so excited to finally reach the Three Sisters Wilderness. It was something I wanted to do from the moment I saw those peaks in some pictures of the PCT. The night I camped with my friend at the “wind chime lake”, I told him I was struggling to make it from point A to point B every day. I was tired, my pack was heavy and my planned daily route was a struggle. He reminded me that getting to point B isn’t what I should focus on. He reminded me to slow down, take pictures and enjoy the moment.

The next day he left early and I lingered behind to dry out my tent. As I left the lake I rounded the corner, came out of the trees and there she was, The South Sister, also known as Charity. She was the most beautiful mountain I had ever seen. I cried, then an overwhelming feeling of calmness and happiness came over me. At that moment I realized I was perfect just the way I am. There was going to be no changing into a badass who never got hurt. I didn’t want to change to become that. I was awesome, and I finally could see that.

That moment changed me as a person, for the better. I am not a religious  – I’m more spiritual if that makes sense. The mountains are where I feel it most. I vowed that day to go back and climb her at some point. I have, twice. The first time solo, the second with my horse friend, who I would meet that day when the horses left the lake and came up behind me.

Matt – One of my favorite experiences on the trail was definitely the Sierra Mountains. It was early season, so the snowpack made travel fun and interesting. The natural beauty of that region more than made up for the long days of post holing.

Molly K. – One of the most memorable aspects of the PCT, and thru-hiking in general is the feeling of becoming feral. After a few weeks being out there, I stop caring about how dirty I am, how bad I smell or what I’m missing back home. I start to feel in tune with the weather, the animals and the landscape in a way I don’t think is possible when I return home to my car, house and creature comforts at the end of the day. I feel more human—more alive—than I’ve ever felt before.

From gear to fitness to taking sage advice from chipmunks, if there was one thing you could have done differently, what would it have been?

Chris – FOOD! We chose the arduous and crazy route of pre-planning all our meals. ALL OF THEM. If I were to do it again I would pre-plan 30-50% and buy the rest along the way. Among the many problems that arose from our methods was that items would go stale after being individually packaged. Even super processed foods like Oreos can go stale. Tragedy.

Molly S. – One of the things I would have done differently is worn bigger shoes. Since day one my feet were so swollen and I had blisters everywhere you could think of. Between the toes, the bottom of my feet, heels, under toe nails, etc. I also would have invested in lighter gear. I wouldn’t have shipped myself so many food supplies. It’s easier to buy stuff along the way at lake resorts and small towns. It’s more expensive but at that point, I was pretty sick of everything I sent and would end up dumping most of it in the hiker boxes.

Molly K. – The one thing I would have done differently on the PCT would have been to take my socks and shoes off to let my feet air out every time I took a break in the desert. Blisters are demoralizing and horrible, and I hate them.

There are quite a few characters on the trail. Can you talk about one person you met who left a lasting impression?

Chris – There are a ton of good people on the trail, and definitely some quirky ones. One person that stood out was “Granny”. She was in her late 20’s, but old by that year’s average age on the trail. She had spent months in South America at a convent studying to be a nun and decided the life wasn’t for her. Soon after meeting her boyfriend Orny, they decided to hike the trail.

“Burgundy” was a fun-loving dude who carried a flute with him on the trail and would take requests. It was a jazz flute…

“High Roller” (named for rolling his ankle on the first day) finished his degree in finance in New England and came out West to the trail because he wanted a profound outdoor experience before jumping into the world of banking.

“The Gorilla Walker” was moved to action by the upsetting amount of illegal poaching of Mountain Gorillas. I had to look this up, but his trek raised over $13,000 by the time he finished the trail. He was originally from South Africa, more recently the UK, and also a highly rated squash player.

A competitive runner from Tecate decided to hop on the trail without any planning. As he told me, “I have some friends in Big Bear, maybe I’ll try to get that far. I’m just going to see how far I can make it.”

How else can you run into this kind of eclectic group of fascinating people?!

Molly S. – I met tons of people on the trail. Most were the average thru-hiker with light gear and obviously knew what they were doing. My horse friends were awesome of course. I had never really encountered thru-hikers on horses. They had everything good! They fed me the best trail meal I had ever had. There were two girls I encountered doing a 4-5 night trip. They had brand new boots and bigger packs than mine. Poor girls ended up at my camp their first night with blisters as big as silver dollars on their heels, and one was crying. Not sure if they finished what they wanted to. They had planned to meet another night at a camp but I never saw them again.

Matt – Hands down the best person I met on the trail was the Legendary “Billy Goat”. I randomly met him at Obsidian Falls and we had a nice little chat. I could explain who he is but it would just take way too long. Check him out here: Billy Goat’s Never-Ending Thru-Hike.  

Molly K. – My second day on the PCT, I met an adorable young woman with a syrupy southern drawl, fiery red hair, and a face full of freckles. “Tuck” had never backpacked a day in her life, she was carrying way too much gear and she bravely announced to me and a group of very experienced thru-hikers she was doing the PCT because she had read Wild. I ended up hiking with “Tuck” for nearly 500 miles. It was pretty remarkable seeing her transform from the sweet, innocent girl from Kentucky into a hardened thru-hiking badass. And no surprise—she made it to Canada!

Do you have plans to attempt any other thru-hikes?

Chris – My wife, girlfriend at the time, hiked the first 80 miles with me to Julian, CA, which was enough for her to know it definitely wasn’t her jam. With that in mind, 3 to 4 months is a long time to be away from her. Right now I have my sights set on Denali (only takes a month max) and then maybe in my late 30’s I’ll try another trail. Maybe I can even convince my wife to run support. The Triple Crown (PCT, AT, & CDT) will always be calling me. The Pacific Northwest Trail also piques my interest.

Molly S. – I had originally planned to be on the PCT this year, but I met my husband and we got married at the end of May. I can’t imagine leaving him for 5 months, at least not in our first year being married. He knows someday I may do it, but for now, I’ll stick to shorter distances. I moved to Arkansas in January, so I’ve been looking at the Ozark Highland Trail. It’s about 200 miles and would be awesome in the fall. I would love to hike the Sacred Door trail in Montana. For me, it would be a spiritual experience. I would definitely go solo on both of those trips.

Matt – Now that I have hiked the three big trails in the U.S.: AT 2012, PCT 2015, CDT 2016, I get my official “Triple Crown” award from ALDHA West in October. For future hikes, I have a few different places I’m toying with right now. Trekking through Patagonia, traversing Peru’s Cordillera Blanca range or possibly The Kungsleden in Sweden. I definitely want to go somewhere out of the country.

Molly K. – After finishing the PCT, I hiked the Appalachian Trail the following year and the Continental Divide Trail the year after that, completing my Triple Crown of Hiking. I’ve taken a little break from long-distance hiking this summer to rock climb and do some shorter hikes, but I’d like to hike the Arizona Trail, Idaho Centennial Trail and some other lesser known routes in the years to come.

One of the biggest takeaways from our conversations was that these passionate hikers are just normal people. They aren’t super-human hiking machines—not at first anyway. They had a dream and set out on the trail and the fortitude to see it through. In the process, many were able to learn about themselves or open a door to a new world of possibilities. Another thing we took note of is how no two experiences were identical. From miles hiked per day to trail diets to reasons for setting out in the first place, everyone hiked their own hike. If you are looking to plan your own thru-hike, this might be the most important piece of advice to remember. At the end of the day, you alone will be able to provide justification for your efforts and a sense of purpose during your journey. If you’re setting off on a thru-hike in the near future, we wish you luck, and hope to see you on the trail.

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