What makes a big-city Singaporean want to go off and hike alone in the wilderness for five months?
Growing up, I was shy, sheltered and spoiled. I had many fears – I was scared of the dark; things that lurked in the tall grass; falling and drowning.
In my teens, I discovered rock-climbing. Climbing involved taking risks, and a level of commitment. It gave me a taste for adventure, and a new confidence. I wanted more.
I climbed Mt Everest in 2011, reaching the summit on a particularly windy day. I was exhausted from fighting the fiercely cold, strong winds, and practically blinded from wind-burnt corneas. I never knew if I would succeed until I was a few steps from the top. It was an epic adventure that would be hard to beat.
Then I saw a Facebook post about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It was made popular by the book Wild and the Reese Witherspoon movie that followed. It saw a surge in the number of people attempting to through-hike the trail – to hike the complete trail within a calendar year – but only about 20 per cent succeed each year. Fewer people have successfully completed a through-hike of the PCT than have climbed Mt. Everest. I was looking for an epic adventure, and this fit the bill.
Six months later, I stood on the Mexican border – I was ready.
After dropping hikers off in the desert, Bob Reiss, a San Diego Trail Angel, had some friendly encouragement: “The true gravity of this situation will become apparent when my tail lights disappear.”
An unexpected journey
It was Apr 7, 2018. Before me lay a ribbon of trail, meandering through the desert wilderness. It would continue, unbroken, for 4265 km through various national parks, forests, and volcanic lava fields, up along the crests of mountains and ending at the Canadian border. It would be a monumental challenge.
By the first 10 km, I had chalked up three nerve-racking run-ins with large rattlesnakes. Nothing gets the heart pumping more than coming around a bend and facing an angry rattler, coiled and ready to strike, just a few feet away!
It was Spring, and temperatures at night plunged well below freezing. My water bottles froze solid on three nights, and my sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough. In the day, the sun was unrelenting. I soon earned my trail name, ‘Bandit’, given to me by some Swiss hikers for the way I wore my neck gaiter to shield my face from the sun.
Hiking has its own terminology. I was a NOBO (Northbound) ‘Through-hiker’ – someone who is hiking the entire trail, and not just a section of it. I learned to ‘Camel up’, by drinking my fill at water sources to minimise carrying water to the next source; and to ‘Cowboy camp’ under the stars to save the time and effort of setting up a tent. I would find joy in ‘Trail Magic’ – random acts of kindness, like a cooler of cold drinks or food left by the side of the trail; and gratitude to ‘Trail Angels’ – people who help out hikers by giving rides, food or a place to stay.
Over the misty mountains
When I entered the Sierra Nevada in early summer, the high alpine country was full of snow, and the creeks were swollen with meltwater, making them dangerous to cross. I was already adept at desert hiking by then, but now I was back to square one. I had to learn new skills: how to navigate trails hidden by snow; cross high passes early in the morning to avoid postholing; and ford swift-flowing creeks.
The creek crossings were absolutely terrifying. Two PCT Through-Hikers drowned last year, so the dangers are very real. We crossed 15 or more creeks a day in the Sierras – one or two were tricky so I scouted for a safer place to cross. Sometimes, a fallen tree formed a useful bridge but most of the time, I had to get my feet wet. Between the creek crossings and trekking in the snow on the high passes, my feet were constantly wet.
In the Sierras, I carried a special ‘bear proof’ canister to store my food at night.
But that didn’t stop two bears from trying their luck – one of them coming much too close for comfort. Shooing it away was useless – it came closer, and only when some other hikers appeared could we shoo it off the trail.
By the middle of Summer, I reached the volcanic ranges of Northern California and Oregon. They stood out like giant milestones as I passed them one by one: Mt Shasta, The Three Sisters, Mt Jefferson, Mt Hood. I had finally found my ‘hiker legs’ and was hiking close to 50km a day. I had whittled my pack weight down to a minimum. I wore just one set of clothes for everything: living, hiking and sleeping. Every five days or so, I would go into town to restock: do my laundry, plug in my power bank, shower, grab a hot meal, buy food and fuel for my stove.
Late summer brought its own challenges. The dry heat had set off many forest fires, some of which were along the PCT, causing detours. Smoke would obscure the views and turn the skies orange, which led to some pretty spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
There and back again
I was in the Cascade mountains of Washington with Summer coming to an end. The days were shorter, the nights colder, and darker skies threatened rain. After one particularly miserable wet day, I crawled into my tent, cooked up a hot meal, and collapsed exhausted into my wet sleeping bag. That was the one and only night that I failed to properly store my food. A mouse ate its way into my tent to get to my food, and I woke up when I felt it crawling over me. I smacked at it clumsily, fortunately without success, until it dawned on me that I could have simply unzipped my tent and let it scamper away.
I reached the northern terminus of the PCT on the Canadian border on Sep 7, 2018. I had been on trail for 153 days. My journey was at an end. I had spent many nights alone in dark forests, faced rattlesnakes in the tall grass, crossed slippery high alpine passes and risked drowning in swift-flowing creeks. It had been an adventure like no other, but I was ready to go home and see what else lies ahead.
The writer is a 54-year-old retired airline pilot. Besides being the second Singaporean to complete a through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, he is also the 11th person from Singapore to climb Mt Everest.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.