The PCT is not for the faint-hearted, nor the unprepared. The grueling 18-mile stretch from Sunrise trailhead to the infamous Scissors Crossing offers an early test, where the mountains drop 3000 feet to the sweltering flats of the Mojave Desert. Abide by the Greek maxim, Know Thyself, or pay.
Knowing thyself on the trail begins with getting to know you – your limits, your capabilities, your experience. The PCT is crowded with people, these days, who might never have pitched a tent, who never hiked in desert, who perhaps never even hiked before setting foot on the trail.
Ask yourself some basic questions. What’s your daily limit? Folks who know often recommend hiking no more than five or six hours a day the first week, or 12 to 15 miles. But it depends — on the training you’ve done, your level of experience, your age.
Other questions relate to the particular circumstances of the trail. How much water to carry? Some go 20 miles on a liter; others need seven. How much sun and heat can you take? Early in the season, when the weather is cool, the desert can be a friendly place. By mid-April it turns hostile as temperatures soar into the 80s, 90s and higher. In such conditions, it might be best to take a snooze under a tree at mid-day — or night hike.
In the later afternoon, where the trail drops onto the Mojave flats, just a mile from the segment’s end at Scissors, a youngish woman with orange hair, dressed in a skin-tight yoga outfit, hunkers down in the sparse shade of a straggly bush, head hanging. “Are you ok?” a hiker asks. At that, she starts crying. “I can’t do this,” she sobs. “I just can’t do it.”
She’s not alone. A new trail friend, a seasoned Danish hiker named Lars who raced by me earlier in the day, arrived at the Scissors water cache with less than an inch remaining in his bottles. “I started with four liters and drank every drop,” he would tell me later. Four miles from the end of the day’s hike, he was getting desperate. Seeing a highway in the distance, he was about to leave the trail and flag down a passing car, begging for help. “I would have gone down on my knees on the side of the road.”
The day began so differently. In the cool morning air, still wearing my fleece, I stood aside to make way for joggers getting in their weekend workout. Flowering bushes bright with spring yellow, lavender, and fragrant white lined the trail as it wound up and down the gentling rolling hills. After some miles, it began to steadily drop.
Down, down, down it went, to the point where it’s at times easier to run, even with a 20-pound pack. By 11 am, however, the sun begins to take its toll. Traversing the south-facing slopes, I suddenly realize that I’m drifting, walking in a stupor of heat and monotony. Around mile 12, where the track crosses the rutted dirt Rodriguez Spring Road, I briefly lose the trail, not immediately noticing the handy arrow of stones pointing the way. Mild disorientation is the first sign of dehydration and heat stroke.
The Rodriguez water tank is dry. I had planned to restock here but, at the last moment before starting this morning, packed a third liter. A bit further down the trail, as I’m congratulating myself on my foresight, I trip on a stone and go sprawling. To my horror, that extra bottle falls from my pack, rolls tantalizingly slowly toward the edge of the trail — and tumbles over, bouncing from boulder to boulder, several hundred feet down a ravine.
At mid-day I stop for lunch in a patch of shade under a prickly holly bush, gazing across the Mojave several thousand feet below to the mountains rising sharply on the other side. I have to climb that tomorrow? Scissors Crossing is exceedingly hot and unwelcoming to anyone, least of all PCT hikers. Briefly, I worry about being so alone. I’ve seen only one other person on the trail all day. And just then Lars blasts by in a small cloud of dust. “Hallo, hallo. Nice spot!” And then he’s gone. Later, I learn he’s been racing to catch me – and having done so he speeds off to put some distance between us. Competitive trail-racing, PCT-style.
It gets hotter and hotter as the trail descends. Leaving Lars to charge ahead, I take refuge in the welcoming shadow of a large boulder, indented like a shallow cave. The ground is soft course sand, perfect to lie on. So I do, listening to the buzzing flies, the birds, the ringing in my ears that comes with the rapid loss of elevation. And before I know it, a brief pause has become a nap.
I awake to voices and pack up, thinking to hike with others for a change. Instead I find a young British couple curled in the minimal shade of the trailside chaparral, wild-eyed with heat and sunburn. She’s bundled up in windbreaker, long pants and muff against the sun; he’s lobster-red, his beard dripping with sweat, his shirt torn open. “Do want the coolest, shadiest place you’ve ever seen?” I ask, and show them my spot. They collapse onto its soft cool sand with gratitude. “Maybe we’ll just camp here for the night,” he says. I have become a PCT concierge.
A bit after 3 pm, the sun loses some of its edge and I start on the final stretch. Four miles from Scissors, the trail levels onto the desert floor, flat and hot as a griddle. Little grows. Nothing moves save for beetles and scorpions. The only sign of anything, really, is the sun glinting on the windshield of a car in the far distance. It turns out to be my wife’s. And suddenly there she is, once again rounding a bend in her floppy straw hat, a heavy gallon of water bulging in her little day-pack. “Hello there,” she says. “I’ve come to save your life.”
To her abiding disappointment, I have almost a full liter left.