Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a huge endeavor. It’s a physical feat, a wilderness challenge and an unparalleled life experience. Most people, to the tune of 50 hikers starting each day in peak season (April), begin from the Mexican border and hike north. But every year, a few brave souls decide to hike southbound, or SOBO, from the Canadian border.
“SOBOing the PCT is not for the faint of heart,” said Jack “Found” Haskel, trail information manager for the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). “It’s appropriate for people who have significant wilderness experience and are physically fit. You need knowledge, equipment. You need risk tolerance.”
The SOBO experience presents more challenges because it begins in Washington, which has a lot of elevation gain and is usually quite snowy at the beginning of the hiking season, in June or July. It’s also tougher with timing—thru-hikers must get through the Sierra before they are snowed in, which can be very early in the season. That’s why so few people begin a SOBO hike each year.
According to Haskel in 2013, the PCTA issued 53 SOBO permits. In 2014 they issued 430. This year, they’re expecting several hundred SOBO thru-hikers. “If you’re looking for solitude and a more deep encounter with the wilderness, and the timing works out for you, it might be a good option,” Haskel said.
So who are these rare hikers? We hit the trail to find out.
From: Suburbs of Chicago
“I hope to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. That’s a big ask. I’ve struggled with a lot of depression. I’m always happy when I’m out here. I keep looking for something else to make me feel better. Finally, I had this good job and I’m making money, and it’s not like that exciting and great. I’m trying to figure out if there is something else I can do that would make me happier. Or maybe I enjoy the comfort of a 401(k) and vacation and a steady paycheck and I will be happy living that lifestyle. … I’m also hoping to be more comfortable with a strong body and not be so concerned about what I look like.”
Name: FOG (F’in Old Guy)
From: Missoula, Montana
“I started to train for the hike last year, applied for my date. I got diagnosed with [throat] cancer in October of last year. It was bad enough that they rushed me into treatment. I went through 35 radiation treatments and seven weeks of chemo, a month and a half in the hospital. I got out of the hospital in February. My first date was April 13, which is Friday the 13. What’s funny is that this Friday [July 13], is Friday the 13th, and I’m hoping to be tagging the [Canadian] border the day before. … Last Friday I was at the hospital, and the week before they had found something in my throat. I got the biopsy back on Friday and I was good to go. I didn’t even know I was coming until Friday. … I’m cancer free. I feel great!”
Names: Ram and Mrit
Ages: 36 & 37
Mrit: “It’s something of a challenge for us. … It’s a journey, and we thought we’d give it a try.”
Ram: “For us, it’s a great way to travel. You move slower. Instead of taking flights and buses and cabs and rush through. You just move nice and easy and slow.”
Mrit: “We both quit our jobs. We are both lawyers, working for 11 years. We both decided to quit. It was something we thought that we needed to do.”
Ram: “Get out of our comfort zone.”
Mrit: “As a couple, it has its ups and downs. I’m a different person and he’s a different person. There is an inherent reaction I would react to in a certain way that he would react to in a different way. You get to know each other better. … The best thing is that he snores a lot, and I can sleep through it.”
From: Longmont, Colorado
“I get relaxation and slowing down from trail. I’m a high-strung person, so I get a little bit more slow time. Plus, I get time to think. I’m not worried about having a nice house and keeping [stuff] looking good like I usually do. When I’m on trail I think about what I’m going to do today and tonight, that’s about it. Usually, it seems we’re thinking about way too far away. Retirement, at my age. Should I not be spending this money? Mainly I think about money a lot when I’m at home, which I don’t actually think about out here at all. It’s kind of cool.”
From: Nashville, Tennessee
“It is really challenging already. That’s what I wanted from this—to be strong, find myself and be content with what’s necessary. … I struggle with depression really bad, so I just really want to face that. I hope to get a better grip on my anxiety and depression with this. … I also think that in the real world, you’re always putting a mask on. I don’t think that’s genuine. So out here, you become more yourself. And that’s the most beautiful part of people—when they love themselves. And I want to love myself.”
From: Suburbs of Chicago
“I know that if I make it the whole way, I won’t be the same person I was when I started. I don’t know what it will be or how or when. My part is to take the chance, get out here and do it, and something will change. … What’s changing now is this faith in if you take a chance on something you want to do, you’ll be taken care of, you don’t have to be afraid. There’s always a million reasons why I can’t quit the job, rather than just taking the leap and doing something. The trail is a metaphor, a vehicle for some kind of a change or transformation.”
From: Seattle, by way of Michigan
“I made my own backpack. I really hope it doesn’t fall apart. I wanted something that would be unique and mine on the trail. We buy a lot of goods from companies that have their logo on them. The conflation between brand identity and personal identity is getting super close and I’m not into that. I wanted to create something of my own making for me. I feel very empowered and proud and scared. Because if it breaks, that’s all on me. I can’t write anyone a nasty email about it.”