Saturday, September 22, 2012

True or False: the A.T. is hard; the PCT is easy

The Appalachian Trail v. the Pacific Crest Trail: How to Pick Your Pleasure, part three

They weren’t designated the first National Scenic Trails for nothing. These two premier hiking trails are designed specifically to impart the beauty of their landscapes (seriously, trail builders think of these things).

Both are excellent choices, so whether you’ve finished hiking one of them and are ready to take on the next, or are simply deciding which one to hike for your first-ever thru-hike, here is one of several discernible differences that make each unique.

The Trail: I’m talking treadway or footpath here. Every A.T. hiker hears that PCT is so much easier to hike. Every PCT hiker hears that the A.T. is like walking through a green tunnel. So, let’s get all this out in the open.
Gradually graded Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California

The A.T. is hard. The PCT is easy. These generalizations, like most, don’t tell the whole story. The Pacific Crest Trail is primarily more gently graded than the A.T., and this difference is most starkly apparent at the outset of a northbound thru-hike, whether you start at Campo, California, or Spring Mountain, Georgia. While most hikers intend to train for their hike (and some do) most set out on a trail having scrambled to organize the rest of their lives so they can leave to fulfill their dream, often starting out with good intentions but not a lot of strength in their “hiking legs.” Plus, it’s my opinion that there’s no better training for a thru-hike than a thru-hike, but that’s another post entirely.

The difference at these trails’ southern terminuses means you may be able to easily hike 15 to 20 miles on day one in California, where you may only be able to hike 6 or 8 in Georgia. The difference is elevation change and the grade of the trail, but to generalize and say all of the PCT is easier would be going too far and excludes other factors of a PCT hike.

The fact is the PCT through the Sierras is difficult, given the altitude, terrain, river crossings, and snow; it’s not always a cakewalk. In the same token, the A.T. isn’t always a steep ascent and steep descent; there are rolling meadows, riverside ambles, and ridgeline walks. They both have their unique challenges, so let’s not get crazy with generalizations.

Sure, you can hike longer mile days on the PCT with a bit less fatigue, but you also need to cover 400 more miles on that trail in a slightly shorter window of time than on the A.T. (2,180 on the A.T. vs. 2,600 on the PCT).

Green Tunnel v. Views for Miles: I like to think of the Appalachian Trail as an experience in minutia, all the small wonders that make up this grand spectacle of nature; this includes walking through fog-shrouded tunnels of rhododendron grown so tightly together that I feel like I’m walking through a fairy tale. There are amazing views to be had along the A.T. from rock outcroppings and mountain summits, but they are the special features of the Trail, not necessarily a daily requirement. If they were on the food pyramid, amazing views would be the decadent dessert that you get in moderation, while walking in the rest of the experience provides well-balanced nourishment.
See the whit blaze on the rock in the center? Yes, this is the
Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. (I love to dispel the
generalization that ALL of Penn. is like this though.)

The PCT offers views for miles around. In fact from where you walk, you can often see the trail ahead snaking off into the distance. This has the potential to inspire as well as discourage you, especially if you are tired and know your destination is far beyond sight. From every place you stand, you can take ten amazing photographs, easily. The key in such an environment is to find awe in the landscape that is perpetually on display.

Because you can become desensitized to either the vast beauty laid out before you on the PCT, or the forest’s secret wonders and “special features” on the A.T., it’s best to steer clear of comparing the apples and oranges in this regard, and just accept them as designed.

Snow: As a Southerner the snow took me by surprise on the A.T. and the PCT, at different times and in different ways. Here’s how:

On the Appalachian Trail, assuming a start date before April, you will likely get snow. While other areas of the Southeast may see not one white flake, A.T. hikers will get a dusting, if not a dump, because of the elevation and the likelihood for the mountain tops to “catch” and stall the weather system. Hikers starting in February or March often get snow in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, most notably in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These spring snows are wet and heavy, and can come unexpectedly (like following several days of spring sunshine). Like any other time on the A.T. it’s important for hikers be aware of their condition and follow tips for preventing hypothermia.
I awoke to this snowfall the morning I walked into North Carolina.
On the PCT, you will encounter snow. It’s a matter of when and where. The thing I was least prepared for and learned the most about was snow and snow traversing, because I was traveling across som near vertical snowfields. The terrain that offers views for miles is the same terrain that means there are no big trees to cling to should you slide down an icy slope . A slip without knowledge of self-arrest techniques could have been deadly. As it was, I was uneasy and less than surefooted on that terrain. While snow conditions differ from year to year, when I hiked there was a lot; I must have walked three miles through snow to reach Muir Hut and another five or six in snow after the summit celebration.
On the PCT
If I had to do it all over again I would have taken some mountaineering courses on snow and snow travel before my hike (and when I do it all over again, I will).

My trepidation for traveling in snow without my ice axe (I needed it much sooner than I thought and had sent it much farther ahead), led me to make a penny wise, pound foolish mistake. My friend Morph and I skipped around snowy San Jacinto and Fuller Ridge to a section farther north because I didn't have an ice axe. I should have bought one at the outfitter and kept hiking. As it was we spent excessive time and money hiking a more northern section, then returned later to re-capture this missing section of the Trail.

This is part three of a four part series on the differences between these 2 trails:
Part One: People
Part Two: Elements
Part Three: Trail terrain, views, snow
Part Four: Resupply 


Hemlock said...

Enjoying this series! What mountaineering courses are recommend? I've been wanting to take one too.

Leanna said...

I don't have any recommendations for mountaineering courses. I know there was one offered in Idylewild a week or so before most people start the PCT. Other than that I'm sure there are other mountaineering courses all over the US. There are always NOLS and Outward Bound courses,too, for an expedition-type experience.