FRANKLIN — After completing the Appalachian Trail in 2016, Mariah Choiniere decided to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018, taking her first steps on April 20th.
“I had such a good time on the Appalachian Trail that I wanted to experience that again. I had friends who did the PCT after the AT and loved it,” said Choiniere.
“The PCT was scenic and very diverse; every twist and turn was a postcard, and the trail is a lot easier since it was graded for horses.”
The PCT runs for 2,653 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington. It winds through both the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges and crosses California deserts.
The highest elevation, 13,153 feet, is reached at Forrester Pass in the Sierra Nevada. Hikers reach the lowest elevation at the border of Oregon and Washington, where the trail is nearly at sea level.
Twenty-five national forests and seven national parks greet those who choose to attempt a thru-hike, but the beauty comes at a price.
“The challenge in completing the PCT was in the logistics and the planning. You had to think it out more; there were greater consequences for messing up logistics,” explained Choiniere.
“You’re deeper in the wilderness, and the elements are less forgiving.”
Most hikers begin at the southern end, located on the Mexican Border near San Diego, California, and end in Washington State at the Canadian border.
“You start in the low desert with lots of exposure and no shade,” said Choiniere, “and you end up climbing mountains around 11,000 feet in elevation, with deep pine forests.”
Although she planned the trip as a solo expedition, she was pleasantly surprised when she reached the trailhead.
“The day I started, I met some of the people I hiked the AT with. We decided to start out together, and I hiked with them for the first few weeks,” said Choiniere. “We were laughing the first day; it was so easy compared to the AT!”
Initial impressions can be deceiving.
“The sun was so unforgiving. It bakes the earth, and your feet are so hot, the blisters are much worse. I also had to be constantly mindful of the water situation,” explained Choiniere.
“People compile data on water sources, and when I got to a town to resupply, I’d go to a library and print out the latest water data.
“You have to plan on a liter of water for every five miles. We’d carry up to eight liters, which equals 16 pounds of water.
“That was difficult, but the water sources were awful. On the AT, we had mountain streams to draw from, but the PCT had disgusting water catchers in the desert.”
On her thru-hike of the AT, Choiniere’s phone broke, and she spent half the trip without one.
“On this hike, I had a flip phone, and I carried paper maps and a compass. Not everyone does that, but I enjoyed it.”
A bout of food poisoning and heatstroke in the desert added to the challenges in the early weeks.
“I woke my friends up that night, and I told them I had to leave before the sun came up because I was sick and almost out of water. I had to hike 20 miles to get to the next supply,” said Choiniere.
“One day, we descended nine thousand feet. It was 40 degrees when we got up; after hiking 20 miles, the temperature had reached 100 degrees.
“It looked flat, but I didn’t realize it was a wash; much of the hiking was through deep sand, and there was no shade so we couldn’t stop.
“We were pretty delirious after all that, and we probably had heatstroke. You have to be careful in those situations.”
Expansive mountain views and gorgeous scenery greeted Choiniere and her friends as they entered the High Sierra.
“You’re in high alpine for a few hundred miles, and you have no problem with the heat,” said Choiniere. “The High Sierra was spectacular, and you feel small out there.”
All that rugged beauty does come at a price.
“That was the deepest wilderness I’d ever hiked through. We crossed 150-200 miles with no roads,” explained Choiniere.
“We ran out of food out there and had to ration our food for three days. I was eating less than 2,000 calories a day and burning about 7,000. That was one of the toughest parts of the trail to get through.”
Along the way, Choiniere peak bagged the highest summit in the continental United States.
“We climbed Mt. Whitney, and caught a sunrise almost on the top,” said Choiniere. “You could see all the people ahead of you with their headlamps zigzagging in front of you.”
In northern California, temperatures soared but thankfully, there was shade to offset the intense heat
Choiniere celebrated her 23rd birthday atop Mount Shasta, at the southern end of the Cascade Range in northern California.
“Mt. Shasta wasn’t on the trail, but it was very nearby. I met a friend from the AT, and we got the hike in before the forest fire season.”
For the remainder of her time in California, Choiniere’s views were limited.
“The rest of California was socked in by smoke because of forest fires. The fires were in Redding, which was nowhere near us; this was just the residual smoke.”
When Choiniere reached Oregon, the weather was excellent. It was the last of its kind she’d enjoy.
“The snow and rain came when we got to Washington, and so did more fires,” said Choiniere.
“I wasn’t sure I could finish the trail; the last section was on fire. I wanted the closure of finishing! Thankfully, right when I crossed into Washington, they rerouted and opened the northern terminus for us to go through,” said Choiniere.
“The reroute had no maps; you’d just be going along this side route, and there’d be an arrow pointing you in one direction. No one knew where they were, or where the campsites were. It was a tough day.”
Opening the trail allowed Choiniere to complete her journey, but Washington State had plenty to throw at her.
“The whole trail was super easy and inviting, and we had nice weather until Washington,” said Choiniere. “People tell you this the whole way: get there early because one day, the weather is going to shift, and it will be winter.”
Sure enough, the rain came, and shortly after, it shifted to snow.
“The trail brought a much more challenging ending weather-wise when compared to the AT. I was carrying more food, and I was on a deadline. I’d accepted a job in Arizona that I had to get to by a certain date,” explained Choiniere.
Thankfully, Choiniere was able to push out some serious mileage on the PCT. She averaged 25-30 miles a day but increased to 35 miles a day in northern California. Foot pain for 1,700 miles of the trip affected her mileage.
Another health crisis loomed as Choiniere reached Glacier Peak.
“I got minor hypothermia from all the snow and rain. Eventually, your rain jacket gets wetted out, and it’s no longer shedding water,” said Choiniere.
“It started snowing, and we were hiking in deep water. When the snow started picking up, I felt so beat up; I was ready for it to be over. It was one of the toughest moments. It was like Washington knew we’d had it so easy, and we were not going to get out easy.”
A few nights later, Choiniere pitched her tent and listened as the sound of rock and landslides filled the cold damp, air, but the finish line was in sight.
“The next day, September 17th, I got to the end of the trail, and friends of mine were there! I had received a permit to hike into Canada and got to celebrate with a plate of poutine!”
It’s been two years since Choiniere tackled the PCT, and she’s got other adventures in view. Looking back over her two thru-hikes, she weighed the pros and cons of both.
“I had a smaller hiking window when I began the PCT with the winter coming in so quickly. I did feel rushed on the PCT, but I still enjoyed it!” said Choiniere.
“I enjoyed the AT more, maybe because it was my first one, and it was so influential on the rest of my life. I also had a better connection with the land.
“I’m glad I did them when I did, and it definitely makes me hungry for more. I’m thankful I’ve met all the people I have.
“I’ve hiked 5,000 miles and been through 17 states. I’ve gotten to see so many places I’d never have seen.”
Currently, she’s studying forestry at Vermont Technical College and planning to head west this summer.
“I don’t think I’d be doing what I am now if it wasn’t for these trails. I’ll be fighting fires out in Washington State as long as COVID doesn’t mess up those plans.”
She’s got other plans in the works for her post-collegiate years.
“It’s on my mind to get the Triple Crown. After college, I’ll finish the Continental Divide Trail. That one is about 3,000 miles long and follows the Continental Divide through the Rockies,” explained Choiniere.
“It begins in New Mexico and ends in Glacier National Park in Montana at the Canadian border. It’s a whole new ball game, and I might have a smartphone for this one.”
The CDT trail is even more logistically challenging than the PCT, and Choiniere noted that some portions are not completed yet, requiring a GPS to navigate.
“It’s hard to put into words what you take away from these hikes. It’s such a transformative experience. A trip such as this is completely self-guided and requires lots of discipline,” said Choiniere.
“There’s no one there to wake you up, tie your shoes, and pack your bag. No one tells you to start walking or how far to walk.
“The AT was the first time in my life that I had the opportunity to push myself beyond my limits consistently. I’ve never wanted something so badly and never had to work so hard for it. The PCT has only cemented this,” said Choiniere.
“I’ve taken that energy with me everywhere I go, it has really translated well to my success in college and other areas of my life.”