The Gear

Throughout my training, my pack has continued to evolve. Each training session at Henry Coe State park revealed new things to me and my pack changed accordingly. Originally, it came in at just over 20 pounds. With constant reevaluation, consideration, and planning I have reduced my base weight to 14.3 pounds. A respectable number, but a far cry from the ultralighters coming in at 5-7. I’m confident with my pack as I feel like I have everything I need, and it comes in at a full pound lighter than the average thru-hiker that completed the journey in 2018 (per the annual gear survey).

The absolutely indispensable ‘Halfway Anywhere’ PCT gear survey: https://www.halfwayanywhere.com/trails/pacific-crest-trail/pct-gear-guide-2018/

Now that my trip is just four days away, I feel comfortable claiming that this is my final, final gear list. Below is a gear list of everything I will be starting out with.

The Big Three

  • Osprey Talon 44 Pack
    • Large Rain cover
  • REI Magma 30 quilt
    • Cocoon Sleeping Bag Hood Pillow
    • Thermarest z-lite SOL sleeping pad
    • Stuff sack
  • Nemo hornet 1P Tent

Water System

  • Sawyer squeeze
  • Cnoc Vecto water container 3 Liter 
  • 2X 1L smart water bottles
    • 1x screw top
    • 1x flip top

Clothing

  • Outdoor research Helium II Rain jacket
  • Mountain Hardware Stretchdown hooded Jacket
  • Nike Therma-Sphere Element dry fit Shirt – long sleeve
  • Nike Running dri-fit running shirt – long sleeve
  • 2X Aididas Synthetic underwear
  • SmartWool Merino 150 Long underwear
  • 2X – Wrightsock Double layer silver escape crew
  • REI Sarah Roll up pants 
  • Outdoor Research Sun runner cap

Toiletries

  • Toothpaste tube
  • Electric toothbrush head
  • SPF 35 sunscreen
  • Burt’s beeswax chapstick
  • Toilet paper – 10 squares/day
  • Pills
    • Daily multivitamin
    • Tylenol
    • Cologen hydroslate

Miscellaneous

  • Talenti ice cream jar (for cold soaking)
  • Snow peak titanium spork
  • Julbo Sherpa glacier sunglasses
  • Petzl Tikka headlamp
  • Black Diamond ergo cork trekking poles
  • 2x PowerLix Knee compression sleeves
  • Bauerfiend Achillies tendon support brace
  • Bic lighter
  • 2X Nite Ize S-Biner Size 3
  • ID and debit card (not pictured)
  • The stick personal massage tool
  • KT tape roll (10 inch strips)
  • Ziplock bags
  • OPSack – Large
  • 3X patches Mole skin

Of course, This is not everything I will need for my journey. The Sierra Nevada mountain range requires a specific set of tools. For that leg of the journey I have selected the following items.

  • Oboz Bridger Mid BDry Hiking Boots
    • Will replace the Oboz Sawtooth II Low Hiking Shoes I will be wearing
  • Black Diamond Contact Strap Crampons with ABS Plates
  • Mammut hardshell
  • Black Diamond Raven Ice axe – 70 cm
  • BearVault BV500 Food Container

The intent of this post is not to be entertaining, but informative. When I complete my journey 6 months from now I will make an updated post coving what gear I liked, did not like, and what failed on me.

The Planning Phase

There is no doubt that hiking the PCT is going to be a daunting task, but for me, all the preparation and planning is proving to be even worse. I have always been allergic to detailed planning; In general I prefer to have a loose idea of what I am going to do and then modify my plans on the fly as required. For better or for worse, since this is the approach I have always taken,  I’m taking the same approach with the PCT. The amount of preparation required for a 5 month endeavor is turning out to be massive, and I  am finding it to be quite labor intensive. Just to get my loose plan in place has taken a tremendous amount of time and energy,

Now that the planning phase for my hike is complete, I’m going to attempt to share with you everything I learned along the way.  And when my hike is over, the intent is to make a follow up post about my planning: what worked and what didn’t, and what I would do differently given the opportunity. 

There are quite a few challenges I encountered while planning. The main hurdle for me was that all of the information needed had to be piecemealed together; there wasn’t a one stop shop for everything you needed to know. This means that I had to do quite a bit of research before the planning even started. While not a particularly difficult thing to do on its own, there were a couple of unique challenges associated with doing the research. The first was that I basically had no idea whether or not the source I was referencing was reliable. Over time, the number of people that have hiked the PCT has grown significantly. In the last decade we have seen an explosion in both the number of people hiking, as well as the number of people completing the trail. This means that there are now far more sources to draw from compared to previous years. But this is a double edged sword. Now that there is so much data available at one’s fingertips, I didn’t have to go too far to find conflicting statements. This was true for nearly anything on the trail. Many sources of information were people’s personal recollections of what they went through during their hike. These experiences were viewed through the lens of their skill levels, hiking comfort, year-over-year trail conditions etc., and often did not map perfectly to my own circumstances. Wading through this and finding resources that I felt good about was difficult. 


Source: https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/thru-hiking-long-distance-hiking/2600-miler-list/ 
Notes on the data: this does not account for the number of people number of people attempting the full trail, the completion rate, any biases occurring through non-reporting (because of the advent of the internet), or people making false claims. 

While not perfect, the collection of documents and resources below are what I have selected to plan and execute my hike. I have tried to  exclude any sources that are solely personal, like blogs or video logs. 

Personal logistics document 

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/15UF6YSyGeq_ERHRX8wMAmIitd1I7tIsOdaLEb_4348w/edit?usp=sharing

This document is self-generated, and is the ultimate output of all of  my extensive reading, culling and planning. It outlines when and where I will stop, as well as  my resupply strategy.

Even though this document is carefully crafted and tailored, I am prepared (and expecting) to throw it out the window. Everything I have read says that you need to be adaptable while on your hike, and I plan to be as flexible as possible. Fires, varying trail conditions, injuries, and general disarray make it basically impossible to stick to a set plan. I have set up the file to be parametric, which will allow me to spontaneously change things as needed. Adding and removing stops, changing daily mileage, and altering resupply strategy are all fairly straightforward within this document. In addition, you’ll note that I won’t be sending any hiker boxes to resupply locations prior to the hike – everything will be done while on the trail. This allows me to retain optionality in  stop locations at the cost of some additional labor while on the trail. Given the severity of the current winter,  a ‘living document’ felt like the best course of action, as I may decide to skip or flip-flop certain sections.

Town guide 

http://asthecrowflies.org/pctpacific-crest-trail-town-guide/

The town guide maintained here is an indispensable piece of information. Knowing where I can and cannot resupply is a big deal. It also has quite a bit of detail about what the town has to offer besides actual supplies. Knowing when I’ll be able to stay in a hostel or get some wifi  will be key for my sanity. This document is something that is maintained by a single person, but it appears to be reputable as I have seen it referenced by a few others. The owner has also hiked the PCT 5 (!!!!) times, making them somewhat of an authority. 

Water sources 

https://pctwater.com/

This document is a big deal, particularly for the Southern California portion of the trail. The site is basically the go-to link for water information on the PCT. They maintain and distribute a living document that outlines all water sources on the PCT. They do this by aggregating information from people on the trail, and updating the document every few days. It allows them to deliver the best possible information to hikers. This is one of my lifelines on the trail; I doubt I would have the courage to do the hike without this.

PCT Snow conditions 

https://www.postholer.com/snow/Pacific-Crest-Trail/1

This is the source I will be using to decide where to send my snow gear. My ice axe, crampons, and extra layers  will add a few pounds to my pack, so making sure I am not carrying them  unnecessarily is important. In addition, I may end up skipping sections of the Sierras due to snow conditions, and this source will allow me to make an informed decision. 

Craig’s PCT planner 

https://www.pctplanner.com/plan.php

This is the de facto best way to plan your PCT hike. It has been used by many hikers throughout the years and is a great way to figure out where you are going to resupply. I ultimately decided not to  use this planner, but instead make something sustainable(??), in order to gain as much familiarity as possible with my plan. I referenced this planner  quite a few times while making my own.

PCT 2019 Facbook group

https://www.facebook.com/groups/PCT2019/

This Facebook group is exclusive to people hiking the Trail in 2019. It offers a great way for people to coordinate, communicate, and provide real time feedback about trail conditions. While not something I used to generate my plan, it is something I will be monitoring often throughout my hike 

PCT Trail Angels Group 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/pctangels/

This Facebook group is meant to be a communication forum between the PCT trail angels and the hikers. At some point I’m going to be in a bind and will need to ask for help. This is the place to do it.

Guthook app 

https://atlasguides.com/pacific-crest-trail/

Guthook is an app for your phone that allows users to post real-time information about the trail. It is the app to use for finding campsites, locating water sources, figuring out where you are in relation to the trail, and getting notified about trail closures. PCTA.org reports that roughly 70% of the trail has cell reception. But guthook allows you to download the maps  and the associated information beforehand, which can be reference later (even when you don’t have reception)

Pre-hike checklist

https://thetrek.co/pacific-crest-trail/pct-thru-hike-list/

There is quite a bit of ‘life stuff’ that needs to be done before leaving for a hike. This checklist provides good scaffolding for everything you need to do to put your life on pause for ~6 months. I used this list to build an action items tracker to make sure I didn’t leave anything undone before my hike

Why?

‘Why?’ is far and away the most common question I get after telling people that I’m hiking the PCT. It’s certainly a reasonable thing to ask, given where I was in life at the time of my decision.  This post is an attempt to explain my rationale for making such a big move. A lot of people expect to hear that there was a single driving force that pushed me into hiking the PCT, but the reality is that it is a combination of many factors, both internal and external. 

When people ask me why, they most often specifically ask “Why are you hiking the PCT?”.  Much to my surprise , they never ask “Why did you quit your job?”. I assume that they think I quit my job solely to hike the PCT. The reality is that I quit my job because I needed to take time off. The driving force behind that is pretty simple; I was burned out and needed to do something else with my life. I spent three years working a demanding job for Apple on the team that was responsible for their personal computer lineup. The role often took me to China, which accounted for roughly 20% of my time. Spending so much time overseas in combination with the horrible jet lag it caused was enough to significantly affect the way I could live my life. It took me some time to realize it, but I ultimately figured out that traveling was really taking its toll on me. I needed a break. After discussing this with management, it was determined that I wouldn’t be able to be a part of the team without  traveling, as it is a big part of the job. At roughly the same time, I heard about a great opportunity within the company, and I became very excited about it. I began discussions with this team; one thing led to another and I successfully moved over to the new group. The job was very similar, but thankfully would not involve traveling to China for a year. 

To say that this new position was my ‘dream job’ is actually a bit of an understatement. I was working with a young, hungry, and extremely talented group of individuals on technologies that we were all ferociously passionate about. Every person on the team believed at their core that what we were working on was going to have a noticeable impact on how people lived their lives. On top of this, we were basically granted every resource that we needed to do our jobs —  a dream scenario for a design engineer. I knew that this was the environment that I was entering when I moved teams, and my hope was that this new environment would help rid me of my burnout. As good as it was, it did not reinvigorating me in the ways I had hoped. I spent almost a year with the new team and, unfortunately, the feelings of burnout never really left. 

Around nine months into my time on the new team, they sent me back to China — my 14th trip in three years. Feeling the sting of travel again, I knew that the job change alone was not enough, and that I needed to take time off. After requesting and the subsequent denial of a year long sabbatical, I put in my two week’s notice. 

But the burnout is only part of the story. Deciding to hike the PCT is an entirely different endeavor than taking a year off. I could just have easily traveled to various places, backpacked around Europe, or done so many other ‘low effort’ things. So why the PCT specifically?

I chose to do the PCT for a number of reasons, the first of which is that I wanted to challenge myself in a way that I had never been challenged before. Working at a major tech company for four years makes you very comfortable in a number of different ways. They make it a point to enable you to work as much as possible. This means being compensated well financially, of course, but they do a number of other things that make you very dependent. They offer incredibly inexpensive food, gym memberships, easy-access healthcare, and other ’support systems’ that are so good it would be foolish not to take advantage of them. Buying into the system they set up makes you reliant on them, and breeds a sense of comfort. Knowing that there are significant support systems in place that you can fall back on can make you lackadaisical. In general, I actually think companies offering these incentives is a good thing, but I found myself feeling I could not really take care of myself, because so much of it was done for me. Comparatively, doing a long thru hike would certainly push me complete opposite end of the spectrum and force me to be extremely self-reliant.

In addition to pushing my limits, I wanted to experience the outdoors in a way that was totally novel. I have done a number of backpacking trips, but only short stints out in the wilderness. The PCT will last somewhere on the order of 5 months, meaning I will be totally encapsulated by nature for an incredible length of time. When I moved out to California, I drove across the country and was lucky enough to see the intense beauty and range of landscapes that the United States possesses, and I truly enjoyed that experience. Similarly, the PCT covers quite a few different climates and environments, from the deserts of Southern California, to the snow-capped peaks of the High Sierras, to the lush forests in Washington. Hiking the PCT means I’m going to experience a huge chunk of what the US has to offer, and I am looking forward to taking it all in.

There were also a number of smaller factors as well that helped bolster my decision. I’m single, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a mortgage, I have my health, and I am lucky enough to have the means to do something like this. It’s overwhelmingly likely that these things are transient, meaning I won’t have the same opportunity in the future. If there ever was a time I can do something of this magnitude, the time is now. In passing, I have spoken to quite a few people who are older than me. Many of them had said that either: 1) doing a big adventure like this was the best decision they ever made, or 2) not doing it when they had the chance was one of their biggest regrets. I recognized the incredible opportunity I had and decided to go for it. 

A Winter Wonderland

This winter is bringing some truly epic snowfall to California and the surrounding region. While that means there are great conditions for Skiers, it means just the opposite for people hiking the PCT. The chart below shows a comparison of the snowpack over the winter months for a couple of notable years.

Source: http://www.climatesignals.org/data/california-snow-water-content

It’s Pretty clear that the snowpack is at well above average levels this season. How does this effect my trip though?  Of course, it means that I’m going to be hiking through snow often, but it has a few other secondary impacts that may not be so obvious. The first of which is that the increased snow pack will eventually melt and yield larger (meaning more difficult to cross) streams and rivers. This is particularly worrisome as river crossings have claimed the lives of a number hikers over the past few years. I’ll combat this by making sure to team up with people in the more dangerous sections. The second impact, which will actually make things a bit easier, is that the trail will have a few more water sources than most years. This means that a couple of traditionally dry stretches will be a bit easier to navigate and plan for.

In an effort to be on the more prepared side of things I decided to take a few snow skills courses over the weekend. My friend Brian and I headed up to Bear Valley, CA to take a few guided courses through SWS. The courses were recommended by a mutual friend who had done the courses previously. Bear valley has been hit with the unusually large snowfall this year with their current base layer at over 160 inches! Brian and I arrived late on Friday night to a small lodge located about 10 minutes from bear Valley resort. We were met with the following scene:

Photo credit: Brian Furciniti


The training was split up into a two day affair, with the first course covering more basic snow skills. At 9 am on Saturday morning we met at the base lodge of the Bear Valley resort. There we found our guide as well as the other people who would be taking the class. The group for Saturday consisted of 6 people plus the guide. Brian, myself, a father and his two sons, and a woman named Lea. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person who thought I would need this training for the PCT. Lea will also be hiking the PCT and will actually be leaving two days before me! After an info session and gear fitting we headed out to a snow covered slope for the skills training.

The slope was covered with freshly fallen snow, and by my estimate had a 40% grade; nothing too steep. We started off with the very basics, all the way down to holding the ice axe properly and installing crampons on your boots. Moving on, we covered self belay with the axe, which seems to be an incredibly important skill to have. Self belay involves stopping yourself before you begin sliding down the side of a hill — easier said than done.

After that we covered different methods of walking up and down hills with crampons. It may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that the crampons give you so much traction in the snow that walking in them does not feel natural. It takes quite a bit of getting used too. We covered steps such as the French, the German, the Canadian/American hybrid, and the plunge step. Each one needs to be used in different conditions, and all have different efficiencies. Walking straight uphill, particularly when you have a heavy pack is just not tenable; using something like the french step is much more applicable. The French step involves walking up the hill sideways and crossing one leg over the other.

Learning how to walk properly in the conditions we had was much more difficult than anticipated. We had received a very light and fluffy snowfall the night before. Each step we took into fresh show was met with your foot driving into the ground almost knee deep. This is atypical of most alpine conditions as the day/night cycle will thaw/freeze snow, making it denser and therefore easier to walk on.

After walking techniques we moved on to self arrests, which is the skill I most wanted to learn for the weekend. ‘Self arrest’ involves stopping yourself when you are in an uncontrolled slide down the side of a slope. It is relatively easy to stop yourself, but difficult to stop yourself in a safe manner. When not controlled properly during an unexpected slide, your ice axe and crampons become a liability . Your crampons can catch on the snow causing you to start falling end over end, and the ice axe is a relatively sharp piece of equipment that can pierce you if placed poorly. We simulated falling down the hill by sliding down the snow and practiced self arrest techniques for three different scenarios: Sliding on your stomach face first, sliding on your back feet first, and sliding on your back head first. Each self arrest technique involved a series of similar steps: 1, gain control of the ice axe. 2, position the ice axe properly. 3, drive the pic into the snow. It may seem straightforward, but it is actually difficult to properly execute on this when you are sliding down a hill.

Day two covered a lot of skills that I won’t be using on the PCT, but may use in training sessions leading up to my hike. We learned how to build hauling systems for downed hikers in glacier scenarios, as well as snow anchors, and a few different natural belay techniques that can be used in alpine scenarios. All of these involve a rope, which is unnecessary for me to bring. Most of the belay techniques focused on being as fast as possible, as time is usually of the essence when mountaineering, especially in harsher climates. Leading into my PCT hike, I may head out and tackle a semi-difficult alpine climb such as Mount Shasta. Doing something like that would be significantly more difficult than anything I will face on the trail, but I want to put myself in the position of being over prepared.

The weekend ended up being a great success as I gained a number of valuable skills that I will take with me on the trail. Learning how to use my ice axe and crampons properly was a much needed confidence builder. I’m looking forward to taking the energy boost I got from this weekend and using it to prepare even more.

Photo credit: Brian Furciniti


A Quick intro

For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Eric Vergo. I spent the last four years of my life being a tech worker in Silicon Valley. I recently quit my job with the intent of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a 2600 mile hike that begins at the US/Mexico border and terminates at the US/Canada border snaking through California, Oregon, and Washington. Rather than clogging up my social media feed with constant updates about my trip, I’m starting this blog to aggregate all of the content I will be producing in regards to my trip. For the next few months I am going to be documenting the preparation process and all of the activities it takes to ready myself for the Journey. On April 18th my hike will begin and the blog will shift over to me documenting my trip in as close to real time as I can.

A note on the name: Operation PCB was coined by my friend and coworker Ryan, who has a strong affinity for wordplay. One day, when I was still unsure if I was going to hike the PCT, I was discussing with Ryan wether or not I should take the plunge. During the course of that conversation I made the decision to do it and said ‘Operation PCT is a go’. He, knowing that I had done some printed circuit board (or ‘PCB’) design for work decided to rebrand it ‘Operation PCB’ which he said stands for ‘Operation Pacific Crest Bailout’