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As Backpacker’s 2023 Pacific Crest Trail correspondent, David Gleisner is reporting on this year’s PCT season as he attempts a thru-hike of his own
Isabelle “Mountain Goat” Beaudoin has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
The 29-year-old Canadian had just finished her PhD in history at the University of Oxford when she came to the Pacific Crest Trail looking for a new adventure. She and her partner, Jim “Cricket” Turner, 32, began the hike together in late April, aware that conditions ahead would be difficult but determined to give it their best shot.
The purist’s definition of a PCT thru-hike is a continuous line of footsteps from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, or vice versa. From the start, Mountain Goat was eyeing this “true thru”, a border to border footpath without skips or flips. The main obstacle, Mountain Goat and Cricket assumed, would the historic snowpack in the Sierra, which not only made the hike more dangerous, but also made it slower going.
“Our biggest concern about staying in the Sierra was the time,” Cricket says. “Because we have a deadline, we knew hiking in the snow was gonna make it a lot harder.”
Despite their apprehension, the couple decided to go through with another hiker, Michele “Two Beers” Jegge. The group of three went on to complete the entire section, including a stretch that many hikers (myself included) took an alternate around due to a downed bridge.
“I wanted to do every single pass, I wanted the unbroken footpath,” Mountain Goat says. “I was like, well, I’m risking a lot anyway in the Sierra, how much risk could this really add?”
Completing the Sierra in a continuous northbound effort put the three hikers in a very small club. We don’t have exact numbers yet, but I estimate fewer than 100 NOBO hikers kept the footpath through this section. After days on end wearing crampons over miles of snow, heavy packs full of winter gear, and socks that never fully dried, the hikers figured the worst of it was over.
But as Mountain Goat continued north into Northern California, the physical strain stuck with her.
“I found that my body had been weakened a lot by the experience. I lost a lot of weight and was still losing in NorCal,” Mountain Goat says. “I certainly paid a price because my body just wasn’t strong anymore, I wasn’t able to go the miles I should’ve been able to go at that point.”
With feet covered in blisters, sores on her back and hips from her overloaded pack’s straps, and less muscle due to rationing food over long periods between resupplies, Mountain Goat’s body was struggling. But, with her graduation ceremony looming as a hard deadline, she had to continue pushing.
“It was stressful to know that even though my body was begging for rest, I couldn’t give it to it,” Mountain Goat says.
After some big days through NorCal, Mountain Goat and Cricket planned to complete the “Oregon Challenge”: Hike the 455 mile Oregon section of the PCT in 14 days. But as 25 mile days turned to 35 mile days, her body reached a breaking point. The blisters and sores became too painful to hike with, and the couple had to rethink their plan to frontload miles before Washington.
“We’ve learned to balance,” Mountain Goat says. “We’ve had to accept that it’s gonna be a long haul of mid-20 mile days.”
Over breakfast at the Timberline Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Hood, Mountain Goat, Cricket, and Two Beers reflected on how far they’d come. With fewer than 600 miles to go, the determination to hike a “true thru” was stronger than ever.
“I’m too stubborn. I came too far, I cannot quit,” Two Beers says. “When an idea has formed in my mind, I have to do it.”
Although Washington is sure to present more challenges, with one section of trail currently closed due to wildfires, being able to hike through NorCal and Oregon with no closures is a rarity in recent years. The effects of climate change have caused many to ponder whether a continuous thru hike will be possible in future years, as extreme weather events and destructive wildfires jeopardize the hiking season.
But for now, with the end in sight, Mountain Goat is still holding onto the goal.
“Knowing that this year was so challenging with the snow, for me it’ll mean even more to have the continuous footpath,” Mountain Goat says. “In the current climate, people are rightly pointing out that it is becoming almost impossible to get a clean thru hike. I wanted to grasp at that in case it was one of the last years where that was possible.”