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Mountaineering the Pacific Crest Trail: How Climate Change Has Transformed the Trek

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Within the desert near Agua Dulce, north of Los Angeles, hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail who reached mile marker 502 encountered a cistern of water that smelled bad and tasted worse, with a dead rat floating inside. They got out their filters and refilled their bottles anyway. “Will update if I get sick,” one wrote on a message board to those coming up behind.

The message was only one sign of how global warming is affecting life along the trail, where, during a hot season nearly devoid of rain, water tanks and caches were more vital than ever, the last line of defense against dehydration. At the very least some hikers were willing to take their probabilities.

Thru-hikers on the P.C.T. spend as much as five months walking from Mexico to Canada, through a landscape that ranges from high desert scrub to large sequoias, basalt craters and alpine meadows. The route changes barely every year, meaning that the trail’s official length, 2,650 miles, is actually only an estimate.

What’s a fact, now, is the imprint of climate change, felt along the entire trail in the shape of weirder weather, bone dry soil and, most of all, the increasing threat of wildfires. Fire is a hazard that leaves other hazards in its wake: meager shade, disruptions to streams and water sources, “blow down” trees you may have to clamber over or walk around, and superb black soot that lingers at the back of hikers’ throats and aggravates open blisters. Fire scars — the blackened expanses a wildfire leaves behind — can take days to walk through.

Greater than 1,600 miles of the trail run through California. Over the past decade, record after record for top temperatures, droughts and wildfires have been broken within the state. Last 12 months, the Dixie fire, the biggest in California history, burned 85 miles of the P.C.T. It was the primary fire ever to cross the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

In late July, I intercepted the foremost burst of northbound thru-hikers — the so-called bubble — on a 40-mile section of trail north of Mount Shasta because it jogs west over rugged granite peaks toward the California-Oregon border.

“It was a race against attending to Washington before the snow; now it’s that, and fires,” said Melanie Graham, 32, who began her hike on March 15 to provide herself the perfect probability of ending before smoke intervened. Mountaineering near Lassen Volcanic National Park, she’d tried to assume the vista because it was before the Dixie fire, a pointy volcanic summit wreathed in forest stretching to the horizon. Now, it was an island of green and grey surrounded by something that felt hard to see as forest. “The height was just gorgeous, but every little thing within the background was decimated,” she said.

Even without the specter of climate change, any hike so long means planning across the seasons. Traveling from south to north, as roughly 90 percent of hikers do, means attempting to get through 700 miles of high desert before triple digit temperatures set in, but not so soon that you just enter the Sierra Nevada high country when it’s still buried in snow — after which 1,000 miles later, getting safely out of the North Cascades before the primary fall snowstorms.

The trail was originally proposed in 1926 by Catherine Montgomery, an educator and avid hiker from Bellingham, Wash., however it could be nearly 50 years before the P.C.T. emerged as a sanctioned route in 1973, crossing a patchwork of parks, national forests and even a smattering of personal land. For many years, thru-hiking remained a fringe pursuit: In accordance with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, it wasn’t until 2000 that greater than 100 hikers accomplished the trail in a given 12 months. That modified with the visibility brought by Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, “Wild,” which was adapted in 2014 right into a film starring Reese Witherspoon.

The trail has developed its own subculture through the years, with an environment somewhere between a spiritual pilgrimage and a single-file summer camp, mixing long stretches of solitude with the ambling camaraderie of fellow hikers and “trail angels” who assist with advice and logistics. “Tramilies,” or trail families, hike and camp together. Trail nicknames, like Lemony Snicket — “I experienced a series of unlucky events on-trail,” Ms. Graham said, explaining hers — replace given names for months at a stretch.

Anyone planning to hike 500 miles or more along the trail generally gets a long-distance permit from the P.C.T.A., with start dates spread across March, April and May, to scale back the impact from too many individuals camping in a single place at one time. Of the several thousand hikers who get a permit, greater than two-thirds drop off before they reach Oregon.

To date this 12 months, despite heat waves and paltry snowpack, there has not been a megafire along the trail. That’s unlike in recent times when thru-hikers have confronted a barrage of disruptions, either in the shape of smoke and energetic fires forcing them off the trail, or the closing of trails through past burns to provide the ecosystems time to stabilize.

In 2021, the fireplace season in California began in January and didn’t let up throughout the summer. Before my trip last month, I spoke with Andrew Carter, 65, who began the trail in April 2021, days after retiring from a profession in marketing. Fires forced him off the trail on three occasions, including on Aug. 31, when the U.S. Forest Service made the choice to shut national forests across California because of fireplace risks. (Already, some 6,800 fires had burned through 1.7 million acres.) When the forests reopened two weeks later, Mr. Carter walked through smoke, envious of the man hikers who’d had the foresight to don N95 masks. He finally gave up altogether on Sept. 24. “It took me three or 4 weeks before I ended coughing,” he said.

Ned Tibbits runs the nonprofit Mountain Education, which teaches hiker safety, and hiked the trail in 1974. He said thru-hikers are facing a dire crossroads, and it starts before they even get to the trailhead.

The tip of the start-date period, May, is simply too late, he said. By that point, Mr. Tibbits said, it’s too hot, “and it’s actually putting hikers in danger.” Either the Forest Service goes to have to simply accept allowing more people on the trail earlier within the season — before the extraordinary heat and risk of fireplace make it unimaginable to get right through California — he said, or they’re going to need to actively encourage “flip-flopping,” a term that describes hopscotching from one section of trail to a different and walking parts in several directions fairly than in a continuous hike. The Forest Service said that it reviews the permit process annually.

On my first morning, I camped by Upper Ruffey Lake and woke at 5:30, but I discovered it unimaginable to beat the thru-hikers onto the trail. By this point on their journeys, most have been walking for greater than three months, putting in 12-hour days to cover as much as 35 miles at a stretch.

Crossing the High Sierra in June normally means slow going over deep snow, with crampons in your boots and an ice axe in hand. This 12 months, many hikers found neither was needed and hurried through the trail’s hardest sections: There was hardly any snow.

I used to be climbing into the Russian Wilderness, a distant stretch of craggy granite peaks known for its glacial lakes and 18 species of conifers. By the tip of July, it seemed that almost every plant that would bloom was in bloom, and the trail was smeared with streaks of yellow, orange and purple. There I met Joseph Gregory, 31, dubbed “Oracle” due to his talent for meting out trail names, who was just emerging from an extended climb through the scar of the Whites fire from 2014, a forest remade as an expanse of bare gray trunks and manzanita.

Normally, he said, the forest cover would supply enough shade that it will be greater than 20 degrees cooler than within the sun. “The forests will come back, however it’s going to take 100 years to get that shade back,” he said.

It wasn’t hard to understand the importance of shade while wearing a 30-pound pack in 90-degree heat. Shade turned a warm breeze right into a soothing whisper that modified my mood and made my hair stand on end because it crept beneath my collar, reminding me how sweat cools the body. On this stretch, thru-hikers were only a couple of days faraway from the experience of climbing 140 miles through the scar from last 12 months’s Dixie fire.

Many selected to skip that section of the trail; but for some, hitchhiking across the Dixie fire felt incorrect. “Before getting on trail, I just felt just like the landscape is changing a lot, I need to see it before it’s completely different,” said Thao Sheng, 30, who grew up in Sacramento and hopes to be among the many first Hmong people to finish the Pacific Crest Trail. As a Californian, Ms. Sheng said, she was accustomed to summers punctuated by yellow skies and air quality warnings. “I believe it’s a really sobering experience. Not climbing it will have felt like I used to be avoiding something.”

Parts of the West are drier than they’ve been in 1,000 years. Under hot, dry, windy conditions, fires burn to temperatures that may sterilize soil and strip the forest bare. Within the aftermath, rain on unstable slopes causes landslides; persistent drought starves the succession of plants and fungal life which may ordinarily follow a fireplace and aid within the forest’s recovery. To this, add in the results of a century of fireplace suppression by the U.S. Forest Service; sparks from electrical lines, power tools, automobiles and even arson; and a profusion of native bark beetles feeding on drought- and fire-stressed trees. The resulting cocktail foretells major shifts within the mosaic of forest, scrub and grassland that covers Western mountains.

Nearly everyone I met counted themselves lucky to be climbing the P.C.T. of 2022 versus the P.C.T. of 2032 or beyond. This spring, a bunch of climate scientists published a paper within the trail association’s magazine outlining the changes in store for thru-hikers in a hotter future. A generation from now, they found, the typical thru-hiker is prone to experience nearly 3 times as many 90-degree days as they climb through Northern California and Oregon, alongside dwindling snowpack (the source of most water on the trail) and more intense and sporadic rainstorms. “Hikers could have to be more wary, more selective about which 12 months they go,” said Dan Cayan, a meteorologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who co-authored the report.

“In Southern California, I walked through more burnt forests than live forests,” Hannah Perry, an architect and ultramarathoner from British Columbia, told me on trail. She said she’d been greatly surprised by how starkly drought gave the impression to be remaking the southern stretches of the trail and told me about hitchhiking with an area to fill up on groceries and having them indicate a favourite childhood fishing spot that was now entirely dried up.

Andrew Schrock, 43, a writing and editing coach from Long Beach, Calif., has been climbing the P.C.T. in three-week stretches each summer, covering 500 miles a 12 months. “Being on the trail, you’re nervous about so many other things that you just don’t generally have time to fret concerning the future,” he said. “You’re going from place to put like, ‘Where’s the water? Can I sleep here? Can I make food here?’ It’s a really stripped down existence.”

As we spoke, a cool spring rushed out beside our feet from a low stand of alders. The last pockets of snow were visible on a distant cirque. He gestured around us: “We’re on a piece of trail where there’s still snow, there’s still running water.” Mr. Schrock had been climbing at night recently to beat the warmth, and located the trail crisscrossed by mice, toads and other small creatures.

Beneath our feet, the trail alternated between serrated granite ridges and steep forested slopes strewn with fallen branches and deep beds of needles, twigs and cones. It made me marvel at the amount of biomass a healthy forest throws off. That is the stuff a more regular succession of fires would filter out.

The night before, I’d scrambled up to seek out a camping spot beside Bingham Lake, which occupies the underside of a steep granite bowl at 7,070 feet. Great piles of white granite boulders rise from the lake’s rim to form an enormous colander, sending melting snow percolating through shallows teeming with large black rough-skin newts and trout surfacing from the deep for insects. At sunset, the rocks and the lake each turned a vivid gold as two osprey chased one another.

In burned areas, there may be a sameness that’s hard to disregard: Dead pines hold on to brown needles, or black trunks stand near holes in the bottom where roots burned out of the soil. With every year that passes, the insects and flowers come back, saplings regrow and among the towering trees that survive a fireplace regain their luster with recent, distinct scars to point out. Unquestionably, though, the landscape ahead of us within the West is different from the one we’ve grown used to. The query is how different.

The second half of my hike switchbacked over ridges and across narrow valleys through the scar of 2021’s River Complex fire. I passed scorched tree trunks leaching blood-red sap from their roots, and I stirred deer foraging on the border between the brown world the fireplace had touched and the green one which had escaped.

Beside a tiny creek where tufts of grass and yellow wildflowers were the one signs of recent life, Norman Graham, 61, and no relation to Melanie Graham, sat on a rock filtering water, and gave voice to the melancholy that so many thru-hikers feel, a changing world slipping through their fingers. “I didn’t expect to see this much burn within the Trinity Alps,” he said, gesturing on the stands of black trunks that surrounded us. “This has been on my list endlessly.”

This was his second attempt at climbing the trail, after smoke intervened last 12 months. This time with 50 miles to go, ash from the McKinney Fire fell from the sky, and the local authorities issued a compulsory evacuation order.

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