Heat, Water, Fire: How Climate Change Is Transforming the Pacific Crest Trail – The New York Times

by | Aug 31, 2022 | Climate Change

The already grueling 2,600-mile hike now includes the added challenges of global warming, which can mean a lack of shade and exposure to smoke and fire.Send any friend a storyAs a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.Give this articleAug. 31, 2022Updated 11:46 a.m. ETIn 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 just 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 important than ever, the last line of defense against dehydration. At least some hikers were willing to take their chances.Thru-hikers on the P.C.T. spend up to five months walking from Mexico to Canada, through a landscape that ranges from high desert scrub to giant sequoias, basalt craters and alpine meadows. The route changes slightly each year, meaning that the trail’s official length, 2,650 miles, is really only an estimate.What is a fact, now, is the imprint of climate change, felt along the whole trail in the form 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 have to clamber over or walk around, and fine black soot that lingers in the back of hikers’ throats and aggravates open blisters. Fire scars — the blackened expanses a wildfire leaves behind — can take days to walk through.More than 1,600 miles of the trail run through California. Over the last decade, record after record for high temperatures, droughts and wildfires have been broken in the state. Last year, the Dixie fire, the largest in California history, burned 85 miles of the P.C.T. It was the first fire ever to cross the crest of the Sierra Nevada.In late July, I intercepted the main burst of northbound thru-hikers — the so-called bubble — on a 40-mile section of trail north of Mount Shasta as it jogs west over rugged granite peaks toward the California-Oregon border.“It used to be a race against getting to Washington before the snow; now it’s that, and fires,” said Melanie Graham, 32, who started her hike on March 15 to give herself the best chance of finishing before smoke intervened. Hiking near Lassen Volcanic National Park, she’d tried to imagine the vista as it was before the Dixie fire, a sharp volcanic summit wreathed in forest stretching to the horizon. Now, it was an island of green and gray surrounded by something that felt hard to see as forest. “The peak was just gorgeous, but everything in the background was decimated,” she said.A single-file summer campEven without the threat of climate change, any hike so long means planning around the seasons. Traveling from south to north, as roughly 90 percent of hikers do, means trying to get through 700 miles of high desert before triple digit temperatures set in, but not so soon that you enter the Sierra Nevada high country when it’s still buried in snow — and then 1,000 miles later, getting safely out of the North Cascades before the first fall snowstorms.The trail was originally proposed in 1926 by Catherine Montgomery, an educator and avid hiker from Bellingham, Wash., but it would 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 private land. For decades, thru-hiking remained a fringe pursuit: According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, it wasn’t until 2000 that more than 100 hikers completed the trail in a given year. That changed with the visibility brought by Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, “Wild,” which was adapted in 2014 into a film starring Reese Witherspoon.The trail has developed its own subculture over the years, with an atmosphere somewhere between a spiritual pilgrimage and a single-file summer camp, blending 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 unfortunate 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 tra …

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