Hike of a lifetime: With her parents, a 10-year-old conquers Pacific Crest Trail's 2,658 miles
Article Launched: 03/30/2008 08:23:14 AM PDT
Fulfilling a years-long dream, Mercury News copy editor Barbara Egbert, husband Gary Chambers and their daughter, Mary, took leave of their jobs and schoolwork, put their Sunol house, pets and finances in the hands of friends and relatives, and set out on a 2,658-mile trek from Mexico to Canada.
Barbara and Gary were among the older hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail (both are in their early 50s), although people in their 60s and 70s have completed the trail.
But at 10, Mary was by far the youngest ever.
Here is their story, told through the trail-journal excerpts of Mary and her mother.
Day 1, April 8, 2004
[NEAR MEXICAN BORDER]
From Scrambler's (Mary Chambers') journal: Today we left the border. We walked 17 miles, two being a detour to sign the official register.
From Nellie Bly's (Barbara Egbert's) journal: Got to Campo in early afternoon after years of planning, months of preparations and weeks of severe stress. The border patrol is everywhere. We were warned in the guide book to camp well off the trail to avoid illegals, but by 9:30 p.m. we had been hiking for hours in the dark and finally set up the tent in a level spot right alongside a dirt road. I found a tick on my left ankle.
Trail names are a tradition on the major backpacking routes, such as the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Scrambler earned hers on the Tahoe Rim Trail, from her facility in scrambling over rocky terrain. Mary named her Dad "Captain Bligh" one night when he was ordering her around too much for her liking. (I thought it was appropriate because the original Captain Bligh was a famous navigator, and wilderness navigation is one of Gary's strong points.) I chose Nellie Bly, the pen name for a pioneering female reporter.
Day 2, April 9
Scrambler's journal: Today we saw a RATTLESNAKE! It was rattling like crazy and it was coiled and reared up! I was really scared, but my Dad took a picture of it!
Nellie's journal: Started walking at 9:30 a.m. Saw border patrol signs all over, warning people in Spanish about severe conditions and lack of water. Lovely weather and lots of wildflowers. Treated blisters at Lake Morena campground and then continued to Boulder Oaks.
Day 8, April 15
Scrambler's journal: We got to wonderful Eagle Rock. We took a lot of pictures. Then we came to Warner Springs Resort, where we ate at a restaurant and slept on beds! There were also two enormous pools, one from the hot springs and one cooler, that I swam in.
Only a week on the trail and we are feeling like experienced thru-hikers. Guests at the backpacker-friendly resort wanted to know about Mary's schooling. We explained that we started working with the principal and teachers at Sunol Glen School a year ahead of time, and Mary had completed all her fifth-grade work before we left.
Day 10, April 17
[SOUTH OF HIGHWAY 74]
Scrambler's journal: This morning, a thick marine layer moved in. By 2 p.m., we had to find a campsite. It was snowing! The wind blew the snow horizontally right into our faces. We actually got a fairly good campsite, but Mom was shivering, so she had to get warm inside her bag. We will sleep in two zipped-together bags. I was very cold, as well, and was scared of the weather. The wind may still break the poles. But I am happy it snowed, because it's dryer and prettier than rain.
Mary has a wonderful habit of looking on the bright side of things. The day after we made our emergency camp in the storm, we woke up with ice inside the tent walls. But what Mary noticed was that the manzanita bushes were tipped with ice and the sun was shining through them, creating a beautiful effect she described as "white flames."
Day 16, April 23
[NEAR INTERSTATE 10]
Scrambler's journal: Today, we walked two or three miles through ice and snow. Then we walked 16 miles down a hill. It was 16 miles because we'd go waaaayyy this way and baaaacckk that way and so on. The only thing that broke the extreme monotony was Henry the mule. He was a large chestnut mule, and we were taking a break. We had got far off the trail, but the mule wouldn't pass. Finally, his rider dismounted -- right into a yucca bush. He cajoled this big, strong mule to walk with phrases like, "You can do it, sweet little mule!" Finally the mule walked right to the edge! His owner backed him up. Then they went the right direction, but Henry just casually shoved the man off the side with his nose. When they finally left, we all burst out laughing.
We still talk about Henry the Mule. There's not much slapstick humor on the trail, so this interlude was greatly appreciated.
Day 26, May 3
[SILVERWOOD LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA]
Scrambler's journal: We hiked through the Silverwood Lake area -- it's all burned over. We had a hard time navigating. On the way we had to climb through two ravines and were almost out of water by the time we got to a small stream we had been relying on and had almost given up on. When we got there we were so happy that Dad poured two bags of water over his head. We drank immense amounts and soaked our caps.
Water became our obsession, even more than our blistered feet. Every day's hike revolved around the location of water sources, and the "trail angels" who provide caches for thru-hikers were our heroes.
Day 47, May 24
[NEAR KENNEDY MEADOWS]
Scrambler's journal: We got up super-early and got out of camp at 7:10 a.m.! We also did 25 miles IN LESS THAN 12 HOURS! We have a lovely site next to a stream. I was actually hungry! In the evening!
You wouldn't think it would be hard to get Mary to eat after hiking 25 miles with a heavy pack, but often she was too tired to want to eat in the evenings, and we had to cajole her -- just as at home. On the trail, we generally ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast, freeze-dried dinners for supper, and in between lots of energy bars, candy bars, dried fruit and nuts.
Day 51, June 22
[GOLDEN TROUT WILDERNESS]
Scrambler's journal: Today was rather boring, on the first part. We just went Up and up and up!!!! Every time we thought we were done, there was another hill. We finally camped in Death Canyon, where there were lots of mosquitoes. We put on bug suits.
At this point, we had just returned to the PCT after taking 25 days off. We had traveled to the East Coast for an annual reunion that included hiking the 40-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that crosses Maryland, and then packed all our remaining resupply boxes. During our absence, the mosquito season began in earnest. Even with bug shirts, bug hats, bug pants and DEET, they drove us crazy.
Day 53, June 24
[ABOVE LONE PINE]
Scrambler's journal: Almost first thing, I threw up a bunch. Then we climbed a big hill with great views of Mount Langley! Later, we had more beautifulviews. The most spectacular was something I named the Dragon Mountains. The Dragon Mountains were so misty and mysterious. It looked like orcs (from "Lord of the Rings") could pour out any minute!
Nellie's journal: A long hard day through some of the world's most beautiful scenery. Mary woke up feeling nauseous and threw up as soon as she drank water. Soon she was able to eat a little and even played her recorder very well for a while. I saw a red M&M on the ground at Siberian Pass.
The significance of the red M&M has to do with a backpacker's joke: How can you tell the difference among hikers? Put a red M&M on the ground. A day hiker will step ON it. A section hiker will step OVER it. A thru-hiker will pick it up and EAT it.
Day 55, June 26
Scrambler's journal: Today we woke up very early. We crossed the stream and followed a well-marked lateral past several lakes and up many switchbacks, which offered astounding views of the lakes and peaks surrounding us. As we climbed up, stormy-looking weather quickly moved in. We soon sighted our goal. I got a severe case of summit fever and sped up the slopes. We could soon see the hut. We walked by chasms with sickening views of icy lakes and sharp rocks. We crossed a snow field. Suddenly, Dad sped up. We both began to run, and a few seconds before him, I reached Mount Whitney's summit, the highest point in the lower 48!
It's a treat to climb mountains with Mary. At the top, there's usually a bunch of guys congratulating themselves on their wonderful accomplishment. When they see this petite 10-year-old girl approaching, their faces are a sight . . . especially when they realize she's in better shape than they are. What's really rewarding is when parents start talking seriously about getting their kids involved in strenuous outdoor activities, once they see that it can be done.
Day 60, July 1
[NEAR MATHER PASS]
Nellie's journal: Woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of a bear trying to get our food. Gary had hung it on a tree near the tent and fixed the tarp so I could see it. Gary chased the bear away with rocks but had to repeat the procedure a few minutes later. At one point, TWO bears were trying to get into our Ursacks. One left a set of fang impressions on the bag, but neither was able to get through. Threatening them with an ice ax didn't work -- throwing rocks did. Or perhaps it was the sight of Gary in his long johns. Hiked to Mather Pass, 12,100 feet. As usual, we encountered snow on the way down the north side, which was dangerous and time-consuming to cross. For a change, a lightning storm blew in and dropped lots of hail and snow on us. The "Golden Staircase" was an endless descent. Very scenic. There was rock fall on the canyon wall opposite the Golden Staircase -- we heard a big boom, looked around for the source, and then saw a plume of dust arising from the place where the rock came loose. Scary.
Day 69, July 10
[YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK]
Scrambler's journal: This morning I almost lost Cactus. He rolled under a rock. Daddy found him. At the top of Donahue Pass, Paul and Alice had written "Hi Scrambler!" Then, we got to Tuolumne. We saw Paul, Alice, Brian and Caryl. We camped in the backpackers' campground.
Cactus is Scrambler's trail name for the stuffed animal (supposedly a porcupine, thus the name) she carried the entire distance. We didn't move a mile without Cactus. Paul and Alice are a couple we met on the John Muir Trail. Brian and Caryl dropped out after she cracked her kneecap in Yosemite.
Day 79, July 20
[NEAR ECHO LAKE]
Scrambler's journal: This morning Dad very unfairly gave me a time out. Then,that meany wouldn't give me a second chance. Then we got to Echo Lake.
We got along remarkably well most of the time, considering the strain we were under. But the qualities that make Mary a strong backpacker (persistence, drive, self-confidence) can also make her difficult to get along with. Meeting other people gave us breathing room, as Mary would quickly make friends and have new people to talk with. At Echo Lake, she socialized with a couple of families and even got to cuddle a puppy.
Day 110, Aug. 20
[NEAR SEIAD VALLEY]
Scrambler's journal: Today we saw three bears! There was a sow and two cubs! (No Goldilocks.) They were eating berries, probably. The sow was a very nice cinnamon color. She had a little black cub and a bigger brown one. Ma saw the first one and I saw the other two.
Day 114, Aug. 24
[CALIFORNIA-OREGON STATE LINE]
Scrambler's journal: Today we got up in the cold and damp. We were quite miserable. We walked and walked and GOT TO OREGON! Only approximately 950 miles to go!
Day 118, Aug. 28
[NEAR CRATER LAKE]
Scrambler's journal: Drank disgusting well water.
We thought we were so lucky to find well water, meaning we didn't have to filter it, a chore that consumed countless hours of Gary's time. Unfortunately, Mary may have been right when she said it was disgusting. It had an odd color and off-taste. Gary insisted we drink it anyway, since we were dehydrated. Mary drank only a little, I drank more and Gary drank a lot -- which may be why he became seriously ill soon thereafter, forcing us to take a day off at Crater Lake.
Day 129, Sept. 8
Scrambler's journal: Today we took a Zero Day. It was great! We had good food. Lipa brushed out my hair!
Nellie's journal: Spent hours on usual resupply and then ate at a great Italian restaurant. Lipa mentioned that helping us on the PCT has cured her of any desire to do it herself.Lipa is a former park ranger for the East Bay Regional Park District. She was the perfect trail angel: Of all our friends, she was the only one with extensive backpacking experience, so she knew just what we needed when she met us near Bend, Ore. (and earlier at Sonora Pass). A Zero Day is one without any trail walking. Mary wanted to keep her long hair, so we had braided it very tightly weeks earlier and left it that way. It took Lipa all afternoon to brush it out, with the help of an entire bottle of de-tangler.
Day 132, Sept. 11
[NEAR SISTERS, ORE.]
Scrambler's journal: Today we spent the whole day cooped up in the rain. It was horrid to have so much togetherness. I read a lot.
Nellie's journal: Stuck in the tent all day. I hardly slept at all due to the high wind. At 6 a.m., just as I awoke Gary, it started to rain hard. We decided to stay in bed a little longer to see if it cleared up. I finally fell asleep. Woke up at 10 a.m. Weather was so bad and camping/water options so poor we decided to stay in camp.
Day 139, Sept. 18
[OLALLIE LAKE RESORT]
Nellie's journal: Miserable weather. We'll try to make Cascade Locks and thendecide what's next. Gary is determined to get to Canada. Mary too. I'm not so sure. Bald Eagle and Nocona dropped by our cabin. They are very discouraged by the weather. Everyone else has dropped out except for us and Chacoman. Hard to believe people pay $80 a night to stay in a primitive cabin and go fishing in terrible weather. And this place has mice!
Olallie Lake will forever stand for pure misery. It rained the entire day getting there. The trail was a stream. Our only break was spent crammed under a tiny roof jutting out from a foul-smelling outhouse at a dirt parking area. We got to Olallie Lake resort just in time to rent a primitive one-room cabin with a wood stove and dim gas lights, but no running water. We took a Zero Day there.
Day 145, Sept. 24
Nellie's journal: Beautiful day. Hiked into Cascade Locks. My left shin and jaw are very painful. At motel looked at gum on upper right and was horrified to discover a bleeding sore. Called my dentist at home and he ordered prescriptions for antibiotic and painkiller at pharmacy in Hood River.
Severe leg pain and an abscessed tooth all at once were too much to deal with away from home. Luckily, a man in the grocery store overheard me asking the cashier about public transportation, and he mentioned his wife ran an Avis agency in Portland. She had a car delivered, and I headed back to the Bay Area while Gary and Mary continued into Washington state without me.
Day 150, Sept. 29
[NEAR MOUNT ADAMS, WASH.]
Scrambler's journal: The tent was very damp this morning. We hiked through mist for a while. We hiked very quickly to an old road bed, where I hit my finger pounding in stakes.Nellie's journal: Saw my doctor at Kaiser. He says I have either shin splints or tiny stress fractures that will only get worse, so I must get off the trail.
Having to leave the trail was a terrible disappointment. But my left shin was way too painful to continue. I spent much of my five days at home working out logistics so I could help Gary and Mary finish Washington, a state where resupply is difficult. Then, after a root canal on the abscessed tooth, I drove to Washington and met them at White Pass near Mount St. Helens, which was just becoming active again. After all we'd been through, were we going to have to deal with a volcanic eruption? Not fair!
Day 165, Oct. 14
[NEAR SKYKOMISH, WASH.]
Scrambler's journal: We slack-packed about 18 miles. Great weather. Lunch was wonderful.Slack-packing means hiking the trail with just a day pack, and then getting a ride at the end of the day. In order to avoid a storm-destroyed section of trail, and the notoriously dangerous reroute around it, Gary and Mary hiked for three days on a series of Forest Service roads I had mapped out for them. Each morning, I drove them to the trail, met them with lunch halfway through, and finally picked them up at dusk. We slept at the home of trail angels in Skykomish.
Day 168, Oct. 17
[GLACIER PEAK WILDERNESS AREA]
Scrambler's journal: We left this easy life to do some true backpacking. At first it rained very lightly, and then became heavier. It then commenced to snow thickly, about 2 inches. We finally found a wide spot in the trail. We set up camp there and ate a cold, substantial dinner. Lots of hills, including a 3,000-footer right off the bat!
Nellie's journal: Took Mary and Gary to Trinity Trailhead and waved goodbye at 12:40. Raining slightly. Returned to Skykomish and made reservation at North Cascades Basecamp in Mazama. Drove through rain to reach very nice bed andbreakfast resort.
Did I feel guilty about driving around Washington state and then staying in a wonderful B&B while Gary and Mary struggled through the rain and snow? You bet! I used to wonder why my relatives worried so much about us while we were on the trail. After all, we were experienced, very safety-conscious backpackers. I learned why pretty quickly once I started playing trail angel. I worried constantly about my husband and daughter.
Day 170, Oct. 19
Scrambler's journal: Today we met Mommy. She is going to be with us! We've only got 4 more days. Ma took us to a spectacular bed and breakfast. We're almost there!
Nellie's journal: Drove up to Rainy Pass at 4 p.m. and Mary and Gary arrived at 4:30 -- hours earlier than I hoped. So we had time to get back to the lodge, shower, eat and talk with Dick and Sue Roberts, who have run the place for 24 years and yet know where Sunol is: They used to live in Oakland.
Day 171, Oct. 20
[NEAR RAINY PASS, HIGHWAY 20]
Scrambler's journal: Mom's walking the last bit with us! We drove the car up to Rainy Pass, left it there and walked into deep snow. We camped in snow.
I was so happy to be hiking with my family again that I dealt cheerfully with the cold and the snow. Besides, we only had 70 miles to go, a quick four days, right? Little did I know . . .
Day 172, Oct. 21
[HARTS PASS, NEAR MAZAMA]
Scrambler's journal: We hiked 26 miles in terrible conditions. Very snowy. We eventually retreated to an outhouse, where we camped.
Nellie's journal: Up early and walked through snow to Harts Pass. Very difficult at times. Went on to Slate Peak but very hard to see route in all the snow (also, it was dark). Went back a couple miles and slept at parking area with outhouse. Got to bed after midnight. Very cold.
Day 173, Oct. 22
Scrambler's journal: The tent was covered in snow. We tried again to get over Slate Peak, but I got blown over, so we got a ride back to Mazama.
Nellie's journal: We ran into blizzard conditions on Slate Peak and had to turn back. Got ride from hunter, Eli, who luckily had a big truck that would hold all of us and our gear comfortably. Returned to Mazama. Very depressed. Dick Roberts picked us up and Sue took me to Rainy Pass to retrieve car. When I returned, Gary had new alternate route planned. Dick called a back-country ranger who said we should be able to get over Frosty Pass. So we'll try again Sunday.
Day 174, Oct. 23
Nellie's journal: We bought gaiters and groceries in Winthrop, plus waterproof socks for Mary, and got maps from the Forest Service. I'm very worried -- there's a storm in the forecast -- but I'd worry even more if I didn't go with them.
Day 175, Oct. 24
[OKANOGAN NATIONAL FOREST]
Scrambler's journal: We got over Buckskin Pass and down the other side. We managed a hot dinner. I wish I were Henrietta, warm at home!
Henrietta is Mary's favorite cat. She missed her pets a great deal while we were gone. At this point, Canada was tantalizingly close, but we still had toget over Frosty Pass, at 6,500 feet, to rejoin the PCT at Castle Pass.
Day 176, Oct. 25
Scrambler's journal: We finished! We are finally done! I am so glad! We just have to walk out and it'll be all over at last, and I'll be warm and dry! I kissed the monument and we are set up just inside Canada. I will be home soon!
Nellie's journal: At last! Luck is with us. No storm -- none of the predicted bad weather. Instead, a hard but good day over Frosty Pass, down to the PCT at Castle Pass and then on to Canada. Great jubilation at monument. Camped just inside Canada.
Many thru-hikers find finishing is an anti-climax. They feel rootless and vaguely disappointed as their hiking companions scatter and as their consuming goal is done with. Not us! We were so happy to reach the border, you'd think we'd just won the lottery AND been elected president.
Mary, now 11, has had a few months to reflect on her accomplishment. Is she happy to be back in school or would she rather be out hiking the Pacific Crest Trail? "I'm glad I got home but," she pauses, "it's too many homework assignments." Then, remembering the hardships of the trail, she quickly adds, "There are so many mosquitoes and so many ways to get your feet wet! Everyone's sense of humor has to be good to survive out there." She says she'll hike again, "but maybe not something so incredibly long."
TRAIL HAS A LANGUAGE OF ITS OWN
Gaiters -- Resembling spats, these cloth coverings keep gravel or snow out of boots.Golden Staircase -- The last portion of the Pacific Crest Trail to be completed, this section of trail blasted out of the rock north of Mather Pass drops nearly 2,000 feet in two miles.Pacific Crest Trail -- A National Scenic Trail running 2,658 miles from Mexico to Canada, mostly following the crest of the Sierra and Cascades.
Slack-packing -- Hiking with just enough supplies to get through the day (no tent or sleeping bag).
Summit fever -- An intense desire to reach a mountain peak at any cost.
Thru-hiker -- A backpacker who hikes (or at least intends to hike) through the entire length of a major trail.
Trail angels -- People who make a habit of helping backpackers by providing water caches, rides to town or places to stay. They also often maintain trails, restore springs, etc.Zero day -- A day off from hiking, with zero miles logged on the trail.
-- Barbara Egbert
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