PT hikers finish Pacific Crest Trail
By Janet Huck
Leader Staff Writer
At top of Mount Whitney, Charles Steurer (left) and Evan Ross celebrate climbing the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. – Photo courtesy of Levi Ross
In late spring, rumors were flying along the Pacific Crest Trail to the hundreds of “through” hikers starting the 2,658-mile trail at the Mexican border. About 12 feet of snow remained in the high passes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, often burying signs for the trail. Streams that were easily forded in previous springs raged down the mountains in torrents. A few spooked hikers talked seriously about starved bears that would rob a hiker’s food in the high Sierras.
Experienced hikers, who had invested time, money and hopes in finishing the trail, bailed. At the go or no-go crossroads in Kennedy Meadows, Calif., Port Townsend High School graduates Evan Ross and Charles Steurer debated their decision for two days.
“We had a lot of doubts, but then we heard some guys had made it through,” said Steurer, 22. “We decided to go for it.”
Although hundreds of hikers started the marathon 2,658-mile trail in the 100-degree desert heat at the Mexico-U.S. border, only 50 finished at the Canadian border because of the record snow pack in the Sierra Nevadas. Ross and Steurer were two of those 50 finishers. The two wore out nearly a half-dozen pair of shoes in their five-month hike that ended Oct. 1.
For these two, who have been best friends since preschool, it was a life-changing trip.
“It definitely gave me a lot more confidence to take on major goals and accomplish them,” said Ross, who once hiked 47 miles in a day.
For Steurer, it was a crucial piece in his transition from boy to man.
“There were countless experiences that pushed me mentally, physically and spiritually further than I have ever been before,” said Steurer.
Surviving the Sierras gave them so much confidence that when they walked into Oregon, they knew they could finish the whole trail.
The mountains sorely tested them. They trudged through snow for close to 500 miles, leaving them so tired every night they had only enough energy to eat. Sometimes the snow was so deep, said Ross, they could walk only about one mile an hour, taking all day to walk up and down 10,000-foot passes.
“Times got frustrating and trying, but we never wanted to quit,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without each other. We supported each other by getting excited about the accomplishments.”
Accomplishments came daily. As the trail climbed up to the high mountain passes that reached as high 13,000 feet, it often disappeared under mounds of snow. They used maps, a compass and a Global Positioning System. They learned to recognize boot tracks of other hikers and estimate how long it had been since they passed by, but mostly they just had to guess.
“There would be a brief line at the lowest point of the pass, but we were pretty much making it up,” said Steurer. “It was stressful and scary, but you just had to figure it out.”
They got lost a lot, forcing them to backtrack miles, and twice they were separated. Once when they approached 13,000-foot Forester Pass, they realized they didn’t have enough food, so they had to leave the trail and hike an extra 17 miles to resupply in a nearby town.
Streams became near-raging rivers, fed by the record snowmelt. They would look for rocks to hop on in their crossing, but often they had to fight through the currents. Once they had to wade through waist-deep water. Other times, they had to camp because it was too dangerous to ford the swollen creeks The snow melt would slow overnight so that by 6 a.m. the next morning, the depth of the water was lower.
“It was cold, screaming cold,” said Steurer.
On one of the last stream crossings in the Sierras, Steurer banged up his knee, slowing his pace. He urged Ross to go ahead while he proceeded at more comfortable pace, but he took a wrong crossroad. When he realized he was down to his last granola bar, he found a dirt road and a sign for the hot springs where they were supposed to meet.
“I was torn up and exhausted, but I had a big smile on my face when I walked in,” said Steurer, who celebrated his 22nd birthday there. “We had gone through the high Sierras. I was alive. I was really happy.”
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