Thru-Hiking Section J

Mallory Monahan

My partner hiked the PCT in 2013, about 8 months before I met him. Ever since, I have been fascinated with stories about thru-hiking. Each time I listened in awe and bewilderment. Part of me was incredibly jealous about the freedom and lifestyle of a thru-hiker and part of me could not understand how someone could actually endure. In a complete thru-hike it seemed inevitable to experience pain, dirtiness, boredom, and danger

Growing up in Texas did not give me the same opportunities to hike and dream of ultra long-distance hike as my partner, but I was finally able to get my first small taste of thru-hiking this year on Section J of the PCT. Section J is a 72 mile portion of the PCT that goes from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass in Washington State. This section contains some of the most incredible views and jagged, but lush landscapes I have ever seen, and apparently some of the best hiking on the entire 2650 miles of the larger trail.

Day 0

Living the thru-hiker lifestyle started before I even set foot on the trail. For the first time, I was responsible for all of the food and gear preparation. I hauled out our hiking backpacks, spent hours picking the perfect gear for our weather and distance. Then, once I was pretty sure of our kit, I spent even longer shopping for food, and cooking and baking snacks that future Mallory would be very happy to have.

My happiest moment was seeing the final weight of our packs. Completely loaded up with 5 days' food and enough water to get to the first sure water source our packs were 30 and 32 pounds.

Scroll to the bottom for a detailed list. Here’s a picture and list of all the items we brought for any of you who might be unsure of what you would need. Otherwise feel free to skip it.

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Day 1

On  Monday evening we had our friend drop us off at the Snoqualmie Pass trailhead around 5pm. We weren’t sure how far we would be able to go because I had never hiked with this kind of weight. About 1 mile in, I was unsure how I would be able to make it the next mile, let alone the next 70 more. Yet the beauty of the sunset over and strategic snack breaks allowed me to keep taking the next step. Somehow we were able to make it all the way to Ridge Lake at the 7 mile mark by 7:45pm with a quick stop at Kendall Katwalk for some sunset views. 

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We set up camp immediately as it was getting dark and cold. We had originally planned to cowboy camp (sleep without a tent) the whole way, but because that night it was supposed to be cold and possibly rain in the early morning, Dan set up the tarp-tent. It was good we did, but because of the haste that the tent was put up with we woke up with our wet, dew-laden tent sloughed against our sleeping bags and most of our stuff was pretty wet. We were able to fix the tent by jamming our trekking poles in between the ground and the tent and eventually get back to sleep.

Day 2

When we woke up at 7am, things had dried out a bit but not fully so we quickly grabbed everything and walked 10 minutes away to where the sun was already starting to peak out from behind the central Cascades. I was able to enjoy the view of the lake we'd missed out on the previous night as we dried out our gear and make breakfast.

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‍Our breakfast view on the morning of Day 2.

We started walking around 9am and Day 2 was a little brutal. The first 5-10 miles was mostly on large rocks. However, most of that time we had some pretty beautiful views of Rainier which helped a lot.

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Thanks to the Half Mile app (app store link here) we knew there was a campsite at mile 14 and 20 that day. (I can't stress enough how incredible this app is, it uses GPS to compare your position to the stored PCT trail locations, letting you know exactly how far you are away from water, a campsite, or the trail if you wander off. Even if you're the map and compass type, this should be a must-have backup at the least.) When we got to mile 14 it was still early and we wanted to keep walking more. Yet, we also knew that hiking 20 was pretty unlikely due to my already-blistered feet. Especially because miles 17-20 had a 3000+ ft. climb. We were luckily able to find a spot on a switchback around mile 2415 of the PCT and tying the furthest I'd hiked in a day before - 18 miles.

The weight of my pack was definitely an issue on Day 2, the first full day of hiking. I realized that at some point the front of my shoulders had stopped tingling and gone completely numb, not the best sign. My sad feet had also not only blistered in 10 different spots, but were also developing an intense feeling of being pounded in. I was proud of the 25 miles we'd pushed over a day and a half, but again wondered how thru-hikers could hike 20 or more miles every day for months.

Day 3

We were walking by 7:30am on Day 3 and this would be a big day. We would hike 20.5 miles and gain 7,000 ft of elevation. I learned the importance of breaking the hike up into manageable sections. As we labored up a 2,000 foot climb, there was no way I could comprehend going up the next rise, but invariably, Dan and I would throw off our packs, break out fatty, delicious foods and be ready to go half an hour later with our spirits much revived.

Instead of feeling bedraggled when rolling into camp I felt extremely excited and proud. Not only did 20.5 miles mark my longest day of hiking, my first 20 miler, but it also left us having covered over 45 miles of our 72 miles trip and someway, somehow I was still putting one foot in front of the other.

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Day 4

By day 4 we knew we were ahead of schedule and therefore less concerned about making big miles. There were campsite at 15 miles and 20 miles this day according to our app. With only a marathon length to go total, we were aiming for 15. The first 10 miles went great. Although my feet were hurting pretty badly and we had a pretty decent climb up to a pass by 1pm, I was feeling strong. We started off again at 1:30 to do the last 5 miles. It was easy going at first and we were able to stop and talk to a flip-flopping PCT hiker (someone who hikes the whole trail but mixes and matches the sections). We knew the last 3 miles had a bit of a climb, but did not realize that the climb came only in the first 2. There were definitely a few moments during this when I got despondent and felt a bit like sitting down and crying. However, we finally got to the top and only had 1 mile left of downhill to the campsite (after that climb, camping early was a done deal). We rolled into camp around 4:30pm and Dan was able to set up the hammock for the first time. I grabbed my Hiker’s Manhattan (whiskey + Swedish fish), he grabbed some weed and we were able to relax a bit before making dinner. This night we were in bed before 8!

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Day 5

My feet on the morning of day 5 were pretty brutal. A few blisters had even popped and developed new blisters on the raw skin, but even worse was the pervasive and nearly-crippling pounded in feeling, as if someone had taken a meat tenderizer to my feet while I'd slept. Yet knowing that we only had 11 miles left (plus a few pain-killers) helped. 

Warning: Gross feet ahead!

The aftermath

The 11 miles went quickly and I’m not sure either of us was quite ready to be done when we slipped into the weirdness of civilization at Steven's Pass Resort. The tranquility of our journey was quickly pushed to the background by trying to organize a ride back home and contending with hordes of loud, entitled resort-goers who smelled heavily of perfume and soap. After days of struggle, exertion, happiness, and a deep connection with both my partner and the natural world around me, I was devastated to be faced with the glaring downsides of civilization. I hadn't broken down in over 70 miles of hiking, but I did now, retreating to the bathroom to cry. I finally fully understood why people would keep pushing, why PCT thru-hikers could spend 4+ months on the trail and only want more, why my partner talks about the difficulties of 'reintegrating', why I'll one day spend much longer than a week out in the wilderness...

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Glumly waiting for a ride, trying to ignore our surroundings.

Full Gear List

Sleeping Bag (x2)

Sleeping Pad (x2)

Tarp (in lieu of a tent)

Hammock (used also as a ground tarp)

Headlamps (x2)

Jet Boil Stove

Stove Fuel

Small drop bottle of bleech

DEET bug spray

Sunscreen

Titanium Cup

Coffee filter

Spork (x2)

Toilet Paper

Hand Sanitizer

Baby Wipes

Pocket Knife

Matches & Lighter

Trekking Poles (x2)

Toothbrush & Toothpaste

Dr. Bronner’s Soap

Facewash

Baby powder

Comb

Contact case + solution

Handtowel (x2)

Pain Medicine

Water bottle (2-1.5L, 2-1L)

Water bag (1-2L container)

Camera

Hiking clothes (tank top + running shorts +socks + tennis shoes)

Camp clothes (leggings + shirt + puffy + beanie + smartwool socks)

Sandals (I ended up leaving my Teva’s but Dan had flip flops)

Food

Mac’n’Cheese (4 boxes)

Pre-cooked sausages (2 packages)

Orzo (1 package)

Couscous (1 package(

Butternut squash filled ravioli (2 packages)

Heavy whipping cream (5 boxes)

Peanut Butter (1 jar)

Nutella (1 jar)

Tempah (1 package)

Tuna (2 small  + 1 large foil packet)

Salmon (2 foil packets)

Curry Powder, Salt, Garlic Powder

Olive oil (small water bottle filled)

Whiskey

Apples (4)

Avocados (3)

Oreos (1 package)

Swedish Fish (2 packages)

Jalapeno chips (1 bag)

Dried mango (2 packages)

Dried coconut strips (2 packages)

Hard salami (2)

Dried berries

Sliced Cheese (1 wedge of jalapeno jack + 1 wedge of toscano)

Babybel cheeses

Wheat thins (1 package)

Carnation instant breakfast

Homemade granola (Gallon ziploc)

Homemade zucchini muffins (12)

Snickers bars

Basil (squeeze bottle)

Coffee

Leftovers

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2 packages of mac’n’cheese

¼ jar of PB and Nutella

4 Muffins

1 package of tuna

1 cup cous-cous

1/2 package of wheat thins

1 heavy cream package

5 babybel cheeses

2 builder's bars

Even though it looks like a bit, I was proud of our few leftovers. We had planned on taking 5 full days for our hike (an extra breakfast, lunch and dinner) so all in all we were pretty spot on with food. I almost never felt hunger the entire trip and know that a full stomach helped me keep my spirits up and really push my body's limits.