Area native tackles the Pacific Crest Trail

Published 5:13 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2024

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Feat a matter of determination and perseverance

By Kim Gooden, for the Tribune

It takes a special person to apply for a permit to hike a 2,650-mile trail through deserts, forests and mountains with a 40-pound pack on their back.

Kelly Wessling is one of those special people.

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Wessling, who grew up in Alden and Albert Lea, took on the challenge of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which begins at Campo, California, on the U.S./Mexico border and ends at the U.S./Canada border.

She noted that the Pacific Crest Trail is not to be mixed up with the Pacific Coast Trail.

“It’s the crest because you are not hiking along the coast, you’re zigzagging up and down the mountain ranges throughout California, Oregon and Washington. It’s a lot of elevation to go through and it’s not one straight line. You’re going up and down through all these valleys and mountain passes as it takes you to Canada,” Wessing said.

Wessling’s journey began on April 15, 2022, considered the “golden date” to begin the hike, and ended five months later in September.

Prior to beginning the hike, however, there were several things that needed to be done.

First, she had to apply for, and be granted, a permit. This is required for anyone who plans to hike 500 or more continuous miles, and it gives hikers access to national and state parks, climbing Mt. Whitney, and entry into Canada, among other things.

But there’s a catch. There are only two days each year when people can apply for a permit, and only a limited number of permits are issued.

“They issue 50 permits per day for the months of March, April and May for hikers going north from Mexico to Canada,” Wessling said. “And only 35 permits per day for the months of June and July for those going south from Canada to Mexico.”

The reason for this is that not as many people hike the PCT going southbound because the trek through Washington is the toughest climbing through harsh terrain. Whereas those who begin on the U.S./Mexico border are acclimated for the rugged terrain by the time they get there, according to Wessling.

“Snow at higher elevations is a factor in what time of year you start the trail,” Wessling said. “When you start from Mexico the higher mountains are in the middle to southern part of California where the Sierra Nevadas are, and it can be super snowy. March, April and May are the three months you can start because of the seasonal risks and dangers associated with the snow and weather.

“I had to pass through some snow, but I didn’t have to sleep in any. You have to carry spikes for some of that part through the Sierra Nevadas, and if it is a snowy time you have to carry an ice axe in case you fall, to rescue yourself. Thank goodness I didn’t have to save myself!”

Unfortunately, Wessling did not receive a permit the first time she applied, so she had to wait another year to apply again.

She laughed as she recalled that she was in Disney World when she found out, and she was crying next to the castle.

But the following year she felt like she had won the lottery when she was notified she had been granted a permit.

While she said she did not train as much as she should have to prepare for the journey ahead of her, Wessling did take a two-to-three-month endurance training class beforehand.

“This helped me, and thankfully I didn’t have any injuries,” she said.

Because her cousin had hiked the Appalachian Trail and stressed not going beyond her limits or it might end her hike, Wessling started her hike slowly so she wouldn’t stress her body out.

“You just go at your own pace and build the muscle as you go,” she explained. “I started small with 18 miles per day for the first couple of weeks, and gradually increased to over 30 miles per day by the end of the trail.”

The trail began in the desert, which Wessling had pictured to be smooth sailing, but she quickly discovered that there were a lot of mountains there, too. And while the trails were well maintained and easy to follow, other elements made hiking through the desert difficult.

“It’s the elevation, and the elements of the desert heat, and carrying enough water when there’s not a water supply,” she said.

Fortunately, there were people who would leave caches of water in jugs along the trail when there weren’t natural water sources.

“That was nice and we [hikers] were super thankful to the locals who helped us out,” Wessling said. “If they hadn’t done that, we would have had to carry more water, which would have added a lot of weight to our packs.”

And added weight makes hiking more difficult.

“You keep your supplies so minimal,” Wessling explained. “You don’t bring any luxuries. I kept it to the basics.”

The basics when she started out included hiking poles, spikes, a bear can, a battery pack, a sleeping mat and sleeping quilt, a tent, two pairs of underwear, one bra, three pairs of socks, one pair of pajamas, one hiking outfit, a long-sleeved shirt, a rain jacket, a warm jacket, a water filter, two to four liters of water for drinking, and lots of food. In fact, most of the weight was food.

“You lose a lot of weight on the trail because you are burning so many calories, so you eat 5,000 calories a day,” she said. “And since vegetables and healthy foods don’t have enough calories, I ate a lot of calorie-dense foods like protein bars, candy, candy bars, chips and tuna packets.

“It was nice to be able to eat as much as I wanted without the guilt, but it was hard when the hike ended because my metabolism was so high and I was always hungry. I wanted to eat all the things I couldn’t get on the trail, but I had to remind myself that I wasn’t burning that many calories anymore. They call it Hiker Hunger.”

For the first couple of months on the trail, she tried to get by without a camp stove and cooking pot, but once she got tired of eating cold food, she added them to her supplies. She was able to lighten her pack by shipping her spikes and bear can home once she got past the areas where she needed them.

Wessling said she began her hike alone but gathered what they call a “trail family” as she went. For her that included a Canadian girl, a girl from Washington, a girl from Pennsylvania and a guy from Germany.

“I hiked with them most of the time, but I hiked alone off and on for about a month and a half,” she recalled. “Some days I wanted to be off on my own, so I didn’t stick with them. But we’d catch up later because it’s better to be with people. You can have really tough days and the monotony and the pain get to you, and then it’s nice to just laugh with people when you’re eating dinner or to have someone to spend time with when you’re in town or getting chores done. And it’s best to be with people when you’re crossing rivers.”

Wessling used an app called Far Out, a navigational guide used by many hikers on the trail. It showed where tent sites were located and how many tents they could accommodate, where the next water source was, what the elevation gains and drops were going to be so hikers knew how tough the day was going to be and what their expectations should be, where the towns were and much more.

There were small towns about every four to seven days along the trail where hikers could replenish their supplies, do laundry and occasionally sleep in a hotel where they could take a shower.

“Hygiene was not a priority on the trail because we were all covered in filth anyway so we just stopped caring,” Wessling said. “We stunk all the time and just learned to live with it.”

They washed their feet in the streams and considered it a treat to jump into a river or lake to wash off in their undergarments. And they looked forward to a much-needed shower now and then.

“It gets spendy to stay in hotels plus get all that food,” she said. “So we’d try to save money by sleeping in off-grid places when we were in town sometimes. We slept at a golf course on the floor, on the ground in a park, and by the railroad tracks.”

The locals called them “hiker trash,” she recalled with a laugh, but they were usually very accommodating.

Another group that was very accommodating along the trail were who she called the “Trail Angels.”

“They are people from the towns along the trail who have a big heart for the hikers,” she said. “They will take you in and let you stay with them to recover if you get injured, or they’ll help you get a ride to a hospital, or to an airport to get home.

“There was also an incredible woman who is a physical therapist, and she specializes in trail injury. She lived in her van with her Golden Retriever, and she would just follow the bubble in her van all along the trail, and you knew when you saw her red van that she would know exactly what to do with injuries or give strategies to help with things.

“I never had to see her but my friend had shin splints, and this lady taught her stretches and gave her a different brace to use that was really helpful. And it’s just a freewill donation for her services.”

Wessling said she only had a couple close calls with injuries.

The first was while hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

“You get fatigued when you’re not eating enough or on long days, and sometimes my ankles would give out,” she recalled. “I was up in the Sierras and it was right after climbing Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower U.S. I had the bear can and extra stuff in my pack and it was rugged up there. I was balancing on these sharp rocks, and I rolled my ankle. I was falling pretty far and I could see this sharp rock coming right at my head, but thank God my bear can shifted and took the hit and saved me.”

The second was when crossing a stream she shouldn’t have been crossing alone.

“In the end I was fine, but I held my breath a bit for that one!” she said with a laugh.

She also had some scary encounters with wildlife on the trail.

“I saw a lot of rattlesnakes and had some close calls with them,” she said. “There were times when I was hiking along listening to music and I’d go around a corner and a rattlesnake would be laying in the middle of the trail. I’ve been really close to those.

“And once when I was night hiking there were these glowing eyes staring at me and then it jumped under a bush and kept watching me. I think it was a mountain lion and I was scared because I was hiking alone. I stopped hiking shortly after that!”

She never saw a bear until she got to Oregon, and they were black bears that didn’t seem to mind the hikers.

In case of an emergency, she carried a Garmin GPS with an emergency signal. It would show Search and Rescue exactly where to find her if necessary. It also showed her family where she was and allowed her to send automated messages to let them know that she was okay.

Due to wildfires that closed a section of the PCT, Wessling had to bypass part of the trail. She returned to finish it after she reached Canada, but more fires kept her from being able to complete the entire PCT.

Wessling met a lot of other amazing people on the trail and learned that everyone has a different motivation for being there. Some were hiking for a cause or to honor someone. Some were doing things which made the hike harder for them as a sacrifice to a cause.

Her motivation came from knowing that others had completed this hike and admiring them for accomplishing something that she felt she could never do.

“It got me thinking that I could do it too, and wondering what was stopping me,” she recalled. “I love to be outdoors – that’s what brings me peace. And I have this urge to see as much of the outdoors as I can. So that’s what got me there.”

For Wessling, the worst part of the experience was eating the same junk food every single day.

“When you’re eating four or five protein bars every single day for five months it gets to you,” she said. “I can’t look at them and tuna packets the same anymore. I cried eating a packet of tuna one day on the trail because you get to a point where you have to force-feed yourself.”

The best part of the experiences was “completing something I never imagined I could do myself,” she said.

Would she recommend doing the Pacific Crest Trail?

“Yes, definitely,” she said enthusiastically. “You meet a lot of incredible people, and the kindness of the Trail Angels is outstanding.

“It’s eye-opening to see how common everybody is. You stop comparing your life to others because we were all in the same grimy clothes, and you don’t know what kind of car they drive or what their job is. We were all just on the same mission and we were all the same out there, which was really cool. It’s different than the real world.

“And we met a lot of foreigners, which was really fun.”

Wessling summed her experience up with these thoughts:

“The magnitude, yet simplicity of a single task. Of moving forward. That’s all you’re focused on. No going backwards, no looking forward beyond the next 4-7 days. So many things, yet nothing at the same time. All the fears, the impostor syndrome that many of us carried at the start of the hike quickly fell off of us and we kind of buried it behind.

What is something at one point that you never imagined that you could do? And what do you think you would feel in the moment that you confirm you are strong enough, brave enough? What else can you do?

It’s a beautiful accomplishment knowing what your body and mind truly can do if you put your drive into it.”

Wessling will give a presentation “Born to Wander” about her hike at 6:30 p.m. July 12 in the Fellowship Hall at First Presbyterian Church in Albert Lea. The event is open to the public.