Total Miles: 1070.2
There’s a social phenomena that occurs on every long distance trail with a decent amount of foot traffic, and though it’s referred to by many names my personal favorite is “the vortex of fear.” In a sense, it is one giant version of the telephone game where news of conditions, weather, or terrain further up the trail becomes filtered through the minds and perspectives of dozens, if not hundreds, of hikers before making its way to your ear. On the Appalachian Trail, it might be northbounders hearing rumors of how awful the rocks in Pennsylvania will be or how fear of the White Mountains alone once killed a hiker….or so I’ve heard.
Out here on the PCT, the same rumor mill grinds at full speed from the day you set foot at the border. Though always based on issues of real concern to hikers, the truth of the situation becomes so perverted by the inherent subjectivity of the grapevine that it relegates almost any trail news you might hear to the land of make-believe. At the border, it’s news of how many springs are already dry and how many of the water caches are no longer maintained. Weeks later, news of how the snow level in the Sierra has forced hikers to turn back trickles in, followed by reports of how the creek fords are the worst they’ve been in years. In my experience, no less than 100% of the time the news emanating from the vortex of fear is patently false or, at best, hyperbolic in the extreme.
Not three weeks ago, a couple heading southbound described the north side of Glen Pass as “an 800-foot ice climb” that was “steep to overhanging” in pitch. Imagine my surprise then, when I sat on my butt to glissade nearly all 800 of those “near vertical” feet, all while somehow managing to avoid what you’d believe to be my inescapable and imminent death. Days earlier, stories emerged of hikers skipping the Sierra altogether based on the level of fear instilled by 3rd- and 4th-hand reports of treacherous conditions despite the sober reality that this had again been a below-average to average snow year throughout the range. Even last year on the John Muir Trail when a very large wildfire burned well to the west of the trail in Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park, Emily and I watched hikers give up on their dream of hiking the entire trail, opting to exit under perfectly clear conditions and days away from where any impact from the fire could have been encountered and assessed.
The advent of social media has only added fuel to the fire given the inherent un-trustworthiness of crowd-sourced information and the disparate levels of skill and experience among its participants. Which brings me back to today, on a stretch of trail that was reported to have impassable chutes choked with ice that had forced hikers to turn around, while still others had skipped the entire section out of caution. By day’s end, all of us had to pause and scratch our heads even to venture a guess as to where these chutes of certain death had been.
The point is, conditions change rapidly. All opinions are, by definition, subjective. And not all hikers have the same comfort, skill, or experience on all types of terrain. Hike on, see for yourself, and make your own judgments of safety based on your skill set and risk tolerance. We’re all different out here, and there’s nothing more disheartening than watching other hikers abort or disrupt their thru-hike based on nothing more than the latest gossip being cranked out by the vortex.