In 2020, Leavenworth local Hadyn Gunter was two weeks out from an adventure of a lifetime, thru-hiking the iconic 2650 mile long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) when the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which issues the permits, asked all thru-hikers to cancel their plans because of the outbreak of COVID-19.
“It was heartbreaking,” Gunter said. She’d been planning and preparing for a year and a half. The pandemic forced Gunter to kick her dream ahead one more year. She got another PCT permit. “I already had the gear, but I wasn’t feeling stoked about it and all the people.” Gunter was speaking of the now throngs of PCT thru-hikers, section hikers and day hikers. Unlike twenty years ago, the PCT now sees a few thousand people doing the entire trail. She realized, “It wasn’t the experience I wanted.”
The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), established only eleven years ago, is, by comparison, more remote. It’s 1226 miles in length, running east to west from the Continental Divide to the Pacific. There are way fewer people on the trail, and it passes smaller towns that aren’t used to catering to hikers.
Due to the high passes and the snow that can persist in the Olympic Mountains, the trail corridor is only possible between July and September, and everyone generally goes west. There are bushwhacking stretches that test one’s navigation skills and miles of forest roads to stitch together the sections of trail. Hikers get to experience three national parks and also some lesser known wonders, such as the Yaak Valley, the Selkirks and the Kettle River Range.
Gunter decided this was it; she would hike the PNT. She could cover the distance in two months and not be with the “masses.”
On July 7th she got dropped off at the eastern terminus in the northeast corner of Glacier National Park. Within two hours of starting, Gunter encountered a grizzly bear eating berries. She paused, talked out loud and waited with her hand on her bear spray. The bear moseyed away, oblivious of her anxiety. She admitted to not sleeping well for the few weeks in grizzly country, feeling like she needed to be alert to sounds at night.
All the same, Gunter was able to log high mileage, averaging 25 miles a day. She went ultralight. Her base weight was between twelve and thirteen pounds. Fresh from a resupply, her pack weighed about twenty.
She carried a stove and a tent but only used them five and seven times, respectively, during her whole trip. Bars, protein cookies, veggies, chips, bread and hummus made up the bulk of her diet, keeping her going. “I stayed vegan, but wasn’t able to stay gluten-free.”
Each piece of thru-hike gear must serve an essential purpose. When asked about specifics, Gunter said, “My trekking poles were by far my favorite piece of gear.” They protect her knees plus made uphill walking easier and, although it was a low water year, hiking poles are helpful for fording creeks.
Even with trekking poles, Gunter developed tendonitis in her knees in Montana, as well as some foot pain, so she saw a local doctor. Following a regimen of ibuprofen and a couple days off, she was able to get back to the trail.
Gunter saw other users on the PNT but only ran into fourteen other thru-hikers. She hiked alone, except sharing the trail with three others for one day in Montana. “I’m an introvert,” she happily admits.
Hiking for days alone gave Gunter a lot of time to think. “I mulled over the same things sometimes.” As a twenty-year-old with lots of options, she found it entertaining to imagine all sorts of future scenarios. Other times, she enjoyed the zen of hiking and being in the moment in beautiful country.
Gunter took a lot of photos and journaled reflections on the backs of her scraps of maps. Occasionally she walked while listening to music, including a playlist of almost 18 hours of Taylor Swift.
“Trail handles” are nicknames among fellow hikers that come about spontaneously, driven by anecdotes. Gunter was content to be Hadyn, but by the end of the trail she had been christened “Chilly.” In the Pasayten Wilderness, she had been hiking toward a pass on a day that transformed quickly from blue skies to drizzle, then to rain and snow with temperatures dropping below freezing. Despite her best efforts to get in her tent, strip off wet layers and warm up in her sleeping bag, she experienced violent shivering. Knowing she was dangerously cold, Gunter used her satellite phone to connect with rangers. They helped her relocate to a nearby ranger cabin to recover before hiking on after the storm abated.
The other challenge, more mental than physical, occurred around 800 miles in, near Concrete, Washington. Gunter was feeling more anxious about other people on the trail than about wildlife at that point. Her mom, Allison Gunter, a frequent trail companion, helped by joining her for two days of hiking and good sleep in a hotel. After that, Gunter found a groove that took her all the way to the finish line.
The tail end of the trail is maritime after a lot of alpine and also dry pine-dominated forests. More urban too, passing through Anacortes, south through Whidbey Island, and then utilizing a ferry from Coupeville to Port Townsend.
One of the most epic moments was when Gunter “turned a corner” of a trail and saw the Pacific. “I really walked from the Rocky Mountains to the ocean,” she thought.
The final stretch works its way north on the beaches and forested headlands of the Olympic National Park coastal trail. Daily mileage has to be reduced, because of adapting to the tide schedule and slow walking around points strewn with slippery rocks. She finished the trail with a few other thru-hikers, ending her journey on September 2nd.
“I definitely recommend the PNT,” Gunter said. Its newness makes it a unique challenge, and its terrain is extremely diverse. “However, you have to set your mind to it and be patient through the less scenic spots. You have to want it,” she said.
She is back in Leavenworth, working and enjoying time with family and her boyfriend. Planning a next thru-hike means saving up for the expenses (though she’s mostly set for gear) and making time. Gunter hopes to be hiking through desert canyons in the southwest come next spring.
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