Vancouver woman tests her limits on Pacific Crest Trail

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

Published:

 
photoThe Pacific Crest Trail stretches more than 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada.

If you go

What: Lena Sessions speaking about her Pacific Crest Trail hike.

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 16.

Where: Camas Friends Church, 1004 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas.

Information: Call the church phone at 360-834-2446.

On the Web

• Lena Sessions' blog: http://honeybearhikes.blogspot.com/

• Pacific Crest Trail Association: http://www.pcta.org/

• Halfmile's PCT maps and GPS information: http://www.pctmap.net/

Useful books

"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012). Portland author Strayed's best-selling memoir about how her PCT hike changed her life. http://www.cherylstrayed.com

"Yogi's PCT Handbook Planning Guide" and "Yogi's PCT Handbook: Trail Tips and Town Guide" both by Jackie McDonnell ($40). Order online at: http://www.pcthandbook.com/index.php

Lena Sessions pulled off her shoes, then peeled off her socks and winced. Blisters had formed on the bottoms of all 10 toes. Putrid, yellowish skin was peeling off in big chunks. Walking was painful.

But not walking wasn't an option. She'd already hiked 200 miles, but another 2,433 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail stretched ahead of her on a Mexico to Canada journey. So she pulled a tube of Superglue from her backpack and glued her blistering toes. Gingerly putting on her socks and shoes, she hoisted her pack onto her back and continued her trek north.

Later, the glue tube burst in her backpack, causing a mess. So she improvised and bandaged her blisters with duct tape.

As much as she had trained for this biggest physical challenge in her life, Sessions had worn the wrong shoes for the first part of hike. The running shoes she'd worn on previous backpacking trips didn't work on the dusty trail in Southern California. They allowed dirt to work its way into her shoes, causing friction resulting in blisters. She wrapped her blisters in duct tape for many miles, but eventually the blisters were replaced with callouses. She wore out five pairs of hiking shoes on the journey.

Sessions has been hooked on backpacking since her first trip at age 7 with her dad, Henry Sessions. Last winter, she traveled solo to Nepal to backpack the Annapurna Circuit Trek in the Himalayas.

"I love the trail culture, meeting interesting people and seeing beautiful scenery," said Sessions, 24.

On Sept. 21, the new Vancouver resident completed the biggest challenge of her life: thru-hiking the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest. Hiking 25 to 30 miles a day, she completed the journey in 149 days, just under five months.

For two years she'd been planning the trip with her friend Adriana Boylan, from Oakland, Calif., also an experienced backpacker. Along the way they were joined by Evan Blom of Coos Bay, Ore.

"The most challenging part is committing to do it," Sessions said. "Once you're at the beginning of the trail, you've already done the planning. Your daily routine is simple: walking, eating, sleeping. Hiking is just putting one foot in front of the other."

At least every seven days, the trail is near a town with a post office or a small store to purchase supplies. She mailed herself resupply boxes along the trail, including four new pairs of hiking shoes. Instead of carrying an entire trail guidebook, Sessions divided her books into sections and mailed them to herself. Her parents and friends mailed her care packages along the trail.

She had an opportunity to shower about once every week or 10 days and they did their laundry when the trail was near a town or campground.

"When you're backpacking, there's a sense of simplicity. You discover you really don't need much to be happy," she said.

She didn't weigh her pack before she started, but estimates it was 15 pounds base weight -- without fuel, food and water.

"The more weight you carry, the more pressure on your joints, so you want to make your load as light as possible," she said.

In Southern California, where the trail has big gaps between reliable water sources, Sessions sometimes had to carry a gallon of water. "The weight added up," she said.

Trail angels doing trail magic

All along the trail, Sessions and her hiking companions experienced unexpected moments of kindness -- called "trail magic" done by "trail angels." Trail angels left cold water along the trail, brought food, offered rides into town and even a free place to stay in town. In Cascade Locks, Ore., they stayed at the home of a trail angel called "Shrek."

The culture of trail names

Part of the trail culture is hikers are given trail names that often are used instead of their real names for the duration of the hike. A hiker can choose a trail name before the hike, but it's considered more official if a hiker is bestowed a trail name by other hikers. Sessions, who eats a pound of honey every three days, whether she's hiking or not, has the trail name "Honeybear." Hiking companion Boylan's trail name is "Oasis" because she packs twice as much water as other hikers. "Spud" is Blom's trail name, bestowed when they were hiking one day and started naming their food cravings. Every food Blom mentioned was some form of potatoes.

They met hikers of all ages and experiences, from an 8-year-old girl to a woman who has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail multiple times and has trekked 35,000 miles on it.

In August, Lena Sessions' dad, Henry, and half-brother, Chris, 13, met up with her near Mount Hood at Olallie Lake, Ore., where a forest fire had rerouted the trail. They camped a couple of nights and hiked with them for 40 miles.

A month later, Lena Sessions and her hiking companions reached the northern terminus of the trail in E.C. Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia.

Emotional ending

"I definitely felt nostalgic reaching the end," Sessions said. "I had images of where I've been what I've done along the way. It was bittersweet. Although I was looking forward to starting school and moving to a new city, I knew this significant period in my life was over."

Three days after finishing the hike, she started a master's of health promotion and community health education program at Portland State University. As part of her thesis, she's planning to study the relationship between spending time outdoors and mental and physical health.

"I knew I'd have challenges adjusting. The first few days I focused on resting. All of a sudden, my body felt tired. Not just physical, but emotional."

"I was a bit overwhelmed when I had to start choosing what clothes to wear each day. And taking a shower more than once every 10 days. It's definitely different to sleep in a bed. The first night, I kept waking up, thinking I was still hiking. Now it feels a lot more natural now that I'm back home."

After five months of being in the wilderness, she said it felt odd standing in downtown Portland waiting for the MAX train. "Some people feel very lost in the wilderness, outside the city," Sessions said, "but I felt lost when I first stepped onto campus."

Sessions kept a journal and also posted her thoughts in her blog, Honey Bear Hikes. She is raising money for SheJumps.org, a nonprofit organization that provides community and support for more women to experience the outdoors.

PCT Jargon

http://scottbryce.com/pct/glossary.html

• Base weight: The weight of a loaded backpack, not including food, water and stove fuel. Most through hikers try to carry a base weight of 15 pounds or less.

• Gram weenie: A hiker who is obsessive about reducing their base weight as much as possible. A derogatory term that suggests that a person isn't willing to carry one more gram of weight than necessary.

• Hiker funk: After a few hundred miles it becomes difficult to wash the sweat and dirt out of your clothes. The resulting smell is called hiker funk. The reason the person giving you a ride into town has the windows down is not because the air conditioning isn't working.

• Hiker hunger: That empty feeling in your stomach that results from eating 4,000 calories per day, but burning 6,000.

• HYOH: Hike your own hike. An encouragement between hikers to hike according to your own dreams, goals, expectations, etc., and not have your hike determined by other hiker's expectations. This is your hike. Hike it your way.

• Thru hiker: Someone who is in the process of hiking the entire length of a trail that is 1,000 miles or longer.

• Trail name: A nickname used by a hiker. It can be chosen by a hiker before the hike, but is considered more official if it is given to the hiker during the hike. A trail name often derives from an unusual, humorous or significant characteristic or event associated with the hiker.