Valjean Clark

Social shock on the PCT

In 2022, I hiked the high Sierra portion of the PCT, along with some of the Sierra High Route.

During my very first leg of the trail from Trail Pass to Kearsarge Pass, I experienced something I call “social shock” - perhaps there is an official term for what I experienced.

For those who don’t know, hiking the PCT is a very social experience. Hikers often move in bubbles. Even if you don’t want to be in a bubble, your pace will probably align with the pace of someone else, and you’ll find yourself in a bubble of hikers. To be clear, I have no issue with this at all. People make life-long friendships on the PCT, and the social comradery is a beautiful part of the PCT experience for many people. People also feel more safe hiking with others, which I understand.

My first day on the trail, I encountered a pretty large bubble of 50+ hikers. Excited thoughts rushed through my head. I have so much I can learn from hikers who had already been on the trail for 700+ miles! Maybe I’ll get a trail name? Maybe I’ll make some lifelong friends!

It only took a few hours for the excitement to fade. I was encountering people every 30 minutes, if not more often. I quickly tired of introducing myself, sharing when I joined the trail, talking about gear. I was starting to feel socially and emotionally drained, just like I feel at a party with lots of strangers. I’m a fast hiker, so I tried to get ahead of the bubble. After hiking fast for half a day, I learned from a fellow hiker that there were at least 20 more people still ahead of me, and that everyone in the bubble would be going for the Mt Whitney ascent tomorrow.

I imagined myself summitting Whitney with 50 people, not including probably another 50 day hikers and backpackers, and I was not excited by the prospect.

I started reflecting on what I like about backpacking and the kinds of trips I like to plan. I like to go mid-week, when fewer hikers share the trails. I try to pick trails off the beaten path. Instead of summitting Whitney, I’d go for a less-traveled peak like Langley or Lamarck. I realized quickly that I like backpacking to get away from socially overwhelming situations. And the PCT was already proving to be a socially overwhelming situation for me.

Before the trail junction to climb Whitney, I passed a couple of PCT hikers. With an impatient tone, one stops and asks me why he hasn’t seen Whitney yet. I explain to him that it will be several more miles before he’ll be able to see it, since we’re approaching it from the southwest. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I remember feeling really shaken after it. I was practically apologizing to him that he hadn’t seen Whitney yet. The mountains are complicated, and it’s good to be humble and also to learn to read the contours of the map.

After that conversation, I decided I would not be climbing Whitney with this bubble of hikers, and I happily passed the trail junction for Whitney and continued down the PCT. Later that summer, I planned an approach to Whitney via Miter Basin, which I will do this year or next.

I ended up matching pace with a group of four hikers who had just come down Whitney. Most of them had experience with the mountains, and we had some great conversations. We all went over Forester Pass together and had fun glissading down the other side.

The rest of my time on the PCT, I kept reflecting on this “social shock” that I experienced. I didn’t experience anything as severe as those first few days, but I did still feel a milder version of social shock almost every day on the trail. The PCT in the summer is a highway, and while it is beautiful, I struggled just to hear my own thoughts with the frequent distractions.

Social shock

Part of the reason I wanted to write this post was to explore this surprising feeling I felt on the PCT. Why did I feel this way? What triggered it?

While I knew that a lot of people hiked the JMT and PCT every year, I didn’t expect to see so many people so frequently. Whenever I plan backpacking routes, I try to plan routes that are more off the beaten path. I don’t mind seeing people on the trail, but there’s a big difference between seeing 2 or 3 groups of people and seeing 20 groups of people in a day.

I enjoy going out into nature to escape resource contention. Most of modern life is about resource contention: lines at grocery stores and restaurants, traffic, obligations for time, competing sounds. Hiking a very busy trail reintroduces resource contention: campsites are full, people can be unpredictable and loud, there is traffic on the trail. Of course I’d rather be in trail traffic than freeway traffic, but I’d prefer to be in no traffic at all.

But I haven’t yet fully captured the “social shock” I describe. There was something about the mindset of some of the people I encountered on the trail that bothered me. It’s as if the hike was just a giant checklist to complete, including some mandatory side quests like Mt. Whitney. There are other great peaks, like Mt. Langley, that offer as good if not better views, and are easy to get to from the PCT. Nobody I spoke to on the trail had heard of Mt. Langley. I suppose nobody can be an expert on the entire trail and the surrounding areas along the trail. But what is the point of hiking through all these places that you don’t know? There’s a way in which the trail is trivialized to these milestones on a map plus some common metrics and debates: miles walked per day, backpack weight, trail runners vs boots.

I suppose this is not the first time I’ve had a reaction like this, I guess I was just surprised to have a similar experience in the mountains. I lived in Europe for two years during my masters degree, and I did a fair amount of traveling one summer. I realized that I dislike barreling through famous European cities. I liked finding a city I’m interested in and staying there for a week if not longer - seeing where the locals buy food, visiting museums, walking around parks, seeing the different neighborhoods of a city. I want to find a place and really understand it and engage with it. It’s the same for me in the mountains. I really fell in love with the high Sierra, and I want to understand its history and hike every nook and cranny.

Maybe the social shock isn’t really about the other people at all. It’s just about me coming to understand myself. When I find myself doing an activity I thought I would enjoy and then not enjoying it or the company of others doing that activity, perhaps I am just not doing my kind of activity! Or I need to find a way to do this activity the way I want to do it. It’s easy to idealize something from the outside looking in, whether that is backpacking Europe or hiking the PCT.

Off-trail hiking

I ended my summer with a trip that combined some of the PCT and a small off-trail section of the Sierra High Route. When I was off-trail, I was fully engaged with the environment. I felt my brain calm down and my thoughts come into focus. I remember looking around at the top of the second off-trail pass. There were no people and no trails as far as the eye could see. It was perfect. I found what I was looking for.

To chase this feeling, I’ll be hiking the Sierra High Route this year or next, depending on the severity of the knee cartilage damage in my knee, which is a blog post I’ll leave for another time.