Yosemite Refresh

After five months on the Pacific Crest Trail, during one of the hardest seasons in decades, these thru-hikers deserved a little pampering before tackling the final miles. Text by Dennis Lewon, Photos by Jonathan Herre

The current looked fast and strong. Each stream crossing had been getting dicier as the weather warmed and melted the Sierra’s near-record snowpack—almost double the average. This creek made the thru-hikers pause. The group of five, all in their 20s, had been traveling together for weeks. They had made it to through the Southern California desert and into the mountains, heading north to the Canadian border on the 2,650-mile PCT. They had their trail legs. They were on schedule. But the nervy creek crossings, sometimes several a day, had slowed their pace.

They took their time scouting the best place to ford this one. They settled on a spot where the banks posed no problems for getting in and out, and unbuckled their hipbelts before stepping into the icy water. It required complete focus to make it through the middle, where the water rose to their waists and threatened to knock them off balance. “Every step you took, the current pushed you downstream,” said Alexa “Rise” McRoberts. When Rise was halfway across, the surging water pushed her off balance and she lost her footing; suddenly, she was floating, struggling against the current. Dayna “Snakebite” McRoberts, Rise’s sister, watched in horror. Was her sister going to get pulled under? Would she get pinned in a rapid or hit her head on a rock? Would she drown, like two other PCT thru-hikers that summer?

Fortunately, Nick “Land Mammal” Battista was able to reach Rise before she was carried out of sight. He pulled her up, and they both fell back on the bank, gasping with cold and adrenaline and relief. “I was flopping like a fish,” said Rise.

That night, in camp, the crew talked up about the near catastrophe and what still lay ahead. Was their “schedule” worth the risk?

“We decided to skip ahead a few hundred miles, to get past the snow and rivers,” said Gary “Fat ‘n Sassy” Sorich. “We’d come back and finish the Sierra section when it was safer.”

They weren’t alone. A number of 2017 PCT thru-hikers made the same decision. It was the prudent strategy, but that didn’t mean their hike got easier. In Oregon and Washington, wildfires left the air hazy with smoke and forced detours around burn zones.

But the group of five—Land Mammal and Fat ‘n Sassy, friends who had started the trail together, and the McRoberts sisters, Snakebite, Rise, and Rise’s twin sister Kahla (“Shine”)—persevered. They made it to the Canadian border at the end of summer and then traveled back to the Sierra to hike from Kearsage Pass to Lake Tahoe, the section they’d skipped.

When the five thru-hikers approached Yosemite in late September, they were worn out. Fall weather had come to the Sierra; they’d been pinned down by an early snow storm, and run low on food. They were tired and hungry when they finally reached Tuolumne Meadows, where they planned to pick up their resupply boxes at the general store.

One problem: The store was closed. A sign on the door said that it had closed for the season just the day before, and that all hiker packages had been sent down to the post office in Yosemite Valley, more than 50 miles away by road.

The storm had passed and the sun shined brightly on the park’s ubiquitous granite. It was a beautiful day. But that didn’t entirely mitigate the unexpected detour. They would have to hitchhike down to the valley, pick up their boxes, and find a place to camp—and then hitch back to Tuolumne the next day to resume their hike.

That’s when I offered them an offer they couldn’t resist.

“We’ll take you down to Yosemite Valley and bring you back here tomorrow,” I said. “And you don’t have to worry about finding a campsite.” I explained that BACKPACKER and Merrell are partnering on our version of trail magic. “Think of it as a big thank you to the trail community.”

After five months on the PCT, this group had seen and experienced plenty of trail magic, so they weren’t entirely surprised by the offer of a ride. But that was before we arrived at our destination.

We drove down to the valley and continued right past the post office—trail mix could wait—and pulled up in front of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Rise, Shine, Snakebite, Land Mammal, and Fat ‘n Sassy looked confused. They looked even more confused when we escorted them to the front desk and the concierge handed them keys to their rooms. 

The historic hotel—formerly known as the Ahwahnee—was built in the 1920s, from wood and stone and glass. It sits in a meadow below Yosemite Falls, with views of Half Dome and Glacier Point. It’s a rare thing, a building that looks like it belongs in the backcountry. Presidents have stayed there. Queen Elizabeth has stayed there. And now thru-hikers would stay the night there, too.

“Is this really happening?” asked Snakebite.

Thru-hikers have few needs, but the few they have are pressing. When they get off the trail, high on the list is eating, showering, and washing clothes. So that’s exactly what this crew got. Laundry service, loaner clothes for the evening, and dinner reservations at the hotel’s legendary restaurant.

The Majestic Yosemite’s dining hall looks like it belongs in a castle. Ceilings are more than 30 feet high. An entire wall of glass affords a view of the meadow outside. Chandeliers cast a warm glow over tables laid with linen. And all that’s before you open a menu.

When you’re burning 5,000 calories a day, week-old cheese on a crumbly tortilla qualifies as gourmet. That makes you appreciate what little you have, and really appreciate the uncommon things—whether that means a double rainbow or a meal that doesn’t have to be rehydrated. So take hiker hunger, add dishes like sautéed salmon and roasted rack of lamb, and you have a dinner to remember. 

“There couldn’t have been a better time to be treated like royalty,” said Rise. “Because I felt awful yesterday.”

In the morning, Rise, Shine, Snakebite, Land Mammal, and Fat ‘n Sassy did what thru-hikers do every day for months on end: packed their gear and got ready to hit the trail. They had about 200 miles to go to reach Tahoe and finish their PCT thru-hike. 

“This is going to power us through to Tahoe,” said Snakebite. “So refreshed. I can’t believe how rejuvenated I feel.”

But the glow of a good meal, a hot shower, and a soft bed would fade, of course. But what would last is the spirit of hikers helping hikers. This small group, one among hundreds that persevered through one of the hardest PCT seasons in years, had made it by supporting each other through the hardest miles. When one was down, another was always there to lift him or her up.

And sometimes, it was strangers that appeared out of nowhere to offer critical support. Now they were inspired to do the same.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future,” said Rise. “But I know I’m going to do this. We’ve had such amazing trail magic and I can’t wait to give back. It’s such an important part of the hiker community. I can’t wait to pull hikers off the trail and bring them home.”

And then send them on their way.