Trekking along the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains challenges hikers every summer. This snow-covered range provides a far greater challenge for skilled mountaineers in winter. But 2023 will go down in history as the year summer and winter combined for the hardy few in the Range of Light. 

Winter conditions that stretched into August led most Pacific Crest Trail hikers to wisely skip the High Sierra, though some 200 PCT overachievers braved the buried mountains in June and July. The hardships and deadly hazards they overcame make a typical PCT journey seem like a walk in the park. 

Snow obscured their trail, forcing them to navigate an invisible path. High passes like Forester, Mather and Glen became terrifying ice climbs. Sun cups and slush slowed progress to a crawl, leading hikers to start daily around 3 a.m. when frozen crust provided better footing. Raging water and damaged footbridges made river crossings perilous. 

To top it off, hikers had to carry backbreaking loads: crampons, ice axes, food, fuel, bear cans and cold-weather clothes, shelters and sleeping bags were all essential. That added up to around 50 pounds, or about three times a typical PCT pack weight. 

“Each day tested my limits mentally, physically, and emotionally. I cried. A lot. I fell in rivers. I fell and slid down snow. I was scraped and bruised by countless tree limbs. I had blistered feet. It was not easy out there, but I did it. I hiked through the entire PCT Sierra section in a 300-percent snow year,” shared Moony, who journeys under a trail name like most PCT hikers. 

“There are no words for what we have gone through,” declared Refill, who chose some to describe his experience anyway: “Frightening, beautiful, bone-breaking, astonishing, brutal, mind-breaking, pure happiness, and sheer terror. Never before have I done something this extreme, challenging, but also beautiful.”

In a historic and drought-busting winter, California received 247 percent of average snowfall, filling reservoirs to 128 percent of their typical storage. The PCT hikers’ unprecedented High Sierra odyssey was just one result of this wet windfall, the outdoors story of the year. 

Ski resorts which often close in April or May stayed open until July or even August. Kayakers and rafters enjoyed the biggest rapids in decades. Even desert areas like Joshua Tree and Death Valley saw rare wildflower blooms, delighting conservationists and nature lovers. 

There were significant drawbacks, of course. Flooding, heavy snowfall and high rivers caused dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in damage. But California wildfires burned just 20 percent of average acreage compared with the last five years. Since no one can control the destructive effects of tumultuous weather, this outdoorsman suggests that we appreciate the beneficial ones, too. 

In other outdoors news, wildlife made exciting appearances. Monarch butterflies continued their recovery after reaching dangerously low numbers in 2020. A wolverine traveled through California, caught on camera in both Yosemite and Inyo National Forest, for the first time in 15 years. A beaver pup was spotted in ​​Palo Alto’s Matadero Creek, the Bay Area’s first beaver sighting in decades. And a pack of at least five gray wolves, an endangered species, has moved into Sequoia National Forest for the first time in a century. 

California Outdoor Hall of Fame inducted surfer Bianca Valenti “because of her prowess as an elite big-wave surfer, proponent of gender equality in professional surfing and inspiration to thousands of women to set aside their fears and paddle into the roiling ocean to surf.” Valenti founded the Better Wave Foundation to empower outdoor athletes, volunteers with Brown Girl Surf to promote women and girls of color to surf, and serves as an ambassador for Save the Waves Coalition and Sustainable Surf. “I’m more inspired than ever to help preserve, protect and conserve the great outdoors,” she said. 

The hall also inducted fisherman Gary Coe, fly-fishing guide Jay Fair, and cyclist Alan Kalin, who promoted life-saving traffic improvements on Mount Diablo’s windy summit road. The hall has now honored 84 men and 13 women since its inaugural class in 2002. 

Students from kindergarten through eighth grade will get more fresh air under a new state law that requires schools to allow them 30 minutes outdoors per day. The Legislature passed the measure by a rare bipartisan and unanimous vote. “The benefits of the unstructured play and peer-to-peer social interactions offered by recess are more important now than ever,” said Sen. Josh Newman, the law’s author.

Your columnist enjoyed some personal outdoors experiences in 2023, as well. They include cycling through Joshua Tree National Park, trekking in Grand Canyon National Park, and climbing the three highest mountains in Mexico. I was fortunate to explore the Patagonia mountains of Chile and Argentina for the first time. 

More significantly,  I managed to complete the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, 26 years after my first PCT hike. The experience taught me more than I expected about human kindness, as practiced by hundreds of selfless trail angels who make such journeys possible. 

Trail angels deliver water to the desert, give hikers rides to and from town, host and feed us in their homes and much more. In a world which seems to lack benevolence, they radiate generosity and motivate others to do the same. 

After finishing my hike, I jumped at the chance to help my brother lead three friends up Yosemite’s Half Dome this fall. Felipe, Christian and Gama had never climbed the shapely mountain before and were aching to try. Everyone laughed when Dan and I discovered the three had comically overstuffed their packs and we made them unload a pile of unneeded gear. The new climbers grinned from ear to ear as we ascended the cables. 

When they called their families jubilantly from the summit, I realized this was a lifetime highlight for them, and that helping them achieve it was one for me, too. I’m going to try to give more happiness to others in 2024 and beyond.

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About
Matt Johanson

Matt Johanson

Matt Johanson lives in Castro Valley and authored “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light,” winner of a National Outdoor Book Award.

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