With just the things on his back

With just the things on his back

Hiking the 460 miles of the Pacific Coast Crest Trail, determined to do so with just the supplies in his backpack, Aaron Nicholson ran into an obstacle almost immediately:

The food options available at Crater Lake National Park.

The Eugene resident had to steel himself to avoid partaking of what has become a trail-hiker's tradition — gorging on "real" food at the restaurants at and near the Crater Lake Lodge.

"I had to go into the restaurant to buy the water bottles and I smelled all the food," he said. "It was very tempting, but I didn't do it."

Backpackers hiking the trail usually hit a town every week or so or depend on "food drops" from friends to get what they need to complete the trip. But Nicholson, 23, set out on the month-long trip carrying everything up the spine of the Oregon Cascades.

The recent Oregon State University graduate said he decided to attempt the "one-pack" trip as a challenge. "I wanted to see if I could do it just because it's difficult to do," he said.

To have room for the 50 pounds of food he figured he'd need he left behind such things as a camp stove, cooking utensils, backpacker's tent and plenty of extra clothing.

He packed a down sleeping bag, a thin foam pad, a plastic "tube tent," a plastic rain poncho, a water filter, hydration bag, water bottles, compass, maps, cell phone, emergency beacon and some clothing.

The pack still weighed 80 pounds when a friend dropped him off near the Oregon-California border on Aug. 9.

He ate entirely high calorie-to-weight ratio foods — peanut butter, cashews, macadamia nuts, raisins, energy bars, summer sausage. He also took multivitamins.

"I didn't bring any hiking food — I didn't do any freeze dried or anything like that," said Nicholson. "I was eating about 2,500 calories per meal, and I got a meal every 10 miles."

A meal would consist of an ounce of raisins, 41/2; tablespoons of peanut butter, 31/2; ounces of summer sausage, nuts or generic cheese curls, an apricot bar or an energy bar, flaxseed cookies or sesame snack and, five marshmallows and an ounce of maple syrup.

He said he lost 10 of his 220 pounds.

"I didn't really feel hungry that much ... I guess because a lot of the stuff I ate was fairly dense, like the summer sausage," he said.

His longest previous hike was a leisurely nine-day, 80-miler on the Rogue River Trail, during which he read Jon Krakauer's "Into The Wild," the true story of a young man who set out to live off the land in Alaska.

"That was one of the books that convinced me to do this," he said.

Krakauer's protagonist, Christopher McCandless, didn't survive. Nicholson took notice.

For one thing, Nicholson's friends and family would know exactly where he was should he be injured.

He carried a device that, at the push of a button, uses GPS satellite technology to e-mail his exact location and a preset message. The buttons' corresponding messages are: "OK," "Help," or "Call 911."

Friends and family got daily messages saying he was OK, but on Days 15-17 the messages all originated from the same location. Nicholson was waiting out an infected ankle and sore knee.

"I tried hiking about 10 miles the last day and got to about Mesa Creek (near the South Sister) when the knee just gave out," Nicholson said.

He figured it was unsafe to continue and, using a stick as a crutch, reached the Cascade Lakes Highway north of Elk Lake and called a friend, 190 miles shy of his goal.

He didn't use his "Help" button because, he said, "I didn't want to alarm anybody."

Absent the injuries, he said, he is confident he could have reached the Columbia River with food left over.

"It was working," he said of his plan. "I'd gone just over halfway and had eaten just over half the food, and I was making good time — usually 20 to 25 miles per day ... The main thing is I feel like I had the energy to do it, and I felt like I definitely could have done it had I not had the problems with my legs."

On any future distance hikes, he said, he would substitute a lightweight synthetic sleeping bag for the down one, which got wet and lumpy when the tube tent leaked. He'd also take a head net instead of mosquito repellant and extra warm clothing.

Nicholson would usually hike from about 9 a.m. until shortly before dark, resting every hour. He had matches but never built a campfire.

"I met people almost every day, including quite a few through-hikers," he said. "They all thought I was crazy."

At Crater Lake Lodge, where he picked up extra water bottles, Nicholson avoided temptation.

"I had to go into the restaurant to buy the water bottles and smelled all the food," he said. "It was very tempting, but I didn't do it."

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