Morgen Glessing’s friends dropped him off at the California-Mexico border around 5 p.m. He only hiked about five miles that night and was nervous about what he had gotten himself into. He briefly passed one other person, a woman with a husky. As he trekked beyond them and eventually set up camp, it was quiet and calm — a big, empty night in the California desert. He only had 2,595 more miles to go.
Glessing is part of an elite group of hikers who can brag about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail , which starts at the California-Mexico border and winds through sandy deserts, the high Sierra Nevada and towering peaks on its way to the Washington-Canada border. The trail tested Glessing for four months, offering starvation, wildfires and cougars as obstacles on the way to the hikers’ register at the end of the trail.
Glessing is just another 23-year-old BYU student; just another person trying to reach a few goals before it’s too late. He and other BYU students are taking their summer vacations to new heights — literally.
Glessing described that first day on the trail as surreal. It was cold and cloudy, and he had never hiked in the desert before, though he became acquainted with desert hiking over the next 700 miles of sand. His two gallons of water felt heavy in his pack, and he was overwhelmed with his small start to an enormous journey.
But the next day he took down camp, laced up his blue Brooks shoes and started anyway. It was time to accomplish his life dream.
Glessing developed a love for backpacking after high school when he was about 18 years old. He was drawn to the outdoors and began realizing how pretty his home state of Washington really was.
“I loved to be outside whenever I could,” Glessing said. “I’d work Monday to Friday, and every Friday night after work I’d drive to some campground and spend the night and hike all Saturday.”
Those weekend hikes motivated Glessing to push himself and see how far he could go in a day.
“I started out doing hikes that were 10 miles, and once I realized that was too easy I would go for 15,” Glessing said. “And then I would try for 20, and then I would try for 25, and while they were always really difficult and hard, at the end of the day I was always so happy, and it was all I could think about the whole next week.”
Glessing averaged 30 miles per day while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Glessing spent a lot of time before his LDS mission dreaming of and researching the trail.
“You know it’s an obsession when in your free time you’re just looking at it; whether it’s really something that’s going to be in your life soon or not,” Glessing said.
Glessing spent the first transfer of his mission in Arizona while waiting on a visa to Brazil. While there, he met a man in his ward who had completed the Pacific Crest Trail.
“It really just set in my mind that normal people could get out there and do it, because I’d always thought of it as just extreme outdoorsmen who did it,” Glessing said. “I really came to realize the average person with the right knowledge and application of gear could really stand a chance in doing it.”
Glessing hadn’t planned on hiking the PCT until he was older and retired, but he ultimately decided to do it while he was younger.
“I realized there’s so much that could happen between now and then, and I really know I’d regret it, looking back and not having done it when I’m young,” Glessing said. “I decided I just wanted to make the most of my time.”
BYU students Sarah Wright and Andrew Bentz chose to take advantage of younger ages and longer summers. Wright left Provo at the end of April to complete the trail. Bentz hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in 2015.
Wright, a biology major who graduated last December from BYU, is a native of Seattle. She has always like the outdoors but truly embraced the lifestyle while living in Utah for college.
“Morgen planted the idea (of hiking the trail), and then it never left,” Wright said. “It’s like 40 minutes from where I grew up. I started thinking about it just in January, and I realized I could do it, and then I realized this was the best time to do it. And then I couldn’t get it out of my head and decided to do it.”
Wright will be hiking the trail alone, though she’s sure to meet hikers along the way.
“As a girl, everyone is like, ‘Why are you going alone; why are you doing that?'” she said.
Wright isn’t too worried about making the trek without anyone though.
“It’s a better experience to do it by yourself, because you’re learning about yourself and you don’t have to compromise at all,” she said. “You go at your own pace and meet tons of people. I won’t really be alone.”
Bentz is a geology major from Los Angeles who plans to graduate in April 2017. He’s passionate about the outdoors and wants to be a snow scientist. He loves national parks and is an advocate for experiencing nature through the parks.
“The fact that so few people use (National Parks) motivates me to go out and access them,” Bentz said. “They’ll just go away. We’d have nothing; (we would) just have cities and it wouldn’t be good. It’s surprising to me that such a strong government that’s more leaning toward money and politics has recognized the importance to preserve these lands. That’s just so cool. It’s such a great gift.”
Though Bentz completed the trail in 2014, he admits that “the whole walking really far thing gets a little boring.” Now, he likes to incorporate backcountry skiing into his long-distance hikes. The Continental Divide Trail didn’t involve skiing, but it did require more work than simply putting one foot in front of the other for 2,000 miles.
“I couldn’t finish all of it,” Bentz said. “I was out there for four months. I couldn’t tell you mileage because there’s not a real trail; it’s a route. Sometimes you’re following a dirt road and sometimes it’s nothing at all. I relied on a map and compass all day.”
Glessing and Bentz, along with a few other people, plan to challenge themselves even more this summer by hiking the Sierra High Route. Glessing described it as a short backcountry thru-hike. Thru-hiking refers to hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end, while backcountry means there’s no trail.
“I loved thru-hiking where I could just follow a trail for miles, but sometimes it would almost get boring because the hiking itself was not easy, but I didn’t have to do anything mentally. All I had to do was look forward and move my feet,” Glessing said. “But the high route, that’s why it’s called a route not a trail, it’s really fun because you’ll have a map the entire time and you’ll get to the top of the mountain and just say, ‘OK, now we have to get to that mountain way over there,’ and there’s no trail between there and there so you’re just like, ‘How do I get there?'”
Glessing said only about 100 people have completed the Sierra High Route before, and it will offer amazing views and untouched acres of wilderness. Trails offer an immediate instinct of directing the way from the wilderness back to civilization, he said.
“But it almost reaches this new level when you’re somewhere where there’s literally no trail; there’s no sign of any human life that’s ever been there. It’s pure,” Glessing said. “Certain images are stuck in my head where I just remember being at the top of this mountain and we’re doing backcountry, and you don’t see a trail anywhere. There are staggering mountains all around you. All you see is wildlife.”
He saw thousands of deer, fish and marmots. He became so familiar with bears that he refers to them as “big black labs.”
On one foggy, windy morning, Glessing found himself just 50 feet from a cougar. Sweating despite the cold weather, Glessing and the cougar made eye contact as the mountain native growled and crouched, preparing for an attack. Glessing made himself appear bigger and made lots of noise, and the cougar snuck off into the fog.
But Glessing doesn’t intend to stop because of the dangers.
“It’s a really dangerous environment; it really is,” he said, “but at the same time it’s a huge risk for a huge reward.”