Mother-son team treks Pacific Crest Trail
The 2 a.m. wakeup call wasn't easy for mother-and-son team Lisa and Jake Topp, but the pair rubbed the sleep out of their eyes, packed up their gear and started an early hike up to the top of California's Mt. Whitney.
The pair were on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to thru-hike — long-distance hike a trail end to end in one season — the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, then climb Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental U.S. at more than 14,500 feet above sea level, to watch the sun rise in the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the California-Nevada border.
"It was pretty cool when you got up and you could see people hiking up for the sunrise and all you could see were headlamps, switch backing up to the summit," Lisa said.
The adventure started back in 2015 when Lisa said she was inspired by the movie "Wild" to get outside her comfort zone and try something bold and new. She considered a couple of different long-distance trails, like the Appalachian Trail, which Lisa described as a "green tunnel," and the Continental Divide Trail, but she wanted to get away from all the trees. She settled on the PCT, which offers, desert, mountains and the lush landscape of the Pacific Northwest as well.
"I was that crazy woman that watched 'Wild' three years ago and I said I'm doing the trail," she said. "I considered doing it solo, but I didn't know if I liked myself that much that I could spend that much time on my own. Then I tried to figure out who could spend that much time with me and who I could put up with."
She thought about who could spare the time, about six months, and would be willing to go with her on the trip. It wasn't long before she texted her son, Jake, who grew up in Silver Bay, but now lives and works in Whitefish, Mont. About three minutes later, she had her answer.
"Heck, yeah," he said.
For most of 2016, Topp was preparing for the trip, which began April 15, 2017. On weekends, Topp spent a lot of time section-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail and learning what gear worked for her.
"I needed to practice with my gear. I needed to find out if I could sleep along in the woods and see if I could carry my pack," Lisa said. "I started just south of Two Harbors and went almost to the end. I just loved every day of it and I just kept buying gear and testing things out."
Lisa also took another step in her preparation: She dehydrated much of the food they carried with them. She spent months learning to dehydrate vegetables, meat and even Nutella, eventually amassing more than 200 meals for them on their trip. Lisa couldn't bear the idea of eating ramen noodles or instant mashed potatoes almost every day, which some hikers do, and she didn't want to spend a lot of money on prepared meals from companies like REI or Patagonia.
"I wasn't really on a budget to spend that kind of money and I just felt better making my own," she said. "I knew what was in there; I knew it would be fairly healthy and I needed variety. I get sick of the same food every day."
Jake said the meals she prepared included vegetables from his mother's garden in Silver Bay and dehydrated eggs for breakfast.
"My mom made some pretty incredible meals — better than I eat at home. She made some crab carbonara and Hawaiian shrimp," he said. "That's just the tip of the iceberg. I would have eaten like sh-- if she hadn't done all that."
The pair spent nearly six months on the trail, learning the limits of their endurance and facing some of their worst fears. Last winter, the Sierra Nevadas received more than 200 percent of the average snowfall, making for some scary river crossings, particularly for Lisa on log crossings.
One of the first crossings they encountered consisted of three logs bridging rushing water at least chest-deep. Lisa said she got through it by holding on to Jake, looking down and "swearing profusely."
Through it all, Lisa and Jake met every challenge, learning a lot about each other and themselves, even sharing a tent together throughout most of the trip.
Toward the end of their trip north, the pair took another early-morning hike in Goat Rocks Wilderness in eastern Washington to watch the sunrise there as well. For Lisa, the experience summed up the entire 2,600-mile trip from Southern California to the Canadian border.
"We got up in the morning and got up to a place where it's called Knife's Edge," she said. "It's 3 miles along the spine of this mountain. We got up and we watched sun come up and had breakfast. It almost brings tears to your eyes how beautiful it is. It's so hard to even describe the peace and the beauty that's up there — I was happy every day."