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Going the distance: 11-year-old PCT hiker has her eye on the triple crown

M. Kate West
Chester Editor
8/17/2011

Who knew that the state of the economy would start 11-year-old Reed Gjonnes, aka Sunshine, off on the adventure of a lifetime and start her on the path to earning the Triple Crown of hiking?

The story came out when Sunshine and her dad, Eric, who are hiking the entire 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), made a week-long stop in the Drakesbad and Old Station area at the end of July.

“This hike has been planned for years and Reed has been raised to be my through partner; her whole life has been spent dropping me off or picking me up at trailheads 24/7,” Eric said. “All of our family vacations have centered on the PCT.”

pct
The long 2010-11 winter led to late seasonal warming and heavy spring runoff in the high country. Eric and 11-year-old Reed Gjonnes said water crossings presented their greatest challenges. Photo submitted

He said that he and his wife, Teresa, had originally agreed that he would get his career wound down so that he and Reed could hike the trail after she graduated from high school.

“Then, after 17 years, I lost my job as an electrician. Rather than crying over my job loss and the economy I decided to put a positive spin on the situation and went home and announced this would be the year for a through hike,” Eric said.

He also said the family had been preparing financially for him not to work and to through hike the PCT in 2013.

“The job loss and economy just accelerated our start date,” he said.

 

Shaping up for the trail

“Dad and I used mom’s weights in my backpacks as we walked around town. We unlaced our shoes on purpose to condition our feet. Basically we stay in good shape year-round but we needed to condition our feet for the trail,” Sunshine said.

Reed has also put in conditioning time out on the trail with Eric, who section hiked the entire PCT between 2002 and 2010.

“Over the years Reed has hiked weekends and three – four day stretches. Each time she has set the goal to hike further than she did the day before,” Eric said.

While section hiking California last year he looked for a way to include Reed. She joined him in Chester and they hiked to Burney Falls, a distance of 90 miles.

“The first day she hiked 19 miles and immediately broke her previous mileage record. Two days later she hiked 22 miles and broke her record for the second time in one week,” he said.

 

The journey begins

The Gjonneses officially started their journey April 29, at Campo, Calif., on the Mexican border, and reached the Drakesbad Resort July 28.

They plan to finish their hike Sept. 15 in Manning Park, British Columbia.

Eric said that although they are going to try hard to meet their original arrival date, the time might have to extend to Sept. 21 because their travels took longer in the Sierra Nevada.

He said the start and finish deadlines were set around Reed’s return to school.

The Salem, Ore., youth, who has twice hiked through Plumas County, will start sixth grade in September.

Another reason they are striving to meet the completion date is a scheduled speaking engagement. Eric and Reed will be addressing the American Long Distance Hiking Association Conference in Wennachti, Wash., the weekend of Sept. 21.

“I imagine they will want to learn about Reed’s through hike and her experiences as an 11-year-old on the trail,” Eric said.

 

Trail challenges

“The No. 1 challenge this year has been the Sierra Nevada mountains. Because there was no visible trail for most of the 500 miles, it made navigation very difficult and slow going,” Eric said.

He said there were more challenges because of late winter.

“It was said to be the highest snow year on record and it seemed to last longer because it didn’t warm up as soon. Before, you could go 18 miles in between passes with snow. We went over 500 miles in the snow line,” he added.

He also said the melting snow made for turbulent rivers and creeks.

Reed agreed, “The creek crossings have all been strong and deep with no bridges.”

“Most rivers were between our knees and over our heads; there are few bridges in Kings Canyon, Sequoia National Park and Yosemite,” Eric added.

The winter challenges continued and in the areas where the Gjonneses faced less snow they instead had to deal with lots of fallen trees and debris.

“Because we were working so hard each day, our daily miles dropped. We began to run out of food because we weren’t coming out as quickly as we needed to for supplies,” Eric said.

He said he cooked daily and Reed would eat until she was full. Eric ate what was left over and did lose a substantial amount of weight.

“We never ran out of food but I did ration my portions. We were behind by two days’ worth of food. After that we faced another challenge because once we left the Sierras I packed too much food,” he said.

Despite the challenges of the high mountain terrain, the Gjonneses are confident they can still make their Sept. 21 deadline.

“We took days off at every town site in the Sierra; we have spent two-thirds of our time to get halfway. We feel that since we have had our time off, we can walk heavier miles during our remaining time on the trail,” he said.

 

Trailside activities

When asked what she likes most about hiking the PCT, Reed said, “Spending time with my dad, hiking every day and meeting the trail community. Everything has been wonderful.”

Teamwork has formed their daily routine.

“We set up the tent together; then Reed lays out the bedding while I cook,” Eric said.

He said eating and meal cleanup often signaled the end of the day.

At the lower elevations when travel wasn’t so strength consuming the pair sometimes cooked, cleaned up and played cards with other hikers.

Eric also said he and Reed would often read together from books on their iPods.

“Once Reed falls asleep, I journal. I have also been writing articles for Backpackinglight.com,” he said.

He said those interested in following their continuing journey can go to that website. Once there, viewers should click “Articles” on the toolbar, then people and look for his name.

He said he would likely write four or five articles by the time the hike is finished.

Eric’s journal address is trailjournals.com/ballsandsunshine. He said he works when he can to maintain the daily blog that has received more than 100,000 hits.

“The hikers are really interested in keeping up with Sunshine,” he said.

 

Going for the Triple Crown

“Sunshine aspires to be a Triple Crown hiker which means she will hike the PCT, the Appalachian and Continental Divide trails,” Eric said.

The Gjonneses are planning to hike the Appalachian in 2012 and the Continental Trail in 2013.

“Reed at age 13 in 2013 would be irrefutably the youngest person to hold the title,” he said. “Plans are already in the works for the Appalachian Trail and the schools are working with us on the beginning and ending of the school year.”

 

Time out at Drakesbad

“The generosity of Ed Fiebiger at Drakesbad was a highlight of the 2010 hike for Sunshine. A chance to return to Drakesbad was a motivating factor for her to hike the entire trail this year.”

Teresa and Reed’s 8-year-old sister, Annika, have followed the entire PCT journey from California highways. They joined Eric and Reed at Drakesbad.

Where possible they met Eric and Reed at trailheads.

“They were a welcome sight and always brought hot meals and hero sandwiches,” Eric said.

As to favorite locations along the way, Reed said, “So far Drakesbad is the best part of the trip.”

She said she was excited to be going in the pool and had been invited to horseback ride.

It is possible that as Sunshine and Eric arrive in Old Station they may have had another reunion waiting.

During the 2010 hike Reed met trail angels Georgi (Firefly) and Denny (Firewalker) Heitman and was treated to an overnight stay in their custom built tree house.

 

Early beginnings

Eric Gjonnes grew up hiking but had never actually backpacked, something he had always wanted to do.

“I had some back problems and once I had surgery I set out to go on a hike and inadvertently ended up on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.”

He said he met some through hikers and came to learn he hadn’t realized the full length of the PCT.

“I was fascinated by the information and set a goal of hiking the whole trail before I turned 40 years of age; I will actually have hiked it twice before that,” said Eric, who turned 39 on Aug. 2.


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