Kate Handley (matriculated 2005) talked to us about what inspired her to embark on the Pacific Crest Trail, lessons she learned and the shifts it inspired in her life.
The hardest decision was definitely the one to hike the trail. I am a lawyer and the legal services industry comes with a lot of pressure to follow a certain trajectory, from getting a degree and articles to working at a big firm and working towards eventually becoming a partner. I just couldn’t conform to that script and I had to give myself permission to actually take time off.
THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 4 270 km long trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border along the West United States, through California, Oregon and Washington. It is probably one of the most diverse trails to hike because the first 700 miles are hiked through desert, dry conditions where you have to carry a lot of water.
The trail is a climb through the Sienna Nevada Mountains, incredibly beautiful snow-capped mountains, and many mountain passes. You descend into northern California and Oregon which are just old growth pine forests and beautiful lakes. The last state is Washington which I actually didn’t hike, however, I believe it is equally beautiful.
The trail is pretty much hiked on one’s own; you can hike as far as you want on any day and sleep anywhere along the trail. I hiked with all of my provisions and a little backpacking tent and at night I would just set up my tent wherever I wanted to stop. I think that the longest I went without seeing anybody was about a day and a half.
WHAT INSPIRED ME TO DO THE TRAIL
Probably the biggest question…
I’ve always had an innate love for nature and the outdoors and spending time in nature. I am an environment lawyer and I’ve kind of chosen a career path that keeps me connected to the natural world.
In 2018 I encountered a confluence in the way I was practicing law and I found myself feeling dissatisfied. This lead me to taking some time off. I had read about this particular trail on someone’s Facebook page and the minute I saw it I just thought “what is this magic? I have to hike it!” So in 2019 after quitting my job I decided to go hike the PCT. This was purely driven by a sense of wanting to reconnect with myself.
I eventually hiked for 4 months. I covered about 2 500 kms and it was exactly what I needed.
ENCOUNTERS THAT CHANGED ME
I didn’t expect the level of authenticity, kindness and human connection I encountered on the trail. My intention was to spend time on my own but this is definitely one of the things that I really was amazed by.
I would generally hike for about 100 miles (161km), out in the wilderness for 5 or 6 days and eventually I would hitch-hike into a little town to resupply with food, wash myself, my gear and touch base with family. Every time I went into town I was just overwhelmed by the kindness of the people in these small back country towns. They would step up to help where necessary and show interest in what we were doing as hikers.
The trail also brings together a collective of people who all have one fundamental thing in common and that’s just a love for nature, the outdoors and being in wild spaces.
Another thing I encountered was bears! In South Africa I generally hike in areas where there isn’t any significant risk of wildlife so that was quite something. I did kind of expect to see them but somehow just hoped I would not.
I GOT THROUGH FORRESTER PASS – I CAN GET OVER ANYTHING
There is a precarious stretch along the Sierra Nevada Mountains called Forrester Pass. It requires hikers to scale what feels like a 60 degree wall of snow to get to an ice shoot that has to be crossed to get to the other side of the pass.
I travelled this section with a group of four other people as the conditions are too rough to be done alone. I had already started the hike when I found out that we were hiking during a record snow year.
At that time I had been out in the wild for 10 days so I had no connection to friends, family or rescue services. I found myself in the most remote area, far from civilisation.
There was a huge amount of snow and ice in the mountains; we had to cross ice sheets in the snow where there was ice with micro spikes. There were big river crossings because of the snow melt and deep, deep snow fields.
I reached the bottom of the snow and ice field and started climbing and experienced the worst fear of my life. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. I remember looking up at one of the other guys that I was hiking with and seeing him cruise forward made me, I just burst into tears! I was just so scared because I had no prior experience using micro spikes and an ice axe.
I realised in that moment that there was no option to go back, I had to move forward and I had to just put one foot in front of the other and get over this mountain pass.
This has been such a foundational moment for me because I have captured the feeling of overcoming this and it has really guided me through a lot of difficult things that I’ve had to do since then. Just remembering that getting through Forrester Pass means that I can get over anything; this has truly been a life lesson for me.
KNOWING WHEN TO ASK FOR HELP
This particular experience along the trail stood out in a major way for me. In this notorious Sierra Nevada section of the hike, I was hiking with a British friend called Linda. At one point we were about 10 000 feet high in the mountains when an electric storm came in. It thundered and it hailed. The temperature started dropping and in the pouring rain, I sat down and I said to my British friend, Linda, “I think I’m just going to sleep for a little bit” (this is generally considered a sign that your body is shutting down).
Linda was also cold and wet but she could see that I was in a worse situation and she just took charge of the situation. She got all of my equipment out, including my tent, got me into warm clothes and a sleeping bag (which thank God, had not got wet). I basically just managed to make myself a cup of 2-minute noodles just to warm up.
Even on the trail, there is a culture of crushing miles and hiking as far as you can in one day. Embarking on this journey with nothing but a back pack to hike 4 000 odd kilometres already proves that one is incredibly self-sufficient but even in that situation, one should always ask for help; and also let people help. It is hard but it is important.
This was an incredibly selfless act showed by Linda and I guess another thing I learned on the experience is to never be afraid to ask for help.
HOW THE TRAIL CHANGED ME
People often ask me whether the trail changed me as a person and I often say that I actually don’t think it changed me as much as it let me come back to myself and reconnect with parts of myself that had been neglected for so long. I realised that I had been living a life that was not aligned with my core beliefs about people and our place in the natural world. In doing the hike I managed to reconnect with that.
There is a lot of pressure when it comes to building one’s career and the road I have taken has made me realise two things: the first being that you do not necessarily need to follow someone else’s script, you can make your own. And the second one being that success looks very different to each and every one of us as people. I thought of it at the time as stepping out of my life for a bit, but really it was the continuation of my life and just changing how I was living it.
WHAT KATE IS DOING NOW
Over the past 3 years I have been setting up an NGO called The Biodiversity Law Centre. It’s a legal non-profit. Our aim is to use the law to protect and restore indigenous species and ecosystems in South Africa. This has been a huge project and was very much inspired by my hike.
The trail really enabled me to connect with nature and live a life that I feel is more aligned with my values. A lot of the work that I do is aimed at helping communities protect their environments against detrimental development.
There is so much to be learned about ourselves from nature. I have a friend whose motto is “in finding nature you find yourself” and I firmly believe that if we look back at indigenous knowledge systems and the way communities lived with the natural world for millennia, there really is a serious sense that we are not separate from nature, we are a part of it.
I feel that it is my role to live a life that is according to those values.