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Zach Krahmer
Zach Krahmer
Zach Krahmer is an experienced hiker, ice climber, Eagle Scout, and photography student who uses his art to encourage people to share and engage with one another’s ideas.
After his mother gave him her old camera when he was 12 years old, Zach developed a strong passion for photography. He believes that great pictures can inspire, inform, and surprise us, and he likes to make images that contextualize people or ideas. He is currently studying two simultaneous graduate programs in International Relations/Conflict Resolution and Photography at Syracuse University to gain a better understanding of the role of civil society, technology, and identity in mediating environmental conflicts.
I walked the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail from Campo, California to Manning Park, Canada, treading a continuous footpath from south to north. The journey took about six months, beginning in late March and ending just before October. The trail is usually about 2650 miles long, but with resupplies and the extra side trips and peaks along the way, it must have been more than 2750 miles.
Growing up, I hiked portions of the trip when I was in the Boy Scouts and this was my first time back since then. I had a friend do the trail in 2014 and knew that I would love to attempt the thru-hike at some point in my life, because of the immensity and the challenge.
I chose to do it now for a variety of reasons, but the biggest was health. My parents have had significant mobility injuries and operations over the past few years. My dad is diabetic and, as a result, suffers from lessened sensation in his feet. His recovery from an ankle break in early 2017 is still ongoing and my mom just had her knee replaced. These events made their mortality that much more salient and inspired me to do the trail.
I obtained a permit in early February 2019 for a start date of March 21. After reading a few online forums and speaking with friends who had completed the journey previously, I made sure I had my basic three: sleeping bag/pad, tent, and backpack.
I already had most of my other equipment including water filter, stove, and clothes, but the environments of the trail demanded different equipment at different times. Once you have your equipment, you make balanced decisions as you go based on the conditions and your requirements as to how much food, how much water, and what clothes you need to carry. Of course I wanted to document the journey on camera but I had to pack light and compact. A low maintenance, high-quality setup and the ability to swap lenses without stopping was crucial to the joy of capturing the trip.
The journey is so long, you are constantly learning and adapting each 80-mile increment. To make this aspect easier, I organized for my family to ship various boxes of equipment at different times along the way, which was a big help.
The Journey
One thing I learned is that the trail is as much the weather as it is the dirt beneath your feet. There are five distinct geographical sections – desert, Sierra, NorCal, Oregon, and Washington. Each brought with it changes in conditions along with changes in terrain.
The people also changed on the trail, as did the relationships between them. I met so many people and I found that as time progressed, we grew more comfortable with each other and ourselves. The trail reveals the best version of yourself; it’s like an incubator for genuineness and generosity.
The geographical changes ranged from the superbloom in a very wet California, to a desert snowstorm north of Owens Peak Wilderness and three to four feet of mid-May snow in the Sierra. NorCal had a ton of deep valleys and it was there that we found our first berries that would last through Washington. We then scaled most of the Oregon volcanoes, before it became increasingly wet as we moved into Washington and began the final push. There are so many trees and everything is super green in this state.
With such variable conditions came a variety of challenges. Originally, I wanted to try to complete the entire trail in about 100 days. In order to do this, I started very quickly, and had a pretty heavy bag as I hadn’t figured out what I would and would not need on a daily basis. By the fifth or sixth day, I was barely able to walk at Eagle Rock, near mile 100. I ended up spending 15 days at Warner Springs Community Center as I healed.
It was very hard to be stuck, unsure if I would be able to continue or not, having committed to others in my life that I would do this. I felt alone and unsure about what would happen. Someone gave me a book, How to Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh, which helped me ENJOY EVERY STEP from then onward, something I practiced daily for the remaining 2500 miles of my trip and continue to enjoy today.
My tendonitis required five to six weeks of active recovery, so this reading on mindfulness and walking meditation helped me practice the appreciation I had for walking. Over the course of my trip, I would visit the hospital three times for frostbite, tendonitis, and a three-week sinus infection.
There were countless other challenges, but I embraced these and other moments for what they were, enjoying the experience of the emotional peaks and valleys through each step.
I lived in a tent at Warner Springs for 15 days as my injury healed. Many hikers helped as they passed through. I learned to appreciate and enjoy every step | Image © Zach Krahmer | X-T30 camera and XF18mmF2 R lens. 1/55 sec at F16, ISO 160.
All this said, for every challenge I faced along the way, there were countless amazing moments! There was the time I had a 25-minute conversation with an elk, or when we dressed up in Hawaiian shirts at Casa de Luna. I’ll never forget the 400 miles of snow we crossed or sleeping on a different mountain pass each night for a week, not to mention forging across Falls Creek during peak melt, a swift 50-meter wide river that was level with my breast at its most shallow point.
The experience of climbing a snow-covered peak surrounded by the southern California desert in early April will also always stay with me, along with the way I felt on my first day as the enormity of my commitment sunk in and I surrounded myself with new friends.
But above all this, the most memorable thing was the people. The trail was funny in that you would often spend several days or weeks with folks and then something would happen that might separate you. It was amazing to reconnect with people near the end that I had met near the beginning. Everyone had their own journey, but in our own ways we each had the same journey.
I also can’t forget to mention the amazing community of trail angels – regular people who might donate their time, home, or money to support hikers. Plus, most of the resupply places are off the trail and would require an unsuspecting stranger pick you up (you haven’t showered in a week) and drive you into town. People were so willing to help, it taught me a lot about generosity and has inspired the same in my life now.
After resupplying in Mammoth Lakes, we walked past day hikers as we made our way back to trail. Most resupplies required hitchhiking | Image © Zach Krahmer | X-T30 camera and XF18mmF2 R lens. 1/800 sec at F8, ISO 400.
Here is one of our campsites overlooking a valley in California. It was important to practice LNT techniques where possible, burying fire remains in this case | Image © Zach Krahmer | X-T30 camera and XF18mmF2 R lens. 1/60 sec at F4, ISO 4000.
The Lessons
First, go see things for yourself – there were so many rumors and so much fearmongering regarding the weather and conditions on the trail. I found it healthier to go and see for myself. By honestly communicating with myself and expecting the same from others, I knew we could turn back if something was impassable. The cool thing was, it wasn’t impassable. We were able to make it through.
Second, spend time with people – you can have all the intentions in the world to be friends, or get to know a person or place, but unless you put in the time, it’s just an intention. Spending time is the best way to get to know anyone or anything.
Third, go into an experience with no expectations – don’t set yourself up to be disappointed. If you go into an experience with a fresh set of eyes and no expectations, you will be absolutely amazed by the dynamism and nuance of each new day.
But overall, I learned the importance of enjoying every step. Things suck sometimes, but that’s all part of the journey.
There were hundreds of differently sized crossings throughout the trail – this one was at Falls Creek. It was about 40 yards across and rose to mid-chest because of high snow melt | Image © Zach Krahmer | X-T30 camera and XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS lens. 1/25 sec at F4.2, ISO 320.
The Legacy
Generally, I think people relate to images differently than to other forms of communication. Images can inspire, inform, and surprise us. To me, I think the best images do all of these things and help us better understand others and the world around us.
I want to tell stories in a way that clarifies conflict and helps us understand more about others who might have different perspectives than us. I want to inspire people to engage with one another, and learn more about the world in which they live. There are so many problems in the world today, but there are also increasingly more solutions. At the end of the day, I want people to look at my images and work, and say wow, I want to learn more about that.
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