With no training, no experience Spokane woman hikes the Pacific Crest Trail

November 4, 2018

Her first overnight backpacking trip. The first time she’d hiked more than 10 miles in one go. A cross-country adventure with a man she’d been dating for less than a year.

All in all, a hastily conceived adventure.

On Oct. 6, Tiahnna Willms completed the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail alongside her hiking partner, Nick DeLangis.

The couple started their trek in Mexico in April. By the time they’d slogged north for months, they’d broken up but remained friends and hiking partners.

“We broke up on the trail,” Willms said. “And we had only been dating for a year. And we finished it together.”

That made for a “weird couple of weeks” she said. But staying friends and staying together on the trail was key. At that point, they’d both experienced so much together.

Willms, 23, was born and raised in the Spokane Valley. She wasn’t a particularly outdoorsy person. Nor was she in particularly good shape.

But when DeLangis told her about the trail, she thought it sounded “cool.” The two decided to do it.

“I’ve never been backpacking before in my life. The longest I’d hiked was 10 miles,” she said. “So if I can do it, anyone can do it. I’m a huge baby, too. I think it’s all in your head in the end.”

That sort of impulsiveness paid off for Willms, although it didn’t come without some bumps and bruises.

“At first it sucked so hard,” she said. “I was so out of shape. We went 5 or 10 miles day, and by the time I finished I was super athlete. Doing a marathon every day.”

They encountered snow and freezing temperatures toward the end of their trip, extreme heat at the beginning and plenty of smoke in August.

In particular, she remembers arriving at the California/Oregon border and realizing she still had 1,000 miles to go.

“We’d done 1,600 in four months. And we had to do 1,000 in a month,” she said. “I remember sitting at the Oregon border … and I cried for one-half hour, because I was so mad that we were still out there.”

But Willms said a good night of sleep made it all OK.

There were glorious moments. Willms said she will never forget watching the sunset from the top of Mt. Whitney in California and staring at “mountains that were never-ending.”

And ultimately they made it. Willms was one of 852 people who completed the PCT in 2018, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Willms’ example, while inspiring, should be viewed with some caution. Diving head-first into an endeavor as long, rigorous and at times dangerous as hiking the PCT is a risky proposition.

Willms recognizes that in some ways, she got lucky. One particularly intense experience reinforced that. Willms and DeLangis had grown overconfident after multiple storms missed them. They’d watch, with increasing glee, as storms raged miles to their side.

But their luck ran out as they crossed a mountain pass in California.

“There were boulders coming down the mountain and mudslides,” she said. “We literally thought we were going to die.”

Toward the end of their trip, as temperatures plummeted, they found themselves battling the cold.

“Our tent froze. Our water froze, our shoes froze,” Willms said.

This was a particularly difficult season for PCT thru-hikers, said Holly Weiler, the Washington Trail Associations’ regional trail manager. Lingering snow pushed start dates back and wildfire smoke blanketed much of the Western U.S. late in the summer.

Although Weiler has never done the PCT, she said she normally encourages people to start slower than Willms did.

“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend 2,000-plus miles for a first backpack trip,” she said in a message.

Instead, she highlighted programs like the Spokane Mountaineers’ backpacking school that teach first-time hikers the basics of training, gear, trip planning and backcountry skills.

Weilers recommended that anyone interested in thru-hiking take advantage of the numerous trails and hikes in the region. Two good places to start are the Washington Trails Association website and the book “100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest,” by Rich Landers.

From Spokane, it’s possible to hike sections of the PCT to get a taste for trail life before committing to the whole shebang.

“In terms of words of caution, it just seems like a huge time and money commitment, and then what if you discover you really don’t like it,” Weiler said. “And with never hiking more than 10 miles before, I’m amazed she didn’t end up with an overuse injury. I know a lot of very experienced hikers who did end up with things like tendinitis, shin splints, knee issues or serious blisters. She must have amazing mechanics to have remained injury-free.”

All of which isn’t to take away from Willms accomplishment, Weiler said.

As for injuries, Willms didn’t have any major problems, although she did have “serious pain in the bottom of my feet.”

Since returning to Spokane, Willms said she’s become more self-sufficient.

“I really, really love eating healthy food, because I had to eat so much processed food for so long,” she said.

She lost 30 pounds on the trail. Now she’s working at a local coffee shop and planning the next adventure.

She walks the 4 miles to work every day.