Jakub Čech is a successful sound engineer who has worked on countless Czech films, but years of work have left him in poor shape. He decided to improve his health by taking up long-distance hiking.
Last year, Jakub completed the Pacific Crest Trail, spanning over 4,000 kilometres from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. He covered the details of the journey in a blog, which has just been published as a book.
When I met with Jakub, I first asked him how his passion for hiking started.
“I had a very active childhood. I was a boy scout and we used to hike a lot, but when I started film school, I cut off all the other activities.
“I used to work very much, around 84 hours per week. When I was 40, I ruptured my Achilles heel and then my doctor told me I had a serious problem with my liver, so I had to change my lifestyle completely.
“I changed my diet and my style of living but I knew I also had to do something physical. Gym was not an option for me but I remembered that hiking was fun when I was a kid.
“My first hike was about 14 kilometres long and I was about to die afterwards. So I tried it again and again and at the end of the season, I was able to hike around 50 kilometres per day.
“So I decided to do Camino, a traditional way to Santiago de Compostela. And when I finished it and I was leaving the cathedral in Compostella, I met two guys from the States. And I told them: Some day, I would like to do the Pacific Crest trail, but I didn’t know if I was ready yet.
“And they said: ‘If you did Camino in such a short time, you definitely can do it. We can promise it to you because we are organizing a kick-off on PCT. So just buy those maps and this guide and we’ll see you next year on PCT.’”
“If you ask what the hardest thing was, it was the return to civilisation.”
So at that moment you knew that you were ready for it?
“Yes. I did one more small hike, a GR 20, over Corsica, which is a splendid European hike year. And a year later, I was standing on the US-Mexican border and I went north until I reached Canada.”
Why have you chosen Pacific Crest Trail in particular? Was it the length that attracted you?
“Mostly it was the diversity of environment, because you start in the desert. Then after one month you climb up into 3,000 to 4,000 metres. Then you go through the Yosemite, through the forests of Oregon, along and many lakes. It is really, really rich, so that’s was why.
So what was it like when you stood at the US-Mexican border and the whole journey ahead of you?
“I couldn’t believe it was happening. I actually had the same dream for the first month, every day. I dreamt I was back home, talking to my friends and they said:
“We thought you were hiking Pacific Crest Trail, so what are you doing here? And I panicked and said: I have to go back. What happened? I have to finish it. And then I woke up in sweat and realised I am there and everything is all right.
“So for the first month, I couldn’t really believe that it was happening, but it was great.”
How popular is PCT it among hikers? Do you have any idea how many people actually walk it annually?
“You could say it’s something like a holy grail of hikers. It wasn’t so popular until about three years ago. There were about 300 people hiking it every year from the beginning till the end.
“But after the release of the movie ‘Wild’ with Reese Witherspoon it got very popular. Nowadays, three to four thousand people attempt to hike it all the way.”
“But you can still hike it almost all the time alone, if you wish. There were days when I met just one or two people. I would say I spent about two thirds of the journey on my own.
“It was like spending time in a monastery. For me, it was one of the greatest benefits of such a hike.”
“What I loved was to hike all day alone and then join other people in the evening in the camp. That was quite easy because there are not many places where you can sleep on the way. It’s a really narrow path and there is a ridge or bushes, so you cannot sleep there.
“It was like spending time in a monastery. For me, it was one of the greatest benefits of this hike.”
“Once I had to sleep straight on the path and hope that no one will be passing over night. So it was quite easy to meet someone, have a little talk in the evening and then I could hike alone again.”
You started your journey in April? Is spring the best season to start the trail?
“It all depends on the weather. There is a one- or two-month window when you can start when you are heading northward. There is also a possibility to go south, from Canada to Mexico.
“But if you go north, you should start in April or May because there is not too much heat in the desert and there is not too much snow in the mountains.
“You have to hit the time when it starts melting. And you have to reach Canada before the snow comes again, so that’s why.”
What about the equipment? As you said you walked through very different weather conditions. What kind of equipment did you have?
“There is a saying that the lightest thing you carry is the one which you leave at home. You have to carry just the things you really need not the things you want to have.
“Second thing is to have more purposes for the staff you have. I didn’t have a tent, for instance, I only had a poncho, which I also used in the rain and as a simple tarp in the night when the weather was bad. But most of the time I slept under the stars.
And now we are talking about the basic equipment without food and water…
“Yes, it’s a so-called base weight. You also have to carry around two pounds of food per day and one or two litres of water - it depends on the area you are passing through. Of course it’s much more on the desert, when you are carrying seven litres of water on some days.
“You also have to carry some extra equipment for the highest mountains, such as micro-spikes, snow axe, in some areas you have to carry so-called bear canister to protect food against bears.
“But except this short area in Sierra Nevada I carried only six and a half kilos of base weight.”
So what about supplies? How often did you buy food on your way?
“There is always a possibility, once a week, to climb down to some town or a small village, where you can either buy food or send there your re-supply box. There were people who sent 30 boxes ahead and they just picked it up as they hiked.
“I sent just three boxes and then I found out that people along the trail are already used to hikers and have a lot of hikers’ product in their local shops, such as dehydrated mashed potatoes or ramen noodles. So it was easier for me just buy it as I hiked.”
So what was the most challenging thing about the whole project?
“If you ask what the hardest thing was, it was the return to civilisation. After months with a clear head you had to answer all those e-mails and so on.
“But if you talk about challenges on the trail, it actually weren’t bears or rattle snakes or mosquitoes or the highest mountains. It was in Northern California, when the journey started to be a little boring.
“I had the most beautiful part behind me, I just descended the mountains and I just kept going up and down and up and down, thinking: why am I doing this?
“I was tired. I had no panoramas around me anymore. But all the people before I started told me: there will be a day when you will want to give it up. So when it came, I thought: OK, this is it, so I have to hike on and it will be better tomorrow.”
You said the return to civilisation was one of the most difficult things. Did it also help you in any way for instance in your working life?
“You should ask my friends and my family. I think I am not so ambitious now, I care about my free time, I am not so nervous at work.
“I used to be very impulsive, shouting at everyone. Nowadays I speak more quietly. I think I have changed. Work is not everything for me anymore.”
And what about hiking? Are you already planning another journey?
“Yes. I was able to do just a small hike, only 900 kilometres over Scotland. But I am planning another long-distance hike for next year over the Rocky Mountains, which would be around 5,000 kilometres. Who knows what will come next?”