The Retiree ‘Trail Gorillas’ Who Keep the PCT Clean
For the trail's most venerable volunteer group, retirement means hauling heavy equipment and sleeping outside for days on end
The Pacific Crest Trail spans approximately 2,650 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in Campo, California, to the Pasayten Wilderness on the border between Washington and Canada. Thru-hikers experience a total elevation gain of nearly 500,000 feet, along with extreme conditions including landslide-blocked canyons, forests ravaged by wildfires, and snowpack that can easily pile up 50 feet or more.
It’s a wild, challenging trail that passes through both state and national parks, as well as national forests and wilderness areas and numerous parcels of private land. These are places perennially tested by the elements, which can damage the trail and make it impassable for hikers.
Maintaining the trail itself falls to a band of volunteers who work in conjunction with the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s trail-operations staff. Divided into 12 regional crews, perhaps none is as venerable as the Trail Gorillas, a group of more than 100 members. Founded in 1993 by Peter “Pickax Pete” Fish, the Trail Gorillas (or TGs) maintain the southernmost 500 miles of the PCT. Their territory is marked by both desert and high-elevation forest, ranging from 1,190 to 9,030 feet above sea level. Much of it is bone-dry and far from any road crossing. Each year it is plagued by mudslides and hundreds of downed trees, not to mention quarrelsome cattle with a penchant for taking out water sources and more than a few wild animals capable of taking out a human.
Because so many of the sites they maintain are remote, the TGs tend to favor maintenance projects that require at least five days in the field—it’s just not time effective to schlep all their gear for less.
And that gear is cumbersome. The Pionjar drill–which they refer to affectionately as the “boulder buster”—weighs in at 120 pounds. Some of their two-person crosscut saws are longer than five feet. There are also the high-test weed whackers and gallons upon gallons of water, along with safety equipment and camping gear.
To get it all on the trail, they often rely upon pack animals to carry their tools and other supplies. A converted horse trailer serves as the mess tent at their base camp.
On a typical day, the volunteer tapped to serve as the cook is up and prepping breakfast around 5 A.M. Coffee is served at six, and the entire crew is on the trail about an hour later. They normally work until about 4 P.M., then take an hour to hike back to camp. Happy hour starts with chips and salsa, followed by the chef’s choice—often a one-pot meal like chicken à la king with canned peas and carrots, or if the cook is feeling fancy, it might be spaghetti with salad. Afterward, there’s sometimes a campfire with stories and occasionally a nightcap before they hit the rack, wake up, and do it all over again.
What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that the average age of a TG is on the north side of 65. Most are retired. Some are octogenarians—or older. They’re not bragging about that, says section leader Jerry Stone, and they intend to keep at it. But they wouldn’t mind if they had a few extra hands helping do this arduous work. And while they don’t mean to be picky, they’d be OK if a few of those new members came without an AARP card.
“We’re all getting older,” says Stone. “We need fresh blood, someone else who is willing to carry the torch. If every hiker would give just one day to this kind of work, we would make a phenomenal difference out here.”
Occupation: Retired naval engineer
Joined the Trail Gorillas: 2005
“I’ve been hiking on the PCT for years. I like hiking and admiring the view, but I kept thinking, It sure would be nice if I could make the trail a little easier to walk. It feels good to be outdoors and doing something useful. And I like being associated with the group.”
Occupation: Retired firefighter
“I’ve kind of always been a dirt guy. I spent 12 years in the fire department, working with heavy equipment, throwing rocks out of the way so that crews could get gear down the trail. They called me Dozer. I’ve never been one for car camping. Out on the PCT, my favorite work trips are the ones supported by pack animals. These days I think of myself as a professional volunteer: I work eight days a week and make no money, but the benefits are the best I’ve ever had.”
Pete “Pickax Pete” Fish
Occupation: Retired geologist
“I started doing trail work before there were Trail Gorillas. At first it was a few projects a year, but I became more and more involved in setting up projects, repairing equipment, and making meals. Eventually, I became the Trail Gorilla crew coordinator. It was a full-time job for me and the best I ever had. I’ve since retired as coordinator, but I still enjoy getting to work on the trail. I spend most of my birthdays working out here—it’s the best place to be.”
Occupation: Retired mechanical engineer
“I did the entire PCT as a series of section hikes. Out around Chimney Creek [California], I noticed a huge tree down on the trail. I knew it was going to be a real hassle for horseback riders, so I called the PCTA. They made me a trail scout for a couple of years, and I guess things just mushroomed from there. The Trail Gorillas always go full bore. We’re just a bunch of old guys, really, but being out here makes you feel young.”
Occupation: Retired construction manager
“I live in an area of California that had a lot of big fire damage. I saw in the paper that they were looking for volunteers to plant trees to restore the area. I signed up, but the project was cancelled. A year later, I got an e-mail from the PCTA about trail maintenance. I decided to volunteer for them instead. I’ve been doing it ever since. What we do isn’t rocket science, but it sure feels good.”
Occupation: Retired air-traffic controller and flight instructor
“I wouldn’t say the work out here is always fun, but it is always rewarding. Most of the time, it’s just plain hard work, and so much of this relies on people’s good heart. There’s an immediate payback when you can see the improvements you are making, and that goes a long way.”