An ultralight Pacific Coast hike

After leaving Ashland in the mid-80s and moving to Southern California, Monty Tam always longed to return to the home that he had left behind. What he didn't plan on, however, was hiking all the way there.

The Pacific Crest Trail stretches along the Pacific Coast, from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, covers three states and spans 2,650 miles. The PCT's closest connections to Ashland are when it crosses over the Greensprings Highway and then passes by Callahan's Lodge off Highway 66. Tam hiked approximately 1,700 miles to reach Ashland, a journey that he began in April 2007, but his love for the town kept him motivated. He arrived in Ashland last Wednesday, and then took a few days of vacation in town before heading back to the trail Saturday.

"Ashland is worth walking 1,700 miles to get to," Tam said of his long journey. "I don't want to leave, but I have 900 miles left to hike before the rain and the snow start hitting Washington."

And, as the first ultralight hiker (someone with a base weight of less than 5 pounds of gear) to walk the PCT, Tam cannot afford to spend time in nasty weather. In the four years that he has been hiking the PCT, the base weight (the weight of the pack and supplies, not including consumables and disposables) of his gear has gone from 50 pounds to less than 5 pounds. This drastic reduction started out with help from other PCT hikers, who helped Tam reduce his pack weight by 10 pounds almost instantly. Tam continued to streamline his supplies and when he finally headed out on the trail for the first time in 2004, his pack weighed less than 15 pounds. Then within the first 900 miles of the PCT, he reduced that weight to less than 9 pounds.

Today, Tam is hiking the PCT with his gear at an average base weight of 4 pounds, 6 ounces. When he began to plan out an ultralight hike, he found that he could not purchase backpacking gear that would be light enough for his goal. Therefore, Tam decided to design almost all of his gear. In order to lighten his cooking supplies, he created an entire stove top from the aluminum of soda cans. Then he produced a cup/bowl/pot with nothing more than a large empty beer can with the top cut off.

But the real trouble that Tam ran into was finding a backpack that would support his gear while also standing up to the mileage and conditions that he would be traveling. When he couldn't find anything to purchase that would suit his needs, Tam went to work designing a backpack for himself. The pack has been so successful on his journey, that Tam is considering sharing the design with other hikers so they too can hike with ultralight equipment.

"Hopefully some of the items that I have designed myself will be made available to help others have better wilderness experiences," Tam said. "With lighter weight packs, hopefully many of us can continue hiking into our 80s, and even children will be able to carry their own gear at much younger ages."

Tam first fell in love with backpacking in the Three Sisters Mountain Range (outside of Bend, Ore.) while he was living in Ashland and attending Southern Oregon State College (now Southern Oregon University). After leaving his group to experience a "solo" hike, Tam lost his map and his way, fell through ice, had no tent to sleep in, and could not wait to do it all again. The next time Tam went on a backpacking solo, he came face-to-face with a black bear while studying his map on a tree stump. When the bear took off up a hill, Tam was frightened, but still couldn't wait to experience the same rush again.

The first time that Tam hiked the PCT, he made it as far as Crater Lake (about 1,875 miles from the border of Mexico) before having to stop due to injury. One year of physical therapy later, he jumped back on the trail at the Canadian border heading south in order to hike the terrain he had missed out on the year before.

No matter where the PCT takes him, however, Tam will never forget his first love: Ashland.

"I had never realized how much I love Ashland until my last few days here," Tam said. "I would love to move back up here from Southern California; but I know how some people here feel about Southern Californians."

But no matter where Tam decides to end up, Ashland will always remain a welcoming detour on the PCT.

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