The Core Four

Written by Audra Phillips                                                   


"I would have to say it's the most dangerous thing we did the whole trip..."

Three out of the four-man group chose to cross the Suiattle River, a decision that almost cost them their lives. The shortcut of a lifetime. What once was the old Pacific Crest Trail, the Suiattle river crossing was closed because of the increasing number of drownings in PCT hikers who had the same idea as their group. The old trail was still visible as they neared the crossing. "Nobody goes on it, so it felt like an ancient forest but with a big path and it was beautiful and peaceful," said Mitch "Blue" McCoy.

They hoped the beauty of the path would continue as they reached the river crossing, but the three men were faced with the exact opposite. The Suiattle was mean. The water was opaque and gray. Fast, angry rapids greeted the bark of trees that had fallen across the river. Sticks, rocks, and debris were pushed down the river as if they were thrown like a skipping stone. A path across seemed almost impossible. "Okay, you have to face the water," said Blue to George. They tried to cross with the water up to their chests, until it became too deep. George took the blow of a rapid, lost his footing, and was nearly swept away before Blue could grab him. They realized how powerful the river was; the plan to swim across the deep part of the river was not an option. They barely held their footing on the slick, river floor. They reached out and pulled themselves up on a log 6 feet above their heads. They sat on the log and looked down at the rapids that mocked them. The rapids had no mercy on them, but on the log, they took a deep breath of momentary relief. The other side of the river was close. Their refuge was eminent.


The Pacific Crest Trail is not for the weak-minded or ill-prepared.

PCT hikers first meet the wooden sign that signified the start of the long journey in the sands of Southern California in Campo on the Mexican border, eager to be introduced to the finish line just across the border of Canada in Manning Park. Hikers had five, long months and 2,650 miles of hiking ahead of them. The trail that has been walked under the feet of those who dare, where cracked asphalt rips away the soles of hiking boots, and countless, sleepless nights when hikers are too anxious to rest as they lay awake hearing sounds of cars on the highway close by. Hikers were alone with their thoughts most days and nights.


Blue alone on his journey, had not seen a person's face in days, except the reflection of his own off the metal cup in his backpack. Hundreds and hundreds of miles went by before he saw the face of another human being.

He heard gunshots nearby, which would scare most people to go the other direction, but Blue was intrigued. He followed the sound of the gunshots. Blue saw a red, dirt road adjacent to the main trail. He looked down the dirt road and saw 3 pickup trucks with men gathered around shooting clay pigeons with shotguns.

The men were stunned to see a worn-down man appear from the shade of the trees, but Blue just wanted to have a conversation, which felt like ages since he last did. So overwhelmed with emotion, he broke down in tears when they asked him about what he saw on the trail. He wasn't alone anymore. "It's so hard to describe the feeling of when you reach a mountain top and in every direction are mountain peaks as far as the eye can see," Blue said. They offered him a beer and talked for hours.

"You learn to absorb the pain on the trail and just ignore it," said Blue.


They averaged 25 to 30 miles a day, which caused irreversible injuries to their bodies. "Christmas toes" is a common side effect of the trail. Hikers lose feeling in their toes, because of the wear and tear on the nerve endings in their feet. However, most people who finish the trail in September tend to regain feeling by Christmas. Blue did not and hasn't felt his toes in over a year. Nick "Stilts" Knebel, the lone wolf who chose the long route over the Suiattle River crossing, endured the Hat Creek Rim without shade or water for hours and hours. When he looked at his shoes, everything appeared to be fine, but beneath his socks, his feet had deep holes where heat blisters, the size of quarters, popped.

Their diets consisted of slow-burning fats like half-pound blocks of cheddar cheese, bland tortillas, and packages of cream cheese eaten with none other than a spoon. Water was resupplied in town or hikers would drink melted snow and filtered the water found on the trail. Filters were a lifeline on the trail. They filtered water from rain puddles in dirt holes, rusty bottoms of cattle troughs, and any river they could find. Snow from the Sierras was so clean that a handful of melted snow did not need to be filtered before drinking. Snacks consisted of brown, overripe bananas, granola bars that if you were lucky remained in one piece before opening the wrapper, and lukewarm cans of meats and beans only enjoyed when heated on an electric stove top. Food resupply runs happened every week.


The constant burn of calories created a starving feeling that must be ignored because of the limited amount of food carried on the trail. If they were lucky, resupply towns had local restaurants, where trail hikers ate till, they puked. At one point, Blue reached the desert town, well-known to PCT hikers, "Paradise Valley.” He sat down for breakfast and ate crispy bacon, eggs, mountains of hash browns, warm toast, coffee, and hearty biscuits and gravy. After he ate his large breakfast, Blue sat in the restaurant for a couple of hours until it was lunch time, where he then ate a cheeseburger, a bacon burger, and French fries and finished it all off with a creamy milkshake.

The "Core Four" was formed two weeks before the men reached the end in Canada.

Tas, Blue, Stilts, and George ran into each other periodically before they decided to group up and endure their last few days on the trail together. Blue met Stilts on a life-threatening night hiking through the Washington mountains. Washington had days and days of rain. The constant moisture was a challenge to keep gear dry and to keep themselves warm enough to scare away hypothermia. The trail was clay but became frozen in the cold mountain air. Frozen clay was as slippery as ice, if not more. Trail maintenance was very poor. The trails that bordered the sides of mountains were 8 inches wide with untamed brush that pushed hikers off the wet, slippery clay. 

"This was my worst day on the trail," said Blue.

Jagged rocks lined the bottom of the mountain, but the only way down was a trail that was now a mudslide. Blue lost his footing and slid down the mud with the jagged rocks breaking his fall. He slammed into the rock bed, but fortunately, his water bottle sitting on the side of his backpack cushioned his head from contact with a jagged rock. Blue fell four times hiking with Stilts before they called it a day. The weather was cold, wet, and relentless.

Stilts and Blue opened their packs and began setting up camp. While they prepped their home for the night, they mentally prepared themselves for the weather they were going to endure in the next few hours. Stilts shivered from the weather. He showed signs of hypothermia. He rushed to set up his tent but ripped a wide hole in the side. With morale low and hypothermia in his future, Stilts panicked. He debated risking one night in open, freezing weather, or pressing his "SOS" button on his watch pulling him from the trail.

At this moment, two women appeared from the dark trees. They offered to stall at Blue and Stilts camp to sew the hole in the tent before they continued their hike. The women's generosity was unmatched; they asked for nothing in return. They were angels sent to Blue and Stilts. "By far the most extraordinary thing on the trail is the people. Politics disappeared on the trail, and everyone could relate to everyone because of what we were going through," said Blue.

The next morning, the air was warm, the sun was out, and all of Blue's gear that was wet from the snow was dry. They made their way down the hillside and saw Tas and George breaking camp. 


The last two weeks of the trail the four men stuck together and slowed down. They wanted to finish the trail by September 4th, but they were in no rush. The average number of miles they walked lowered to 15 because they wanted to soak up every sight, sound, and memory.

The name of their group, "Core Four," came from Stilts, who outside of the trail worked in business. In a business, there are four parts: Tas was "body," Blue was "business," George was "balance," and Stilts was "being." Their last week was filled with love, laughter, and hours and hours of card playing. Stilts taught the group the game of Hearts, which became their go-to game every night at their camp. 


Once hikers reach Hart's Pass, the end is near. The end of the PCT, the Northern Terminus, located on the Canadian border is 20 miles north of Hart's Pass. When the group arrived at Hart's Pass, there were trail angels cooking meals for the hikers. Trail angels were unorganized groups of people who aided hikers with food, water, shelter, and rides if needed anywhere on the trail. They camped outside Hart's Pass the night before hiking the last 20 miles to the border of Canada. They set out in the morning for the final stretch of their almost 6-month hike.

“After the group's exit from Hart's Pass, at dinner that night we kept talking about how surreal it felt that we didn't have to hike anymore tomorrow."


"Have to," was the language we specifically used, as if we hadn't had a choice prior to finishing,” said Stilts. Let the celebrations begin. The four men reached the border and cracked open cold, hard ciders. There was no other way to describe their feelings at the end than "emotional." Their journey was over. They hiked over 2,650 miles in 5 and a half months. They endured the highest highs and lowest lows mentally, physically, and certainly emotionally. All four men wrote kind, encouraging words to hikers in their shadows in the book that marks the end of the PCT. "May we be weightless, like birds in the night," wrote Stilts. The “Core Four” finished the PCT on September 4th, 2021.

Since the PCT, the group has gone their separate ways, but they keep in touch. As for their next big adventures, Tas grabbed a bike and rode from California to South Carolina, which took about three months. Blue continued to do smaller, day hikes, but said after the PCT trip he was "one and done." George wants to try the PCT again, but this time he wants to try to beat the amount of time it took him the first time. Stilts continues to do shorter adventures, "I'm happiest in the woods, then in the ocean, then on a mountain," he said.

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