Not many people would take more than six months off of their job, in the middle of a recession, to explore more than 2,500 miles of the west coast by horseback.
But Cleveland resident Janice Raddatz says her time from May to October last year spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with her two trusty steeds gave her faith in herself, God and mankind.
It was a test of perseverance and survival skills. She had lots of alone time and saw some beautiful vistas between the trail’s endpoints in Canada and Mexico. But when she returned to Georgia with her husband, Ralph, she had to leave her two horses and best friends, Jur and Harmony, behind.
“The (Pacific Crest Trail) changed me by asking me to be more aware of who I am deep down,” she said in a recent phone interview with The Times. The trek began in May of last year and she returned home in October.
“I know what I am capable of, and I know there are things in my life I may say, ‘No, I won’t be capable of it.’ But when I reach it, I know I’ll be capable of it,” she said. “We just have to face it and say, we are going to get through it. It’s manageable. Nothing is so big that it can’t be handled. Just take small bites.”
Those small bites began a few years ago, when Raddatz got involved in endurance racing. As it was, she said, she was riding her horses 20 miles a day on trails, so the races that tested speed and distance were a natural follow.
She kept returning to the trails, though, and got certified in trail design. In 2007 she and her husband took their horses on an around-the-country trip, experiencing trail riding in parks around the country. It was a friend met on that trip who planted the seed for the next step in trail riding: Taking her horses the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The PCT, as it’s known, is more than 2,500 miles of “crest” trails, or rolling trails that cover mountain vistas and spectacular views. Raddatz planned to start in Mexico in May 2009, making her way north and rotating between her two horses, Jur and Harmony.
“In the end, after almost a year of indecision, with the economy failing, I’m like, ‘I’m not sure this is the time,’” said Raddatz, who has her own accounting business. “And in the end, (I decided) try and go ahead and do your dream when you have your dream, because you don’t know what life holds for you.”
For the first 10 days of the hike with the horses, Raddatz rode with a friend who gave her the idea to do the hike. But a disagreement among their support crew — the women’s husbands, who were following the trek up the West Coast with trailers and hot food in tow — forced them to split.
Raddatz found herself alone, with just Jur and Harmony to keep her company on each day’s hike. But she soon found that wasn’t a bad thing.
“You have a relationship with an animal that you normally would develop with a person. And maybe in some ways even deeper, because there’s a dependency; because the humans may not be so dependent on each other,” she said.
After a few months of riding north from the Mexico border, Raddatz ran into wildfire season in California. She and her husband decided to start the PCT again in Canada and work their way back to the middle point again, avoiding any threat of wildfires.
“We went to Washington state, and we got as far north as we could get in a vehicle. and I unloaded and I rode from Canada south,” she said. “I got into Glacier Peak wilderness, the northern Cascade mountains. Probably some of the most spectacular land on the trail.”
About four years before Raddatz’s hike, a section of Glacier Peak fell off the mountain, taking a section of the Pacific Crest with it.
By the time Raddatz came through with Jur and Harmony, many hikers had started hiking where the previous path had been, leaving the rerouted trail less used.
“I had been on the detour for two days when I camped at Little Giant Pass; the next day we would have made it back onto the Pacific Crest and made it south,” Raddatz said. “I got up on the summit, and there was just this gorgeous valley ... and i’m up on the top, somewhere around 6,000 feet, and start down.”
At this point, Raddatz and her horses had ridden 1,500 miles. They had crossed bridges and streams, found ways around trees and even trudged through snow to find the path. The trio was comfortable with each other, she said, with Raddatz often chatting with the horses on the trail just to tell them what was going on.
But this stretch of mountainside would be the last Raddatz would scale with Jur and Harmony.
“As I went it got more overgrown and narrow. It was a rough trail,” she said, noting that she quickly got off Harmony to lead him and Jer, who was tethered to Harmony as the pack horse.
About 10 minutes into her walk, she said, “I was on the ground flat. My guess is that, I had gotten into the habit of turning to them and saying ‘Watch your feet,’” she said. “So it’s possible I turned to them ever so slightly, and what I didn’t see was a section longer than my body is tall was totally missing. So I fell into space.”
When Raddatz fell, it caused her to tug on the leadline. That, in turn, caused Harmony to step in her path. But because horses will do whatever is necessary to keep from stepping on their master, Harmony made a split-second decision to leap over her.
And that decision, Raddatz said, saved her life, even though it meant the end of her horses’ lives.
“The next thing I know, I see Harmony has leapt to my left side, and he was fine. He in turn tugged Jur, and he made the decision to leap over me,” she said. “He was on such a steep incline and started to roll. And that pulled me, because I had never let go of the leadline.”
Raddatz fell about 70 feet down the side of the steep vegetation-covered hillside, while Harmony fell about 200 feet and Jur fell about 275.
“I could hear them rolling, and had the premonition immediately that they were going to be gone from me,” she said.
Raddatz kept a gun on the trail; she said if one of her horses were to break its leg on the trail, she would need to put them down immediately. The thing is, she never thought she would have to use it, nor did she think she could.
“I think about all those little tiny gifts in the middle of a loss,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I’m glad I never had to do it.”
Raddatz picked up a few pieces of gear that had fallen form her horses and walked back up the hill. She found a flat spot, started a small pile, then sat to collect her thoughts.
“Then I realized I’d have to get my gear off my friends and gather it,” she said.
Luckily, a family on the trail for a day hike came down the path. Raddatz noticed them when she heard the little boy screaming that the trail had disappeared — the same place where she and her horses had fallen. After examining her and helping her back to the main trail, Raddatz set out again — she and the family were heading in different directions, since she thought she would hike back to the trailhead. But not long after starting to walk back the way she came, her legs gave out.
“I was in a lot of pain and I realized I wasn’t going to go anywhere that day. I eventually broke down. I broke down and used my Spot device.”
Raddatz spent the next four hours retrieving her gear from her horses, lugging it back up the hill. She sent a distress call to her husband and a few other “trail angels” who were constantly monitoring her status. Although she didn’t expect to be immediately airlifted out of the wilderness, within 12 hours she had been plucked off the trail and reunited with her husband.
Raddatz did get back to finish the PCT, after successfully rescuing another hiker’s horse from the very spot where her own horses tumbled. The experience helped her meet a new four-legged friend to carry her the final 1,000 miles to the end of her journey.
And despite the loss of her two friends, the overall journey is one she is proud of. Her journey will also be featured on the National Geographic Channel this Thanksgiving, in a documentary about the Pacific Crest.
“The trail had been an extreme blessing; unbelievable the blessings all along the trail,” she said. “When you’re hiking with a person, you become a family. When you stop and camp with a group, it becomes a community. for that time, you have a relationship with these people.”
And it’s important to count your blessings.
“People have died on the PCT as well. Even though my accident happened on the trail that’s not the PCT, people have died. There were plenty of other places that, to me, were more dangerous, and I don’t know why I got to ride 1,500 miles and have something like that happen,” she said.
“I try to dwell on all that I was blessed to have, rather than what I don’t have now. I just had two incredible friends and I felt like they gave their lives to me.”