I read this article again, and I suppose some of the fear is born from possibly the greatest perception changer, namely the weather. I hike often in the Cascades and honestly, I can think of a lot of great days spent hiking around amid blue skies and pleasant temperatures. I can also remember more than a handful when the weather was particularly bad, the winds blowing, hard rains/driving snow and thinking to myself, "What am I doing out here?" Amazing how a familiar trail can suddenly seem rather foreboding.
All it takes is for a person to have one near-fall on an icy slope and that slope is deemed as dangerous. I think the same holds true for the PCT - people have a scary experience, and suddenly it becomes gospel. And of course, I think most hikers are a bit guilty of distorting the facts - how your remember things is influenced by so many factors, I think we'd be disappointed to see our "heroic adventures" played back to us. Thus, the stories of close calls move up and down the trail, changing along the way until it doesn't resemble anything like the actual incident.
As the author noted, he hiked the trail during a particularly snowy year, when temperatures in SoCal were mild. A year before temperatures were over 100 degrees in some sections. I guarantee the perception of those sections were completely different depending upon the year. He cruised through SoCal in 2010, and as Miner noted, the thought of doing 25 mile days from the start seemed out of reach for all but the most heat-resistant hiker in 2009. Conversely, the 2010 crowd dealt with a huge snowpack, creating a whole set of challenges that the class of 2009 didn't have to tackle.
Finally, the PCT also attracts its share of rather inexperienced hikers. It's a big adventure, and so to the inexperienced, and perhaps unskilled, some of the challenges seem rather foreboding until one does them a couple of times. That probably contributes the "vortex of fear" a bit.
Finally, I found the talks at the Kick Off to be informative, especially those in regards to the Sierra. The Sierra backcountry expert spoke of expected snow conditions and challenges in the mountains. He also touched upon hiker accidents and deaths. The purpose was not to stoke fears but rather to reinforce the necessity to respect the terrain and particularly the power of moving water (steam crossings) and the importance of keeping upright (aka...the most successful self-arrest technique is making dang sure you don't need to perform a self-arrest.) I think people left that talk better informed, and as a result, probably were a bit more careful.
That much said, I really enjoyed the article. I look forward to the next installment!