Destination: Walker, CA (via Sonora Pass)
Cumulative Miles: 2586
We each wish to post our own thoughts on this day...so this first post is Psycho's thoughts on day 174 of the PCT. Apricots' post will follow soon.
(It's long, but the day was epic...enjoy the read)
I woke to my greatest fear this morning...but not after a restless night. The thunder boomed through the night. We were camped at about 9000 feet, and in somewhat of a canyon. The lightening flashed directly overhead, and thunder crashed immeasurably close behind. We were directly underneath the heart of the storm. As the thunder boomed the tent walls seemed to shake in fear.
The tree under which we camped was split in two locations, perhaps from lightening strikes. Normally I wouldn't wish to camp under a tree struck by lightening, especially one the looked like it had been hit twice. Yet after yesterdays wicked weather, I was too exhausted to think about it and only noticed in retrospect. Fortunately lightening didn't strike three times in the same location.
The cold rain made us not want to cook dinner last night. We did a big "no-no" by eating in our tent in bear country. Our dinner was plantains, jerky, mustard, mayo, and hot sauce rolled into a tortilla. The trail has taught us versatility in dining.
Anyway, back to the beginning of the day. I woke to my greatest fear this morning. When I popped my head out of the tent, there was roughly two inches of snow on the forest floor. I dreaded the trail was going to be lost under snowfall, and we would be forced to navigate via map, compass, and GPS. We were at 9000 feet, and would be climbing to nearly 11,000 feet. The snow had to be deeper up at that elevation.
Rather than route finding in the early morning darkness, we sat in the tent until daybreak and broke camp. It was a mad rush once we were out of the tent as we needed to get moving to get warm. The first ten miles were going to be relatively flat, so it would be hard to maintain body heat, unless we moved fast. Moving fast is hard in snow. I was terrified.
Fortunately, all of yesterdays rain flooded the trails, so the accumulated snow was mostly slush along the trail. Navigating was easy for the first ten miles. We only lost the trail once, as I mistakenly followed a stream thinking it was the trail. We backtracked until we relocated the trail, and forged on. My mistake cost us only five minutes, but in this weather, I did not like losing five minutes.
The rain was mixed with freezing rain and snow, and the wind was blowing our ponchos off our shoulders. Every ten minutes lightening flashed, and thunder followed close behind. With every flash, I counted the seconds until the thunder. I don't think the lightening was ever more than half a mile away. For one brief moment the sky showed blue, and we saw our shadows. Yet, it was so brief we didn't even get an opportunity to get our hopes up.
I moved quickly, but Apricots was struggling behind me as her feet were frozen. She told me that she couldn't feel her toes and was afraid of frost-bite. At one point she said she may want to stop to set up the tent and thaw out her toes. I really didn't like that idea, as I knew the longer we waited, the more snow would accumulate at the higher elevations.
It didn't help that all the rain had caused the creeks to be gushing like rivers. The log crossings were covered with snow, as were the rocks to hop across. Going either route would put us at risk of slipping into the water. We were forced to ford the streams. I walked into the creeks, feeling the icy water replace the semi-warm water which already soaked my boots. Every stream crossing offered us an opportunity to replace the warm boots with freshly cold boots. Fortunately, most streams were managed without full on fords.
After making our way across ten miles of drenched trail, we began our climb into the higher exposed ridges. The thunder had died down, and while I would like to say we were in the clear, we had reached a point where the trail was no longer visible. The snow was now six inches deep.
We heard a noise, and at first thought we spooked a cub bear, but realized it was actually free-range cows grazing. There presence in the snow storm was surreal, but I was happy they were there. They tended to stick to the trail, so I was able to lead the way up the mountain by following their hoof prints in the snow. I was, however, slightly fearful of getting trampled by terrified cows. Would my orange pack cover look like a red matadors cape to them?
"Should we walk around the herd?" I asked.
"Just go through them," Apricots replied.
At this point we had reached the timber line, and the thunder had stopped. Apricots still felt a little uneasy about climbing to the ridge, but I told her that it was only going to get worse, and we couldn't stop to wait out the storm.
"We'll be fine, we just have to keep moving," I said. As if to taunt me, the sky lit up and thunder boomed overhead, justifying Apricots' terror over our condition.
We continued on. We had about 900 feet to climb to the pass, where we would follow a jeep road out. Following the ridge in the snow and thunder would be too dangerous. Besides it was impossible to see the trail by then. The trail was following the jeep road for roughly a mile, which made it easier to find. The snow was now about a foot deep, and the wind had caused the snow to drift up to 24-30 inches deep at times.
As we climbed higher, the thunder boomed louder and the wind picked up. We were still a mile from the top when the snow turned into a horrid mix of freezing rain, sleet, ice, snow, and every other miserable form of precipitation. The wind blew it directly into our face, and we were in white out conditions. I turned my face down and guided us up the mountain by keeping my eyes glued to the GPS, and occasionally looking up to read the land.
When we hit the top, the trail went one way, and the jeep road went the other way. By now, the snow was too deep to read any semblance of a road in the conditions, and I had to hope that the GPS accurately reflected the course of the road (which it rarely does). The wind gusts were strong enough to blow us down if we didn't keep three points of contact.
We could see a lake in the distance and knew the road went by it, so we cut cross country down the hill. Every once and a while we found the road and followed it, but the wind had caused snow drifts that were three feet deep, so it was virtually impossible to trudge through the snow on the road.
Gradually we lost elevation, and the snow depth started to subside. Unfortunately, with the drop in elevation, the temperature went up enough that the dry snow flakes were now mixed with wet slushy flakes and thick raindrops.
We started getting wet again. As we were no longer climbing, we were no longer generating body heat. My shorts were pretty much soaked, but my core temperature was still warm enough that I didn't worry too much. I had relocated the jeep road, and the snow was now mixed with slush, so the road was easy to follow.
Then it hit me. With weather like this, the highway at Sonora Pass would likely be closed. When we reached the highway, we would not be done. We would have to hike another fifteen miles to get to any sort of civilization. I had kept us moving all morning, and we were soaked. The jeep road trimmed miles off our day, but we still had hiked about seventeen miles without stopping for lunch (or breaks), or properly hydrating.
We hit the highway. No traffic. I was afraid that we would have to spend the night again in the rain and snow. We were now down to about 8500 feet, and most of the falling snow was not sticking anymore. I told Apricots we should hike down the road a bit to lose more elevation before stopping to eat anything.
Within a mile we saw a vehicle, a road cleaner of sorts. The driver was shocked that we had just come off the trail. He told us the highway was closed, and we would not see any traffic for at least five miles. There was still daylight enough to cover five miles of road walking, if we didn't stop to eat. Ultimately we wanted to get to a hotel for the night. Apricots sang somewhat jubilantly (to the tune of "White Christmas"), "I'm dreaming of a hot shower, just like the ones I used to know."
The road cleaner made it to the top of the pass and came back down. Taking pity on us, he allowed us to catch a ride with him. The illegal ride in the back of his truck was frigid, and probably against company policy, but he was seriously saving us. As we approached civilization, a van started following the truck. The driver pulled over and asked where we were heading. She told us to get out of the wet cold bed of the truck and hop in her warm van, where seat belts and legality awaited us.
She drove us to Walker, CA and dropped us at a hotel, traveling 20 miles out of her way to ensure that we found a warm shower. Her trail magic was just what our frozen bodies needed. The shower that followed was probably the best on the whole trail. The woman who dropped us off knocked on our hotel door and gave us some quality organic goods to enjoy now that we were in the warmth and safety of a hotel room.
What an epic day.
I was praying at least 90 percent of the walk out, and now that we are out, I am worried for the three other hikers that I know are still up there. They are two to three days from a way out, with wicked climbs and drops ahead of them. The weather forecasted for the next four days is nothing shy of horrible. If you are the praying type, there are at least three hikers who could probably benefit from your thoughts.
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