Friday, May 7, 2010

The Day My Hat Attacked Me

April 28: The skies were angry, my friends. Amanda drove me out to Mount Laguna with my full pack, tossing me to the wind. That's not a figure of speech, either. The wind roared with a terrific howl--a cold, bitter wind blowing the drizzle horizontally. Visibility didn't extend more than a few hundred feet in any direction, and I wasn't out of the car for more than five seconds before I started bundling a couple of more layers on me including fleece for warmth and a wind breaker to, well, break the wind. Slipped on the gloves, tightened the strap for my hat around my chin, said goodbye to Amanda, and charged down the hill to the PCT.

The weather forecast called for wind gusts up to 50 MPH, but on these exposed peaks, I doubt the wind ever fell below those speeds. Surprisingly, the severe weather alert for the region wasn't supposed to start until noon and last through midnight. Presumably, this was just the beginning. It would get even worse later in the afternoon.

Several miles along the trail, Tradeja and Jess caught up to me, and we spent the rest of the afternoon passing each other, shouting over the wind to communicate.

By around 11:00, the drizzle stopped, a welcome relief. The cold, wet drizzle managed to push through my my clothes and I felt a bit of a chill as a result, but once the drizzle stopped, my clothes started drying out and I warmed up considerably. The wind, however, just continued to grow worse.

At the Pioneer Mail trailhead, I found several hikers huddled near the outhouse, using the outhouse as a wind break. They looked to be in a sorry shape. One guy, Borders, I think it was, had only one light T-shirt left that wasn't soaked, and set up his tent and bunkered down trying to stay warm. Lo seemed like he was all but convulsing from the cold. I also met Kathryn, if I remember her name correctly (I wasn't taking notes!), who came from Australia and complained about our so-called "desert." She was shivering pretty badly too.

As soon as I had stopped hiking, I started doing a pretty fair amount of shivering myself. The hard walking had been the only thing keeping me warm, and the conditions were perfect for hypothermia. Wet and cold can be deadly. One hiker had a cell phone he was able to use and "ordered" for a ride back to Mount Laguna to get off the trail. Most of them left on the truck. A couple--Rhino and Wyoming--decided to keep riding it out in their tents. Tradeja, Jess, and I decided to keep hiking. Frankly, hiking was the easiest way to stay warm.

I really wanted to get a picture of the wind, but wind is a tricky thing to capture in a photograph, so I held out my pink 2010 PCT Hiker handkerchief--pretty much every PCT hiker this year received one for free at the kickoff event--as the wind whipped it around horizontally and the wind puffed up the pocket of my jacket, pushed the brim of one of of my hat to my face, and blew up my pants like a balloon. That's the best I could do with a still photo, however.

Lo looked at us like we were certifiably insane and told us to be careful. He didn't want to hear about any of us needing rescue or dieing on the trail. "Don't worry--we don't much like that idea either!"

I ate some snacks--I needed the energy!--then got back to hiking. As soon as all of the other hikers left in the pickup, there wasn't much of anyone left to chat with anymore anyhow.

The trail passed by Kwaaymii Point, along an exposed ridge where the wind picked up to levels that reminded me of my hike through the White Mountains. More than once a particularly strong gust would quite literally blow me right off the trail into a bush, walking like a staggering drunk. Every step was a struggle.

And that's when my hat turned against me. The strap for the hat had a knot tied at the end with a small plastic bead to weigh down the part that hangs down from the chin, but the wind would whip it up into my face, which felt like I was being pelted with rocks. It hurt! My Leatherman which I could use to cut it off was deep in my path, so I tried tucking the strap under my shirt, under the strap of my pack, twisting it in all sorts of knots, but the wind would keep tearing it loose then pelt me with the plastic bead.

The brim of my hat would flap up and down in the wind, slapping me across the face like an abusive woman might consider doing to me at times. It hurt! I had no intention of cutting off the brim of my hat, however, and instead walked with my head tilted away from the wind so it would only flap upward rather than down onto my face.

I worried a little about finding a place to camp. This kind of wind can easily damage tarps and tents, and I needed to find somewhere with a natural wind break. The chance of "measurable precipitation" was 20% overnight, so setting up a tarp would be especially tricky. It had to protect me from both the wind and possible overnight rain. After walking nearly an hour, I grew increasingly worried that I wouldn't find a safe place to set up camp.

Until I saw a man-made concrete structure by the side of a dirt road. Perhaps I could set up camp next to the side of it? I walked up to the pullout by the side of the road, with a small wall built out of rocks, behind a small hill--a location that looked promising. The wind decreased considerably. "It would have to do," I thought sullenly. I wasn't very excited about the location, but it was the best option I had found in the past hour of walking.

The concrete structure seemed to be a water tank, but it looked pretty overgrown and didn't appear to have any space near it to set up camp. I walked up anyhow to get a closer look, however, and my spirits soared! It looked like someone had already cleared out a small section for a camp, and even created a wall of logs to protect against the wind from a second direction! Sweet! There was barely enough room for a single person, but it was more than I could have possibly hoped for.

Tradeja and Jess weren't far behind me, and I waved them down as they were hiking by. They hadn't spotted the water tank at all, and I showed me my little score. We got up on the water tank and opened it up, looking inside seeing that it was empty. Tradeja seemed keen on the idea of sleeping inside of the structure, but Jess didn't care for the idea. Ultimately, they decided to keep on hiking and hoped to find somewhere a couple of more miles along the trail in Chariot Canyon. They left, and I started setting up my tarp.

The wind was still fairly strong--not terrifying strong--but enough to be annoying and enough to prevent me from using my stove safely. And I started thinking... maybe I should sleep in the water tank instead?

I popped open the hatch again and climbed down the ladder. It smelled a bit dank, and I wondered if mold in it might be a health hazard. I could stand fully upright in the structure, with only about an inch to spare. Definitely a low ceiling, but a heck of a lot higher than my tarp would be set at. And it provided complete protection against the wind and rain. "Yes," I thought, "this could work."

Then I saw a mouse scamper across the wall. And another one. And another.... Goddammit! I looked around and counted five of them, and what looked like a nest in the corner. I had a few choice words for them, and finally decided it wasn't worth having mice crawling around me and my food all night long. I'd ride out the storm under my tarp instead.

I got the tarp up, which turned out to be a lot harder than I expected since it was much too large for the little space available in the site. The tarp wasn't as tight as I normally like it, so it whipped around all night while dirt and leaves settled over me during the night. Shortly after the sun set, I pulled out my headlamp to read. I popped in the batteries, flicked it on, to discover that the batteries were completely and utterly dead. Time for sleep!

PS. I've heard that at least one hiker said that he didn't sign up for this kind of weather and actually quit the trail for good. So far as I know, everyone else who left the trail because of the weather intended to come back once things settled down again.

1 comment:

tomboyknits said...

Hope the wind and rain has settled down for you! Though now its probably hot...

We would love to come cheer you on when you pass by Agua Dulce :)