Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Snow Monster Cometh....

May 7: Mad Hatter and Tomer woke up and blew out of camp early. Mad Hatter likes to eat breakfast after a little hiking first. I think he likes to go somewhere with a nice view. Me? When I wake up, I'm hungry. The very first thing I like to do in the morning is eat breakfast. (Well, sometimes I have to pee first--priorities are priorities!--but I usually manage to eat breakfast first.) It might take me a little bit longer to get out of camp, but I don't have to stop as soon either.

John and John took their time breaking down camp. They were just starting to get up and move around when I finally left camp. The first mile of hiking sucked--it was up a steep hill, and wasn't even on the PCT so it wasn't even getting me any closer to Canada. Lest you've forgotten, I hiked a mile off trail to get to a water source. Now it was time to hike back to the trail.

At the trail junction, I found Gandolf and Radar waking up and taking their time getting ready. They didn't like the idea of hiking a mile off trail to get water, and they hoped to find some a little further up the trail. They wouldn't die by skipping the water--more water was to be had several miles up the trail. But they might get a bit thirsty before reaching it.

The day, once again, was clear and beautiful. And the trail mostly went upwards, ever upwards throughout the day. It might go up a thousand feet, fall five hundred, then jump another thousand, fall five hundred. It wasn't steep--this is the PCT after all--but it was steeper than we had been doing before.

I caught up to Mad Hatter after a couple of hours, while he was sitting out in an open area eating breakfast. I stopped to rest and chat. "Was that you I heard crashing through the bushes?" Heh. Yes, it was. Probably a hundred feet before I found Mad Hatter sitting on the side of the trail, I stopped to "do a little business" a little off the trail, whacking my way through some bushes in the process. I can't imagine what he must have thought that noise was. A bear? A mountain lion? No, just me.... =)

The rest of the afternoon, we hiked together. Later in the afternoon, we caught up with Tomer who had set up his tent to get some shade. Mad Hatter and I didn't understand why he didn't just stop where there actually was shade. As we climbed in elevation, trees became more and more common. Beautiful pine trees. And the views became more and more impressive. It really does look like a "mini Sierras" out there in the San Jacinto wilderness. But if one wanted some shade, you usually didn't have to hike far to find it.

Mad Hatter and I continued on to find a shady place for lunch while Tomer broke down his tent again and caught up quickly. Then we came near Apache Peak and the first snow crossing the trail. Snow. Crossing the trail. It wasn't a lot of snow, but it seemed as if it were specially placed to cause maximum difficulty. It was on a very steep slope, and just high enough that slipping and sliding down the snow to the bottom could have been very, very painful. Mad Hatter started across, but reached a point where he wasn't sure how to proceed. It looked a bit sketchy to me as well, and I decided to try bushwacking off trail and go under the snow bank. Mad Hatter asked what he should do, and I told him to turn around. "How do I do that?!" I sensed a couple of curses under his breath. =) Frankly, it didn't look easy for him to turn around at this point, but there wasn't much I could do to help either.

I backtracked a ways on the PCT to find a shallower slope to descend below the snow, sliding down the loose dirt like it was a sand dune. It wasn't fun, but it was still better than sliding down snow which would be a lot harder to stop on. And at one point, I fell directly into a bush with thorns. $#!^! I picked out the thorns best I could, and saw that Mad Hatter managed to turn around and follow me down the slope as well. He fell into one of those thorn bushes as well. I don't know what those bushes were, but I don't recommend falling into them.

After I passed the first patch of snow, I turned back up towards the trail. There was another snow bank next to the first one, but it didn't look nearly as treatchorous as that first one. Mad Hatter decided to go under the second snow bank as well, though, and I wished him luck.

Once I got back onto the PCT, I put on my microspikes for the second patch of snow. My first test of the snow gear I've carried all this time.... Frankly, it was a waste of time. I walked across the snow easily enough, and I don't think the microspikes made things any easier. (They didn't make it any harder, though.)

By the time I finally reached the far side of the snow, Tomer had started walking across the first snow bank. I walked ahead on the trail to where Mad Hatter was finally getting back up on the trail and told him I was going to hang back to make sure Tomer made it across the snow okay. Tomer did make it across, but he postholed at one point up to his crotch and lost a water bottle in the process. But he made it, and we continued on another mile or so until we found Mad Hatter sitting on the side of the trail, a nice shady place for a lunch.

We ended up stopping there for a couple of hours, sleeping and resting. Gandalf, Radar, John, and John passed us by. Mad Hatter, Tomer, and I decided to hike through to a creek just short of the Devil's Slide turnoff so we could hike into Idyllwild first thing in the morning. I took off like a bat. I hadn't realized how long our lunch lasted, and I wanted to get into camp with plenty of time before sunset to cook dinner.

The trail continued to climb higher and higher, the air thinner and thinner, and the scenery better and better. Until, once again, I started hitting patches of snow. Again, it wasn't much. Not at first, at least. I didn't even bother to put on my microspikes, then promptly lost my footing and started sliding down a chute of snow. It wasn't especially steep or long, and I tried to direct my fall into a boulder sticking out of the snow to arrest my slide. Which worked, but I managed to bang up my knee a bit, with a small cut across it. Except for a little soreness, it wasn't an issue, though. But it was a huge wake-up call for me--snow can be very dangerous. I need to be especially careful hiking through the snow.

I continued on, and the snow piled up more and more. Finally, I started following footprints in the snow of hikers before me when the trail became completely obscured with snow. At this point, I decided I needed to find a good place to stop for Mad Hatter and Tomer to catch up. I didn't really feel comfortable losing the trail by myself. Safety in numbers! But standing around in the snow didn't seem appealing, so I pushed ahead a bit hoping to find some terra firma to sit down and wait.

Until I lost track of the tracks ahead of me. I followed the ridge more-or-less in the same direction I was going, but I wasn't finding anything but very old tracks. Possibly from the day before. It didn't feel right, so I sat down, pulled out my map and compass, and figured out I took a wrong turn. Or rather, I didn't turn where I was supposed to. I backtracked to the wrong turn, and continued on. Back on track! Also found some fresh tracks in the snow as well. Probably Gandolf and Radar, I thought, who I knew were ahead of me. I think they had hiked the PCT before, so they probably had a good sense of what direction to head. I hoped. =) In any case, it matched up perfectly with my map and compass skills, so I followed the footsteps.

The going was slow. I put on the microspikes, which helped secure each footstep a bit, but the going was slow. At times, I would posthole into the snow, up to my knees. Traversing slopes worried me a bit--if something bad happened, who would go for help? I really wanted to stop for Mad Hatter and Tomer, but not standing in snow. Grr.....

I continued on, until I reached a particularly long, moderately steep slope that needed to be traversed. Recognizing that if I lost my footing on this slope, it could be serious, I held my trekking pole near the middle, much better positioned to self arrest myself if it became necessary. I didn't really have any experience with self arresting. I've seen diagrams about how it's supposed to work in Backpacker magazine and such, but it's always been theory to me. I didn't really feel comfortable with the thought I'd actually have to put this sort of knowledge to practice.

Until finally, I did. On that moderately steep but very long slope, my foot struck down on the snow, and the snow under it gave way, and my foot started sliding down the slope. Which caused me to lose my balance, my other foot started sliding, and I was going down the slope. Crap.

With both hands on my trekking pole, I plunged it into the snow, and my slide stopped. On a dime. It was amazing. Just like those textbook illustrations. I'd only gone a couple of feet down the hill, and about a foot and a half of my trekking pole was stuck in the snow, but it stopped my slide.

Trekking poles aren't really designed to take a lot of weight from the side, so I kept holding it close to where it went into the snow. The higher up I grabbed the pole, the more likely it would snap in half. Then using my microspikes, I started kicking footholds into the slope and working my way back up to trail. I finished going across the slope without any additional trouble, and while my adrenaline was certainly pumping, I was thrilled with the experience. I had actually experience with self arrest now! It worked! Still, I'd rather not get myself into a position where that skill would be necessary, but it made me feel better that I could actually make use of it when necessary. Even if I didn't have an ice axe either.

I continued on for another half a mile or so, finally spotting dry land ahead on a small exposed summit, and saw two hikers setting up tents on it. It was John and John, and I was THRILLED to finally have other people around. Now if something bad happened, at least I wouldn't be alone. Help could be summoned. Sunset was near--I arrived here at 7:00 in the evening--and stopped to set up camp. It wasn't the campsite I originally planned to stop at, but the snow slowed me down severely, and if Mad Hatter and Tomer arrived, I was pretty sure they wouldn't want to go on beyond this point anyhow. It was a good place to stop.

As the sun set and skies grew darker, I hoped to see Mad Hatter and Tomer drop into camp, but they didn't. I wasn't especially worried about them. I knew Mad Hatter had a GPS and couldn't get lost, while Tomer had a Spot device so if something did go seriously wrong, they could summon help with the click of the $50,000 button (as Mad Hatter liked to call it). But still, I wanted to hike with them through the rest of the snow.

John and John created a campfire, and I entertained them with stories of Sam McGee and Blasphemous Bill. They had done all of the work collecting the firewood before I even arrived, so I kind of felt guilty for taking advantage of their campfire. Not bad enough not to sit with them around it, though. =)

At one point, I thought I heard someone in the woods, a cough--which I knew Mad Hatter was getting over--and I yelled out, "Mad Hatter?! Is that you?!" And a voice yelled back, but it didn't sound like Mad Hatter with his English accent. "Who goes there?!" I shouted again.

"Radar!" It sounded like the voice was ahead of me on the trail, which should have been right since John and John said that Radar and Gandolf had hiked through past their camp about 45 minutes before I arrived. Neither of them realized how closely Radar and Gandolf had set up camp, though--within easy shouting distance. It was nice to know where two more hikers were located, though. Mad Hatter and Tomer were still MIA, however. Maybe if we waited long enough in the morning, they'd wander in camp. I hoped that would happen. This snow was certainly wrecking our plans, however.


Okie Dog said...

You rascal you! You left us hanging again. Better us hanging here than out there with you, however, especially hanging by tenterhooks with a pole. Sheesh! Scary stuff, man! Good read, though. ;-D

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

I thought you bought an ice ax?

Sounds like the PCT is one thru hike best done with a partner or two.
Good thing some of the other hikers didn't mind you tagging along.

Hike On!
~Twinville Trekkers