Friday, October 14, 2011

'Twas a Rough Night....

Ron poses with Mount Adams in the background.
And look at those storm clouds enveloping us!
Sorry about leaving you all hanging for so long. Got a bit distracted with that whole "moving" process. It's not done yet, but I'm taking the day off of that work and working on finishing this story today. =)

In case you needed reminding, I left you hanging with Ron and myself trying to outrace an incoming storm. Gotta leave you on a cliffhanger, right? =)

The campsite listed on our map was near a trail junction near Ape Canyon, and when we arrived, we found a distinct lack of water. Which was a problem, because we really needed water. Which is kind of ironic considering that it looked like it could rain at any moment. We'd pushed, we figured, an exhausting 16 or 17 miles to reach this point, and we were beat. But we also needed water.

The map we had with campsites listed wasn't especially detailed, however, and I suspected that it might still be a bit up ahead. When I talked with Jesus and Disciple, they told me they had camped at a small creek their first night out, just before the restricted zone, a little past this junction. If they hadn't told me that, however, I'd have been considerably more worried when we reached this junction and found no water.

Looking up the ridge, I thought I might be hallucinating.

"Hey, Ron," I said, pointing ahead along a ridge, "Pull out that fancy camera of yours with the super zoom lens and tell me, is that a fellow with a bicycle I see up there?"

He seemed skeptical of the claim, but was already pulling out his camera to take photos of Mount Adams, and aimed it where I pointed. "Yes, that is a bicycle!" he exclaimed.

I certainly didn't expect to see one of those out here. A few minutes later, two bicyclists heading back down the mountain passed us, and oddly, they seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

"But where are you going to camp? What are you going to do for water?"

The first question didn't worry me very much, but the second one did a little.

"There supposed to be water just ahead--you mean to say there isn't?" I asked.

"There's a little creek ahead, but the water is dirty and gross."

Oh joy.

"Well, that's our drinking water," I told him. =)
A large cairn along the trail.

Ron and I shouldered our packs and headed out again while the bicyclists headed down the mountain. We found the creek about ten minutes later, and it was beautiful water. I'll admit, it wasn't the clearest water I'd ever seen, but it was a far cry from being bad. I've had bad water, and this was was perfectly acceptable in my book.

But we were also completely exposed on this part of the mountain. In fact, we'd been completely exposed and well above tree-cover for miles, and we were starting back into the blast zone. I had a tarp that needed setting up, and to do so, I needed a good, solid tree to hold up one end of it (I'd use my trekking pole for the other end) and soft enough ground to drive in stakes but hard enough ground to hold it all in place. And the terrain we were in was not ideal for this sort of setup.

Immediately alongside the creek, there were a few small trees struggling to survive. The tallest of them was about my own height--hardly as big or strong as I would have preferred--but it would have to do. And the ground appeared to be just above where the creek would flood, if it floods, and it had soil to hold stakes in place. Most of the terrain had no soil--just small rocks with no real grip to them.

First thing's first--set up the tarp. I started setting up while Ron selected a site on the other side of the tree. While setting up, the first sprinkling started. In the nick of time! Whew!

I drove the last stake in, tightened up the ridgeline, and dove under the tarp, safe from the sprinkles. "Looks like I'm in for the night!" I called to Ron.

It sprinkled for another five or ten minutes, and I set about arranging camp. I spread out the ground sheet under the trap, then changed out of my dirty hiking clothes and put on my warm camp clothes. Then I just laid there for a few minutes, resting. I was tired. But I could still see Mount Adams peaking out in the setting sun in the distance. I love a campsite with a view. This campsite would have been fantastic for camping under the stars. No tree cover, fantastic views--it's exactly the kind of campsite I wished I had the night before. In fact, the campsite we had the night before was exactly the kind I would have preferred tonight. In the trees, partially protected from the elements by the trees. I found myself wishing we had gone around the mountain in the other direction. Oh, well.... too late to do anything about that now.

The sprinkles stopped, and I decided to push my luck by cooking along the edge of the cliff. The small creek came to an abrupt stop about 40 feet away, falling over a cliff who knows how many hundreds of feet high. The view was incredible, even as the storm came barreling in. I wanted to enjoy the views while I could. If it started raining again, I could move back under my tarp as necessary.

Wind gusts had started increasing, so I found a few small boulders to cook behind to use as wind breaks. It didn't help much--the gusts seemed to blow in from all sorts of directions. Sometimes from in front, sometimes up my back, sometimes from my left, and sometimes from my right. Sometimes, it felt like I was in the middle of a vortex with the wind swirling all around me but oddly quiet where I cooked. The unpredictable nature of the wind was difficult to handle, though, and the strength of the wind started blowing sand into my mac 'n' cheese. Argh!

Besides using the small boulders as a feeble attempt at a wind break, I also used my bear canister, the lid of my bear canister, and my entire body to further the wind break. And none of it seemed to help. Sand started blowing into my eyes as well. I was starting to wish I stayed under my tarp after all. These were not easy conditions to cook it. Ron didn't seem to be fairing much better behind his little group of boulders either.
Our campsite overlooked this very high cliff!
With Mount Adams again in the background.

Eventually, though, dinner was ready--with a healthy bit of sand for texture--which I finished off quickly and cleaned up. That rain could still start at any moment!

Looking out on the horizon, I saw a flash of light. It seemed to be centered about halfway between Mount Adams and Mount Hood, near where we saw smoke from the forest fire earlier in the day. Lightning.

"Hey, Ron!" I yelled. "Something else for you to worry about tonight--being above tree line in a lightning storm!" =)

I wasn't actually too worried about being struck by lightning. While we were above treeline, we were also surrounded by mountains and hills much higher than our location.

Back under the tarp, I read a bit, admired the views of Mount Adams, and relaxed to the occasional gust of wind racing over my tarp and a lightning strike in the distance. Life was good.... =)

I fell asleep at some point, and woke again to views of stars overhead. The clouds must have blown through already, but the wind seemed to increase a notch. I thought about going out to see the stars better, but the wind was cold and I dived deeper into my sleeping bag and went back to sleep again.

Or rather, I tried too. The wind had increased in intensity and was making quite the racket now, whipping over my tarp and gusting under the open ends.

I tried for an hour to get to sleep, but it wasn't working. The wind was deafening, jerking my tarp, but it went from bad to worse when the clouds came back again and it started to rain. Not a sprinkle, but a real rain.

I pulled my feet up from the far end of the tarp and my head down from the entrance, curled into a fetal position, to avoid the wind-born rain. "What a gloriously wretched campsite for a rain and wind storm," I thought. "I couldn't have hand-selected a worse place had I tried." I'd been expecting rain, but the wind was not something I had heard about, and that makes a big difference!

When I first set up my tarp, I was a bit lazy about anchoring down the edges of my tarp. I usually don't--it's not necessary. I'll set up the ridgeline, anchor down the corners, and I'm done. At this point, though, it was time to batten down the hatches. I pulled out my headlamp, found a couple of extra stakes I used to hold down my ground sheet and transferred them to hold down the edges of my tarp. I also tightened the ridgeline again--it had grown slack with the wind-born rain ripping at the tarp.

And unbelievably, it continued to grow worse. Twice during the night, the wind ripped a stake right out of the ground, and I frantically tried to stab it back into place as the rain pounded on me. The tarp whipped loudly in the wind, and I worried that the wind might actually blow it away completely.

The view from under my tarp. You can see my trekking
pole on the left and the ridgeline holding it up left of center.
"No," I told myself. "Impossible. I had tied the one end with a solid knot to the small tree. That tree would break before the knot did--and it might not have been a very big tree, but this storm wasn't going to knock it out. But I could imagine all of the stakes holding the rest of the tarp in place blowing out. It would start at a corner, then rip through the rest of them like popping buttons off a shirt, and the tarp would start flapping uselessly in the wind. I could also imagine that the tarp might rip in half, flapping around in the wind, completely useless. If either of those scenarios happened, I could be in serious trouble from hypothermia.

I wondered how Ron was doing in his little tent. I knew he had to be awake--nobody could sleep through this storm--but his tent had to be taking a beating as hard as my tarp was. At least he had some walls to help keep him dry, though.

I started formulating plans for what I'd do if my tarp blew loose or shredded itself in the wind. I'd have to get moving. Immediately. Throw everything into my pack and start hiking through the storm. It would be the only way I could stay warm without any protection from the elements. I'd have to hike to stay warm. Keep moving. I'd either have to hike until the storm passed, hike until I reached a natural form of protection from the elements (a cave, or below tree level, I figured), or hike until I reached Ron's truck and got inside.

The tarp, fortunately, did manage to survive the night.
I've already packed up everything (except the tarp itself), but
notice two things in this photo. First, that red spot on my pack--
that's Wassa Jr. =) He didn't blow away! Second, even in this
photo, you can see a gust of a wind pushing in the left side of
tarp and blowing "up" the right side of the tarp. Damn wind!
This could get really bad, I though, and prayed the tarp would hold up through the night. Some of the stronger gusts were so powerful, they pushed the walls of the tarp directly onto me, not even leaving a cushion of air between me and the walls of the tarp. The tarp was acting more like a blanket--at least until another gust of wind pulled it off of me suddenly and tried to yank it into the sky.

It didn't help that condensation was forming on the underside of the tarp, so every time the wind pushed it down onto me like a blanket, my sleeping bag would mop up the water from it. My sleeping bag was made of down--which has absolutely no insulation value once it gets wet. It was growing increasingly difficult to stay warm. As long as I felt cold, though, I figured I wouldn't be dieing of hypothermia. Nope, cold is good. I flexed my muscles a bit to generate a little warmth.

It was a long night, but the tarp held, and eventually the sky started to brighten. The clouds were still out there, but the wind gusts died down a bit (only a tiny bit!) and the rain finally stopped.

"Ron," I called out, "are you still alive over there?"

I heard some knocking around, then he called back, confirming he was still alive, but what a wretched night that was. Yeah, tell me about it. =)

It was still pretty early in the morning, but the rain had stopped. For now. "Let's get out of here before the rain picks up again," I suggested, and he offered no argument.

We quickly ate breakfast, telling each other of our night's woes. While packing up, I found my tie. I had forgotten about that tie. I knew Ron was coming with a wedding dress, and it occurred to me and I should at least have a tie. Look the part, you know? At least a tie was small and light, but I had forgotten about it the whole trip. Seems a shame to let it go to waste. I decided not to change back into my hiking clothes. My warm camp clothes could get wet now--we were going back to civilization. But I put on the tie, then we headed out. Yes, I wore the tie all the way back to the trailhead. =)

"I wonder how the Wheat Thin Boys did," Ron said. I'm a little curious myself--they seemed gloriously inexperienced. A storm like that wouldn't have been easy for them, but then they were probably camped well below tree level where things weren't as bad either.

Proving that even after one of my worst nights
in the backcountry that I can still look good....
We'd only been hiking for a few minutes with the rain started coming down again. The wind was still strong along unprotected stretches of the trail, but then we'd drop down the other side of a ridge and it would be deathly quiet. We figured it was about ten miles back to the trailhead, and we couldn't get there soon enough.

A blue patch of sky came out and teased us. We could see it, always a little out of reach, always moving away from us. A sparkling rainbow delighted us for much of the way, but we didn't stop and rest. It was too wet, too cold, and too windy to do much of anything but keep trudging on.

And finally, we reached the parking lot and were done. We'd made it. I wanted to go into the Johnson Ridge Observatory since it was closed when we had arrived and I'd never been in it before, so I left Ron in the car trying to warm himself up. =)

The observatory had all sorts of interesting exhibits, and I wondered around admiring it all, still with the tie on--a classy touch that nobody else had. People walking in complained about the rain and cold, and I couldn't help but shake my head. Wimps. You guys only had to walk in from the parking lot. The storm had turned me into a bitter old man.

But we were done. We headed back to Seattle. Ron stopped to call his family and let them know he survived. We stopped for lunch at Burgerville and high-fived ourselves. Ron asked what I thought his chances were of being able to thru-hike the PCT.

Most excellent. That last night on Mount St. Helens rivaled anything I had to deal with on the PCT. That large gully at the end of the first day was as sketchy as anything he'd find on the PCT. The lava flows were as challenging as anything he could find on the PCT.

"If you can survive that," I told him, "you can certainly survive anything that the PCT throws at you."

For him, I think that made the whole trip worth it. =)

Ron pushes through the rain and wind. Needless to say,
views on our last day weren't very good.

My camera is suffering from the elements at this point. The fuzziness in the center and
on the left is due to rain that got on the lens and condensation that formed in the lens.

That blue patch of sky teased us most of the morning. So close, but always out of reach....

The rainbow that led us out most of the morning was nice, though. =) It was
remarkably bright at times, and at times, there was even a double rainbow
(but I never got any good pictures of that.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the rest of the story. Glad you made it back.