Friday, February 18, 2022

Day 56: Here comes the snow again!

June 15: I woke up to a beautiful morning! It was a little hard to get motivated and get out of my sleeping bag because it was so cold, but I was up and hiking by 7:00am. I also made a point of putting on my waterproof socks since I knew my feet were going to be wet all day. If they didn't get wet from the snow on the ground, then they definitely would from the waterlogged meadows along the way.

It wasn't long before I sloshed my way through the first waterlogged meadow, and this early in the morning, its surface was still a sheet of ice after freezing during the night.


It may not be obvious in the photo, but the pool of water on the trail formed a thin layer of ice during the night.

The trail slowly descended the next couple of miles, but I never found any sign of Skunkbear or Splits. Splits had told me that he planned to camp behind me, but I never saw him and wasn't entirely sure if he stuck with his plan and I missed his campsite and was therefore now behind me or if he pushed further and was still ahead of me. Skunkbear I knew was somewhere ahead, but if she reached her goal--the low point a few miles up the trail from where I camped--it seemed unlikely that I'd catch up with her anytime soon.

After passing the low point, the trail steadily climbed once again, eventually getting into the snow which turned out to be a lot more of an annoyance than the day before. I did a lot more postholing, losing the trail under the snow and route-finding my way through the high, rugged terrain.

Things could have been worse, but I wasn't enjoying the experience either. The postholing, for instance, typically was about ankle deep. Definitely an annoyance and it definitely slowed me down, but at least it wasn't knee-deep or worse! And whenever the trail was buried under the snow, I constantly had to stop and search the terrain for a sign of where to go next. Was that a cairn up ahead? A cut log from the trail? If I was a trail, where would I go?

When I couldn't find any hint of the trail, I had to stop and pull out my GPS to check its location, adjusting my route as needed to get back on course. It was a slow and annoyingly laborious process.

It was late in the morning when I heard my name being called from a distance. "Green Tortuga!" echoed through the mountains. I looked up and saw Skunkbear resting in a bare patch of land next to a boulder and waved a greeting, then adjusted my path toward her.

She reported never having seen Splits, which provided additional evidence that I had somehow passed him without knowing it. Nor did she see any fresh prints in the snow this morning which would likely be his.

And then, of course, we started complaining to each other about the snow. What an annoyance! To be fair, at no point did I feel like it we were doing anything that was dangerous--it was just annoying and slow. This was the kind of stuff I got so sick of doing day after day on the PCT. The scenery was absolutely stunning, though! But there was just too much snow for me to really enjoy it.

I'm not sure how long Skunkbear had been resting before I caught up with her, but she was about ready to keep hiking as soon as I arrived. I was a little disappointed, though, having wanted a bit of a break myself. I limited my break to just a few minutes, though, and we fell into hiking together.

Besides the welcome company, hiking with a companion through this terrain was a godsend. Two sets of eyes were better than one for spotting those hints of a trail buried under the snow. The distant cairn, or a cut log, or other routes around a snow field. Often times she noticed signs of the trail that I missed or vice-versa, or noticed a better route around a snow field than I did or vice-versa.

We hiked a few hours together, chatting along the way, until a thunderstorm rolled through during the early afternoon. She told me that she had a particularly close and scary encounter with a thunderstorm while thru-hiking the Colorado Trail the year before and now had an irrational fear of them. We could barely hear the thunder at this point, and we weren't exactly on an exposed mountaintop, so I wasn't especially worried, but Skunkbear all but ran down the trail to reach even lower elevations.

I didn't feel safe trying to keep up with her speed, though, and let her dash off on her own. I went slower and more deliberately, making sure I didn't slip on the snow or trip over hidden rocks and checking that I was still on the trail. I didn't mind much that Skunkbear basically ditched me, though. I could see the fear visible in her eyes as she heard the distant thunder rolling in and telling me about her hairy experience on the Colorado Trail last year. She knew her fear was especially raw and irrational, but she couldn't help it. I just hoped she wouldn't hurt herself by trying to move so quickly over the rugged terrain.

For now, at least, I was on my own again and continued down the trail until I heard Skunkbear calling my name. I had trouble finding her at first. She had stopped well off-trail, near a low point by Blue Lake and was impossible to see if I wasn't looking for her. The only reason she probably saw me was because she knew I was on the trail and was keeping an eye on it to catch my attention when I passed by.

I headed off trail in her direction, sloshing through a small creek along the way and wondering if this was the same route she took. It was quite steep and not at all an ideal route, but she might have cut off the trail before I had to reach her safe-haven.

Skunkbear was tucked among some trees, on a sloped hillside, and was sitting directly on her pack with none of her body touching the ground. I was a little impressed with her balancing trick and thought that would never work with me. Even if I could balance on my pack like that, there was stuff in it that would be absolutely crushed under my weight.

The thunder increased in intensity as it blew in, and I tried to calm Skunkbear's fears by at least acting like I didn't think the storm was a big deal. And, well, honestly, I didn't think it was a big deal. Which isn't to say that random luck couldn't cause a stray bolt of lightning to strike us dead at any moment--but I didn't say that out loud either. I'm sure Skunkbear already knew that anyhow.

But we were in a pretty good position for a thunderstorm. Well off of high points and in a thick forest of trees. We'd be fine.

We sat around for the next hour or so and chatted, waiting for the storm to pass. I felt like the best thing I could do for Skunkbear was just be a calming influence until after the storm passed. I'm not really sure if I helped or not, but I don't think I made things worse for her either and kept any morbid jokes about death and lightning to myself. =)

A couple of lightning strikes sounded quite close, but it was still too light to see actual flashes of the lightning and count how many seconds it took for the sound to arrive so we weren't really sure how close it was coming except for how loud the lightning sounded. And... it sounded like it could have been within a mile of us.

But the storm continued moving and the sound of thunder eventually diminished into nothing, and we were back to hiking together the rest of the afternoon. Skunkbear apologized a couple of times for ditching me on the trail and I assured her it wasn't a big deal.

Late in the afternoon, the trail followed near the top of a steep slope and we arrived at a snow chute. It was steep enough that we couldn't even see the bottom of it, but it undoubtedly dropped hundreds if not thousands of feet and would certainly be fatal if one of us accidentally slipped and fell.

Skunkbear pulled out her ice axe and crossed the steep snow chute first while I watched and waited from solid ground. I had my SPOT device to call for help if the worst should happen, but I really hoped it wouldn't be necessary! 

After she made it safely across to the other side, I started traversing the snow chute. I only took a couple of steps before I retreated back to solid ground and decided to put on my micro spikes. The snow chute looked bad when I was on solid ground, but it looked terrifying as soon as I took a couple of steps on it!

So I pulled out my micro spikes to get better traction then slowly made my way across as Skunkbear watched. She had her own emergency beacon as well to send out an SOS in case the worst should happen and I slipped and fell to certain death. (It was handy that we both had our own devices. It's not like she'd have been able to call for an SOS with my device if I wound up a thousand feet down at the bottom of the snow chute, after all!)

Using my micro spikes for the first time on the trail!

But we both made it across safely. This wasn't even one of the "scary" parts that Pez had texted me about earlier--that was still further up the trail. If he didn't consider this scary, how bad was it ahead? That's the fear that now lurked over me.

We crossed another snow chute, and worked our way around the side of another one on dry ground rather than stick strictly to the trail which crossed it, but late in the afternoon, we needed to find a place to camp. A good campsite might be tricky to find in this area, though. It was very mountainous terrain with few flat spots, and many of the flat spots were exposed or covered with snow.

We aimed for a small island of dry ground poking above the snow that surrounded it. I wasn't optimistic that it would work out, but it was fairly close to the trail so it was worth checking out even if, from our point of view, it didn't look like there was anywhere flat and clear to camp.

But much to my surprise, the island in the snow was much better than we ever imagined! There was plenty of flat, dry ground for us to camp on! I threw out my groundsheet and initially planned to cowboy camp, but when a couple of drops of rain fell, I thought better of it and set up my tarp.

Later in the evening, the wind pick up significantly and I was glad for the wind protection that my tarp provided. It never did rain, but in the end, I was glad I had put the tarp anyhow just as wind protection.

And thus ended my 56th day on the trail....

My new hiking partner, Skunkbear!

Where, oh, where would we find a place to camp in this rugged, snow-covered terrain....?

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