Monday, May 03, 2010

The So Cal section of the PCT is NOT DESERT!

Someone asked why PCT hikers tend to be so ill-prepared for the weather in southern California. This was my response:

I see a pattern that if someone can't find the road to Cabazon or they turn up freezing cold at Mike Herrera's house or their tent falls down in 50mph winds (really, whose wouldn't?) the list (PCT-L, an email list about the PCT) tends to bring out discussions of why these people were so ill-prepared.

But okay fine, let's go on the assumption that these people are ill- prepared. Are they entirely to blame when the tendency for PCT listers and hikers, including seasoned PCT hikers, alike is to dismiss the entire first 700 miles of California as "the desert"?

I have argued with people that it's not the desert and they've disagreed with me despite me providing links to show the facts, so ingrained is the belief that it's all desert. I even spoke to someone on the trail who told me how much they loved the desert, having never visited before. Easy to say while they were under the forest canopy of the Lagunas.

There are only a few small places where hikers are actually truly in the desert as defined as a place with very little rainfall and sparse vegetation. The rest of the time you are hiking through all kinds of areas from riparian woodlands to oak woodlands to oak savannas to juniper and pine forest to the big cone spruce forested north facing slopes to interior live oak, blue oak and black oak forests and yes, a lot of chaparral. But chaparral isn't desert either. It's a forest adapted to conditions of hot dry summers, frequent droughts, wildfire and a COOL WET RAINY SEASON that stretches from OCTOBER TO APRIL.

But most people dismiss southern California as "the desert" and say things like "only 700 miles of desert and you'll be in the Sierra where the real hike begins". The tendency then is to believe you can start your hike in March as if you were going for a hike in Tucson. When my boyfriend wanted to start in mid-April I thought that was a little early but since previous years have been pretty nice and more and more people seemed to be starting earlier and earlier, maybe it would work out. I started my hike in May using Ray Jardine's PCT Handbook itineraries. I think it's interesting to note that even his longest itinerary doesn't start until May 7.

So maybe the blame lies in people using the shorthand "desert" to talk about hiking in hot, dry southern California. It's no desert. You are hiking from sky island to sky island. You are reaching nearly 10,000 feet forested mountain conditions within a few days. You touch true desert only a few times and spend only a few days here and there in it. And if you start your hike in April, you are still within the rainy season.

(P.S. I still wouldn't bring an ice axe. I would find another route or turn back. I am pretty sure you can still get injured falling with an ice axe. I believe every hiking party needs one scaredy-cat female not afraid to turn back with them.)

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