Monday, May 30, 2011

51 miles in 51 hours

The Man and I just returned from hiking over San Jacinto on the PCT. We started up the Spitler Trail and then followed the PCT to just about the end of Section B.

I think the PCT hates me. Three backpack trips in a row on the PCT I've found myself trying to sleep in a hurricane. This time we had 55mph winds with gusts and rain and ice-fog.

We drove down and set up the cars on Friday night. We slept at the Spitler trailhead. We started up the Spitler Trail on Saturday. The Spitler Trail is a really nice trail and still had a lot of flowers blooming. We reached the PCT in a couple of hours.

It was a nice warm, sunny day. There were some pretty strong winds, especially in the old 2008 burn zone, that almost knocked me over a few times.

We met a backpacker who was in the middle of quitting his weekend hike. Something about running low on water and deciding to quit. I can never understand that. I had only a liter to get me the 7 miles to the next water. That didn't concern me at all. But other people will quit a whole weekend hike, even if turning back is more miles than just getting to the next water. Doesn't make any sense to me.

We took a side detour to see the lookout tower on top of Taquitz Peak. The view up there was amazing. It felt like we were on a tiny little pinhead point at the top of the world. There were dozens of people up there, many of them dayhikers who had come up from Idyllwild. We didn't stay long up there because we still had 8 miles to go to get to our campsite and we were running out of time.

There had been a little bit of snow on the trail to Taquitz Peak and there was starting to be little bits of snow on the PCT. But there wasn't much. The winds were really getting strong and the second group of rangers to check our permit said there was a chance of rain that night. It was like a repeat of my hike two weeks ago. We asked the ranger if the Strawberry camp was protected from the wind and he told us it was pretty exposed. So we asked him, if we got there and it was just too windy to set up our shelter, would we get in trouble if we just dispersal camped somewhere more protected? He said that would be okay since the most important thing is to be safe.

We reached an area that seemed a little sheltered so we stopped to cook our dinners and eat. The Man didn't like how the area was in view of the trail so we moved on and found another area. It wasn't nearly as protected, but The Man saw a small spot under a large boulder where he thought we could both sleep. I didn't think we could both sleep there so I said he could sleep under the rock and I would sleep right outside and try to set up the tarp somehow so that it might withstand the wind.

So I did that. I set up my tarp folded in half with only one corner propped up a few feet to keep it off my head. I staked it down as well as I could and hoped for the best. It flopped and puffed and flailed in the night, but it held. The wind came from at least three directions and one of them would push the tarp up against me, which would collapse the down in my bag. So I would get cold when that happened. My feet were pretty cold because the tarp was tight against them. I had trouble sleeping because of the altitude. I was breathing too hard to fall fast asleep.

I was glad when morning came but not too happy that it was raining. We packed up pretty quickly and got moving. It was very cold and only got colder. When we reached the Strawberry camp we were surprised how sheltered and nice it was. We had gotten bad advice from the ranger. We figured we wouldn't listen to them anymore. They probably never actually camp up there anyway. Truth is, though, I don't think we had had enough energy last night to make it all the way to the campsite anyway.

We continued along the PCT and then took a wrong turn down the Marion Mountain trail. We discovered our mistake after a quarter mile. The Marion Mountain trail is really steep!

We headed down Fuller Ridge. There were some large snow banks still on the trail. I was a little worried because the temperature was below freezing and the snow was hard and icy. I was hiking in Chaco sandals and I didn't feel like I got a very good grip on the snow.

We reached a large stream to cross and all the boulders you might step across on had a thick layer of ice on them. I walked through the icy water and then endured frozen feet for half an hour.

Any time we stopped I would get very cold. My hands and feet would go numb and it would take a while to warm them up. My long braid had a layer of ice attached to it and was frozen. We were walking through an ice wonderland. The trees were glazed with ice and the ferocious winds were knocking ice crystals from finger-sized to bigger than a fist off the trees. I was afraid I could get knocked out by one of the bigger chunks if it happened to hit me in the head.

On the shady side of Fuller Ridge the winds were calm. There were still lots of piles of snow on the trail. They were not difficult to navigate, though. I didn't feel unsafe. Little bits of sun would come out. The ice fog clouds were only on one side of the mountain.

At noon we reached Fuller Ridge Camp. It was absolutely freezing there. There was a frozen jug of water sitting on a log. We stopped briefly for The Man to do something. I ate a snack. I didn't want to put on layers I would just have to take off later so I ended up with frozen extremities after a few minutes. I couldn't drink my water because the water hose had frozen. I had other water in a bottle I could drink, however.

Then we set off for the descent. We really just wanted to get the heck out of there. Seems like San Jacinto is the most inhospitable place. It has always had knock-you-over high winds every time I've been there. I don't understand the popularity, except maybe it can be explained by the tram from Palm Springs.

We descended into some sunshine and it started feeling a little warmer. I still wore my balaclava and jacket. Soon I took off the rain pants because I had warmed up a little. It looked like we'd descend out of the ice-fog cloud and into the nice dry desert so I was pretty happy. The map said it would take us 15 miles to get to the water fountain. It didn't seem like such a long way until we were in the thick of it.

After many hours of descending, The Man was getting very frustrated with the trail. There are so many huge switchbacks that almost don't descend. Each and every one of them actually climbs for part of the way. Someone got paid by the mile to design this trail. The Man joked that at noon we could see where I parked my car in the desert and it would probably take 24 hours to get there. (It ended up taking 21 hours, including sleeping.)

The desert floor was coming in to view and The Man was interested in seeing where the famous drinking faucet was. I couldn't see it yet. I was getting pretty tired and hoping we might find a nice sheltered campsite somewhere on the way down. There were several flowing creeks along the way and the trail, despite its shortcomings, was pretty. The air was warmer, the wind was much less and in some places, there was no wind at all and I could enjoy the flowers and the amazing views.

The Man was getting more and more frustrated, hurling obscenities at the trail. His feet were hurting. When I said I could see the fountain and pointed it out to him, he seemed cheered a little that we were getting close. We could even see someone down there. I mean, if you can see it that closely you must be close, right? Ha! The trail had other ideas.

The trail swung the largest switchback yet clear around the mountain. I joked we must be only 500 feet straight through the rocks to where we had been standing when we saw the fountain. The Man was so mad. He sat down for a while to shake a bunch of sand out of his shoes and rest and complain. I thought about how funny it is that the PCT kind of beats a lot of this kind of frustration out of you. The PCT takes all your expectations and says, no, you can't have that. I thought maybe the PCT, if it could write a song, would sing "If you can't have the trail you want, honey, want the trail you have." So I started saying that to The Man and joking with him about everything he was mad at. "Oh yeah, you want some water at a nice fountain? Ha! You can't have that! Instead, you get overgrown switchbacks in the windy desert for all eternity!" "You want a nice Memorial Day weekend on San Jacinto, enjoying the beauty and the weekend? Ha! You can't have that! Instead you get sleepless nights, knock-you over wind, ice and below-freezing weather!"

After 30 miles of hiking for the day, we at long last reached the fountain. The Man had reached the end of his patience. I did my best to set up the shelter. It felt good to be down in the desert where it was considerably warmer and much less windy. I had hope we could get some good sleep. There was another tent there, a rather large dome tent. We never saw the person inside.

Both of us were too tired to eat so we just grabbed a snack and drank something and hit the sack. The tarp flapped rather violently as the wind picked up a bit, but it held through the night by some kind of miracle. When I went to put it away in the morning, the stakes felt like they were being held in the sand by nothing but hope.

It had been a really warm night and I woke up a few times being way too hot and having to remove layers. What a contrast! In the morning we packed up and set off across the desert. It was a beautiful morning. The Man started laughing about his anger and frustration the day before. He realized he was being a big baby but his feet were killing him. He said he never wanted to see Mt. San Jacinto ever again, though. I agreed, but I thought I'd never hike across the desert here ever again in my life and here I was doing it again, so I suspect I'll find myself on San Jacinto again someday.

We slogged through the sand and found the cache under the freeway. What a treat! It was still full. We drank some Mt. Dew and shared an apple and enjoyed being hiker trash hanging out under a freeway.

On the other side of the bridge, we continued our desert journey. I was suddenly feeling very sick. I had started the trip feeling sick to my stomach on Friday and Saturday. It went away Saturday afternoon. Now it was back, but the sick feeling was further along my intestinal track. I had to stop a few times. I worried about how I was going to drive home.

When we reached the car, an actual thru-hiker walked by. Turns out that was his large tent at the fountain. He was moving pretty quickly so perhaps he'll catch up and make it to Canada. The Man and I drove to Idyllwild and had breakfast, then drove the long miles home. No traffic.

Despite the insane weather and feeling like the PCT just wants me to go away, it was a nice trip. The Man mentioned that we had hiked 51 miles in 51 hours. That seems pretty shocking to me. We're not athletes or hard-core hikers by any means. That's just what the PCT does to you. Makes you go further than you want in search of a place to sleep.

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