Day 11: South Ridge to Fuller Ridge. 14 miles.
April 5th, 2017
A snowy day.
This sign was on my mind all night:
I knew I was confident on snow. I knew I was confident in the capabilities of my microspikes. I knew I could turn around.
I also knew what everyone was saying about Fuller Ridge. I knew people were skipping past it, lots of people. Probably three out of four hikers were avoiding the snow and going up snow-free trails to reconnect with the PCT after Fuller Ridge. Excuses ranged from "I have no snow gear" to "I have no experience on snow" to "I heard somebody slid 1000 feet down the ridge AND ALMOST DIED".
It seems like some of those excuses have solutions.... such as purchasing snow gear or say, using purchased snow gear on snow. Not a lot of hikers with a 'screw it, let's go check it out' attitude. Very different from my climbing world where I'm usually the cautious one...
Although, if I'm the only one who wants to go for it, does that make me wrong? Am I going to slide down 1000 feet?? Is the guy who was clearly warned going to be the next warning?
'Maybe, if you don't get any sleep,' I told myself. I tried to quiet my mind and fought through a fitful night of sleep.
I awoke early and started packing up. I didn't hear Nico. Was he already gone? I had been comforted with the idea of at least having someone around to record me sliding 1000 feet while simultaneously setting the world record for number of expletives shouted in 1000 feet.
I had finished packing up and started walking toward the trailhead when I noticed Nico, shuffling around quickly to pack up his cowboy camp. I was glad he was still around and we set off up the Taquitz Peak trail, passing the Sign of Doom. 'Not today, sign', I thought as I tried to ignore the over-amped warning. My mind kept going back to how bad it would be if I had to be rescued with none of the gear recommended on the warning.
'You can always turn around. You know you'll turn around if you need to.'
Slowly we made our way up the steep trail, pausing to make nervous jokes about the "impassible" first snow we came across.
Soon we were up at the Taquitz Peak fire lookout tower. After spending a few minutes enjoying the view, we looked to the snowy ridge behind the tower.
Where'd all that snow come from? The hike up had been very light on the snow, but the trail that linked Taquitz Peak trail and the PCT was a steep snowfield. I ignored the nervous lump in my throat and sat down to put my microspikes on. Nico did the same, only he had both crampons and an ice axe.
Secretly, I was jealous at his additional security. Although the jealously always subsides when that gear ends up on your back for hundreds of desert miles after the mountains...
Nico immediately tested the sharpness of his crampons by stabbing his waterproof stuff sack with one of his points. We had a good laugh and started across the 50 degree snowfield. The snow was firm from the cold night and my spikes were sticking, but the exposure was real. Thousands of feet of uncontrolled pinballing through pine trees and rocks awaited just one mistake. One trekking pole slip. One careless step.
Okay, this is real.
My respect for Southern California mountains was increasing rapidly. I told Nico I was going to backtrack and head up to the ridge where there were boulders and less snow. After all, that's exactly what I'd do in the Sierra to get around a snowfield. Sticking stubbornly to snowy trails can be a huge mistake.
Once I gained the ridge, I was pleasantly surprised. Easy scrambling and low angle snow made progress quick and soon we were smiling, taking pictures, and enjoying our beautiful position above California. Microspikes were making the snowfield reasonable. Nico's crampons made the traverse look like a joke.
After rejoining the PCT at the northern boundary of the Mountain Fire closure, I was proud of what we'd done. Very few people would follow behind us to minimize the trail skipping. We'd gone from closure boundary to closure boundary. I'd walked every step so far, and now we were back on the PCT.
After a quick lunch, I left Nico behind. He had planned on attempting a summit of San Jacinto! In this snow, and with just microspikes, I decided to stick to the trail and get to Fuller Ridge. It was after noon and the snow was softening. After several big snow sections of wonderful surprise postholing up to my crotch, I finally f-worded my way onto the snow-free southern slopes of San Jacinto.
The dry trail was a welcome sight and I fired across the mountain toward the next snowy obstacle: Fuller Ridge.
Only it wasn't the next snowy obstacle.
At one point, the smallest snowfield I'd seen all day led down to the trail. I hopped onto what I thought would be soft snow and was surprised with hard ice. Before I knew what was happening, I was sliding/swearing down the slope on my ass, coming to an easy stop about 20 feet down the snow. 'That could've been worse,' I told myself. But after a few steps I distinctly felt my right buttcheek MUCH more chilly than its western counterpart. I reached back and put my hand through a massive foot-long vertical rip in my pants.
'It's gonna be tough to keep the trailing crowds down with all that sexiness back there,' I smiled to myself before I promptly slipped not 40 feet later, shoving a pound of snow down my right pant leg.
Miles before Fuller Ridge, the trail went back onto the north side of San Jacinto and the trail disappeared under the snow again. Microspikes went back on. I passed a nice lady named Polar Barb, comforted to see another person. Not soon after, a hiker I didn't recognize was headed in the opposite direction. I asked him if he'd day hiked through Fuller Ridge.
"No way, I'm on the PCT. I'm not going through that garbage. I only have microspikes!" the panicky hiker said, glancing judgingly down at my microspikes. "I've been lost for two hours, the trail is unfollowable!"
'Crap,' I thought to myself. "Well, I guess I'll go check it out and I might see you back down in Idyllwild tonight. Is there anywhere to camp if I want to wait until morning somewhere?"
"NO, there's nothing."
The beautiful campsite I could see 20 feet behind the hiker made me question his whole report. Panic shuts down good judgement, that's natural. He also didn't have any method of navigation to know where the trail was. Bad move.
I continued along past 19 other perfect bivy spots when I saw a familiar face walking toward me. "Convict??"
Alone and without navigation, she had turned around and was heading back to Idyllwild also. It was good to see her again and deep down, I REALLY wanted someone with me through these big snow sections. I offered to do the navigating if she wanted to give Fuller Ridge a shot and she turned around and started following me.
Moving across the snow was slow and it took the rest of the day just to reach the beginning of the ridge. We decided to head toward a campsite marked on our maps. After ridge scrambling to get around more steep snowfields, we finally found the campsite.... under snow. We found a small dirt patch for my tent and set up for the night around 8500 ft. It was cold, the half-pitched tent was cramped, and the wind was whipping. My feet were soaked from tromping through the slushy afternoon snow. The massive tear in my pants invited every icy gust directly onto my ass.
'Well this is uncomfortable,' I smiled to myself before settling in for a cold night.
Total mileage along the PCT: 188
Total mileage with detours: 204
Day 12: Fuller Ridge to Snow Canyon Road. 18 miles.
April 6th, 2017.
A never-ending downhill day.
The massive tear in the ass of my pants was a priority. There was still a full stretch of snow I needed to get through, and the thought of shoveling more snow into my pants was solid motivation. Once again, I found myself sitting in my dark tent with needle and dental floss, willing my numb fingers to reverse my clumsy mistakes before Convict woke up.
We set off in the dim dawn light. The snow was hardened in the cold night and the peaceful crunch under my spikes was music to the ears.
This is where I belong.
Fuller Ridge was about 3.5 miles of downhill walking perpendicular across 10 to 30 degree hard snow slopes. Convict had microspikes and an ice axe. Without the stability provided by trekking poles, she put the ice axe to work.
I would hear the familiar sound of a foot slipping and a nervous yelp. Looking back, I'd watch helpless as Convict slid down the hard snow, weighting the head of the axe into the snow until she came to a rest. Some slides were a few feet, some were a few dozen feet. We'd laugh nervously each time she came to a rest and battled her way back to the trail.
I tried to keep the thought out of my head that I couldn't self-arrest if I needed to, but it was a hard reality to ignore. Every step needed to be precise. One sloppy movement could be bad news.
Luckily, the added stability of trekking poles allowed me to maintain control. That's not to say I didn't fall, but it was always when I relaxed my guard above a tree or rock. A couple miles in, I planted a sloppy foot and it skidded out from under me. I came down on my ass and slid five feet down to a log, absorbing the blow with my already-sore legs. I felt the familiar chilling of my right buttock.
Yup, torn right back open. I decided to see if Melanie could hear the F-word in Bishop from where I was sitting.
Other clumsy falls ensued, but Convict and I battled through and eventually danced onto the trail, resisting urges to kiss the dry ground under our feet. We paused afterwards for a break and removed our microspikes. Convict was heading into LA for the night and offered for me to come along to shower, recharge electronics, and write. We were still 15 miles and 7000 vertical feet above the I-10 freeway, but the promise of civilization was a good reason to book it.
I fired down the trail, losing elevation through the many long switchbacks. The terrain went from pine trees to desert scrub. I passed the Black Mountain trail junction, the main alternate for people skipping the snow. I started passing familiar faces, slower hikers I had passed days ago.
I suppose it's pretty easy to make miles while hitching and skipping...
I did my best to accept their own journey and reasons for avoiding the snow, but one main thought persisted:
'If you don't want to do this, what do you think will happen in the Sierra?'
Being unprepared for a 10 mile stretch is one thing, but being inexperienced and unprepared for 400 miles is much more serious. Life-threatening, even. The southern California mountains are a prologue, a training ground. A chance to walk on snow, to gain experience in a much safer, accessible environment.
The Sierra will be a harsh instructor for many hikers this year.
I smiled and chatted with everyone I passed, proud of what I'd done over the last couple days. I came up on the 200 mile marker! After a quick selfie, I charged on and then passed a much more official 200 mile marker around mile 201... Capping my selfies at one per day, I grumpily took a picture of the 201 marker and walked on.
This mug wasn't made for selfies.
The switchbacks seemed to stretch longer and longer and longer.... The I-10 looked so close, but the trail lost elevation so incredibly slowly it was almost maddening. I had cell service and gave Mel a call, somehow losing elevation while hiking on flat trail.
Eventually I arrived at a lone water source: a faucet in the desert under Snow Creek. As I approached the faucet, I could see a Confederate flag hanging from a tent... uh-oh. Was this a proud, (although perhaps ignorant) southerner? Or a preachy racist? That flag means many things to many different people, and it can mean trouble, but I also love many non-racist people who fly that flag as their symbol of southern pride.
As I reached the faucet, I was introduced to John the Confederate. He was a man in his 50's from Louisiana and damn, was he proud. Full of shouting like a general, super right-wing ideals, and conspiracy theories, we laughed our way through a conversation respectful of both sides. I listened to his warnings about chem-trails (Google it if you need a good head-shake) and he listened to me warn about our bloated military.
All ridiculous topics, I know.
John the Confederate was great company, regardless of the topic. I hinted that I was running low on food and he immediately jumped on it, forcing a bunch of extra food he had on me. I went ahead and placed John in the 'proud southerner' category. He was 'good people', someone that brings a smile to your face when you just look at him, or hear that deep southern accent start up about Hillary.
Several people were camped right next to the faucet, preparing to cross the 20 mile desert to the next water source the following day. Convict reached the faucet and let me know that she wasn't heading into LA, so visions of a meal and a shower were replaced with a dehydrated breakfast burrito and trying to avoid puffing out the stink from my jacket.
After all, a poorly timed stink-puff at dinner can ruin your meal.
Total mileage along the PCT: 206
Total mileage with detours: 222
Day 13: Snow Canyon Road to Palm Springs to Whitewater Preserve. 13 miles.
April 7th, 2017.
A lucky day.
The night was gusty. I would awake to the sound of a massive gust of wind howling down from the mountains, reaching our camp, and throwing sand under my tent's walls and all over my stuff.
In the morning, I slowly packed up my gritty belongings, slowly ate my gritty pop-tart, and slowly headed toward the I-10 in my gritty trail runners.
Wind might be the most brutal element.
We passed a single house on the way to the I-10 overpass and a lady walked out toward us with fresh fruit! Fresh... anything... becomes a welcome sight on the trail. The fancy, non-gritty grapes, oranges, and lemons lifted my spirits. I was soon at the I-10 overpass.
The overpass was another world. The trains moving overhead were deafening. Graffiti lined the dark concrete walls and there were several smells I couldn't quite put my finger on... but... urine. Urine was definitely one of them.
Under the overpass were familiar figures though: hikers.
Convict was there already and several people I hadn't seen in a while. They'd skipped all the way to the I-10 from Paradise Valley! That's over 60 miles skipped! My purist brain cringed as I thought about how much amazing hiking I'd covered in the last 60 miles. I smiled and said hello, then discussed our hiking plans for the day. Convict and I were headed into Palm Springs for a shower, laundry, and a recharge. Everyone else was headed back into the desert.
The trail angel Backwards showed up with water and snacks to restock a small cache under the overpass. We helped her carry everything to the cache and thankfully scarfed down rice krispy treats, cookies, and goldfish while we got to know Backwards a little bit. She graciously ended up offering to bring us to Palm Springs, which helped us avoid a dangerous hitch along the I-10.
After Backwards dropped us off, we proceeded to take care of town business. 'Town business' meaning showering with your clothes on to tick off both shower and laundry, and then proceeding to stuff ourselves with whatever food we could get our hands on.
We literally walked out of a gas station with a giant slice of pizza, and then walked into a nearby In-N-Out as we simultaneously swallowed the last bite of pizza. The In-N-Out was used for fuel to walk to Starbucks, where I ordered giant drinks to fuel some writing and relaxation.
I've become a bottomless pit.
Being fairly far off-trail, we were a novel sight/smell. Everybody who sat down near us proceeded to ask us all about our journey. After a few hours of telling our story, a nice man named Ernie offered us a ride all the way back to the trailhead! We jumped at the opportunity as I hurriedly wrapped up the blog post I was working on.
Ernie's wife, Danielle, showed up with their car. I wasn't sure if she was going to be as excited to give the random drifters a ride as Ernie was... So I tried to be as friendly as possible, minimizing any stink-puffs. They dropped us off at the windy trailhead around 4 pm and we set off toward Whitewater Preserve, the next water source about nine miles ahead.
The hike took us through the wind turbines in Mesa Wind Farm. There was a little hut the farm had erected just for hikers to get out of the sun, along with a pack of bottled water for anyone in a desperate situation. A few hikers I hadn't met were under the hut. One of them was Free, who had been one of the first guys to push through Fuller Ridge! I thanked him for the footsteps and continued along the trail into the dark.
After a few miles of night hiking, we walked into the massive wash where Whitewater preserve was. The croaking of the frogs was amazing, almost too loud to think. By our narrow headlamp light, we found the campground at the reserve and set up camp, exhausted after a long day.
Total mileage along the PCT: 219
Total mileage with detours: 235.5
Day 14: Whitewater Preserve to Lake Fire Closure. 17 miles.
April 8th, 2017.
A hot climb day.
I woke up to the sound of rocks cascading off the steep cliff sides around Whitewater Preserve. There were Bighorn Sheep amazingly clinging to the side of the loose cliffs, jumping from ledge to ledge. Every jump sent another batch of rocks rolling down to the valley floor, waking grumpy hikers below.
It had been a late night before, so Convict and I had slept in. There was fancy running water in the bathrooms, so I decided to do some homeless laundry before setting off. We were in a campground where many people were car camping. Something feels strange about hiking for so many miles and then arriving at a campground where people are cooking on cast iron skillets out of their Toyota Corollas.
Nobody told me we could use Toyota Corollas.
As I was about to head out of the preserve, I came across Boston Chris, a Triple Crowner, meaning that he'd completed thru hikes on America's three big trails: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. My eyes were immediately drawn to his face, which was brutally battered.
Through his black eye, bruised cheeks, and scabbed face, he told me he'd gone through Fuller Ridge two days earlier without any snow gear! He'd even snapped one of his trekking poles beforehand, so with one pole he attempted the ridge and ended up taking a nasty fall.
I told him he needed to get off trail and into a bar somewhere where he could regale the local ladies with tales of wrestling with a bear or something, because he looked the part.
I headed out of Whitewater Preserve, passing a few day hikers who were curious where I was going and probably why I smelled so terrible. One group wanted a picture with me!
Turns out becoming a celebrity is easier when you commit to walking more and showering less. Life lessons, ya know?
I left the gigantic wash after a few miles and caught up to Nico. The wind was whipping and it was hard to enjoy the amazing views through all that sand in my eyes.
My energy levels were high and I felt great through the days' miles. I was alone mostly as I hacked away at the 4000 ft elevation gain over 17 miles. Podcasts on my phone helped keep my mind off the many aches and pains my body was trying to tell me about.
'Not now, brain. We've got work to do.'
A lot of the trail was tough to follow. The vegetation through the desert had grown intensely through the spring due to the wet winter and some of the trail was entirely grass, some of which was bent down from being stepped on. I had always envisioned the PCT being so well traveled that the whole trail would be beaten into a wide, vegetation-free path.
At one point, I came across the laziest snake I've ever had the pleasure of poking with my trekking pole. It wasn't a rattler, but it was big, around four feet long. I poked it, made noises, stomped around, told annoyingly loud personal stories, and nothing!
I was actually able to pick Mister Lazy up almost all the way off the ground with my trekking pole before he finally woke up and frantically slithered off trail, skillfully avoiding his predator.
I said goodbye to Mister Lazy, probably forever, seeing as how the next time anything wanted to eat him, he was thoroughly screwed.
All day, people had been talking about the Lake Fire closure. It was a camping closure, not a hiking closure, so the entire stretch needed to be covered in one day. Everyone was under the impression that the closure was 16 miles long, so a huge group was planning on camping in the same small campsite just ahead of the closure. I was hiking faster than everyone else headed that way, so as I passed groups you could tell that a small part of them hated me, knowing I'd be taking one of the limited tent spots.
When I arrived at the boundary for the closure, it was only 2:30. An older hiker named Fred was there, enjoying the solitude. There were plenty of hours left to put miles in, but there were 16 miles I'd have to hike ahead of me, bringing the total mileage to 33 for the day.
It was much easier to just take the best tent site and relax.
Fred decided to stick around too after I told him about the closure, but I probably should've warned him more profusely about the crowds headed our way. People trickled in throughout the afternoon and there ended up being 14 people packed into this three person tentsite. One of the tentsites was covered in fire ants, further limiting options.
The night was a party. We had an awesome campfire, Boston Chris was playing music, and everyone was eating dinner together. Fred's solitude was no more.
I'm sure he enjoyed our loud, personal stories though.
Total mileage along the PCT: 236
Total mileage with detours: 253
Day 15: Lake Fire Closure to Highway 18. 32 miles.
April 9th, 2017.
A starving day.
I started early in the morning, leaving camp around 5 a.m. There were so many people around me in the crowded campsite, I felt guilty making so much noise so early, but I had a problem.
I grabbed my food bag and looked inside to see what I had to fuel me for the next 30 miles to Big Bear. I was in for a tough day.
One Pop-tart, a little bit of trail mix, a bunch of gummy multi-vitamins, and a small Figbar.
My hiker hunger was in full swing. I could eat and eat and eat, never actually feeling full. I had been uncontrollably eating ahead of schedule the last few days, knowing consequences were coming, but unable to stop.
I ate half of one of my Pop-Tarts to curb my already-raging hunger and left camp. I had no choice today, I needed to get to Big Bear. I needed to get to food. I had too much pride to ask the hikers around me for the food they'd been carrying. I was embarrassed by my inability to be prepared for this leg.
There was a significant uphill to fight through before easier ground. The steep miles were gasoline on my bonfire of an appetite. I ate the rest of my Pop-Tart and the trail mix at a stream around 10 a.m., the Figbar didn't even make it until 11.
I had no food.
There were no hikers around me.
I was 20 miles from Big Bear, and I was hungry.
Kicking myself, I put my head down and walked. 'You've got nothing else you can do, dude,' I told myself. 'This is how we learn.'
The burn area ended up only being four miles long. My hunger made me more angry than was rational, but I could've been at least four miles closer to food last night. I was furious. Definitely irrationally furious.
The day was chilly, with stiff gusts of wind all day long. I came across snow fields, slowing me down even further, further increasing my frustration with my situation. My hands were shaking from a combination of hunger, anger, and fear as I strapped on my microspikes for the short snowfields.
As I was stepping off one snowfield, my planted foot skidded out from under me and I hit the ground hard, I heard the familiar sound of my pants tearing.
Jesus. Lay off, Universe. You already did me today. I kept pushing forward, thoroughly enjoying the increased flow of icy gusts entering my pants.
I was crashing. My blood sugar was tanked, and my anger was more and more shifting toward fear of what was ahead. Could I make it to a nearby road? Do you call a rescue for being hungry?? 'No, you're not doing that', I stubbornly pushed on. The bag of gummy multivitamins was intensely tempting me. What are the repercussions for eating 50 multivitamins at once? Mentally, I calculated how far I was from a toilet to hug and decided against it.
Around mile 20, there were two girls on the trail. They were day hikers. I said hello and they introduced themselves as Vanessa and Jen. Vanessa asked, "Are you hungry?"
Before I could consult my pride or ego, my mouth opened.
My answer was obviously quicker, or maybe more desperate, than they were expecting. Jen gave me a Figbar. Vanessa generously dove into her pack and gave me a big bag of raw almonds. Tears uncontrollably cropped up and a lump formed in my throat of pure love and gratitude for these two girls. I shook my head at the unexpectedly intense emotional reaction to something as simple as a bar and some almonds.
Embarrassed, I kept myself together and chatted with them for a few minutes. Thanked them as profusely as I could, snapped a picture and headed down the trail, finally feeling like a had control again.
Shortly after, I passed an exotic animal holding center... Supposedly, the grizzly bears and tigers being held were being used for Hollywood movies. My freedom being flaunted in front of those wild animals was sadly ironic.
After several more miles of wandering in and out of junctions with dirt roads, I arrived at a paved road. Uh oh. I'm not supposed to come up on a paved road today. I checked my maps and realized I'd hiked a mile in the wrong direction.
Universe.... remember what we talked about?!
I begrudgingly trudged backwards toward the trail. 'You're not going to make 30 miles today if you take the scenic route, you idiot.'
Back on the trail, I was powering through the remaining almonds I had left from Vanessa. There was a "trail magic" marked on our maps ahead, which I figured would be a pretty reliable spot with something to eat. Most trail magic isn't marked.
I arrived at the trail magic where there was an old couch sitting there for hikers! Before I could ponder how the hell they got a couch out there, I excitedly opened the large metal bin. No food. My heart sank unreasonably far.
I kept pushing myself forward, strictly rationing the last of the almonds. It was getting late and I still had six miles to go. I wanted to get into Big Bear tonight, but I wasn't going to make it if I had to hitchhike in the dark. I kicked myself again for the detour I took earlier.
I hiked into dusk past a massive house with 'keep out' signs very clearly spread along the PCT and eventually made it just before the highway. It was too dark to hitch. I'd be spending the night for sure.
I admitted defeat and set up camp. I had hiked my first 30 mile day, 32 miles with my extra credit detour. I was going to see my Mom in Big Bear tomorrow and that made me smile. She's one of my favorite people.
I ate all but about 10 almonds I had saved for breakfast and settled in for a 23F night. The stressful events and long hike of the day ensured I fell asleep immediately.