Today took my breath away in more ways than one. Perhaps my best day on trail so far, although incredibly difficult, today is one to be remembered.
Woke up this morning and it was still dark. I laid there for a few moments before realizing that hikers were packing up already- why so early? I rolled over and discovered that it was actually quite bright outside- I had just pulled my sleeping bag over my head… By the time I got packed up, Gazelle and Mad Scientist were gone and the rest were in various states of readiness. I filtered water (3.5 liters since the next reliable water source isn’t for 15 miles) and headed out with Cyndi and Lucas.
After the terrible climb back up from the spring (a whole mile off trail), we rejoined the PCT and continued climbing. We got our first glimpse of Mt San Jacinto, capped with snow, far in the distance. It is crazy to know that we will probably be summiting it in the next few days, and that we are WALKING all that way to it.
Lucas fell behind because of his ankle and that was the last we saw of him today but we will likely see him in Idyllwild tomorrow. The trail was level for a bit then began a very steep climb into the San Jacinto Wilderness. At this point I also fell behind and was alone for much of the rest of the day.
The inclines today were steeper than they have been up until now. There was a wildfire in this area a few years back that left many trees blackened and bare, skeletal sentinals in a now-recovering landscape. The wind is ferocious at the higher elevations and often those massive sentinals cannot withstand the force and fall, blocking the trail. Too big to climb over, you must go around, which often means scaling steep, loose disturbed soil or rock. It was treacherous. I got to the point where my legs felt as though they couldn’t climb any more and decided to try listening to a podcast for motivation. What a huge difference it made!
As I chugged along slowly, an older gentleman with just a water pack trotted up behind me, apparently out for his morning jog. I was astounded that he could jog out here when all I could do was wheeze. I grunted for my half of our brief conversation, but my thoughts were more articulate: “Did you hear the weather report?” [uh oh] “Yeah, it is supposed to snow on top of the mountain tonight” [Wait, SNOW? Well, at least I’m not there yet] “This whole area will probably get some” [crap…]. This motivated me to get moving!
The trail continued its climb and the terrain began to change into the most fantastic rock formations. The higher it went, the more incredible the terrain (or maybe it was just the lack of oxygen to my brain). I stopped for lunch and admired the view.
As the trail climbed, the wind became tougher to fight. There were moments that I felt like I might get blown right off of a cliff but that it might actually be worth it for the view and the experience of feeling this thin air in my lungs, huffing and puffing up these incredible cliffs, struggling to put one foot in front of the other but somehow succeeding. There was a fine ridgeline with sharp drops on both sides and no rock to protect from the wind. It reminded me of a smaller, much windier Devil’s Causeway in Colorado, which we hiked this past fall.
It got colder as the day went on, and windier still. The jogger’s warning about the storm reverberated in my mind as I pushed throughout the day. The trail finally leveled a bit, even began a slight descent, and I was shocked to come around a bend and see snow. SNOW. It was just a small patch next to a rock left undiminished by the sun, but still. As I continued, I found another patch, then another, until soon there were decent size patches, some even covering the trail.
I put on all of my layers. My fingers started to hurt from the wind and cold. I had been stepping over tiny snowmelt streams for an hour or so now but finally came to one more substantial than the earlier trickles. Cyndi and Julia were there, contemplating what to do next. Follow the trail up Tahquitz Peak, where the only known campsites were windy and exposed, try to find a relatively decent spot near here, or push all the way to Idyllwild tonight. Looking at my maps (so far I am the o ly person carrying paper maps) I saw that there was an alternate trail, almost exactly the same distance as the portion of PCT from which it deviates, that goes through a valley instead of over a mountain, AND there was water and camping there. We all decided that was the best option, especially with the incoming weather.
The alternate trail was not nearly as well marked or well used as the PCT but we didn’t have any trouble finding Tahquitz Valley and nice campsites. We were all chilled and tired and immediately set up camp. I found a lovely spot next to a fallen tree and tried to pitch there but couldn’t get my stakes in the ground. Then I remembered that this area is mostly rock and that I must be on a large boulder. I moved over a bit and had the same problem. Frustrated, I moved to the other side of the camping area and pitched there, only to find the soil too loose and had to pile rocks on top of each stake to keep it in the ground.
Once we were set up, the three of us sat together, cooking and eating dinner and chatting about the day. Tomorrow we have a nice short hike into Idyllwild, a notoriously hiker-friendly town and a hiker favorite. Still unsure how we wanted to handle our town day, we soon bunkered down in our tents to brace for the incoming weather. I put my water filter inside my sleeping bag so that it wouldn’t freeze and tried to figure out how to stay warm while dreaming of hot coffee and clean clothes.
Trail Magic: 0
Hiked with: Cyndi, Lucas, about 60% alone
Camped with: Cyndi, Julia