Sunday, March 10, 2013

Part 10 - Don't Fall Off the Mountain

The Paradise Café was situated at a road junction and was a hangout for locals in the area.  It had indoor and outdoor seating and featured a band on some nights.  Before getting into the car, I grabbed my cell phone battery charger, my camera battery charger, and several empty water bottles, hoping I would be able to find outlets to recharge the batteries and replenish my water supplies.  I scored on both accounts.  

Outlets were available on the outside of the building, and after I plugged into them I went inside and ordered the biggest chocolate milk shake the counter attendant could make.  Well, it wasn’t all that big and it cost six dollars, but it was worth it.  There’s just something about a chocolate shake that is soothing and comforting, like Linus’s blanket in the Charlie Brown comics.

With batteries charged and water bottles filled, I started the mile-long walk back to the campsite.  It was almost dark when I arrived and the place was deserted except for Hector and another hiker who had arrived after I left.  The new hiker said his name was Whisperer.

Hector said he was going to cook up some hot dogs and asked if we’d like some.  Whisperer and I both said, “Yes.”  While the hot dogs cooked, we visited, and as the night wore on, I kept reaching into the cooler I was sitting on and pulling out a cold soda.  I had five before the night was over.
Hector said he’d been coming to this same camping spot for six years.  

He’d stay four or five days, or until his food ran out, and then go back to his home in Southern California.  After a month at home, he’d pack up and travel north to Kennedy Meadows – 702 miles from the Mexican border, and set up shop again.  He enjoyed what he did, and was glad to be able to provide a service to the hiking community.  And he funded the entire setup - the medical supplies and the food and drink out of his own pocket.  He asked for nothing in return.

Before I went to the Paradise Café, I saw the feet of a hiker Hector was working on; the guy’s feet looked like raw hamburger.  Hector said his problems had a lot to do with the thin nylon socks he was wearing.  (Hector called them church socks.)

Hector is five years younger than I am, but we discovered we’d both taken our army basic training at Fort Ord, California, in the early 1960s.  We enjoyed our visit with one another as we polished off the hot dogs.  I had two, Whisperer had three, and Hector had one.  At 9:00 p.m., we bade each other good-night.  Whisperer and I headed out into the brush where we had our camps set up, while Hector retired to his mammoth camper loaded in the back of his equally mammoth Ford F-350 pickup truck. 

I set my internal clock for 2:30 a.m., as I wanted to be on the trail by 3:00 a.m.  I don’t carry a watch, but I’ve learned that simply telling my conscience mind what time I want to wake up I’m able to do so, and once awake I turn my cell phone on to verify the time.  In hindsight, I can’t believe I felt the need to be on the trail at this unreasonable hour. 

 Yes, I was heading into the San Jacinto Mountains; yes, it meant an uphill climb all day long; and yes, I was worried about being left behind, but what difference was four hours going to make?  I could have left at four or five in the morning, as was my normal time. 

 It wasn’t a race to get somewhere before someone else did; I didn’t even know the people ahead of me.  There are no finish lines to get to before someone else does, but for some reason I felt enormous pressure to make my twenty-plus miles a day, and the only way I could do so was by getting on the trail as early as I was willing to roll out of bed and hiking as late as I was able to stand on my legs, which meant hiking twelve to fourteen hours a day.

I developed an irrational dread about not wanting other hikers to pass me, for to me that meant I was falling behind.  But then, one has to ask, “Falling behind what?”  I had no idea how many hikers were in front of me, or how many were behind me; I just know I didn’t want to fall behind, and if hikers were passing me, in my mind, that meant I was falling behind, which meant that everyone would get to the Canadian border before me.  Wow!  Such stupid thinking.  I know I developed this way of thinking because I was such a slow hiker, and it bothered me greatly that I couldn’t keep up with hikers at any speed.  Accordingly, I was willing to sacrifice sleep time to get on the trail before anyone else in my little bubble of hikers was even thinking about stirring.

On my way out of camp, I stopped by the 172-quart Gott cooler, opened the lid and retrieved two more cold sodas, one which I drank immediately, and the other I saved for later. With my headlamp on, I quietly made my way through the camp, past the wire fence gate, past Hector’s F-350 Ford pickup truck parked by the side of the road with emergency blinkers flashing to warn other drivers of his presence, and across the paved highway and onto the Pacific Crest Trail.

I was now officially heading into the San Jacinto Mountains where lay the infamous five-mile-long Fuller Ridge, a ridge exposed to Pacific storms that moved inland from the California coast only sixty miles away.  In winter, snow levels can be eight to ten feet deep, depending on the severity of the winter, and more often than not, not all of this snow will be melted by May, the beginning of the hiking season.  For two years, I have stressed over meeting this demon.

The guidebook said it was thirty-eight miles from Highway 74 to Fuller Ridge with an altitude gain of thirty-six hundred feet.  With these figures, I knew it would take me a little more than two full days to climb Mount San Jacinto.

The climb upwards this morning was slow and methodical and no one passed me; I had the trail all to myself.  Chaparral shrubbery gave way to pine trees, and I could feel the air turning cooler the higher I climbed.  Someone at Dr. Sole’s camp had mentioned a Pacific storm was approaching and would last upwards of three days.  For now, the skies were clear with only faint trails of whispery clouds streaking across the horizon.

I camped on a ridge with straight drop-offs on either side of the trail.  To the east, several thousand feet below my campsite, was Desert Palm, California, elevation 220 feet above sea level.  As the night came on, I could see the lights of the city and vehicles moving along Interstate 10 which connected to Phoenix, Arizona, via the Papago Freeway.  Several hikers joined me on the ridge that night, and in the morning as I prepared to leave, I found additional hikers scattered along the trail, curled up in little balls inside their sleeping bags.

I was up and moving early before anyone else was stirring, and it gave me a great sense of satisfaction to be the first one on the trail.

Day two of the Mount San Jacinto hike brought me early to Fobes Pass, a place to have lunch and get water.  There was a couple already at the pass having lunch, and I asked if I could join them, to which they readily agreed.  Before I could spread my things out on the ground and prepare lunch, I had to rearrange a couple of rustic wooden chairs that some meaningful trail angel in times past had assembled and lugged up the mountainside to this spot and placed there for the comfort and benefit of hikers.  However, the chairs had seen better days, were way past their prime, and were now good only for firewood. 

The couple, who was also having lunch, had trail names of Wren and Bagpiper, and were river guides from Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  After a marvelous lunch of peanut butter and grape jam on tortillas, I followed Bagpiper down the mountainside to the spring, where we visited while we filtered water.  
For half an hour I entertained him with stories of my adventures in rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

I told him about my encounters with storms, whales, ships and aircraft carriers, and the loss of my rudder.  He was amazed that such a journey could be made, and he had many questions.  I enjoyed visiting with him and, as always, I find it amusing that people make such a big deal out of this journey.  To be sure, it was out of the ordinary, and not something the average person would do, and yes, it had risks, but you manage for the risks and go for it.  For me, the ocean row was a challenge only slightly greater than my military experience as a parachutist. 

As I was preparing to leave Fobes Pass, Maggie, from Oakland, California, walked in.  I hadn’t seen her in several weeks, and it was nice to visit with her for a few moments.  I would never see her again, and do not know if she finished the trail.  

The climb up out of Fobes Pass was steep, and so I started my ritual of counting to eight and then repeating myself over and over again until I had made significant progress up the trail. Pressing on, with much determination in my steps, I gained altitude and passed Splitter Peak, Apache Peak, and Tahquitz Peak, eventually coming to Saddle Junction, the bailout point to the trail town of Idyllwild, via the Devil’s Slide Trail. 

Prior to Saddle Junction, I stopped for water at a small-flowing stream and to enjoy a snack.  Coming down the trail were three Forest Service rangers – two men and a woman.  Their purpose, they said, was to do campsite evaluation and to eradicate any unauthorized fire rings. During our visit, the female ranger asked to see my hiking permit.

If one is a thru-hiker – Mexico to Canada, or traveling a distance of five hundred miles or greater, one has to have a permit which can be obtained free from the Pacific Crest Trail Association.  It’s a way for the Forest Service and other land managers to assess the visitor use of the land over which they have stewardship.  Hiking without a permit can result in a ticket and substantial fine.

Before leaving for the hike, I did obtain my permit, but rather than carry the piece of paper with me, I thought I would be high tech and take a photo of it with my cell phone and carry it that way.  I told the ranger I had the permit, but that it was a photo on my cell phone.  When I accessed the image on my phone, the glare of the sun on the screen face was so intense, it was virtually impossible to see anything, even when we moved under the shade of the trees.  Finally, the ranger said she’d take my word for it that the image was there.  That was the one and only time in 2,665 miles that I was ever asked for my hiking permit.

Day two of the San Jacinto Mountain hike ended at Strawberry Junction Trail Camp.  It was a full moon when I went to bed that night, so bright that it felt like a spotlight was shining in my eyes.  And then, unbeknownst to me, while I was sleeping, the clouds moved in; the Pacific storm that had been forecast had arrived with a vengeance and it began to rain.  Of course, I didn’t have my tent up.  Why would I?  The moon was shining and there were no clouds in the sky when I went to bed.  It was too late to put the tent up, so I pulled it out of its bag and laid it over my sleeping bag like a tarp.  I stayed fairly dry and made it through the night.

During high-snow years, the trail beyond Saddle Junction, up to and across Fuller Ridge, can be formidable and too dangerous to pass.  Hikers, if they value their lives, will exit the trail at this point and descend to Idyllwild and walk around the mountain at a lower elevation.  In a low-snow year such as this year -2013, hikers can choose to press on or descend to Idyllwild to claim their resupply packages, or to just take a needed break from the trail. 

 I chose to go on; I would like to have visited Idyllwild, but again I felt the pressure to stay on the trail and not take time off.  In hindsight, the pressure to stick to the trail and not linger was a blessing of immense value.  I crossed the Canadian border with only forty-eight hours to spare before early winter snows buried the trail under three to four feet of snow, and effectively ended the journey for many hikers before they were able to cross into Canada.

Leaving Strawberry Junction Trail Camp in the rain, clad in my black North Face rain pants and yellow Frogg Togg rain jacket, I pushed on up the trail.  Today was day three of the San Jacinto Mountain climb, the day I would come face-to-face with my nemesis, Fuller Ridge. For two years I have anguished, stressed, and fretted about it because of the journal accounts I had read of the difficulties others had had in crossing this five-mile stretch of exposed rock.  The ridge is long and steep; its drop-offs precipitous.  Mistakes can be lethal, and a storm was now lashing Fuller Ridge. 

Each step across the exposed west face of the ridge must be precise and sure.  Ice axes and crampons are mandatory when the trail is covered with snow and hard ice.  This day there was no snow and relatively little ice, but the storm lashing the mountain was pelting the ridge with icy rain that built up layers of ice on the trees, branches, and leaves.  And when the ice was heavy enough, it crashed to the ground, coating the trail with a fine layer of slippery ice. 

 Halfway through the ridge hike, the storm intensified; enormous clouds laden with moisture slammed into the sheer cliffs of the ridge and were then pushed up over the crest by ferocious winds moving at gale-force speed.  I could hardly comprehend what this place must look like if this were snow instead of icy rain I was experiencing.

There was no stopping, there was no resting; there was only one goal to achieve, and that was to get off the ridge and beyond into the trees on the east side of the mountain and shelter. Just when it seemed like there was no safe haven in sight, the trail veered to the east and began a gradual descent, first to the east and then to the north.

In moments, I was on the lee side of the mountain and walking through a pine forest shrouded in mist that gave the place an eerie feeling; at any moment, I expected to see a troll, Leprechaun, or werewolf appear on the trail expecting a payoff to let me pass.

As a side note, for my wife’s peace of mind, I wore a Spot GPS tracking device.  Every few seconds the device would send out a signal encrypted with my GPS location.  The signal was received by a satellite and bounced back to an earth receiving station, then transmitted to the Spot website.  On the website, my hike appeared as a small dot on a Google map that displayed the Pacific Crest Trail.  With her computer, my wife could access the Spot website and follow my progress, almost in real time.

She told me later that as she was watching me traverse Fuller Ridge, all of a sudden the line of dots fell nearly a thousand feet in elevation and didn’t move.  She was sure I had fallen off the mountain and was now dead.  In a panic, she called a friend who also uses a Spot tracker and who was also following my hike, to ask him if it looked like I had had a serious accident, and should she alert the authorities?  He told her that the tracking signals sometimes failed to function properly and that she should wait to see if the dots resumed moving.  Twenty minutes later, the dots resumed their movement and it now appeared as though I had climbed a thousand-foot-vertical cliff and was once again back on the trail.

 Fuller Ridge is up there somewhere. It will take me two days to climb to the top of this mountain.

 A portion of the trail.

It took dynamite to blast the trail through this section.

The trail just keeps climbing higher. The trail builders could have gone around the mountain, but what fun would that be.

 A small remnant of last winter's snow.

 The rangers I met on the trail. The female ranger, who wanted to see my permit is taking the picture.

 The forecasted three-day storm is beginning to assault Fuller Ridge. It was so cold and miserable crossing the 5 mile ridge that I didn't stop to take pictures. I just wanted to get across as quickly as possible.
I made it across the ridge in one piece and am now on the down hill side of the mountain. Only the mist and fog, minus the rain, drift down the back side of the mountain and will finally dissipate in the heat rising up from the desert floor around Palm Springs.

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