Mount San Jacinto on the PCT
One thing that PCT backpackers dread is having to walk miles to get back to the trailhead. Hitchhiking is the way we avoid this unfortunate reality of getting off-trail. This next section is going to separate the men from the boys. We are hiking up Mount San Jacinto on the PCT.
It is several miles from town to the Devil's Slide trail, which will take us up the mountain on nice, well-graded switchbacks (or "catbacks", as Travis likes to call them by accident). The road walk is uphill too, and our feet have already started to ache under the weight of our outrageously heavy packs. We have many days worth of food. Although we hiker boxed more than half of the food supplies sent to us. Big Bear is over one hundred miles away through difficult terrain.
I am lamenting our current condition when a small car pulls over. The driver, Kelvin, is a retired mathematician. He graciously drives us to the trailhead. Humber Park is a sea of tourists dressed in designer clothes and sunglasses. The L.A. weekend hikers have arrived, and they smell of perfume and Pantene.
We hike up a million switchbacks. Travis did not sleep well last night and is struggling. We pass Taylor. She says she is feeling terrible and is going back down. There was a rowdy party in the campground last night, and I hope her illness is not the result of too much fun. We ask if she needs help, but she assures us she will be fine. In the coming months, we would often wonder about her. Did she get well? Was she able to hike on?
Camping in the Clouds
We have found the PCT again and there is snow up here. I feel a twinge of anxiety. It reminds me of the upcoming Sierra Nevadas. This year's record snowfall has been the talk of all hikers, and the talk is filled with questions and not many answers. We have little experience backpacking in snow conditions. I own an ice ax and microspikes. They are packed away in our resupply box for Kennedy Meadows; however, they have never been used. What is this going to be like I wonder? People are talking about snowshoes and crampons. What!? Geez. What kind of winter was this?
It is gorgeous up here. I cannot help but think of the "I Shouldn't Be Alive" episode "Date from Hell" I saw not too long ago that took place right here. The couple took the tram up and got lost in the wilderness for 4 days with no gear. They discover a deceased hiker, used his matches to start a forest fire, and were rescued. It was an incredible story.
A wonderful thing about hiking in the mountains during a heavy snow year is the plentitude of water. We are used to carrying sometimes as much as 6 liters each through the waterless stretches. Here there are rivulets everywhere from the snowmelt. We know this will not last long though. It is getting late and Travis is starting to wear down. The restless night before catching up to him. Setting up camp early, we hang our food bag from a distant tree and bed down. It is eerily quiet up here.
Thousands of Lady Bugs
The next morning we are feeling refreshed. We climb up and up and up. Waterfalls cascade down the mountainside. It is a torrent. We are again reminded of the snowmelt. The river crossings in the Sierras are a big concern. What will it be like? I wonder again. Up and Up, it seems like it will never end and finally, it does. So guess what comes next when you go up and up forever? You got it. We are going down. Not just down though. We are descending many thousands of feet into the desert valley far below.
As we hike along, we explore all sorts of topics. Today we talk about favorite academic subjects and teachers at Texas State University. We often make a game of conversation as we hike along. "Ask me a question"!, I usually demand. Suddenly a weird pile of sticks appears beside the trail. It says...I am not sure what it says. Oh, H20! Travis has already passed it and is continuing down the trail. I call out to him, and we go off trail to find the source.
There are thousands of ladybugs here. They are floating in the air and clogging my water bladders as I try to fill them. I have never seen bugs in this quantity before. It is unreal. Backpackers cover the ground under the tree near the small creek. They are napping during the afternoon heat. This is the last water source for 8 miles.
Night Hiking the Mountain
We stop to set up camp just off the trail on a windy ridge. Tomorrow we will climb downhill for 8 miles to a water fountain at the foot of the mountain. A huge rattlesnake slithers across the trail as we put up our tent. The wind has picked up again, as it always does in the evening. We rehydrate some lasagna and wolf it down. We lie in our tent feeling dirty, hot, and terribly hungry.
My usual routine is to review the next day's maps just before I fall asleep. Tonight we both have some anxiety, feeling that we have not hiked far enough today. Our food is rationed for the long trek to Big Bear and our fear is that we will run out. We discuss hiking farther. Night hiking is not something we have tried yet, and we decide to go for it.
It would be a mistake to think downhill is easy. This is especially true of the long descent from the San Jacinto mountains, where the rocks are like shards of glass. In fact, downhill is brutal on the joints. Travis does downhill very well. He trots as I granny down every steep step. We want to make it to the water fountain.
With the setting sun as a backdrop, it is beautiful to watch the long line of car headlights on Interstate 10 far below. Across the valley, the wind farms are blinking tiny red lights. I feel like we are apart from the whole world, watching it from the skies like the Greek Gods.
As the sun disappears and darkness covers the trail, we don our headlamps. New creatures appear at night. Geckos and spotted toads sit languidly on the rocks. Backpacking at night in this terrain takes concentration. You must look down continuously. We surprise a Nighthawk on the trail. It darts off into the night.
We walk for hours without resting, and I am now utterly spent. It does not seem possible that someone could be this exhausted and still be able to walk. Moving slowly, we finally arrive at the only suitable tent site one mile above the fountain. We did not make it. Our water is gone. The wind has stopped, and now it is hot.
Somehow I find the energy to help set up camp. Collapsing inside, we expect to fall asleep instantly. The tent is on a slight incline though and sleep is impossible. Not only because of the stifling heat, but our sleep pads keep sliding down into the bottom of the bathtub. I try sleeping with my head down low and my feet up. I strip down completely and lie on top of my quilt. My mouth is dry as sand. Everything we own is covered with a fine layer of dust. My whole body aches and throbs.
A Glorious Fountain
I cannot believe that I could feel normal again after last night. What did we hike through I wonder? Looking up, I am amazed. This terrain is dangerous. The rocks lie at strange angles and look like jagged teeth. Wow! That was not smart. However, we are 8 miles farther down the trail, and I have learned three things. I do not prefer night hiking, I will not sleep if on an incline, and when in the mountains, bring plenty of food.
We reach the fountain. It is glorious. The water pressure is high and the water shoots out in a tall arch from the spout, making filling my bladder a challenge. We are brushing teeth and drinking like camels for the next push when a man called Martin appears. He is the most upbeat hiker I have met. Nothing seems to dampen his spirits. Martin is an anesthesiologist originally from Switzerland but now lives in Portland.
It is still early as we say our goodbyes to Martin and head out across the wide valley toward the distance San Gorgonio Mountains. This is flat we think. This will be a cakewalk. Wrong! The PCT is unpredictable. Accept this, and you will be happier.
- The PCT is unpredictable. That is part of the fun. You never know exactly what is coming your way.
- Plan your food well. When hiking in difficult terrain, you are going to be famished. Pack calorically dense, lightweight foods.
- Study your water report well. Plan carefully to avoid running out of water.
In the spring of 2017, we set out to hike the PCT. Hear our full story.