1788 Humbled by Winter in July

[Editor’s Note: NSFM (not safe for moms)]

This is how people die, I think to myself. I’m standing in the snowy forest, new snow fallen on old, in the fog. White on white on white. I am soaked through and starting to shiver; it’s barely above freezing, if at all. I am all alone. And I can’t find the trail.

I spent last night sneaking fits of sleep in the storm after a fat drop of water hitting my cheek startled me awake. It was pouring rain, and something sharper, like ice pellets, was pounding against the thin nylon just above my head. The wind was blowing, and my no longer new tarp tent was leaking slow drops from two corners. I contorted my body to avoid the dripping spots as best I could and tried to get some rest.

Morning brings little relief. It is cold and misty on this mountain side, with no hope of sun anytime soon. In weather like this there are only two options: don’t move or don’t stop. With the next water source ten miles away, I rally to push forward, thinking carefully about how to be as safe as possible. I think back to last year on San Jacinto, all those miles with wet feet on snow. It will be too cold for breaks until I stop for the day, so I stuff my pockets with snacks. I set rules for myself against hypothermia (no walking in warm cloths so they stay dry for camp; stop before I am shivering too much; make sure my hands stay warm enough to set up the tent), but still have no idea just how difficult the conditions are going to get.

A few miles down the trail the mist thickens into snow. Well, I think this is different, snapping a few photos when it starts to accumulate. The downed trees continue, almost constant in places.IMG_7115Though the path so far is mostly obvious, even under all the logs, I am disoriented in the fog. The usual twists and switchbacks feel like full circles until I have no idea which way is North. Then the wet new snow starts to cover everything: the jagged rocks underfoot, the purple spring flowers in full bloom, trees drooping under the unexpected weight of it all. I am moving through a scene from Frozen, where some dark magic has cast a heavy coat of unseasonable winter across the land.IMG_7110But there is a single set of miraculous footsteps leading the way, just a bit bigger than my own. So on I continue, without stopping, on and on along the ridge. On one side, it’s foggy but relatively benign; on the other, a strong wind is flinging ice pellets and freezing rain with a vengeance. Then I am on top of the ridge, a burn area that offers no shelter from the onslaught of winter, blasted by ice and absolutely freezing cold. Eventually, the trail heads down after what I later learn is so aptly named Devil’s Peak. In the moment there is no peak, just snow on snow on thick fog. I traverse a steep patch of old snow, treading as carefully as possible, watching little snowballs roll down the slope in miniature avalanches. And then the footprints stop. I take a few cautious steps forward. Still nothing. I check my phone. I am not on trail.IMG_7114And so I find myself alone, shivering in the freezing whiteness, and contemplating my own mortality. Or rather, that of someone else in a similar situation. At the time I refuse to fully recognize my own danger. This is how (other) people end up needing rescue, I think. And then I realize that even with a SPOT beacon no one would be coming anytime soon in this weather, or moving fast with all the trees in the way. This, I conclude, is how (other) people die.

But those people panic, I continue. So DO NOT PANIC. I try to use my phone’s GPS to find the way, but every time I walk a few feet the arrow shifts directions, inaccurate with the thick cloud cover. I realize I need to retrace my steps while I can still see them. I regroup back up on the snowfield, no easy way down, no trail in sight.

Shivering, with paper maps in hand, I conclude the way is down there somewhere. After a few tries, the phone app says I am on trail again. But I can’t even recognize it covered in snow. I push past a few small trees for a closer look and there they are: the footprints have returned. I want to thank whoever is making them, to give her (it must be another solo woman, based on the size I think), a giant hug and all my gratitude.

The trail soon emerges from the whiteness, and the snow reverts to very cold rain. But on and on I push, somehow finding more strength. Adding pounds of water to my pack, as cruel irony in this wetness, there aren’t any more water sources until Crater Lake in 19 miles.

At 3pm, I am starting to shiver even walking uphill hands and feet heading toward numb. I have walked twenty-two miles straight, stopping only once for water, and when the sun came out for two optimistic minutes. Through freezing rain, ice pellets, fog and snow, wet legs struggling against wet rain pants, everything soaked through. Over countless downed trees, and at least one semi-treacherous snow patch.

All of this alone.

I set up my tent, relieved that my sleeping bag and warm clothes are still mostly dry after four days and nights of rain. I make hot soup, and eventually stop shivering. I set about blogging, to write some sense out of the struggles, when two sentences in, my phone disowns me via factory reset Hello screen and a display in striped ruins.

It is at this moment – not when I was soaked through, not when I was lost, not when I faced yet another set of downed trees – but at the moment where my phone dies, I decide I am done and ready to go home. In the meantime, I take a nap.

When I wake, I make more hot food and write with Sharpie on paper maps a list of things I am grateful for, including: not dying, not panicking, hot food, paper maps and a 10 degree sleeping bag. Somehow, at the end of this crazy day I am warm and dry and safe and found.

July 10, 2016
Miles: 22
Trip: 394
PCT: 1810

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