Monday, October 4, 2010

Like a Cow in a Snowstorm

Day 174-October 4th
Destination: Walker, CA (via Sonora Pass)
Miles: 21
Cumulative Miles: 2586
We each wish to post our own thoughts on this this post is Apricots' thoughts on day 174 of the PCT.

Though our day did not start until 5:30 a.m., the lightening and thunder storm that woke me at 2:45 a.m. proved to be an indication of the day ahead. I lay trying to remain calm so I could fall back asleep, but found myself counting with each flash...1 one thousand 2 one thousand... Most of the time I got to 7, which meant the lightening was at least a mile away. Occasionally I only got to 4. I thought to myself, "I hope the rain that is falling now stops by morning."

When our alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. we could still hear rain, so we snoozed until 5:30 a.m. Going about our normal morning routine of breakfast, coffee and packing up, Psycho stuck his head out of the tent to get our bear vaults. He had lazily shoved the bear vaults out of the tent door the night before not wanting to go out in the cold rain. When he loudly said, "F@ck", I thought maybe a bear had run off with them, or they had rolled into Dorothy Lake. I asked what was wrong and he said,"it snowed last night." The light patter of rain I had heard in the middle of the night was in fact snow, and so was the still continuing patter on our tent. Knowing this, we took our time getting ready; no sense in hiking in the dark with snow covering the trail making it difficult to see.

Hiking in the snow was not dissimilar to the day of hiking in the rain we had yesterday. The goal was to stay as warm and dry as possible and not slip on the rocks that cover this section of the PCT. The main difference was that my feet were refusing to warm up despite the continual movement, and I started to worry about frost-bite. "Just keep moving, that is all you have to do." I said this to myself not realizing how powerful of a mantra it would become for the day ahead.

Though the snow was frustrating it was manageable the same way the rain had been. The trail was covered, but not enough to really lose and this was a relief. My real concern throughout the day was the lightening that continued off and on. Looking at the sky, I could see this was a serious storm that was not going to pass by. It would be at least an all day thing, if not a several day thing.

The biggest concern was that we were going to be gaining elevation throughout the day. Though the first ten miles were pretty gradual, I knew we had to climb to almost 10,500 feet in order to connect to the road Psycho and I had agreed we were going to exit the mountain on. We chose it because it would bring us quickly down in elevation, while the trail remained high for quite a while longer before dropping.

Each time the sky lit up in a bright flash, I found myself counting again. Often I managed to count to seven, sometimes even twelve, before hearing the crash of thunder. At times I had no warning and just heard the loud crash. I became anxious the handful of times that I only counted to two. As Psycho explained to me, light travels roughly five times faster than sound, so whatever number you count to, you divide it by five and that gives a rough estimate of how far in miles the lightening is. Anything less than five is less than a mile and only counting to two...well you get the idea.

As I walked, I thought about how yesterday had been one of the harder trail days. Between the very rocky terrain, the grueling up and down climbs over slick rocks, the constant rain, and the fact that we hiked 24 miles stopping to rest only once to eat a quick lunch. I realized that today would turn out to be more difficult due to the snow and lightening. Little did I know, the hardest part of all was yet to come.

Though I tried to remain focused and positive as I walked, I was incredibly anxious and worried. Psycho led the way, moving us along as quickly as manageable. I prayed to just about every religious figure I could think of, my family, the universe, the earth, whatever or whoever. Hell, if the Lord of the Underworld was willing to warm things up a bit and keep us a bit safer (ideally without us having to exchange our souls for the deed), I would be glad to accept the help. Funny enough, the words that kept running through my head were, "Giant warm rubber bubble." I was envisioning Psycho and I each in our own giant rubber bubbles that extended out a half mile all the way around. Yeah, I know I am crazy, but it is thoughts like these that keep you moving in a situation like this. Luckily, my feet had finally warmed up enough that I could feel them again.

As we approached the steeper portion of the hike I heard an animal noise that sounded distinctly like a cow mooing. We were close to 10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevadas in the middle of a snow storm in early October, so I was a bit thrown off. I began to worry that it was actually a bear roar so I looked all around me for the source. Up the hill a little way from the trail was a heard of cows casually grazing the way they would in a field on a warm summer day. Though it was pretty bizarre to see the cows, I thought to myself, "ok, so if these cows are not concerned about this terrible snow and lightening storm, should I be so freaked out?" To which I responded to myself thinking, "Ya Lauren, but cows aren't the most intelligent creatures on the planet. But then again, what am I talking about, I am the idiot that is climbing up a mountain in a horrible snow storm?"

As we finally got past the tree line, I looked up at the mountains ahead and my heart sank. The storm had engulfed the mountains and it was white all around. Out of the seeming protection of the trees, I knew the lighting would be a real danger. I stopped Psycho and asked him if heading up further was a good idea. He looked back at me and told me that we had no choice, the storm was not going to let up and staying on the mountain longer would be unwise. As if to confirm my fears, a loud crash of thunder bounced off of the white walled mountains around us. Psycho turned back to face the storm and trudge onward. At this point the snow had completely covered the ground and the trail was no longer visible. Luckily, Psycho had the GPS and the cows were a blessing of sorts, as they had mainly stayed on the trail leaving prints and cow sh*t to guide us.

The further up we climbed, the more dramatic and intense the situation became until I thought that what I was going through could not be real. It had to be a scene in a movie, right? The wind was blowing the snow sideways and this had caused a lot of the hillside to have deeper snow than everywhere else. Psycho was making the steps, and I was following, so despite how hard it was for me, it was more difficult for him. Eventually we followed the trail for as far as we could make out any semblance of it. We ran into a point where it switch backed up the steep grade in front of us. Instead of switch backing, we climbed straight uphill until we intersected it again. As I walked, the whiteness of the snow and landscape around me was so consuming that, though I remained totally focused on each step, my eyes began to compensate for the brightness. I started being able to see the liquid on my eyes moving around. They were focusing closer than what I was actually looking at because it was too bright and there was no solid object to focus on. It was distracting, but I kept moving.

When we finally reached the saddle where the road intersected the trail I was relieved but at my most frightened. The wind was the strongest it had been all day, that is the nature of a saddle. I was struggling through knee deep snow, completely surrounded by clouds, with occasional flashes of lightening and the wind was blowing me sideways. I panicked but somehow kept moving following Psycho down the other side of the mountain. It was just as frightening as the side we had come from, but we were climbing down and losing elevation as quickly as was safe to move.

After we had traveled several miles, conditions improved and the snow lightened. This was when I accepted that it was all going to be okay. As Psycho noted in his journal, I could not help but think of the three south bound hikers we had passed. I hope they make it through okay because the weather report we saw once in town confirmed that the storm was going to last several more days. We were lucky enough to get rides off the mountain despite the road being closed.

If there is anything that this trail has taught me it is humility. I am now very certain of my place in the natural world. I am also incredibly grateful to every single person that helped us along the way. It is because of this help that we were able hike the miles we did and have the experiences we had. Every step of the way I was surprised by blessing after blessing from many an unexpected source. Blessings sometimes come in unusual forms, like cows in a snow storm...

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  1. Mom use to talk about being clumsy like a cow in a rail pile.....but what a blessing cows in a snow storm turned out to be....perhaps your guardians even. Appropriate....Remember India Rooni.

    I too wish to thank all the folks that sent you packages, gave you food, prayed for you, hoped for you, gave you rides, shared their homes and resources, oft times going way out of the way. Ah...the Universe is good and I'm praying mightily for the hikers still on the trail. So good to know you are safe. Congratulations on an amazing accomplishment. Onward and upward (so to speak) much love..mum, madre, mom, ma, chenie your writing

  2. lol! oops! that's "lightning" not "lightening." oh well, the things you see after you post!