Our early afternoon arrival at Trail Camp corresponded with the appearance of dark storm clouds. The pattern the ranger and Scott spoke of for past days was holding true on this day too. Fortunately, off in the distance were mostly blue skies, so the part about the storm being short was likely to hold true as well. There were numerous shelters already set up (or in the process of being set up). Since the terrain was largely granite, there weren’t many places to stake out a tent. We had to take what we could get. I had a bit more of a challenge finding a workable spot because I use a two person shaped tarp and inner bug tentwhich has a much larger footprint than two person tents. I only had a problem setting up one stake that I could only get three quarters of the way into the ground. After adding a seemingly heavy enough rock to hold down the stake and pulling fairly hard at the connection, it appeared to be solidly in place. A light rain started soon after I was done setting up and I got under cover to wait out the storm.
Fortunately, the larger footprint of my tarp system gave me ample room to get things set up inside. By the time I got myself settled and was laying down to rest I was feeling pretty good about things. This being only my fifth backpacking trip, I was now dealing with my shelter in the rain for the first time. For a first rain experience, I was lucky to be able to set up my tarp while the ground was still dry with rain expected to last only an hour or two. It had been raining for about twenty minutes and my shelter was showing no signs of stress. Thinking about the amazing scenery on the way up to Trail Camp, I fell asleep.
Thunder and lightning woke me up. It clearly had gotten colder while I was sleeping. The light rain had turned into a heavy hail storm with very gusty winds. Pondering whether or not my tarp would hold didn’t last long. The wind soon blew on the side of my tarp so hard it pulled the stake support (with rock weight on it) out of the ground and my trekking pole support came down on me. Water was now getting in through the mesh side of my bug tent. I quickly held the trekking pole support up to significantly slow down the flow of water getting in. I couldn’t stop it altogether as I would need to be able to stake the tarp out beyond the bug tent to accomplish that. Instead, the wind kept the tarp pressed high enough up against the bug tent to allow water to blow in through the mesh near the bottom. Since I had taken off my hiking shoes to nap, my socks were now wet as was my right leg. Trying to keep my things dry, I pushed them to the other side of the bug tent. Now off my air mattress, placing my hand on the solid silicon nylon floor of my bug tent felt like I was pushing down on the top of a very cold water bed. Though still mostly dry inside, I had a pool of water forming under the bug tent floor and me. While trying to figure out if I would be better off going outside and re-staking (or similar) my tarp, the hail stopped. In a few minutes I heard Scott outside asking if I was all right. Thankfully, he re-staked that side of my tarp (as best as it could be done under the circumstances) which allowed me to get out and keep my stuff on the other side as dry as possible.
Tim showed up within a couple minutes of my exit from my tarp. It was clear to all of us that I couldn’t stay where I was because my shelter was in a pool of water. My wet feet and right leg were cold enough to get that freezing sensation I find very uncomfortable. By the time I got everything ready to move, pretty much everything was now wet. This was by far the toughest moment of my trip. Being this cold early in the afternoon, I didn’t know if I could handle being cold and wet at night. Being above 12,000 feet, would I be at genuine risk of getting hypothermia? I really didn’t know. What I felt with almost equally intense feelings was I didn’t want to stay there as I was and I didn’t want to end my trip. As I thought about it, I didn’t think I could stay there as I was. My inexperience dealing with bad weather in the mountains was getting the best of me. I began exploring ending my trip—but my heart wasn’t into it. I had checked in advance and found out the permit didn’t tether us together in terms of when returned to the trailhead. Thankfully, if I left early, nobody else needed to. My friends were willing to make big sacrifices for me to stay. With more thunderstorms a possibility, Tim’s proposed sacrifice was the most extreme as he offered to give me his spot in his tarp and spend the night cowboy camping in his poncho. He rationalized that he’d done it in the past on the JMT, and besides he was from Oregon. I just didn’t like any of my friends’ proposals. However, I wasn’t ready to go and I didn’t need to leave for at least an hour to make it down the trail before dark. I walked with Tim across Trail Camp to his tarp to sort things out. Along the way I noticed a lot of people packing up to leave. I later learned lots of backpackers had similar bad luck as I did finding themselves soaked in a pool of water. Some of them had left their stuff at Trail Camp while summiting Mt. Whitney and were planning to leave anyway. However, many others cut their trip short.
The sun broke through the clouds soon after I arrived at Tim and David’s campsite. My feet and leg were no longer freezing and the clothes I was wearing had started to dry. It was also windy. I remembered my son telling me about a backpacking trip he had once that was tainted a little when all his clothes got wet. I finally recalled that with his reminder I had decided to pack a change of clothes in a dry bag. Thus, it didn’t matter that my pack was wet, I could get myself dry. With the sun out and the wind blowing it became clear I had time to get my tarp, air mattress, and sleeping bag dry. Problem solved, I left my stuff spread out at Tim and David’s site to dry and went out in search of a site without a pool of water for me. It took a while (largely because I went for some serious overkill on the weighing down of the tarp stakes with rocks etc) but I got myself set up. Along the way I noticed that a nice rainbow had formed which felt like an exclamation point on my decision to stay. I don’t think I would have enjoyed that rainbow much if I was hiking down to my car. Leaving some things out to dry some more in the wind, I went down to the tarn to filter four liters of water with my Steripen. At the tarn I met a couple who got caught near the summit when the storm hit. Being at higher elevation they had to deal with a snow storm with really scary lightening strikes occurring throughout their trek back down to Trail Camp. It was clearly terrifying and something they never wanted to experience again.
I finally made my way to join the others and have dinner. I was tired and wasn’t emotionally ready to hear that they thought it would be a great idea to wake up and get started by 2:30 am to reach the summit. This would allow us to easily make it back down to Trail Camp before the next day’s possible storm if the weather continued following the pattern of the last few days. I already felt that the 4:30 am agreed upon start time was going to be a toughie for me. I imagined how cold it might be. With snow on the mountain, there would be a good possibility the trail could be icy near the top. On a couple training hikes earlier in the year I had slipped and fallen on icy terrain. I found nothing about the potential of icy terrain in the dark to be appealing. For some reason (I’m guessing because I had the permit), the guys left the decision of start time up to me. Summoning up my inner Vulcan side of Mr. Spock, I started asking more questions—especially of Tim who was the only one who had hiked the trail before. Tim’s description of the terrain from Trail Crest to the summit (which turned out to be accurate) was not a place I’d want to trek in the dark—especially if the trail was icy. However, thinking about the experience of hikers who got caught in the storm it made sense to try to get to Trail Crest by sunrise. Still not confident about the potential for icy conditions, I agreed to a 3:30 am start time as long as someone else led the way while it was dark.
Moments after we agreed on our start time it started to drizzle lightly. We dispersed to our individual camp sites and by the time I made it to my tarp the rain stopped. After finishing doing things like setting up my air mattress and changing into my dry clothes, I went outside my tarp and saw that the clouds had mostly gone. I had a few things I left out hoping to dry in the night’s wind. I got into my sleeping bag and thought about all the amazing things I saw that day, the drama I experienced due to the hail storm, the pending early morning start time, and then I fell asleep. Soon I would learn that this kind of intensity is just a normal day in the Sierras—amazing! To be continued …