Hail Storm Provides Some Drama

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.

Trail Camp

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.

Rainbow above the White Mountains east of Trail Camp

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.

View of tarn in front of Wotans Throne at Trail Camp

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 …

Internalizing That Making it to the Summit is Optional

Looking toward San Bernardino Peak on the way to Limber Pine Bench

Had I stayed the night at Limber Pine Bench or got more water at nearby Limber Pine Springs, I might have made it to the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio.  Instead, I headed up to Trail Fork Springs planning to camp and replenish my water supply there.  Unfortunately, I never found the campground or the water I was told would be there.  I know the campground is there, water is probably still flowing from the spring, and I’m sure I got real close to it.  I just couldn’t find it.  As a result, dealing with becoming extremely low on water, my resulting dehydration, and accepting I wouldn’t make it to the summit became what I focused on for the remainder of my backpacking trip.

My decision to go to Trail Fork Springs didn’t appear at all risky when I made it.  I called the Mill Creek Ranger Station a few days prior to find out where to find water between Angelus Oaks and Mt. San Gorgonio and asked about which campgrounds had nice views.  Trail Fork Springs or High Meadow Springs (another four miles up the mountain) were the recommended places to camp.  Since I got a late start, I had already ruled out High Meadow Springs.  The only reason to consider Limber Pine bench was because I was also slowed a little by a light afternoon rain along the way.  However, the rain had stopped by the time I reached Limber Pine Bench and it was still before 5pm.  I could easily make it to Trail Fork Springs by 7:30 or 8:00.  Since I wanted to arrive closer to 7:30 and have more sunlight to set up camp and because I had plenty of water to make it there; I decided not to invest the time to replenish my water supply at Limber Pine Springs which I passed a little further up the trail.

Clear Skies and plenty of light on the way to East San Bernardino Peak

All appeared to be going well.  The trail and views were great and I was making good time.  At junctions in the trail, clearly marked signs indicated the way to Trail Fork Springs.  So, I was feeling great about my decision to hike a little longer to make the next day’s journey shorter.  Then I came upon a junction and the sign indicated one way to Jackstraw Springs and the other way to Dollar Lake Saddle.  It made me a little uneasy that all of a sudden there was no mention of Trail Fork Springs.  I pulled out my Harrison Map and saw that the camp should be on the way down to Jackstraw Springs.  Along the way down the trail I passed what I thought could be the beginning of Forsee Creek.  There was more green vegetation and the soil was moist, but there wasn’t any flowing water.  I continued down the trail expecting it to meet the creek again or to cross the spring hopefully close to Trail Fork Springs Camp.  After hiking at least a mile, I knew I had gone too far.  The distance listed on my permit from Trail Fork Springs to Anderson Flat (above the junction heading toward Dollar Lake Saddle) was only 0.8 miles.

Enjoying last sunlight before heading into the darkness to try and find Trail Fork Springs

Realizing I’d gone too far, I watched the last couple minutes of the sunset while contemplating my situation.  It was time to accept a few things.  The day’s hiking was going to continue into the night under the light from my headlamp.  So, I might as well enjoy the last moments of a sunset before embarking on a journey into the darkness.  Water was now an issue as I hadn’t yet found Trail Fork Springs and couldn’t be confident that I would.  I had a liter plus whatever was left in my bladder which I now needed to conserve.  I would need to set up my tarp for the first time in the dark.

It didn’t make sense to continue down the trail because I didn’t know for sure that there was water at Jackstraw Springs and that direction was only taking me away from where I expected to be going the next day.  Besides, I wasn’t exactly full of confidence that I would find that camp either.  At that point I was also still holding onto some hope that I would find Trail Fork Springs on my way back up the trail.  Perhaps I should have gone up at the junction instead of down.  Before setting out however, I needed a plan B if I couldn’t find the camp.  In that scenario I decided I would continue up the trail at the junction (hoping Trail Fork Springs was really up instead of down) and continue to Anderson Flat if necessary at most two miles away from where I was.  I never found any sign of Trail Fork Springs.  Worst, after heading up from the junction, I reached to next junction in the trail where Anderson Flat was supposed to be and didn’t see it.  In John McEnroe fashion, I yelled out “you can’t be serious.”  I was physically tired, mentally drained, frustrated, hungry, and thirsty.  I decided to find a flat spot near the trail and camp the night.

As I was setting up my tarp, I realized dinner was out of the question.  I couldn’t spare eight ounces of water to rehydrate my food.  So, I had a bar and a little more water to wash it down.  Tired as I was I didn’t sleep well.  I considered my options over and over again for hours.  Other than Trail Fork Springs, the closest water sources are High Meadow Springs four miles up the mountain or Limber Pine Springs about four and a half miles back down the mountain.  I quickly ruled out Trail Fork Springs as I’d already missed it twice and if the moist area was the spring, it had dried up since the last report.  This was my last training exercise for my Mt. Whitney trip beginning on Monday and I really wanted to summit Mt. San Gorgonio.  However, after much consideration and accepting that I wasn’t going to make it to the summit on this trip, I ruled out High Meadow Springs.  Considering that I’d missed two campgrounds and a water source already; attempting to continue up the mountain to a camp ground I’d never been where I didn’t know the location of the water source just seamed reckless.  If I didn’t find water there, I had no plan B.  The next water would at best be another two miles down in another direction away from Mt. San Gorgonio.  I’d most likely need to press my SOS button on my spot connect device and wait to be rescued.  So, I settled on hiking down to Limber Pine Springs whose water I crossed on my way up.  I would at least be heading toward help if things got that bad.

Tired but restlessly anxious, I knew I needed rest to hike another four miles and had no desire to hike in the darkness.  Normally, I drink about a liter of water through the night and I was already down to about 750 ml when I went to sleep.  I decided that as soon as I noticed enough natural light to see my way, I would get going.  Waking up a few times throughout the night, I thought about the terrain I would be walking down.  Except for about three quarters of a mile of trail that was more direct than going toward Trail Fork Springs, I had travelled the rest of the trail the day before.  This allowed me to plan out my water breaks.  Paying attention to my night time sips of water, I managed to drink only 250 ml before morning.  I was down to half a liter, but I felt I could make it to water.  I packed everything up, took a few pictures, and sent out a message from my spot connect device to let people know who were tracking me on the internet that I’d changed plans and was heading home early.  Sitting on a fallen tree, I looked up and noticed a sign on a tree that my tarp had been set up below the night before.  The sign read “Anderson Flat” with an arrow pointing in the direction I camped.  There was no delineated path leading further from where I was.  So, it’s possible I actually found and camped at Anderson Flat after all.  That realization made me think that it was now more possible that the moist soil I saw the day before was a newly dried up Trail Fork Springs.

In the morning light, I realized that I might have camped at Anderson Flat after all (note the sign on the tree–subtle especially at night).

Down to only 500 ml of water, I knew I needed to manage my level of exertion and maintain a comfortable pace because I would need to hike close to three hours to make it four and a half miles down to Lumber Pine Springs.  Fortunately, the trail is beautiful; the cool morning air was clear, views out were magnificent, and the soft morning light gently illuminated my path through the trees.  Allowing myself to take photos and engage in the distractingly beautiful natural surroundings I was hiking through helped me stay calm, go at a reasonable pace, and not fixate on my thirst.

My last view of Mt. San Gorgonio as I was accepting that I’d need to summit it another day.

I drank my last drop of water from a spot with a view of Limber Pine Bench which appeared to be within twenty minutes of my location.  Almost immediately though, I was again thirsty and it was getting hot.  I felt I was heading toward some kind of limit.  At the same time, I was the most confident I’d been since I went to bed the night before that I’d make it to the springs.  Interestingly, about ten minutes from Limber Pine Springs I passed a group of hikers.  We talked briefly about where they were going and of my water situation.  I would have accepted water if offered but didn’t feel the need to ask.  At that point I knew I could hike another ten minutes and was sure if I was in distress they would have helped me.  As one of the reasons to hike down instead of up, their presence put an exclamation point on the rightness of my decision to head down the mountain.  I felt good about how I handled cutting my losses, accepting my mistakes, and altering my plans.  Meeting them was the last mental boost I needed to make it down to the springs.

Limber Pine Springs

At the springs I took my time and drank close to a liter of water.  I then replenished my bladder and my Nalgene bottle so that I’d have four liters to make it down the last six miles to my car—which I drank most of.  Along the way down I reflected upon my experience and how I felt about not making it to the summit.  Although initially very disappointing, it was probably the best final training experience I could have had before setting out to climb Mt. Whitney.  Realizing that really helped me make it down the last couple miles.  The last year and eight months of training has me easily physically and mentally ready to make the climb over a three day period.  Not completing a climb and internalizing Ed Viesturs words “getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory,” was a more important experience that rounded out my training.  In a few hours I leave for Mt. Whitney for four days.  The trip will be a celebration of losing a lot of weight getting myself in shape to make it.  While I want to summit badly, I now know I have it in me to turn back if I need to.