I awake to watch the sunrise over the Palm Desert. The nightime lights of Palm Springs are still illuminated, speckles in the darkness. The sun splits the horizon into color layers. Blue, yellow, orange, the black of Palm Springs below still in darkness, and the brown sand of my surroundings.
I wonder how many others have just seen this. Maybe none. A few early birds tweet their appreciation, creating our fellowship of the sunrise. It’s just us. No instagram or television to broadcast it to the world. There’s no need for more than just us today right now.
The air is cold and I crawl back into our tent. As I cover my head with my down sleeping quilt, I hear more birds awake and celebrate the arrival of the sun.
Soon enough we are crawling from our sleeping bags, packing our tent and gear, sipping on coffee and nibbling on muesli. We have a long day ahead of us. Today we cross Apache Peak, and hopefully descend into Idylwild. The section of trail ahead of us has been one of attention and apprehension for many PCTers thus far. Much trail discussion has revolved around the question of “do you know what you’re doing in the San Jacintos yet?”
There are obstacles to consider. Just ahead of us less than mile is a hazardous section of the trail with snow cover. It’s the area where a young man fell last year on March 27th. There’s steap terrain that’s made dangerous with the snow. Further along on this section there’s also a rock slide that has partially obstructed the trail, although word is a rope has been added to make it safer to pass. Even further ahead, after Idylwild there’s a final obstacle which is a trail closure due to the wildfire which occurred in the area last year.
Our biggest concern has been the hazardous area with snow, where a previous hiker fell. Rachel and I are both fairly familiar with snow travel, and comfortable with it . But We’ve heard many rumours about the area. Many hikers are skipping it all together. There’s online fear mongering warning that you must have an ice axe and microspikes for your shoes. We have the microspikes, but our ice axes are lost somewhere in the US Postal Service. We hope they turn up, before we reach the Sierras, and we’re still over 400 miles away from there.
Talking it through we’ve decided to attempt the much feared section of trail. We will hike to the brink of the hazardous conditions, assess and decide. In the past we’ve been swayed by rumours of harsh trail conditions, and regretted our decision to bypass them. We also have realized that we have more snow hiking experience than other hikers bypassing this section, and we tend to be very conservative in taking risks. With this under consideration, we decide to trust ourselves and our abilities. We need to face these conditions and judge for ourselves, instead of being spooked away from social media fear mongering from people we don’t even know.
Like every other day, we start by packing our gear. I tear down the tent as Rachel cooks up some coffee. Then I sit and prepare the muesli. We decide to eat before hiking and get some caffeine in our system to boost our awareness. We need all the energy and acuity we can get this morning. It will be a taxing day. We sit passing the muesli back and forth, eating from the same camp dish. Then it’s time to go.
From our campsite, it’s a moderate uphill climb. From there we curve around the peak, staying below the ridgeline. Just as my legs warm up and my mind drifts off, we turn a corner and there it is, the snow. It covers the trail for a distance as it sits above a steep decline to the right. There’s a snow covered chute and not many trees or rocks to obstruct a fall. So, this is it, the hazardous trail marked on the map, the section of discussion and concern.
Rachel and I immediately toss our bags down, fetching our microspikes, and stretching them over our feet. We visually assess the trail. It appears similar to conditions we’ve crossed before.
We cast our backpacks back over our shoulders, strap them secure, and grip our trekking poles.
“You ready?” I ask. Rachel responds “Yep” and I approach the snow, taking my first step. The snow is hard and crunchy, holding securely under my foot. I feel comfortable and reach my pole forward into the snow and take another step. As I walk along the snow I methodically move my poles, then my feet, moving one limb at a time, always maintaining three points of contact, testing my footing.
Rachel moves in a similar fashion behind me. I move then stop and turn to check-in with her. We both verbally acknowledge that we’re doing good and feel comfortable.
As we move each foot, the snow says “thitch”, crunching and compressing under our steps.
We methodically move along, smoothly staying present. I notice the memorial on the tree as we pass for the hiker “Microsoft”. We continue moving along, focusing on each step. In my head I aknowledge the young hiker, and am saddened for his loss. In conditions like this, accidents can easily happen even if you’re experienced I remind myself. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t become complacent. Be aware. Stay engaged.
I make it to the end of the snow field and turn around to watch Rachel step into the dirt, releasing a sigh of relief.
The trail continues like this for several miles. We encounter snow fields, then dirt, then snow again, puttingon and taking off our microspikes. Some areas are riskier than others. All require attention.
I look around at the scenery. Down below is the Palm Desert. It looks so far away. As I examine the snow, peaks, and folds in the hills I think “this is the most beautiful section yet”.
We encounter a hiker from the previous day. His trail name is Dimebag. He’s not who you’d expect a Dimebag to be. He’s 60 years old, recently retired, and working on ticking the PCT off of his bucket list.
We walk with Dimebag through some slanted snowfields, watching out for each other. Understandably, he’s pleased to have other hikers to follow through the snow. I’d hate to do this alone. He tells us how he got his name from another hiker, and he tells us about who he is. He’s a geologist from Florida, whose work was focused on alternative methods of water acquisition. His past work has helped to support restoration in the Everglades. We enjoy his company.
As the snow fields dissapear, and the hills become steeper the distance between us and Dimebag grows. “Don’t let me hold you up” he says. We hike forward sure we’ll see him further up the trail.
Around lunch time we come to the rockfall blocking the trail. I go first, gripping a rope as I navigate around the giant boulder. The trail steeply drops off to the right, but I try not to pay attention, focusing on my feet and pulling over the next rock back to the safety of level trail.
Rachel comes behind me, “I barely even needed the rope” she says proudly. That’s my wife.
We perch on the trail eating lunch, and air our feet out. We decide to wait for Dimebag and we also need some energy. The trail ahead rises steeply in elevation. Dimebag arrives, navigating the fallen boulder without a problem. We eat lunch with him chatting. He tells us more about his career, and his family. We tell him about ours. The more we talk to him the more enjoy him. This is one of the treasures of the trail, chance encounters that grow into friendships.
After lunch Rachel and I move on, bidding Dimebag farewell for the moment.
The rest of the trail is steep and longer than we thought. We spot Poodle Dog Bush (like poison oak) along the trail and dodge it for miles. I smell it and then I spot it, pointing it out to Rachel as we walk. For a moment the clouds turn dark and small snow flakes fall temporarily. We cross several more snow fields and then begin sinking into soft snow.
Every step I take the snow gives way underfoot. Snow is as far as the eye can see. We push on thinking it’s only temporary. My heart rate rises, my legs begin to tire, from picking myself up out of the deep snow. It’s only 3 pm. We have several hours of light and about 6 more miles we wanted to go to reach Idylwild. But our feet are wet and cold. And with the snow so soft, this could take many hours. We opt to avoid snow hiking in the dark and turn around to setup a camp in an island of sand surrounded by snow.
We setup our camp and eat the last of our food. We spot Dimebag fighting his way across the snow. We’re relieved to see him, as I’m sure he is to see us too. Like us he’s tired and sets up camp nearby.
Tomorrow we will wake up early when the snow is hard and more manageable. For tonight we’ll admire the scenery, and rest our weary legs.