Tuesday, March 21, 2017

PCT Day 3 - Miles 26-36: The Climb Up Mt. Laguna

  • Started: Mile 26, 3153 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 36.1, 5282 ft
  • Miles: 10.1
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2129 ft

Leslie and I awoke to her alarm at Lake Morena. Both of our tents were in the shade, and we were cold. There was some frost on my gear. Neither of us got up. I practically need the sun to bake me out of my tent in the morning on the trail. I'm not an early riser, with or without an alarm. I usually hear the alarm, but I have all kinds of bad judgment in the mornings. Common sense tells me "Get up or else the trail will be hot in the midday sun," and I find a way to justify why actually it's a wiser decision to stay in bed, nevermind the consequences. (Leslie, on the other hand, had already proved her ability to get up early and hike several miles in the coolness of the morning the day before.)

We had left our plan as follows: We were 6 miles behind our itinerary. Maybe we would get a ride to skip some of the trail, or maybe we would just extend our hike an extra day. We would go to breakfast at the deli near Lake Morena and see if we could find a ride. If we could, we'd take it to Boulder Oaks, mile 26. If not, we'd hike, probably to Kitchen Creek Falls at mile 28.6 or Kitchen Creek Rd at mile 30.2.

My sleeping bag was wet with dew, since I had cowboy camped, and her tent was wet. We had planned to get up early and head to the deli with all of our stuff packed, in case we found a ride there. Instead, we lingered before getting up, and then dragged our gear into the sun to dry. We left for the deli, hoping it might be dry when we returned.

At the deli, we each got breakfast. I was so grateful for a coffee (I brought instant coffee but I hate the stuff and had not drank it despite my caffeine addiction - I considered it an emergency supply in case I literally could not hike at all without caffeine). There, we got to chatting with a large man dressed like a motorcyclist, who introduced himself as Tiny. He was a Trail Angel who regularly gave hikers rides as far as Mt. Laguna. We told him about our hiking plans, still up in the air, contingent on finding a ride. He offered to give us one and agreed to meet us by our campsite in half an hour.

Our gear was dry enough when we returned to it, so we packed up and headed out with Tiny. It was already hot out, and it was about 11am before we got on the trail. I had done the next four miles (Boulder Oaks to Kitchen Creek Rd) in the dark last summer, so I remembered it as a pleasant, mild incline and an easy bit of trail. At some point, I assumed, the trail must get steep or strenuous, to reach 6000 foot Mt. Laguna from the 2000-3000 foot chaparral the trail meanders through in its first 26 miles.

Once at Boulder Oaks, we filled up our water. We had meant to do so at the deli, because Lake Morena had signs posted all over that its water was contaminated with E. coli (which is a kind way to say that it is contaminated with shit, because that is where E. coli comes from) so it had to be filtered. We looked forward to filling up with water that was already potable to save us some work. The deli had clean drinking water, but so did Boulder Oaks.

Then we each used the restroom (a pit latrine) and we headed off. Before we went, I snapped this photo of a strange looking thing on a sagebrush plant. I'd never seen it before, even though I've seen lots of sage brush all over the West.

Funny Looking Thing on a Sagebrush

Already, it was hot and there was no shade. Even though I remembered this part of the trail as easy, I remembered the first bit of incline as the trail climbs above the 8 freeway after passing underneath it is steep. And it is. Leslie stopped to talk to some SOBO section hikers, while I slowly made my way up it. Then she called to me to wait for her, which was odd. Usually we hiked at our own paces, often alone, and leapfrogged one another all day.

I waited, and she caught up. She did not feel right about the hike. She did not like hiking in this unseasonable heat (neither did I for that matter) and she preferred to do shorter miles each day. My plan had us ending near mile 38 that night - almost 12 miles all up hill in the heat. It wasn't that she couldn't do longer miles. She can. She has. No problem. But when there is no necessity for it, she enjoys backpacking more when she does about 8 miles.

I understood that completely. I like short days too. When I plan, I like planning long days, thinking of the delicious accomplishment of looking back on how many miles I've completed. And after I've done a long day, I am so proud of what I have done, and so glad I have done it. But in the moment, it is far more pleasant to hike 8 miles and then stop mid-afternoon to enjoy your campsite, maybe bathing, or doing laundry, or relaxing with your feet in a stream.

I suggested we just do as many miles as she wished then. I did not want to cut her trip short due to selfishness. And, truth be told, I'd be plenty happy myself doing fewer miles. We could stop after 4 miles if she liked, at Kitchen Creek Rd. Or after six miles, at Fred Canyon. Or one more mile to Cibbet Flats campground. Or we could go 10 miles to a campsite at mile 36. We could play it by ear and do what felt right to her.

For a moment, we both set off to continue hiking. Then she noticed her back was wet. She checked, and found her water bladder was leaking. There was no fix for it, and no way for her to continue hiking in a way she felt was safe and healthy, even if I shared some of my water or gear with her. There is an excellent gear store on Mt. Laguna, about 16 miles up the trail. Leslie, wise enough to stop backpacking before catastrophe strikes, told me she'd get a ride up the mountain and meet me there the next day.

I continued on. What I remembered as an easy hike in the cool night air was not easy at all in the mid day heat. There was no shade whatsoever. After passing Kitchen Creek Falls, accessible from a side trail I did not take, I saw how much water there was from above:

Kitchen Creek Falls

I had enough water to go for a little bit longer, and I expected to find some water around mile 30. Sure enough, I did not even have to leave the trail to seek it out like my map instructed. A little stream crossed the trail and I filled up there.

I tried to get a decent photo of a butterfly. I'd seen these butterflies all over the trail but they never stayed still long enough to get a decent photo. This was the best I could do.

Butterfly

The trail went on, crossing the south face of the mountain, with absolutely no shade. Then it curved around to the east, but still there was no shade. At one point, I came upon a swarm of bees, and thought about how my friend Crystal was stung by bees on her first day hiking the PCT the year before. It took several minutes for the bees to move up the trail and then off of it so I could pass without being stung.

I hardly took any pictures. I was just hot and uncomfortable and worried about sunburn. Two days before, I'd put on my sunsleeves to protect my arms, which were already burning, but a half-inch of skin in between my sunsleeves and my T-shirt sleeves still burned. The day before I'd put a patch of the Omnifix tape I bring for blisters on part of that skin to protect it. It had worked, but I hadn't used enough to protect that area on both arms. Two days before, the back of my neck also burned, despite the hat I wore that was supposed to cover it.

I had put my bandana around my neck, facing the back, attempting to cover that skin. But the next day, the backs of my calves and the area on the front of my neck above my collar burned. I got heat rash on the bottom of my calves, because I hadn't worn my gaiters the day before, and the area they had previously covered burned badly. I bought a second, bigger bandana at Lake Morena, and now I wore two bandanas around my neck, one facing back, and one facing front. Then I put on my gaiters and covered up the backs of my burnt calves and the tops of my arms with Omnifix. I hoped this would keep my skin safe.

I bought sunscreen at Lake Morena too, but it was some chemical concoction, and I preferred not to put it on if I could cover myself up enough. I did not want that on my skin, and I also did not want it getting on my down sleeping bag, nor did I want to wash it off into the environment around me. I should have bought some zinc-based sunscreen before I set out for the trail, or maybe just clothing that covered me more.

When I could find a tiny patch of shade, I sat down to eat a bar for lunch, or to go to the bathroom, or to just rest. Those patches were rare, and they never coincided with nice rocks to sit on. I just sat in the dirt and was glad for the shade.

At long last the trail dropped down into a canyon, Fred Canyon. It was like an entirely different trail all of a sudden. Instead of going along a dry, hot, exposed mountain ridge, it was now in a canyon with a stream shaded by oak trees. It was a perfect campsite and I wished I could stay. But I hike slowly and I wake up late, and I did not want Leslie to have to wait for me the next day on Mt. Laguna. The original itinerary said I should get to Long Canyon at mile 37.7 today, not stop at Fred Canyon at mile 32. I told myself I would hike as far as I could, at least to a campsite at mile 36.

The trail rose out of the canyon and again went along an exposed part of the mountain, now facing the west. I thought about how many times I'd driven up Sunrise Highway, which was down below, never considering the part of the mountain where I hiked now.

It was after 5pm before the trail had any real shade. I hiked until after dark, and at last found a nice campsite at mile 36.1. It was close enough to my goal of Long Canyon (Mile 37.7) to make me happy. It had no water, but I had enough water. It's hard to find campsites in the dark, and if I passed this one, I risked having to hike several more miles to find another. So I laid out Leslie's poncho, which I was using as a ground cover, placed my sleeping bag on it, and slipped my legs into my sleeping bag. Then I put on my wool hoodie and rain jacket, even though there was no rain, because I preferred to use my down jacket as a pillow if I could, and I cooked dinner on the ground next to the poncho. Once I had eaten it and washed my dishes, I went to bed.

This was the first time in my life I have ever been afraid while camping. I was alone after spending all day trekking around a part of the wilderness that gets little human traffic, aside from PCTers. And there had not been very many PCTers for months, since the thru-hike season is just now starting. This was the remotest place I felt I had ever camped. I thought I'd seen mountain lion scat on the trail. I'd heard of hikers who had mountain lions prowl around them in their tents. As flimsy as a tent is, it is thought to keep campers safer from grizzlies than if they cowboy camped, from what I read. What about mountain lions? A few times, I heard a rustle around me, and I filled with more intense fear than I'd ever felt. I felt myself becoming paralyzed with fear, and forced myself to sit up and look around with my headlamp on.

Ultimately, I was able to fall asleep, and sleep all night until morning. And I was not eaten by any mountain lions.

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