Zero Day in LA (I kid you not)

Day 27: Zero in LA

May 29, 2019

The appeal of a trip to LA on a rest day from a PCT hike may at first seem difficult to grasp. When I was confronted with a choice between spending a day in a folding chair eating overpriced food from downtown Agua Dulce or spending a day sitting on trains eating overpriced food from a big city I’ve never really liked, the choice was not exactly clear.

The juxtaposition of the hiker aesthetic in the big city was almost too much to pass up (imagine a cuben fiber food bag doubling as a purse, or a neon colored fanny pack that would fit right in in downtown Santa Monica if it weren’t so impossibly filthy, or a “white” sun hoody tie-dyed with sweat stains). But the offer that finally convinced me to spend my zero day in LA came from T-Pain, who promised to handle all of the transportation and logistics. He claimed to know a superb coffee shop and a number of restaurants serving food that is not exactly easily accessible on the trail (fresh seafood, for example).

I left Hiker Heaven just after sunrise with Hot Hands, Casper, and T-Pain, feeling oddly giddy, as though I were escaping some responsibility akin to school or work. I had not been more than a 20 minute car ride from the trail since I’d started hiking. Now I was on a multi-leg journey (car to train to second train) to a place almost perfectly antithetical to the PCT.

We sat on a commuter train, talking and laughing a little too loudly for the other passengers, considering the early hour. Watching the crosswalk signal countdown near the coffee shop in downtown LA, I realized that I could not remember the last time I had measured time in increments as small as seconds. I thought some more and found that I couldn’t remember using a time scale shorter than 10 minutes since starting the trail. Strange.

After a blissful cup of coffee, we returned to the train station and attempted to buy tickets at an automated kiosk. When it took T-Pain’s money without printing his ticket, he banged on the machine angrily with his hand. Immediately, the screen went a furious red, and an alarm began blaring throughout the station prompting T-Pain to walk away stone-facedly while Hot Hands, Casper and I laughed until we cried.

We eventually purchased tickets and headed to an In N Out on the way to Santa Monica (home to an REI and the beach). While Hot Hands and Casper got lunch, T-Pain and I resupplied at the grocery store nearby. As I made my way through the store, I saw T-Pain talking to no fewer than three people about our trip. I joined him for a conversation with two stunned security guards who wanted to know if we were crazy.

While checking out, a man in front of us made a snide comment about the amount of junk food we were buying and pointed to his pile of produce. T-Pain asked him how far he had walked lately, and when the man learned that we were on the PCT, his demeanor changed entirely, and he smiled and told us our 60 Clif bars “made sense.”

Back on the train, nobody seemed particularly keen to sit with us. People seemed confused by our unkempt hair and the wretched state of our expensive outdoors clothing. Were we sporty city folk who had fallen on hard times? Or were we homeless thieves who had robbed a gear store? Either way, we didn’t look or smell very good.

In Santa Monica, we visited the REI for some stove fuel and socks, then walked to a cafe selling acai bowls (truly the most SoCal thing anyone can possibly eat). Hot Hands was still wearing her paper In N Out hat when she ordered her smoothie (sweetened with bee pollen and guaranteed to align all chakras, seen and unseen), which earned her a strange look from the cashier. When asked for a name to associate with the order, Hot Hands began to give her trail name before stuttering, blushing and offering her real name.

With our smoothie bowls in hand, we walked to the beach near the Santa Monica Pier, where Casper and I ran into the waves and promptly got called back to shore for an admonition from a lifeguard about swimming too near a rip current.

A friend of Hot Hands and Bright Side met us at the beach. She’s been off the trail for a few weeks due to injury and infection, a terrible plight.

After the beach, we rushed back to LA Union Station on a crowded train. We split up for dinner and I bought some Thai noodles with fresh shrimp, which I ate while T-Pain finished his resupply in the convenience store of the train station.

We returned to Hiker Heaven just before 10. I was exhausted, but the day had been a blast and I could not have been more relaxed thanks to T-Pain shouldering the logistical burden.

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Hiker Heaven

Day 26: Stealth camp outside KOA to Hiker Heaven (The Saufleys’)

Trail miles 444.3-454.5

May 29, 2019


While I was rolling my sleeping pad in the morning, my nose began to bleed, streaming down my face and dripping bright red in the dirt before I could bring my hand up to pinch my nostrils closed. My nose has bled at least once a day for the last week, probably as a result of the drastic changes in temperature and humidity that have accompanied the recent storm cycle. During dinner last night, while attending to another nose bleed, I half-joked with Danish that my body was falling apart.

Although the extensor tendon pain that plagued me on the way into Wrightwood had largely abated on the most recent section of trail, a recent day without sun gloves (I thought the intense itching I felt in my hands was a heat rash, so I ditched the gloves and opted for sunscreen for a day) had left the backs of my hands covered with sun blisters. So while I felt the time had come to rejoice in my pain-free foot, my grotesque hands and my constantly bloody nose reminded me that I was not out of the woods (or the desert) yet.

I held my bleeding nose and watched my friends pack up and walk away from camp.

Many slow minutes later, my pack packed and my nose clotted, I set off on the steep climb into the hills. Massive faces of exposed conglomerate adorned the hillsides. I tried to keep my friends in sight, but eventually they disappeared over a ridge and I slowed to photograph the flowers and to ease the strain on my tired legs.

Hot Hands, who had slept four miles south of my camp at a beautiful site near a stream (in hindsight, I should have stopped early the evening before and enjoyed a quiet night there instead of camping near the KOA and the noisy road with our other friends) caught up to me at the top of a rise where I’d stopped to rest and to contemplate the traffic on the freeway in the valley below. It was stunning, after weeks of walking, to watch hundreds of people pass by along the freeway in cars and trucks. Even more overwhelming was the recognition that driving plays an absolutely central role in their lives and in the lives of so many other people in California, the United States, and the world. In my life off the trail, I am one of these people, driving a car between the often widely dispersed vertices of the graph that is my life.

Hot Hands and I walked down the hill together, catching each other up on the latest gossip in our trail family: who had camped where during the storm, and what people were thinking regarding the snowy Sierra (Hike through or flip? It’s the hottest question on trail now.).

We arrived at the interstate, where the trail travels through a tunnel with a small stream running through it. Many miles prior, after hiking out of Cajon Pass, where the trail traveled under an interstate and a railroad track, Hot Hands and I had discovered that we share an affinity for tunnels and manmade caverns. Now we wooped and whistled our way through the shady tube, reveling in the ghostly echoes the corrugated steel walls threw back at us.

We emerged on the other side in the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, where huge conglomerate outcroppings jut out of the ground at odd angles as a result of millions of years of tectonic faulting.

The sun beat down as we wandered our way through the park, craning our necks to admire the striated cliffs above us.

At the far end of the park, we followed the trail along a road into the town of Agua Dulce. T-Pain texted us from the Mexican restaurant, but on our way there, we saw a few of our other friends eating lunch on the patio of the local cafe.

“Do you want half a cheeseburger?” Fire Socks called.

Is the answer to such a question ever, “No.”?

Hot Hands and I stood with our packs on, just outside the patio’s cast iron railing, and ate the burger and salad Fire Socks handed us from her table. Revitalized by the fresh food, we headed across the street in search of T-Pain and burritos.

After lunch, we caught a ride with local trail angel Mike to Hiker Heaven, just one mile from the town center. Hiker Heaven is the home of Donna and Jeff Saufley, who have now hosted PCT hikers passing through Agua Dulce for 22 years. Their well-organized system for welcoming and caring for hikers reflected that experience.

I was greeted by a volunteer with a laminated sheet explaining the layout of the property, including where to pitch tents and where to find the portable toilets. After hanging my quilt on a trellis devoted to drying damp backpacking gear, I set up my tent in the shade and plugged my electronics in at the charging station, which I found inside a huge dome tent. In the same dome tent was an outgoing mailing station complete with boxes of all sizes, as well as stamps, envelopes, and a computer and printer for printing mailing labels. Also in the dome (it was enormous), I found shelves of loaner clothing and fresh towels. I picked out a t-shirt and some shorts and then availed myself of the outdoor shower, while a trail angel (either the Saufleys or one of their volunteers) did my laundry (anyone who will touch a hiker’s sweat-encrusted laundry is a special person indeed).

Clean, and clothed in cotton for the first time in weeks, I stepped across the driveway to the garage, where I scanned the shelves of alphabetically sorted packages until I found the box of maps and snacks my mom had sent from home. I then spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with other hikers, sifting through the row of hiker boxes*, and sharing a pizza ordered from town.

The amount of time and organizational energy devoted to running such an efficient and comfortable hiker resting place is mind-boggling. And each year, the effort required to maintain a clean, comfortable space increases. While I was dropping off my dirty laundry, I heard Donna Saufley say to another hiker that on many individual days this season, the number of hikers staying at Hiker Heaven (often well over 50) has exceeded the total number of hikers she and her husband welcomed in their entire first season as trail angels. Even more astounding is that the Saufleys are able to manage this intricate operation year after year without a formal funding source. In their own words: “Hiker Heaven is not a business, non-profit, or any type of formal organization, (we’re a family that is fortunate enough to have some truly amazing volunteers).” They rely on donations from hikers as well as their own finances to support the entire operation.

Some of the most inspiring encounters on the trail have nothing to do with wildlife or scenic landscapes, but rather stem from the goodwill and generosity of trail angels like the Saufleys.

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Oh glorious sun

Day 25: Godforsaken ridge above Acton to stealth camp near Acton KOA

Trail miles 424.3-444.3

May 27, 2019

I opened my eyes to the sound of my 5:30 alarm. My breath fogged and hung in the still air between my tent walls, which glistened with beads of ice. Curling deeper into my quilt, I closed my eyes against the gray light.

An hour later, I peeled back the frozen door of my tent and peered upward at a blue sky. The sun had climbed over the ridge and was beginning to defrost our frozen camp. Reluctantly, I jammed my feet into my frosty shoes and walked down the hill in search of a place to dig a hole.

When I returned, I could hear T-Pain rustling his gear behind the cuben fiber walls of his tent. I poured some of my water, chunky with ice crystals, into my pot and lit my stove for some hot chocolate.

In the meantime, I packed my things, taking breaks from stuffing wet gear into my pack to warm my fingers on my neck or under my arms.

The previous night I had gone to bed without cooking dinner, opting to eat snacks instead, in order to avoid the hassle of cooking in my tent vestibule. Now I was ravenous. I finally left camp at 9am after devouring a bag of chex mix, a few heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter, and a quarter pound of salami.

The morning dragged on at an agonizing pace. I was tired from the previous day, but I took comfort in the good weather and in the gorgeous views surrounding me. Now that the storm had passed, vistas of distant mountains and low desert presented themselves at every turn.

I ran into Fire Socks, Bright Side and the Danes at a fire station. There, for a two dollar donation to the fire crew, we were treated to a hot dog, a bag of chips, a can of soda, and, the true highlight: a fresh, crunchy carrot.

I set up my tent so that it could dry out from the previous night, then sat on the asphalt driveway outside the station enjoying my first real hot dog lunch since grade school.

The final few miles of the day were all downhill, but I was so tired that I felt I had to drag myself down the trail. My pace was slowed further by the stunning scenery. As a layer of cotton ball clouds moved across the sky, it dappled the evening light across the mountainsides, highlighting rock outcrops and casting ridges and deep drainages into stark relief.

I finally caught up to the Danes, AK and Spartan at a stealth camping spot half a mile from the KOA. The Danes had already set up their tent, but had then decided to cowboy camp and were letting it stand empty until morning. When I struggled to find a clear spot to set up my tent, they offered to let me sleep inside theirs.

I gladly accepted the offer and was preparing myself for bed when T-Pain, true to form, arrived in the gathering darkness.

We all cheered, and he quickly accepted the Danes’ offer to sleep in their tent with me.

We drifted off, thinking about the walk through Vasquez Rocks to Hiker Heaven the following day.

The view from our campsite. The night before, our site was totally socked in.

Some residual snow near the top of the ridge

Abstract art or moss and lichen?

Untitled 2

Some creative shade

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Snow in the desert…again

Day 24: Glenwood Boy Scout Camp to Godforsaken Ridge above Acton

Trail miles 400.5-424.3

May 26, 2019

What do you do when it is 40°F, windy, and rainy? You hike. Because, in T-Pain’s words, “What else are we going to do?”

Gunning for a big day, I left camp in the gray, blustery morning at 6:30. I hiked alone through the cold mist for 11 miles. T-Pain caught up to me at a spring where I was filtering water and eating lunch.

By the time I’d eaten my smashed peanut butter sandwich and a few handfuls of potato chips, the rain had turned to snow and I was shivering. We hiked on, shouting to make ourselves heard over the howling wind.

What do you do when small chunks of ice break free from the trees and whip into your stinging face? You laugh, because it’s late May in the desert and your rain jacket has become your favorite piece of gear while your sun umbrella and wide brimmed hat have sat idle in your pack. You laugh and you keep walking, because if you stop, your hands will turn to wood and the shivering will return.

What do you look at when you’re walking through a cloud? The Altras on T-Pain’s feet, and the blooming yuccas just off-trail. The gray inside of the cloud obscures all topography, so your soggy topographic map is of little help for pinpointing your location. Distance traveled is measured by time spent walking multiplied by your perceived pace.

And what do you do when you’ve hiked 20 miles and you’re still too cold to sit still and people ahead of you on the trail are turning around because of the weather?

T-Pain and I consulted the map, took an educated guess about the wind direction and the likelihood of finding sheltered camping on the back side of the ridge. Then we donned our rain pants and took off at a run through the pounding rain and wind, headed up-trail.

By the time we reached the leeward side of the ridge, our noses were numb and we were shouting and cursing at the desert and the wind and the trail. This is late May? In Southern California? This is the desert?

On the leeward side of the ridge, we were shielded from the utter chaos on the windward side. But the ominous roar of the wind in the trees atop the ridge reminded us that the storm continued to rage just out of sight.

Exhausted, we finally reached the campsite we’d been aiming for, 24 miles from the boy scout camp where we’d begun walking that morning. But the site was more exposed than we’d expected from its location on the map. Wind-whipped rain battered the manzanita and buckthorn, and ragged patches of fog scudded low over the sodden ground.

We knew that our options were limited: camp here and risk a midnight tent collapse in the rain and wind (and the hypothermia that could result from such a collapse), backtrack four miles to a sheltered site, or hike on another nine miles to camp at a lower elevation.

Tired, cold, and a bit too proud for our own good, we started looking around for tent sites.

T-Pain pitched his tent in the shelter of a large manzanita bush then helped hold my tent steady while I staked it out a few feet away (an invaluable service that helped speed the process immeasurably). After plopping a few large rocks on the most vital stakes, he dove into his tent to take refuge from the wind.

My tent is notoriously bad in heavy wind, so I spent the next half hour reinforcing my stakes with large rocks scavenged from the surrounding area.

Finally satisfied that I wouldn’t find myself without shelter in the night, I peeled off my saturated rain gear and crawled into my tent. I spent the next half hour organizing my soaked gear, fluffing my quilt (which I’d kept dry inside a large trash bag in my pack) and trying to warm my feet and hands.

Although I am usually in favor of avoiding as much screen time as possible while hiking and camping, this was a night when I allowed myself to use my phone for more than just journaling.

A facetime call with my friends Beth and Ekat raised my spirits immensely, even as the rain began to freeze and the wind tugged at my tent. As T-Pain noted earlier in the day in reference to his habit of watching half an hour of a movie before bed on the trail, removing yourself from your immediate surroundings and reminding yourself that the world continues in your absence can be invaluable after a trying day.

T-Pain before hiking out in the morning

Our frozen tents the following morning

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Coming down

Day 23: Little Jimmy Camp to Glenwood Boy Scout Camp

Trail miles 384-400.5

May 25, 2019

Although the air was still and the night was quiet, it took me a long time to fall asleep last night. Even after I’d puffed up my sleeping pad and pulled my quilt up to my ears, my mind remained far from settled. It reworked the events of the day again and again, splicing together scenes of people falling on snow and rocks with feelings of fear, exasperation, exhaustion.

Eventually, though, I slept, because I woke late to another cold morning. After packing my things and drinking a cup of hot chocolate, Carjack, Foot Juice and I held a short debriefing session to discuss our successes and failures during the previous day. We all agreed that had the weather been even slightly less than perfect or had our other friends not arrived to shoulder some of the emotional burden of evacuating the two injured hikers, we would have pressed an SOS button on a GPS device to contact a search and rescue crew.

The challenges of a self-evacuation had been nearly overwhelming, even in perfect weather, because both of the injured hikers were so badly shaken by their falls that they could not walk on snow without explicit instructions about where to place each foot and trekking pole.

After our debrief, we shouldered our packs and made our way up the trail. Tired from the ordeal the previous day, which had kept us on our feet for twelve consecutive hours, we paused often for breaks. Carjack’s shin has been causing her serious pain since her descent into Wrightwood a few days prior, and after we stopped for lunch at a small picnic area and began a road walk around a section of trail closed to protect Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog habitat, she was moving very slowly. By contrast, the severe foot pain I had experienced on the way into Wrightwood had abated almost entirely, and I was feeling strong.

Spartan, T-Pain and I decided to push on to the Glenwood boy scout camp, while Foot Juice and Carjack opted to stop early for a shorter day.

At camp, I made the best dinner I have had on trail so far: instant rice cooked with a miso packet and a dash of chile sesame oil and topped with ginger garlic wonton strips from the salad dressing aisle of the grocery store. Unfortunately, another cold storm was moving in, and I had to down my meal quickly so I could retreat to the warmth of my quilt.

The decision to carry an ultralight knife comes with advantages and disadvantages. Some might say it cuts both ways.

Road walking around the endangered frogs

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An Epic on Baden-Powell

Day 22: Wrightwood to Little Jimmy Trail Camp

Trail miles 369-384

May 24, 2019

I apologize in advance for such a long post. This day was extremely eventful and emotionally draining, and I want to keep a fairly complete record of my thoughts and feelings from that time.

After getting a hitch with a mother and her two young kids (apparently, she’d asked her first and third graders whether they wanted to pick up some hikers before school, and they had both assented), Foot Juice, Carjack and I began the climb toward Mt. Baden-Powell.

As we climbed, day hikers and a few thru hikers who had turned around stopped on the way down to warn us about icy conditions near the summit.

Just as I had on Mt. San Jacinto, I had decided to forgo microspikes on Baden-Powell after discussing the snow conditions with people who had climbed the peak recently. My trail runners have stiff soles and work well in snow that is soft enough to allow me to kick steps, but they are insufficient for truly icy conditions. As more and more hikers stopped to tell us about the dangerous ice up above, I began to feel concerned that I had made the wrong choice. I comforted myself (and my hiking partners, both of whom carried microspikes), saying, “I’ll go up and check the conditions out, and if it feels unsafe, I can always turn around.” I’ve found that on this hike, it is often easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that values only northbound miles and sees southbound miles as a waste of time and energy. I sometimes have to actively remind myself that turning around and hiking south on the PCT is always an option if conditions to the north are unfriendly.

Luckily, as we made our way upward into the cloud layer, the snow remained soft, and kicking foot holds was perfectly manageable in my running shoes. We reached the top just after 1pm, signed the summit register, and took a group photo in front of the dull gray mist that hung thick around us.

The descent route runs west of the summit, following a long ridge before losing any significant elevation. As a result, the trail from the summit remains snow-covered until late in the season. I knew from the outset that route-finding and avoiding dangerous falls on the extended descent would be the real challenge of the day, but I never guessed how difficult the next few hours would be.

Shortly after leaving the summit, Carjack, Foot Juice and I came across a hiker named Doctor. We heard him first, as he cursed his way through the snow, slipping often in the slush and shouting profanities as he scraped clumsily at the slope with an ice axe he clearly didn’t understand how to use.

When we reached him, he was puffing on a vape pen, blowing thick clouds into the cool air. He offered us a hit, and I recognized him from the parking lot below Baden-Powell, where just a few hours ago he’d offered us edibles before the climb.

We stopped for a moment as we passed him and he started asking us about when we’d started our hikes. He volunteered that he’d been hiking since February, and when I asked him why he’d started more than two months before most people, he practically shouted, “Because I’m chill as fuck!”

We asked Doctor if he had earned his name because he’d been to medical school. “No, but I took a wilderness first responder course.”

He later told Foot Juice that he had failed the course, “On a technicality.”

Shortly after we met Doctor, Carjack, Foot Juice and I encountered a steep snow bank. A trail of footprints was visible along the ridge below the snow bank, but to get there, we had to navigate down the steep, slick snow slope.

While we were looking over the edge and mulling our options, Foot Juice suddenly cried out in surprise as he slid down the snow on his back.

“Did you do that on purpose?” Carjack called down to him.

“No! I slipped.” Foot Juice replied from the bottom of the slope.

“Well it looks like the easiest way down,” Carjack said, as she sat on the snow and prepared to slide down herself.

I watched Carjack go and heard her shout about the rocks that bruised her as she came to a stop. “That hurt!”

Dissatisfied by the rocks and trees at the base of the snowbank (which I figured I would surely hit on my way down), I began kicking steps and walking slowly down a less steep section.

Just then, a hiker named T (I want to protect her privacy) arrived at the snow bank and asked how Carjack and Foot Juice had gotten down.

As I continued kicking steps, I heard T ask, “Will you guys catch me at the bottom when I slide?” Carjack and Foot Juice replied, rather annoyed at T’s ignorance, that they actually would not stand below her while she made an uncontrolled slide toward them, metal-spiked-feet-first.

My back was turned and I was kicking my last few steps down the slope when I heard T begin to slide. Then I heard her shout in pain and shock as the other ones gasped.

I hurried over to the group and saw that T had lost control of her glissade and had ridden over a patch shallow snow, which was studded with protruding rocks, before slamming leg-first into a tree. Carjack, who is a physical therapist in her normal life and who also has significant first aid training, immediately opened her first aid kit, donned latex gloves, and went to work dressing the deep cut on T’s hand and assessing her leg, which had borne the brunt of the collision with the tree. T was crying and squeezed Foot Juice’s hand while Carjack cleaned and dressed her wound.

Doctor slipped his way across the slope we were sitting on. “You should really irrigate that,” he said of T’s cut.

Carjack ignored him and continued dressing T’s wound while he babbled about how he sure was happy to have his ice axe (which he was holding incorrectly) and his boots (which were sliding with every step).

We stayed silent as Doctor continued to rattle off suggestions about how best to treat T’a cut. After a few minutes of enduring our stern silence, he finally decided to walk on. We were happy to see him go, and we helped T to her feet and began to contour around the snowy hillside. The walking was treacherous, and with every passing minute the snow was softening further into a dangerously unconsolidated slurry.

T was terrified of each step, and was in tears as we guided her along the slope. We walked her slowly through the trees, advising her about each pole plant and footstep, but it was slow going.

I looked behind me to check on K, who was making a large step from a protruding rock to a snowy footprint. When he transferred his weight to the snow, it gave way, and suddenly he was sliding down the slope, just as T had only a few minutes prior.

Had the flat trail not stopped K’s fall, he would have hit a tree or rock another 5 or 10 yards downslope. When he did come to a stop, he lay on his stomach, his head downhill. His arm was twisted behind him and he groaned from under his pack.

I stepped carefully over to him and began to ask him where he was hurt. He complained of back pain and his hand was bleeding badly, leaving bright red stains in the snow.

Carjack made her way to us and I helped K take his pack off and retrieve a jacket from inside. Then I handed Carjack gauze and tape as she cleaned and dressed K’s hand.

“I can’t feel my pinky,” K moaned.

“You probably banged your ulnar nerve,” Carjack explained. “The feeling should come back, but right now we need to stop the bleeding.” She applied pressure to his hand and asked him about feeling in his legs and arms, assessing whether his back injury was serious enough to prevent him from walking. Because his fall had not involved any twisting motion and because he had full function in his limbs, we were satisfied that he could at least try to walk.

After about 10 minutes, K’s hand had stopped bleeding and Carjack had bandaged it well enough to get to camp, six miles up the trail. K groaned and struggled, but eventually managed to shoulder his pack, despite his back pain.

While we were addressing K’s injuries, Foot Juice was talking with T, who had removed her pack and was sitting and crying under a tree on a bit of flat ground. She had regained none of her composure since her fall, which suggested to me that she was experiencing minor shock. I mentioned this to the Carjack and Foot Juice after we’d persuaded her to continue walking with us (she’d told us to go on without her and K, who had been hiking together before we encountered them), and they agreed that she was likely still shaken up from her fall.

A number of hikers passed us as we continued our way up the snow-covered trail. A few stopped to ask us if we were all right, but none offered to help us guide these two shaken hikers to camp.

By 4pm, we were still about 5 miles from camp (that’s considerably slower than 1mph, for those keeping track at home). T had had at least three or four more minor falls, and although the consequences had been negligible, she was so frustrated that she sat down in the snow in tears.

By this point, Carjack had taken on the role of speaking with T to motivate her and calm her down whenever T suggested that Carjack, Foot Juice and I move on and let her stop to camp on the ridge with K (without access to water except by the fuel-intensive method of melting snow). Carjack was clearly struggling under the enormous emotional burden of persuading a fellow adult to recognize that she (T) was incompetent to make decisions for herself.

While Carjack was talking with T, I called the sheriff’s non-emergency number to learn about our options for getting T and K off the mountain that evening. But no one at the sheriff’s office or at the fire department knew anything about the trails in the area. Our only options, they told me, were to hike T and K to a road and then call 911 so they could trace the call (this was not feasible, given our hiking pace), or to press the SOS button on one of our satellite communication devices to mobilize a search and rescue (SAR) team.

This was not the first time we’d considered calling SAR. Until this point, it had felt unnecessary because the weather was good, T and K could both walk (albeit very slowly), we had still had many hours of daylight, and camp (just two miles before a major highway crossing) was not far away. But now it was 4:30pm, T seemed immobilized by frustration and the fear of falling, daylight was waning, and the temperature was dropping.

I might have advocated pushing the SOS button had T-Pain not bounded down the snow slope toward me, shouting “Muscle! No way! You guys must be going sooo slowly!“

I quickly described the situation to him and he assured me that the rest of the group was just behind him. Fire Socks arrived just in time to see Carjack nearly break into tears of frustration and exhaustion after giving up trying to persuade T to keep moving.

Fire Socks went to work, coaxing T up the slope she’d slipped down most recently.

Hot Hands, Bright Side and Danish arrived and immediately picked up on the gravity of the situation. Together with T-Pain, we brought up the rear as Fire Socks led the way up the snowy trail with T and K in tow.

Over the next four hours, my trail family members each stepped up in different ways. Danish hiked ahead at a blazing pace to secure campsites for us all. T-Pain and Foot Juice carried T’s pack (which we essentially had to pry off her back, because she kept threatening to set up camp alone in unsafe locations). Fire Socks participated in a sing along to cheer Carjack (Fire Socks hates sing alongs) and kept up a continuous stream of lighthearted banter to take T’s mind off the pain in her leg and the nausea that seemed to get stronger as dusk arrived. Carjack led K to camp because he was able to hike at a faster pace than T. Hot Hands carried our tents ahead to camp, where Casper and Danish set them up in anticipation of our late arrival. Brightside hung back with Fire Socks and me, and the three of us walked and talked with T all the way to camp, stopping every 200 yards or so when nausea and pain threatened to overcome T.

We arrived at 8pm, 12 hours after leaving the trailhead that morning, and 6 hours after encountering T and K.

Fire Socks walked T the final quarter mile into camp while Bright Side and I stopped at a spring to filter water for the group. In camp, Danish had set up T’s tent and sleeping bag, so she was able to sleep immediately. A nurse carrying a well-stocked first aid kit cleaned and dressed K’s hand more thoroughly.

All my trail family members hugged me when I came into camp, and Carjack, Foot Juice and I looked at one another and shook our heads.

The aftermath:

Before leaving camp the following day, Fire Socks, Foot Juice and I checked on T and K, who slept late in their tents. They had cell reception at the campsite and agreed to self-evacuate later that day.

We later learned that someone (not T or K) triggered an SOS beacon on their behalf, which resulted in an evacuation for T by SAR. T was diagnosed with a concussion. K regained full function in his pinky.

Both T and K are taking time off the trail to recover from their injuries. They are unsure of whether they will return to the trail this season.

Lessons learned (or reinforced):

Concussion symptoms are easily confused with the symptoms of shock. Concussions can be triggered without a direct bump to the head. In this case, a sudden stop caused by glissading into a tree led to the head injury.

Don’t be afraid to press the SOS button. Even if self-rescue is possible, it may not be wise. Had our friends not shown up, I believe Carjack, Foot Juice and I would have pressed the button around 5pm simply because we could not have evacuated T and K safely before nightfall and we were becoming exhausted and chilled attempting to help them.

Traveling in a group of trusted partners is wise, especially in objectively hazardous conditions where a false move can have serious consequences.

No matter how well prepared you are, you cannot account for the ill-preparedness of others. What should have been a 6 or 7 hour hiking day turned into a 12 hour epic because we ran into a party of people who were in over their heads. This had physical and emotional ramifications that persisted for days and weeks, respectively.

A fully-stocked first aid kit is worth every ounce, and the knowledge necessary to use that kit is essential.

Ascending into the clouds

Foot Juice and Carjack taking a break before the summit.

Walking the snow ridge on the descent

Had the weather not been perfect, a call to Search and Rescue would have been necessary for the safety of everyone in the group.

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A zero below the snow

Day 21: Zero in Wrightwood

May 23, 2019

What can I say about a zero in an extraordinarily hiker-friendly town? I can tell you that it was magical. I can tell you that the coffee was free, the ice cream was double scooped, and the “personal” calzones weighed three pounds. I can also tell you that a local school teacher saw us crossing the street and handed us the PCT patches he’d embroidered in his free time. I can tell you that a woman stopped us on the sidewalk, asked us what we needed, and then took us to her house to do our laundry. And I can tell you that no fewer than three separate locals offered to let us stay overnight at their houses.

Businesses in Wrightwood obviously benefit from thru-hiker traffic, but the generosity we experienced while staying in this friendly community stemmed from a place much deeper and more sincere than the “quid pro quo” attitude of capitalism. From the hand-drawn welcome sign at the convenience store to the residents who were genuinely happy to talk with us about our hikes, Wrightwood proved itself to be a true haven for PCT hikers.

Danish racing the snow toward Wrightwood the previous day

A rime-blasted tree on the ridge above Wrightwood

Foot Juice and his “personal” size calzone

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