April 9 (~05:00 – ~19:30)
Mission Creek – after Private Zoo (22.5 mi / Total: 250.9 mi)
Weather: Warm, cold wind. Freezing cold with strong wind at high altitude later in the day.
My alarm goes off at four, and one minute to five I’m ready to go. My first cowboy camp was short but calming, and being outside, right underneath all the stars was better than being inside a tent. The weather was great – clear and not too cold and despite being half convinced I have an ant building a nest in one of my ears, I definitely want to do it again.
It’s still dark, and Speedy, Black Water and I wear our head torches to continue the washed out Mission Creek track. We are ready for our PCT strategy to avoid the hottest hours of the day – get up early and start hiking before the sun goes up, wait out the hottest hours in the shade somewhere, then continue hiking into the night.
The trail this morning is the same as the night before, but this time we go a little slower, and we get through the entire section unscathed. We pass a few tents and a few frustrated hikers, and spend the ensuing daylight hours moving towards the mountains in the back of the valley.
I feel energised when we finally go up the numerous short but steep switchbacks. When we reach the other side, we sidle through wooded areas with lots of fire damage, and it feels like a nice, quick hike with pretty vistas of the mountains just on the other side of the gorge.
Our midday destination is the last water source for the coming 18 miles. It’s a burnt down clearing next to a creek, and it’s painfully windy. Furthermore – the expected heat that crippled us yesterday never emerged. The day has been warm but the wind is powerful and chilly. We lie in the sand with our puffies on, the hoods cinched tight to keep the sand from flying in.
Soon our rest stop gets busy. Everyone is using the access to water as an opportunity for an extended break. We head off after a few hours as well, and walk into wider landscapes, with less fire damage and large trees and those big desert rocks again. It feels busy with all these hikers walking in the same direction, but it’s a beautiful area to walk through with lots of ups and downs to keep us occupied.
Slowly we move higher in elevation and look out over the mountains on the other side, still covered in snow. I get behind taking pictures until I turn a corner and find myself facing snow once again.
The patches cover the trail but the steps are carved in deep, so I continue carefully, not bothering to dig out my microspikes or trekking poles. I keep hoping the snow will disappear, but it doesn’t, instead the trail gets a little more precarious, and then I find Speedy and Black Water waiting for me. The group ahead of us was being overly careful, so they figured we should continue as a group as well. I take out my poles and we get through all the snow. It’s demoralising – we thought we’d got through all this, but we shout ‘lasagna’ to each other, as a reminder that Big Bear is near.
It takes some time for us to hit a clear dirt road, where I can’t help but loose Speedy and Black Water again, when I stop for a sip of drink and to put on more layers, as the air at this high altitude is getting icy cold. I continue alone, but of course, suddenly there’s even more snow, it just won’t stop. Most of it is okay, though some is a little sketchy. The others are nowhere to be found, and the snow chutes just go on and on. Where are they? I could fall, Althea way down to the bottom of the mountain, and they’d never know.
I don’t see them until the snow stops, and we’re up high, over 8000 ft, approaching Coon Creek Cabins. They are a few huts with open windows that are rather creepy inside, although I never check. Everyone we’ve seen today is here, or is arriving, and we sit on the picnic tables outside, to prepare dinner. I think it’s a horrible idea – it is so cold I can’t feel my hands and the wind blows everything off the table. For some inexplicable reason, most hikers (not including me) are obsessed with picnic tables, as the luxury of having a seat and a table (as opposed to sitting on the floor) is too much of a treat to say no to. So we eat and freeze to death, while most of the others disappear into the cabin for the night.
One hiker hears we are planning on moving a little further still, away from this nightmare of cold and wind, and he comes with us as we face the final ascend up the mountain. We move fast, annoyingly fast, until dark clouds ominously fly over and we stop to put on all the waterproof layers we have.
Then there’s more snow and we finally begin our descend again, another few miles back to the altitude of the creepy cabins. We pass through trails and dirt roads until we walk alongside a defunct private zoo, with painfully depressing cages. We planned to camp around here today, and soon our new friend finds a single spot and stays behind, while we keep on going, looking through all the barren trees for flat spots big enough.
I partly want to keep going in the faint hope of finding somewhere less cold, but it’s been a long day, and we won’t go down in elevation for another day, after Big Bear, after lasagna – and it’s probably just as cold anywhere else. When we see a free area we lunge for it, and quickly set up our tents in the numbing cold, finding rocks to anchor our guy lines in the consistently battering wind. I can barely feel my hands by the time I get inside my tent – this is certainly not the heatwave and night hiking we’d expected to be doing today.