PCT Day 56 : Snow Hell

May 19 (~08:30 – ~20:30)
Mooshead Creek – Deer Creek Spring (13.9 mi / Total: 1461.6 mi)
Total PCT miles: 798.6
Weather: Gloomy. Mostly cold, some light snow and rain, lots of fog. A tiny bit of sun in the afternoon. The trees rain with snowmelt.

When I open my tent in the morning, I am shocked. Throughout the night, I could see the snow fall, and I could feel the low temperatures, but I was somewhat sheltered by the trees, and last night’s snowstorm had a much bigger impact than I’d expected. The landscape around me is entirely alien. This is not the place I set up my tent in yesterday. While there was snow on the ground, today’s scene is entirely different: at least half a foot of fresh snow has covered everything in sight, including all the trees and every single tiny branch, and snow drifts have formed where there were none before. I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to get myself out of this, it seems like an impossible task, but I have no choice. All I can do is keep on walking.

I slowly get my things together, the heaviness of the cold making everything more demanding, and my hands quickly go numb trying to pack everything together and roll up my tent. I still don’t have my gloves, I’m going to have to do another cold day without. At least I can try and keep my feet a little warmer today. I take out my second pair of socks, the only dry ones left, and put plastic bags around them. It won’t keep them dry all day, but it will trap heat for at least a little while, and make the wet shoes and snow a little more bearable at the start.

When I set off I try not to get overwhelmed. I’m situated just before a high point, over 6000 feet in elevation, after which the trail drops to around 5500 feet, and I will walk along the ridge for some 13 miles, before dropping to lower elevation again. In these conditions, I could be on this ridge all day. I try not to think about it. I try not to think about being in this snow all day. I just need to move, every step is a step forward. I follow the GPS the best I can, and head straight up a steep incline. I posthole through the new soft snow, and try and get the microspikes stuck onto the old layer below. It’s an exhausting operation.

It takes a while to get out of the dip I appear to be in, and the endless views of snow and seemingly unreliable GPS are confusing. I keep walking in the wrong direction, and I keep going up and up and up. I have quickly given up on following where the trail actually goes – choosing routes right over the mountaintop as opposed to skirting around.

The snow is silent. Now and again there’s a suspicious noise which is always the sound of snow falling from the trees. Other than that I’m in a world of white. A fog clings close and some snow still falls. I appear to be alone on this mountain, but I know I’m not. Speedy and Prince are somewhere ahead of me, but I have no idea how far, I have no idea how long they kept on going last night. I’m waiting for their footsteps to appear, to know I’m not alone, to make my route easier, but they never do. At one point I find dimples in the trees from yesterday’s footsteps, but then I loose them, and they never return.

When I get over the high point my progress gets more difficult. The trail sidles along steep mountainsides that are now covered in precarious layers of snow, too dangerous to follow, so I try to continue at a higher elevation instead, clinging to the ridge line, ploughing through snow covered bushes, and climbing straight up mountainsides as opposed to creating new switchbacks. Now and again I find myself struggling to get higher: every approach too steep, and I keep sliding down in the snow, moving to a different point to try again, only to fall down once more.

This day is a lot more difficult that the snow days I had in the desert. I feel fatigued. I’m struggling to navigate. But somehow, I keep progressing, just a little bit. I do about a mile an hour, and only get through because I ignore the many more miles ahead of me, and focus all my attention on the next step instead – digging my foot into the powdery snow until I notice I’m gripped onto something a little more solid, moving my poles forward and digging them into the snow, and taking the next step.

I’m relieved when I reach what’s supposed to be a dirt road following the mountaintop, with the PCT running parallel at a lower level. I can’t take the trail, the snow on the mountainside is too steep, so I follow the road which has been obliterated by huge snow drifts. They’re so big it’s like climbing a hill over and over again, and although it requires less navigation, it is incredibly tiring and slow. I can’t even see properly. The snow is so white that I can’t tell where it begins or ends: I don’t know whether the next step goes up or down, and every step is a surprise when I hit the snow. I’m happy I have my sunglasses.

Hours later I still haven’t caught up to Speedy and Prince’s footsteps. I can’t believe they’re so much better at hiking in these conditions than I am. They must’ve made it so much further yesterday. It’s around 1:30 when I recognise a section of trail for the very first time today: a thin layer of snow covering a tree lined path. The sun peaks out just a little, providing just the smallest amount of warmth. My feet are frozen by now, and with clumps of ice continuously getting stuck to my micro spikes, I feel as though my feet have turned into numb blocks attached to my legs. I haven’t stopped all day, and I force myself to rest against a fallen tree and take off my shoes and socks. Snow has fallen into the plastic bags and my socks are wet, water pouring out of the plastic bags. I take everything off, lay it in the sun, and eat my second Cliff bar of the day.

After some deep breaths I turn on my phone and realise I have reception. I get a text from Speedy. ‘We’ve hitched to Shasta,’ it says, and I’m confused. Are they that fast? It’s some 50 miles to the next Interstate, surely they couldn’t have walked that far in the snow? While I start to thoroughly doubt my own ability in these snowy conditions, I find out they haven’t completed this section at all. They weren’t far from me last night, and they got so cold and wet that they decided to get off the mountain. They met another hiker bailing out too, and completely assumed I would do the same thing. They backtracked to a forest road and walked out, after which they hitched into town. I never even thought about bailing out. Now I’m on top of the mountain and I’m alone. I can’t believe it.

Speedy tells me more bad weather is on its way, and a thunderstorm will be here tomorrow evening. I guess I could bail out too, but I don’t have a good reason to. I’m here now and I’m doing it, I’m getting through the snow. I’m not in any immediate danger, I’m just moving slow, and I’m cold and wet but I’m okay. I just have to keep going.

When I continue the snow is getting softer in some moments of afternoon sun, and I sidle along a huge mountainside and keep falling, sliding down the slushy slope, over and over again. I wonder if I’ll ever make it through but somehow I do. When I see more trail I can’t imagine my relief. Finally a path to follow. The snow is thinner here, but every time it moves to the other side of the mountain and passed through forest the snow drifts come back again, and I get lost, and have to plough through before finding the trail again. Now and again I have views over the green mountains nearby, and I can see ahead, to where the snow stops, and I can’t wait to get there.

I see animal prints everywhere now, birds and bunnies, but also bears, coyotes, and very likely mountain lions. It’s a bit frightening to be confronted by them like this, and I feverishly hope I can make it to the other side of the mountain today and move out of the snow, but I know it’d be a huge push.

As it gets later the fog returns, and everything goes grey again. My feet have turned into clumps of ice, and it feels unreal to walk on them. I think about food. Lasagna. I really want lasagna. When I get out, I’m going to eat lasagna. It’s just before 8 pm when I finally reach the descend. I’m surprised I made it, and I’m so happy I did. The snow will get less now, and I follow the path into the forest, and snake along the trails around the rivers downhill, finally downhill.

The snow keeps changing. Sometimes it’s just a sprinkling, then I carefully have to manoeuvre across a thick snow chute covering a section of trail. It’s getting dark now. It’s time to camp, but I’m still in the snow. All the snow free spots around trees are covered with little bushes, and I try to hurry forward until it gets too dark and I need a head torch to keep on going. I decide to give up. I don’t want to walk in the dark, so I stay right on the trail, where a side path goes down to a creek.

I set up my shelter on the slanted crossway, my pad and myself uncomfortably sliding down and pushed into the far corner throughout the night. My legs hurt so much from slogging through the snow I struggle to sleep. It’s taken me 12 hours today, with just 30 minutes of rest, on two Cliff bars. I walked less than 14 miles.

5 thoughts on “PCT Day 56 : Snow Hell

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