Part Six – Let It Snow (mile 342 to mile 454)
Going into the town of Wrightwood, I was notified by other hikers that a snowstorm was expected to land on Baden-Powell this upcoming Thursday. Today was Tuesday. Even if I left tomorrow morning, I would not have enough time to go over Baden-Powell and get out without being hit by the storm. I wanted to summit the mountain, unlike others who had decided to take the closed Highway 2 around it since it was faster. Makes sense, it was a highway after all. After some reflection, the decision was made: I would wait out the snowstorm and leave first thing on Friday. This situation was a bit annoying, but on the bright side, it would allow Beer Slide, Shortcut, and Twigs to catch up with me.
It’s Friday and we are leaving Wrightwood, without Shortcut. She hurt her foot coming into town and had to go get a scanner. It could be a stress fracture, but we don’t know for sure. This morning on our way to breakfast, I could see that she was limping hard, but she kept pretending everything was okay. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine!” she would answer in a faked-enthusiastic tone every time someone asked her. Twigs and I looked at each other in silence. We knew she wasn’t.
Finally, Shortcut decided she would hitch a ride to a road down the trail and skip a few miles to rest her foot. We said our “see you later’s”, not “goodbye’s,” and the rest of us started the steep climb out of Wrightwood on fresh snow. While hiking by myself, I thought about the risk of injury. Shortcut’s foot pain led me to realize that my health is something I must not take for granted. Anything can happen at any time, and then everything ends. So I take care of myself, and I enjoy every moment.
The hike out of Wrightwood takes us straight into a winter wonderland. Around us, the ground is covered by a layer of pristine white snow. Again, this doesn’t feel like Southern California. Twigs and I walk through a ski lift covered in snow before reaching an opening from where we can see the hot and dry desert floor in the distance. An odd sight. At the end of the day, we make it to the parking lot located at the bottom of Mount Baden-Powell. Since the highway is closed, everybody has pitched their tent around the road. Everybody is getting ready for tomorrow morning.
4:00 a.m. sharp. Twigs and I start walking into the darkness of the night. Everything is covered in frozen hard snow. As we go up, I can see the golden and red lights from the cities in the distance mixing with the dark blue of the dawn sky. I love that view. Soon, the climb becomes steeper as the switchbacks disappear and foottracks in the snow go straight up to the summit. Twigs and I, now joined by Sasquatch, Final Push, and Impala, push on while the sun rises above the mountains. Right before the summit, we catch up with Beer Slide. We had been following in his footsteps all along. We made the final push together, and before you know it, here we were, on top of Mount Baden-Powell. From up there, I could almost see the outskirts of Los Angeles to the West, a city I lived in a year ago and cherished.
Now that the objective had been secured, our group had to go down from the summit and follow the trail on a ridgeline. Except, there was no trail, nor were there any footprints. We were the first group up since the last snowfall. For a few slow miles, we broke trail. Beer Slide, Final Push, and I took turns leading the group into the unknown until we reached Throop Peak. Throop Peak was not on the trail technically, but it offered us the view needed to make a decision: continue to follow the trail, or go down to the closed Highway 2 and take the alternate. We knew the trail was covered in fresh, unstable snow, and from what we could see, a long and steep traverse was waiting for us with no footprints to follow. In addition to that, it was already midday and the sun had been out for a few hours melting the snow. We had been post-holing a few times already. Final Push, who is a mountaineering guide off-trail, strongly advised against attempting to follow the trail. I think all of us felt the same way, and having a professional going in our direction reassured us of our decision.
We started walking down Throop Peak, still on snow, towards Highway 2. As we went, the terrain became much steeper. While some of us looked for ways to “switchback” their way down, I stood there and assessed. I could feel the excitement inside me rising. The idea was so appealing, and soon there was no debate in my head anymore. I dropped on my butt and started sliding. I glissaded for about 10 feet, before slowing down to a stop using my ice axe. The rest of the crew, seeing how much easier it was, followed along. We did that all the way down to the road, taking turns. Not only was it easier, but it was probably the most fun I had had on the trail so far. Glissades of 10, 15, 20 feet. Perfect snow conditions for this type of activity. Everyone was laughing and joking around. Once we all made it to the road, happy and full of energy, somebody said out loud what everybody was thinking: “I’m glad we made the decision to come down!”
Back to the dirt
400 miles. I stand in front of the mile marker made of stones on the ground. “This is starting to get real,” I say to myself. But I know the hard part has yet to come. After walking down Highway 2 this morning, we were back on a dirt trail. Back to walking fast and not having to worry about orientation. Back to good old simple hiking. Except for blisters. Damn, blisters. I didn’t get one this whole time, but today, for some unknown reason, three of them have appeared on my feet: one under my little toe, one on the side of my heel, and one right below. I do my best attempt at taping them, but it does not work really well. “Guess I’ll have to grit my teeth today,” I tell myself. I force myself to walk normally, even if it means stepping right on the inflamed spot. I tell myself that pain is temporary, that it is all in my head. I refuse to let it take control of me and my hike.
At lunch, Beer Slide and I stop near a campsite with picnic tables. We sit with Texas Time, a female hiker from (you guessed it) Texas. “You must be Yeehaw!” she says before I have time to introduce myself. “How do you know?” I ask, surprised. “Word has gone around on the trail that there is a French hiker wearing a cowboy hat named Yeehaw. I figured that must be you!” I laughed feeling a bit awkward at the thought of being “famous” on the trail.
In the following days, Beer Slide, Twigs, Shortcut and I kept hiking back down towards the desert. Baden-Powell was the last big mountain with snow before entering the Sierra. It was our last practice round. Next time, it would be for real. I was getting excited thinking about it, but I knew that we still had to finish the desert first, and Mojave was coming up. For a couple of days, I struggled with bad blisters and chafing which made hiking less enjoyable and quite painful. One night, after hiking a 26 miles day, I took off my sock in horror when I found out that my little toe was now completely surrounded by a big juicy blister. “Ahhh the joys of thru-hiking!” I said jokingly to Beer Slide who was sitting next to me having dinner. “Get away from me dude!” he replied, surprisingly repelled from the sight of my foot.
Our group made it to Agua Dulce after a quick stop at the Acton KOA to pick up boxes. There, we got to know Ghost, a hiking guide in the Sierra who had tied himself to our group the day before. To celebrate this new addition, we went to a Mexican restaurant to have dinner. There, we had the happy surprise of meeting Buddy, whom I had not seen since Wrightwood. Aware of our plans to go through the Sierra despite the record snowpack, he shared with us his desire to go through as well and that he was searching for a group. Without any hesitation, we all approved and cheered the idea. We were getting close to the Sierra, I could feel it.
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