Plans: They Are a Changin’—Adjusting to the Weather Realities of 2019
Sitting in a tree house is not a bad way to kill a week’s worth of time while we are waiting for snow to melt ahead of us. We’ve already hiked roughly a quarter of the PCT (652.1 miles, according to Guthook) and are presently in Northern California learning about volcanoes. Until we arrived here, we had never even heard of Lassen Volcanic National Park. With our extra time and a lucky encounter with a retiring trail angel, we have learned much about the geology of the area and know much about what to expect from the trail ahead.
We had hoped that the last two heavy snow years on the PCT meant that things were due for a change. We were right, but not in the direction we had hoped. Instead of the light snow year and return to the drought we thought might be on the horizon, California has seen the heaviest and most widespread snows it has experienced in the last 40 years.
Our Original Plan
By starting in late February, we were hoping to beat the desert heat, and we have. We were hoping the snow would melt on Mount San Jacinto enough by the time we got there that it would be passable. It didn’t.
Until we holed up in Warner Springs for a couple of days, we had encountered very few other thru-hikers on the trail even though the reservation system had been fully booked. The rain in Warner Springs and snow at higher elevation did help to create a weather bubble that allowed us to meet dozens of hikers we hadn’t been aware of until then.
After a two-day wait, we proceeded to Mike’s Place. That night, a few of our new friends had pushed on to Paradise Cafe and just beyond, where they encountered snow up to two feet deep on the way to Idyllwild. Subsequently, it snowed even more on San Jacinto.
We were faced with a new choice: battle the snow and struggle to make it to Idyllwild, where we will probably get stuck for an extended period of time, or jump past the higher-elevation snow.
Jump It Is
A group of five of us decided to skip the forced stalemate in Idyllwild and jump past Mount Baden Powell, which has been hammered just as hard as Mount San Jacinto. This did offer us the opportunity to witness the incredible California poppy bloom along I-15. People just pulled off the interstate, got out of their cars, and walked up the mountains. This turned a 2.5-hour drive into a five-hour drive, but we made it to the other side.
We resumed the trail in Acton, CA, almost 300 trail miles farther up. At least we could keep moving north until the snow melts enough in the section that we skipped that we can safely make up the miles. We found ourselves, for the first time on the trail, in temperatures warm enough in the evening that we didn’t have to immediately climb into our sleeping bags when we got to camp.
Along the way, we have been the first NOBOs to stop at Hiker Heaven, Casa de Luna, and Hiker Town. We have met many wonderful people along the way, but not very many fellow hikers. We have seen more wind turbines than we even knew existed. Tehachapi was a great trail town, with a very organized angel network that goes way beyond the call to help hikers (we were not the first to visit there because others had jumped to Tehachapi to hike back to Paradise as SOBOs). We finished that leg of the trail by camping at McIver Cabin before hiking into Walker Pass and hitching into Ridgecrest. At Ridgecrest, we rented a car and drove back to Paradise Cafe to make up the section we had skipped.
Back to Paradise
When we returned to Paradise Cafe, we experienced culture shock. From Acton to Walker Pass, we have had the trail to ourselves. If we met anyone, it was usually just a day hiker; we never camped with anyone outside of our tramily of four. Now we were in the thick of things. There were almost 15 other hikers camped with us the first night outside of the cafe with many more hikers passing through.
San Jacinto and Baden Powell were passable with Microspikes and hiking poles, which is the maximum we are willing to attempt. Anything requiring more skill is outside our comfort zone. We are not carrying an ice axe. Why bother if we haven’t been trained on its proper use? It is obvious to us that the Sierra will not be accessible to us for many months to come.
Eventually, our original tramily splintered and we started to intermingle with many of our new fellow hikers, but we were reluctant to become embedded with a new group since we knew we would soon be jumping ahead once we made it back to Acton. That didn’t stop us from spending time with new people, sharing trail pizza and beer at Cleghorn Picnic Area, or gawking at nude locals at Deep Creek Hot Springs.
One Man’s Crusade
During the drive up to Old Station, we had time to get caught up on Backpacker Radio Podcasts. I heard one topic that has been near and dear to me over the years—chafing.
After successfully traversing Fuller Ridge, we were leapfrogging with an English hiker named Dignity. We had passed each other so many times that Dignity felt comfortable enough with me to ask to borrow some Body Glide for chafing. I told him to keep an open mind and just accept what I was going to give him was much better. He was in enough pain that he was open to anything. From one man to another, I gave him my Vagisil.
I warned him that it might burn a little, but bear with it for a few minutes. We stopped for a snack a little farther down the trail and Dignity caught up with us. He had a new pep in his step. He told me he hadn’t felt this good in a couple of weeks. I gave my Vagisil to a man named Dignity and he thanked me. It sounds like a good country song to me.
At Deep Creek Hot Springs, one of the women we had been hiking with complained about chafing and blistering on her back. Johnny on the spot, I offered Jukebox my Vagisil to use instead of the Vaseline she was putting on. There was a French hiker nearby who asked what Vagisil was. I said it should be obvious; Vag is for vagina and sil means to close off. Solo female hikers often carry Vagisil if they are not planning on being “active” on the trail. At any rate, Jukebox passed me later and said she was buying her own tube once she got to the next town.
I’m really surprised that more people aren’t aware of this hack. I read about it in Backpacker Magazine years ago. It is a definite carry for me on every backpacking trip.
We have successfully killed a week of time in Old Station, CA. It appears that we have about 130 relatively clear miles ahead of us, but satellite photos don’t always tell the whole story at ground level. We plan to mosey north from here at a snail’s pace (which coincides with our normal pace) to allow the snow to continue to melt. We’ve made plans to meet up with some AT friends from our thru-hike last year.
It’s about 300 miles to the Oregon border from Old Station. We would like to cross into Oregon sometime during the first week of June. Ideally, we will make it up near the Washington state line near the 4th of July, at which time we will have to take a week off trail to attend our son’s graduation from Army basic training.
Returning from graduation, we will continue north to the Canadian border. We plan on attending PCT trail days on our way back south to make up the Sierra, which we have skipped for now. We will decide then if we are going all the way down to Walker Pass to finish here in Old Station (saving Mount Lassen for last), or go SOBO from Old Station and capping our thru-hike on Mount Whitney. Weather and time will tell.
Even with the snow, I’m still happy that we started early. Water has not been an issue for us at all. We have run across so many unidentified water sources along the trail that we have rarely even had to leave the trail to get water. We have seen incredible desert wildflower blooms. We have not experienced blistering heat and the nights have been pretty moderate, hovering in the lower 40s and upper 30s. Even though we have only had a couple days above 70, that was hot enough for me. I couldn’t imagine crossing the desert with temperatures in the 90s or higher.
We know of many people who decided to get off the trail until the snow melted enough to make San Jacinto passable. We also know of people who have just quit, saying this is not the year. And yet, there are those who holed up in Idyllwild hoping for a break. Now that San Jacinto and Baden Powell are passable, the bubble is quickly progressing toward Kennedy Meadows, where the question will come up again—wait or jump?
We expected the possibility of weather issues with such an early start. We knew we’d probably have to adjust our plans, but we hoped for the best. We can only roll with what nature and the PCT gives us. We are still happy and lucky to be here.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.