Trail Update – Warner Springs to San Jacinto

Warner Springs

I take my first zero in Warner Springs, where it is fabled, there is a community center where I can soak my feet in Epsom salts and take a proper shower; in other words, a shower that doesn’t involve a ziplock bag and a sponge.

You see, taking a backcountry shower is a bit of a chore. You’re not supposed to bathe directly in a water source without cleaning yourself first. Failure to do so means depositing your sunblock, your soap suds, your sweat salt, and whatever’s stuck to your poorly wiped butt in a stream other people drink from. It’s not only gross, but when repeated by hundreds of hikers, it quickly disrupts the delicate riparian ecosystem, which, in California is home to many endangered species.

Therefore, a proper Leave No Trace shower involves filling up a bottle (or in my case a ziplock bag) and walking a few hundred meters away to methodically wipe yourself down with a sponge. Add in multiple rinses, and you’ve practically added a half-mile of walking to your day. I often find that I’d rather just stay dirty.

Needless to say, I’m exciting at the prospect of getting clean.

A big banner reading “welcome PCT hikers!” greets me at the community center, which it turns out is a series of trailers and small prefabs adjacent to the local high school’s softball field. Like a homeless encampment, there’s a tent village sitting directly behind right field. This has to be one of the most surreal high schools in America. For roughly half the academic year, the students have to share space with hiker trash. We are not model citizens. Their ought to be a law against us cohabitating the same space.

The showers it turns out are just five-gallon buckets next to a sink. Other upgrades include a partition for privacy and protection against the wind, and warm water. By civilized standards, its not much of an improvement. In comparison to my backcountry showers, however, it feels luxurious. And when I finish bathing, I feel truly clean for the first time in weeks.

By late afternoon, the girls softball game starts. Around 20 of us sit behind the outfield and cheer on the home team. They are either indifferent to our presence or are actively trying to ignore us. The opposing team from Coachella Valley has a bruiser of a catcher. On force plays to home, we watch her slam the other girls into the dirt repeatedly. Helmets snap backward hard. Clouds of dust pop up. She is a sadist.

A sense of serenity comes over me. This beats any form of digital entertainment. I think I finally understand why people like Norman Rockwell paintings.

I spend the night. In the morning few of us seem eager to move on. The word up the trail is that there are dangerous snow conditions on San Jacinto. All day we discuss the reports of hikers who took icy falls and needed search and rescue. We endlessly debate if the reports we hear are simple fearmongering or sober truth. Were the injured unprepared? Full of hubris? Or is the pass really that dangerous? To complicate things, conditions are changing daily, maybe it really was dangerous two days ago, but with a bit of melt, is now benign.

Evaluating risk from secondhand accounts of trail conditions is difficult. Everyone has different risk tolerances and experience levels. To complicate matters, machismo plays out in both directions. Some people prefer to be seen as capable and confident and chronically understate the danger of everything. In its most extreme manifestation, they meet genuinely life-threatening circumstances with nonchalance. On the other end of the spectrum, you get people who just love a good story, and exaggerate even the smallest of challenges for dramatic effect.

As a result, I don’t know whether I’m headed into a mountaineering expedition, or well, just a bit of trail snow. Either way, I grab a set of crampons. No so much for safety reasons, but for ease of traversal. Even if it’s safe to walk a snowfield in trail runners, it’s a hell of a lot faster to do it crampons. The weight difference is negligible. Plus, walking straight down the fall line in high angle snow while your friends teeter-totter on Microspikes is exactly the kind of schadenfreude I’m here for.

San Jacinto

The two days I spend on San Jacinto are the first where I really have to think about my safety in a structured way. Up until this point, everything’s been pretty much fun and games.

In spring, Jacinto is a gut check for people considering entering the Sierra early. It’s a bit of a practice mountain. Being the second-tallest peak in Southern California0 1,it presents some problems for hikers. To drive the point home, the trailheads in this area are canvassed with posters asking for information about a missing (and I would presume dead) hiker, David O’Sullivan. It’s a sobering reminder that this can actually be dangerous.

According to the snow report, there are two problematic areas: Apache Peak and Fuller Ridge. Recent search and rescues are on my mind as my group ascends the backside of the mountain.

By the afternoon, the wind really starts to whip up. Several times the gusts blow me sideways, almost enough to knock me over. Sometimes I walk at a forward pitch to maintain my balance, only to have the wind die and cause me to start stumbling. It is a bit like walking between moving subway cars. My phone pings with a weather advisory. Gusts up to 60 mph will continue throughout the night.

Our group stops briefly at Spitler Peak. The wind is worsening, and storm clouds are starting to expand from the summit, which is still a thousand or so feet above us. Half of us want to continue on, past Apache Peak, to a campsite a few miles ahead, the other half wants to stop here. This camp is a mediocre windbreak at best. And high winds can make pitching my Tarptent nearly impossible. It’s not freestanding, it relies on my trekking poles, and firmly anchored stakes to stay up. In 60 mph winds, my tent is basically a kite.

Without a good windbreak, I’m forced to bivy, and my bivy isn’t fully waterproof. The weather forecast says not to expect any precipitation, but tall peaks like San Jacinto act as giant vapor condensers. By cooling moist air into thick clouds, they can easily generate localized storms. Weather reports are not to be trusted on mountains. So, if it rains instead of snows, it could mean a wet sleeping bag. A wet bag + high winds = hypothermia.

I consider getting off the mountain and descending into Idyllwild via the Spitler Peak trail, but it’s already getting late, and there are risks in doing that too. I’m torn. I don’t really want to head into Idyllwild but neither do I want to camp here. In the end, I decide to press on with Landfill toward Apache Peak. The snow hasn’t been much of an issue yet, plus I’m hoping I can find a better campsite.

When I get to Apache Peak snow obscures the trail, leaving an unbroken steep slope to walk across. The way forward is, according to my estimation, both low-risk and high-consequence. Meaning, the chance of slipping is very low, but the consequence of doing so could send me into an uncontrolled slide down to a pile of rocks. It’s a combination that helps explain the conflicting reports that I’ve gotten over the last week. I see why an ice axe is recommended, but I also feel safe enough getting by with my hiking poles. Based on my comfort level, it warrants some extra caution. This isn’t a place for me to screw around. 

I consider the possible scenarios. A slip here means a fall. Without an ice axe, I can’t self-arrest effectively. It’s not very technical terrain, and I feel like I could cross it safely. But also, the wind gusts are brutal. They’ve nearly knocked me over on the trail. If one were to hit while I was crossing the snow, it might not matter how carefully I was moving. Additionally, the storm over San Jacinto summit is increasing in size, visibility is lowering, and I’m worried it will snow.

On the plus side, I’m traveling with a partner, so if something bad does happen, they can SOS. Perhaps that lowers the chance of a fatality, but not the chance of accident itself. Either way it would take me off trail.  None of this is necessarily likely to happen, but that’s the thing about odds; repeat your trails enough times, and unlikely scenarios can become certain.

Besides, by crossing now what am I gaining? A three-mile head start on the next day? A better campsite? Is all this worth the risk? I could just do this pass tomorrow when the snow will be easier to walk across and winds might be milder.

I decide that crossing now is dumb. For the first time this trip I backtrack. I return to the old campsite, pitch my tent, and tie my guy lines down tight to the heaviest rocks I can find.

Snow Camp

The winds whip all night and blow my tent around but everything stays put. In the morning the winds die down and crossing Apache Peak is easy. The backtracking I did yesterday was definitely the right decision.

Hiking today takes me through miles of snow. Its slow going. The warm midday weather heats everything up and I posthole one out of every half-dozen steps. I walk until the sun goes down.

Exhausted, I make camp about 50 feet below the trail, on a semi-flat bank of snow anchored up against some granite boulders. It takes me 30 minutes or so to stamp down a flat area with my shoes. Camping on snow doesn’t bother me much, but it can make things slightly trickier. For instance, tent stakes slip out, and with all the rocks buried, there’s seldom anything to tie into.

Genius me was like, “No problem, just bury your tent states and use them as dead man anchors!”

I’m an idiot.

I woke up with all my tent stakes buried four inches into solid ice. I intended to bury them deeper. Thank god I didn’t; it took me over an hour to chisel them free with my potty trowel. Note to self: use sticks as dead man anchors and tie your guy lies down in such a way that you can leave the sticks buried.

I think one of the tricks to thru-hiking is not to make all your mistakes at once. You want to make them gradually, so they don’t compound on each other and create a dangerous situation. Also, don’t think for a second you’ll be able to avoid making mistakes. You can read books, you can practice scenarios, you can learn from other people’s mistakes. But try as you might, you’ll just find new and novel mistakes to make.

Also, you’ll want to forgive yourself for the mistakes you make. It’s one of those things that’s easier to do out here than back in real life, and it’s one of the many lessons I intend to take back with me.

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Comments 3

  • Slice : Apr 30th

    Jonathan – You’re a great writer! Keep the updates coming!

    Reply
  • Sue : May 1st

    Enjoying your posts. Be careful and remember how lucky you are to be out there everyday.

    Reply
  • Paula : May 4th

    Stay safe but enjoy it all! Love hearing all about your adventure! How brave you are!

    Reply

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