PCT Halfmile 424.4 to Indian Canyon Trailhead (PCT 444.2)
(19.8 miles, +3,000/-6,400 feet).
Today was…. interesting.
I’m not sure I would do it again. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. But sometimes it is useful to have certain experiences because they are novel and they help define the lines within which we color our future choices.
I think of today as a series of failed experiments. The first experiment was to see if I could hike 30 miles in one day.
That experiment caused me to do another experiment: go crazy, crazy light with my pack. My base weight was actually five pounds! But that’s mainly because I didn’t bring a sleeping bag or a puffy jacket or gloves or a beanie or my buff or anything to keep me warm besides my 3.7 ounce wind jacket. Instead, I brought my newly-purchased S.O.L. Escape Bivvy, which I read could keep one warm down to about 50 degrees.
As I settled into the bivvy inside my tent last night, the temperature started to drop below 60 and the wind started to blow. And while the bivvy did a good job of blocking the wind and breathing to keep me dry, the effective wind chill probably dropped below 50 degrees.
I was cold! When I laid on my back, the full surface area of my Neo-Air sleeping pad kept me a little warmer, but it wasn’t enough, even with all my clothes on. My legs were especially cold, so I stuck them inside my backpack, giving me an extra layer around the bivvy.
Between 8pm and midnight I drifted in and out of sleep, but soon it was cold enough that I couldn’t take it any more. I wasn’t in danger, but I clearly was not going to get any more sleep. So what to do?
That’s when I engaged in experiment number three: a seven hour night hike!
Yup. Pack up the tent at midnight and hit the trail.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds (okay, well, maybe it was). There was no moon, but the stars were extremely bright, and it only took a little bit of walking to warm up. Plus, last night was the peak of the annual Orionids meteor shower, and I did get to see half a dozen beautiful streaks in the sky. And I had never really hiked to distant city lights before. Each ridge revealed the shiny grids of Acton, Palmdale, and local ranches, or the pulsating red wind farms of the distant Mojave.
Still, though, there were some problems.
First, it’s hard not to think about being stalked by mountain lions. I know it’s an extremely rare event — a heart attack was probably more likely — but the visceral human fear of the dark is kind of hard to overcome.
Second, when I managed to keep my fear under control I was mostly bored. My headlamp kept my eyes focused on about a three foot halo in front of me for hours on end, and I couldn’t help lamenting all the lovely canyon views I was probably missing. The first few miles took me up to the top of Mount Gleason, which must look amazing in the daytime. I guess I will have to go back some time.
Third, it was just cold and creepy enough that I never really wanted to take a break. I should know better by now, but forced marching for hours at a time wreaks havoc on my knees, and it doesn’t help that I probably hyper-extended them more often in my long downhill descent in the dark than I would have if I could have seen properly.
By 4am I had hiked 10 miles (and I thought 10 by 10 was hard!) and was presented with another problem. I had run out of water!
This was part of the plan. I read on the PCT water report that there probably would be a water jug at North Fork Ranger Station, but when I got there I had trouble finding it. As it turns out, it’s not at the ranger station, but instead on a table in a nearby picnic area. If it had been light, I would have seen a huge three foot sign that said “WATER” but instead I bumbled around in the dark until I figured it out.
With just an hour before daybreak, I sat on a table near the water eating a sandwich and peering up at Orion. Although it was still pitch black, I was beginning to feel that optimism one gets when nearing the end of a difficult part of a hike. The hardest part was behind me, and the beauty of the Hunter filled my eyes with wonder as my stomach eagerly digested peanut butter and honey.
I considered taking a nap on the table. At this lower elevation it might have been warm enough for me to fall asleep for a little bit. But I got it in my head that I could avoid most of the heat of the day if I kept walking.
So that’s what I did.
One thing about hiking all night is that you can easily detect the beginning of its end. A tiny subtle glow in the east would grow as it turned the inky black sky pale and obscured the stars. Colors began to emerge on the horizon giving shape to objects I could only see in my imagination for the past several hours.
I was 17 miles in and had all the desire in the world to keep going, to make my mythical 30 miles.
But then I felt a twinge.
And I knew it was over.
As dawn was breaking, I stopped to eat a cookie, the last of my food, and to rest my knees after several thousand feet of descent.
I made a new plan. There was a KOA in about 3 miles that would have not just water, but maybe a grassy spot under a shady tree where I could take a long nap.
But after my break my knees continued to get worse.
My progress slowed considerably as I stopped to stretch over and over again.
It then got even slower as I realized I needed to take 10 minute breaks every half mile or so.
I finally gave in to the fact that I would not make my 30 today. And fortunately, there was a major road coming up where I could get off trail before I did any permanent damage to my body.
On the upside, knowing that my hike was almost over allowed me to appreciate the stunning contrast between night and day. I fell in love with bits of the trail I would otherwise have zoomed right through.
The last mile and a half were exceptionally beautiful, with stark wrinkled landscapes wiped clean by the Sand Fire from last year.
When I was about ten minutes from the Indian Creek Trailhead I checked my phone and sure enough there was a signal and a willing Uber driver. I hobbled down the last bit of a trail and found a huge sign warning that the area was closed due to the fire. With ample shade behind the sign, I laid down on the pavement to await my ride.
I thought about what had gone wrong today and it occurred to me that I had done a full day of trail work and hiked 25 miles, all in the span of about 24 hours. No wonder my knees were complaining!
If I’m going to do 30 miles some day, I should probably try it in daylight on a full night’s sleep!