PCT Desert Day 13: Winter Wonderland

Mile 190.50 to 208.05 — Today’s miles: 17.55
I sleep poorly, of course. Even with my earplugs, the wind is loud. Later I learn that the whole area had a wind advisory for gusts up to 65 miles per hour. Sounds about right. The snow comes and goes throughout the night. I have a three-season tent. It is a very well-designed and well-made tent, but it is not meant for real winter conditions. In the night I wake repeatedly, watching the wind blow my tent walls all around, noting that the snow accumulation is weighing down the walls and making my inside space smaller and smaller. Condensation forms on the inside (of course, because my warm breath hits the below-freezing air as I sleep) and turns to ice on the walls. I sleep in a progressively smaller ball, constantly worried that my down sleeping bag is touching the ice and getting wet. I am never truly warm or comfortable, but warm enough to be safe and to sleep in chunks of an hour or two. The wind finally subsides sometime after 3am.

In the morning, I am still cold, and my tent is still standing, though the snow has caved in the roof dramatically. I don’t hear any other hikers up yet. I text Cyn. “It snowed all night and my shoes were in the vestibule but because of the wind they are covered in snow!” She wants to know if I will be able to find the trail. This is a good question, and I decide to stay in my quilt until others leave first. Soon some hikers stir. “I’m wearing all the clothes I have!” “I guess the trail’s down there…?” “Hey, you wanna hike in the desert? Let’s go there! Haha!”

In a truly impressive feat of willpower, I put on my hiking clothes and pack up. My teeth are chattering by the time I open my tent doors. We must have gotten three inches of snow last night. Everything is covered. My shoes are frozen stiff, and I have to wedge my feet in and then try to strip the ice from the laces so I can tie clumsy knots. I tug on the frozen guylines and finally get my tent down. There’s no way to get all the snow off of it so I shake it a few times and stuff it into my pack. I’m freezing. Time to hike.

I never hike in my puffy jacket because I’m too paranoid of getting it wet or sweaty. But this morning I wear it for the first half hour of hiking, because it feels unsafe not to. I crunch through the snow in my microspikes, following the path made by other hikers earlier this morning. Once my body warms up a bit, I can appreciate how incredibly beautiful this is, and how truly lucky I am to experience it. Every now and then, the clouds break up when I’m at just the right spot, and I can look down to see the dry brown desert far below, while I’m up here in snow and ice. Tiny snow flurries fall around me, but I’m not worried, because I’m descending. Today I will descend about 6000 feet. Get ready, knees.

I pull off to the side for a bathroom break and to get a snack, and it starts snowing for real. I put the cover on my pack, pull up my hood, and hike faster. It’s very, very beautiful. My water bottles froze solid overnight, so I’m only able to drink a few sips at a time while they slowly melt, and I’m thirsty. I hike down endless switchbacks — there are a lot of them, but also each one seems to go for a mile before turning into the next one. Back and forth, back and forth, across the mountain all morning. The snow stops, and I wipe my glasses. But soon after, the rain begins. I hike faster. When the clouds move away, I stop for a quick lunch and try to spread my tent out to dry. It doesn’t help much.

I hit the 200 mile marker — it is a little later than the map says it ought to be. Every year the PCT changes a little due to closures, reroutes, trail maintenance. I’m sure this marker is precisely accurate in some years.

All day I’ve been looking down at the dry brown landscape below, dotted with wind turbines. The switchbacks continue. The weather is cool enough that I can hike all day, no need for a mid-day shade break, which is good since I didn’t get started until 9am. Finally I reach a hiker gathering at a water faucet. Everyone is tanking up and chatting and having snack breaks here. A sign says this water is provided by the Desert Water Agency (and I note a video surveillance camera nearby). I fill my bottle and treat the water as a big group of hikers leaves. Sounds like they’re all planning to camp under the overpass tonight. I’m not sure yet where I’ll camp. There are no sites marked on my maps for another 14 miles or something, but I’m almost finished with this downhill, and there must be camping somewhere in the few flat miles after that.

I continue down a paved road, past some houses, and back onto trail, now flat. About a mile from the overpass, I stop and look for a place to put my tent. I always feel uneasy camping near towns — the I-10 and train tracks are just over there, little clusters of houses not too far, the town of Cabazon just five miles away. I settle on a spot not too far from the trail but tucked behind some brush. Some guys I’ve been leapfrogging with set up a little down the trail, not so close that I can hear them talking, but close enough to feel reassuring. I set up my tent and let the gentle wind dry out the last of the melted snow. It is all warm dry sand here, and I struggle to believe I was freezing while hiking in a few inches of snow just this morning. I have a beautiful view of the sunset against the mountains as I fall into a grateful sleep.


View from my tent in the morning.


Desert hiking, right?


Looking 6000 feet down into the hot and dry.


Feeling lucky to hike in this.


Follow the trail into this cloud, here.


Mountains, making their own weather.


Everything is beautiful today. I’m headed down there eventually.


Sunset from my tent.


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