Day 14 was the day where we got our first “real” hitch from absolute strangers from Idyllwild back to Paradise Valley cafe. The four of us (Sun bear, Cheers, Andrew and I) were picked up by a lovely elderly couple on their way to lunch with friends. While we drove through the charred remnants of forest on the outskirts of Idyllwild, they told us that they had to evacuate from their home during the fire. This part of the PCT had actually just been reopened after about 5 years of fire detours. We saw more evidence of this forest fire after lunch. The ghostly tree trunks were smudged with soot, their skeleton arms all reaching up and out as if to ask why this terrible event had happened to them. We camped in this eerie forest on a mountain ridge that night and could see the bright lights of Palm Springs in the valley below us.
We woke up early at 5am on our 15th day because we had our first section of snow to traverse. One section in particular, Apache peak (at mile 169) had been reported by hikers ahead of us as very icy and steep – one hiker already had to be helicopter rescued out of there! While we were in Idyllwild, we were told that it was best to skip that section as many other hikers were already doing that. Our group, besides Andrew, were fairly apprehensive about hiking on snow. However, we decided to check out the snow for ourselves before deciding to take an alternate trail.
On the day, before we even reached Apache peak, we still had to hike up a steep mountain ridge while frequently hiking around or climbing across large fallen trees. Clambering across a wide dead tree with branches sticking up vertically felt like a real jungle gym with my backpack feeling literally like a monkey on my back. Our legs and pants were blackened from all the charred trees. Finally after 9 miles, we arrived at Apache peak. At this point, our friends had stopped 1 mile before to melt snow for water and they were still considering taking an alternate route. We crossed Apache peak without a problem. My microspikes made me feel more confident crossing the snow but there were some areas which were still tricky and where I was very grateful for Andrew’s guidance. As soon as we reached the end of the traverse, Andrew went back to help our friends cross. However, we waited for almost an hour before they caught up to us. During that time, Andrew helped other hikers across the peak, crossing over the snow about 10 times!
After lunch, we continued traversing over several more large patches of snow, but none as steep as Apache. Our efforts were rewarded that night with minimal sleep. The mountain ridge we camped at that night was accosted with winds of up to 60 miles per hour. That was enough to make about half the hikers camping with us give up on sleeping and leave at 3am. We stayed behind hoping that the wind would die down. As we laid in our tent, the wind raged on outside, never dying down for more than a second. The moment before a large gust would hit out tent, we would hear the wind howl and our flimsy tent walls would shudder in response. At 7am, we hastily packed up and left while the wind kept blowing.
Needless to say, our 16th day felt like a long one even though it was short in miles. We spent most of the day traversing over snow again so our shoes were drenched through by the end of the day. Although the traverses were less steep it was still physically draining. With the snow covering and obscuring the trail, we got lost a few times! By the time we made camp at Strawberry campsite – hiking only 7 miles – we were exhausted. Due to the events of the previous night, we probably spent 30 minutes painstakingly searching for camping spots adequately sheltered from the wind. Eventually we found spots behind some boulders. Cheers and I made a campfire which was perfect in lifting our spirits and drying off our wet socks and shoes while Sun bear and Andrew levelled out our tent spots to make them as flat as possible. Throughout the night we could hear the wind blowing above us in the trees, but we slept soundly in our tents below where it was relatively calm.
On day 17, we hiked over Fuller Ridge. Besides Apache peak, this was also where we had received ample warning of. Since it was high snow year, there was a lot of nervous talk about the depth of the snow on the ridge. After an almost freezing night, we found the snow still quite solid and icy. These were ideal conditions for our hike that morning because we could walk casually over the snow and not be post-holing or sinking knee-deep into the snow every step. Even the mud was still frozen hard from the cold night.
We ascended up to 9,000 feet (3,000 metres) on the ridge which sometimes left me gasping for air from the physical exertion and elevation. There were two peaks to hike over and both had several false summits which was demoralizing each time to discover. Around noon as we were hiking over the second peak, the snow was starting to become slushy. At this point, I started post-holing and sliding more – I couldn’t wait to finish crossing the snow! I was especially wary of walking too close to trees in case of falling into a tree well. When we finally passed both summits we stopped for lunch at a campground at mile 193, where it was low enough in elevation that there was little snow. It was a relief to kick off our soggy socks and shoes. For the rest of the afternoon we started a long 20 mile descent towards the I10 freeway underpass.
We woke up on day 18 full of motivation because we were hiking for burgers! It was common for hikers to hitch from where the trail intersected the I10 to Cabazon where there was an In N Out burger restaurant. We had 12 miles to hike to the freeway and were expecting to have celebratory burgers for lunch. I was relieved that the trail was mainly downhill and flat today after all the efforts from all the previous days. However, I found myself becoming frustrated with the windy nature of the trail. From the top I could see where exactly the I10 was but each time the trail twisted and turned in the opposite direction. Eventually we arrived at the bottom and walked along an asphalt road which was hard on our feet. The last 2 miles was along a sandy washout – at this point the wind was blowing strongly into our faces. Considering that we had seen row upon row of wind turbines from the mountain top I should’ve known that it was a windy area. Finally we were underneath the freeway with other hikers drinking sodas left by trail angels in coolers. Soon the call of burgers grew strong and we poked our heads out from under the freeway to get a hitch to Cabazon.
We felt conspicuously filthy at In N Out. Trudging on the stark white tiles into the restaurant, we internally apologized for our odor to any unfortunate table we happened to sit next to. We ate our burgers ravenously – the texture and taste felt surreal after several days of dehydrated food. Some of us even bought more burgers afterwards. Feeling stuffed, we took the bus to Beaumont where we had booked a motel and where there was a Walmart to buy groceries.
Walmart has yet to expand their empire to Australia, so I find each visit still initially overwhelming (not as much as Costco though!). Grabbing a trolley, we cruised down the aisles taking whatever we needed for the next leg of our hike. Several times we were stopped by locals asking us what trail we were hiking. Despite Beaumont’s proximity to a section of the PCT, not many of the locals were aware of the trail. Afterwards we checked into our motel and proceeded to leave a lot of dirt on the floor as we showered and reorganized our bags. I slept very soundly that night with a full belly.
The next morning on day 19, we treated ourselves to breakfast at Denny’s. Our waitress, Naomi was very excited to hear about our adventures as she had always wanted to hike the PCT. However her responsibility as a mother of 5 children understandably took priority. After running several other errands, we returned to the I10 underpass and started hiking again at 3pm. It was about 7pm when we finally camped in an area with lots of dried big horn sheep poo.
Our 20th day was another challenging day. We were hiking through along Mission creek which had experienced severe flooding on Valentine’s day. As result, 8 to 9 miles of the trail was completely washed out so there was no trail to follow. We had heard that it was possible to walk up the creek because the trail use to follow it. For the whole afternoon, we walked alternating in the creek or on partial trails on the edge of the creek. We were constantly checking the map and scanning the ground for footprints to make sure we were going the right direction.
Finding shoe prints in the sand, looking for broken branches and searching for overturned rocks became a game for us. However after 2 hours the game became old very quickly. Since the creek branched out several times, we crossed it frequently. At first I tried keeping my feet dry by walking over logs and rocks but learned immediately that it was much more efficient to just splash through the water. The creek changed between being strongly gushing to stagnant green pools to just flowing brown water and back again.
Four hours later, we were finally back on dry trail and by this time it was 6pm. Our feet were soaked, shoes filled with creek pebbles and legs all scratched from bushwacking through dense shrubs. We hiked another 4 miles before camping and by that time it was 8pm and dark. I barely stayed up late enough to finish dinner before sleeping!