PCT Part 2: Sun, Snow and the Emergency Room

Julian (Mile 77) to Idyllwild (Mile 179)

I was full of nachos and apple pie when I hobbled to the highway out of Julian and stuck out my thumb. Two other hikers joined me, and we tried for about 20 minutes to get a hitch back to Scissors Crossing, and the trail. Finally a small SUV pulled over, driven by a woman who owned one of the restaurants in town. She lives right near Scissors, and picks up hikers every day on her way to and from work. She dropped us off by the side of the lonely desert highway, and I made my way to the Scissors water cache under the overpass, where a group of about a dozen hikers were sheltering from the afternoon sun.

I refilled my water bottles and began the climb to the ridge that the trail would follow for the next 20 miles. I’d only intended to walk a couple of miles on my near-o day, but swarms of gnats at the early campsites encouraged me to go further. About five miles later I ran into Simless and Mallory (now called Pineapples) at a site with an awesome view over the desert floor and decided to stop for the day.

Simless – a Brit so named because he refuses to buy a US SIM card – had spent the previous night back in San Diego, where he returned his sleeping bag, which was much too cold. We all watched the sun set over the distant mountains before retreating to our tents.

We knew water sources were scarce for the next section of trail, so the next day we set our sights on Barrel Springs, nearly 19 miles away. It was a long day of trekking through the desert heat, and I was grateful for the protection of the sun umbrella I bought on a whim weeks before the start of my hike. We reached the Third Gate water cache around lunch, and refilled for the afternoon. The cache is maintained by a team of local trail angels, saving hikers the pain of carrying heavy loads of water all the way to the spring.

We passed the 100 mile marker late in the afternoon, and poured into Barrel Springs about half an hour later, exhausted but satisfied. A notice at the spigot warned of dead rats floating in the spring-fed cistern, so I treated the water with both my Steripen and bleach tablets.

The next morning I had only an eight-mile hike to Warner Springs, a tiny community renowned on the trail for welcoming thru-hikers with open arms. Less than a minute out of camp I came across my first trail magic of the PCT – Canadian former thru-hiker Stranger Danger was parked at the highway crossing with donuts and iced coffee for everyone. Thanks dude!

The rocky desert ridge I’d been following for the past two days was replaced with rolling meadows with green grass that shimmered in the wind. I called FedEx to check on my suitcase which hadn’t yet arrived back with my cousins in Chicago. The rep told me it never made it out of California, and they had no idea where it was. Now they want receipts for all my clothes and souvenirs before they’ll pay me their $100 insurance or refund the $128 I paid in postage. Do yourself a favour: Don’t use FedEx.

I tried to put the annoyance out of my mind as I reached Eagle Rock, a huge rock formation in the middle of a meadow that is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Three miles later I made it to Warner Springs, which was swarming with hikers. The town’s community centre is all set up for hikers, with bucket showers, a bucket laundry, a small resupply store, and a hangout space with plenty of outlets for charging. Warner Springs is a fairly depressed community, which relies heavily on donations from hikers to fund its community centre and school. The volunteers who run the centre are some of the warmest, most welcoming people I’ve met so far.

The community centre even has a mobile gear store, operated by Two Foot Adventures, where I bought a new pair of microspikes to replace the ones that were in my missing suitcase. In the evening, we all walked over the road to the school, which was putting on a fundraising dinner for hikers. I stayed for the school district board meeting after dinner. Gina got employee of the month. Congratulations Gina!

The field behind the community centre was turned into a tent city by hikers, many of whom spend two days or more at the centre before they move on. Hikers call places like these “vortexes” – because they suck you in and you never leave.

Determined not to get bogged, I headed out with fellow hikers Kate and Andy the next morning. We were aiming for Mike’s Place, a trail angel’s property 18 miles up the trail. We crossed a cow pasture, then followed a creek into the hills. We spent most of the afternoon on a long, gradual climb from 3000 to 5000 feet.

Kate and I stumbled into Mike’s Place late in the afternoon. I’m not really sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t it. Mike’s Place is a house at the end of a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a bone-dry hill. Car wrecks and old RVs are scattered around the property, which has no running water. We met the caretaker, Strange Bird, a former hiker who wears a prosthetic tail and talks in riddles. It was all delightfully weird.

Strange and his crew of volunteers made pizzas for the hungry hikers, and filled a cooler with soft drinks and beer. I helped out making the dessert pizza – a deep dish with peaches and pineapple. Delish!

I camped out behind the house. In the morning, volunteer Scott made me a breakfast burrito before I headed out. I had another long day ahead of me – 18 miles to another trail angel’s property on the outskirts of Anza. The day was pretty forgettable, consisting mostly of trudging in and out of canyons in overcast weather. I made it to Mary’s water cache an hour or so before sunset. I met Mary, who has effectively donated a corner of her property to thru-hikers. She’s set it up with a water tank, a pit toilet, picnic tables and tent sits. A mini library is stocked with printed excerpts from her favourite authors Walt Whitman, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

I ate dinner with Kate, Mojo and others, then crashed early. I dreamt of hot food, which waited for me the next day at the Paradise Valley Cafe – purportedly home of the best burgers on the trail. We got to the cafe during the breakfast service the next day, so I ordered bacon and eggs, and a milkshake. After finishing, Kate and I waited for the lunch service, and each ordered burgers. Mine was greasy, dripping with cheese and overflowing its bun. Delicious.

Full to bursting, we were dreading the one-mile walk back to the PCT along a spur trail. Luckily, local trail angel Grumpy turned up just as we were about to leave and offered us a ride back. So it was that we wound up on the side of a highway, struggling with the hipbelts on our packs to accommodate our full stomachs.

The eight remaining miles to our campsite involved about 1400 feet of elevation gain, causing us to pant and wheeze our way up the rocky trail. We camped in a sheltered spot on the side of a large hill, and skipped dinner.

I knew that the next day would be my first experience of hiking on snow, at the notorious Apache Peak. As we made camp, word reached us that a hiker had been helicoptered off the peak that very day after falling down the mountain. I went to bed nervous, and had nightmares of tumbling down an icy slope onto rocks.

We woke early the next morning, aiming to make the nine miles to Apache before the sun turned the hard-packed snow into an unstable slush. The hike to the peak was tough and strenuous, with steep drops and even steeper ascents.

Why PCT?

When we finally reached the north face of Apache around noon, it became immediately obvious why it was so treacherous. The trail was nothing but a line of icy footprints that traced a flatt-ish ridge above a steeply-sloping wall of snow. One slip, and it was a long way down. I put on my microspikes and followed Kate. Being from Colorado, she knew what she was doing, so I followed her lead.Within seconds we came across a hiker in trouble. Golden, one of the hikers who stayed with us at Scout and Frodo’s, was standing on a patch of dirt about 30 feet above the trail. He said he’d slipped, and in his attempt to get off the mountain had somehow climbed higher and gotten himself stranded, abandoning his trekking poles in the process.

Kate managed to slowly talk him back down to the trail, where he turned around and got off the ice, headed back to the snow-free alternate trail down Spitler Peak. We continued, one careful step at a time, until we were safely back on the dirt a quarter mile later. It was relatively easy to stay upright as long as you moved slowly and tested each step before committing to it, but the consequences of a mistake up here could be dire. I was glad for the experience, as plenty more snow awaits me in the Sierra.

The last six miles of the day were a grueling 1000-foot climb, but we were rewarded with spectacular views over Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. On the west face of the San Jacinto Range, we could see the devastation wrought by last year’s Cranston Fire. The entire bowl between the range and Lake Hemet was northing but burnt trees and scorched earth.The water report indicated that the climb was without any water sources, so Kate and I had resigned ourselves to a dry dinner and some mild dehydration before we reached Tahquitz Spring the next day. Happily, a stream of gushing snowmelt had carved its way down the mountain since the report was last updated, so we filled up.

With two miles to go to our campsite at mile 175, I began to run out of gas. Eager to be done with the day’s hiking, I pushed myself hard to make it to the top. It was a mistake.

When I arrived at our campsite, in a saddle at 8235 feet, I felt exhausted and out of breath. Assuming I would recover, I made camp and boiled water for my dinner of ramen noodles and a protein bar. I climbed some rocks to see the lights of Palm Springs at sunset, then returned to my tent.

Now hours after I’d stopped hiking, I could feel my heart beating urgently and irregularly. I tossed and turned on my air mattress, willing myself to sleep, but none came. I spent most of the night staring at the stars, drifting off only for an hour or so around midnight.My saving grace was a short day’s hike into Idyllwild of only six miles, nearly all of it downhill. When I emerged from my tent I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise that lifted my spirits.I knew something wasn’t right with me as soon as we broke camp, as even the gentlest of climbs would send my heart racing. I put on my spikes and trudged slowly over the snow, taking breaks at regular intervals. After refilling water at Tahquitz Spring, I stood up and nearly blacked out. When we finally made it to the top of the Devil’s Slide Trail, which descends into Idyllwild, I was feeling moderately better. I’d chugged an electrolyte drink, fearing I had run out of salts, but was still feeling weak. We made our way down the mountain.At the bottom, we ran into Grumpy again – he was dropping a group of hikers off at the trailhead – and he offered us a ride into town. He dropped us at the Silver Pines Lodge, where Kate and I had booked a shared room. The lodge staff kindly did our laundry for us, and I enjoyed scrubbing the filth off me, eight days after my last real shower.

I had planned to near-o out of Idyllwild the next day, but I decided to take an entire day off to give my body a chance to recover. I spent the afternoon and the next day exploring the pretty little mountain town, which is a hotspot for hikers and rock climbers.Still not feeling much better by the end of my zero day, I called home and consulted my GP friend, Brooke, and my stepmum Marina, a surgeon. Both advised me to get my heart checked out at a hospital. This morning, I got a ride an hour down the mountain to Palm Springs. As I’m writing this I’m in the ER at Eisenhower Hospital waiting to see a doctor. I’m nervous, and hoping this is just a setback.

7 Comments on “PCT Part 2: Sun, Snow and the Emergency Room

  1. I hope you are feeling better, Ben. Your blog is wonderful and your photos are awesome. What an experience! Thanks for sharing your journey.

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  2. Hoping all goes well Ben. Just rest and recover and see what the doctors advise. your blog is amazing. Very well written and the photos are fantastic. Is that the camera on your phone you are using? Great shots. Will be waiting to hear news. love always Mum xx

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  3. Do the doctors know you drank water with dead rats in it? Might mention it to them. Hope all turns out well for you. Great photos.🙋👣

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  4. Hello Ben, great blog and beautiful pictures, thanks for sharing your PCT adventure! I hope you will feel better soon 🙂
    If I can suggest anything, take a rest in Palm Springs, I have been on holidays there and it’s a really nice spot. Then you can see how it goes with your heart. Another suggestion to monitor your heart is to buy an Apple Watch. Yes, I know, yet another device to charge, etc, but I guess you might have a charger anyway. I bought one because I had a too rapid heart rate, and also it is excellent to monitor your activity (or lack of). There is also an integrated ECG, which of course has a big disclaimer, but this will help you check if you think you might experience atrial fibrillation. Unless the doctors say otherwise and found something alarming, heart rates can be somewhat deceiving. I think you had a very ‘abrupt’ start on the PCT, relatively high mileage to start with, desert, dehydration, etc. You have to REST (zeros instead of neros) and DRINK (water ;-). Take it easy, don’t hike alone for a while, I think you’ll be fine! Cheers from Norway (I sectioned hike Campo to Big Bear, plus Lone Pine to Whitney in 2013, and then bailed out).

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