Wednesday, March 5, 2014

letting my over-confidence and excitement lead to near disaster on the PCT....

It happens a lot when you are hiking, especially a trail that is thousands of miles in length. You are on top of a ridge or saddle, and you are about to descend to the next road crossing. You can SEE where the trail and road meet right below you. It feels as if it is only a few hundred yards away, yet the trail still winds along for a mile or two, or maybe even a handful miles until you will reach the destination. You find yourself wondering (and sometimes cursing) what the hell the trail makers were thinking here. There MUST be a shorter, more wise route to take nowadays (as opposed to when the trail was initially trodden.) And I'll be damned, but I am gonna cut off the perfectly worn trail that may take an hour, and I'll
make my own trail down in probably half the time.....

Well, I'll be damned is about right. When I was on the PCT in 2012, I'd already heard the stories of the past, like the couple on Mt San Jacinto, who wandered off on a day hike, further and further down a box canyon, to a point where they could no longer go back the way they came, or go any further down. That couple was sort of lucky.  Well, luckier than the hiker they came across, who had been stuck in that same spot for over a year, and when they found him, he had perished a long time before their arrival. They used his gear to start a fire in order to prompt fire crews to come to the area, and therefore find them and rescue them. (in which they did get in trouble for starting the fire, but also didn't die there on the mountainside)
I had also heard the story of a trail-legend, BillyGoat, being in the same sort of scenario in the high sierras, being trapped in a box canyon and luckily having cell reception enough to get a 911 call out, and to be rescued by helicopter, sans all hiking gear. Now I am not sure on the merit or truth of that story, but nonetheless, I knew the risks of going down a canyon or mountainside, and there being a point where it is impossible to go any further in either direction, up or down.

So there I am, over 1000 miles into my hike on the PCT, feeling really good about myself. I am gonna meet up with one of my best friends in the world today!! My buddy Matt, and his brother Joe and father Jerry are gonna be on a fishing trip at the northern Kennedy Meadows for the weekend and I am going to meet them to join in the fishing, while fueling up on meat and beer during our little reunion. At this point of my adventure, I haven't seen a single person from my 'real life' at home since I had started the trail a couple months before. I had lost 45 pounds, and was routinely hiking over 25 miles in a day now.  All I had to do was get to Sonora Pass and hitch down the 10 miles to the camp ground to meet them! This should be no problem, and I just can't wait. I am pretty pumped up. That is until I am about 2 miles from the Hw 108 crossing at Sonora Pass. I am looking down at the parking lot. It is right below me, but according to the maps and halfmile way-points, I know I have 2 more miles of hiking on the silly PCT trail, but I can SWEAR there is a faster route, and if I can just cut down this little hillside, across that little snow field, blah blah blah (I rationalized it many ways) I would be even closer to my weekend plans!  Eventually, I went for it. Immediately I knew that the hardest part would be right here at the top. It was loose shale, crumbling beneath my feet as slid down the slope that was much steeper than the 15 degree incline that i was used to and the PCT maxes out at. I was only about 100 yards maybe off the PCT now, but I was looking over a cliff edge, and I knew that I could not go much further without being in a sticky situation. I knew my group was shortly behind me, Quest,  Rapunzel, LB and ZzZ were all gonna be passing where i went off of the PCT within the hour, but where I was, no one could hear me if I had to call for help to them, even then, what could they do?? They couldn't come down after me, and PCT hikers don't carry rope or any tools that may be able to assist me. I was at a point where I knew, if I went even 5 more meters, there may be no chance at getting out of here without some serious assistance and rescue efforts. I sat there for about five minutes, panicked, wondering if I had already went too far, and doubting that I could even make it back up to the trail. The least I could do was try.
Luckily, this story ends with me getting back up to the trail safely and on my own, successfully scrambling up the shale and loose granite. It took some effort, I was completely winded, and wasn't sure I could make it up until the point I pulled myself back up onto the PCT. It was a humbling lesson. Just stay on the trail man. There is a reason the trail winds way around this cliff face.Why do I think I am smarter than the trail builders who have poured over the topography of the area, and made a route that is safest and most likely to not leave you stranded.
That one ended alright, but it was one of my scariest moments on the PCT.

Sonora Pass Area (picture taken from Google Images)

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