Knowing that we had only a 7 mile hike into the McDonald’s rest stop on Cajon Pass on Interstate 15, our early morning alarm was easily ignored and we rolled over for a bit more sleep.
But there was some cause for concern. An approaching storm with significant winter conditions was forecast up in the mountains in which we were headed. Before we lost cell coverage leaving Big Bear, it looked to be hitting on Friday, which gave us sufficient time to get to Wrightwood, our next stop.
Three days later, with cell coverage again, we saw that it was still forecast to hit on Friday, but with a new significant shot ahead of it on Thursday evening. That started cutting things close and got us to talking about changing our plans.
Instead of a long mid-day break at McDonald’s followed by a short 5-mile hike to campsites at the base of the next long climb, we decided to make a short lunch break then start the climb that afternoon and knock out as much as we could so that we could easily get into Wrightwood by mid-afternoon on Thursday. That would keep us ahead of the bulk of the weather, but perhaps we would get some rain and snow.
It was a beautiful cool morning to hike to McDonald’s.
Looking back east towards the valley where we slept and the mountains over which we have hiked.
Looking west towards the mountains we needed to climb in order to beat the approaching weather.
Looking at signs that show progress.
Looking at signs that some consider a promised land.
For us, the visit to McDonald’s reminded us of why we don’t eat there, but it was fun to catch up with all of the hikers and fill up on water. For this next stretch was a 27-mile run without any chance for a water resupply.
Nothing like facing a long water carry that includes several thousand feet of elevation gain.
We got moving again loaded with 13+ pounds of water, crossing under I-15 and taking a chance to get a typical hiker photo of the event.
I really liked watching this unfold. There’s quite a bit of symbolism here, not just for the hike, but life.
Little did we know how much it would hold true over the next 30 hours.
Steady climbing over the next hours, with a drop into a valley through which the San Andreas fault runs, then the real climbing began. Our goal was to push far enough up the mountain that, with an early start, we could put in a manageable sub-20 mile day that would get us into Wrightwood by mid-afternoon.
We quickly left behind the noise of the interstate and train traffic heading over Cajon Pass.
But even when we were miles away, there was no mistaking the activity on and size of the engineering required to get vehicles and trains over the pass.
By late afternoon we were able to find an off-trail campsite that gave us great views of the pass, plus the mountains to the east that we had hiked over and the mountains we were about to hike over.
It was a breezy spot, but the views and the fact that we were asleep before sunset made it the perfect spot.
Day 32 – 16 / 351
An early alarm had us breaking down camp when the first hints of light lined the horizon. Our first steps up the trail were before the sun broke the horizon. But when it did, it was quite a show.
Overall, the sky didn’t look threatening, but there were clues of the approaching storm, like a line of impressive lenticular clouds over the neighboring ridgeline just downwind from us.
By mid-morning we took a snack break and I was able to get a cell signal and was able to book a room in Wrightwood for the next couple of nights. That turned out to be very lucky.
An hour later we were still hiking in bright sunshine, but being exfoliated by wind-driven snow grains. It wasn’t even noon yet and we were still on the downslope side of the mountain. It became obvious that the weather was moving in faster than expected.
We still had a couple of thousand feet of climbing and half a day’s hiking ahead of us.
Than it just started snowing. Luckily it wasn’t sticking, but the wind was driving it sideways.
We reached the ridgeline of the mountain and the snow was only accumulating in protected spots. Soon after, we reached the trailhead for the Acorn Trail, a bailout option straight down into town. While it was a bailout option, it was less than desireable. A short 2.5 mile trail, it drops almost 2,500′ into town. A steep trail. A wet, steep trail. And one we would rather not climb to get back on trail once the storm passed.
Besides, the snow wasn’t sticking.
So we pushed forward to where the trail crossed a local highway, some 6 miles distant. From there it would be an easy hitch into town, and an easier start to the hike when the storm passed.
Soon we reached an unprotected part of the ridgeline. The snow still wasn’t sticking.
It didn’t have a chance.
The wind was gusting well above 40 mph, driving the snow sideways. But everything was getting a nice coating of rime.
Soon the snow was accumulating, but the trail was still easy to follow. Then the snow started really accumulating, but the trail was still pretty easy to follow. Then we popped out of the forest into an exposed field.
Where did the trail go?
That was the one and only time during the rest of this day where I thought “this could turn out bad”.
We found a marker, but there wasn’t any other evidence of the trail. Not anything in sight in the driving snow. Then a glimpse of another marker a bit away on the side of a unpaved road. Once we passed that, the road intersected another and we lost the trail again. We broke out the GPS and phone apps, but the snow accumulated on the screen so fast it was almost useless. We had paper maps, but just then we caught a clearing and saw the trail depart the road a ways away. So we pushed forward.
We were following the ridgeline along the 8,400′ elevation line, sometimes protected, sometimes exposed. We were at the top of the Mountain High Ski Resort, watching the grassy runs fill with enough snow that rock skis would have been useful. In the exposed side of the ridgeline, we pushed through shin- to knee-high drifts as we slid across the hidden rocks on the trail. Good fun in running shoes.
At one point Jen looked at me and said “it does this in Southern California? I did not get the memo”.
We were still pushing forward, losing track of the trail on occasion, but quickly regaining it and starting to descend toward the highway.
We reached a spot where the trail crossed an unpaved road pullout with a dumpster. We stood downwind of the dumpster for a few moments before continuing. Just as we were about to step off, a pickup truck slid to a halt right next to us. Two hikers were in the back and the truck was headed towards town, but not all the way. We had a choice – continue the 1/4 mile on trail down to the highway and hope for a ride there or hop in now and catch a ride to lower elevation.
It was cold in the bed of that truck.
We made the right choice. Once we got to the highway, there were only old, snow-covered tire tracks. We had no idea how long we would have been standing there hoping for a ride. Coming down the mountain, we actually had no idea if the highway was still open.
The driver gave us a ride the two miles to the intersection and dropped us off. We were looking at a 4-mile hitch into town. And now that we hadn’t been actively moving, we were getting cold. Real cold.
Then a trail angel appeared. A true trail angel. She had a Suburban with an effective heater. She piled the four of us in, then drove all of us back up to the trailhead to see if there were any other hikers. Turns out she, along with a few others, had been running shuttles between the trailhead and town all day once the weather got bad.
While there at the trailhead , another car showed up. It was a local dad arriving to pick up his son and his dog, both of whom were out for a day hike and surprised by how fast the weather came in. Turns out he had taken shelter in the bathroom with a couple of hikers that had passed us earlier in the day.
With everyone collected, our trail angel dropped us off at our motel. We were lucky, because there weren’t any bed spaces available left in town. Locals started opening their doors for those who didn’t have a room.
We were safe in a warm, dry place.
Unlike several who ended up spending the night up on that ridgeline.
Once showered, dry, warm and fed, Jen looked at me and said “well, that was outside my comfort zone”.
But now she knows what more she can push herself through. We still had several layers of clothing we could have put on. We still had a shelter we could put up. We still had food and water that we could have ingested. We still had very warm sleeping bags to crawl into. We still had the tools and wits about us to get out of the situation.
It was uncomfortable but manageable and she’s now a stronger, smarter woman for the experience.
Day 33 – 18 / 369