Discover more from Gib’s 2023 Pacific Crest Trail backpack trip updates
From Wrightwood to Agua Dulce: Our “Shining” Moment
We hiked another 85 miles, including 20 miles in fresh snow, to complete the southern section of the Pacific Crest Trail. That's 600 miles in six weeks!
Thursday May 11, 2023
Last Thursday, May 4th, we awoke in Wrightwood, California to three inches of snow on the ground, with more forecasted to fall that day. Wrightwood is at 6,000 feet of elevation and most of the PCT in that area is at 7,000 feet, so we knew there would be more snow on the trail. We had taken a Zero day the day before, but hustled to find a place to stay another night. A local rental property agent, Arlene, had already filled twelve houses with hikers, but she quickly hooked us up with two other thru-hikers in a five-bedroom lodge downtown.
The people of Wrightwood are wonderful hosts to PCT hikers. While most thru-hikers wear rain gear (their only spare clothes) while doing laundry, Arlene collected old pajamas from the locals and loaned them to thru-hikers. Here’s what laundry day looked like for us:
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The next day, post-storm, we started our five-day, 85-mile section north to Agua Dulce. As we climbed the trail, which traversed its way between seven and eight thousand feet, there was foot-deep fresh snow on top of a six-foot base. Rather than look for the steep, narrow PCT trail further up the slope, we chose to do a road walk along Route 2, the Angeles Crest Highway.
The road was a mess. While the road often closes during the winter, it typically reopens in late March. This year, with record snowfall, there’s still no opening date scheduled.
The most troublesome issue: the road was littered with fallen rocks, some as big as minivans. The rocks were the result of the melt/freeze cycle of snow, ice, and water on the cliff walls above the road. This cycle kicks off lots of falling rock, especially in the mid-morning as the sun warms the rocky cliffs and flowing water erodes the dirt and rocks.
Four of us have now hiked together for three weeks. We discussed potential team trail names:
“Pub Crawlers?” said Achilles.
“How about The Young Codgers? Or the Cagey Old Vets?” I asked. “Or, given today’s road walk, what about the Road Warriors?”
As I said this, the cliff above us exploded with the clanging of falling rocks. Instinctively, all four of us ran from the cliff wall, to the opposite side of the road. We quickly went from breathless fear to raucous laughter as none of the rocks landed within thirty yards of us, and were all pebble-sized. “How about Road Chickens?” suggested Achilles as we laughed at our ridiculous dash to cross the road.
Here’s a one-minute video of what it was like to hike that day:
Our “Shining” Moment
Twenty miles into our day, the snow got deeper and foggy clouds filled the mountain slope. The biggest challenge: cold, wet feet as our lightweight hiking shoes are in no way waterproof. Our shoes are basically lightweight sneakers. After eight hours of walking in slushy snow, our feet were blocks of ice. We needed dry ground.
At 4:00 pm, we finally arrived at our campsite. Sadly, it was covered with deep snow and we had no shovel. Even more, the well-placed picnic tables had a foot of snow on them. So we kept walking. Eventually we got to fresh-plowed pavement, but it’s hard to set up tents on asphalt as there’s no way to drive tent stakes into the ground.
Eventually, a CalTrans truck rolled up, and its driver, Bobbie, explained,
“Camping in the snowstorm last night was a disaster. Folks were hunkered down in campground toilets and the hikers that set up their tents in the tunnel nearly gave the early morning road crew a heart attack.”
Bobbie offered to drive us a mile up the road to a freshly-plowed turnaround. After twenty miles of hiking in the snow, we accepted the ride. As we drove, Bobbie pointed out an abandoned ski area that had a caretaker living at its base. Bobbie dropped us off at the turnaround and we began to gather rocks which we hoped would hold down the corners of our tent.
KarMMa suggested we knock on the caretaker’s door. “Maybe it’s someone nice who will take us in for the night and give us a chance to dry our feet.”
I’m a professional “Yogi” when it comes to inviting myself to other folks’ houses. (“Yogi” is a PCT term where you hint at something you’d like in a way that makes it the other person’s idea. The term is based on the Yogi the Bear cartoon character who’s expert at convincing campers to hand over their picnic baskets.) But all I could think about was “The Shining,” with a seventy year-old, grizzled, axe-wielding caretaker yelling, “HERE’S JOHNNY!,” as we knocked on the door.
But KarMMA and Achilles were up for it. They trudged through the snow, passed the ominous “Keep Out” sign, and instead of knocking on the door of the abandoned ski lodge, KarMMa shouted, “HELLO!” from afar.
After ten seconds a woman’s voice responded from somewhere deep inside the house, “Hi!”
Another minute passed. A window blind shifted slightly to reveal a young boy, and a scruffy cat peeking through a window. Finally, a woman in her thirties stuck her face through a crack in the barely opened front door.
KarMMa: “Hi. We’re PCT hikers. We’ve been walking in the snow all day and we’re wet and cold. We’re wondering if you have some space inside where we can dry out and sleep. We’d be happy to pay you.”
Caretaker: “Yeah, we have a loft where you can sleep. Give me an hour to clean up. We’re packing and moving this month, so it will take me an hour to set things up.
KarMMa: “Ok, great! We’ll be back in an hour. Thanks a lot.
It was far from a “Here’s Johnny” moment.
An hour later, after eating dinner on dry pavement, we returned. This time KarMMa knocked on the door. After a few minutes a young boy hesitantly opened the door about an inch. We all had the same worry— had they changed their mind?
But the eight year-old boy explained:
“Here’s the story. My mother is taking a shower so you’ll need to wait ten minutes before you can come in.”
After ten minutes Michelle, the mom, invited us into the house. The building was an old ski patrol facility and Michelle had done her best to create a floor plan that loosely resembled a home. We followed Michelle closely as she walked through a front room filled with cats. (“Uh-oh, a cat lady,” I thought to myself as I weaved through the darkened room.) Eventually the maze opened into a cozy, well-lit kitchen with a sleeping loft at the top of a ladder. The loft had shoulder-height headroom and two queen beds— perfect!
Michelle, her husband Mark, and their son Ocean have lived in the ski patrol building for years. They are completely off the grid, but have limited cell service (if you hold your phone to the window high in the loft), their own well, propane heat, and a generator for electricity.
The road has been closed for eight weeks this winter, but Mark, who works in LA, borrowed a snowmobile that he uses for his one-hour commute. A neighbor gave him precise GPS coordinates for a snowmobile that was buried under fourteen feet of snow. Mark dug down to the snowmobile and started the machine on his first try.
We weren’t the first people to ask Michelle and Mark for help. As Mark explained, folks drop in, ask for a “little help” with their car, but AAA never comes that day. Most of the time, Mark and Michelle end up hosting weary travelers overnight.
This winter, the LA County Search & Rescue team came up to check on Michelle and Mark during a storm, but the rescue team couldn’t turn their truck around, so Mark, who knows the road well, had to back their truck down the road for two miles. It turns out that to drive a Search & Rescue vehicle, you need to be deputized. Mark had to repeat an oath before he “saved” the Search & Rescue team by backing their LA County truck down the mountain.
The next morning was Saturday so Michelle, Mark, and Ocean lounged as we ate breakfast and put on our dry socks and shoes. We traded stories about our hike with their exploits of living in a van in New Zealand (while coaching a Chinese Olympic snowboarder), surfing in Mexico, home-schooling Ocean, and their upcoming move to Revelstoke, Canada.
Mark, Michelle and Ocean were another shining example of how the trail provides. A big thanks to all three of them!
Yesterday, when we arrived in Agua Dulce, we celebrated over lunch with SloMo who gave us a ride to Doug Neil’s home in Burbank. (We met SloMo at Cafe 549, just short of Tehachapi, and Doug is a Tuck business school classmate of mine.) We leapfrogged from Agua Dulce to Walkers Pass a few weeks ago, so we have now completed the first 600 miles of the trail. (We skipped the snowy San Jacintos and will return to them in October.) Woot!
Right now we’re in Burlingame, CA, restocking for a two-week trip to hike 200 miles of the Oregon Coast Trail. Wait, what? While our plan was to leapfrog over the High Sierra to northern California, restarting the trail in Chester, CA, the current snow level in northern California is still at 4,500 feet, and most of the PCT trail in northern California and Oregon is at 6,000 feet. So we’re going to take a few weeks off to let the snow melt.
We don’t want to hang out at home, as we’ll lose our hiking fitness. Ideas ranged from doing the northern half of the Arizona Trail, to the Costa Brava in Spain. But hiking the northern two hundred miles of the Oregon Coast trail gives us a chance to explore our new home state and to see Grammy Pat and brother Jeffrey Schmunk. We’ll hop on an airplane Friday, and brother Jeff will drive us to Grammy Pat’s house on the coast, and we’ll start our Oregon Coast interlude late this weekend.
In two weeks, we hope to continue to leapfrog the PCT, re-starting in Chester, CA (mile 1,331) where we hope there will be no snow below 6,000 feet. (From Chester to the Washington border most of the trail is at 6,000 feet.) We’ll see how things look once we finish our Oregon Coast Trail hike.
I’ll close with a quote from John Lennon, reflecting on yet another pivot as we hike the 2,650-mile PCT during a record snow year: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”
Pudding and KarMMa
(Gib and Kristen)
PS. For more photos, you can also follow us here:
PPS. If you want a best guess of where we will be when, or to see the crazy spreadsheet that powers our resupplies, click here.
PPPS. Here’s a silly video of me eating Pudding. “How to Clean Your Pudding Bowl in Thirty Seconds or Less”:
Past PCT essays:
March 25, 2023: “Day One: Introducing our PCT hike”
March 26, 2023: “The Fears We Carry”
April 1, 2023: “Our First 100 Miles!”
April 7, 2023: “A Day In the Life”
April 15, 2023: “Deserts & Bears & Wind (Oh My!)”
April 22, 2023: “Luxury Light Thru Hiking”
May 4, 2023: “Demystifying the PCT”
Thanks for reading Gib’s 2023 Pacific Crest Trail backpack trip updates! Subscribe for free to receive new posts directly in your email inbox. (You can ignore the “pledge” button as this newsletter will always be free.)