Blizzard in the Desert, or, The Storm Has a Name
May 6, 2017
Lake Morena, CA to Mount Laguna, CA
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 2
Thought I would journal last night, instead I spent half the night trying to keep Mark's borrowed tent from collapsing under the weight of a freak snowstorm. With no phone service you also get no weather updates, so we weren't exactly apprised of the winter weather advisory from Wunderground telling us there would be a sudden blizzard in the middle of the desert. The storm is named Maleficent, which helps in the this-feels-ominous-and-I'll-probably-die-somewhere-out-here department.
The storm didn't start with a snow dump. We had a nice lead-in before the freezing rain and sleet gave way to biting wind and blinding snow. It was actually okay most of the day. It was more than great for hiking, clouds kept the desert sun at bay and the temperature down, and there was no precipitation to speak of. The moment I hit the mountain ridge, that all changed. Clouds billowed into the valley at an alarming rate. It's the first time I've seen clouds move fast enough to show their migration without using a time-lapse video filter.
Just as protection from tree cover dropped to zero, the temperature also plummeted and the smell of storm permeated the air. Still no precipitation, but now I was veritably inside of a cloud and starting to get wet. I didn't wait for sprinkles to don every piece of waterproof gear I owned. This took a considerable bit longer than I had hoped since, as always, my raingear manages to burrow its way to the bottom of the pack just in time for a storm. By the time I was ready to hike again, it was sprinkling.
I had a, what I thought ingenious, idea from hiking the Camino de Santiago involving waterproof gloves. I was caught in a rainstorm on the Camino with high winds and forced to keep a running pace in order to stay warm. The only thing that I couldn't keep warm was my hands, so I ducked into an Albergue, warmed them up on a cup of hot coffee, and asked in my best Spanish for cleaning gloves. Once the hospitalero figured out WTF I was trying to say, she came out with a pair of latex doctor's gloves—exactly what I had been hoping for. I didn't care if they kept my hands dry, I wanted them to keep the wind from wicking away precious heat. It worked like a charm so, being the aspiring ultralight hiker that I am, I brought along latex gloves for the same purpose. Let's just say latex gloves aren't exactly a match for a blizzard and high winds on a ridge top in the desert, and my hands were freezing. As there was nowhere to stop I pushed up, up, and up the ridgetop in decreasing visibility, hoping this f-ing village of Mount Laguna hurried the f up. I had not planned on hiking another 20 miles after already hiking an unplanned 20 miles yesterday, but when you're caught on a ridge with your pants down hiking extra miles to some kind of tree cover might be the only option.
Powering into Mount Laguna through an exploded blister (yes, it feels as good as it sounds), I—somewhat desperately—searched for the thru-hiker section of the campground. The blinding snow made it easy to get lost, and the campground, devoid of weekend campers (but why? The weather is so nice up here!) had zero landmarks for recognition. Wet and freezing, I was lucky enough to run into the camp caretaker who pointed me in the right direction. I had been hiking alone for the last four to six hours and just wanted to see other humans who were dealing with the same bullshit that I was. I had no idea where Alex ended up, but he's a fast hiker and I assumed he'd made it safely to town.
The thru-hiker camp had a blessed fire roaring, and a circle of friendly hikers with beer to spare. Snow was still coming down, but we seemed to be in a windbreak. It suddenly became delightful to stand outside in a winter wonderland (in the desert, in the middle of summer, mind you), around a warm fire with a cold beer. I took off my pack, set up my tent to get it over with, warmed up my hands and body, and went on the hunt for "town". The town of Mount Laguna is essentially a cafe and gear store, but there's a blip of cell service and I needed to make sure Alex didn't die slash let him know I didn't die.
I found Alex, Crash, and two new hikers, Left and Right, huddled in the storage room of the Mount Laguna Outfitters eating M&M's, laughing, digging through the forgotten food of the hiker box, and drinking bad beer. It was cozy, hiker smelly, and protected from the elements, so I joined in. When the outfitters closed, we headed to the cafe for warm food, ready to spend the night hopefully not freezing to death. The storm seemed to have let up, and hopes were high that it would stay that way.