Out of, and Back Into, Mount Laguna

May 7, 2017
Mount Laguna to Mount Laguna Camp (hiked)
Mount Laguna Camp to Pioneer Mail (hitched)
Pioneer Mail to Mount Laguna (hitched)
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 3

Well, here we are again, back at square one. Today has been a Mobius strip of hiking. We walked out in a winter storm advisory, determined to get just a little bit further. It was our third day on trail, and we didn't want to set the precedent of hunkering down just for  'a little bit of weather'.

Well, the little bit of weather got a whole lot worse, again, as we got past the tree line and onto the ridge. Looking out onto the ridge, the trail was still visible and I could see the exact point when the trail would turn and we would no longer be broadsided by the blizzard, but hiking directly into it. We were already three miles out of Mount Laguna, so we figured we'd hike to the first campground, set up our tent and hide out for the rest of the day.

We couldn't find the first campground. Turns out it was on the road (not the trail), backward just a tenth of a mile towards town, but we couldn't see more than 10 feet ahead and wandering out in an unknown direction in a snowstorm wasn't an option. We were at an overlook next to the highway, and a couple offered us a ride to camp. Unfortunately, since we didn't know it was up the road, we headed down towards Julian. It wasn't until we had reached Pioneer Mail (5 miles further down trail than we had hiked) that we realized we had gone too far. We wrestled with going back to the town of Mount Laguna or getting off at Pioneer Mail and skipping five miles of trail on only the third day. We didn't want to backtrack, so we got out at Pioneer Mail.

It had been nearly an hour since we stopped hiking, and our body temperatures had dropped. Plus, we were soaked from the five miles of ridge-hiking in the whiteout blizzard. Alex and I decided to share a tent, both for added body heat and because Mark's tent was soaking wet. Setting up our tent at Pioneer Mail, on snow, barely protected from the storm, was enough to put the feeling of worry deep in the pit of my stomach. I had foolishly worn my down jacket under my raincoat, and while it wasn't soaked, it wasn't dry either.

Struggling to tighten the guylines on our Z-packs pole-less tent was an uphill battle, and with each attempt at staking it out in the snow, our fingers lost more feeling. Finally, we dug out the snow enough to secure the stakes into the ground and crawled into the tent. I changed into my dry long underwear, trying in vain to keep my wet gear cordoned off from my sleeping bag and dry clothes. It became rapidly apparent that there was no way in hell we were going to stay warm with the cold snow below us sucking all the heat from our tent, so we needed to come up with a plan—fast. The bathrooms at Pioneer Mail are not big enough to do anything in besides stand, and we knew we couldn't survive in our tent. If we went back to Burnt Rancheria campground at Mount Laguna, we could hide out in the bathrooms, dry out our gear and at least stay dry and sheltered through the night. That became our plan, and luckily enough a father and his two kids were having a snow day at Pioneer Mail, making snow angels and snowmen. Now, for convincing a dad to take two wet, dirty hikers into his car with his very small children and give us a ride ten miles up the mountain in a snowstorm.

The hardest part was explaining why we were out here in the first place. After that, we went from never hitching before in our lives to two hitches in one day. The dad took us back to the Mount Laguna cafe where we ordered everything warm and liquid on the menu—soup, tea, hot chocolate, coffee—trying to warm our hands and guts while we formulated a game plan.

There were no rooms at any of the lodges, cabins or hotels, so the bathroom became our only option. We each took refuge in our respective male/female bathrooms, using the hand dryers to try and decrease the wetness level of tents, socks, jackets, pants, shirts, packs. The bathroom was a popular hangout for wet, freezing hikers, and it soon became apparent that sleeping in the bathroom was everyone's plan, and that there was no way we were all going to fit! Alex decided to start squatting in one of the showers, so we could share it and sleep in there when the bathrooms inevitably became overcrowded. That was our plan. It would suffice.

At 5 pm, a murmur passed through the thru-hiker camp, but I had to get confirmation from at least three sources before making a move. The cafe would let us sleep inside. After much verification, the rumor turned out to be true and, in herd formation, we migrated from the damp, tepid bathrooms to the deliciously warm, dry floor of the Pine Cafe and Tavern. There are nearly (or at least?) thirty hikers here, cozied up side by side, a jovial mood in the air, and a hiker with a traveling guitar. Thankfully (and hopefully) the storm will end tomorrow and making forward progress can resume.

After everything that has happened today, from where we began, what we fought through, and ending up right back where we started, I must say the snow was absolutely stunning. Until it was pelting me in the face and threatening to give me hypothermia. Hope to god this is not a foreshadowing of the Sierra.


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