Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Backpacking Big Bear: PCT Section 8

This is a crusty selfie taken after finishing a hot 17-mile day on Section 8 of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)--yes, that trail that's bursting with popularity thanks to the "Wild Effect." If I look a bit beat up and concerned in this photo it's because I was.

Only 48 hours prior I felt like I was on my death bed after coming down with the stomach flu/food poisoning. However, I didn't want to miss out on the backpacking trip John and I planned because with our schedule these days it's not easy to find a few days where we both can get away. I'll spare most the details of the flu saga, but it was ugly. I am a dramatic sick person--I cry and whine; I "pass out" face down on bathroom floors. I simply hate being sick like that and, even more, I hate throwing up. Poor John, it was his first time ever seeing me in that condition. But thankfully he rallied rather than ran. And thankfully I made a rather fast recovery--the first 24hrs I was helpless victim to the bug, but after that I firmly believe having a positive attitude (and generally being healthy and strong) helped me bounce back even faster. Mind over matter. So, as planned, we hit the trail Sunday morning, expecting not to return for 2.5 days or so.

But actually, recovering from the flu is not the reason I'm concerned in that photo above.

Once I was alive after the flu, the only thing that I felt like eating
was oatmeal and fruit. I had it 2 or 3 times in a row haha.
This was breakfast before Day 1 backpacking; I
added the avocado for good fats and there's also eggs
scrambled in. Sweetened with blueberries.
Backpacking 17 miles on Day 1 wasn't necessarily the plan--it happened more out of necessity. We pushed the distance for one reason: water. And that's what had me concerned.

Water sources were all but impossible to come by where we were on this part of the PCT; it is a drought around here and deep into summer after all. That weekend was high 80s F and full sun. We had done out homework prior, so we weren't totally clueless/naive, and in our research and chats with local experts and rangers we were told a particular camp, Little Bear Springs, should have a creek and non-potable water source. The creek was not promising, but we were pretty sure the non-potable water pipe would be there from what we were told and what we read. Whether it was still working was another story, and a real gamble.

So we knew well the risks we were taking going in--mainly that we might be without a water source--and we devised safe exit plans accordingly. PCT Section 8 is 21.7 miles and up until a point, it is still fairly close to town so we agreed we would bail if it seemed too dire, or simply hike a short distance and set up camp early while water was still in abundance in our packs. With that in mind, we departed with open minds. We did actually pass water jugs left by trail angels within the initial miles, but at that point we were still fairly full and decided to leave those for folks who may actually need it.

Those jugs were the only water we would see for a long time. However, ironically, in the far distance we often had a view of a big ol' body of water, Big Bear Lake.

Big Bear Lake from the PCT.

I was probably still semi weak from the flu, maybe even a bit dehydrated going into Day 1, even if I didn't want to admit it (I can still be that stubborn athlete!), but more so I was enjoying the heck out of the hike so I refused to whine or give into weakness. I actually felt strong even if I wasn't 100 percent. Mind over matter. We kept going, and eventually the trail went from bordering the lake to turning inland, deep in the mountains, meaning farther from access roads and farther from town to the extent that "easily" bailing was no longer an option. We were in. But still no water sources. We had some on our backs and nothing dire. That morning, we set out each carrying a 3-liter camelback and 1 liter bottle. We were drinking well under 500ml an hour of hike time--but the hike was getting long. We thought about our options: setting up camp early with what we had, or go all the way to Little Bear Springs, trusting (hoping) the information we received was accurate and that we'd find water that we could filter. We decided to keep moving to the established camp rather than disperse camp. I told John I was ok and strong enough to do so. Obviously we had to drink more en route, and the camp ended up being 2 miles farther away than we expected based on our calculations and even the maps, making for a 17-mile hike in 6 hours, plus an extra 1:45 of breaks including for lunch so a 7:45 day in the hot, dry alpine forest. The hike was about 3k elevation gain, and about the same in descent. I'm guessing my pack weighed 20-30lbs. Not too bad considering hours prior the best I could manage was a slow crawl on all fours to the bathroom to puke. 

We made it to the camp--which was on a valley floor--around 5pm with less than 1 liter water remaining combined, absolutely no one around and no cell service. Upon arrival, it was easy to see the creek was bone dry; not too shocking. But then we couldn't find the other water source. It was too late and too far to hike back to town--not to mention we were tired from the 17 miles. We had to stay, water or not.

Home sweet home for the night.
Should we have stopped earlier? Should we have bailed? Who knows. At no point did I think this was a life or death situation, nor did John. Neither ha signs of heat illness, nor were we delirious or out of sorts. So, at worst, it would have been uncomfortable for a while having to ration 500ml water than night and the next day as we made our way back.

That said, in the moment, I wasn't that thrilled with the situation. I was resting at our campsite while John was searching for the non-potable water source. While sitting there in the quiet forest watching the sun slowly move toward the horizon, I felt a very real wave of fear and concern come over me. I was honestly a bit scared that we'd be waterless. I knew we wouldn't die. But we very well could suffer. Then it dawned on me that we packed in beer and wine. I got mad thinking that we had also packed booze but not more water?! Stupid! At the same time, I couldn't help but laugh thinking, "thank goodness we at least have booze to drink, even if it is dehydrating." Silver lining right? I don't even drink beer anymore but I was willing to.

Then as luck would have it, John rushed over with great news. Off in the distance--it was a rather large camp site covering a lot of ground--he found the non-potable water pipe. It was near an old horse corral, meant for livestock and horses. And it still worked. We had missed seeing it due to the direction we entered camp. But it didn't matter at that point. We were saved. John busted out the Platypus water filter and the water came flowing. Crisis averted.

And, that was Day 1. Lessons learned.

Having adequate water on the trail and planning smart especially in summer is crucial. You just never know. In fact, just recently there was a tragic story out of New Mexico when a French family got lost on a hike, ran out of water and the parents died of heat-related illnesses; their 9-year-old son survived.


So how was the rest of our trip?

Well given the water situation, we didn't want to take more risks by heading deeper into unfamiliar trail and farther from our starting point--that would be stupid. Our car was parked way back--17 miles!--and originally we had two ideas on getting back: 1) we'd find a truck trail that connected the PCT to the main highway and whenever we were done we'd hike down and hitch hike or cab it back; or 2) just do an out and back.

The reward of hard work is waking up to this. Sunrise solitude.

After a leisurely morning, we opted to backtrack on the PCT until we hit a truck trail to make our exit. We didn't do the full 17 though, I was a bit too wiped for that again and especially because the first 5 miles out of Little Bear Springs were completely uphill out of the valley back to the mountain crest. I wanted to feel good and still enjoy the trip, not continue to beat my body down and feel worse. Before leaving, we made sure to fully load up with fresh filtered water of course.

That glorious water.

As we got closer to town we detoured down the designated truck trail to the highway and hitch hiked to the car. Day 2 still ended up being 9-10 miles total of backpacking--shorter but definitely a good tough hike, and thankfully with more than enough water.

We didn't want it to end there, so revised the plan on the fly. Man, I love this. Having the car, having money and having access to town, we went to the store to grab more water, coconut water (!) and fresh food for bigger dinner than what the contents of our bear canister could offer. Then, we opted for disperse camping, which is totally allowed in Big Bear. Disperse camping is basically setting up camp nearly wherever you want out there and what "roughing it" entails--no bathrooms, no nothing--unlike established campsites that have amenities and you need reservations, blah blah. We still wanted total solitude though. So we took the Outback back up a truck trail several miles, parked, did a short hike in and found a nice little site to camp off the PCT and away from the main road. All to us. This was us lounging that evening on our "chairs" aka sleeping pads.

Day 2 camp. Using sleeping pads as "chairs." Oh, and coffee snobs we are: John grabbed the French Press, grinder and beans from the car so we'd have fresh cold brew in the morning! Ha!
For a second I thought it was "soft" for us to do all this. Were we really deviating from the plan and being "weak" for going to get the car and not stick to true backpacking for 2.5 days? But then I thought about it. And I couldn't be happier about this move. Dude, I had just gotten over an illness that felt like death. Without much recovery, I rallied and was able to backpack about 27 miles in the next 1.5 days through some crazy mountains and conditions. And John was hanging in like a champ too, making sure we were safe--mostly that I was safe. Putting it in those terms: We had already won! So screw it! If we wanted to get the car (and go to the grocery store) to have that extra comfort and peace of mind, so be it. In fact, I think that second night of camping was one of the best nights ever with John--we were off the grid, immersed in nature and feeling pretty darn good. We had a great meal, we had beer and wine (ha!), and we were just able to relax, enjoy each other's company, share stories, listen to the sounds of nature, and not be distracted by the world. We stayed up "late" to watch the stars as we love to do. (For the record, late on the trail is anything past 9 pm lol.)

The next day we hit the road home. It was a short trip, but enough memories to last a lifetime.

I'm curious to hear from other backpackers/hikers/campers on this spin of events we endured. Have you been caught in similar situations? I felt like we did all the research and homework possible before hitting the trail, but you just never know right?! In my other trips this year we've planned routes where water is guaranteed along the trail, in the form of a creek, river or lake. This was the case in Big Sur and the High Sierra Trail for example. I really enjoy knowing water will be there, not only for drinking purposes but simply for having the sounds of a creek nearby or a cool place to relax, soak and wash up after a hard day's work. In contrast, Big Bear and the deserty conditions were much more harsh, but oddly just as satisfying in their own way.

Oh, and one more note. Speaking of hot, deserty, dry, waterless conditions: A fire recently broke out in Big Bear--just one week after we did our PCT adventure. Now, that really got my mind spinning. No water for a night or so is one thing, but what if we had to face a wildfire while out there on the trail? I can't even imagine.... in the meantime, I'm praying that the Summit Fire doesn't do too much damage out there. Last I saw it's 50 percent contained. I hate when these fires destroy such beauty:


Cool terrain out there; it changes a lot even in less than 20 miles.

Happy campers!

Can you spot the trail? #PCT

I love breakfast and studying maps when camping! I make a really hearty paleo cereal for brekkie, and at some point I'll share my backpacking food and meal plan. I have it dialed in for the health-conscious fat-adapted folk. Personally, I do more carbs on the trail, but am still LCHF-ish and still all about clean-eating.

Views like these make it all worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. If you didn't find the non-potable pipe, I would have taken a nap then night hiked back to your car... this would have made your water last longer. Geronimo and his band would do the night hikes on rough ridges while his pursuers would stick to the valley during the day. No wonder they could never catch him! Great tactic when dealing with hot temps. I have also had success with drinking booze to take your mind off of not having water. Probably not good for you - but if you know you can make it - it will make it much more pleasant...