High winds rattle thru-hikers! (PCT Days 11-13)

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Coming down off of Mount San Jacinto we’d seen quite a bit of snow, but it was pretty manageable. Immediately after traversing the last snowy section we decided to camp amongst the last of the trees before finishing the 20 mile descent back into the very exposed desert. The wind whistling through the trees was our lullaby as we drifted off to sleep. We didn’t think too much about the wind at the time.

The next morning we continued our decent, with 20-30 mile an hour breezes in the exposed sections, which seemed quite nice and provided some relief from the heat and exposure.

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In some ways I found the snow at the higher elevations reassuring, it meant that I didn’t have to worry about chance rattlesnake encounters. Descending back into the heat and rocks of the desert, meant the return to rattler country. I watched the lizards skitter off in front of me and then had three snakes slither across the trail in front of me. In each case I stopped, realized it wasn’t a rattler and then continued on.

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Apparently, however, the fourth time was the charm. A large rattler slithered across the trail in front of me (and my friend Peru who captured the photo of it in the trail). It seemed rather nonplussed. It didn’t rattle or change it’s trajectory, it just slowly continued going about it’s business.

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I stared at it transfixed. It was absolutely beautiful. It seemed nothing like the rattlers that I’d seen on the east coast. I pulled my good camera out of my pack and began snapping photos of it. It continued paying absolutely no attention to me. My friend Peru walked by it nonchalantly…. I looked at her with a bit of disbelief, “you expect me to go by it?” I asked, eyeing the snake suspiciously. “You’ll be fine”, she reassured me. I took another couple of photos and then danced past the rattler (as quickly as I could, as far away from it as I could).

Once I got passed it I turned and continued gawking. The coloration was striking, as was the way it moved. As I watched it turned towards me and starting kinking up it’s body… Maybe it had finally noticed me! I didn’t hang out to find, I turned very quickly and put 20 feet between us before slowing down to my normal hiking pace.

I thought that the rattler was going to be my major adventure for the day, but more adventures awaited me. The further we descended, the more the wind began to pick up. I should have guessed by all of the windmills in the valley and on the adjacent hills that this was going to happen, but from a distance they didn’t appear to be rotating very fast!

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At the base of Mount San Jacinto there seemed to be a gap in the mountains that acted as a wind tunnel. Combine that with the dry, arid plain of beach sand, it meant massive dust storms. We pushed against a steady crosswind of 30-40 mph as it whipped sand across our faces. It was the 50-60 mph intermittent gusts that were the real challenge though.

We were getting sandblasted and making extremely slow progress. When the gusts came I turned my back into them and just waited for them to pass. I used my bandana to try to keep from inhaling too much dust and I worried that the dust might aggravate my asthma.

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After what felt like forever we finally made it to the shelter of the highway underpass. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to find an underpass before in my life! As an added bonus, there was a trail magicked cache of sodas in that same underpass!

Feeling refreshed I continued on and decided to spend the night at Ziggy and the Bear’s house. They are an amazing couple of trail angels that welcome thru-hikers, provide mandatory foot baths and ice cream, and allow thru-hikers to sleep in their backyard where a seven foot high white fence helps protect everyone from the wind.

I was amazed by their kindness and generosity and thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet them. As the sun set, I decided to use the couch on their porch as an added wind block and curled up in my cozy zero degree sleeping bag and fell asleep.

“Aaaaaack!” I startled awake and stifled (perhaps unsuccessfully) a scream as I struggled against a weight to sit bolt upright in the middle of the night. The wind had gathered strength in the night and had blown the impressively sturdy lawn furniture and some of the tables over onto me and some of the other hikers. Other hikers that had been in even less protected areas had been blown off of their sleeping pads by the gusting winds!

Even the 60-80 mph gusts of winds I’d experienced on Mount Washington hadn’t been this strong! We rearranged the furniture and huddled against the wind. I don’t think any of us slept well that night.

Hiking amongst the fields of windmills the next morning seemed very appropriate indeed, though the smattering of rain and the Southern California rainbow came as a bit of a surprise! :)

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