Hail No! (PCT Days 115-119)


“Shelter, find shelter!” the panic prone portion of my brain screamed at me. I was up on an exposed ridge and a massive thunderstorm was coming! Thunder rumbled in the distance as I put on my rain gear and checked my maps. Could I get down off of the ridge before the thunderstorms got here?The short answer was no. F***!

In any other weather I’d love to be on this gorgeous ridge in the wide open meadows dotted with conifers, enjoying the views of Mt. Shasta off in the distance, but it definitely wasn’t where I wanted to be during a thunderstorm!

As the rain started to pick up I saw a flash of lightening dart from the clouds behind me down into the hills. “One one thousand, two one thousand, three one…” Crash! Boom!

The storm was way too close for comfort already! I broke into a jog… I didn’t think I could get entirely off of the ridge before the storm got here, but maybe I could get to Grouse Gap Shelter? It was less than a mile away…


Suddenly it started hailing, “Hail no!” Hail meant that the thunderstorm was no longer behind me, I was right in the middle of it! I wasn’t going to make it to Grouse Gap Shelter. I needed to find someplace to wait out the storm right now! I stopped and peered through the rain and hail, the trees ahead of me were all loners… No more than one or two isolated trees in the open field. I didn’t want to be there… I didn’t want to be the tallest thing around, and I didn’t want to be huddling at the base of the tallest thing around…

There was a road above me, but it was at least as open and exposed as the trail. I looked behind me, about 100 yards back was a stand of 10-15 trees… Not ideal, but probably my best bet.

“Woah!” Lightening arced halfway across the sky in front of me, finding the ground (or a tree) over by Grouse Gap… The clap/crash of thunder echoed around me as I bolted south, back up the trail, and into the relative safety of the small stand of trees.

Though the trees did nothing to protect me from the torrential downpour and the hail, at least they meant that I was no longer the tallest thing around… I was in the middle of the stand of trees, not near the top of the slope, not near the edge of the trees… I wanted to maximize the chances that lightening wouldn’t hit me directly!


I was cold and tired, and didn’t want to stand as I waited out the storm, so I looked around my clump of trees and at the sopping wet ground littered with hail that surrounded me. Normally (puddle or no), I’d just plunk down on the ground, but in a lightening storm? No… I wanted some protection from ground currents in case lightening struck nearby, so I had to find a different solution… Eventually I decided to sit on a boulder. It was also wet, so it was far from being perfectly electrically isolated, but it was much better than sitting in a puddle. I sat on my rock, if there were any ground currents they’d go from my butt to my feet, and bypass my heart… I’m not sure how pleasant it would be if lightening struck nearby, but I’d probably survive it. In the meantime I was still getting wetter than I wanted.

In a stroke of brilliance I decided to create a makeshift shelter by pulling the top of my pack cover up over my head and propping it out with my trekking poles… Finally I had shelter from the rain and the hail.

As the lightening continued to strike all around me I was glad that my boulder was sort of like a chair… I knew from my hike of the AT that trees usually fall relatively slowly, so if lightening did strike one of the trees in my clump, I’d be able to jump up and get out of the way before it fell on me.

With my makeshift shelter in place, I was able to pull my cell phone out without it getting completely soaked. My parents were supposed to meet me that evening at the intersection of the trail and the next paved road… I wanted to let them know I was going to be later than I thought because I had to wait out the storm, and I also wanted to make sure that my mom wasn’t going to try to hike out and meet me. I didn’t want her out in this weather!!! Unfortunately I didn’t have cell service… I hoped that my parents could see the storm from wherever they were and that mom and dad would stay safely inside their car (those metal boxes come in handy every now and then).

After what felt like an eternity the storm finally let up, the hail passed, and even though I continued to hear thunder rumbling in the distance, I no longer saw any flashes of lightning… I slowly got up and peered out from my clump of trees… The sky was still dark, and it looked like more thunderstorms were coming, but the current storm had wound down to a drizzle…

I was afraid to leave my clump of trees and head back into the open meadows of the ridge, but I definitely didn’t want to be up here when the next round of thunderstorms rolled in, so I took a deep breath and headed out.

I was excited as the trail wound around the corner and headed down into the woods (I was no longer on the exposed ridge) until I started to smell smoke… From the next clearing I looked down into the valley and saw a plume of smoke rising up… It suddenly occurred to me that each and every one of the lightening strikes that I saw from the ridge had probably struck a tree… And it was fire season here in Southern Oregon… Oh sh**!


During the thunderstorm I had wished that the trail had been going down into the cover of the trees… Now, with the threat of fire, I longed for the open, exposed meadows. I know that hotshot had said that uphill was bad in fires, but I wanted to be able to see where the fires were, and how fast they were moving!!

Being in the woods, knowing that there was a fire, smelling the smoke, and not being sure where the fire was… Scary as f***ing heck!

As I continued to descend the smell of smoke grew stronger and stronger… The trail was bringing me towards the fire and not away from it! (Insert more expletives of choice here). As I got to the intersection for grouse gap shelter the source of the plume of smoke became clear… A tree about 100 yards below the shelter had been hit by the lightening strike I saw earlier. I stopped there… This was a decision point…

Should I go down and investigate the fire? Should I call it in? Was anybody else there? I decided that my safety needed to come first, I wasn’t going to intentionally move closer to the fire! I took a screenshot of my GPS coordinates and decided to call my parents first, to let them know that I was ok (in case they could see the fire) and to let them know I was going to be even later than I thought because now I needed to call in a fire.

“Hi mom and dad, I’m ok, but I need…” The line was bad and it started breaking up… “What?” I kept hearing them say “what?” on the other end… “I’m ok.” “I’m ok…” The line went dead… So much for warning my parents and calling 911 to report the fire… My cell phone coverage wasn’t good enough.

I had the GPS coordinates of the fire, and a landmark, the grouse gap shelter… Now I just needed to get to safety and find cell phone service so that I could call the fire in… I was at the intersection of the trail and a dirt road… Should I take the dirt road, which headed back up to the top of the ridge, or should I take the trail to the paved road a few miles down the hill where my parents were expecting to meet up with me?

I ended up deciding to take the trail… If there were more fires I could always bushwhack either uphill or downhill to one of the dirt roads, but the trail was guaranteed to lead me to my parents and the safety of a car… I took a deep breath and plunged back into the woods…

The wafts of smoke in the woods were absolutely terrifying… I kept remembering lines from “young men and fire,” which I’d listened to on long car rides when I was a kid:

“I kept thinking the ridge-if I can make it. On the ridge I’ll be safe” – Rumsey (Young Men and Fire)

As I remembered the story from my childhood everybody died (not actually true, 2 people survived)… Until this moment, forest fires had mostly been a theoretical thing… Now it was suddenly the nightmare from my childhood… I was running through the woods trying to make it to the proverbial ridge (my parents car) before the fire got me…

I was going to be ok. I’d seen the fire, it was small, and it was moving slowly. This wasn’t the fire from the book… This wasn’t the fire from my childhood nightmare… I was going to be ok…

As I hiked (maybe I jogged a bit) through the smoky woods… I was a little kid again… I just wanted my mommy and daddy to make everything ok… And they would… They were here… Just three miles away… Just two miles away… Just one mile away… Just half a mile away…

When I got to the paved road my parents were there. They couldn’t see the fire from where they were. They were just excited to see me… As I approached mom she gave me a hug and said, “are you ok?”

When you’re not really ok that question coupled with a hug is the hardest thing in the world… I burst into uncontrollable sobs as my parents hugged me… It was ok, I was going to be ok. It was only when I got to the car and my parents hugged me that I realized I hadn’t actually been sure that I would be ok, but now I knew… I was finally safe… The fire wasn’t going to get me.

“I need to report the fire,” I explained to them… We needed to get cell service and report the fire… I also wanted to head back to the gap in case there were thru-hikers right behind me that needed help…

As we drove up the hill my parents and I saw the plume of smoke rising up from below Grouse Gap Shelter… I needed to see it, I needed for them to see it… It wasn’t just my childhood nightmare that had panicked me… It was real…


We called 911 to report it, and I decided that I wasn’t going to hike the next day, “hail no!” I didn’t have to hike in another thunderstorm… I needed a day off! After dragging my poor parents to the ER for 4 1/2 hours the previous day to deal with my nose (verdict==antibiotics and a slightly deviated septum), and then dragging them to a forest fire complete with a phone call to 911, I wanted a nice, pleasant day with them… A day without drama… A day of relaxing… A day of winery tours in Southern Oregon… That was what we needed… A day of *real* vacation!


2 thoughts on “Hail No! (PCT Days 115-119)

  1. Hi Patches. My family and I saw you at the rim of the crater on Wizard Island eating rhubarb&strawberry pie (and again on the dock). We have the same camera, and I’m glad with your experience that you’ve given it good reviews! All the best of luck from Riland, Ella, Kerri & Eric.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Choosing the Right Outdoor Adventure… | Patches Thru

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