The clouds gathered ominously as I headed towards Goat Rocks… Rain definitely was not what I wanted on this section of trail, a section renowned for both it’s beauty and its open, exposed ridgelines.
Even though the clouds had been building all day, it wasn’t until around 4 o’clock that the first drops of rain started to fall. It was a strange kind of rain… the individual raindrops were huge, more like gobs than drops, but there weren’t very many of them, and the sun was still out and shining… It’s hard to complain too much about the rain when you have to block your eyes from the blinding sun in order to see it!
As I was marveling at the absurdity of the weather, my friend Charlie Dayhiker came ambling down the trail towards me. He caught me completely by surprise! I didn’t know he was planning on yo-yoing the PCT (having completed his Northbound thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, he is now attempting to hike from Canada back to Mexico)! I hadn’t seen him in months, not since the late spring snowstorm that clobbered the High Sierras and forced us down into Lone Pine, CA to wait it out. At least the storms brewing here weren’t likely to bring us snow! As we got caught up on the events of the last couple of months the rained stopped, but neither of us had much faith in the weather.
“I think the storm is going to get you as you go North,” he assured me. “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get hammered by it as you head South.” We both smiled and eyed the dark clouds that had us surrounded. We’d been watching the weather all day, and between the two of us, we’d probably hiked in excess of 10,000 miles in the last 2 years… we had a lot of experience with mountain weather. Sure, the rain had stopped, but more rain seemed inevitability so I was anxious to get moving. I wanted to find camp and set up before the deluges arrived if that was possible, so I pressed onwards and upwards into the ever darkening mountains.
The skies got grayer as I climbed, and the rumbling thunder in the distance wasn’t sounding so distant anymore… I definitely didn’t trust the weather, so I quickly gathered water for dinner from a nearby stream (I hate having to deal with getting water in the rain: all of my stuff gets wet, my hands get cold/er, and all the streams start carrying siltier runoff) and donned my rain gear.
Moments later, as I followed the trail through the beautiful highland meadows, the skies opened up and dumped some of the heaviest rains on me that I’ve ever seen. It felt like I was walking through a waterfall, but, I have to admit I was feeling a little bit smug. I’d looked at that sky and predicted that I was going to be in a downpour in less than 5 minutes, and sure enough 4 minutes later the storm hit.
Trudging up the hill I saw, through the veil of rain, a group of five backpackers taking cover in a stand of trees above me… I paused to look up at them and my grin and all of my smugness suddenly evaporated. The heavy rain was turning into nasty, whipping, stinging hail. Hailstorms are my least favorite storms because the pea-sized bullets that they call hail hurt when they hammer against you 40 mph! I dashed up the hill to join my soon-to-be new friends in the only shelter around, their small stand of trees… These new friends were feasting on gummy worms and invited me to join them. I happily joined their feast, and gladly took part in the ritual beheading of gummy worms as I waited for the hail to pass.
As a general rule, whenever real hail is involved I try to hike to the nearest shelter and stay there until the hail stops… Partly because the hail stings, but mostly because hail is usually accompanied by severe electrical storms, and it’s best to wait those out. When the hail finally stopped and the thunder faded into the distance, I decided to keep hiking… It looked to me like more storms were brewing, so I needed a place where I could pitch my tent and shelter for the night, and this little stand of trees just wasn’t going to cut it. I constantly scanned the terrain around me as I hiked. If I could find a spot to pitch my tent I would happily call it a day… It was around 40 degrees out (F, 4C) with heavy rains and high winds… the kind of weather I think of as perfect hypothermia weather… Sure I could keep hiking, but I would rather curl up in my nice warm sleeping bag, in my nice dry tent, and eat a nice hot meal! Besides, this was a view I was already really familiar with… A view I’d seen at least a thousand times before… It was the view of the inside of a cloud.
Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing that looked like a suitable campsite… It didn’t help that in heavy rains and with thunder rumbling in the distance I suddenly get very picky about where I camp… I felt like Goldilocks:
1) This spot is too flat! – when it’s rainy the flat spots turn into puddles and have a tendency to flood, so I prefer sites that have a slight (but consistent) slope so the water won’t pool underneath or around me. Flash flooding of creeks and glacial streams is also an issue, so the sandy riverbank sites are out of the running too.
2) This spot is too exposed! – during an electrical storm I don’t want to be the tallest thing around and I don’t want my tent to be either, so the beautiful open meadows are no longer on my happy camping list.
3) This spot is too crowded! – when the weather is bad I need enough room to set up and fully stake out my tent, so I need more space (and fewer rocks, roots, and trees) than I do if I’m just rolling out my sleeping bag under the stars or doing a half-as*ed job of setting up my tent.
4) This spot is too dead! – heavy rains, especially when combined with high winds, make it even more likely than usual that the dead trees will come tumbling down (I definitely don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night with a tree across my tent), so I try not to camp in burn zones (places with fire damage), in areas with heavy beetle damage, or in the fall line of any dead trees.
Nope, I definitely wasn’t running into any campsites that would work. Oh well, it was a good thought. As I rounded the next corner the landscape became much more desolate… On a good day I imagined that it would be phenomenally beautiful, but today it looked bleak and exposed… I was approaching Cispus Pass. The trail was going to be very open and exposed for the next couple of miles, but eventually it would snake down to an official camping area in what was rumored to be a spectacularly beautiful meadow with amazing campsites… There was bound to be a spot there that even Goldilocks would find “just right.”
I eyed the storm clouds suspiciously. The rain had let up again and the thunder was just a muted rumble in the distance, but the clouds to the North were awfully dark. Did I want to attempt to cross the pass in this weather? Not really. I looked carefully around me as I spun in a full circle… There certainly wasn’t anywhere to camp here, and I’d been looking around pretty carefully for the last couple of miles and hadn’t seen anywhere to camp there either… Did I want to backtrack two miles South to find a campsite? Not really, especially since that was the way most of the storm looked to be heading and it was open and exposed in that direction as well.
As I stood there contemplating my options two Southbound (Sobo) hikers approached. “How’s the weather up there, and how long does it stay exposed like this?” I asked. “The weather’s not too bad right now, but it looks like it’s rolling in. It stays pretty exposed for at least a couple of miles. How’s the weather south of here?” they countered. “Well, I got hailed on about 10 minutes ago, and it seems like the weather has mostly been gathering to the southeast all day,” I replied before returning to my contemplations…
At most I had two miles of exposed ridgeline along Cispus pass before I would get to a series of campsites scattered between the river and Goat Rocks. Two miles? As a thru-hiker, two miles was nothing… Well, I clarified to myself, two miles would be somewhere between 30 and40 minutes of hiking if I hustled… I would probably get sopping wet since storms love dumping their load of rain when they hit the ridges, but the distant rumblings of thunder were still getting further away and I hadn’t spotted any lightening at all… I should have a window of at least 30-40 minutes before any more electrical storms rolled in… I might as well get while the getting was good!
Once I’d made my decision I wanted to move quickly to get through the pass before there were any big changes in the weather. I quickly discovered that the trail was a muddy mess; criss-crossed by a series of eroded out ditches where the water from the steep slopes had tried to escape from the highlands. Despite the rough trail and the fact that it was all uphill, I was making good time. About half a mile from the pass, the skies opened up, and I found myself slogging through another torrential downpour. Ugh! I swore that if the rains got much heavier I’d have to call what I was doing swimming and not hiking!
Ping! Ping! Smack! “Motherfu**er!” I grumbled… “Hail!” I was getting hailed on… Again. I almost sprinted to the next clutch of trees… Well, maybe it was really just one tree, but it would provide some shelter from the whizzing hail. It wasn’t far, but by the time I got there I was out of breath and desperately trying to suppress the asthma attack trying to escape from my lungs…. “Dammit,” I thought. One thing I’d learned over the course of my two thru-hikes was that my inhaler was completely useless during severe thunderstorms after the humidity reached 100%… Yet here I was… in the middle of a deluge… Wishing I could use my inhaler… If I’d used my inhaler 20 minutes ago, I would have been fine. Why hadn’t I thought to use it then?
I silently cursed some more. This wasn’t the first time this had happened… You’d think that by now I would remember that I have asthma… That I’d remember that every time I try to run up a hill during a thunderstorm/hailstorm it triggers an asthma attack… Well, at least I remembered the disaster that repeatably results if I try to use my rescue inhaler during those situations… Emergency drugs in aerosol cans have some definite drawbacks! I rested under the tree and watched the bouncing hail as I carefully regained control of my lungs… Perhaps I shouldn’t hustle quite so much… I may be a thru-hiker, but I’m an asthmatic thru-hiker, and thunderstorms (especially the ones that come with torrential downpours) are repeatably a problem for me… I focused on nice slow breaths… in through my nose, out through my nose… In through my nose, wait a sec, out through my nose… Until my lungs decided it was ok to stop spasming…
By the time the hail stopped my lungs were ok again, and I made a new deal with them… I wouldn’t go more than 3 or 3.5 mph up the hill, and they wouldn’t spasm anymore… It was still a solid wall of rain out there, but as long as it was done hailing and there was no sign of an electrical component to the storm, I wanted to keep hiking. No more running though… Maybe this time the “no running during thunderstorms” rule would stick and I’d be able to avoid putting myself in this situation in the future.
Though it felt like an eternity, I only rested under that tree for a couple of minutes before continuing on. Despite my new, slightly slower pace, I easily made it to the top of the pass 5 minutes later and didn’t have any more problems with my asthma. There was no lightening, no thunder, and nowhere to camp anywhere in sight. There was, however, a group of 5 backpackers huddled together in a small copse of trees at the top of the pass.
“You’re completely drenched!” They exclaimed as I approached. “Yeah,” I confirmed, “it’s pretty wet out here, and the hail is keeping it interesting.” “Come and join us for a bit,” they insisted as they shuffled their huddle around to make room for me. It was surprisingly dry in their copse of trees. “Did you see a group coming up behind you? They’re with us.” I knew exactly who they were talking about and told them about the earlier hailstorm, the gummy worms, and the progress their friends were makings, “They were probably half a mile behind me when the second hailstorm rolled through, a bit more than that now, but somebody in bright yellow rain gear is fast approaching.”
“Oh man!! Those guys must be bummed. A couple of them don’t have any raincoats or anything!” I was absolutely horrified, a backpacking trip, in Washington state, with no rain gear? And then caught in the same storms I’d been caught in… They must be sopping wet and cold. I wondered if I had extra rain gear that I could give them… I did have an extra raincoat, but it was an XS, which I was pretty sure wouldn’t fit any of them. “How come they don’t have raincoats?” I blurted out. I couldn’t help but worry that they were getting hypothermic! “Well, I’m not sure about them, but I just forgot mine at home. All I have is this hoody, so I figure we’ll just hang out here until the storm passes and then we’ll head out again.”
I looked out at the clouds blowing around us and the rain that just wouldn’t stop, “I’m not sure that it’s going to stop raining anytime soon, but I am sure that it’s going to get colder and darker, so I think I’ll get a move on,” I said through almost chattering teeth. I was getting cold just standing around, I needed to either get moving, or to get into my nice warm zero degree (F) sleeping bag.
The rain definitely hadn’t let up at all, but it felt good to be moving again, and to be going downhill instead of uphill. Below me, below the clouds, I could see vibrant green meadows and tons of rushing water. Beside the nearest river there were four tents set up in a meadow… I desperately hoped that they hadn’t been forced to camp there because the river had flash-flooded… With electrical storms threatening, that was the only reason I could think of for camping in an exposed meadow like that. As I approached it became clear that the storm was causing lots of erosion damage to the banks, but that the river was still crossable. I breathed a sigh of relief, and crossed it without a problem. Clearly the tenters in that meadow had a different set of campsite criteria than I did.
Going downhill I wasn’t generating nearly as much heat as I had going up, so I was getting colder and my desire to find a campsite was getting stronger and stronger with every step. Maps and cell phones don’t get along well with rain, but I was tired of just hoping to stumble onto a good campsite, so I decided to check my phone. I crouched over it, trying to protect it from the rain, as it slowly acquired satellites and figured out my GPS coordinates. There was a campsite in just 0.2 miles!! I shoved the phone away and set off into the rain with renewed energy. Soon I would be warm and dry in my cozy little tent.
“Hmmmm…” When I got there I found that I wasn’t the only one stopping early to try to get out of the storm. There were already three tents set up in the little campsite. Even though it was a little crowded I decided to poke around a bit. There was a smattering of trees, a waterfall nearby, and it looked like there might even have a nice view if the storm ever decided to clear out. All the flat spots were taken, which suited me just fine. The tents set up in those spots were already in puddles and the only signs of movement were the muddy hands that periodically reached out under the flaps of their tents in a futile attempt to dig ditches to drain the growing puddles that had them surrounded. The resulting moats seemed to effectively keep the occupants inside their tents even if they didn’t keep the water out. I never did see the people attached to those hands.
Eventually I found a spot that met all of my criteria. The only downside to the spot was that I would be pitching my tent less than 3 feet away from a tent full of strangers… Normally I try to give myself and everyone else more privacy than that, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I was close enough that I could hear everything that they were saying inside their tent, but the din of the rain on their tent fly made it so they had no idea I was out there. “Hi, I just wanted to let you know that you’re going to have a new neighbor.” I shouted to be heard over the rain.
I quickly pitched my tent and scurried inside. Sure, I should make dinner before going to bed, but my zero degree sleeping bag was calling to me… besides, I could make dinner later. Right now I was going to luxuriate in the puffy goodness of my sleeping bag. As I lay there, in my sleeping bag, I listened to the rain ping against my tent and to the incessant laughing and giggling coming from the two women in the tent next door. I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. Laughter is infectious, even when you have no idea what the laughter is about… As a solo hiker, laughter wasn’t something that I heard very often… Laughter is something that you do with friends, it’s something that you share, it’s not something that you tend to do when you are hiking alone through the woods… I daydreamed about taking family and friends on backpacking trips with me, about the shared moments and laughter that would result, and despite the rain, I was incredibly happy to be exactly where I was.
Eventually the sun began to set, the rain slackened, and the rumblings in my belly convinced me that it was dinner time. As I prepared dinner from the safety and warmth of my tent I heard the unmistakable sound of hikers trudging through the rain at the end of the day. The two groups of 5 that I’d seen earlier had coalesced into a group of ten soggy, miserable hikers still pushing towards a distant camp (2.5 miles away). It was already 7:45 pm, so there was no way that they’d get there until well after dark. I remembered how much they were struggling 3 hours ago and was glad that I decided to change my plan and cut my day short. The wet and beleaguered hikers trudging off into the night gave me flashbacks to some of the backpacking trips of my youth… the ones my dad had called “character building”… the ones that were cold, wet, and interminably long… the ones where the hours dragged on and on and on… Backpacking can be a brutal sport at times, how is it that we come to love it despite those long miserable days? Why is it that decades later when I asked myself the simple question, “If I could do anything in the world right now, what would I do?” the answer had been, “I’d hike the PCT!”
The next morning I awoke to a breathtakingly gorgeous day and one of the most beautiful stretches of trail on the PCT. As I hiked across the sparkling white snowfields and the rough-hewn ridges with the sun on my face and the wind at my back I was at peace with everything… At peace with myself… at peace with the weather… at peace with the world… I took a deep breath and looked around… It was just me, the mountains, the rocks, and the sky… This was why I endured all of those long, cold, miserable days and kept coming back for more… I did it because even on those really long, hard days there was always something for me to learn or discover about myself or the world around me… I did it for the days that were filled with wonder, joy, peace, and light… I did it because I loved it all!
P.S. Did you know that thunderstorm associated asthma is a known thing? I didn’t, but after 2 thru-hikes I’d figured out that certain weather patterns triggered my asthma attacks. Now I use my rescue inhaler about 20 minutes prior to the peak of those storm, which makes all of the difference in the world! Though it’s easy to find the research showing that other people experience thunderstorm associated asthma too, it’s been much harder to find information about why my inhaler ceases to function properly at the very moment when I need it most. Part of the problem is that aerosol inhalers are designed to be used at room temperature (68-77F, 20-25C), and I’m definitely using my inhalers outside of that range when I’m doing a thru-hike, but I think the biggest problem during the thunderstorms is either the pressure difference between the contents of the canister and the contents of my lungs or the 100% humidity… The problem I end up having with the inhaler is that the ejected plume from the inhaler feels like it burns my lungs and it triggers even more severe bronchiospasms. If I fire the inhaler into the air instead of into my lungs, the ejected plume extends for 3 feet before dispersing instead of the more typical 4-6 inches… So, in the case of my thunderstorm-related inhaler issues either the plume velocity has gone up or the particle dispersion rate has gone down or maybe both. The big question is why? What’s different about thunderstorms than the other weather conditions that I deal with on the trail? Why is it only a problem during torrential downpours? Why is it only a problem during the peak of the storm?
As I hiked I kept thinking about the ideal gas law, PV=nRT. I was dealing with the expansion of gases, the answer had to be hidden in there somewhere, could I derive it from first principles?… What’s changing in the thunderstorm? Thunderstorms come with severe low pressure areas… At sea level, fair weather is predicted by a steady barometric pressure of ~102kPa, and a thunderstorm might drop that atmospheric pressure by 3kPa… would that be enough to cause the problem? No, that didn’t seem likely since I’ve successfully used my inhaler at high altitudes (I used it on Kilimanjaro when I was at 15,000 ft elevation where the air pressure is only 57kPa). For this incident I was at an elevation of 7000 ft, which has a normal atmospheric pressure of 78 kPa. What else was different? Well, the humidity… It seemed like the torrential downpours were required for the inhaler to fail so annoyingly. Was 100% humidity the problem? What does the humidity do? As the number of water molecules goes up, the number of molecules of air goes down, so, the n in my PV=nRT goes down when the humidity goes up, was that it?
I hypothesize that in the failure condition the linear velocity of the spray increases and results in a greater plume distance prior to dispersion (3ft vs 6inches). Now all I needed were some equations and I’d be happy… I searched the internet high and low and eventually found much of what I was looking for in a book called Inhalation Aerosols: Physical and Biological Basis for Therapy edited by Anthony J. Hickey, which gives the equatios that directly link the pressure differences between the inside and outside of the inhaler canister with linear velocity.
I further hypothesize that the 100% humidity is crucial to the failure condition. Using Rault’s Law and Dalton’s law, the vapor pressures within the inhaler can be determined based on the solvents used and the mass of the drugs/surfactants. Dalton’s law can then be used to determine the impact of humidity on the pressure outside of the canister. In the case where 100% humidity is achieved, the air is considered to be saturated with water for that temperature and pressure. How would that impact the rate of expansion/evaporation of the medicated droplets and solvents in inhaler’s plume? My research seemed to suggest that the droplet size was key to the efficiency of my inhaler.
I was happy to finally find some of the equations that I could use to model the physics of my inhaler, but what I really wanted for now was a simple rule that predicted the failure condition for my inhaler that I could share with other people. Could I come up with a home experiment that would help me determine whether it was the changes in pressure associated with the storm and the linear velocity that caused the failure, or if it was the 100% humidity? Are there times that I experience 100% humidity other than in middle of thunderstorms with torrential downpours? Suddenly it dawned on me… I do that all the time… I absolutely love hot showers when I’m in civilization… I turn the shower on, close the bathroom door, and step into my saturated solution of water and air… The temperature will be much higher than it is in a thunderstorm and the atmospheric pressure will be much higher, but the high humidity? That I can model at home! If I try to discharge my inhaler in the shower will it generate the characteristic 3 foot plume that I associate with the failure condition? What do you think? I guess I’ll find out the next time I take a shower :)