It’s a trap! (PCT Day 67)

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“It’s a trap!” Admiral Ackbar’s famous quote from Return of Jedi ran through my head as the dark gray, almost black clouds descended upon me from every direction. I was still in a pocket of sunshine but it was only a matter of time… the clouds (and rain) were coming for me.

Maybe this was why it had been so easy to get the Yosemite backcountry and half dome permits? I vaguely remembered the weather report from the info board at the ranger station that morning… Chance of thunderstorms 1pm to 9pm. I hadn’t worried much about it. I was in the mountains in the summertime, isn’t there always a chance of afternoon thunderstorms?

It was 3pm, so I tried to consider myself lucky… At least the thunderstorms hadn’t rolled in at 1pm. I eyed the sky again… I’m still getting used to California weather patterns, but this seemed pretty obvious… Thunderstorms were coming.

As if to emphasize my point I heard the distant rumbling of thunder. I was in Yosemite national park, above 9000ft, and hiking through a meadow… Not where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm… And even more annoyingly I’d just reached the turnoff for clouds rest. My plan had been to take this turn, climb clouds rest, and then cowboy camp at it’s summit. I’d envisioned laying there in my sleeping bag as I watched the sunset over half dome that night… The perfect prelude to the following mornings climb.

The trail to clouds rest would lead me up to higher elevations and even more exposed terrain. Even though I expected that the thunderstorms would pass before my dream sunset, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to avoid getting caught in the storm. The only choice I had was where the storm was going to catch me. I sighed and pulled out my map. At least it wasn’t raining… Yet.

Sure enough, the trail to clouds rest went up an exposed ridge… Definitely not the place to be in a thunderstorm. Alternatively, the JMT (John muir trail) continued to drop in elevation and descended towards Yosemite Valley and the trail for half dome. I sighed again and let go of my beautiful plan to climb clouds rest and watch the sunset. I couldn’t responsibly take that trail in this kind of weather.

For that matter, the spot Where
I was standing, in the meadow, the tallest thing around, wasn’t where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm either. I put the map away and hurried down the JMT figuring that as I descended I’d find more places where I could reasonably take cover from the oncoming storm.

Vacation, I was on vacation… And technically I was on vacation from my vacation. I wasn’t on the PCT, my trip into Yosemite Valley and to Half Dome was a side trip. I decided that this vacation idea meant that I definitely did not have to hike in the rain today.

As the remaining rays of sun were evicted from the sky and the only remaining colors were shades of gray, I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I would wait out the storm in my nice, dry tent… Maybe I’d even take a nap… That seemed like a good vacationy thing to do. If the storm didn’t last long, I could always keep hiking again later, but I didn’t have to. I was on vacation.

As the thunder grew louder I found a spot that would have been ok, but decided against it… It was too close to the trail, so I hurried on… I got another 50 feet down the trail and heard a loud thundering crack. I wasn’t getting rained on yet, but I got the message loud and clear… The storm was here.

No more excuses, the next suitable spot and I was going to stop and hunker down… Besides, I didn’t want to risk the trail dumping me out into another meadow.

At 3:15 I stopped, put up my tent, and crawled inside. By 3:30 it was pouring and not long after the thunder became deafening. I listened to it reverberate off of the granite cliff faces around me. I was sad to miss my idyllic sunset atop clouds rest, but felt somewhat vindicated, at least I’d been right about the weather.

I curled up, happy to be warm and dry there inside my tent, and tried to take a nap. The rhythmic drumming of the rain on my tent lulled me to sleep… The thunder so constant that it stopped being startling. I woke up at around five to the sound of silence. No more rain, no more wind, no more sleet, no more thunder… Just complete silence. I listened for a few minutes… It certainly sounded like the storm had passed.

I popped my head out of the tent… The sky was a universally soft gray… I wasn’t sure wether or not it would rain again, but the thunderstorm was certainly done and over with, so I decided to pack up and keep on hiking… I wanted to be a bit closer to half dome if I could manage it.

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As I continued my hike, the skies cleared and I got my first glimpses of Yosemite Valley. It was already impressive and I hadn’t gotten within sight of any of the famous landmarks yet! I was definitely glad that I’d decided to take the two day detour into Yosemite valley.

About a mile from the side trail up to Half Dome I found the perfect campsite. It was on top of a little granite bald and had views of half dome and some other peaks whose names I don’t know. I hadn’t seen any other hikers since before the 3 o’clock thunderstorm so it felt like I had all of Yosemite to myself… It was a very nice feeling.

As I sat by my tent watching the sun go down and the stars come up I fell in love with my life all over again… I wasn’t sure what tomorrow and half dome would bring, but this moment… This moment was perfect.

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Inhaler Physics (AT Days 64 & 65)

The skies opened up once again and began dumping rain on me at 1-2 inches and hour. I sighed and resigned myself to getting soaking wet again… The same thing had happened yesterday and the day before. Today, however, I only had two miles of hiking left and then I was headed into town to a nice dry hostel.

Even though I’d resigned myself to getting wet, the thunder, lightning, and really heavy rain weren’t making it the most enjoyable of experiences. I was hiking at about 2 miles/hr so I figured I only had about an hour of uphill in the rain to go. Suddenly I had an epiphany, if I jogged I could be out of the rain in 30 minutes or less… That would be much better than hiking in the nasty nasty weather for an hour!

I tightened the straps of my pack and with water streaming down from the sky and through the trail I started running. It felt good to stretch out my stride and navigate around the rocks and roots.

Not long after initiating this plan the slope of the uphill increased and I realized that I’d forgotten something. I’d forgotten that I have asthma. Doh! I stopped running, pulled out my rescue inhaler (which I always keep handy), and almost hungrily inhaled the medicine that would make it so that I could breath comfortably again.

However, instead of getting the usual easing of my breath as my chest opens up and my lungs full with air, I felt a caustic burning of my throat and lungs and if anything it felt like my lungs constricted even more.

Shocked and confused and now definitely having an asthma attack I looked accusingly at my inhaler. Had I
Accidentally grabbed my pepper spray instead? No, it was definitely my inhaler that I held in my hand. Perhaps it had gotten some sort of particulate in/on it that I had just accidentally propelled into my lungs (everything gets dirty when you’re backpacking). I carefully wiped off the mouthpiece inside and out and took a second puff of the inhaler sure that I’d fixed the problem and would soon be breathing easy again.

F***!!!! Burning, searing, pain as my lungs really ceased up. I threw my inhaler onto the ground; I threw my backpack onto the ground; I threw myself onto the ground. Stupid inhaler, why was it hurting instead of helping?! For the moment I didn’t care. I closed my eyes, leaned forward onto my knees and focused on breathing… It was starting to work, but I was still coughing and feeling short of breath. I reached over and grabbed my water. It soothed my throat and after a couple of minutes I’d stopped coughing.

I was still short of breath, but at least I could think again. What the heck had happened with my inhaler? I remembered the trouble I’d had with my inhaler at the ice hotel in Quebec City over the weekend. It was so cold outside that the inhaler wasn’t working… A common problem with canisters of compressed gases at low temperatures… And suddenly I was thinking about the ideal gas law (PV=nrT), and the compressibility of gases, and thermodynamics.

Was my inhaler acting up because of the weather? It was around 90 degrees out, 100% humidity, plus a low pressure system with a severe thunderstorm raining 2 inches/hr on me. I decided that somehow I must be having the opposite problem from Quebec City, that the compressed gas from the inhaler was still rapidly expanding as it hit the tissue of my throat and lungs. Since the expansion of gas is endothermic, that could essentially burn my throat and lungs with intense cold.

I had a hypothesis… Could I test it? Hmmm… I reached over and picked up my inhaler, which was still sitting in the middle of the trail where I’d thrown it in frustration and anger, and looked at it for a minute. My hypothesis was that the weather conditions were causing the compressed gas in the inhaler to expand over a larger area than usually, so that a noticeable endothermic reaction was still occurring as that compressed air hit my lungs. Based on that hypothesis I would predict noticeable plume as the inhaler was puffed into the open air around me instead of into my lungs.

I pointed the inhaler away from me and delivered a puff over the trail. It looked liked the white plume of breath that you see when someone exhales moist air on a cold winters day… Except that it actually had a propellant, so the plume extended out for about 3 feet.

I was still short of breath, so now I needed a plan. How to get the drugs from my inhaler into my lungs without giving them frostbite? I decided to use my hand as a spacer tube, hoping it would allow the gases to expand in my hand and not my lungs, while still directing the medication into my lungs.

With some trepidation, I squeezed down on the inhaler and inhaled (rather cautiously this time). It worked!!! No horrible burning sensation, and my lungs started to open up. I took a second puff the same way, and my breathing returned to normal.

Now I *really* was drenched. The rain kept pouring down as I walked the rest of the way to the road. I made it in 45 minutes.

Extra credit assignment: Demonstrate mathematically the crucial parameter/s (was it the humidity? the thunderstorm? or a combination of the humidity, thunderstorm, and temperature?) that led to the inhaler doing more harm than good. If I were at home I would have modeled this already and figured out the critical parameters both for this story and for the ice hotel… I miss having pencil, paper, and the easy ability to look things up and research them!