Yesterday, we got to look down on oceans of clouds from high above. Today, we were inside oceans of clouds. And you know what those oceans of clouds are? Cold. We’re in Southern California in May — in Los Angeles County, even! — and we, and all of our fellow hikers, were freezing all day long. It blows my mind that one of my coldest backpacking experiences ever has now happened not a hundred miles from Venice Beach, home of perpetually beautiful weather.
Today started like most other days here; we woke up and it was chilly, but we expected that, like all the other days, as soon as the sun rose it’d be plenty warm (and, usually, far warmer than we’d like). But you know what happened today? For all intents and purposes, the sun never rose. Or, more precisely, rose for about twenty minutes in the morning, until the trail took us into the middle of all those clouds we’d seen yesterday…and never left. Sometimes I’ll start hiking with a fleece hoody on, but almost always have to take it off after about five or ten minutes as I start to warm up. Today, I’ve been wearing it since I got up, and it’s not coming off even in my sleeping bag.
The clouds must’ve met us halfway, because, although we’re slightly lower than days before, it’s only by a little bit, and yet the experience was completely different. My thermometer says the highest temperature we got all day long was 45°, just before we started hiking…and, during the rest of the day, it never got above 41°. Now, 41° actually can be not too bad, all things considered, if the sun is shining and there isn’t too much wind. But today the sun never came out for more than a minute or two at a time, the wind blew in gusts all day long, and there was fog everywhere. We were basically walking through a very cold, windy fog bank all day long. The only time we were really truly warm is when we were walking up a steep ascent, generating lots of heat ourselves…but most of the rest of the time, we were too cold. And we got hailed on! During about half the afternoon, we’d get pelted with hail that ranged from truly tiny to a decent size (enough to make me say “ow!” at one point). Honestly, as odd as it is to get hailed on, it’s far preferable (assuming the hail doesn’t get too big) to either rain or snow, because it doesn’t really make you wet or build up on the ground significantly.
And today was an odd day, too. Three more miles of the PCT we were going to cross today were closed, due to wildlife conservation efforts for a particular critter (I keep wanting to say a newt, but I think it’s actually a frog of some kind). There are two alternatives you can take: the “official” alternative stays on trails — albeit apparently really sketchy ones at times — but takes nineteen miles to skirt three miles of the official PCT, thereby adding sixteen miles (!) to your journey. The “unofficial” alternative (which was the official one until this year) involves walking on a road for a few miles, but only adds one or two miles total distance. Out of the dozens of people we talked to, only one was even considering taking the official alternate. So we not only were freezing, but ended up walking along the Angeles Crest Highway (CA–2) for an hour or so…kind of a bizarre experience, particularly given how deserted that road is.
However, the fun part is that “the gang’s all here!”. We hiked much of the day with our friends Dilly, Dally, Sarge, Stump, and Meta, which made the whole experience much nicer. Although I talk a lot about trail friendships and the great people out here, it’s actually pretty rare that hikers actually hike directly together — hiking is something everyone does differently, from speed to how often you take breaks — and so it was a lot of fun to get a chance to do that for a while. Lunch gathered us all around a picnic table at a campground we passed through, alternately talking about food…and shivering like crazy, because if you think you’re cold when you’re moving, you get really cold the moment you stop.
All this incredibly cold weather did, however, present us with a pretty spectacular sight: the clouds here apparently just drift in as fog up these hills, but then freeze, coating the trees and shrubs with a layer of ice that’s different from anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s not like snow, it’s not like freezing rain or an ice storm; it’s this thin white layer that freezes hard, and eventually falls off intact, but which makes the plants beautiful in the mean time. I hope some of the photos I took capture it — it really does look amazing.
This evening, we’re huddled in our tarp/tent, having jumped inside as soon as we stopped. We cooked dinner — a hot dinner at the end of a day like this is so, so good — and curled up in our sleeping bags as soon as we could. Even as I write this, it’s begun to precipitate outside once more…either some form of freezing rain or snow; it’s difficult to tell in the dark. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the weather blows through overnight, and gives us a clear sky tomorrow!