Seventeen hours

A sun break during a hailstorm on the PCT

The rain suddenly became fatter, somehow. Jake and I had been holed up in the tent for hours.

We had stopped in a meadow south of Rock Pass, 14.7 miles from the Canadian border, for lunch at about 1:30 pm. As I squeezed a packet of tuna onto a whole wheat tortilla, I noticed the drizzle becoming incrementally heavier. The temperature had dropped a couple of degrees as we sat down.

“Maybe we should set up the tent,” I said.

“Let’s give it a minute,” Jake said. “It’ll probably die down.”

I continued to scrape the delicious tuna-in-olive-oil packet, making sure every scrap of protein made it onto my tortilla. I was perched on a tree root watching the meadow.

A few days before we had lunched in that meadow on the way to the border. It was stunning: 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Mountains layered upon mountains: ice, snow and always Washington green.

Flowers poked out where there had been snow weeks before: yellow, white, dusty pink, brilliant red, and sun-dapped blue.

Now the drizzle was collecting into drops on their petals.

I kept arranging my tuna wrap, talking with Jake about how we were now really hiking the PCT (really heading south now) all the while the rain was getting thicker. A cold chill had seeped into the air.

I started to notice how the temperature drops right before it rains in Washington. In Mexico City, it gets suffocatingly hot. I often feel sweat collecting on my brow. But here, I feel goosebumps. A couple of days before, Jake and I had to trudge, sopping wet, through rain, hail, and sleet, unprotected on a ridge before finally making it to a campsite. That’s when I learned that the rain jacket that had lasted four Mexican rainy seasons no longer protected me against a heavy downpour. My shirt was soaked when I arrived to camp and my hands were so cold, I could barely use them.

Back in the meadow I heard it. Like tapping on the door, I knew the sound.

“It’s starting to hail now,” I said. “Let’s set up the tent.”

Jake was ahead of me, already pulling the poles out of his bag. I put down my tuna and rushed to my backpack, pulling out dry sacks to get to the tent. In a flash we had the groundsheet down, but hail was already falling on it. Then the tent. Then the poles. But everything felt as if it were in slow motion. We locked the poles into the tent and started to spread the rain fly over it as I noticed the hail splashing mud on the sides of the tent.

I rushed inside, grabbing the tuna, glad we weren’t walking in that stuff. For a while we sat on the tent floor, refusing to set up our sleeping gear. It won’t be long, we promised each other.

But the temperature kept dropping. I put on more and more clothes. I ate my tortilla and we talked about how it would be nice to have cards. I fished out my kindle and started to read. But the temperature seemed to keep dropping. Jake kept checking his thermometer. Thirty-eight degrees turned into 35, turned into 33, then 32, then 31. And the rain kept falling, splashing against the tent.

We pulled out our sleeping pads, “just to have something more comfortable to sit on.” Then Jake brought out his quilt. Then I brought out my bag with its silk liners.

My bag is only rated 35 degrees. So we’ve carried the liners — just in case. But they’ve already become a staple of the trip as every night has been in the 30s. It’s been barely enough to keep me warm. When the temperature is in the 30s, you can feel the cold air just outside the bag and sometimes it drifts through the seams.

It was starting to waft through in the meadow now as I dozed and woke to the sound of the rain and hail.

But suddenly the sound changed. From a pinprick to a splat, the drops were fatter somehow. I looked at the wall of the tent and noticed the rain had now seemed to a accumulate.

“I think it’s snowing,” I said.

I opened the tent door.

“Yes, it’s snowing out here.”

I walked into a winter wonderland in June. Wet, pudgy flakes splattered around me. It was still light out but hours had passed. Jake and I had abandoned hope of packing up the tent and were planning to stay in that spot for the night.

I ran off to take advantage of the change in precipitation to go to the bathroom and collect water for dinner.

There were streams where I hadn’t noticed them before. They were muddy and silt-ladden, but I didn’t have time to look for better. I plunged my bottle into the freezing water to collect water. With icy hands, I dashed back to the tent, where I found Jake making furtive movements with his trekking poles.

“We have to divert the water,” he called. “It’ll go into the tent.” Using his poles he had already scratched canales into the dirt to draw water around our tent. I helped and then we got into the tent hoping for the best.

We cooked our meal just outside the tent vestibule that night. And watched as the rain stated to ease up slightly around nightfall.

But it was still freezing. I tried to sleep but often drifted in and out of it.

We stayed in the tent until 5:30 the next morning, when the rain finally stopped. Seventeen hours in the tent and only our first week on trail.

Author: jenonthetrail

Jen is from Washington state between Seattle and the Canadian border. She grew up hiking in the North Cascades with her family. She went on her first backpacking trip at about 12 years old with her dad and brother. Jen is returning after seven years in Mexico City to the US to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s looking forward to mountain meadows and Cheez-it crackers.

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