“There’s a red flag warning,” Jake was checking the weather and speaking in the measured tone of a person who is definitely not freaking out.
We were already 23 miles into the day. And 68 miles from the trailhead closest to South Lake Tahoe.
“What?” I said. I had checked the weather earlier in the week and saw that it might rain, but a red flag means a storm.
“Wind gusts of 75 miles per hour… damaging winds,” Jake went on reading. “Snow showers… accumulation of three to five inches.”
It seemed impossible. The late summer sun had warmed us all day. The sky was a delicious blueberry.
We checked other sources. We checked other locations. They looked worse.
We exchanged glances. We expected storms. Jake and I hiked through the Sierra Nevada on the John Muir Trail in 2015 before we knew each other. We expected storms but not for another week or two. Plus we had been booking it for three weeks just to get to that spot. We had been keeping up with hikers far faster and far stronger. We were tired and ready for a day off.
We quickly agreed we would hike as far as we could that day and the next day.
A few hours later, we sat at picnic tables at Donner Pass, named for another set of ill fated travelers. We made dinner there and discussed our options. We searched online for what high wind feels like. Somewhere around 45 mph walking becomes difficult; around 60-70 mph trees can be uprooted. We found a bailout point “if things get really bad” about 28 miles ahead. Then we hiked on, hoping for the best. It was midnight when we laid out our sleeping quilts to cowboy camp under a nearly full moon and howling wind. We had hiked our longest day at nearly 37 miles.
Jake woke me at 6 in the morning as pink crept into the horizon. It was time to get up. The wind was already picking up over Tinker Knob. Another ridge beyond found us bracing against our trekking poles.
By the time we reached the “bailout point” that afternoon, the wind had died down a bit. Some friends caught up to us. They were discussing the possibility of hiking all night to avoid the storm. At this time we were in blazing sunshine. A sign declared 32 miles to the trailhead. We could do that mileage in a day easily but not after already hiking 20 miles.
Jake and I decided to press on for a few more hours. We would hike until 9 pm, set up our tent, sleep until 4 am, and hope that the storm hit an hour or two later than forecast.
We cooked dinner with the last of our fuel that night and set up in the most protected section of forest we could find. At one point, in the middle of the night I opened my eyes and saw that outside the tent, the trees were swaying in all directions. I closed up the tent and awoke before my alarm at 3:50. I began stretching my legs for the trail ahead.
We were up and out quickly. Hiking in the dark, we made our way toward Dicks Pass at 9,376 feet. The wind picked up. It threatened to knock us over at points.
Off in the distance, I saw a bank of clouds galloping toward us. For the rest of the day, “Riders on the Storm” cycled through my head like a dirge. At the top of the pass, we ran into the first couple of hikers we saw that day and there was enough cell signal to check our fantasy premier league teams and text family.
On the way down, we stopped for peanut butter and jelly tortillas. I don’t even like PB&J. At this point on the trail, I eat anything. The break spot was sheltered from the wind and even sunny. We ran into a couple of hikers we hadn’t seen since Oregon. It was a strange reunion in the midst of impending doom. The sun gave us a false sense of security.
Hiking on, we ran into more people on long weekend excursions. We hiked past glorious lakes lined by fireweed and paintbrush. The wind whipped our cheeks and clouds gathered. Just after Lake Aloha, hail began to fall. Then it became rain, then sleet, then snow. We were still two hours from the trailhead… two hours ahead in wet snow. Faster than I’ve ever experienced, the snow began to stick. The temperature was dropping. It coated granite and turned dirt trail into a river. I began to panic. I couldn’t get warm. My beanie and down jacket were in my pack. I wasn’t thinking straight.
Jake stopped me to put on more layers and we resumed the climb. We slipped over rocks and hoped we could make it to the trailhead before our resolve dissolved. We skidded past other hikers. We slid in ever accumulating snow, seeking out the trail as it disappeared before our eyes.
Finally we made it to the trailhead. Looking for a hitch, we saw a section hiker getting into a Jeep. Jake dashed over to ask for a ride. The driver warned us that his Jeep was a convertible but we were just happy to be on the move. Less than an hour later we were washing the dirt off our feet and planning our town meals.
In the end we hiked 90 miles in two and a half days. We got to town tired, soaked and hungry but glad to be dry.