The Trip where the Rain and a Ridge Broke Me

Ohhh, what a trip! The weekend before last, I stayed local (rare for me, I know!) and decided to backpack up Los Piños Peak in the Santa Ana Mountain Range of Cleveland National Forest. As I usually do, I found the toughest route to the peak via the Iron Hiker Bell Ridge Trail: A 13.5 mile out and back that leads you along a tough ridgeline below Saddleback Mountain.

Aware of the wet weather heading for me, I got on the trail around 11am decked out in a new KUHL Airspeed Shirt and KUHL Liberator Convertible Pants with an Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Shell for the weather. Because there is no water along the trail (besides from above, which I’ll get to later), I carried 5.25 liters. Heavy, but I needed to be prepared!

The trail starts on the side of Robinson Ranch Road, in a suburban neighborhood. The hills popped up quickly, though, setting me on my way to a wilderness refuge! After a steep dip (a diversion from the Iron Hiker trail), the 1’000 foot ascent to the flagpole was unrelenting in only 1.5 miles. I made good pace, and my confidence grew considerably. I’ve attempted this hike a couple times to get more comfortable in my boots, but never made it to Los Piños. Today would be the day!

After taking a lunch break and foot break at the flagpole, I continued along the ridge. There’s always been a desire to walk along a knife-edge ridgeline within me, and this hike was closer to fulfilling that desire. This hike was also along a ridge whose elevation changes dramatically, my weakness. Seeing as this trail is designed by mountain bikers, there were some very steep sections that required hands and feet to get up. These ascents became exhausting, bumping my head along the top of my pack, awkwardly climbing, but pushing on.

Awesome View of the Ridge
Awesome View of the Ridge

About halfway to the summit, I ascended Peak 3789. This was another bump that felt near vertical. There was an option to avoid the peak by taking a side trail, but I had to make things harder on me. Speaking of which, why the hell do I have to keep making every hike so damned hard for myself? Why do I have to break myself almost every time to consider my John Muir Trail training to be worthy? Because I’m scared. Deep down within, I’m actually terrified that I won’t make it on this trip along the JMT in June. What would I be then? Am I a fraud? Should I quit? NO! I keep pressing on, keep learning, and keep adapting my training to build up my strength, mentally and physically. Also, I find myself praying a lot on these trips. Praying for help, for strength, and for fortitude to continue on.

The Top of Peak 3789 with a Tempting Fire Pit!
The Top of Peak 3789 with a Tempting Fire Pit!

See, as a kid, I was morbidly obese. I was in Boy Scouts, I tried sports, tried diets, etc. But my eating disorder took hold and physical activity was mostly difficult. I remember being on a hike with my Cub Scout troop, too scared to climb down the rocks of a canyon because I might fall. I’ve come a long way since then, maintaining a healthy body weight mostly from the help of others and God. Being in a new body has required me to get comfortable with that body. Find it’s limits. Listen to it. Strengthen it. That’s what training is all about. I’m not giving up yet, and I want to tell you readers to not give up, either. The emotional and physical pain will help us to grow.

Continuing on the trail, I thought I was almost to my goal. But I wasn’t. There were more steep drops that made me question the sanity of the trail designers and an ominous slope loomed in front of me. Shortly into that next ascent, I lost it. My feet were hurting, I was tired, and I still had to come back the way I came the next day. I was making slow progress and decided to call my friend after laughing and crying hysterically to myself (partially due to dehydration as I was paranoid about running out of water). Thank God for cell reception, because talking with that friend helped me to push on. He was willing to pick me up on the other side of the mountain, where the Main Divide Truck Trail and Ortega Highway intersect, the next morning. My spirits lifted, and I continued trudging.

Me almost at my Breaking Point
Me almost at my Breaking Point

The final push was tough, but seeing the sunset and the clouds roll in over the coast fueled me. The beauty of nature has that effect on me, and I’m grateful for it. Eventually, I made it! The summit was pretty neat. There were rocks all over the place, and a summit register inside of a military ammo receptacle. I signed it, plugged my blog, my struggle, and my success, then texted my buddy a photo. It felt good. There I was, a hiker in the wilderness pushing through mental blockages to achieve something I set my mind to.

I Finally Made it to Los Pinos Peak!
I Finally Made it to Los Piños Peak!

The next task at hand was to find a place to set up camp. 200 feet off trail is a far distance when you’re on a ridgeline covered in chapparal! I was losing daylight (thank God for my headlamp) and frustration set in. Eventually, though, I found an established campsite and started to set up camp after taking some beautiful photos of the clouds coming in with the sunset. My new NEMO Hornet 1P Tent was relatively easy to set up. I got the rainfly on, unpacked my bag and started cooking up a dinner of Katmandu Curry with my Jetboil Flash Stove. My first time using this stove was a little tricky, but I got the hang of it. Soon I had a hot meal!

The Onslaught of Clouds...
The Onslaught of Clouds…

A Beautiful Sunset Made the Hike Worth it!
A Beautiful Sunset Made the Hike Worth it!

I cleaned up, got in my tent, and tried reading a little bit, but I was so tired that I soon conked out like a baby. around 7:30-8:00. I was comfortable, albeit slanted due to camp not being level, but soon woke up around midnight to rain. I knew I was safe, but I felt moisture. The head of my tent was leaking! Not terribly, but enough to be noticeable. Looking back at my prided photo of my tent, I cinched the rainfly incorrectly so that there was a tiny gap above the waterproof tub of the tent, exposing the mesh and thus letting water in.

See the Gap Between the Rainfly and the Tent? Made for a Slightly Damp Snooze.
See the Gap Between the Rainfly and the Tent? Made for a Slightly Damp Snooze.

I got back to sleep quickly, but woke up around 6am hearing heavy rain. My fight or flight instincts kicked in, and flight won out. I decided it would be a good idea to pack up and leave without any breakfast. That was the decision that would soon leave me in an extreme amount of frustration. Unzipping the tent door, I had been sleeping over a puddle. No big deal, as my tent has a waterproof tub, but my backpack was soaked! Oh well, I thought, and I continued feverishly packing up.

I sent my buddy a text, letting him know I was coming down the mountain early (second poor decision). I got no response. Uh-oh… Once my gear was all packed, the rain started coming down harder. I hadn’t familiarized myself with the alternate trail I was taking, so I sucked up valuable battery life relying on my GPS to guide me. With my gloves on, the phone didn’t work too well. Also, the water spraying on the screen acted like fingerprints, so I would spend a couple minutes each time I wanted to check location.

Main Divide Truck Trail wasn’t showing up, I was getting soaked (no waterproof pants), and my head was ablaze with negativity. All I could think about was being trapped, failing, and my gear being ruined. My boots had filled with water by this point, so I was walking in a lake, and I started yelling at God. First, it was just complaining. Then, it turned for the worse and I started screaming and raging. I was completely powerless over the rain. In that moment, my decisions landed me at the mercy of nature. Why couldn’t the rain stop? Why couldn’t a human being appear? Why?

Eventually, I saw the sign for Main Divide Road (after passing many promising turn-offs), and I tried calling my friend again. No response. Great! Eventually, I made it to Blue Jay Campground, hoping my friend would be there waiting like an oasis. He wasn’t there. So I continued walking, it continued storming, and eventually I got in touch with another friend who said he could grab me. Thank God! There was hope! During my frustrations with a lack of cell phone reception cutting our calls short, a couple drove by. Exasperated, I told them I was waiting for my friend, with panic shrieking through my voice. I had no idea how far away Ortega Highway was, but the guy offered me a ride in the bed of his truck. Gratitude filled my body (even though I really wanted a ride back to my car), and I hopped in.

It must have been a few miles in the truck and driving rain, but I felt especially adventurous riding in a full truck bed with the possibility of slipping out. The guy dropped me off, I said thank you, and they went on their merry way. Now then, where’s my friend? After multiple calls, I got a hold of him and told him where I was at. I resumed waiting under a big pine tree that partially shielded the storm. After about 20 minutes, frustration settled in. I was cold, the rain wasn’t stopping, and my friend hadn’t arrived yet. I started pounding my trekking poles into the ground to keep warm and started praying to prevent my thoughts from going south.

My thinking went south anyway, and soon, the passing cars triggered an emotional response most closely related to collapse. I started laughing, crying, and yelling. I think it partially had to do with dehydration, cold, and not eating. I’m not proud of this moment, but it happened. After about an hour, my friend called. I was hysterical, but eventually communicated my exact location to him as he had been lost. I couldn’t articulate directions very well, but soon we agreed upon where he was, and I guided him to me. Finally, I was safe! To add insult to injury, the rain stopped and the sun came out right as my friend picked me up. A sick, sick joke on God’s part, but humorous nevertheless.

We got stuck in a traffic jam due to an accident, but I got back to my car, and all was well. There was a lot of cleaning and air drying of gear involved, but I was safe. Despite my shortcut, despite the insanity, despite the cold rain, I made it. I hiked and camped in the rain and lived to tell about it. This is a common occurrence for most avid hikers, but for me it was monumental!

Getting in touch with the powerlessness of me versus nature was a very real experience that I think everyone should go through in their life. The elements will not stop. They will not cater to you. The goal is to prepare and duke it out as best you can. That’s what I did. Despite being reduced to a ball of fear, I learned and got in touch with a very real component of the human experience. Next time it rains, maybe I’ll remember to stay in the tent and get a waterproof bag for my backpack!

I hope you enjoyed this part of my journey. It wasn’t pretty, but it was beautiful in its own right. I appreciate your support and want to remind you to take a hike and spice up your life!

-Doug

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