Snow for Dessert in the Desert

Mile by mile, day by day, I was getting further and further south, closer to the Mexican border, closer to finishing my walk across America. Dealing with the challenges that the desert presented, while learning by doing, I had gotten used to play the “water game” of planning out my next plausible water sources while carrying up to 7 liters at a time to avoid the risk of running dry. Alone, out here, it could prove severely dangerous. Trusting loose information from the internet about which creeks were running was my only option, however, walking for 30 miles between water while religiously hoping to find some of this precious liquid was something I never got used to. Again, one those games on the PCT you have to play, but can’t afford to loose.

Dark clouds are gathering in the rocky, yellow-brown mountains. Rain. It felt promising, like a good omen, and the many forms of vegetation out here really seemed to need it. I put on my somewhat-waterproof jacket and soldier-on as silent, vertical water enthusiastically pours from above. Unreal stony outcrops are set against a background of rainbows and I am just as happy as I imagine the rest of the desert is. The 90s house-track by Everything But The Girl spins in my head…”and I miss you, like the desert miss the rain”. Luckily, I’m at low altitude so the temperature isn’t a real challenge, neither is there a risk of snow down here. 2 days ahead of me, the trail climbs to nearly 3000m and, up there, rain means snow. Happy I’m not there, good timing.

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The rain is, obviuosly, caused by a passing low-front. As I climb higher unto the ridges, the temperatures drop to 8 Celcius in the daytime and, combined with gale-force winds on exposed terrain, I find myself wearing all my layers, a beanie and gloves during the midday hours. So much for the “dry, quiet, hot desert”, this doesn’t look like anything as presented “in the brochure”, if any such thing existed other than in my head. In the far distance, the mountains appear to be white. Snow? Nahh, can’t be, it should have melted by now in case the low-front dropped any of that white stuff. And I’ve negotiated my share of snow on this walk, and I’m not “supposed” to encounter any more. It’s probably just some beautiful white limestone cliffs.  Denial has always been a defining trait for humans.

And there it was: Snow. Again. Of course. The rain I encountered 2 days ago, fell as snow up here and it lingers around for many days at 2500m altitude in November, even in this dry, warm part of the US. With nighttime temperatures around freezing and gusty winds, it has consolidated into ice. It’s slippery and I carefully watch my feet as I push on, as careful as you can when you try to clock 50.000 footsteps, a marathon, a day. I’m happier than ever, actually. Because nature has only strewn a fine 5cm layer, so the trail is clearly visible and, though cold and windy, the weather is clear. No risk of getting lost, and I should be able to make it over the pass before sunset and set camp at lower altitude to avoid the nuisance of camping in the snow. Lonely snow covered mountains, deep endlessly flat valleys, a myriad of intersecting animal tracks, blue skies, no risk of more snow for now, fresh cold temperatures, simplicity, alone in this stunning winter wonderland once again. And hey, now water is literally lying around me, stored in solid-state.

Beau-ti-ful! All the glory without the worry.

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Until. I lost. My trekkingpole. Yes, it really was that painful. I had walked 2500km with that trekkingpole and had grown addicted, even mentally connected, to it. Fumbling around with my camera while trying to balance my gear, one of the poles slide over the steep 60-degree sloping ice-covered mountain side. It was lost, I knew it immediately. I gaze in disbelief as it gains speed like an Olympic luge into the abyss thousands of feet below me. FUCK. No chance of retrieving it, it’s lost for good, or worse, I should say. I can easily finish the walk with one pole, it’s not the end of the world, but I need both to pitch my tent, to stay dry and warm. 400 miles of trail to go, 3 weeks of walking. Guess I’ll be “cowboy-camping” for the rest of this journey: sleeping unsheltered on the ground, beneath the freezing cold, desert sky, sincerely hoping to avoid further rain. Getting soaked in freezing temperatures, alone without a shelter in high altitudes is the exact recipe for disaster. Statiscally “exposure”, as it is called, is the biggest killer among hikers.

“I could have lost my camera”

“Good thing I didn’t fall and injured myself”

“It’s the desert! It shouldn’t rain for the next 3 weeks, don’t need a tent”

“Hell, the beauty of the snow was all worth it”

“Still got one pole to walk with, better than none”

“Maybe I can engineer some makeshift shelter, if shit hits the fan”

“Embrace the challenge, you’ll learn in the process”

I’m full of hope and quickly cheer myself up. Anger, frustration, hindsight-knowledge, regrets, blame, panic, what-if’s, fear: all of those feelings are natural and might even be merited in times of trouble. Only problem is that none of it is productive, it’s a dead-end and you simply impede yourself further, instead of moving forward. A positive outlook blended with perseverance, perspiration and planning, on the contrary, are very productive.

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So I “walk on, walk on, with hope in my heart” as The Beatles and Liverpool-fans are singing. I am walking alone though, at least physically. But with a wide smile, while gently apologizing to the pole for my negligence.

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