July 30, 2018
Distance: 17.1 miles Time: 9.7 hours Pace: 1.76 mph Elevation Gain: 4186 feet
This was the one that could have ended it for me.
I'm well aware that I'm in the infancy of my hiking knowledge and career.
I know I'll make mistakes.
I made MANY mistakes today.
The hour drive to the Lexington Reservoir for this hike was a foreboding foreshadow for the day to come. I was late waking up, didn't sleep particularly well, and sitting in stop-and-go traffic the entire way there wasn't helping my hiker's mindset. But still, I was determined. I could do this.
By the time I hit the trailhead it was already in the low 80's and steadily climbing. And speaking of climbing....
Poor planning meant that I had completely failed to check the elevation changes on the Priest Rock Trail. I had mentally prepared myself for 20+ miles of fast-paced, high-energy hiking, but quickly learned that this would be a day filled with constant incline, permanently burning thighs, and more rest breaks than I'm willing to admit.
Sweating profusely, I finished my usual two-liters of water within the first three miles and used the three streams clearly marked on the map as motivation to keep going.
No water. Whatsoever. As far as I could tell all of the available water on this trail was dry for the season, and things were not looking good for me as the temperature now surpassed 90. I was hungry, but none of my calorie-dense food was even the slightest bit appealing without a mouthful of water to wash it down. Stubbornness kept me going and I wasn't willing to give up after the long drive out here. Something just felt wrong about driving an hour each way to give up after a few miles, and I was determined to find my breaking point (another risky decision as the temperature continued to rise, there was no available water in sight, and I never saw another soul on the trail for the entire day...I haven't decided yet if that's admirable or entirely foolish).
Nevertheless, I made it to the summit of Mount El Sombroso (2,999 ft.), where I took a break just long enough for my legs to really stiffen-up, and pretended that the views of the South Bay were worth the pain.
After resting I talked myself into the next big mistake of the day: continuing down the east side of the mountain I had just killed myself climbing. The mile or so downhill was deceivingly refreshing, my pace felt normal for the first time in hours, and the cottonmouth had just moved to the back of my mind when I realized my mistake. I was now caught in a saddle between two peaks and forced with another major uphill climb in both available directions.
I weighed my options. Forward was another 15 miles of poorly-researched climbing and I was still out of water. Turning back meant another 8 miles backtracking up Mount El Sombroso and then a treacherous downhill that was sure to destroy my knees...and I was still out of water.
Turning back, I began the brutal climb back up the mountain. I became acutely aware of the waning afternoon, and my increasingly frequent breaks posed the problem of not making it back to my car in time before they closed the parking lot at sunset. The signs every half mile advertising the prospering Mountain Lion environment and their increased activity during sunset didn't help mentally, and quickly put me into a slight panic. I became disoriented as to my position on the trail, and pushed myself too hard up hills, falsely telling myself that this would be the last one and the parking lot was just over the next rise.
I'm not sure if there's a specific term used to describe hiker despair and that feeling of not wanting to be there even though you have no choice but to keep moving, but there should be. It's a very specific feeling...to have lost the urge to hike completely, yet the danger of being stranded overnight on the trail keeps you moving despite the screaming of thigh muscles and the worsening strain of the heavy backpack.
During the hours that it took me to make it back to my car I went into a fuzzy haze of analytical thought. I mentally inventoried every item I was carrying, picked apart every individual piece of gear to decide how I could lighten the weight on my shoulders. Re-planned my food and water-carrying strategies, my pre-hike mapping techniques, and whether or not I should be planning something as huge as the Pacific Crest Trail after the epic failure that was today.
Ultimately there were more questions left unanswered after this hike. Beneficial or not to my mental toughness, I'm not sure. Stupid? Maybe. But what I'll take away from Mount El Sombroso in the middle of summer is that it happened and I'm still going strong.
I'm still planning the next one.