Even before we reconnected with the JMT, smoke drifted back in making for hazy skies that soon obscured the brilliance of Cathedral Peak whose shape seemingly changed as we circumnavigated its base. Small creeks ran adjacent or crossed our path as we slowly wound our way through the changing tread and terrain. This “late” in the season, abundant water is usually not the case. Most of the creeks and snow fed rivers are mostly dry as a bone. Usually one needs to be mindful of sustainable water sources when doing the JMT or any portion of it, this time of year. As evidenced by this year’s snow fall, which hopefully is back to the new “normal”, finding water was not a concern. As we walked, rocks of every shape and size littered the trail. Pulverized pine needles and discarded tree limbs now ground into “powder”, mixed with decomposed granite, creating a fine dust that often puffed out under our feet and into the air with each step. We had forgotten how dusty and dirty we got going through the areas of the Sierras that weren’t covered in snow, when we did the PCT in 2014.
We made our way toward Cathedral Pass (9700 ft.), stopping just short of the crest, as it was just over half way to our destination and Sandy needed a break. Fortuitously we stopped amidst a wider portion of the rock stacked staircase trail that was bordered with perfect “sit rocks” (boulders you can either sit comfortably with your pack on, and/or off for that matter). To our right (going N/B) tall thick trees stood as sentries. To our left was a steep slope into a dry ravine. As this was going to be a “long” break (20-30 minutes), we took off our packs (rain covers still attached) and took our seats. The sky overhead was still quite hazy and smelled of smoke that you could almost taste. Without warning the temperature dropped. Uh-Oh, that means rain…again! We all initially ducked under a rock overhang to get out of the lightly falling rain. The rain softly continued followed by the distinctive sounds of thunder in the distance. When it began to rain with greater urgency, rain jackets went on once more. In order to more “comfortably” sit out this passing cloud of rain, Paul and I climbed up the side of the hill caked with pine needles, decaying tree limbs and bark bits, to hide from the now steady rain under a giant fallen log suspended between two trees. While seated there we notice the scorched scar of a lightning strike, which explains how this log we are hiding under came to rest. Shit! The rain soon evolved into hail the size of airsoft pellets. So much for a quickly passing Sierra summer rain. We laughed at the irony, especially since the storm was not “scheduled” till the next day. Scout and Paul started yelling back and forth, “What the hail is going on?”, as the hail added another layer to the percussion section of nature’s symphony. The hail stopped and light rain returned. It looked like the storm cell had passed. Ha! Not so fast Grasshopper. The rain suddenly increased like someone had turned up it’s volume. We take cover once more, until we hear “Flash Flood!”, from Sandy and Scout, who had just remarked to each other, “Doesn’t that sound like a train is coming?”. A mad scramble ensued to move our packs to even higher ground as a two foot tall torrent of water rushed down the stone stepped trail, nearly washing Scout down with it.
With our packs safely “high and dry” we watched with wonder and awe having witnessed our first ever, flash flood. A flash of lightning and a near immediate clap of thunder jolted us into, “Oh Shit” mode. We had already ditched our packs and poles, but there was really no “safer” place to retreat to but the cover of the once struck fallen tree, hoping that lightning truly never strikes in the same place twice. The four of us huddled together (which of course we know is against all lighting safety protocol) atop our stretched out Z-pads in hopes of slowing the creep of eventual moisture from the bed of once dry pine needles. Paul had also grabbed our ground sheet of Tyvek. We pulled it over our legs in a failed attempt to stay dry, or at least a bit warmer. The air wais bitter cold and electric. Lightning and thunder were now synced, with little to no time elapsing with each event. A new and definitely larger storm cell was directly overhead, and we being just 200 feet shy of the top of the pass were trapped in the thick of it.
We pulled the Tyvek over the top of our heads, providing some measure of warmth as we all collectively began to shiver with hail now the size of corn bouncing violently off our buried heads. By now we realized there is no use trying to stay dry as the Tyvek had managed to funnel the now hard pounding rain down our backs and onto the Z-pads, where upon our pants shamefully soaked it up. The underside of our Tyvek lit up with each flash of lightning. Painfully aware that a tree above us could be struck and land on or near us, we hoped our position would provide us some measure of protection if that happened. An explosion of thunder followed immediately, such that the ground reverberated beneath us. We imagined that this (on some level) is what it must feel like to be a “civilian” in an active “war zone”, as we are trapped, have no idea if we will be struck by lightning, and are helpless to defend ourselves. The waiting and wondering finds you more than anxious as you constantly rework contingencies in your head to improve upon your current situation. The thunder and lightning were now coming so quick that you can’t tell which one is attached to the other. Nervous laughter filled the underside of our Tyvek cocoon. Throughout this storm we were surprised and grateful that we, or a nearby tree had not been struck thus far and would continue to be the case. We were genuinely scared. An hour and forty minutes later, we emerged unscathed and sopping wet. We’d take it though.
The trail was still a river, so we had to wait just a bit longer before we can get going. Once the water “slowed” to allow us fairly safe passage we hurriedly reunite with our packs and pick our way across the tops of the stones not fully submerged in the trail, eventually making our way to “drier” trail and over the crest of Cathedral Pass. A solo hiker that was behind us passed laughing nervously, “Was that fun, or what?”. It is now, considering that no one got hurt. Just as we crested the pass, we ran into a couple headed S/B on the JMT. It is their second day, and they were wide-eyed and looking a little grey. “Were you guys at the top?”, they ask. “About 200 ft below”, we reply. “Us too”, they confirm. They tell us how lightning flashed over their heads and how they ditched their poles, dropped their packs and ran in opposite directions each cowering in crouched positions as cover was sparse and the trees were nearly as tall as them. We tell them our story as they look at us in amazement. Yes, we defied all lightning protocols, but we had no real “safer” options. If the sky had not been so smoky and grey, we would have mostly likely been able to see the approaching storm cell(s) and stayed at the edge of the previous meadow or high tailed it up and over the pass…and then took our break. As such, that was not the case. We parted ways and continued our descent toward the Sunrise HSC, resolved to walk ourselves dry…and warm.
We descended into another meadow with a creek running to our right. We can see that the skies are still grey and foreboding and make the decision to find a place to camp in order to set up in the event the skies decide to open up once more. Our collective GPS devices told us we had put in a total of 9 miles. More than enough for this Day of Firsts. As we were at an elevation that would allow campfires, we considered building one to warm ourselves, then opted not to as we were too tired and a hot meal and a warm sleeping bag were far more alluring. As we dined, we watched as clouds formed menacingly and then dissipate. The hovering smoke clears, yet creates a fiery orange sunset. Day one and nine interesting miles is Not how we pictured “introducing” Sandy to our hiking adventures.