Rockpile Lake along Pacific Crest Trail - Deschutes National Forest, OR
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The “Great Flood of 2004” started inconspicuously. We paid little attention to the clouds that had been building all day as we made our way towards Rockpile Lake in a remote corner of Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest along the Pacific Crest Trail. A grand total of two hours of rain had fallen in the last four months and to say that everyone had become complacent about bad weather and bad weather backpacking gear was a gross understatement.
I had been hiking with “Honolulu” since the Mexican Border and “Trim” off and on since northern California. The three of us set up camp on the far shore of Rockpile Lake in some lofty pines after cooking our trail dinners and enjoying a dessert of Reese’s Cups. The clouds over the lake, which had slowly been darkening all day, were now ominous and foreboding. All appearances said that it was now only a matter of an hour, or possibly minutes, until a full-bore tempest released its fury on us.
I walked around my tent and restaked all my guy lines to make sure I had the tautest pitch possible. By the time I was done re-tensioning all the lines, you could have bounced a baby off the side of it. I added rocks over the tops of all the stakes trying to imagine the worst that could happen . . . my tent blowing away with me in it like the balloon boy. I tried to envision how running water would flow under my tent. The last thing I wanted was a soaked down sleeping bag.
Most of the ground on the far side of the lake was relatively bare due to the excessive amount of campers this shoreline campsite had obviously hosted. In a last minute decision that I would be thankful for later, I pulled my groundsheet from under the tent’s floor and placed it inside the tent on top of the floor. I realize this defeats the purpose of what a groundsheet is supposed to do, which is rest on the ground between the dirt and the tent’s nylon floor to keep twigs and thorns and other debris from poking holes through the nylon. It seemed to me though that water would likely funnel right to the front of my tent and wedge itself between the ground sheet and the tent floor as it made its way down to Honolulu and Trim’s shelters. Maybe this was not a big deal for me considering I was camped on a gentle slope and the water would definitely continue downhill, but it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take given the ink black color of the clouds that were looming overhead.
Both Trim and Honolulu had camped further down the slope in a low-lying area. Honolulu was under a tarp and Trim had a self-enclosed tent similar to mine. We were basically just waiting and at midnight it began.
Tentbound Warm & Dry beside Rockpile Lake - Deschutes National Forest, OR
Imagine the sound of an afternoon thunderstorm or the repetitious clamor of pouring rain on a metal-roofed house. Typically heavy rains don’t last long - maybe thirty minutes or an hour, two hours at the most. Downpours are short-lived events: saturated clouds release a build-up of moisture and then it’s over. At least that’s how it is supposed to happen. For eight solid hours, we were stuck in our tents imprisoned by a torrential downpour. It poured unendingly from midnight to 8:00 A.M. It did not let up . . . not even once. We were all a bit dismayed to say the least.
This eight-hour deluge was the first of several unseasonably cold storms funneling in off the Pacific that would plague us for four solid weeks until we reached northern Washington on the PCT. Most of Oregon obtained a month’s worth of rain in a few days from this storm. Some weather stations reported three times the average monthly rainfall occurred just within the last week of August. We were right at the start of that last week.
Vintage PCT Sign along the Trail - Northern Oregon
Our complacency with having walked four months without camping in the rain a single night meant most of us were not prepared for a month’s worth of rain in one week. I myself had been carrying an old rain jacket with holes in it and a pack cover buried so far into the depths of my pack that I had forgotten I even owned one. I was desperately lacking in sufficient warm clothes. Outside of what I was wearing, I had a thinly insulated jacket and a beanie. I also had a lightweight pair of polyester liner gloves. They were about as thick as a pair of silk stockings. No long johns, no fleece pants or jackets, no warm socks and I had gotten rid of my umbrella months before due to ridicule from my fellow hikers. I would have given up my college diploma for that umbrella right now.
I Would Have Given Up my College Diploma for that Umbrella - Northern Oregon
“My tent flooded a bit,” Trim shouted over the roaring noise of the pouring onslaught early the next morning.
I peaked out from under the bottom of my tent and could see Honolulu packing up.
“What’s the plan guys?” I asked from inside the friendly confines of my spacious and dry two-man tent.
“I don’t know but I’m packing up and heading out of here stat,” Honolulu said with a slight sense of urgency that made me think I should be doing the same.
Frankly though, I had absolutely no desire to do anything but stay in my sleeping bag. Perhaps I’d boil some water and have a steaming cup of tea or go back to sleep or both. Packing up a wet tent and trudging down a muddy trail in a cold downpour was at the bottom of my to do list.
After both Honolulu and Trim hiked out, I quickly decided that hanging out in my tent all day around a lonely lake with bad weather didn’t seem that appealing. The rain had momentarily softened from full gale to downpour, which gave me the best opportunity I’d seen all morning to break camp. I grudgingly unzipped my sleeping bag and packed up everything inside my tent. I put on a pair of non-waterproof wind pants over my hiking shorts because that’s all I had and it looked way too nasty to be walking around in running shorts. All I had on the top half of my body was a long sleeved shirt and a thrashed rain jacket. I put on my flimsy liner gloves, hustled out of my tent and packed the soaking wet jumble of nylon into the big mesh pocket on the outside of my pack.
I hiked out in the downpour. My wind pants were soaked within ten minutes. They clung to my damp skin like a sandwich wrapper to a soggy BLT. I had to wipe my sunglasses every three minutes just to see where I was going. It was ludicrous I even had them on in the first place, but I had surmised they would deflect some of the blowing rain. My liner gloves absorbed water like a dish sponge. I stuck my soaking wet hands into the soaking wet pockets of my soaking wet pants and started to shiver a bit as I hiked on. I had only been on the trail for thirty minutes. This was not good.
Our next “town stop” along the PCT wouldn’t be a town at all. It would be the remote outpost that is Ollalie Lake Resort. Ollalie Lake Resort was the fourth or fifth resort we had come across during our jaunt through Oregon on the PCT. The term “resort” conjures up images of the clear warm waters and sunny beaches of the Caribbean. Perhaps snorkeling along the Keys while dining on fresh caught flounder or mahi mahi at night. A Swedish massage, maybe, or expensive dark chocolates lying on the pillow of a king size bed in the master suite. The Oregon resorts were a bit different. They were located in rural areas typically abutting National Forest land and most contained dated wooden cabins, pay showers and restaurants with an assortment of fried foods and an abundant supply of second-hand smoke. There were definitely not any dark chocolates on the pillows . . . there weren’t even pillows. I had neither high hopes nor any hope that Ollalie would provide much in the way of salvation for my cohorts and I.
Foreboding Skies along the Pacific Crest Trail - Northern Oregon
I sheltered briefly under a large pine, which reduced the downpour to only a steady rain. I pulled out my guidebook with a bit of effort to see how far Ollalie Lake Resort was from Rockpile Lake - 33 miles. This was a colossal distance by most standards. We had been hiking around 25 miles per day, which normally took us all day. I didn’t even know if 33 miles was possible. That’s equivalent to running a marathon and then tacking on a 10k afterwards. And we weren’t running; we were hiking with heavy backpacks in the pouring rain on a trail that had become so muddy that what we were doing would be better described as careening.
I started to shiver and decided that I needed more clothes on my upper body ASAP. I could have gone for an Eskimo’s parka with hood and waterproof shell but my thinly insulated jacket would have to work. I dug down in my pack as water poured off the bill of my hat. I grabbed the insulated jacket and put it on as swiftly as possible and slapped my rain jacket back on over it without delay. I reached down to zip up my insulated jacket and simply couldn’t. My fingers wouldn’t work. My brain was telling my hands to zip my jacket, but they simply could not grasp the zipper. I had lost all dexterity in my fingers. I couldn’t zip my jacket and I was in a pouring cold rain. My hiking partners were up ahead so they had no clue as to what was happening to me. I was utterly alone in a torrential downpour and I couldn’t zip my stupid jacket. A bolt of panic ran up from my stomach to my throat and for about 10 long seconds I thought about dying.
Hypothermia is defined as any body temperature below 95 °F (35 °C). There are three stages that take place as a person progresses from feeling chilly to greeting Saint Peter. Stage 1 is characterized by mild to strong shivering. The person is unable to perform complex tasks with the hands; the hands become numb (that was me). Blood vessels in the outer extremities constrict, lessening heat loss to the outside air. Breathing becomes quick and shallow. Goose bumps form, raising body hair on end in an attempt to create an insulating layer of air around the body (which is of limited use in humans due to lack of sufficient hair, but apparently useful in other species). Victims may feel sick to their stomachs, and very tired. People will often experience a warm sensation, as if they have recovered, but they are in fact heading into Stage 2.
Another test to see if one is entering stage 2 is if the person is unable to touch his thumb with his little finger; this is the first stage of muscles not working. I’m not sure if I could have touched my thumb to my pinky. I’m guessing not since I couldn’t even clasp the zipper on my jacket.
In Stage 2 of hypothermia, body temperature drops as low as 91 °F (32 °C). Shivering becomes more violent. Muscle mis-coordination becomes apparent. Movements are slow and labored, accompanied by a stumbling pace and mild confusion, although the person may appear alert. Surface blood vessels contract further as the body focuses its remaining resources on keeping the vital organs warm. The victim becomes pale. Lips, ears, fingers and toes may become blue. I never hit Stage 2 and I’ll get to why in a moment.
Finally in Stage 3, the body temperature drops below approximately 89.6 °F (32 °C). Shivering usually stops. Difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking, and amnesia start to appear; inability to use hands and stumbling is also usually present. Cellular metabolic processes shut down. Below 86.0 °F (30 °C), the exposed skin becomes blue and puffy, muscle coordination becomes very poor, walking becomes almost impossible, and is typically accompanied by irrational behavior including terminal burrowing (an odd phenomenon where the hypothermia victim burrows into leaves or rock crevices as a protection mechanism). Pulse and respiration rates decrease significantly, but fast heart rates (ventricular tachycardia, atrial fibrillation) can occur. Major organs fail. Clinical death occurs. Because of decreased cellular activity in Stage 3 hypothermia, the body will actually take longer to undergo brain death.
Realizing that my situation was serious, I decided to pull my rain jacket as close to my chest as possible, jam my wet hands in my wet pockets and hike as fast as I possibly could to generate heat. I kept a bit of a forward lean to shield the unzipped area of my rain jacket from falling raindrops. I was practically running down the trail. For the next 45 minutes I hustled as fast as I could and stayed focused on both generating body heat and rewarming my hands. By the time I stopped to zip my jacket I could see Honolulu and Trim up ahead. I pulled my hands out of my wind pants and zipped the zipper with no problem. Dexterity had come back to my fingers.
I caught up to Honolulu and Trim and told them about losing dexterity in my fingers, which they didn’t seem to think was that big of a deal. Little did they know that I was on the verge of having a panic attack.
“I don’t know what you guys are planning to do today, but I’m hiking all the way into Ollalie Lake before six o’clock when their store closes. I’m not camping out in the rain tonight,” I declared.
Looking fairly drenched and low on proper gear and clothes themselves, they both said they were in. It was decided; we were going to attempt to lay down 33 miles in 10 hours in the pouring rain. We were on a mission, and in my mind, the consequence of not succeeding was hypothermia.
I don’t remember a whole lot of the details of the next nine hours or so on the trail. It rained, it poured, it was windy, and foggy and the temperature never got much out of the low 40’s. We were hiking through the spectacularly scenic Mt. Jefferson Wilderness and saw none of it. Honolulu later told me that he could barely keep up with me as I was practically running instead of hiking.
I took two breaks of five minutes each during the day, just long enough to wolf down an energy bar or two, but that was it. Frankly, I was too scared to stop. I assumed that if I stopped for more than five or ten minutes, I’d lose dexterity in my fingers again and shit creek would be my new home. I was absolutely bound and determined to get myself to Ollalie Lake where I knew I’d find salvation in the form of a cabin or yurt for rent. We had heard they had wood-burning stoves. The thought of sitting in front of a warm wood-burning stove wearing dry clothes drinking a piping hot cup of chai was almost too much to handle.
Olallie Lake Resort Store - Northern Oregon
At fifteen minutes before six o’clock, we reached a dirt road with a large wooden sign that pointed the way to Ollalie Lake Resort. Within minutes we slogged inside the camp store to pay for accommodations for the evening. I was in awe that we had covered 33 miles in less than ten hours but that was going to have to wait. We needed to pay for our cabin ASAP and get into dryer clothes.
“How much for a cabin tonight?” I asked the store clerk.
“I’m sorry but we are full. There was a big party here last night and all the cabins and yurts have been booked for the entire weekend,” the clerk told me.
I was completely crushed - completely and utterly crushed. It was still dumping rain and it would be dark in an hour or so. I wanted to tell the guy that I had been borderline hypothermic earlier that day and that I deserved a cabin way more than the party boys from the previous night.
“Do you have any other lodging options that involve a covered roof,” I stammered.
“Not today. Something might open up tomorrow. You are more then welcome to camp in the resort campground across the road,” he replied. “We’ve got free hot chocolate,” he said, trying to lift our spirits as he pointed to a small thermos by the counter.
I poked my head out the door of the store to look over at the campground. It was a dismal affair in a low spot full of puddles and mud. It didn’t have any trees and was completely exposed to the rain. It was bleak. It was grim. And it wasn’t going to work.
I walked back in the store and talked to Honolulu and Trim. They had the same look of rejection and despair on their faces as I was sure that I had on mine. What in the name of all that is holy and good were we going to do? I felt low - really, really low - similar to the day that I found out an old fling I was head over heels for had dumped me like a bag of bricks for a guy that was 10 years younger than me.
Honolulu suggested that we should buy as much hot food as possible before the store closed. He found some microwave burritos and the three of us commenced warming them while sipping on some of the complimentary hot chocolate. I tried to convince myself that tonight would be fine but that thought was fleeting and I went back to anguish rather quickly. We were screwed and it was going to be a cold, wet night in a cold, wet campsite.
At that very moment, “Trainwreck,” “Strut” and “Jupiter” burst through the door of the store. They had arrived the day before and decided to take the day off because the weather was so dour. We had hiked on and off with these three girls since the southern California desert and it was great to see them.
“What are you guys doing?” Trainwreck asked.
“We’re trying to get some food as quickly as possible before the store closes. And then we’re going out in that shitty campsite across the road to set up for the night,” I said with defeat.
“No you’re not. We’ve got a warm, dry cabin with a wood-burning stove and you all are staying with us,” she said matter of factly. I had never gone from such a low point to such a high point in such a short span of time in my entire life. My eyes welled up with tears and I asked her if she was serious. She said yes and to grab our stuff so we could go.
The Wood-Stove Heated Olallie Meadows Cabin - Olallie Lake Resort, OR
I couldn’t believe how our luck had changed in a matter of seconds. I was mentally preparing for one of the worst nights of my life while trying to heat a cheap microwave burrito in hopes that it would provide some scant glimpse of salvation. And it was only moments before the store closed at which time we would be forced back out into the rainy, dreary, hypothermic weather. With the blink of an eye, all that changed. We had been rescued by Trainwreck, Strut and Jupiter. I’ve never been so grateful for someone taking pity on me in my entire life.
I looked back at the store clerk with a brief glance. He had held our fragile state of being in his hands and had told us there was no place to stay with the neutrality of a Swiss banker. He had no idea what we had gone through that day. None. I felt if only he had known, he would have found us a warm, dry place to stay. Likely I was partially delirious to feel that this guy who was pulling down minimum wage at best had the key to the world, but that’s how it seemed during our ten minutes in the store. And now it didn’t matter. We didn’t need this guy any longer. Our fellow hikers had come to save us from the elements. So long, sucker.
Before heading back to their cabin for the night, we found out that they had all been invited over to the staff cabin for a concert of sorts. Apparently one of the staffers had graduated from the Berklee College of Music with a degree in Composition and was an amazing classical guitarist. The staff house was warm and cozy with the smell of a wood-burning stove. Over the next hour, Grant serenaded our crew with a piece that left us all in a trance. It was amazing. I sat there on the floor with ten other thru-hikers in a warm house listening to a free concert while it poured rain outside. Only ten short hours prior, I had been standing in the middle of the trail with the early stages of hypothermia trying to zip a jacket with fingers that would not work. I was in awe of how the day had panned out and so happy that we had been rescued and brought to the staff cabin for a classical guitar performance.
Olallie Lake Resort - Closed for Repair in 2008 - Northern Oregon
After our guitar concerto, we all piled in one of the staffers trucks and he gave us a ride back to our cabin. Somehow yesterday, Trainwreck and Co. were able to score a cabin for rent that was three miles from the main resort. This happened after they had been told everything else was booked for the entire weekend.
The cabin was a rustic, large A-frame roughly 20’ by 15’ with a huge wood-burning stove and loft that contained a couple of bunks. With 12 people in there it got warm fast. From one end to the other there were clotheslines draped with gear and wet rain jackets and pants hung out to dry. “Captain Mike,” another hiker in our crew of 12, took it upon himself to keep the fire going all night. He’d get up every couple of hours or so to add a couple of logs.
The next morning came early as they always do when you’re sleeping in close quarters with a dozen people. The early risers were up and fidgeting around before the day had even dawned. Honolulu, Trim and I hiked out late morning, a bit after everyone else. We were moving slowly. My legs felt like linguine. I guess walking 33 miles in 10 hours with two five-minute breaks was more than the two ibuprofen pills I had taken the night before could handle.
Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area on a Sunny Day - Northern Oregon
I picked up an extra campers poncho at the resort store with the hopes that it would help my lack of legitimate rainproof gear and clothing. We spent the next four days making our way up and around Mt. Hood and down to the town of Cascade Locks along the Columbia River. There a short ride to Portland from my friend Kate gave us quick access to every outfitter and gear store under the sun. I probably overdid it with my purchases, not ever wanting to head down that sad, soggy road to hypothermia again. My pack was a bit heavier with an assortment of raingear for that final month on the trail, but I didn’t care. It rained three out of every four days for the rest of the hike and I never again found myself too cold to zip a jacket.
Our Three Shelters Under Dryer Circumstances - Near Pacific Crest Trail