The wind came first. Standing atop a rocky ridge, a saddle between me and Taquitz Peak, Idlewyld three thousand feet below me, a breeze began. A volunteer ranger I ran into during my solo backpacking trip had recommended this spot as a good place to camp. The weather was supposed to be good. She was the second ranger to have told me that. The weather report had said the same thing. Clear skies and warm weather until Monday when partly cloudy skies were expected midafternoon. But here it was. A breeze. A breeze on a ridge at midday can turn into much more come midevening. It didn’t seem too solid a place to camp anymore and so I left and wandered the meadows for another two hours until I came back to the same place I camped the night before.
Like I said, the wind came first. I don’t know if you’ve ever camped or backpacked solo in a valley or a forest or near a summit when the wind comes in but it’s an eery thing. You hear it roll over the mountain tops and slide down into the valley, rolling like an avalanche or a throttling engine. You hear it coming and you can see it hit the treetops above you. The trees don’t sway but bend, sort of like a tired boxer hanging over the ropes. Your brain tells you the hit is coming. That any moment a fat breeze is going to strike. But it doesn’t come. Not often enough at least. Once an hour the wind will cut its way through the low trees and knock you on your side and your supplies ten feet away.
The night before I had slept outside a couple feet away from my fire. I kept it going for as long as I could. It’s amazing how warm that can keep you even out under the stars. I didn’t have that sort of luck this evening. With the wind I had to let the fire die out and so I was left huddled in my sleeping back cold and tired but unable to sleep.
It was four in the morning when I peeked my head out from my sleeping bag and saw that the stars had gone. The wind had blown in clouds that I could see running past the treetops and even over the ground. A drop of rain hit my face. It wasn’t big and there weren’t a lot of them, but I didn’t have a tent and it was enough to make me concerned.
I’ve been wanting to perfect the lean-to, which is basically a way to give yourself one wall. In the wilderness one wall is often enough. It can keep the rain off you, or the sun if it’s midday and you’re in the desert. It requires good material, a little bit of nylon and one or two good knots. I had the material and the nylon but I didn’t have the knots or the practice and I wasn’t about to start trying in the middle of the night with the wind and the rain on me. Maybe it would have been a good idea. I wrapped myself up in the tarp, took all my supplies underneath with me. It would all stop at sun up, it would all stop at sun up. That’s what I told myself.
The wind only got worse. The drops came down steadily for an hour though it never rained too hard. The sun finally came up but with it the wind blew harder. I could barely keep the tarp on top of me. The drops of rain became sleet and the ground gathered crystals of ice and the clouds blew so fast it felt like a fan was blowing mist at my face. With the sun up I’d had enough. I threw on my boots but could barely tighten the laces my hands were so cold. I stuffed everything in my pack regardless of how it fit. I had on my gloves, my long johns, two long sleeve shirts, a jacket, a beanie, and I wrapped a towel around my face to protect me from the wind. When I tried to sip some water I found the entire bladder had frozen over.
I’ve always heard that a common thread among survival situations is that five small mistakes lead to the big one. You don’t just randomly fall off a mountain and die. You don’t sleep much the night before. You bring boots that aren’t broken in. You don’t know the area. You don’t tell anyone where you are going. Or better yet, you DO tell people where you are going and then you go someplace else. You don’t bring enough water. Basically all of these combine and you’re fucked. This situation certainly was not that. From my camp I was only six miles from my car, most of that downhill. Everyone knew where I was. It was never going to get THAT cold, despite how windy it was getting. I had plenty of food. Nevertheless, it was an interesting scenario, and though I hate hate hate having to get up in a situation like that (after essentially not sleeping), it ended up being absolutely fun. If I had wanted to or needed to I could have just as easily curled up next to a tree, covered myself and waited it out. That wouldn’t have been very fun though. All I really learned is that I need to master how to fix a lean-to.
© 2013 Christopher Dart