From PCT Trailsidereader’s Website
“Every man in the mountain was heading there now, treading in solemn silence to pay their last respects.”
The Key: A Novel by Simon Toyne, 2012
By Dave Baugher
“Err, Dave – Do you really want to setup up your tent in that location?” questioned my son-in-law Patrick, as we organized camp after a long day of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Immediately looking up, positioned right over my preferred campsite for the night, was a fallen tree wedged between two others in a precarious tripod arrangement. The top of the fallen tree protruded near fifteen feet directly over the bare spot of dirt where my tent’s footprint lay on the ground. Solemn silence – Ever get a funny sensation along your backside?
“Guess not,” I quietly replied, sitting down on a rock to contemplate, then subsequently finding a much more excellent location for my tent. Even better than expected because I discovered a nice patch of king boletes concealed under a fern bank adjoining my tent site. A delightful addition to our dinner that evening.
Not just 20 minutes later, another group came into the campsite along Trout Creek in southern Washington. One couple checked out that very same location, and there was that moment of silence as they, too, looked up at the tree. It’s funny; those peculiar feelings sometimes felt by us mere mortals.
We broke camp the following morning and crossed a bridge over Trout Creek. Finn Bastian, a.k.a. “Colors” 2019, was permanently inscribed on a grey, rectangular memorial, planted alongside the Pacific Crest Trail past the Trout Creek bridge. Later we would discover the tragic story about the young German who died after a tree fell on him while hiking the PCT in Washington.
That incident really got me wondering about other solemn moments I had experienced over the past years of mythically (I consider myself mythically hiking … that is Multi-Year thru-Hiker or MYTH) hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. Could different “funny feelings” be linked to events beyond my present moment of consciousness? Be it widow makers, raging streams, snowstorms, or wild animal attacks. My research commenced during the snowy winter months of 2022.
Looking over past hiking seasons and scouring my journals, I did indeed find a couple of instances of revelation or premonition leading to a solemn moment during my past years along the Pacific Crest Trail. Let me share some of these occasions with you.
Mythically hiking in 2017 along the PCT section from Tuolumne Meadows to Carson Pass during 2017, I found spring snowmelt dampening everything. Every creek, stream, and river ran full, fast, and furious. However, I felt confident in dealing with the cold, spring snowmelt because I had hiked the Lost Coast Trail earlier that spring and was armed with intimate knowledge about traversing the multiple water crossings. The trick was to have fast-draining shoes and not bother to take them off, and that was going to be my plan for my spring PCT hike.
After being dropped off at the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead on my first day, I approached a swollen Delaney Creek. Sitting on the opposite bank, a family who had just crossed were putting back on their shoes. Mom spied me coming up the trail and exclaimed to the group, “Here comes a real hiker; let’s see how he crosses the creek!” Smiling to the group, I did not break stride and entered the water and crossed. “That’s how you do it!” I said with a smile and slogged onwards along the trail.
My feet were continuously wet that entire trip. Water was everywhere, and whole sections of the trail were entirely submerged by moving snowmelt. Sheets of water poured across the hillsides, into the creeks and drainages. This was an exciting time, “perhaps a bit too much excitement,” I thought, crossing another churning stream.
“This looks pretty dangerous,” I thought, eying another stretch of churning water. Hmmm, “actually, this would be a perfect spot to take a break,” I told myself, observing the water. The pack came off; I grabbed a snack and found a suitable rock overlooking the churning waters of Rancheria Creek in Kerrick Canyon.
Hesitant? Yeah, I guess. I thought as I placed my sweaty hat on a rock and stared into the water for a time. Wandering from my pack, looking for a suitable spot to cross, I dilly-dallied in that area for longer than my usual snack stops. “Why was I vacillating?” I thought. The crossing choice was tough, but I eventually committed to a crossing location. However, not before I had to return for the forgotten hat. I guess I really did not want to enter that water. The crossing of Rancheria Creek went just fine.
Later, I discovered that another PCT hiker had unfortunately made the wrong choice, losing her life in Kerrick Canyon. Wang Chaocui, 27, also known as “Tree,” was last seen by other hikers on July 17. Her body was recovered from the river about a half-mile downstream from the same trail crossing.
July 3 was the day I vacillated on the bank of the creek; was my reluctance to cross a foreboding event, my consciousness telling me that this spot had terrible energy? Or was I simply tired of the cold and forgot my hat? I don’t know, but I often think about that afternoon.
I’ve recrossed Rancheria Creek several times since that faithful spring day while hiking to other areas of Northern Yosemite. Every time I pause and look at the water – another silent moment.
Back to reviewing my journals, I found another experience to share. It was my second year of mythical hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015. That year, I was joined by my son, Jacob, and hiking friend Ed. We started in April, just outside Idyllwild, and the trail climbed straight up into higher elevations. The day found us floundering in thigh-deep snow near the Tahquitz Peak Fire Tower. Attempting to get to the dry ground just a mile away along a sun-drenched, snow-free ridge, it was a tough day. We finally made that ridge and later made Strawberry Trail Camp for the night. Snow was everywhere, with only small patches of dry ground to set up our tents.
The next day we paused mid-morning and discussed attempting to summit San Jacinto Peak. The snowbanks were firm; however, we knew hiking to the higher elevations would be challenging. Agreeing to limit our summit attempt to two hours, we stashed our packs then headed upwards.
Well, we did not make it to the top that afternoon. The snow deepened, and we floundered once again. Eventually, returning to our packs within the allotted time. That attempt and our decision to turn back after fighting time-burning snowbanks were another one of those moments for contemplation. Later that night, camped at Fuller Ridge and talking about the day, one of us remarked, “Boy, somebody could really get in trouble in these hills.” Solemn silence engulfed the blackness around our meager campfire as we sipped our hot chocolate.
It turns out that many hikers have gotten into terrible trouble on the flanks of Mount San Jacinto. Trevor Lahar (22) slipped and fell to his death on snow-covered ice near Apache Peak outside Idyllwild, CA. John Donovan (54) also got into fatal trouble in the San Jacinto area in 2005.
John was hiking the PCT in May 2005. A blizzard dropped eight inches of snow that day, and John got trapped on the mountain. Through a series of tragic decisions, Donovan froze to death in his sleeping bag on the westside of Mount San Jacinto. His journal chronicled his last days; in the final entry, he scribbled: “Good-bye to you all.” Solemn silence.
Stories like this always give me moments of reflection, taking me back to when I’ve hiked along the PCT through these areas where tragedies happened. Here is another experience I would like to share with you.
In the summer of 2017, I was hiking northwards in Northern California along the PCT. Mount Etna loomed in the distance on the horizon, and the trail began a gradual grade toward the summit. The topographic map indicated that the path would skirt the mountain’s northern flank. Dirty ivory-colored patches of snow could be viewed where the trail was heading, and it was not long before the gray snow began to appear alongside, abutting the trail and impeding my progress. Soon the snow engulfed the track, and my forward progress was stopped. I had a decision to make, Upslope or downslope? Eying the treacherous topography, it was tough to decide which direction was less challenging. However, the upslope provided a less steep and clear pathway parallel to the PCT.
Firm snow provided secure footing in that late afternoon shade and granted me safe passage. After a quarter mile or so, I could see the snow-free PCT trail-breaking open from a snowbank, and it was safe to make my way back downwards to the dry path below. Side-steeping carefully around a fallen snag, an unseen, grey bone-like limb reached out and snagged the jacket hanging off the back of my pack, abruptly stopping me on the cold, slippery snow. Gently moving my shoulders back and forth, shifting my loaded backpack forwards and back, the limb would not release the unrelenting grip on my jacket.
I removed my pack with a sigh, carefully keeping a firm purchase in the cold, slippery slope. It came off my stiff body, looped around my right shoulder, and I gently laid it on the snow.
A strange pall fell about the mountainside, and all was quiet. The sun was well into its long western slide, and feeling abruptly uneasy, I freed my jacket from the dead tree limb. I slung my backpack back up onto my shoulders. Right then, something caught my eye, movement? Color? Here, off the trail on the side of Mt. Etna? I turned uphill to see what had caught my attention.
A solitary hiker was coming down through the trees from the summit, walking towards me with an impassive, glazed stare, looking right thru me. This guy was framed in the evening light walking towards me, and there, hanging in his right hand, was a pistol. His hair was dirty, long, and disheveled. Face blank, unshaved, grimy, and emotionless. A filthy, once-white tee shirt covered the skeletal body, and he wore a pair of 1970’s era gym shorts. On his feet were old tennis shoes that crunched through the snow.
My eyes widened as I spied the closed breech of the weapon. Looking into his eyes, I simply said: “Hey, you aren’t going to do something stupid with that, are you?” The stranger mumbled unintelligibly without breaking stride, passing me like a cool breeze, and continued downhill. Skirting the snowbank below, he ambled straight down the hillside across the PCT. He disappeared into the trees without a slip or word spoken. Silence.
Eerie experience? You bet! I never saw that guy again as I made my way down the mountain to Highway 12, a few miles below. Even as I approached the trailhead parking lot, no cars drove off, and nobody was around. “Ghost?” or somebody taking care of a marijuana plot?“ That question has crossed my mind enough times that I’ve researched deaths in the general area of Mount Etna. Nothing. Hmmm… Another solemn moment.
John Donovan’s story is told in more detail in The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: California. In an ironic twist, John death may have saved the lives of two other lost hikers. And Trevor Lahar’s father wrote a heart-wrenching account of Trevor’s death and life that is included in the forthcoming anthology, Crossing Paths: A Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, that will be available later this spring. So often I have found myself thinking … there, but for the grace of god, go I … as I have passed one of these solemn and sacred places.