First, go on a long trip to the crest of the Washington Cascades. The more modes of transportation the better–in this case truck, muleback and foot. Check the weather forecast and take everything you’ll need. Wave goodbye to the packstring as they head back down the valley after they’ve dropped your gear in a subalpine meadow. Set up camp. Scout the work you’ll be doing. Watch the approaching low pressure system suck clouds from the east to the west. Listen to the updated forecast for the next day: abundant lightning, heavy rain and a flash flood warning, gusty winds. Perhaps a bit overwrought?
Next, notice the heavy overcast the next day when you poke your head out of the tent. Pull on rain gear, check knots holding the tarp over your tent and gear. The thunder starts during the hike to the worksite. No lightning, just noise. It’s hard to tell the direction as the sound echoes around the mountain peaks. We think it’s well to the west of us. Proceed with trail project as a few sprinkles of rain patter down. Things go pretty well till the next storm cell rolls over. Now there is flashing in the clouds. Dang. Hunker down till it moves off, continue project. As the thunder ends the rain begins, pelting down in biblical proportions. Throw some rocks off the trail, call lunch. The rain slackens. A wall of mist billows up the valley, silvery gray and too dense to see through. All the colors are rain-saturated: deep jewel green of the lush grasses and wildflowers growing on the steep sides of the glacial valley; flame-orange of indian paintbrush and columbines, purple-blue of lupines; dark brooding green of mountain hemlocks spiking the ridgetops. The trail is a churned-up stew of mud and broken rock. We wallow in soggy rain pants and soaked boots, telling stories as we put the trail back together. There is laughing, consulting, sharing of sweet hard candy from my pack. By the time we finish with high-fives all around, the sky has opened up again and cold gusts blast through the stiff hemlock limbs. Back to camp for some serious hunkering. There is nothing productive to do except live through it.
You can survive being wet, but being wet and cold will kill you. Under the shelter of my tarp, I stripped off rain coat and pants, removed boots then crawled into the tent. Changed out of wet clothes into dry woolen long underwear and socks. Pulled on a puffy down jacket and warm hat. Sat up in my sleeping bag and made hot tea. Rooted in my bag for the paperback I’d stashed. Read Journey Across Tibet by Sorrel Wilby while rain thrummed on nylon and dripped in a silver stream at the corner of the tarp. The evening gloom closed in early and I boiled water for my freeze-dried dinner. I slept undisturbed, listening to the headwaters of the Little Wenatchee River roar through a narrow gorge below me.
After locating my glasses in a tangle of clothing, my first sight out the tent door was of an encroaching puddle. I scooched further to the other side of the tent. It was still raining steadily. My bladder forced a quick trip outside but soon I was back boiling water for tea, which I drank sitting up in the sleeping bag. Eventually the crew emerged from tents to pack up. Back into yesterday’s wet clothes and boots, yuck. Wrapped wet bags into wet canvas manties tied with wet ropes for the wet mules. Waited for the packstring to come up the trail so we could load them. Hours later we were at the trailhead. I climbed out of the saddle and stood on the ground looking at the knots holding my bag. My fingers were stiff and unwilling, somehow too stupid to figure out what to do. There was a deep shivering in my core and I knew I was at the edge of hypothermia. As soon as the packs were off the animals, I found my camp stove and boiled water for tea and ate the rest of my lunch. Changed into dry clothes. Felt 90% better, and able to make the long drive back home. It was incredible to be out of the rain.
The storm has passed now, and sun has returned to the mountains. I am still cleaning and drying my gear–everything was completely soaked. And dirty.
Mountain weather is sharp and changeable. Hypothermia conditions are possible any month of the year. To be prepared, I carry an extra layer of clothing including wool hat and gloves. There is a space blanket in my pack, a firestarter, and emergency high-calorie food. The best thing to do is keep moving when it’s wet. Avoid heavy sweating and subsequent cooling. Eat and drink. If shivering and cognitive difficulties arise, it’s time to abandon whatever mission you’re on and focus on getting warm.
Hot weather is supposed to return next week. I will have the recent memory of being cold to keep it all in perspective.