Twig Adventures

PCBCRT Day 56: Hut to Ski Lodge to Hut

Sunday, Sep 3rd, 2023, 0630-1850
Peter Grubb Hut to Benson Hut
13 miles, Gain 2310′, Loss 1880′, elevation 8240′

It was incredible that last Wednesday’s forecast called for a 50% chance of rain only on Friday. When I checked the forecast again on Friday in Sierra City, it then said 3 straight days of rain. Well, at least they got that part right. This was the same crazy system that soaked all the people at Burning Man, stranding them for days in the desert. It also caused major flooding in other parts of California. It rained again most of the night, but not as strong as the night before. Still, it was so wonderful to have a roof over my head. As I learned in New Zealand and on the Appalachian Trail, it’s a lot easier to walk all day in the rain when you can count on drying out in a shelter or hut.

A mouse visited me several times in the loft, but I wisely set up a perimeter of crinkly plastic to warn of any advances. I knew to expect them and took all precautions. Otherwise, it was a very quiet night. I left the hut cleaner than I found it and set off into the cold wet. I enjoyed decent conditions over Castle Pass and down to I-80. It was chilly but no wind and rain. I used the rest stop toilets, then crossed underneath the interstate through the tunnels. Emerging south, I called my partner to ask questions about the weather. The radar showed it clearing somewhat, but I must have inadvertently summoned more rain instead. It started pouring, all the way to Donner Pass. The trail passed through granite boulders and walls in this section, so water was pouring off the rocks everywhere. A stream gushed down the trail, just as if I was walking in a creek bed. There was so much water.

It was an easy decision to turn down the road towards Donner Ski Ranch, a lodge and restaurant. As the rain came down hard for hours more, it was even easier to stay through breakfast and lunch. I treated myself to eggs Benedict and a huge calzone, figuring that I’d saved money by not getting a hotel room during the storm (none seemed to be available), might as well spend my savings on food. I needed the calories to be sure. The cold and more than 1000 miles of hiking this trip had taken their toll (I passed 1000 miles around Sierra City). The ski lodge welcomed hikers and even had a special lounge for us to hang out, complete with a hiker box and nearby bathrooms. Halfway through the day, they even let us make a fire. This only made it harder to leave. This was also the place that gave PCT hikers a free 40 ounce malt beer. A PCT permit was needed for proof and as I had none, no beer for me. I didn’t stop in 2018 when I did have a permit, and didn’t figure I could convince them to give me a rain check. Oh well, I’d take a warm dry spot over a beer this day!

There were already about 7 hikers present when I arrived around 9 am. Many more filtered in throughout the day, maybe as many as 15 to 20. Some had stayed the night at the lodge, Truckee, or camped nearby. Others had hitched in. I was happy to bump into Rascal and Ripper again, the couple I met in Castella. After I’d taken 5 days off for Trail Days, I didn’t figure I’d see them again.

Word spread that there was another Sierra Club hut 5 miles south along the trail. Many hikers were planning to go there for the night, since once again, accommodations in town seemed overly pricey and outright booked. The ski lodge supposedly had $40 bunks for hikers, but I watched as many people inquired and all were told no, they had no more room. This had been the story for days, apparently. Oddly, a few hikers that had stayed the previous night said there were many extra unfilled bunks. All we could guess is that they were having staffing issues and couldn’t keep up with cleaning the bunk rooms. It was also a holiday weekend, so I felt sorry for the staff having to handle such an influx. Everyone that had plans outside had instead ended up inside, ordering lots of food.

The hiker hangout lounge

I finally peeled myself away from the refuge at 5 pm. If I couldn’t find a room for the night, a room for the day was almost as good. This day had the heaviest and most consistent rain of the 3, so I was very glad for my timing. The radar finally showed that the worst had passed and it was supposed to start clearing. Yeah right, I’d been tricked by that before. I began the switchbacks up to the ridge, noting how cold it was…42 degrees. I knew how incredibly exposed the trail was in this section, as I vividly recalled nearly being blown away by the horrendous winds that had sprung up that day in 2018. A trail angel at Donner Pass had read me the forecast…the first cold front of the summer was moving through and overnight temps would plummet into the 30’s. This was the first slap in the face that fall was really coming and I needed to bust my ass to get through the Sierra. I found it interesting that I was more than a week earlier this time around, yet still dealing with the same first cold of the season, this time with lots of rain.

The ridges were just a raw as I imagined them to be. The wind blew, but perhaps not as fierce as I recalled. Clouds swirled and drops of rain from the trees came down. I caught up to Rascal and Ripper and they said they were heading for the hut. I still hoped to camp somewhere, but looking at my map, there was only one nearby site that seemed pretty high and exposed. Better sites were several hours away. It would be dark by the time I reached them and tonight was not a night for walking late. For some reason, I didn’t feel like I deserved a spot in the hut, when all these other hikers were vying for spots. Then I realized that was a stupid thought. I should go for it, so I did.

In the last mile, the sun finally began to break through the ominous clouds. It felt like a miracle, as it always does after days of rain. I couldn’t get over the color and vibrancy of the light on the ridge, it was so surreal. The valley began to clear and the mountains emerged in the distance. I felt like I was so high up, a tiny mountaineer in the Himalayas. I was lucky to experience this scene, as though all the suffering in the cold and wet was worth it for this one moment.

There were 7 hikers already at the hut and 4 more of us arrived to make 11. But there was just enough room between the loft and the downstairs bunks to fit everyone. I grabbed a space in the corner next to the stove’s chimney pipe, just big enough for a single person. I didn’t feel guilty about claiming a spot after I noted 2 women that I’d last seen in Sierra City. I couldn’t imagine how they’d gotten ahead of me, since I’d walked 2 fairly fast and full days (aside from my break at Donner Pass) to get here. They had of course hitched from Sierra City to Donner Pass for the sole reason of staying in the hut. I’d put in my time walking through the rain for 3 days straight, so figured I had just as much a claim to a spot.

The upside of a lot of people in a small space was that it warmed up quickly. I went outside to pee just before bed and it was so bitterly cold. I was so pleased to have another night under cover and this time with lots of company. It became so quiet by 9 pm, there was no doubt I was surrounded by tired and serious thru-hikers. Everyone was focused on getting through the Sierra, the biggest challenge of the PCT this year. I felt the nervous energy (I had lived it) and was glad I could take it easier.

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