A Wall in a Winter Storm


Even though I was camped deep down in the Morales River valley, the leading edge of a fierce Northern California winter storm delivered violent, bucking and tugging winds, stress testing my usually sturdy tent.

I'm a gifted sleeper, and slept through most of this, but at 4:50am I thought I dreamed that a big wind gust had ripped something loose on the hillside above me and dropped it down on my tent because my head was pinned to the tent floor. Except it wasn't a dream. I was awake, it was dark, and my head was pinned to the tent floor. I didn't notice any pain, but I did wonder what was on top of me. It was too light for a tree branch and I was camped purposefully away from trees anyway, so maybe it was a large tumbleweed weaponized by the wind.

When I pushed up with my right arm, the tent poles sprung back into position bent but not bad. A powerful wind gust had aligned at just the right angle to jerk the upwind tent stake out of the mud, collapsing the tent to onto me like a clam.

Stasis restored, at dawn I packed up my wet, muddy mess and moved on. This was my welcome to California's "The Wall" in a Winter Storm.

I wasn't expecting these challenges and I was tired. My research for this section hike of the California coastline focused on the risks inherent in the Lost Coast area – which I’d just finished the day before. Based on my research of maps and local information, I thought I had a lovely stroll through rolling pastures ahead. My goal was Ferndale, a Victorian style village a few miles inland, then onward to Eureka for a few bus trips back to my new home in Poulsbo Washington. What a break this would be from the strenuous and sometimes treacherous eighty miles I had just hiked from Ft Bragg, or so I thought. But my intel was wrong and with the weather changing into a full-bore winter storm, my fortunes were changing for the worse.

After the fact I would learn that I now faced twenty or so miles of what the locals call "The Wall". This is a ridiculously steep up and down rural road, with 20% grades (meaning you're up on your toes) climbing 1,500 ft, (equal to a 130-story building), which is only the start of the "Wild-Cat Road" suffer-fest up of 3,500 ft elevation gain over the twenty miles to Ferndale. It’s a route so punishing local cyclists avoid it. But of course, I learned that too late. 

At dawn I started the day climbing out of the valley, hiking through saddles and back down to the next river valley, and again, and again. Fortunately, there was very little car traffic to deal with because as the wind gusted, I was just like the meteorologist newbies they send out into the hurricane to demonstrate the power of the wind.

On the ridges it violently blasted the hillside, tossing me around at will. I staggered like a drunk sailor on a wind tossed sea. It ripped the rain cover off my backpack, and the wind was either in my face causing me to lean in at an angle, or, broadsiding me from the right. It was raining so hard it stung my cheeks through the side panel of my raincoat hood.

The good news was I was staying warm while climbing the hills and fighting the wind. The bad news was the sweat I generated inside my raingear made going downhill chilly, then cold. Hypothermia was a very real threat under these conditions.

I hadn't budgeted for hotel room stays during this trip, but it was crytstal clear I needed one very soon. Thankfully I had a Christmas gift card from my amazing in laws in my wallet. So my backup plan was to keep moving and stay warm until reaching that very warm and dry motel room in Ferndale. I didn't have a reservation at the lovely little motel I had in mind, but it was off season and I figured I had an excellent chance there was a vacancy. 

My backup backup was to flag down a car that would be passing by on the way to Ferndale and take pity on a near hypothermic hiker. So far no one driving by had shown interest, but I wasn't above standing in the middle of the road.

Happily, my ego was kept intact. I made it to Ferndale and the Francis Creek Inn. It took a full 20 hours at a thermostat of 88 degrees + electric space heater + the timed heater in the bathroom + unlimited free coffee to get me and my gear warm + dry enough to set out again the next day.