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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Group Oog!

So this is a bit belated (HA! Considering the uber-belatedness of the Eurafrosia posts... oops), but for this year's Outdoor pre-Orientation trip we headed to the San Jacintos! A nice wilderness area, though perhaps not at its peak of pleasantness this time of year, as we found out... the hard way, unfortunately.

I got the dubious privilege of driving the rations-laden U-Haul down from Claremont to Palm Springs and up the mountain. It was actually pretty fun to drive, since I got to learn how to drive a big truck (not my hobby of choice, usually), and I was allowed to demand that other people get out, shuffle around, and wave their arms in amusing ways to help me park, back up, unpark, and make 3-point turns on narrow, rocky unpaved "roads" during our forays of the lostness variety on the way up. Camille was my 2nd in Command, and she and I seriously toyed with the idea of calling up Becky in the other van and just running off with the vehicles to Vegas or Sequoia. After all, we had all the food we'd need, right?

In any case, we were given hurried driving directions no less than 2 minutes before departure, and no gas money, and passel of boxed lunches that a particular student coordinator had neglected to take along on the student bus. This was merely the beginning of the program's organizational woes.

It turned out that we weren't even supposed to meet up with the other vehicles in the place listed on our driving directions, which partly explained how lost Camille and I got, though we did eventually find them. Our base camp was then about an hour's drive away, over even rockier unpaved roads, and the campers had to be shuttled in by the only two or three people authorized to drive Scripps' vans, a grueling process that took something like six hours, and left the drivers literally prostrate with motion sickness.

Claire and I sorted all the camping food so the backpacking groups would be able to take all us when we left, and discovered that we had ridiculous amounts of TVP, which, for those of you who are gourmetly unenlightened, is basically granulated soy jerky. Except it rehydrates. It doesn't taste like much, and is a lightweight, nutritive additive to camping food. This factors in later. Claire and I unpacked something like 35 one-pound cartons of the stuff from the U-Haul, which was stunning, considering about half a pound will be more than enough for one meal for a group of 10 girls, even ones who are backpacking. This is even more stunning considering each group was planned out to have no more than three meals with TVP, and all totalled, we certainly had no more than 75 people camping with us.

Nonetheless, the food was painstakingly sorted, portioned, repackaged, and laid out for the backpacking groups to distribute in the morning. The Base Camp food Claire and I left alone, since we didn't know what meals had been planned for base camp.

The next morning we set out (my group was the earliest with a 6:30am departure), refreshed and ready for some wilderness lovin'. The going was tough, considering we were already at 7000ft elevation with only one night to adjust, and we were set to gain about 3000 more feet before the end of the hiking day. The terrain wasn't too bad, but the weight combined with the elevation, combined with the fact that simply living in Cairo for the last six months has been the equivalent of me converting into a sedentary, fast food junkie smoker, meant it was slow going.

Our girls had been given a woefully inadequate camping gear list (which didn't even include rain gear!! aaghh!), and so were all supplied with a mere two nalgenes, which would at minimum have to be refilled twice a day. We kept an eye out for water along the trail as we hiked up, as we'd been promised that the trail passed any number of small but perfectly acceptable creeks and springs. The first "creek" drainage we passed had a damp patch, and the second had a fetid puddle, but we were confident that this small increase in water would continue well enough that we would be able to get more water soon. We'd plotted out (based on the compass-string method taught to us by Shannon) the distance we'd travelled on our map, and estimated that based on the distance given us of 5.3 miles for our first day of hiking that the place we ought to stop for lunch was a trail junction about 2.5 miles up the trail. We found no water along the way, so when we finally stopped for lunch we desperately began asking all the hikers we saw whether they'd seen any water sources along any of the trails that converged at the junction.

We finally found a pair who told us they'd passed a small but flowing creek about a half mile down Skunk Cabbage Meadow trail, the opposite direction of where we were supposed to be heading. It was our only lead, however, so we scooped up my sexy, sexy MSR filter and all our empty bottles and headed down the trail. This detour meant we had to take a 2-3 hour long lunch break. We got a late start back on the trail in the afternoon, and started gaining elevation fast. It was a grueling hike, and when we finally took a break for our afternoon snack, we calculated that we'd gone nearly 5 miles, not counting the extra mile detour we'd done before for water. We were again nearly out of water with not even a fetid puddle along the way to encourage us.

It was at this point we met the Crazy Man, who wore camo and carried a small pack with lots of dangling, empty water bottles. He leapt at us from behind a boulder (note: off the trail), stomped over to the trail, and disorientedly asked us where he was, where we were, where the water was, and where was the trail? Well, I already had the map out, so I brought it over to him to show him where we thought we were on the map. He seemed unable to make the connection between me pointing at the map and saying "so, we're here" and the actual trail under his feet, so we eventually just told him to go downhill.

We picked up our gear and headed off again. Not fifteen minutes later we encountered another group of hikers who were headed back down the trail. By this time it was pushing 6pm, but we were convinced that we had no more than a mile left, and that though we'd be setting up camp in the dark, we'd best just push onward. The hikers seemed surprised that we were still packing so late in the day, and asked us where we were headed. We told them which campground we were aiming for, and they just laughed. Confusedly, we asked them what was so funny, and were informed that we in fact had something like three miles ahead of us before we reached the camp. This sounded outrageous! We were told we had a hike of no more than 5.3miles, and we had certainly gone nearly that far. One of the hikers busted out his (much nicer... with actual mileage marked on the trail) map and showed us. The hike we'd had laid out for us was actually closer to 8 miles than 5.3. He told us also where the nearest water source was, wished us luck, and continued on.

Well, this was certainly a wrench in the gears. We made it a little bit farther up the trail before I decided that three miles was simply not walkable before it got too dark to be safe for packing. We were on a ridge at this point, so there was relatively flat ground, so we decided to just guerrilla camp right where we were for that night, and just get to the campground the next day. This would require some small itinerary changes, but no big deal, right? Illegal camping or not, it just wasn't safe for us to continue, so there we were.

We set up camp and Camille took a few of the girls and headed farther up the trail sans packs to get water. I set a few of the remaining girls to preparing the kitchen to cook dinner and bouldered up to the nearest high point to see if I could get signal for one of our emergency cell phones to report the glitch we'd had, and to ask for some logistical support, as if we had a much longer hike than promised, we weren't sure if we could stick to the weeklong schedule they'd given us and get back in time to be picked up and driven the hour or so back to base camp. The signal wasn't the greatest, and my phone nearly died after just searching for what signal it did get, but it only cut out a few times... I thought. I climbed back down the mountain to reach the girls, only to find them anxiously asking whether it would be all right for them to make a hot water nalgene for Nora. I wasn't really sure, first of all, why they thought they needed permission to do such a thing, and second of all, why Nora would want one NOW. I told them it was fine, though, and was about to get down to the business of headlamps and dinner when they all started chipperly joking about how silly the situation was now that Nora couldn't walk, and they had to help her put on her warm pants.


Nora COULDN'T WALK? This is problem. How and when had this happened? Nora explained that she'd been born with dislocated hips, and that to this day, they were easily dislocatable. Well, it certainly hadn't said anything about this on her medical form, but here we were, and here she was, not walking, and we would just have to deal with it. We fed Nora and sent her off to bed with a hot nalgene. She didn't seem particularly distressed with this state of affairs, so it didn't seem like a medical emergency... though, obviously, how do you get off a mountain if you can't walk?

By this point, Camille and her bunch had returned, and I borrowed Camille's phone for the necessary second emergency call of the night. By now it was completely dark, and Camille was afraid of heights and... most things, so I nabbed my (borrowed) headlamp and set off bouldering again. Bouldering in the dark is actually fairly awesome, I've discovered, but officially I'm not allowed to say this because it's not safe.

I put in a call saying that we had no medical emergencies, but that since Nora was having hip problems from the strain of carrying a pack and because the trails were longer than reported and there was little to no water, we would be heading back down to the trail junction the next day (where we at least knew we could find water) and would just STAY there until somebody came to get us.

There was much drama with the critter hang that night, but otherwise all went smoothly, considering. The girls were actually almost shockingly cheerful given our state of affairs, an attitude for which I am eternally grateful.

The next day we packed up and distributed the bulk of Nora's gear between the rest of us and headed down off the mountain. Nora was walking fine by morning, but why risk it? Everyone was pretty damn happy to leave, even me, and ended up singing songs from more musicals than I've even heard of to serenade us on the way down. We made incredible time, and spent the rest of the day plopped on a big rock at the junction, holding group readings of Frankenstein, feeding and spoiling some of the trail horses and dogs that came by, and just lazing about in the sun, which was probably the nicest part, after my hectic summer.

We waited all day, and finally set up our guerrilla camp for the second night, this time in a much flatter spot, though with at least as much critter hang drama as before. We woke up early the next morning and set about preparing for our second day of waiting and lazing in the sun... which may have not been so sunny, as a storm was definitely portending for that day or the next, and the girls were rather less than enthusiastic about Lightning Drill.

It was early afternoon when a baseball capped man with a pair of dogs came into the junction clearing and with a look of dire seriousness approached us and told us that there was someone farther down the trail who was coming up, looking for a group of 10 women. We burst out in cheers at having finally been "rescued" and gathered up our gear. Not five minutes later, Shannon burst into the clearing, relieved to have found us, as, apparently, the first two messages I'd left had come through at their end as little more than static with a few syllables thrown in, and the second set (after I'd found out about Nora's injury) had cut off before the part where I'd mentioned where we were headed and when. We happily headed back to base camp, only to find it in the quietest chaos I've ever seen.

It turned out that due to bad planning there was simply not enough food for the base campers, and the bad attitude and ill temper of the head student coordinator had led the campers to seek refuge in either sunbathing far away from camp for most of the day, or in making friendship bracelets for about five hours at a stretch.

Our increasingly appalled Group Oog (named for Nora's squatting around the whisperlite and grunting "Oog want food! Oog want food now!") set up camp and set about our own camperly duties. One of the things the base campers complained to us about was the fact that what food there was made them really sick. It turned out that said coordinator hadn't bothered to read the TVP instructions about the necessity of proper rehydration before consumption, and had decided that since they had tons of the stuff and "Didn't need to stretch it that far," it was fine to simply pour a cup of water on it and serve, rather than allowing it to rehydrate to its full doubling-of-volume.

Essentially, Group Oog fended for ourselves, and we were much happier for it. We found out later that one of the other groups had found a pair of camo pants on the trail, downhill from where we met Crazy Man. Crazy Man had some interesting ideas, that's for sure.

We ended up having a great time, playing tent catch, cards, and 10 fingers, though we felt bad for the base campers. I wouldn't recommend the San Jacintos in August though. Beautiful otherwise.