Frying Pan

ATT04587

The infamous Hat Creek Rim is one of the hardest parts of the PCT.  Not for the ups and downs, for there are few, but for the heat. In mid-summer, when most hikers pass through, temperatures routinely hit 100 degrees. And for much of it, there’s scarcely a tree in sight.

For all its fearsome reputation, though, the Rim is among the most striking (and enjoyable) stretches of the entire trail. For mile after mile, it traces the lip of a sharp escarpment – forest to the east, thin air to the west. The views are among the best between the Sierras and the northern mountains of Washington.

We begin at dawn with a climb from the tiny hamlet of Old Station that soon flattens into gently rolling path. To the south, Mount Lassen catches the first rays of morning sun. To the north, snow-capped Mount Shasta peeps above a thin layer of haze. In-between, a verdant green valley, ringed by extinct volcanoes, stretches from horizon to horizon.

It’s been nearly a century since the last eruption, in 1915. Exploding Lassen Peak rained volcanic ash as far as 200 miles and devastated much of what is now the Lassen national park. The 1980 eruption of sister-volcano Mt. St. Helen reminds us that it’s only a matter a time before the next.

As the sun rises over the pine forests to the east, the temperature immediately rises – a harbinger of what’s to come. By 8 am, I’m shedding layers worn against the morning chill. By 10, the vibrant morning colors have bleached from the landscape. A hiker passes as I’m taking notes for this blog. A frying pan clangs rhythmically against his pack. We are on the frying pan, and the fire is lit.

Everyone is making for Cache 22, the pun-intended water tank roughly mid-way through the Rim at forest road 22. Sometimes it’s full, sometimes not. With the crush of hikers currently passing through, the chances rise for it being dry.

Cheryl Strayed famously bet on refilling her water bottles here in the movie Wild – and splashed her remaining supply over her head and face just before reaching the cache, only to find it empty.  If you’ve seen the film, you know how well that turns out.

Passing through a metal gate around mile 1385, I flip through a trail register of hikers. Jam, Milkshake and Philly have gone by in the past day or two, all starting at the Mexican border around the same time as me. “Hot,” notes one. “Unpleasantly so.” By 11, this egg (namely me) is already well-fried. Stupified by the heat, I plod zombie-like along, noticing almost nothing around me. The trail is a powdery dust underfoot. Plants rattle dryly as I brush past.

Around noon, 16 miles into the day, just past some power lines, the trail drops down to Cache 22. Who should be there but the godfather of trail angels, Coppertone and his big white van. “Root beer float?” he asks, offering his trademark magic. I gratefully plop myself into a camp chair amid a circle of half a dozen other hikers, all taking a prolonged respite from the heat in the shade of a small stand of pines. There’s Buzzard in his trademark black tights, which always make me wonder how he can stand it in such heat. A German hiker I’ve never met ices a badly swollen foot. Aurora, a hyper-thin Taiwanese woman, asks Coppertone for tring, which she uses to fashion a belt to keep her shorts from falling off her narrowing waist.

Coppertone tells us how, yesterday, a hiking doctor performed a modest “surgery” on a hiker whose back had erupted in ugly boils, so painful that she could barely carry her pack. A “slice” of life on the trail, he jokes. At a nearby horse corral, the cache water tank is mercifully full.

Another trail angel, Rodeo, arrives bearing Creamsickle floats, and before long a short lunch break threatens to turn into a several-hour siesta. In a collective act of hiker will, the group rouses itself and heads into the furnace-like heat of mid-afternoon, now 97 degrees in the shade of the pines. In a few miles, the trail dips down the escarpment into a desert of old lava fields, then meanders through another dozen miles of pine and oak forest to Burney Falls state park, where a small general store and campground await.

Demanding as it might be, at times, today’s hike testifies to the PCT’s extraordinary diversity. Yesterday’s 20-odd miles from Drakesbad to Old Station was pleasant enough — fast rolling trail, few climbs, cool and majestic forests of pine and towering cedars. But compared to this? Give me the Rim.

July 24

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