We have been anxiously awaiting the chance to try our new hiking and camping gear, as well as begin training for our new adventure goal to hike a 100-mile trek [slated for late this summer]. In our 55+ years of life, we consider ourselves experienced day hikers, casual runners and avid walkers. We completed the Camino de Santiago Ingles in October 2018, and we have done plenty of car camping. However, this would be our first time carrying all our gear/food/water on our backs up a trail and staying overnight in the wilderness in an undeveloped [“dispersed camping”] location. We decided to stay close to home for our first endeavor. We would start walking from our house, take the lower Lagoon section of the Farmington Creek trail, then walk up Farmington Canyon road to connect to the Upper Farmington Creek trail, and eventually find a spot somewhere high above the waterfall at the top of the trail where we could set up our tent, make a meal with our new cook system, and spend the night. Then we would pack up in the morning, responsibly “leave no trace”, and hike back down the way we came. Easy peasy!
At least, that was the plan.
The weather report forecasted we would experience about two hours of overnight rain starting at 12 midnight, with a low temperature reaching 40 Fahrenheit. Definitely chilly, but totally doable. After all, we had our nice new REI tent, sleeping bags rated for 15-degree comfort, and sleeping pads with an R-value of 5 [a fancy way of saying they’re extra-insulated]. We packed our new warm puffy jackets, our rain jackets, our Smartwool thermals for sleeping, and even threw in a pair of lightweight gloves and wool beanie hats for good measure. All was well!
It had been a sunny warm day, and was still about 70 degrees when we began walking. We got off to a late 4:45 PM start because we had been waiting for our new camp stove/cook system that we ordered on Amazon to be delivered! It was arriving a day late. The USPS truck finally dropped off the package at 4:00 PM and we did a quick test to make sure it worked [it did] and we knew what we were doing [let’s just say, we didn’t manage to burn ourselves figuring it out]. The stove is an Asian made knock-off brand called the “Fire-Maple 2”. We did a lot of research prior to purchase. We read positive reviews and watched some favorable YouTube videos. Sure enough, it worked great and only set us back $55 instead of $100-150 for the name-brand JetBoil or MSR. Will it last? We hope so. Will we have regrets? Only time will tell.
Our hike would only total 7 miles from our front door to our mountain destination, however it would ascend about 2,800 feet. This was definitely not a walk in the park! My pack – fully loaded with my sleep system, the camp stove + fuel, snacks, a dehydrated Mountain House dinner packet and 2.5 Liters of water weighed in at 21.2 lbs. My husband’s pack with his sleep system, the tent, his food plus 3 liters of water weighed just shy of 26 lbs. We definitely aren’t “ultralight” hikers, and we do look forward to finding ways to lighten our load, but overall we felt pretty good about those numbers, all things considered! As newbies, we are still trying to use as much existing gear as possible to conserve our budget. During COVID we’ve watched literally 100s [maybe thousands?] of hiking/backpacking videos [it’s become a bit of an obsession]. All the backpacking experts overwhelmingly advise beginners to just “start with what you have and get out there“. So, that’s what we are doing!
As we walked down the city streets with our fully loaded packs on we felt a bit self-conscious and out-of-place. We wondered if we looked like homeless vagabonds? It felt so much more natural once we got onto a trail. The first mile was fairly flat. After that we began the continual uphill climb. Our new-to-backpacking bodies were feeling the challenge! I was very happy to discover my beautiful new backpack [the Gregory Amber 60 Liter in Pearl Blue] was expertly fitted by the helpful folks at REI for my extra-extra small torso [plus, I got a great deal]. It feels very comfortable on my shoulders and hips, and the weight of the pack is well distributed. I already love it and hope we will make many wonderful memories together.
Jeff doesn’t have a new, larger pack yet. Somehow, he managed to use his 40 Liter REI bag for this trek! I was certain he was going to either bust a seam or blow out a zipper, but it proved to be an incredibly tough and stretchy piece of gear! Who knew it could be forced to accommodate so much?! However, a new backpack purchase for him is definitely on the horizon.
I have to say, the canyon road leading to the trailhead felt like a really long haul. We had to continually move off to the side to allow for all the truck and ATV traffic. Hiking on pavement just isn’t very fun. But, the wilderness was calling… and we were getting closer with each step.
The creek was running very high and fast. The mountains were super green, sprinkled with lovely wildflowers.
The Upper Farmington Creek trail makes a perfect day hike and is a beautiful oasis. It includes three stream crossings, many pretty vistas, and the reward of a big waterfall toward the top.
Along the trail, there are some smashed remnants of old rusted-out [1940s-era?] cars nestled among the trees. They must have tumbled down from the mountain road that runs high above this trail years ago [either accidentally or on purpose, who knows?]. All I can say is, I sure hope there was nobody inside these cars when they fell!
We stopped and practiced doing “water filtration” for the first time using our new Sawyer Squeeze kit. The ice-cold water in this stream looked very refreshing and it was so quick and easy to filter! We realized [too late] we never needed to carry all of that heavy water from home! We should have brought one bottle and simply planned to fill empty bottles with the filtered stream water along the way [duly noted for next time].
Someone has attached a long rope for hikers to ease their way down the steep cliff from the trail to the bottom of the waterfall. We watched a few younger hikers tackling it. We passed!
About another .5 mile above the waterfall, the trail ends at an area that used to be a developed site called Sunset Campground. Several years back it was closed. We don’t really know why. A website just says, “due to environmental concerns“. Area access has been closed off from the mountain road, and there are many purposely felled trees to prevent motorized vehicles roaming inside. Any pit toilets or water lines that may have previously been on site have been removed. We do not believe that it is forbidden to quietly and respectfully “disperse camp” here, but we tried to go a little higher and farther back, just in case. As I mentioned, we got a late start in the day, and then it took us longer than we expected due to carrying the pack weight, the big elevation gain, taking a couple of rest/snack breaks, and performing our water filtration exercise. However, we made it just in time to have enough light to set up camp and enjoy the brief sunset.
There was a clear, calm sky when we pitched our tent at 8:30 PM. For good measure, we used some extra stakes we brought along to secure all of the guylines just in case there was any wind later on. We successfully used our new little stove/pot system to rehydrate some Mountain House Meals [quite tasty] and laughed at ourselves for being so proud of successfully boiling water!
At this point it got very dark. We sat on a log with our headlamps chatting and finishing up our meal. Suddenly, there was my brother and his dog Kilo! Matthew is a dedicated athlete and avid trail runner who decided to run up and greet us! What had taken us nearly 3 1/2 hours to laboriously climb he had easily brushed off in an hour – and in the dark no less! He regretted he couldn’t spend the night camping with us as originally hoped, due to some obligations, but he still took the time to carry up some delicious S’mores cookies as an unexpected treat! I just love him so much! It was great fun to see him … and later on, this would be kismet.
Our biggest fear as we prepared for this adventure was encountering a large animal that would maul us [extremely unlikely], or attracting a smaller pesky critter that could potentially chew a hole in our tent [more likely], so we made sure to hang all of our food and trash far, far, FAR away from our campsite!
In reality, this should have been the least of our worries!
At midnight when we finally settled in and started drifting off to sleep everything was dry, calm and perfectly quiet. In fact, it was eerily silent. We remarked to each other how odd it seemed. Was this normal for this area?! We did not hear any wilderness sounds at all – no birds squawking or hopping around in the trees, no chattering squirrels, not even one cricket chirping [apparently, they knew what was coming].
We would soon learn our biggest rookie mistake.
Here is a not-so-novel concept. If the weather channel is predicting rain and 40F on a valley floor at 4,200 feet then things might just look a bit different at 7,000 feet. [also, a “2-hour” storm window is probably a wild miscalculation] The “weather” began to hit at 2:00 am. First, there was a medium-heavy rain which quickly turned to a harder rainy, icy sleet. Although it was loud, we were warm and dry inside the tent and happy to see our shelter was holding up so well to this “little test”, naively assuming it would all blow over in an hour or so, as predicted.
By 4:00 am the temperature had dropped and the sleet had morphed into something new. I cautiously peeked out of our tent and witnessed a full-blown snowstorm.
We would spend the next three hours reaching up and smacking the roof of our tent from inside every few minutes to break up the heavy, wet snow that was regularly accumulating – which would then slide down the sides and pile up outside the tent completely burying our stakes, and eventually the snow would be pushing the zipped-up vestibule doors toward the mesh doors of our inner tent.
Since we were anticipating a bit of rain, we had placed the bottom of our backpacks in garbage sacks inside each vestibule [good idea], so our packs remained relatively dry and eventually acted like a little barrier to prevent the vestibule walls from completely merging with the mesh wall of our inner tent [which kept the moisture from getting to us]. Unfortunately, our shoes and camp stove got pretty soggy before we realized and pulled them inside.
The REI Co-op 2-Passage tent is built for 3-seasons. It is not designed for snow – however, it was a little trooper! All of the seams held. There was a bit of condensation dampness if we touched the inside of the tarp cover, but we didn’t have any leaking or dripping. The tent has a very high “bathtub” style floor that kept all of the snow and water out, and its included “footprint” [an attached tarp under the tent] gave us an additional barrier against any moisture or cold seeping in. Despite the weight of the snow, nothing ever sagged or collapsed, the poles and guylines held strong. We huddled inside, minute by minute and hour by sleepless hour listening to the storm, trying not to panic, laughing at the absurdity of our situation, all while we methodically decided what to do next.
We concluded we had three options:
1. Try to “Wait it out”.
We estimated we were accumulating at least 2 inches per hour, and the temperature was dropping. If this continued, it could become an increasingly dangerous situation and would definitely be more difficult to get off the mountain.
2. Try to walk out.
Taking the same narrow, steep 3 mile trail back down that we had climbed was completely off the table. Instead, we would need to make our way over to the small mountain road that is used to access a satellite tower at the top of the peak [and in the summer leads to a high ridgeline campground], and then carefully walk down. The tent would have to be sacrificed since we had no way to dig out the stakes, and we would waste precious time trying, getting significantly wet before even beginning to walk. Perhaps we could come back to successfully claim it later? I had also [stupidly] left my trekking poles laying somewhere “out there” when we had been looking for our tent location. Now they were buried under deep snow who knew where… So, I would have to make do without them when going down the mountain [a highly worrying thought knowing there would be plenty of ice, plus I really love those poles and hated to lose them!]. We had packed puffy coats to layer under our rain jackets, but we had not thought it necessary to bring our waterproof pants [another duly noted error]. Our trail runners are not waterproof and were already damp from sitting on the ground inside the vestibule. So, we knew we would be getting wet and feeling very cold quickly. We calculated it would take us a minimum of 2 hours, possibly 3 to get down the road and find some shelter, placing us at risk for hypothermia. We were also concerned about how slick the road may be, and acknowledged the increased risk for a fall or other injury.
3. Try to get help.
This seemed our best case scenario, if possible. We were showing no bars on our cell phones with Verizon [something we had not anticipated, being so close as the crow flies above the city]. We could not access any internet nor make a phone call – but, we were successful in sending out a text to my brother Matthew at about 6:30 am [and he was awake!] He has a big heavy-duty truck with 4-wheel drive. He texted back saying he was on his way, and instructed us to “Stay in the tent. Remain warm and dry”. I was a nervous wreck he would get stuck, or worse, slide off the cliff trying to rescue us – crashing down like those old cars we’d seen on the way up – and imagined having to live with the guilt forever! Instead, he was able to slowly and carefully navigate the very narrow icy mountain road and reach us less than a quarter-mile of where we were camping! It turns out, we had done some things right. Several people knew where we were going – but, even better, Matt knew exactly where we were! It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that because he had not been able to spend the night, he was able to come rescue us! 🙂
I can’t tell you how delightful it was to hear his cheery, familiar “Helloooo there!” calling to us through the trees! My dear Hero-Brother brought his shovel and was handily able to uncover all the tent stakes and help get our little shelter folded down. He also blessedly found my trekking poles because he had remembered noticing them when he had visited us the night before – thus, saving all our gear! He even helped haul my pack out to the truck so I could focus on carefully wading through the 8-10 inches of snow. At the same moment he arrived there was a blessed reprieve of the downpour – it felt almost magical – although heavy black clouds were looming and waiting to burst again. This made breaking down the tent and walking out to the truck much less daunting. I even had a bonus victory of being able to spy, and successfully retrieve, our makeshift “bear bag” that was still dangling in a tree, ensuring we would responsibly “Leave No Trace” of ever being there.
The slow drive back down that steep, winding, icy road was harrowing for me [I had to close my eyes and pray]. Matthew and Jeff were laughing and keeping up a jaunty conversation, but I did a bit too much annoying whimpering in the back seat. I had to admit, when I allowed myself to peek outside from the safety and warmth of the truck, that mountain looked so incredibly beautiful!! It had been completely transformed within just a few short hours from a springtime paradise to a winter wonderland!
Despite everything, we arrived home safe and sound! The luxury of a hot shower and a soft, warm bed can never be underestimated! We owe a debt of gratitude to my amazing brother. We feel extremely fortunate that we had the best possible outcome for our [mis]adventure. I’m sure our guardian angels were rolling their eyes. If just one of the many things that went right had gone wrong we may have had a much different outcome. We were glad that we did not try to “wait it out” because it kept raining in the valley and snowing in the mountain for several more hours. Matthew had barely been able to reach our site – anything farther was already impassible, so any longer and he would not have made it. Also, after driving down that long and treacherous road [icy, slick and muddy] we were very relieved we didn’t have to attempt to walk it! We are also happy to have been kept safe, warm, and dry inside our little tent. Having a strong shelter, good sleep system and reliable clothing layers are crucial. We definitely put everything to the “test”, and they passed. We have learned a lot from this experience. I decided to share it because although it might make us seem foolish, despite all of our positive preparation, perhaps someone else can learn from it. Humans must never underestimate nature – as the terribly tragic marathon in China this weekend underscored for us.
We look forward to having many more future backcountry adventures this year as we carefully plan and train for our multi-night 100-mile hike at the end of the summer [all of which, hopefully, will be much LESS eventful than our Rookie Trek!] We look forward to sharing all of it with you! – Holly