Great Western Loop: Day 5-8 (Flagstaff to Pine)
Day 5: Flagstaff to 245.5 (27.3m) The latest weather forecast predicted rain, sleet and snow for the next 4-5 days. I would have loved to stay in my nice and comfy bed and watch CNN's Super Tuesday coverage, but that's not what I'm here for. I put all my rain gear on and left the motel at 8am, hiked along Flagstaff's main road to a supermarket for a short resupply and a coffee and than joined the Urban Trail, which would eventually reconnect with the AZT.
It wasn't as cold as expected and with almost no wind I really enjoyed being outdoors, even in this grim weather. My rain gear and fleece kept me warm enough and I made good progress on an easy trail. With the weather getting better, the trail got worse.
Just after Marshal Lake Trailhead I entered the Anderson Mesa, which was covered in mud. This mud however was completely different from the mud I had experienced in New Zealand. While New Zealand's mud is wet and deep, this mud here was rather dry and instead of sinking in, it accumulated endless amounts of sticky mud on my shoes, making them extremely heavy. Every 5-10 minutes I had to stop to get rid of some 300-400g of mud, which massively slowed me down and caused quite some pain in my left leg, due to the constant heavy lifting.
At Horse Mesa Trailhead it finally got better and the upcoming forest allowed hiking on pine needles, which made it much easier for me. I even found another public water cache near Lake Mary Road, which I used to refill my water bottles. I hiked for another 5 miles and than pitched my tent in the rain. The rain wouldn't stop all night.
Day 6: 245.5 to 275.2 (29.7m)
At 7am it was still raining and the entire area around my tent was flooded. My tent was also partly flooded at the lower end where I had my food and rain gear. My food was safely stored in a dry bag and my rain gear had already been wet before, but now unfortunately the foot box of my sleeping bag was wet and uncomfortable.
Luckily it wasn't extremely cold, but after getting out of my sleeping bag, I tried to break camp as quickly as possible and get moving to get warm again. The rain wouldn't stop all day and just varied in intensity. On paper it was a pretty miserable day, that you'd usually not spent outside, but I still enjoyed the solitude of the trail.
Around noon the rain stopped for just a few minutes and gave way to some sun rays which improved my mood. At that time I also met a Nobo Hiker and we were both quite surprised to see another hiker out there that day. Making progress was once again difficult. Most of the trail was completely flooded and hiking through the deep mud was strenuous. I constantly slipped and stumbled and had - of course - wet feet all day long.
At least water wasn't really a concern, albeit all of the available water looked terribly brown and muddy and most of the tanks along the way had their fair share in flooding the trail, as they were all overflowing. At 7pm I pitched my tent on a small island in a flooded forest and filtered some muddy water out of one of the many brown and disgusting pools nearby.
Day 7: 275.2 to 304.3 (29.1m)
This night I stayed dry and slept quite well, except for some barking & fighting animals (coyotes?!) not too far from my tent. I woke up to the noise, but couldn't see anything. I had used the dry bag of my sleeping bag to cover my feet in the still rather wet foot box of my sleeping bag. I ate two packs of oatmeal with some hot chocolate and left at 8:30am for the trail. After two days of almost constant rain, it remained cloudy but dry for at least 2-3 hours. The trail condition nevertheless got worse and worse.
Especially the first 10miles were once again extremely muddy and difficult to hike. It felt like having an iron chain around your feet and there's nothing I hate more than not making progress. Around noon and some 10miles before East Clear Creek the trail condition greatly improved, even though a series of river crossings started.
It started raining again, but I made good progress on the next 5 miles to Blue Ridge Trailhead. Here I met Michael from Poland. He wasn't hiking, but had just arrived by car at the Trailhead and was reading one of the AZT signs, when I arrived. We talked for some 15minutes and I managed to yogi (hiker term for: making someone feel sorry for you, so that he offers you sth...;-)) a coke from him. After our conversation I pushed on, as I had yet to hike another 5miles to the East Clear Creek and the constant rain of the previous day had me quite concerned about that crossing. I had already crossed many creeks and flooded that day, which shouldn't have been there in the first place, and I knew that this one would be a major crossing. The question was just, if I can make it through the creek at all. Upon arriving at the creek, I saw a massive river in full flood.
I tested the water where the trail usually crosses and stepped into waist deep water, with a strong current. I quickly got out again and looked for a better spot to cross. I saw a small sandbank in the middle of the river and followed that upstream and found a way to cross onto that sandbank, which lead me through knee-deep water, to the other side of the river. I than scrambled over some rocks back to the official trail and was greatly relieved. Some 4-5 miles later I pitched my tent yet again next to another creek in full flood.
The campsite was nice and sheltered, which was great as it rained heavily again. In the middle of the night the wind picked up and turned into quite a storm and the sound of constant rain drops gave way to the gentle sound of falling snow flakes.
Day 8: 304.3 to Pine (23.4m)
The night had been cold, very cold. Due to the last 3 days of constant rain, most of my gear was wet or damp and so I decided to leave early. Hiking is still the best way of staying warm. I started hiking with my puffy, my base layer leggings and my rain pants, but just after 10minutes I had to cross that very Creek I had camped next to.
As I couldn't afford to get my base layer wet, I had to strip down to just my rain pants and wade through that ice-cold and almost waist deep water. It hurt like thousands of little needle stings and my feet went numb, but hey...it was a great delayed wake-up call. I had to cross the stream another 3-4 times, but it got easier each time and my legs quickly warmed up again after each crossing. By 8am it was snowing heavily and the General Springs Campground and Trailhead were soon covered in light snow
Upon descending to Washington Park Trailhead it got warmer and the snow turned into rain. I stoically hiked on and watched the rain drops falling from my base cap. It was a miserable and slow day. I tried to make up for the slow progress by running a few sections, but the muddy and slippery ground, made it quite difficult. It didn't stop raining until 11:34am, when the sun finally came out for just a few moments.
I had my hopes up for a general improvement of the weather, but would soon learn how wrong I was. At 12am I crossed Webber Creek and shortly after it started hailing on me like crazy. This went on for almost 3 hours, when the hail finally turned into heavy snowfall again just 2miles before the Pine Trailhead.
By now I was cold, almost frozen. My fingers hurt, as my gloves couldn't handle the cold anymore, my feet and shoes were soaked and I was losing body temperature quickly. Even my underwear was wet by now. Due to the bad weather I hadn't really had a break on that day and so I stopped at the THAT brewery, close to the Trailhead to eat, warm up and to figure out, how to proceed from here. Upon seeing pictures of the East Verde River some 20miles south of Pine and more official flood warnings, I decided to spent the night in Pine and than hike to Payson along the Highway 87 on the next day. The plan was to bypass one dangerous river crossing and to get back on trail, some 40miles south.