The north wind was howling as Richard and I stepped out of his truck at the Burma Road Crossing of Mt. Diablo’s Northgate Road. We were starting at an elevation of a thousand feet, and already the wind was fierce, but the forecast of 60 to 80 mile per hour winds on the ridges was the reason we were here.
I know I’m a bit crazy, but I do love the exhilaration of hiking in weather! Pelting rain, drifting snow, and the force of a big wind, all bring up ancient memories and very real fears. They’re in all of us, memories of living closer to the elemental forces of the planet. For two million years our species grew up in Africa, in the Veld, then spread across continents, crossed oceans and ice sheets, always adapting to the new climates in which we settled. It still thrills my bones to be out in extreme weather, even though I’m not wearing skins and fur clothing. The feel of blasting, winter wind on my face is as wonderful as the sun warmth of summer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very aware that weather can kill you, and I’m careful not to let that happen, but there’s no getting around it. It really excites me.
My mother’s grandfather was a Lofoten fishermen who sailed out of Trondheim Fjord in Norway, spending all winter above the Arctic Circle fishing for cod in boats little changed from Viking days. How did he do it? All winter in icy cabins on rocks without a tree for a thousand miles. The pictures I’ve seen look like our moonscape, Farallon Islands, but snow covered. How did those people last for thousands of years living on the edge of the ice age as it slowly retreated? Mom had a picture of her mother and four brothers in Norway from the turn of the century, before my grandmother emigrated to America. Two of the four men had been lost at sea, she’d always explain. When she came to America she sought out the relative milds of Minnesota. Good grief! So I think the need for weather must be genetic.
I’m sure some of my own fascination with extreme weather comes from growing up with a certain dearth of it. Our Mediterranean climate is the envy of the world, and I love it, but I’ve been deprived of the extremes, and when it gets windy and cold out, I head for Diablo and a wild hike right into the face of it.
Burma Road, or “the trail of three bumps” as a group of Asian hiker tourists called it recently, is one of the steepest, fastest blasts to the top of a high ridge -- i.e. Mt. Diablo -- anywhere in the Bay Area. I don’t know where they’d heard of it, but they wanted to make sure they were going up the right trail, and their description sure fits. Whenever I want a quick and extreme workout, I hike this trail. The first two “bumps” are 43 percent grades, and Mother’s Trail, a bit further along isn’t much less. All told, you climb from the thousand foot level on the Northgate Road to the summit, nearly three thousand feet higher, in just four miles. Now that’s wonderful. Add to that a screaming wind and you’ve got one heck of a hike, and Richard was just as eager as I was. Richard grew up in San Francisco, so he’s weather deprived too, unless you count the often freezing summers out there in the fog belt.
I usually sweat up a storm on a steep hill, and never like to overdress, as becoming damp in the cold means getting much colder later on and maybe not being able to warm back up. Finding a pace and the right amount of clothing is imperative. When hiking for days in cold rain in a raincoat on the Pacific Crest Trail, you needed to find that sweet spot, just enough exertion to stay warm, but not so warm that you sweat. It’s Inuit wisdom and it’s important when living in the elements.
Midway up the first “bump” the biting wind was too cold for the clothes I had on. I wasn’t warming up even with the grade, so I stopped and spent a good five minutes struggling to get my windbreaker out of the pack and to put it on. Arms whipping and snapping at my face, that light piece of cloth took on a ferocious bite whenever it happened to catch flesh. It wanted out of my grasp and was fighting for freedom. As I twisted around, wrestling with the unruly jacket, my hat thought it a good time to strike for independence as well, and I had to let go of one to throttle the other. The wind was so fierce, anything I let go of would be gone for good. The pack I dropped on the road immediately headed south and I stepped on it quick. Once the windbreaker was on, my light fleece pullover was more than enough for the cold and I was good to go.
Strapped down properly, jacket, hat and pack all worked together, and I didn’t need to alter the arrangement thereafter, but usually patient Richard was already far up the second “bump” and he didn’t look back. This wasn’t the kind of wind you took a break in. You’d freeze up fast if you did. He was just ploughing into the wind, head hunkered down and pushing up that hill. I was determined to catch up, but every time I stopped to take a picture, he just stretched his lead.
The higher I climbed, the windier it got and when I reached the top of the second “bump” the wind was so strong the gusts nearly knocked me out of the trail. I picked up a leg to go forward only to have it blown out from under me, wobbling ahead and sideways, banging into the other leg before finding earth again. The air was thick and strong and wild, and battered everything in its way.
Up the ridgeback, that is the Angel Kearney Trail and Poker Flat, the exposure is extreme and the wind seemed to work on us in a frenzy, knowing it had to hit us now, when there was nowhere to hide.
Higher yet and the wind was just getting better, when we branched off onto Mother’s Trail ducking into a deep ravine and almost instant calm. Behind, the trees were being blown out of their roots and up ahead I could see the grass, flattened by the force of the wind, but here all was calm. I could have pitched a tent, secure in the shelter of the brae. But Richard hadn’t even slowed down. Just a silhouette against the brilliant blue sky, that geezer was striking up the second half of Mother’s Trail, another exposed ridge with a 40+ degree incline.
Back onto Burma Road and the path wound out onto the northern flanks of the mountain and right into the teeth of this northerly blow. As the gusts hit the interior live oaks and bays, the trees flashed bright as every leaf was turned upside down at once, exposing the lighter undersides, branches horizontal in the blast. They were beautiful, wild and uncontrolled, magnificently writhing, almost too much to watch. The sound was like a freight train at high speed, real close, roaring past.
At aptly named Windy Gap, where the Burma Road intersects Deer Flat Road coming up from Clayton, a gust slammed into me so hard it stopped me in my tracks and I felt like I’d been hit by the offensive line at the Super Bowl. I leaned into it and fell forward, pushing to make headway. The next gust was sustained and something came loose behind my head and began a machine gun, rapid fire staccato of wild flapping at the back of my pack. I had no idea what it was, maybe the extreme wind bringing my jacket back to life, giving it the force to tear itself away from me once and for all. When the wind lessened all was good, but at the next gust, something trilled a snare drummer’s roll in my ear and I had visions of my pack disintegrating before we got much further. Stop and take a look? Not on your life. Until it fell apart, I wasn’t stopping on that ridge.
When I finally caught up to Richard at Juniper Camp, he described it as hiking through a rushing stream. The force of the wind was like water, which simply takes your feet and hiking poles wherever it wants them to go, fishing them weirdly forward or back or sideways.
We were both alive with the excitement of the event, in the heart of it, on the slopes of a mountain that would not blow away, no matter how wild the storm got. As long as we held on, fishing one foot in front of the other, we would make it to the top.
In the chaparral troughs, that are the Juniper Trail at its upper reaches, the wind screamed just a few feet overhead, but we had an amazing degree of protection. Chaparral is thick and as short as it is, it gives shelter where the grassy slopes give none.
The last hundred yards to the Lower Summit Parking Lot are directly below microwave towers, festooned with dish receptors, covered and resembling huge base drums that thrum, hummed, deep notes in the howling wind at the peak.
We sat for a minute or two at a picnic bench at the top, just long enough to take in the spectacular view. The Central Valley was a haze of dust, blown off thousands of fields up and down California, but the view west was as clear as a bell and the Farallon Islands sat like a crown above the Emerald City of San Francisco, gleaming in the dazzle of blue ocean and sky.
We didn’t sit for long, not long enough to get cold in the icy brightness of that wind storm. What had taken us an hour and twenty minutes to climb, was fifty-five minutes to run down, poles clattering, steadying our speedy descent. Back at the road a small herd of deer used the wind shadow of Richard’s truck for protection, but they scattered as we approached.
They called this home; rain, snow and wind, and didn’t need the shelter of that truck’s cab to bring back warmth to fingers and faces. They were just where they were meant to be, and so were we, clothed in fleece instead of fur, our feet shod in tennis shoes and boots, our hands gloved. Almost hairless and so prone to cold, we paid a price when we left the warmth of Africa so quickly, so many years ago. The price was a mind, the intellect to fashion other creature’s skins to our own needs, to make of ourselves animals of the arctic and of the rainforest, of cold coasts and altitudes where breathing becomes difficult. And the price was also the joy of awareness, the wonder of a wind storm on Diablo.
“I wish I knew where I was going. Doomed to be ‘carried of the spirit into the wilderness,’ I suppose. I wish I could be more moderate in my desires, but I cannot, and so their is no rest.” John Muir (seen on the wall of the John Muir Exhibit currently running at the Oakland Museum)