A Stormy Night on the Lost Coast

The rain began just before we arrived at camp. It was a fine mist, falling gently but persistently as we removed our shoes to cross the creek, as we set up our tents in the valley, as we cooked our dinner. My rain gear, aging and worn, was not up to the task. By the end of dinner, I was soaked and chilled.
Caroline was already in the tent she was sharing with Mukil, and Brian in his. A long day of walking on rocks and sand along the Lost Coast in Northern California, avoiding elephant seals, climbing up bluffs, and crossing cold rivers had tired us all. There was no reason to stay out in the rain if you didn’t have to. James, Mukil and I cooked and ate our dinner outside anyway, chuckling and feeling strong and happy despite the rain. After dinner I climbed into my tent, changed into my dry thermals, climbed into my dry sleeping bag, and listened to the gentle patter of rain until it soothed me to sleep.
It was the wind that woke me.
My tent whipped against its cords, but I had camped in much worse weather: freezing rain, 90-mile-an-hour gusts, torrential downpours, heavy snow. During one trip, sand had whipped up under the flaps and stung my face as I tried to sleep. During another, a car seemed to be accelerating toward my campsite and turned at what seemed like the last second, jolting me out of sleep and ensuring that I was on high alert for the rest of the night. I wasn’t worried about a little wind and rain. I cracked my eyes, rolled over, and prepared to sink back into sleep, but then I wondered about the light. Was somebody outside in this weather?
I pulled down the lip of the bathtub floor on my tent to look out through the mesh. Someone was grasping a green rainfly as it fluttered in the wind. Probably Mukil, I thought, trying to fix it onto their tent. That sucks. I lay down and try to go back to sleep.
A few minutes later I noticed the light was still out there, and now I could hear voices. I looked again. Caroline was out there with him, and they were still struggling with the fly.
“Are you guys okay?” I shouted.
“We could use a little help,” Mukil yelled back.
“Okay, give me a minute. Let me get my raingear on.”
I hurried out of my dry thermals—no reason to get those wet—and shuddered as my rain gear hit my bare skin. I grasped blindly for my headlamp in the dark, but I must have knocked it somewhere else in my sleep, because I couldn’t find it. Mukil’s and Caroline’s gear was getting soaked and I had already taken too long, so I went without it. I could use the light from their headlamps.
The rainfly tied on at two corners and clipped into two corners. By the time my freezing fingers finished fumbling with one of the ties, I was thoroughly soaked. The three of us were able to secure the rest of the rainfly quickly.
“You good?” I yelled over the wind, ready to climb back into my tent. Rivulets of cold water streamed down the inside of my rain gear and I couldn’t wait to dry off and warm up.
“I think the wind is gonna break the tent,” Mukil yelled back. “Let’s move it further back where it’s more protected.”
The three of us carried the water-logged tent to a spot we hoped it would be better protected from the wind. I turned back to my tent but realized that I couldn’t see well enough without a headlamp. I stood and waited as they finished staking down the tent.
“Can you walk me back?” I asked Mukil, “I’m without a headlamp.”

I almost didn’t recognize my tent by the light of Mukil’s headlamp because it was collapsing. Three of the stakes had pulled up from the muddy ground and the normally-taut Dyneema fiber was draped over my hiking poles like a wet sheet flapping in the wind. I dug around inside, found my headlamp, and reset the stakes, but as I set the third one, another pulled up, and then the first two. The ground was too wet and soft to hold them in place against the raging wind.
I moved some heavy rocks to hold down the stakes, readjusted the tent, and climbed inside to survey the damage. Water had pooled around the floor and seeped into much of my gear, including my sleeping bag. I changed into my now-damp thermals and climbed into my sleeping bag, bracing myself for a less-comfortable night.

A light bobbed toward my tent.

“Hey man, my tent just collapsed,” said James.
“Oh shit, is everything okay?”
“No, the poles broke in three places, and the last one sliced a huge hole through the rainfly. Can I join you?”
“Yeah, of course.”

After he grabbed his gear from his collapsed tent, he climbed in next to me.
“Thanks man,” he said, “my brother’s tent is totally destroyed.”
“Of course, I know you’d do the same for me,” I said.

The wind continued to pull up the stakes and batter at the fabric. We reset them until they finally held.

After a moment, James asked “Do you think this fabric is going to hold?”
“It’s pretty strong, but I honestly don’t know.”
“I wonder if we should collapse it. If it tears, we’re really screwed.”
I was tired of resetting the stakes anyway. We pulled down the tent so it lay directly over us, then I rolled onto my side so the wet fabric was on my cheek instead of my face. I fell asleep almost right away.

The outdoors are unpredictable. There was no indication in the weather reports that we would experience a major wind event. We even found a canyon that should have protected us from winds, but it seemed to funnel them instead. The best we can do in a situation like this is to prepare appropriately and respond quickly to what nature throws at us. Backpacking helps connect people. It gives us common goals and reminds us to look out for one another. It pulls us away from comfort and forces us to confront real danger. We are reminded that we are mortal and fallible, and that knowledge allows us to better appreciate our limited time on this beautiful earth with our fellow humans and fellow creatures.

When we emerged from our tents in the morning, framing the end of our little wind-funnel canyon, shining above the beautiful Pacific Ocean, stood a double rainbow.

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