In one of my tall tales, I wrote about a bad encounter with a rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail:
You may be a potential class of 2015 PCT thru-hiker, or are wondering what your chances of encountering a rattlesnake on the trail are. Based on my experience, the odds of running across one of these vipers in southern California are high. The more you hike, the higher the odds. Should that keep you off the trail? No! It is more likely that you will be hit in a crosswalk than being bitten by a rattlesnake on the PCT. I know, not very reassuring is it?
The truth is, by understanding the basic behavior of these snakes, you can reduce your chances of a direct confrontation with them. First of all, they are not the aggressive human-attacking species that people make them out to be. They want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.
Behaviour: They are a cold natured species and generally are not found slithering about in cooler temps. Rarely seen in winter and colder days. Could you see them in the morning? Not likely, unless you are cowboy camping and one has climbed into your sleeping bag for warmth. But, you are more likely to get a scorpion in your bag in the Mojave than a snake. The most common encounter with a rattler is one laying out in the sun on the trail. The trails are exposed to the sun and relatively close to brush where they can escape. Most of the rattlers that I have come across are getting sun in the mid-late afternoon hours. When sunning, they often stretch out to their full length. Somewhat nocturnal, they have been known to move about at night while hunting but do not usually travel far.
Habitat: In southern California and into the Sierras, mostly found in the dry, arid chaparral which pretty much describes most of the state. In the mountains, usually below 7,500 ft. It doesn’t mean you will not find them above that altitude, just not very common because it gets cold up there. Often found around/under rocks or loose pine needles and leaves.
If you happen to come upon a rattler on the trail, my advice is to give it a wide berth. If you prod it with your hiking pole, it may get into a defensive posture (coiled up) and can strike up to 3/4 of its length. Sometimes, a gentle coaxing with you pole may work, but it depends on the mood that it is in. Be careful when detouring around a snake because they do nest in the brush and chaparral. Bushwhacking increases your chances of being bitten.
Rattlesnake Avoidance: Your best defense is to be aware. This is hard when you’ve been hiking all day and your eyes are focused three feet in front of you. In my opinion, snake gaiters or leggings are not worth it unless you do a lot of bushwhacking. Hiking with pets? Dogs are frequently bitten by rattlers and it is often fatal to smaller breeds. Larger breeds survive, but the bite can cause intense swelling and permanent tissue damage. Use caution when taking your dogs on hikes. While the idea of your dog roaming free sounds like fun, a leash could save them from getting bitten.
If you are bitten: I am not qualified to give medical advice but can tell you that you will probably not die from a rattlesnake bite. The bite is very painful and your limbs may swell extensively. If you carry a GPS locator or beacon, now is a good time to activate it. If you are with someone, have them get help and stay calm. If you can walk, make your way to get help. And no, don’t slice into the snake bite area with a knife and suck out the poison. The Mayo clinic has some good first aid advice here: http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681
My closest encounter: Less than a foot. While hiking with my wife I often provide a safety brief like what to do in thunderstorms or first aid, and today I mentioned that a rattler can sound like bacon frying when it is warning you. Around 7,000 ft near the beginning of our hike, I was walking and unwrapping an energy bar when my wife suddenly sprinted ahead and told me to stop. The sound was unmistakable and very close. To my left, was a large boulder and a Pacific Rattler was coiled underneath. I slowly backed off and gave this critter a wide berth. Afterward, she mentioned that “the sound of bacon frying was very accurate”. Moral of the story, eat bacon and you can avoid rattlesnakes.
A good handbook with lots of info for the backcountry hiker: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
Disclaimer: I am not a herpetologist and can barely spell it. My observations of rattlesnakes are based upon my experience hiking in California. Being aware on the trail is your best defense against snakes or any other wildlife that could harm you. Never go out of your way to kill a rattler – they serve a good purpose in the food chain. There are fewer rodents out there because of them.
U.S.D.A. Identifier: Marion Mountain Trail-2E14
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks, pine straw
Distance as hiked: 12.5 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,400ft., Top of trail-10,834ft.
The last time we hiked Marion Mountain Trail was in April/May of 2012. Snow covered a good portion of the trail above 8,000 ft, and we only made it to the junction. It is known as one of the shortest and steepest routes to the summit of San Jacinto.
We took my brother on this hike as a warm up for the JMT at the end of the month. this is a challenging trail with difficult terrain. You must keep a sharp eye out for the path as it gets tricky.
Less than half a mile into today’s hike, I came within a foot of a Pacific rattler, who warned me in the nick of time. My hiking pole was inches away from his tail. I backed away slowly to allow this 4-5 foot adult make his way up the slope. Close encounters with rattlers gets the adrenaline going. The color and pattern of this one blended in perfectly with the trail. While I’ve had over a dozen encounters with rattlers in my few years of hiking, this was the closest. Our altitude was approx. 6,700 ft. In my observation, snakes are rarely seen above 8,000 ft. in the San Bernardino Mountains. It made me more cautious the rest of the day and I also took the time to brief my hiking partners on how we would handle a poisonous snake bite situation.
After snapping a few photos of this viper, we focused on our journey to the summit. The trail wastes no time in elevation gain as it climbs out at over 900 ft. per mile. The short switchbacks and rocky, sandy trail makes for a calf and quad burning extravaganza.
Due to the lack of snowfall last winter, the vernal streams are fewer and water flows much less. The first significant stream was around 9,300-9,400 ft., and probably feeds into the tiny San Jacinto River. The temps stayed in the 80’s for much of this trek and we were using up our water faster than predicted. There were a couple of other streams where a someone with a pump could extract some water.
Sometimes, I question why we do these tough hikes. Marion Mtn is one of the hardest ones around. It’s really mind over matter because it isn’t always fun. It does build confidence in the sense that once you put your mind to something, you can conquer it. Besides, if you always hiked on flat terrain it would be boring.
We took many breaks today due to the heat and intensity of the trail. We started feeling the possible symptoms of mild acute mountain sickness (AMS) around 9,000 ft. To compensate, a motrin and increased fluid intake helped, as well as slowing the ascent. Symptoms may include nausea, light-headedness and a mild headache. We kept an eye on this and agreed to head back down if the symptoms did not go away. AMS is nothing to play around with and is important to recognize it as it can lead to a more serious condition. You can read about it here: http://www.altitude.org/altitude_sickness.php
We took a lunch break at the junction of the PCT/Marion Mtn/Seven Pines trails. From the junction, you enter a heavily wooded area for 1/2 mile and begin a steady climb that is exposed to afternoon sun. The trail is rocky with occasional shade under some conifers. We continued on to Little Round Valley campground. It is a nice area with private campsites less than a mile to the summit. The nearby vernal stream was pretty much dry, so I recommend you top off at the stream about 700-800 yds before camp on the ascent.
We broke out into a clearing with signs that pointed us to the summit and points to the tram, Wellman’s Divide, Deer Springs Trail and Humber Park. The views to several 10,000+ peaks and the desert below are beautiful.
No hike to San Jacinto is complete without stopping by the summit cabin. The last 200 ft. to the summit are spent scrambling up boulders and around the flora. At the top, we saw several others – not too bad. Sometimes, you can run in to 30 or 40 people crowded around the sign. It was 5:30 by then, so that might have something to do with it.
We started down by 6 p.m. knowing that it was going to be a close call on darkness. I have to admit, this trail is no easier going down since you have to pick your way around the rocks and scree. We burned through our food and snacks due to the extra effort going up. Now, we were on auto pilot.
As darkness approached, we broke out the headlamps and realized we would be hiking for at least another hour. The forest and moonless night made for a slow descent as we picked our way over the obstacles. My headlamp needed the batteries replaced, but I kept going. I did have spare batteries, but just didn’t want to stop. After a week of night hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness last year, this wasn’t too bad. My hiking partners weren’t digging it though. Actually, I was tired and ready for it to end too.
If you’ve hiked this trail, you know how hard it is to follow – especially at night. As Mary discovered, the scorpions come out at night here. While I was struggling to see the trail ahead, she was seeing every crawling critter on the path. Oh well, at least the scorpions are small.
After 1 1/2 hrs, we finally reached the parking area and were dog-tired. We were still committed to the post-hike celebratory meal of In-N-Out with “animal style fries”. Well, if you live out here – you know what that is.
This hike is a great workup for a Mt. Whitney type trip. We used it as a warmup for the JMT. Even though the trail humbled us, we came away confident with a few lessons learned.
1. Take more water than you think you need or have the ability to filter some. For me that’s 1 liter for every 3 miles. Your mileage may vary. I carry a backup 24 oz. Camelbak bottle and needed it on this hike.
2. Take extra food and snacks. While we had enough, it wasn’t enough if we had gotten lost and needed to spend the night. Keep some of those nuclear proof classic Clif Bars in your emergency pack.
3. Hiking at night is slow going, especially in tough terrain. Scree isn’t as obvious and a rolled ankle 3 miles from the trailhead is a bad thing.
We use trekking poles when hiking. This is a good set that is reasonably priced: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue Unless you are a pro, don’t spend your money on the carbon fiber poles.