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PALM SPRINGS-SAN JACINTO MOUNTAIN December 2023

REVERSING COURSE
A few days before Thanksgiving, Bill announced that not summiting any of the Southern California peaks this fall was no longer acceptable, that our Plan B to instead spend most of November hiking in Joshua Tree National Park (NP) wasn’t good enough. It had been a second-best itinerary, and he now had a burning desire to climb San Jacinto Peak.

Specifically, Bill wanted to do Cactus-2-Clouds, one of the hardest day hikes in the US. The hike, which we completed 4 times between 2016 and 2018, launches from Palm Springs and for recreational hikers like us, must be done before it snows because of the potential for persistent and treacherous ice on The Traverse immediately below the Tram.

We’d been too late this season to make our usual November RV park reservations in the mountains around Idylwild, CA from which we based for our 2 other area peak hikes. We were disappointed to have missed the opportunity, though we doubted I could have participated because of my lingering spinal issue. We’d made peace with giving up our hard-won altitude acclimation from 6 weeks in the Grand Canyon, giving up our months of steep mountain conditioning, and settled for racking up flatter miles in Joshua Tree until Bill’s desires to go climb a mountain overcame him.

We immediately reversed course, hoping the winter snows would be delayed. Our hikes around Joshua Tree NP were suddenly selected to maximize gain; we arranged to arrive in Palm Springs 3 nights early; and we selected one of the few days in the first half of December that was unspoken for on our personal calendar for the event. We immediately began moving our wake-up time back 30” a week from 5 am to make the 3 am alarm on event day less jarring. It was a reach, it was a gamble, but we were all-in on making it happen. It wasn’t until 36 hours before our departure that I decided to wager my spinal recovery on the intermediate San Jacinto hike to the Tram.

MOVING MOUNTAINS
Little did I realize on December 13th while I was putting one foot in front of the other on my way up one of the steepest walk-up mountain tracks in the US, I was moving a mountain inside of me. It was 5 years ago when we last trod this sometimes-vague trail to the upper station of the Aerial Tram above Palm Springs at 8500’, and then had gone on to San Jacinto Peak at 10,833’. Currently, I was still recovering from a year-old back injury, so I would only go to the Tram, but Bill would carry on with our traditional hike by summiting the peak the same day.
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Sunrise over Palm Springs from the lower slopes of San Jacinto Mountain.

We departed our trailer on foot a little before 5 am by the light of our headlamps, but we’d each be hiking alone to the Tram. Once there, I’d peel off the trail and ride the Tram down to the valley floor while Bill continued on after being met by our friends Margaret and Bonnie who were waiting for him. The trio would reach the peak about sundown and descend together through the dense forest to also catch a ride in the Tram before it stopped operations for the night at 9:30 pm.

We each aimed to do our best, but I still was woefully slow and didn’t want Bill tethered to me, so he would hike at his much faster pace like he had done all year. I knew I would be coaxing my body for what became an embarrassingly long, 10 ½ hours on the trail. In the past, I’d made it in under 7 hours.

My pack was a little heavier than usual, being stuffed with extra water, a bivvy bag should I spend the night on the trail, extra power packs for my watch and phone, and a spare battery for my headlamp. I expected to be alone all day and indeed, one trio passed me in the first hours of my event, hours during which I paused every 30 minutes to release the building tension in my back muscles. I’d be using my bivvy bag if those muscles were overworked because rest was the only effective intervention; my lower back muscles dictated my tempo like they had for a year.

I took a 40-minute lunch break at 10:30 am using a boulder for welcome back support and congratulated myself for finessing my body to the familiar halfway point to the Tram, which was barely in sight. While preparing to get underway again, I was alarmed to realize though my cautious pace had been effective and was precisely what was needed, I was now at risk of crossing the dreaded last mile,The Traverse, in low or no daylight.

We’d ridden the Tram to the upper station 4 days prior and hiked the difficult 1,000’ down, through The Traverse, and were horrified to see it was in far worse condition than it was 5 years ago. There were more downed trees to crawl under or clamber over and more rockslides obliterating the trail. Hurricane Hillary hit the region hard with torrential rain in August and the jumble was surely one of the consequences. In the past, the question was “Which track is the through one?” but now the question was “Is there a path?”

I would have been terrified navigating The Traverse alone at the end of this 10-mile hike without our fresh recon and questioned if I could have made it through the indistinct mess by headlamp, even having been on it recently. I was still about 4 miles and over 3,000’ of elevation gain from the fabled last mile and the thought of picking my way through it in the dark triggered an unwelcome sense of urgency.

Shortly after I resumed my upward climb, Bill used his Garmin satellite communicator to text me that he had taken a wrong turn shortly below The Traverse, around the 6500’ level, costing him precious minutes in his more ambitious quest. He is generally a better navigator than I, and I now was pushing against sundown, but needed to continue wooing my back muscles to make it off the trail at all. I sharpened my focus on route finding to avoid even a single error after receiving Bill’s warning, losing the trail was a third vulnerability I couldn’t afford. I chose not to consult our Gaia navigation app like Bill does frequently, gambling on my 5-year-old trail memories to more quickly find my way.

Around 2:30 pm, at the 7000’ level, I began scanning for the last sunny spot where I could fortify myself for the nearby Traverse. Soaked in sweat, I was beginning to chill from being in the deep shade on the north facing route. I passed by one rare bright spot in the trail but hoped for a more auspicious place to sun myself and luckily, I found one. A one-off: a flat open space, perhaps 12’ in diameter; with a lovely, huge rock against which to rest my weary back; complete with a grand view of the valley and the mountain. I was compelled to capture my smile in a rare selfie to remember not the view, but my deep pleasure with my trophy find.
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Barb at her 7000’ refuge.

I luxuriated in a 20-minute break in which I warmed while my sweat dried and ate my afternoon keto snack of hard-boiled eggs, walnuts, and the second half of my lunch veggies and dark chocolate. The time pressure was still on, but I also knew I needed to be at my best to clear The Traverse before sundown. I emphasized deeply relaxing all the muscles in my body and affirming to my mind that I was doing well.

Once underway, I punctuated my observations that my body was comfortable and noted I was fully present and ready to make the best in a string of upcoming decisions while I picked my way through the assorted obstacles on any track I could find. The detail on our navigation app was insufficient for much of this segment because the trail had literally shifted in some places.

There would be no rushing; progress required the concentration of going through a mine field while intentionally planning each footstep to avoid being one of the annual casualties that go over the steep escarpment. I methodically stopped often so as to look up and scan for evidence of the trail without risking stumbling. I could not afford a single misstep with my weary body and the waning daylight.

Unexpectedly, finding a way through the clutter and rubble was vastly easier this second time through in 4 days. I was delighted with my persistent calm and steadiness, instinctively deflecting any temptation to succumb to “get there-itis”.

The deeply soothing R&R in the sun had delivered the results I hoped for. Over the years in the Alps, Bill and I had done dicey, high-stakes traverses together and we both were experienced at managing our minds when we were tired in dangerous situations: I wasn’t scared, but I knew every step had to be carefully calibrated and I needed to maintain an unwavering attention to each foot plant.

I was startled when I stopped again to look up for a route, like I had done many times on the mile-long Traverse, and saw the welcoming daylight between the Ponderosa pines on the plateau’s edge. I so remembered that affirming sight from years-ago on previous hikes—a memory fortified by intense joy each time. The snapshot was fresh in my mind: I knew I’d done it; in minutes I’d be safely off the legendary Traverse. I was pleased too I had been so focused on being absolutely present with the task at hand that I hadn’t been distracted by assessing my position on the route. “How much longer?” hadn’t once found space in my mind.

I crested at 4 pm, about a half hour before sundown. The usual mobs of tourists roaming the upper station plateau were gone for the day and only a few people were in sight. If I had popped out of the forest 3 hours earlier like in the past, a few curious people would have asked if I’d come from the valley so far below, would have expressed their awe that it was even possible, and celebrated my sense of accomplishment. I knew Bill, Bonnie, and Margaret were hours ahead of me on the trail and I wouldn’t see our friends until the next hike. I was still alone, like I had been for all but a few minutes of the almost 11-hour ascent.
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Bill's sketch of the route to the Tram from 4500'.

I texted Bill to reassure him I’d made off the trail before dark and commented that I was startled not to be limping like I’d done after so many hikes for too many years. I quietly and spasmodically began briefly weeping, and then I wept again and again. I was grateful for the mask I’d brought to wear in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in the Tram so I could weep in private.

I’d had no nervous excitement before this event, only detached determination, so the tears weren’t the joyful release from a highly anticipated accomplishment. I’d had so much pain and disappointment for the last year that detachment had become my primary survival tool, not the anticipation of success. The tears didn’t seem to be tears of joy or tears of deep relief for having survived, and I struggled to understand their origin.

About 2 days later I did understand: it was noting the lack of limping, the absence of pain, when I arrived on the flat ground, that was monumental. This epic hike was different from the Rim-2-Rim in October or other big efforts: my body was actually healthier and more comfortable AFTER this 10 plus hour effort alone on the dangerous trail than it was before. I had trusted that my body was up to the challenge, I had been right, AND the effort had catapulted my body to a new level of recovery. That was surely the source of the deep and profound emotions that bubbled out in the form of tears: the unfamiliar, total absence of pain was my most significant triumph. I had dislodged the mountain of pain and dysfunction in my body and moved it out of me.

BILL’S EVENT: SUMMITING

A little after 5 am, Bill rushed ahead in the dark towards San Jacinto Peak, not to be seen again by me for over 14 hours. He’d benefited greatly from my self-designed retraining program in which I’d been walking 50-60 miles a week since October. He felt supercharged and I applauded him for putting his new capacity to good use on his quest for the summit.

Bill broke his own speed records in reaching our usual turnaround point halfway to the Tram at 4500’, then he became unexpectedly tired. He was only about 5 miles into his 18-mile day, so was alarmed. This 4500’ elevation point was a place of reckoning for us both this day: for Bill, it was unexpected fatigue; for me, it was the impending the threat of darkness.

Unlike me, Bill would be snacking while on the move, pausing only to transfer water into his chest pack from his backpack and to reorganize his snacks, whereas I would take a 40-minute, deep rest at the familiar halfway point. He was testing the theory of enhancing his performance by eating a little lighter along the way to avoid diverting excess blood to his gut for digestion. Then, the attitude effects started setting in, which always hit him hard.

I seemingly have very average altitude tolerance whereas we label Bill as “altitude intolerant.” And this portion of the Skyline Trail has a merciless zinger: around 6,000’, the trail predominantly runs straight up the fall line with few switchbacks to ease the effort expended. Almost all people begin feeling the altitude drag by this point in the route. The segment through a shoulder-high manzanita grove, which likely exists because there is more dirt and less rock there, has less secure footing than the rest of the trail. Somewhere in the grove is where Bill lost the trail for too many precious minutes.

The next day, Bill shared his dismay when, while following footprints to guide him through this difficult grove, they stopped, and he didn’t know which way to go. Finding no indication of a path, he looked down at his feet to discover all of the tracks ended where he was standing, he had followed a herd into a blind canyon of manzanita. There was nothing to do but retrace his steps and suss a new route.

In retrospect, Bill’s new snacking-while-walking plan had backfired. He coincidently chose to begin eating just as the altitude was becoming difficult for him, and instead of saving time, eating while walking in thinner air exhausted him and retarded his pace. He would have been far better off pausing for 10 minutes, eating while resting, and then resuming his upward journey.

The agony of time pressure had been upon us both in this manzanita grove segment of trail. Bill was slowing because of fatigue and the performance drain of the higher elevation. He was also chagrined to have misjudged his targeted time to rendezvous with Margaret and Bonnie who had already ridden the Tram up to meet him. My athletic output was more uniform through the day but was also slower than I anticipated, putting me at risk of being in the pitch-black forest struggling to navigate on a largely missing trail on The Traverse. We were both faced with discouraging challenges when crossing through this section of the route hours apart, but we both kept our cool and both focused on, above-all-else, being safe.

Frustrated and disappointed, Bill kept using his Garmin in-Reach mini satellite communicator to text Margaret on her Garmin to apprise her and Bonnie of his delayed and further delayed arrival time. He urged them to go to the peak without him, to have the hike they anticipated, and they would hike together later when their paths crossed. They refused, insisting that they would wait for him, that they were there to hike with him.

Simultaneously, Bill was distracted by his concern for me, knowing I was more than 2 hours behind him, concerned by my prediction that I was at risk of finishing in the dark. We both were brainstorming a Plan B for me, and both concluded there was no good option and we each needed to press-on with our own Plan A. Stopping to text and receive texts took time and we were falling behind on our agreed intention to check-in once an hour. It was time for us both to focus only on our own performance.

Bill finally crested the escarpment immediately below the Tram about 1:00 pm, 2 hours behind his former arrival time of 11 am five years ago, whereas I was leaving my shoe prints in that soft forest dirt at 4 pm, more than 3 hours later than him. Hardly a stellar performance for either of us, but we were both immensely pleased to have made it to the Tram and have done it solo for the first time. The high-stakes performance anxiety part of the day was behind us. We both successfully made the “Don’t hike alone” hike alone and were back in community.

Bill’s new top priority was reaching the ranger station where he would meet Bonnie and Margaret. There, he would replenish his water, have a larger snack, and take his first real rest break since beginning 8 hours earlier. Hours of toil lay ahead of him, he wouldn’t be off the trail for at least 5 hours, but he’d be buoyed by the company and security of being with capable friends when he was exhausted. He would dig deep and push hard against fatigue and worsening altitude effects, but he would be safe, happy, and triumphant.
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The iconic Coffman’s Crag above The Traverse.

Bill texted Margaret upon his arrival at the Tram plateau and she and Bonnie met him 15 minutes later from their short excursion on a scenic trail, eager to get on with the remaining climb. They headed for the top about 2:00 pm, realizing they would be approaching the peak near sunset, and understanding they would likely need to abandon their plan to summit because of possible ice, the inevitable darkness, and the imminent cold. They each had a different level of concern about these variables and an unspoken discomfort about how they would reconcile them in deciding when to turn around.

Around 2:45 pm, Bill received Barb’s message she was leaving her sunny refuge at 7,000’. He knew it was less than a 90-minute climb through The Traverse to the crest from there and was deeply relieved to know that she would make it off this, the most difficult part of the trail, before dark. Unless she became utterly lost, which was highly unlikely, she had plenty of time. At last, Bill could turn all of his attention to his task at hand: reaching the rocky summit of San Jacinto Peak.

Shortly after resuming hiking to the summit, Bill accepted that he couldn’t match Margaret’s and Bonnie’s paces. They were much fresher than he and didn’t have his inevitable trouble with the altitude. He took up position at the back of the group and pressed ahead at the maximum speed he could sustain, stopping for a brief rest about every 10 minutes. They would continue at their own speed and then patiently wait for Bill periodically. It was embarrassing for him to both be 2 hours late for their rendezvous and then be so pokey on the ascent. Bonnie and Margaret took Bill’s struggles in their stride and were both cheery and supportive, which helped him concentrate on making progress up the mountain.

The group finally made it to Wellman’s Divide, a relatively flat area and an important landmark on the Pacific Crest Trail, a little before 4:00 pm. Margaret snapped a victory selfie of them. The panoramic view of mountains was glorious in the cold, sparkling low light and a huge contrast for all after having been cloistered in the coniferous forest.

Ice on the trail had been minimal up to that point, but now the icy patches became larger and required more care to pass through them. Bill became concerned for the group’s safety later on their return, when they would navigate these icy patches in the dark. Making a decision to turnaround and descend to the Tram was becoming more pressing.

They trudged on towards the peak, leaving Wellman’s Divide as sunset drew nearer. On the mountain, like in the desert far below, the temperature dropped precipitously when the sun settled lower on the horizon. Fortunately, the forecast high winds never developed, preventing it from being show-stoppingly cold in the exposed area. The predicted lows were for the mid 20’s, without the wind.

About 20 minutes before sunset, 0.9 miles and about 700 vertical feet from the rock pile at the absolute top of San Jacinto, Bill had had enough. He was depleted and moving increasingly slowly, and Bonnie was getting too chilled. They still had time to get back to Wellman’s Divide with a hint of daylight, which he considered a priority. All were disappointed to have gotten so close without summiting, but Bill was very pleased with his performance for the day and his top priority continued to be safety.

They stopped and discussed the situation. Fortunately, the group had experience with making collaborative decisions with each other and all quickly agreed it was time to turn around. They pulled out their headlights, bundled up, and headed back down the mountain. Nibbling on his remaining chocolate was now easy given the low exertion level of the descent and it buoyed Bill’s spirits.

Like in the past, as soon as they turned around, Bill’s energy level and pace skyrocketed. No longer hampered by pushing hard in the thin air at 10,000’, he felt energetic and set a brisk pace to the Tram. They hit Wellman’s just as the light was failing and turned on the headlights that were poised in the ready.
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Bonnie, Margaret, & Bill (L to R) at Wellman’s Divide.

Their descent down the rock, then dirt, trail in the dark was uneventful and the minor bits of ice presented no significant hazard. They all appreciated the high mountain air giving them a spectacular view of the starry sky. It, however, was hard to shake their chills and they didn’t start warming up until about halfway back to the Tram, which was a stinging reminder of how dangerous these mountain trails can be if one is stranded overnight.

Contentedly cruising downhill by headlamp, they suddenly realized they were off the trail. Their navigation apps confirmed what they knew, which was it was only about ¼ mile more to the ranger station, but not in the direction they were going. Somehow, they had followed a dry creek bed instead of the trail for a few hundred feet, something Barb interjected later that she and Bill had done before. They quickly reoriented with their GPS devices and pressed on through a little clearing until the ranger station’s lone porch light suddenly popped into view. The walk to the Tram was a no-brainer from there. “Seeing the light” triggered immediate relief for the group, like it had done for us 4 times before on the Cactus-2-Clouds, that same “I’m safe now” relief Barb had felt when she saw the broken sunlight through the pines at the top of Skyline trail.

While buying his ticket for the Tram ride down to the valley, the cashier in the warm, too-bright building asked if Bill had just completed the Cactus-2-Clouds. The cashier went to great lengths to explain what an accomplishment it was. Then, while waiting to board, other riders approached them with congratulations for a job well done. Bill basked in the celebratory praise that amplified their own satisfaction.

Margaret gave Bonnie and Bill rides home, and Bill opened the trailer door a little before 7:30 pm, hours before Barb expected to see him. It was completely over, all were safe, all were unscathed, almost 15 hours since Bill walked out that same door. Our different events were epic for different reasons and deeply affirming in our ongoing quests to experience “exceptionally successful aging”.