Redemption: Day-hiking San Jacinto Peak and living to tell about it
Flashback: In October 2007, the PD and I, among others, summited San Jacinto Peak as part of an overnight backpacking trip. Bristling with confidence, having had a great deal of past experience hiking and having done well on an overnight century bike ride the weekend before, I was sure that this hike would be a piece of cake. It was not. Rookie mistakes, like wearing new boots, barely broken in, and not training for the hike, made it very challenging. A day hike to San Jacinto Peak, without taking advantage of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, is very challenging.
I had blisters within the first 2 miles and was out of breath the entire ascent. Back then, I had summited San Jacinto Peak the second day wearing my Teva sandals, as not to aggravate my injured feet. Near the bottom of the mountain, on the second day, my leg gave out; the descent had simply tired my quadriceps until they could no longer take the pounding steep trail.
I limped for days and took this as a wake up call. I was in horrible shape and needed to do something about it. The mountain had truly won this round. It wasn't until a year later that I joined Gut Check Fitness and recharged my health, leading to my renewed interest in hiking. As I started hiking all over San Diego and beyond, I wanted to know if I was truly in better shape than before.
I wanted to know if I could conquer the mountain this time. The PD decided to go back and try it as a day hike.
This time, the summit of San Jacinto peak was part of a larger celebration weekend. We were celebrating several of us turning 40. We headed up to Idyllwild to stay in the Teacher's cabin. The PD and I got there early, so we could get an early start the next morning. We intended to hike the Marion Mountain Trail to the summit of San Jacinto Peak and back in a day.
The next morning in the cabin, we got up early, but the Teacher and Gumball slept in a little bit, since they got to the cabin really late. We started a little later than we had wanted, but it was a nice day. We got our gear together, drove to the trailhead and headed up the trail.
In no time, we were all feeling the effects of the elevation. In about a mile, Gumball, who hasn't hiked in many years, let us know he was ready to turn around. The Teacher decided to go back with him. The PD and I picked up our pace and headed up. The trail immediately got ridiculously steep and we occasionally had to stop and catch our breaths. We got our rhythm and continued climbing. And climbing.
We finally got to a more level stretch and we picked up the pace again. We took breaks here and there, but were really focused on getting to the top. We came across a large camp. At first I thought it was a large Pacific Crest Trail Camp where there was support for thru-hikers, but then we saw some trail workers and we realized that it was likely a Conservation Corps Camp. It was HUGE, well-stocked, was right at a water source, and had access to the PCT.
We continued up and up. We felt good. The clouds were threatening, but then the sun would peek out again. The weather was perfect and just cool enough. We got to Little Round Valley and saw where we camped five years ago. This time, it was to be a lunch stop. The meadow there was peaceful and belied the climb we had ahead of us. We sat on a log, overlooking the green meadow, listening to the trickle of the creek. We had only gone about 4.5 miles and had many more to go before the day would be done.
Rested and recharged, we started the steep ascent to the ridge just below the peak. The elevation challenged us some more, but we have learned how to deal with it. We understood what our bodies could do and gave ourselves the appropriate rest. Our mantra: Walk a little bit, aim for a landmark up ahead and go for it. Catch your breath and repeat.
We reached the ridge and trail junction, where we were met with the mass of people that had taken the tram up. En masse, we followed the trail past the summit hut and then scrambled over rocks to the summit. We had made it. Our feet weren't killing us and we actually felt pretty good. I felt vindicated, but there were two things that were nagging at me.
First, as a peakbagger, I realize that I was only halfway to my goal. I still had to get down. And, knowing how steep this trail was, I also knew that my knees would know suffering before this day would be done. The good news was that my lungs would get a little break.
Secondly, the summit was literally overflowing with people. This was a far cry from my trip in 2007, where we had the peak to ourselves for about 40 minutes. Nearly every available area on the summit was taken by groups of people. It sounded like a party. Even on my Mount Whitney trip, the PD and I had the summit to ourselves for at least 10 minutes. I truly I hope I don't sound asocial, but it wasn't my idea of an outdoors experience. I couldn't even record my summit video without someone wanting to squeeze by me. I was glad I made it. I felt victorious, but I wanted to start our way down as soon as possible. The gathering clouds didn't make me want to stay either.
We waited in line to snap some quick pictures and then headed down. We made great time. As usual on crowded trails, the first half-hour is telling people that they are almost there, and the rest is being honest. We got pelted with some large drops on our way down to Little Round Valley. We breezed through that area and started descending the steep parts. Our pace was fantastic. We started talking about food.
The trail kept going down and down. Our legs got more tired. We heard thunder rumbling from up above. We started encountering people still on their way up. "Are we almost there?" an exhausted girl asked, part of a larger group. I looked behind us at the towering mountain we had come from. I shook my head, "No. You've got a long way to go." I doubted she would make it today. They were going too slow and it was too late. And they already looked too tired. Some hikers didn't appear to be carrying enough water. I wished them well and we continued down.
We continued talking about food. We took one last break. Our legs were shaky. Always thinking we were closer to the end than we were, we'd recognize a landmark and say "Oh, we're only here" and then continue on. We caught up to and passed a family of boys hiking. The end of the trail was near. The expletives started emerging. Would this trail ever end? Was it really this steep on the way up?
I recognized a distinct manzanita bush and knew we were only about a quarter of a mile from the trailhead. I was relieved. We emerged from the trail into the parking lot and staggered to the car. The first order of business was to high five the PD, and then to quickly remove my trail running shoes and put on sandals. We had stashed cold drinks in the car and that hit the spot. We sat in the rear area of the car and let the blood start to go back to the places where it should be. We enjoyed the breeze and repeatedly exclaimed how awesome we were.
We had done it. We had let this mountain kick our rear ends once, but this time, we summited it, and did it in one day. There are so many other peaks to climb, so we won't be coming back any time soon, but San Jacinto Peak was something that I considered a failure. To come back and conquer it at age 40 turned it into a victory.
The rest of the weekend was spent in celebration, with perhaps a little too much wine. But any subsequent suffering was totally worth it.