Mt. San Jacinto (October 2012)
I repeatedly drifted off to sleep but only to wake minutes later asking myself “did I actually sleep?” While it was freezing balls that night in Idyllwild, the temperature wasn’t the only issue keeping me awake. Between the excitement for the following day’s adventure and the loud conversations of our hammered campground neighbors, it was turning out to be a sleepless night. I checked my watch at 1:30am and just prayed for a few additional minutes of sleep before our 2:30am wake up call. No dice. Giving up on the hope of sleep, I rolled out of my sleeping bag and tackled the preparation process. Coming from Idyllwild, we had an hour drive to the start of our mission.
Cactus to Clouds on Mt. San Jacinto is one of the top 5 hardest day hikes in America. The trailhead is located behind the Palm Springs Desert Museum at approximately 450 feet and the trail climbs to the upper tram station (Long Valley) at 8,000 feet in just 11 miles. From there, another 5.5 miles of ascending is needed to summit at 10,834 feet. Using my impressive mathematical skills, that’s approximately 10,400 feet of gain in just 16.5 miles. The heat can be unforgiving in the summer months, especially with a late start. Being mid October, the weather could swing either way so my goal for the group was a 4:30am take off just in case.
After taking a quick #2 behind a tree near the parking lot, we stepped onto the path and I instantly knew it was going to be an amazing day. The mood was light as everyone exchanged different adventure stories. Although some of us previously knew eachother, for the most part we were a hodge-podge of people brought together by one main factor, Ben Horne.
Guided by the light of our headlamps while ascending at a good clip, the trail was moderately steep but very manageable. Accepting the fact that the trail would never flatten out, helped my mindset. White dots painted on the rocks acted as a guide, and although we had a couple close calls with taking wrong turns at the start, we fortunately found our way heading in the correct direction. Along the way I heard a story about people ascending Cactus to Clouds for speed records. In the past, runners have gotten catty and have falsely marked the trail by painting white dots on the wrong rocks just to take competitors off course. First of all…who does that? And second of all…who does that? This was just something to stay aware of when following the markings.
As the sky lightened and the sun broke free from the horizon, I was in a state of peace because I felt so isolated from the world below. The air was getting warmer but as we continued our ascent, it never became unbearable. The group separated a bit, but everyone was moving at a consistent pace and making great time. After dropping a second deuce behind a rock, I quickly buried it and kept heading up, up and up.
The final 2-3 miles on the approach to the upper tram station were steep and the trail was covered in some sections. Prior to beginning the hike, I decided to carry a pack with extra weight, just for training purposes. I began to question my desire to do this, but I stuck it out and continued on. A few F-bombs were definitely detonated amongst the group, but only because we enjoyed the intensity of the climb so much! We started seeing folks in normal clothes taking short hikes down the trail, so we knew we were closing in on the upper tram station. In our haggard state of being, I’m sure a few people wondered what in God’s name we were up to. Who cared, it was time for a sandwhich!
After shoving in some calories and performing a few yoga postures to stretch, it was time to knock out the remaining 5.5 miles to the summit. Being at 8,000 feet, the air was cooler so warmer layers were needed. Compared to the beating we took earlier, the remainder of the hike was gradual and very enjoyable and some sections were easily runable. The chatting, the jokes and the fart stories started back up. Before we knew it, we were on the boulder approach to the summit.
Throughout the day, the sky was clear blue which was a nice change from my last adventure up San Jacinto. While hiking last January, the trail was covered in ice and a mini snow storm crept in. Visibility was very limited at the summit and 4 of us took a wrong turn on the descent. By the time we realized it, the sky was completely dark. Using the light of only 2 headlamps, we finally found the correct path but only after our tracks and the trail had been covered from the falling snow. The ice made the descent tricky, but after devising a ghetto system involving hiking sticks and a buddy system that linked us arm in arm, we made it down safely. And just in time before the Ranger sent out the search party.
Although that experience was memorable and awesome, I was thankful for good visibility this time. Scrambling up the boulders to the summit, we arrived at our destination. As everyone took in the experience, we struck the Pullharder pose as a tribute to our friends Ben and Gil.
On the descent, I let my mind drift as my body moved with the downward momentum. Back at the upper tram station, the total mileage for the day rounded out to 22 miles and I was stoked to check Cactus to Clouds off the SoCal bucket list. I was just as stoked for the meal that awaited us on the drive home as well. Jamming out to Meatloaf, Gangnam Style, 90’s rap and 80’s metal in Matt’s car (complete with Bose system quality), we reflected on the awesomeness that went down that day and looked forward to more adventures to come.
I only went through 3 liters of fluids for the entire hike, but be prepared to go through more should you do this in warmer temperatures. The upper tram station has water, food and anything you need for purchase, but there is nothing along the trail until then. Don’t be that hiker that needs to be airlifted out due to dehydration.
This hike is intense so you must be in good shape to safely summit (or at least get to the upper tram/ranger station).