Sunday, January 31, 2010

Week 31 San Jacinto Peak

Out of order I know. Ill feel in the preceding weeks soon.

Also to compliment the story here is a link to a KML file which can be opened in Google Earth if you have it. San Jacinto

I have something of a love affair with California. In this case, affair is likely the operative word. My desire to reside there is muted by the traffic, bustle of the cities, smog, fake people driving expensive cars etc. However my work has taken me here rather frequently lately, and provided some of my best adventures to date.
There is something about the stunning mountains and my usual lack of time that makes adventuring come easy.

In many adventures I have talked about pushing my limits, finding the edge and finding a way to exist there at the edge. In climbing this is paramount. If you make a serious enough mistake there are grave consequences, so knowing yourself and being honest with yourself critically important. But what happens when you find yourself in a situation where you go beyond the limit and encounter a situation where you face the tough choice of failing upward, or as difficult of a descent?

Typically I am planning this trip at the last minute. A whirlwind week, busy at work, fly to GA to administer some training, and then all of a sudden I am on a plane to LAX landing at 10 pm PST with a weekend to kill and nothing planned. Luckily my boss Michael found a free Airtran wifi coupon and I was on my way.

With a little reasearch I found my match. San Jacinto Peak. Only 2.5 hours from LAX, it some of the largest topographical prominence in the US, and best, it has a trail that gains 10,000 ft of elevation in less than 10 miles. This is a huge gain, normally 4000 is pretty large. Luckily there is salvation, as a day with 20 miles and 20000 feet of change would eat your soul... there is a tram at around 8500 feet which provides an easy descent back down to Palm Springs.

Getting off an airplane, by yourself, in a strange city, with no one to meet for two days is a liberating experience. I hate to be a bit Randian here but I can almost feel myself going along on a set of rails greased by my own ability. The future is mine for the taking. The plan is to drive to the base, find a place to catch a few Zs for a few hours then get an early start and do the hike on Saturday.

Even at midnight as I drive in the mountain looms large. An amazing thing here is that Palm Springs is basically at sea level (300 ft above sea level) so there is no assistance here. No climbing a 14er in Colorado by starting at 11,000 and strolling to the top. Here you must climb every inch of the mountain. The struggle and the reward are all yours.

I pull into the parking lot on Ramon road, the No Camping sign shines bright in my headlights before I turn the car off. The problem is that the neighborhood is much ritzier than expected. A little info on guerrilla car camping, you dont want the extremes. Place in a shambles? I worry about my safety. Place to nice? I worry about an overactive, under-utlized law enforcement officers wanting a chance to display their power. Within a minute of my arrival an officer drives by slowly and shines his light on me. Apparently I dont meet his stereotype for a wrong-doer as he says nothing and pulls away. My cover however is clearly blown, and lacking anyplace else to go, I start packing to start hiking. I take my light sleeping bag, 8 snickers bars, 1 gallon of water, and a pair of gloves. As I leave the car the clock reads 1am, I woke up 23 hours ago in a little hotel outside of Ft. Gordon GA.

Energy for the hike ahead

The bright moon allows for nigh-time hiking sans headlamp and the trail to my delight is relatively easy to follow. 1.5 miles of fairly steep hiking leads to the Skyline trail. Several signs describe the seriousness of the route, lack of water, elevation gain etc.

Looking up the horizon looms ever higher. And every time I gain what is the apparent high point another one takes its place... then another, and another. The trail is steep, not too bad, but if there is one word it is relentless. Around 5 am I start to encounter some snow and the trail gets harder to follow. Way up high I can see the bright light of the tram shining bright. I decide to crash for a little while and wait for light. As I curl up in my sleeping bag, right on the trail, I keep wondering how big of a cat would it take to make the footprints I just saw in the snow.

Its gotten quite cold, I must have gained a lot of elevation... I am awake and on the move at first light. Palm Springs looks like I am in airplane, I must have gained 5000 feet last night.

Knowing I have a long day ahead

The snow is getting deeper but it is relatively consolidated, I can walk on top without breaking through the upper crust. Still things are getting slower, and despite getting started halfway up the route, at 6am I wonder if ill have to just get to the tram.

A view near where I spent the night

It is also heating up. Despite being January I am in Southern California and it warms at least to the upper 40s. The snow is getting softer, and as i break through the crust it is going from 6 inches to a foot or more. I wearing approach shoes (low top sneakers with sticky rubber) but the miracle of wool keeps my feet wet but warm.

The small wrong turns that are inevitably made go from being 30 second diversions to 5 minutes or more. The trail that was once so easy to follow is gone but the route is obvious... follow the ridge past mini-peaks towards the tram station now clearly visible up ahead.

Conditions have gotten quite hard and during a particularly grueling section of more than 30 minutes where I find myself on all fours trying to disperse my weight and gain some flotation on the soft snow which is now in the 2 foot range. I must have gained 250 feet of elevation in that time.

My last photo on the mountain as I got too tired to take any more

I find a rock, and lay down to let the sun warm met. Its maybe noon. I eat a couple snickers bars, and call Eliza let her know I am alive and get a pep talk. The tram is clearly now my goal and I can see it less than 1000 feet above. I know the tram runs till 9pm. Even at my slowed pace I should be able to make tram.

The snow has gotten really poor. Every step I sink in to my waist. I spend 20 minutes trying to fashion some snowshoes from a bunch of evergreen boughs and my shoelaces, they are useless and quickly get cast aside. I plunge on. Giving everything I have and getting very very little. The ground coverage is small bushy undergrowth, and like a spruce trap it holds the snow but not my weight so the apparent snow depth gets even deeper. I feel like I am expending an entire snickers bar worth of energy for every step. I lose a shoe trying to lift up out of the snow. I had not retied my shoes properly after the snowshoes fiasco. At some point I look back, my rocks are barely 50 feet of elevation back down, and I have spent an hour and countless calories struggling.

My limits. Often I have pushed them, sometimes learned my limits are greater than I expected. Technical climbing it is relatively and safe to back off. A mountain is not the same. And the tram being so close had convinced me that a safe and easy descent was so close. Did I have the drive to finish upwards? What are the failure options? Down: spend another night on the mtn, certainly lower, and perhaps out of the snow or down... 7500 ft of descent over 8 miles. Up: A night on the mtn at 8000 ft in waist deep snow, with no pad, just a sleeping bag, and no guarantee of improving conditions higher up.... if i make it a quick descent.

Certainly the allure of going up was strong. My pride, that i could SEE the tram, the quick descent and an end to the painful progress. But in the end I knew that it was the failure options that would determine my path. Going up and failing was certainly more dangerous, high reward, high risk. This may be splitting hairs as here i was 7500 ft up a huge mtn, but we all have our lines. Going down meant pain... and lot of it, but if anything I have proven to myself is that pain tolerance is something i can handle.

I had found the edge, and walked off, now it was time to return.
Failure can be success as well.

Going down lives up to its promise. I am even more spent than I thought, almost stumbling/wading through the snow. This almost skiing motion with my feet gives ample opportunity for the sharp thin crust of the snow to cut into my shins. Even now days later my ankle to my calf is swollen and bruised from the beating. I lose my shoes two more times before stopping and properly retying them. But progress is being made. 3 hours later I regain the spot where i slept last night. I know now I will be ok, the remaining 5 miles will teach me a little about pain management, but if necessary another night could be spent without consequence.

The miles dredge on, and it is dark as I reach the car. It takes nearly every once of energy I have left to stumble to the car. I am drooling because it feels funny as the last of my water slips past my lips. I try to take a picture, wanting to document my state, but the camera, usually so natural to me has become complicated and twisted, not bending to my will. The dark and out of focus frames can attest.

I eat consume copious amounts of calories at the nearby Mexican joint. Manage to drive 20 miles and crash at a rest area. Sleeping, half reclined in a rental Hyundia Sonata, you would think I was sleeping on a tempurpedic.

A great view of the whole mountain

The next day I cruise around Joshua tree (anyone out there remember Spring of 2001 in Jtree??) stopping by some old place to dredge up a memory or two. Remember what times past had brought, and how they have influenced my present course of action. I get a huge omelet in an idyllic Cali town halfway back to LA. A triple amputee meets a friend for lunch across the aisle and his intrinsic happiness makes me cry and crushes my humble accomplishments. I go and see some art. Some I helped to create, some I will contribute to in future. It is a day where traffic does not matter. I finally crash at the hotel before resuming normal proceedings.