Originally posted May 30, 2013 – edited
My friend, TJ, the hiking program director at the Biggest Loser Resort Fitness Ridge, posted some pictures on Facebook, sharing details of some cool and challenging hikes she had recently completed.
I was planning a mini vacation, and looking for some challenge myself. Fueled by TJ’s recent adventures, I focused my online research on where I could find some of the highest nearby mountains.
I learned that there are six mountains in relatively close vicinity, known as the 6-Pack of Peaks. These six mountains are the highest peaks in southern California. It is recommended that hikers climb them in a specific order to condition themselves to take each consecutive one on.
I narrowed the list down to two, the two highest ones. Go big or go home, right? These two were numbers 5 & 6 respectively in the 6-Pack of Peaks: Mt. San Jacinto, the second highest peak in SoCal [10,834 feet], a 12 mile hike and Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest mountain in SoCal [11,503], a 17 mile hike. No point in picking ones that were less than 10,000 feet as I’d already done Mary Jane Falls and Mummy Spring. Onward and upward!
It was right around this time that TJ added a new picture from her San Gorgonio hike. The subject of her photo? A bear.
One huge, menacing, hungry-looking bear. It was a long winter after all. And said bear appeared to be no more than 30 to 40 feet away from the photographer.
Hmm… I started rethinking my options. San G was no longer looking so attractive.
Seriously, WTF would I do if I saw a bear? Out of curiosity, I read the comments that she and others had posted about this picture. Friends asked her what she did when she saw the bear. TJ’s response, “I just waved my arms and shouted loudly, ‘Go away Bear. Go on. Get away!’”
The very last thing I would instinctively think to do in that situation is draw attention to myself by yelling and flailing my arms wildly.
If that’s the right thing to do, I’m clearly in trouble.
Good God, what am I getting myself into?
The guy who checked us in to our cabin at Big Bear Lake seemed to be an avid hiker, so I asked him about my planned targets of San J or San G. He didn’t hesitate to recommend San Jacinto, citing that it offers the best views, and at 12 miles, it’s substantially shorter than the San Gorgonio option (17 miles). He had recently done both and said that the San J hike was a nicer one.
The fact that no one in my circle had posted pictures of bears at San J was another definitely selling feature of this hike over San G.
Done. Decision made.
With that settled, I decided to mention the bear thing, in a very casual, lah-dee-dah sort of way. This was as much to avoid alarming Mr. Enthusiasm [who knew nothing about TJ’s bear] as it was to gauge this seeming expert’s reaction. He was nonplussed. But, perhaps sensing my unease, he suggested that we could always pick up some bear spray, just for the peace of mind.
Good idea. Peace of mind is good.
The next day we hit a sporting goods store in search of our security-blanket-in-a-can.
The very young clerk asked where we were headed. I told him we were hiking San J the next day. He looked at me quizzically. “Oh, you’re way more likely to run into a mountain lion than a bear on San J”, he said.
WHAT? Mountain lions????
For the love of all things good, why can’t I just enjoy nature without the fear of being attacked by a wild animal??
The clerk saw the look of horror on my face, and quickly added, “Oh, don’t worry, the bear spray will work on mountain lions too.”
Lucky, lucky me.
For the low, low price of $39.95, we got a canister of bear spray, in a holster, with a range of 35 feet. And the comfort of knowing it would protect us against bears, mountain lions, bobcats or escaped mental patients.
The next morning we set out early for Palm Springs, and the Aerial Tramway which would provide us our boost up to 8,516 feet [to the Ranger Station] and the trailhead for the San J peak trail.
The tram itself is an unbelievable thing. It travels up 5,873 feet, and does two 360 degree rotations on the way up, ensuring everyone in the tram gets views from every side. If I wasn’t so anxious about the 6+ hour hike I probably would have really enjoyed that tram ride.
I glanced at the visitor guide they had handed me when I purchased the tram tickets. In addition to details about the tram, it listed a variety of activities available. Among them, some hiking options:
- Novice: Desert View Trail, a 1½ mile loop with incredible views of the Coachella Valley.
- Experienced: Round Valley Trail, a 4.2 mile round trip hike featuring a fern-lined alpine meadow.
- Expert: San Jacinto Peak, a 12 mile round trip hike to the top of the second highest peak in southern California.
Mind racing, I began to seriously considering pulling the chute on this San J hike.
Me? An expert?
No, I am most definitely not an expert. Not even just a little bit.
I decided to hide that little tidbit from Mr. Enthusiasm.
After departing the tram at Mountain Station we walked down a steep winding concrete walkway down to the wilderness area.
It was from the vantage point of the cement walkway that I got my first glimpse of my final destination. See that pile of rocks on top of that mountain? That’s the San J peak.
Holy crap that looks far. And high. Clearly, a trail for the “experts”.
From there we headed to the Ranger’s Station because, as it turns out, you need to get a permit to hike into the wilderness area. Although this would add a few minutes to our start time, I was glad that there was now a paper trail showing that we were on that mountain, should anything have happened to us [because we are clearly NOT experts].
After filling out the necessary paperwork, buying a $2 map of the trails [which was completely and utterly useless, by the way], I asked the Ranger if there were any tricky parts to this trail; any areas where we might get lost, etc.
He said, “No – it’s pretty straight forward. Just pay attention.”
I asked him if there were trail markers. He said that there were.
That was the best news I heard all day.
I then asked, “Anything else I should know? Any tips or advice?”
His response: Just pay attention.
I looked at Mr. Enthusiasm. He nodded.
We left the office and started walking. Um…which direction? Why aren’t there any signs? This is STUPID!!!
I pulled out my map and felt somewhat certain that the trail off to the right of the station was the one we wanted. We hiked for a few hundred feet and found 3 more possible trails. Not a single sign anywhere.
GAH! Why?? “Just pay atten–tiooooon”
Stupid, stupid ranger. I hate him.
Mr. Enthusiasm pointed to the left at a wooden bridge. He said, “See, just pay attention. Why would there be a bridge in the middle of nowhere? That’s our trail.” Okay smart ass. I’ll give you that one. But I still hate that smug park ranger.
We set out at a pretty aggressive pace.
The trail started out in a lovely, cool and shady area, with soft ground cover, making for a nice solid trail. It would have been relatively easy, except for a pretty decent incline. This was not, by any stretch, going to be easy. That much was clear from the outset.
I looked for trail markers of any sort, since I figured that leaving a trail of protein bar crumbs a la Hansel & Gretel would be futile with all the hungry bears and mountain lions around. I saw two quaint-looking outhouses about a half mile or so from the trailhead and clocked that piece of info for future reference.
This hike was tough, but made tougher still by all the extra weight we were carrying. We each had the equivalent of 4 bottles of water, plus various snacks, sunscreen, first aid stuff, etc. on our backs. Significantly more than we had ever carried for previous hikes.
There was very little talking. We saved our energy (and breath) to keep our legs moving forward.
About 20 minutes in, and with Mr. Enthusiasm approximately 20 feet behind me, I saw some movement through the corner of my eye.
Shit, shit, shit!!! Is it a bear?
I stopped dead in my tracks, didn’t make a sound, and held my breath until Mr. Enthusiasm caught up. I told him there was something moving just to the right of us.
Happy that I had avoided a bear attack, I smiled and posed for a picture.
Plodding onward, I caught a glimpse of a sign. Wow, an actual trail marker! Dying to know how far we had traveled, I jogged on over.
San J peak 5.5 miles to go. WHAT? We’ve only hiked for half a mile? That can’t be right.
Mr. Enthusiasm started slowing down a bit, and I definitely felt it too. Unlike him, though, I get to a point of frustration where I just need so badly for it to be done that I simply push on.
I take frequent breaks, but my breaks are literally 20-30 seconds max. And I never remove my pack. To me the pain of putting that weight back on, once I’ve had it off, would just be cruel and unusual punishment.
Mr. Enthusiasm on the other hand takes his pack off each time he rests, and wants longer periods of rest. We are way out of sync in this regard.
It was at this point that the gap between him and I got a bit bigger.
We passed the two big map points the park ranger had pointed out: Round Valley turn-off and Wellman Divide Junction:
The trail got a little scary for me around 4.5 miles in, as it narrowed significantly during some vigorous switchbacks.
The lodgepole pines grew sparse among tons of crumbly granite. And, oh joy, in addition to a very narrow trail, the outside edge featured a pretty sheer drop-off. For someone afraid of heights, and with a healthy dose of vertigo, it made for some hairy hiking.
I channeled my inner donkey, pretended I had blinders on, and didn’t dare look to my side at the drop inches away from my feet.
I was probably about half a mile ahead of Mr. Enthusiasm at this point, and acutely aware that HE had the bear spray, so I was on my own when it came to the mountain’s predators.
It’s amazing how my mind works.
Had you told me to climb up that mountain with no bear spray, I would have said no flippin’ way. Yet, my overwhelming need to just be at the top of that mountain drove me to press on, well ahead of the man with the bear spray.
After making it up what seemed to be the last of the switchbacks I arrived at a clearing and looked up to see the stone cabin. This shelter was built for mountaineers who have the misfortune to be caught in a storm.
Based on my research, I knew that the peak was very close! Close, yes, but not easy to get to. Essentially, you need to boulder-hop in a crazy scramble to get to the top of the peak.
I looked for the easy way up, but quickly resigned myself that there was no easy way. Just start climbing, woman!
When I made it to the top, I heard Mr. Enthusiasm below, asking if I was up there, and which way I had climbed. I told him it didn’t matter. Just climb. His gas tank was officially empty at this point, and he was not a happy camper.
I, on the other hand, was completely energized by the idea of having made it to the top! I was smiling from ear to ear, jumping the rocks, getting all daring, trying to capture the view from every angle, and impatiently waiting for him to reach the top so he could take my picture next to the sign.
He made it up, dropped his trekking poles and his pack and declared that he was officially done.
He barely mustered the energy to snap two pics, and then he settled in to take a nice long break. He was cranky.
I took a bunch of pictures, had a little more food, some water. I also chatted with a single hiker, from South Africa, who was jumping out of his skin he was so excited to have made it to the summit! He yelled out “Yaaahhhhooooooooo!” Then, turning to me grinning, he said, “this is the highest I’ve ever been!” Me too, I responded! How cool is this?
It was super cool. Epic, even.
John Muir called the views “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” I can’t say I disagree.
Sadly, this feeling of satisfaction and joy was short-lived. No rest for the wicked.
As far as I’m concerned, the shittiest part about climbing a mountain is the descent.
Good for you! You just climbed the second highest peak in SoCal. Awesome. Now, go hike back down.
It’s like entering a contest where you have to iron 300 shirts to claim the grand prize. And the grand prize is…you get to iron 300 more. Yay you! What a windfall!
I tried to make the best of it by focusing on the accomplishment – how good it felt to have summited such a high peak, along my longest trail to date. And also by trying to appreciate the views on my way down.
Still, I’m not gonna lie, it was a tough, tough slog back down. Left, right, left, right, left, right for 6 more miles back down the mountain.
And then we got lost.
We didn’t know we were lost. Of course not. If we had, we would have backtracked sooner.
I knew we were lost because I used the outhouses as my trail-marker. When we passed them on the descent, my heart filled with joy knowing we had less than 1/3 of a mile to go! But we kept hiking, and hiking, and hiking…
I knew there was no way it would take that long to get from the outhouses back to the trail-head.
We’re still not sure exactly how much further we went out of our way, but clearly there was an extra loop in there. If I had to estimate, I’d say we easily added ¾ of a mile to a mile of unnecessary travel to our descent.
This made us both cranky.
I dropped my permit back in the return box (so they know we made it back safe and sound).
And then we got a whole lot crankier.
We looked up at that cement walkway back to the Mountain Station.
This freaking thing was pretty steep going down, but climbing back up… Sheer pain.
Each step, following 12+ miles and 6 ½ hours of hiking, was like someone shoving knives into my lower back.
I couldn’t even form words. I was pissed! So angry that there wasn’t a set of escalators or an elevator, or something. This was just too cruel. Who designed this??
I never took that pack off. Not during that final trek up the cement walkway. Not for the 15 minutes we had to wait for the next tram down. Not during the 12.5 minute tram ride. Not during the ½ mile walk back to the car.
Oh, but when I got to the car… heaven. The pack came off. The shoes came off. The socks came off. And I sat down, cranked the AC and felt a bliss like I’ve never felt before.
I did it.
- 6.5 hours
- Nearly 13 miles
- +2,300′ elevation gained
- Reached the 10,834 summit of the “expert” trail at San Jacinto Peak.
I did it.