I Climbed Mount San Jacinto – elevation 10,804

I swear, the only reason I made it to the top was because it was so much more post-worthy than saying “I Hiked 12 miles to the Tram.”

We were in such good spirits at the start of the day. Really, just cheerful and excited.

We had had a lovely Italian meal at Riccio’s the previous night: calamari, fettuccini a la vongole, and spaghetti puttanesca with a nice glass of house wine, finished with mocha chocolate cake and an espresso.

We had a comfortable room at the Ramada across the street. There was a beautiful view of the mountain – and a nice spread was served for continental breakfast. The bed was soft, the sheets fine, and we slept deeply.

We woke up at 3:30 am, with the intent of starting the hike at 4:30 am. No problem. We got up, grabbed our packs, tied on our hiking boots, and drove to Palm Springs Museum. The trailhead is just off the museum parking lot, but the parking lot itself is reserved for museum parking only. We had scoped the area the previous week, so we knew about the shady parking spots, just past the museum, and around the corner. Only problem there, is the potential of vandalism – but it all ended up fine. My car – was already at the Palm Springs Tramway overnight parking lot.

We started up the hill in the dark using our headlamps. The air was not cool, but soft and comfortable – like the breath of a good friend. What, with the darkness and sense of purpose, it felt like we were on a secret mission or adventure. We were alone – well, except one man who passed us very early on. He looked like an extremely seasoned hiker and strode by with big confident steps. He said hello very quietly, made only the briefest eye contact, and then he was gone. We thought about him the rest of the day though; wondering whether he had made it to the summit, whether he had been stood up (we had seen him waiting by his car), and surmised that it was not his first time climbing this mountain. Chad speculated that we, in comparison, probably looked like real amateurs to him. In any case, the rest of the day I kept spotting this very clear waffle-print track of a tall man; I imagined they were the tracks of this man we had seen, and the rest of the day, I was comforted by the fact that he had hiked the trail ahead of us.

We passed the picnic area with hardly a glance. Chad said that there was spray-painted sign just ahead, and that would be good place for a picture. There was an impressive mound of small stones, marking who knows how many of the hikers who have started up this peak. We paused a moment, and took a picture using my new gorilla pod (a flexible tripod, great for hiking) and the self-timer on my camera. We considered this the beginning of our hike, although we had already been walking for about 40 minutes.

We began hiking in earnest. We wanted to get as much elevation under our belt as we could before the sun came up. Fortunately, the desert weather has been mild for this time of the year, and we only expected it to get to about 87 degrees Fahrenheit in Palm Springs. The summit might be 20 degrees cooler. The museum is at 480 feet – and so we had a lot of elevation gain ahead of us: about 10, 000 feet. The terrain was standard scrubby, dry desert. Scattered plants, hardly anything blooming because of so little water this year, and nothing moving. The sky was gradually lightening in shades of purple. We just kept moving.

I entertained myself by writing little posts in my head, imagining that I would break the hike down by hour. Chad and I worked out the general order of events at the wedding ceremony and reception. We had plenty of breath for talking, and we felt pretty confident about what we were getting ourselves into. According to somebody’s account of the hike I had read, we could expect to make it to the tram in about seven hours. That seemed reasonable.

The first three hours went that way.

We rested frequently, ate snacks; at 6 am, I ate half my roast beef hoagie. We drank, and drank, and drank. We marveled at how much we loved walking with hiking poles, and we reviewed the different things we had read about this hike. No, we decided, the hype on this trail was more than it deserved; it was going to be entirely do-able and pleasurable. We were not as hard-core as the two other couples who passed us that morning, but we were definitely in good enough shape to handle this without killing ourselves.

The next two hours passed in much the same way.

Really, it was in the fifth hour that things started to get hard for me. And if you think about it, think about an ant crawling up your body, starting at your foot. Me saying that it got hard in the fifth hour of a sixteen-hour hike, is like saying that ant started to feel pooped when he got to your kneecap.

This is when I started to say things, like, oh! This is the hard part that people talk about. Or, Oh, do you think this part would be scary with snow on it?
My legs were getting tired, but I knowing that the tram was only two hours away made everything bearable.
But then, it started to get steeper.
And steeper.
The trail was less-maintained. In fact, there were places where you downright had to scramble up a sandy avalanche trail. Other spots where trees had fallen across the path, and other whole sections where the manzanita had grown into the trail so much that you were getting constantly scratched.

But then, the view was spectacular, and every now and again, the ecosystem would change around us. By the sixth hour we were intermittently in a pine forest and snuffing up great big breathfuls of the warm butterscotch scent of the yellow pines. I popped a Café Latte See’s lollipop in my mouth to celebrate that last hour to the tram. I figured, I just needed to make it to the tram, and I could see from there if I had the energy to go to the top. What was strange, was that we had caught sight of something that looked like a tram line, but being that it looked impossibly far off, we wanted to get over the ridge in front of us to get a good view.

We stopped for a short break in that seventh hour, right at the corner of a switchback, when we caught sight of the rest of the mountain.
Chad cussed for the first time that day.
“Oh shit,” he said.

Even though we had been hiking nearly seven hours, we were nowhere close to the tram station. It was definitely still an entire valley and ridge away, and quite a bit higher than us as well. The terrain did not look friendly. At this point, we re-assessed. We still had plenty of water, Gatorade and food. True, all the frozen Gatorade bottles had melted, and our bodies were drenched in sweat. I lifted my shirt and bra, and just let my chest breathe in the wind for minute. We were both really, really drenched with sweat. Our shirts were soaked through and sweat was running down off our faces.
So, we were tired. We had some more fruit and nuts, corn nuts, and power bars. No big deal, I still had some pep, I just needed to go slow. And breathe. So it was going to take us longer than we had expected – no big deal. We kept on going.

We calculated how many Weight Watchers points we were earning for eight hours of hiking: 48 for me, 64 for Chad. We kept on going.

By the end of the eighth hour, I had stopped believing that we were ever going to reach the tram. It just seemed to get further and further away. After letting me lead most of the day, Chad moved ahead and plugged along. He made me go ahead of him later, when he realized that I was taking even more rest breaks when he let me lag behind. We had reached that meditative state when nobody is talking anymore, and you’re just lifting one foot in front of another.

Then quite abruptly, there were five or so very clean, fresh tourists standing in front of us. They asked us, “Do you know where this trail goes?”

Without breaking step, we answered in dumb unison, “It goes to Palm Springs.”

“Whaa?” One of the guys just stopped and looked at us slack-jawed. “You mean you walked all the here from Palm Springs? What time did you start? How far is that?”

But no matter how many questions we answered (on our way past), that guy kept saying, “You walked here from Palm Springs??”

It was extremely gratifying, and better than a bandstand or people cheering.

We passed them and the last thing I heard was one of the women in the group saying, “Honey? I don’t want to go down that trail.”

Heh, heh, heh. Made me chuckle.

The next thing we knew, we were in Long Valley – the wide open valley where the tram cars unceremoniously dump hundreds of tourists a day to stroll along a few miles of over-used flat trails. There were people everywhere: foreign tourists, groups of clean-cut, middle-aged men, health-conscious greenies from the city, young rock climbers and on and on. It was all so predictable. Nobody looked very interesting to me; in fact, the many of the men looked so alike, I kept thinking we were passing the same people over and over again.

Walking on the flat ground felt like I was on a moving sidewalk; I was going forward with such momentum and ease, compared to the last eight hours of hill-climbing.

There was never really a discussion about whether we were going for the top or not. Despite Chad’s insistence that climbing the twelve miles to the tram was accomplishment enough (prior to the day of the hike), I think he got attached to the idea of making it to the top – and besides, as he kept reminding me, he felt great. And anyway, we had arrived at the Long Valley at 1:30 pm. We had said that if we made it to Long Valley by 1 pm that we would attempt the peak and a half hour seemed like a very small allowance to make.

So we refilled our water bottles, washed out faces, and shouldered on. At this point, the trail was relatively well traveled and easy compared to what we had already hiked. I felt rested, fed, and hydrated. I tried not to dwell on the fact that the peak was still 5 1/2 miles away and 2000 more feet in elevation gain.

But after the first mile marker, I was already thinking about turning back. My feet hurt. My feet really hurt, and they felt heavy. My thighs hurt. My knees hurt. My shoulders hurt. My thumbs hurt from gripping my hiking sticks. I had raw spots on my back where my T-shirt kept riding up and letting my backpack chafe my skin. My boobs hadn’t been dry since early morning. Although we rested frequently, the refreshed feeling I got from the breaks dissipated instantaneously once I began hiking again.

Chad said he could dance a jig, and did too, occasionally, on the trail.

By mile three, I thought to myself, why am I doing this? What’s it worth? Who cares? But then Chad would say, “But we’re only two miles from the top!” so we would trudge a little further along.

This was by far the most painful and grueling part of the hike.
One mile from the peak, I realized with shock that we had been hiking for TWELVE HOURS. No wonder I was so frickin’ frackin tired and grumpy. Chad had to give me lots of cheer-up kisses that last mile.

And worst, were the inane comments from passing hikers: “Hey, getting a late start aren’t you?”

“Hey, another one with two sticks. I’m getting myself another hiking stick.”

Or the group of Korean guys from Orange County who knew each other from church, who kept bursting into song on the trail.

And the young couple who were completely decked out in North Face gear, but moved even more slowly than us. They never made it to the top as far as we could tell.

And then the trail would get a just a little bit harder. I would focus on breathing and trying to discover a new grip on my hiking sticks. We would stop for more Gatorade or a L’arabar. My legs were moving very slowly, but miraculously they still followed my orders. Then the trail would level out and I would speed up. As soon as the incline came back, though, I would drop back and begin my plodding.

Then, suddenly we were there. Or at some version of the peak. There was a stone ranger house. And lots of huge boulders and the trail splintered off in several directions. My mind split and I just looked dully at Chad. I couldn’t figure out what to do, where to go next. He led me up a few boulders and we broke out the chocolate-covered butter cookies.

Instantly I felt better, but then those loud Korean guys scrambled onto the rock next to us. I guess we looked like we knew what we were doing, because they kept following us. In fact, we ended up giving them a liter of water because one of the guys had run out.

We high-fived each other and called it done. I was perfectly satisfied to look out over the Coachella Valley from this vantage point and consider this peak bagged.

But then, those pesky Korean guys kept climbing higher, and then we could hear their shouts, “Hey here’s the sign! We made it!” Reluctantly, we pocketed the last chocolate cookie and hauled ourselves up the last few remaining boulders to the actual highest point on Mount San Jacinto. It was ridiculously high. I felt vertiginous. But also giddy and proud.

We allowed ourselves just twenty minutes of snacking and resting before we re-shouldered our packs and headed back down. We had gone seventeen miles, but now we were still 5 1/2 miles from the tram.

Leaning heavily into my hiking sticks, I turned off my thinking brain and just marched all the way back. We rarely stopped, just kept on moving, trying to beat the nightfall. We made it to the tram at 8:15 pm. We had been hiking since 4:30 am – a solid sixteen hours.

We walked the interminably long concrete sidewalk to the tram building, and headed to the ticket counter. The tram was just about to leave. We asked the ticket guy for two tickets, one-way down. He looked at us for a moment, assessing our level of grime and fatigue, and then said, “Want to catch this one? Go ahead jump on. You got the right guy tonight.” And so we rode down for free.

It was the perfect end to the most challenging physical thing I have ever attempted (other than childbirth). I think that I pushed myself just a hair past safety and good sense, but sometimes that’s just the thing you have to do.

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