On Challenge: Reaching New Heights at the Summit of Mt. San Jacinto
“What are those mountains over there, Mr. Graeme?”
A student from my trail group of 12 bright-eyed fifth graders looks up at me from the backside of Sheep’s Pass Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. As we stare out at the jagged islands of tan-shade granite native to the park, a string of looming peaks hugs the Western edge of the panorama that frames our view of the sunset.
“Those are the San Bernardino Mountains,” I reply with a smile to my small companion’s question. “Millions of years ago, those heaps of granite rose from underneath the Earth’s surface before they were twisted 90 degrees by the San Andreas Fault.”
Whispers of “I know that,” and, “isn’t that near home” perk up from the circle around me.
“And what’s the big snowy one?” Another student chimes in.
“That’s Mount San Gorgonio,” I say to my student, gesturing a reminder for them to raise their hand next time they have a question. The peak lies due East from where we stand, not a single pine tree visible from the heaps of snow that cap its bald head from the mid-Spring sun.
“And what’s that one?” Another student asks me, pointing to the Southwest, a jagged stony crest peeking just slightly over the tip of Ryan Mountain.
I stare at the A-shaped hill that towers 8,000 feet above the Mojave Desert where I was making my little classroom.
“That, my friends, is Mount San Jacinto.”
I stare at its looming top as the sun dips below the horizon line. In the span of just a short month, I would be making the climb up the Goliath of a peak that cast shadows over my tiny home in Joshua Tree National Park. It was mid-April, I’d already heard reports of hikers rerouting around its snowy face. For now, all I could do was spend my afternoons looking up at it, watching all that snow melt like ice cream down one of my student’s arms. I wondered if I would be one of those who would have to bail off the side, or if the conditions would be just right for a summit. Thinking about tagging the peak made my blood churn just a tad.
My cold toes bite into the crusty outer layer of consolidated snow, the claws on my feet bonding me to the unstable surface below. As I hike, each step takes work, kicking the soft tips of my trail runners into snowy slopes in front of me. Everyday, the ground below would go through states of metamorphoses: from ice, to slush, to water, and back again to ice with the cold temperatures brought on by darkness. While we would have to rely on hiking in the cold mornings for fresh crust, the tip of the Southern slope had just enough tree cover to give me some grip on the frozen liquid in the early-evening air.
How I missed the hot, dry ground of the desert. Just a month ago, I was spending my mornings staring up at the snow that I now dug my feet into, picturing the PCT hikers making the slog over its steep and jagged peak.
The climb out of Idyllwild was nothing short of serene. Where the North side of the San Jacinto range descends to the arid Pinto Basin, the South yields slightly to sub-alpine meadows with mixed growth conifers, pines and firs dotting landscapes that feel as though they should be somewhere further north in the state of California. All the while, Tahquitz Peak stands sentry for a little hippie town so pure that the only reasonable choice for a leader was a Golden Retriever named Max. The granite that sheltered Idyllwild from the hot desert on the other side reminded me much of the towering walls of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada.
“Well look who decided to turn up.”
I hear from the small tent city that awaits me on the only dry patch of trail in a radius of four miles.
“Howdy, Pickles.” My trail family greets me from the pizza-induced locomotion that powered 2,000 feet of elevation gain over the past hour. In the short span of a week I had spent with my rucksack-wielding warriors, I had earned my trail name, mainly due to the fact that I had gotten my hands on bagged pickles to carry out in my food bag.
“O hey!!!” Rachel waves at me as I set down my stuff. She had also gotten her trail name: Moony, due to her keen sense of admiration for the moonrise at the beginning of the evening. Detour was also present, working on a slice of pizza he had packed out from town.
Our trail family had grown considerably in the past week: alongside Moony and Detour, I had found myself camping with Erwan (France), MJ (Milwaukee), Sharkbait (Seattle), and Taught (Iowa) almost every night. Upon arriving at Paradise Valley Cafe, a desert oasis of breakfast burritos and cold soda, we had also picked up Quickbeam, a musician from Montreal who hiked the Appalachian Trail the year prior. He gifted us with songs on his little blue ukulele, which always had a spot strapped to the outside of his pack. But most notably of all, we somehow had adopted Iron Will.
“Hey Pickles, take a swig of this.”
I look down over my shoulder to see a small bottle of Southern Comfort waiting for me in the outstretched hand of a Georgian with a thick head of curly, black hair and the Southern draw to match. Iron Will’s demeanor was cool and unapologetic, he carried himself with an age you can only assume comes with walking over 9,000 miles across North America.
Iron Will was something of a legend to us. At 21 years old, he was already set to complete his triple crown when he tagged the Canadian Border at the end of the season. He had hiked the Appalachian Trail twice, the first time earning his name from hiking himself off trail on a broken femur, and the year prior, had been one of the first to enter the San Juans in Colorado on the Continental Divide Trail. As we had heard from so many people on trail nearby, Will had started on March 3rd, slogged his way through the ice and snow as far north as Big Bear before bailing from trail and restarting at the Border April 30th. The snow had kept him off San Jacinto the first time around, he sure as hell wasn’t going to let it happen again.
I nod to Iron Will as I pass him back the small bottle of whiskey native to his home in Southern Appalachia.
“How’re those crampons treating you?” he asks me, pointing to the set of claws compatible with my trail runners.
“Good! They’re comfy, feet get cold from time to time, though.”
Will taps his hard-soled mountaineering boots. “Waterproof. Might be worth it for the Sierra.” His snow gear put my Kahtoola Crampons to shame. While I thought I was being proactive carrying trail runner crampons, Iron Will’s feet stayed warm and dry through miles of snow, and the steel on his spikes gave him all the more purchase on those steep traverses we had managed in the past few days.
“I figure we should get going at 2:00 tomorrow morning.”
I say to everyone as we all circle up for our nightly ritual of family dinner. “With the heat wave, snow quality’s deteriorating sooner and sooner. The more hours of dark we have, the more time we have before the snow turns to slush.”
Everyone nods in agreement. We had gotten word of three falls on the infamous Fuller Ridge: two had slipped down the side in the midday soup, and another had broken through a snow bridge and fallen into the North Fork of San Jacinto River. We didn’t want to take any chances, not when conditions could change so rapidly in the span of a few hours.
“So walking at 2?” Moony says. Everyone nods.
“Let’s meet at this log.” Iron Will says before we all head off to bed, sitting in anticipation for the summit that lay ahead in the early morning.
Hiking over blowdowns and snow in the dark feels something like arriving late to a movie theater and trying to find your seat, only on steroids and your feet are constantly wet.
As we trudged in the morning darkness, the lights of Palm Springs twinkled 8,000 feet below us. I picture myself a month ago, staring up at where I stand now.
“It’s gotta be so hot down there,” I think to myself. California is a landscape of extremes: a mere 20 miles separates high alpine from sparse desert, cold snow from blistering heat. Much different from the flat plains of home, I’d grown to love the ecological diversity that I’d lived in for the past year. They say you can ski and surf in California in the same day; maybe this was the year to try the saying on for size.
First light hits just as we reach the junction to the summit.
As we climb, a single boot track meanders its way around icy slopes, giving sweeping views of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. Just barely, Catalina Island is visible so many miles away, jutting off the coast of Long Beach. We climb higher and higher, Iron Will cutting our steps with his beefy crampons while we follow in tow.
“What’s that one?” Sharkbait asks me, pointing at San Gorgonio. I think of my kids asking the same just a month prior.
This time, Mount San Antonio is also visible. The San Gabriel’s stretch West and out of sight rising high above the smog that sits in the Los Angeles Valley. Mount Baldy (San Antonio) is the highest in the range, it’s snow-capped peak glistening in the early morning glow.
We press on. Pines jut awkwardly out of the side of the slopes, almost at ninety degrees. The heavy snowfall and mudslides had weakened their support in the heavy winter, pushing their angle further down-mountain. It was humbling to witness the aftermath of such forces of nature, a kind of respect that you appreciate in the monumental indifference of Mother Nature.
Our steps were rhythmic, Iron Will setting the pace.
With each two steps, we plunged the spike of our axes deep into the wall on our uphill, anchoring us in the case of an untimely slip. We were all watching out, every step was carefully planned. Climbing the mountain was a team sport and we were the Olympians. With each wobbly foothold, I would hear check-ins and “are you alright?” It was three miles to the summit. It took three hours.
Sunlight glissades down my face as I break treeline and dig my axe into the tip of the summit. I pick up a pile of snow and rub it on my cheeks, cooling them from the hot sweat I had worked hauling my feet up the climb.
“How’s it feel?” I ask Iron Will, whose face is giddy with delight.
“Finally got up this mountain, been looking at it for the past two months,” he says to me with a smile, burying his ice axe into the snow.
“Same here.” I think to myself, picturing my students on the other side of the basin that sits out in front of me. I glance down at the I-10, a tiny barrage of ants carrying families and cargo between Phoenix and Los Angeles so many miles below. In two days, we would be there, and then climb back up to the alpine in the San Bernardino Mountains to the North.
We give hugs, we cheer, we take photos. How monumental it feels to stand at the top of Southern California. How more monumental it is to share it with so many good people.
As we make our descent, the hard packed snow that had given us traction in the early morning hours had melted into slush. We glissade like kids on a toboggan sliding down hills with our axes at our hips as though we were sledding our way to hot chocolate. How scared I had been of the snow, I had forgotten how much play there was in it.
When we arrived back at camp, we pitch our tents on the few spots of dry ground and settle in for another early morning. We would Alpine Start again the following day, using the hard pack to traverse the North Face of Fuller Ridge, still barricaded by feet upon feet of snow, well into May. But we were professionals now, the nerves that preceded us were gone. The snow was our playground, and we were ready for it.
“Mr. Graeme, what mountain is that over there?”
“That’s Mount San Jacinto,” I say to my wide-eyed student, staring up at the piles of rocky, snow covered talus.
“And one month from now, I’m going to climb it.”
And that’s exactly what I did.
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