|View of San Jacinto Mountain from Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. You can only see up to about the 8,500-foot level from here.|
The 11,000-foot San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs are intimidating. I had a total sense of denial when I first viewed the towering snow-capped mountain as we rolled south down the Twentynine Palms Highway into the Coachella Valley. That can't be the mountain I'd been planning to climb via the infamous Cactus to Clouds route for years. Rising abruptly from the valley floor at just a few hundred feet above sea level, the San Jacintos are cartoonishly big. I told Susie not to worry, that thing must be San Gorgonio, an 11,500 foot monster in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains.
But as we passed all of the windmills and entered Palm Springs city limits, it became obvious that that beast was indeed what I'd committed to climb.
If the sheer looks of this mountain don't intimidate you, perhaps the numbers will. In just the first 9 miles of the C2C route to the Palm Springs Tram station--a.k.a., the Skyline Trail--you gain a whopping 8,300 feet! From there it is an additional 2,700 feet in 5.5 miles to the summit. This 11,000-foot gain in 14 miles makes C2C the largest continuous vertical gain on a hiking trail in the U.S. It also ranks among the steepest established trails of similar length in the world.
So if the mean looks and gaudy numbers still don't phase you, get this: there have been 61 rescue missions and at least 5 deaths on just the Skyline portion of C2C since 2009. Most deaths occurred in summer when climbers succumbed to the unrelenting heat. I mean people were literally cooked. Like having-to-rehydrate-a-corpse's-limbs-with-salt-water-in-order-to-get-an-identifiable-fingerprint sort of cooked.
In winter, Hypothermia and falls down icy slopes on the upper portions of C2C have claimed lives as well.
After hiking and exploring the area around Palm Spring for a few days with my family (with San Jacinto literally looming above everything we did), the final day of our vacation arrived and it was time to bite the bullet.
Reaching San Jacinto's summit can be treacherous in winter, particularly during or following heavy Pacific storms (its only 55 miles to the ocean). Wind speeds can be off the charts. Fresh snow requires snowshoes or skis and can create a real avalanche threat. Overly icy conditions require an ice axe and crampons.
Thankfully, there are few very useful tools to keep track of conditions on San Jacinto. First there's a user-controllable Tram Cam that allows you to view snow conditions (and be entertained by watching tourists slip and fall on the ice) near the Tram Station. Then there is the San Jacinto Hiking Forum that has all-around good information and recent-conditions updates and trip reports.
Checking these sources, it was clear that I would first encounter snow at Flat Rock (~6,000 feet), but that snow would not become consequential until I hit the Traverse at about 7,500 feet. There would be a couple of feet of snow at the Tram Station and quite a bit more higher on the mountain. But since no new snow had fallen in about a week, the main route would be packed down but not overly icy. This meant I could travel very light and forgo snowshoes and crampons, and carry only microspikes and trekking poles.
I left the Art Museum trailhead at 6 AM with the goal to keep a steady but not rushed pace and to finish sometime before before dark (~5 PM or within 11 hours).
Day break over Palm Springs from about the 2,000-foot level on the C2C route.
|A short break to take in an amazing Coachella Valley sunrise.|
|View north from 3,200 feet.|
|Nothing renews the soul like a killer climb.|
|More than 3,000 windmills catch strong coastal flows that are funneled through San Gorgonio Pass--one of the windiest places in the U.S.|
|Did I mention the sunrise was amazing?|
|Getting my first good look at the higher snow-covered part of San Jacinto. I'm about 4,000 feet up here.|
|Looking south along the San Jacinto Mountains.|
|Rescue box at 5,400 feet. Housing emergency food, water, and perhaps a cell phone (so I've heard, I didn't look inside), two such boxes were established to help reduce the nearly weekly summertime SAR missions on Skyline.|
Large yucca and red shank typify the desert chaparral zone at 5,800 feet -- about halfway there!
|The trail steepens a bit once past Flat Rock at about 5,900 feet.|
|Charred ponderosa near the Traverse, where the trail cuts across a steep north-facing slope at about 7,600 feet. A slip here on packed snow and ice can be fatal, so this was the right time to put on microspikes.|
|View of Cornell Peak above Tamarack Valley.|
|I'm guessing that post-holing through Tamarack Valley ended up being about an hour longer than if I had just stayed on the main packed trail. Although the views in Tamarack Valley are superb and I was still ahead of schedule.|
|The emergency storm shelter--built in 1935 by the CCC--just below the peak has saved a life or two over the years.|
|I reached the summit just before 2 PM, for a sub-8-hour C2C ascent. As expected, the views into the surrounding deserts are off the charts.|
|A fellow summiteer arranges his gear on San Jacinto Peak. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in southern California, rises in the distance.|