Saturday, June 14, 2014

San Jacinto, Sort Of

Yesterday I hiked up most of Mt. San Jacinto. It's the second tallest mountain in southern California, located in between Idyllwild and Palm Springs, and it stands at 10,843 ft. From the peak, you can see all the way to the Salton Sea. Or, I should say, from near the peak, because I did not get to the peak.

Yesterday I learned a very important lesson. There are times when you are aiming to hit the summit and, at a certain point, you need to realize that you aren't going to the summit and your new goal is to save your own behind and get off the mountain while you can. Which I did. I was 0.3 mi from the summit when I turned around.

As noted here before, I hike very slowly. If I ever did a long thru-hike like the PCT, I'm sure my trail name would be something like Tortoise or even Molasses. I'm OK with that but it has some implications. On long trails, I am on the trail for a very long time and I need to carry a lot of water. Only I'm also not terribly strong. I can carry about a gallon - but not more. Therefore, especially in hot weather, I need trails with water sources along the way. I carry a filter with me. I might switch to Aqua Mira drops because they are faster and lighter. I went with my filter because it filters out debris and pesticides as well as microbes, and because Aqua Mira chlorinates your water and I'd prefer my water sans chlorine.

There are 4 ways up San Jacinto and one of them is out of the question for me, at least for the foreseeable future. It's called Cactus to Clouds. You start in Palm Springs near sea level and the total hike is some 23 miles. A more sane approach takes the same basic route but uses an aerial tram to bypass all but the last 6 miles, for a 12 mi roundtrip hike. The tram costs $24.

I didn't want to fork over $24 for the tram so I had 2 options, both leaving from Idyllwild. (In retrospect, the tram's a bargain compared to the alternatives.) There are more ways to get up there if you are planning to camp along the way, but for a day hike most people either take the Devil's Slide from Humber Park or the Marion Mountain Trail.

The Devil's Slide is gradual but long - 8 mi to the top, 16 mi total. There is no water on the trail right now. There typically is but we're in a dry year. The Marion Mountain trail is notoriously steep, particularly in the first 2.8 mi. It's a 5.6 mi trail, for a total of 11.2 mi. And it has water at about the 4 mi mark as of right now. (If you plan to hike it, check with the ranger about the water, because it could dry up.)

Either option has great scenery, although I actually preferred the scenery of the Marion Mountain trail. Both have tons of wildflowers blooming right now. The two trails meet 0.3 mi from the top. From there, you head the last little bit to the summit, and I am told it requires some rock scrambling to get up there.

I'd heard horror stories about the steepness of the Marion Mountain trail, but it's actually no harder than the Ski Hut trail I did up Mt Baldy. So, although I'd planned to do the Devil's Slide, I opted for Marion Mountain. I took 3 liters of water and a water filter along, and started up around 9am. (FYI, you need a free permit for either route, and there's a quota of 30 people per day on the Devil's Slide route during weekends the summer. Devil's Slide also requires a $5 Adventure Pass parking permit, but Marion Mountain does not.)

I was immensely enjoying myself on the Marion Mountain trail, feeling great that it wasn't too hard after all. Then, about a mile and a half in, I got lost. I had a compass and the $2 trail map the ranger sells on me, and I had my GPS running on my phone using the Backpacker Lite app, which is not always too reliable (once it told me I traveled 1/4 mi while I was standing still). The $2 ranger map, in retrospect, sucks. A good 7.5 minute topo is the way to go, or at the very least, the $10 map from the ranger.

Where I was at, the trail was making switchbacks that were too small to be covered by the map I had. The map just showed the general direction of the trail as it meandered from going NE to going SE for a ways, all the while heading (on average) straight east. Then, at a certain point, it made a steep turn NNE. And the map had no markings on it for coordinates or anything. It did have altitude, in 400 foot increments.

According to my phone's imperfect altimeter, I was at about 7200 feet when I lost the trail. The trail makes its turn north around 8000 feet. As long as I headed east and generally went up the mountain, I'd hit the trail again. Unless I was south of it. So I decided to head slightly northeast. It was rough going on very steep terrain, with plenty of boulder scrambling and some walking through thorny shrubs and climbing over fallen logs. I wasn't too panicked. At a certain point you just have to accept that you are going up the mountain but not on a trail, and eventually you will be on a trail once again. And, somewhere around 8000 feet, I did rejoin the trail as predicted.

By this point, my phone's battery was low so I turned it off. So long as I stuck to the trail from here on out, I'd be fine without my not-very-helpful GPS. And with my phone off, there went my source of checking the time. This was around 1pm.

I kept on the trail and hit the next few milestones, where the trail meets up with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Deer Springs Trail, and then the PCT veers off after half a mile. The next segment is one mile to a campground called Little Round Valley. And from there it's 1.3 miles to the summit. The water is just before Little Round Valley.

I ran into some other hikers at the stream and we all stopped to filter water to refill our bottles. I let them borrow my filter and spent extra time there as a result. Just before Little Round Valley, I ran into another hiker going down and asked his advice.

Here was the situation. It was already 3:10pm and I was about 1.5 mi from the summit. The sun would set around 8pm. He was the last person on this trail heading down, and there was nobody else on this trail at all besides us. The Devil's Slide Trail would be more populated and also easier to see because it's better marked. Particularly if I ended up going down in the dark. But to get to the Devil's Slide, I had to first go UP to where the trails meet, 0.3 mi from the summit and a bit over 1 mi from where I was at that point.

I still really wanted to make it to the summit. I asked the other hiker if he thought it was a bad idea, but he didn't. I kind of did. But off I went, toward the summit. In retrospect, I should have gone down with him.

I realized I should have gone down with him and almost turned around before I'd even gone another half mile. But it was too late. He was probably much faster than me, and he had a good head start. I did not want to attempt the Marion Mountain trail going down for fear I would get lost. The only other option was to make it to the saddle where the trails meet, 0.3 mi from the top, and then head down the Devil's Slide. Maybe there were people on the summit who were going down Devil's Slide and I could hike down with them, in fact.

I went as fast as I could and finally made it to the saddle around 4:15pm. I don't go fast, but getting lost really slowed me down. By then, I'd been hiking since 8:55am and I'd gone 5.3 miles and 4000 feet up. I was at 10,500 feet or so. I stopped and ate a sandwich and an apple while waiting to see if anyone else was coming down from the summit.

I thought about going to the summit. Just 0.3 mi. I was so close. If I could do it, then I was still in the running to complete the "3 peaks in 3 weeks" challenge I signed up for and then I'd get a $30 giftcard to an outdoor retailer to buy more gear. But I realized: my health and safety are worth more than $30.

Another issue? My car was parked at Marion Mountain, NOT Devil's Slide. But I just did not feel good attempting to go down the Marion Mountain trail alone, knowing I was the only person on the trail and the trail was so hard to follow I'd already been lost once. Especially with the sun setting. I'd rather get down the mountain safely and THEN worry about the car. Worst case scenario, I could call the police and ask them to pick me up or something once I reached the bottom. There would be cell phone service there.

So I headed down the Devil's Slide path - nearly 8 mi to get down with about three and a half hours to do it in. I tried to go fast but I'm sure I was not going fast at all at that point. My phone was down to 30% battery and had no reception. I turned it on to check the time when I reached the various landmarks on the way down - Wellman's Divide after 2.4 mi, then a spot where the trail joins the PCT after another mile, then Saddle Junction after another 1.8 mi. After Saddle Junction, it was just another 2.5 mi to the end. I reached the bottom at 8pm, just as the sun was going down.

Going up took me 7 1/2 hours to go 5.3 mi. Going down nearly 8 miles took me 3 1/2 hrs. All in all, I went about 14 miles and it took me 11 hours.

I'm not that disappointed I didn't hit the summit. I can go back. If I do, I'm taking the tram. This is just a rough year to do those other trails because of the lack of water, unless you're faster and stronger than me and you can carry all the water you need. I can't.

All in all, I learned a lot on the trail yesterday. I had a space blanket for warmth in case I got trapped up there, plenty of food, enough water, a headlamp, a sweater, a warm hat, a Swiss Army Knife, and even stuff to start a fire if need be. I wouldn't be happy or comfortable if I was stuck overnight on the mountain, but I knew I'd be safe. My map and compass bailed my butt out when I got lost, but the map was insufficiently detailed, and my phone, while helpful, ran out of batteries too quickly. Next time, I'm spending the money for a better map. And it was good I actually KNEW how to use the map and compass. And I had practiced it before.

Despite my troubles, I actually had a great time. There were tons of flowers - columbines, shooting stars, ceanothus, beardtongue, beaked penstemon, scarlet bugler, and another yellow flower that could be a snapdragon or something related but I have to check. The views from the Marion Mountain side were the best, but the Devil's Slide was not bad either. On the way down the Devil's Slide I could easily see Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock, both of which I've hiked before.

After I'd already gone maybe 13 miles and I was near the end and my feet hurt and I had a few blisters, I passed some azaleas and the breeze blew the scent over to me and I was in heaven. That is why I hike. Because even at that point, when I'm ready to be back down to my car and a nice meal and a shower and my bed, I am still enjoying myself, especially when I encounter something as wonderful as the scent of azaleas.

Now that it's all over, I realize I probably could have gone to the summit and gone back down the Marion Mountain trail to my car before dark. And I probably could have found my way down OK and not gotten lost. But I can't be sure. And I would have worried the whole way down. So I still don't regret my choice.

If anyone wants to go back up San Jacinto with me, I'm game - but we're taking the tram.

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