So you want to summit?

Day 7: Fobes Saddle to Mt. San Jacinto

Trail miles 166.5-181.2 plus 3.3 miles to the top of the peak

May 9, 2019

Today was a huge day. I left camp at 6 and had no chance to work on memorizing more lines today because the trail was relatively technical.

A large part of the San Jacintos burned in recent wildfires, and despite enormous efforts to reopen the trail, portions of this area are crisscrossed with downed logs and small landslides. Use trails have formed as hundreds of hikers have worked their way around these obstacles, and these are invariably steep and rocky, offering poor footing and requiring significantly more concentration than hiking ordinary, well-groomed PCT miles.

The trail, true to the “crest” in “Pacific Crest Trail,” followed the spine of the mountain range, weaving back and forth across the ridge and trending ever upward.

From Fobes Saddle, we climbed along the ridge, headed towards Tahquitz Creek (11 miles from camp, it was the first reliable water source of the day and the first in 25 miles for me). To the east, Palm Springs was visible, sprawled across the valley floor, its buildings glinting in the desert sun.

Because I am stubborn and lazy, I had carried five liters of water from Paradise Valley the day before in order to avoid going off trail to get water from a spring during the climb to the ridge. The use trails to the springs in that section are between 1/3 and 1 mile long, and every one involves significant elevation change. I figured I’d actually save energy by lugging extra water up the well-graded PCT in order to avoid these steep excursions from the trail.

This decision left me with little water by the end of the climb, and when I woke to confront the 11 mile climb to Tahquitz Creek, I had about one liter left. At least I would travel most of the distance before the sun had climbed high in the sky. Or so I thought.

The challenging terrain and the unrelenting climb reduced my ordinarily respectable pace to a plod. Although I began hiking at sunrise, I was still four miles from the creek at 10am.

I stopped for a snack break at a burned out campsite, and Teresa, seeing my short supply of water, insisted I take a few ounces of hers. As she poured her water into my near-empty bottle, I felt the hot pressure of the sun on my face and knew she was being absurdly generous.

Her water tasted of sulphur, and she explained that getting it from one of the springs had been a mistake because of the hard climb down to the water and back up to the trail. But what was I to say as I reaped the benefits of her hard work?

Feeling both chastened for my stubbornness and reinvigorated by the extra water, I made quick work of the final four miles to Tahquitz Creek and stopped for lunch. Theresa was there with Hot Hands, Brightside, and a few other familiar friends.

Only after I’d drunk two full liters of the icy water and then pulled on my down jacket to stave off the shivering that induced did I realize that we’d stopped 1/3 of a mile shy of the actual creek at a seasonal stream of snowmelt. I could not have cared less as I sat there chewing absentmindedly on tortillas and cheese.

After an hour, I forced myself to stand up. I hobbled around in bare feet, sore from the morning’s exertion, and packed up my things. On the way to the Mt. San Jacinto alternate trail, I talked with Danish about distance running and about how he’d heard about the trail. Danish’s friend Chris, who was hiking just behind us, had “introduced [him] to many of the joys in life,” two of these being backpacking and computer science.

Chris and Danish have an enviable relationship that seems entirely symbiotic. One carries food, the other carries the tent. They take breaks together during the day and take turns preparing meals for one another: tortillas with heaped with tuna and smothered in Thousand Island dressing for lunch; double packets of ramen, presented as separate courses, for dinner.

“He’s very easy to get along with,” says Chris of Danish (off trail name: Emil). “And when we have a disagreement, I know we can work it out.”

Around 3:30pm, we reached the junction where hikers wishing to climb Mt. San Jacinto can skip a few miles of PCT in favor of another few miles of trail leading to the peak. The descent trail then rejoins the PCT a few miles north of the junction.

By this time, we had climbed 3,000’ over 15 miles, and I was feeling the sweet sleepiness that comes at the end of a long day. But at the junction, conversation turned to summiting the peak that evening.

Because the routes up and down the peak are still snowbound, most hikers carry microspikes, which are an ultralight version of crampons. They are composed of a series of small metal points joined by chains attached to an elastic band that allows one to affix the spikes to the bottom of a running shoe (most PCT hikers choose to hike in running shoes because modern ultralight gear keeps pack weights minimal and the support offered by heavier boots is unnecessary and often uncomfortable).

While in Idyllwild, most people in my “trail family,” as the cohort of hikers you see on a daily basis is known, picked up microspikes. I opted not to because I have experience hiking in snow, and because at least one of the trails to the top was reportedly free enough of snow to be passable without microspikes.

My initial plan had been to set up my tent at the trail junction and then “slack pack” the peak (climb it with only food, water, and layers, rather than with a full pack). But in spite of the lateness of the hour and the exhausted state of my legs, I decided to push on for the summit with a full pack so I could camp in the hut at the top with Danish, Chris, Gables, Teresa, Brightside, Hot Hands, and Rod.

We set off in the afternoon light, slipping on snow patches that were slushy at the end of the warm day.

I will spare you the details of that climb except to say that every time we stopped (which was often, as we sometimes lost the trail in the snow), someone would ask how much more climbing we had to do and how far we were from the hut. The answer, often out of someone’s mouth before the question was fully formed, became “Only one mile left,” or “Only a thousand more feet.” Even as we walked up the final snowfield, watching Teresa waving from the hut entrance, someone could be heard remarking “only a mile to go!”

After offloading our packs in the dingy summit hut (It’s actually a beautifully built structure of precisely-stacked stone that was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 as part of the New Deal. Unfortunately, the inside has been trashed by selfish users), we made the final trek to the absolute summit. From there, we looked west across a sea of clouds, golden in the evening light. To the north, Interstate 10 sliced across the valley floor. The mountains visible beyond the interstate hide the next section of trail, which leads to Big Bear Lake. To the east, the desert was pricked with wind turbines so distant they appeared only as white toothpicks. And to the south was the ridge we’d climbed all that day and the day before.

That night in the hut, just after we’d turned out our headlamps and settled onto our crinkly inflatable pads, everything was silent. Then Chris, who had now been afflicted for two full days, let out a single hiccup. Everyone burst into laughter, and Chris accepted his new trail name. Henceforth, he will be known as Hiccups (except on Fridays, when we will call him Big Daddy for no reason except that it is entirely misaligned with his character).

Looking back at Fobes Saddle

The ridge. The snowy summit where we ended the day is just visible in this picture from about 7:30am.

Low on water, high in the San Jacintos

Tahquitz Creek or not, this was a prime lunch spot.

Clockwise from top left: Hiccups, Danish, Teresa, Brightside, Hot Hands, Spartan, Muscle, and Gables

Hiccups (aka Big Daddy on Fridays) and Hot Hands at the summit

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