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Braving Cactus to Clouds

(10/4/05) Now that I'm in Palm Springs so often, I find myself looking towards the west to Mt. San Jacinto every time I step outside. It is such a beautifully shaped mountain. I hate to compare Southern California Mountains, but I think Miss Jacinto would reign as beauty queen. It's worth climbing her taller sister, Gorgonio, just for the spectacular view of San Jacinto alone. The north east face of San Jacinto rises from the desert floor 8,000 feet in only four miles making it one of the steepest and most spectacular mountains in North America. Its magnificent up-thrusts of granite rock, rich sub-alpine forests, flowering creeks, and fern-bordered mountain meadows add to its majesty.

There is something also nurturing about Mt. San Jacinto, the way it cradles Palm Springs, and keeps the storms at bay. Its fascinating just watching the cloud formations and thunderheads circulate over the mountain top.

In the last few weeks, I've been looking up at San Jacinto for another reason. I knew that soon I would be hiking up the entire east face on one of the most difficult trails in the United States.

This last Saturday I scouted the entire route. The hike from the Palm Springs Desert Museum to San Jacinto summit was intense. I thought the Ski Hut trail up Mt. Baldy was steep. This trail was steeper in parts and two and half times the distance as the Ski Hut trail. It's also exposed and hot until you reach the trees around mile nine. I didn't mind carrying the water weight, because I'm used to backpacking, but I'm sure this would be a hindrance to many exclusive day-hikers. It helped to use my overnight backpack instead of my day-hike camelback to support the water weight. The weekend before I hiked the same trail, but only to the tram station. I started that trip at 9:00am. Way too late. The late-morning desert temperatures slowed me down a lot and caused my legs to cramp. The heat was grueling. I also should have drank more water in the first trip. In the second trip, I started at 5am. The hike went substantially better. I carbo loaded the night before, drank more water, and sucked on more GU. It still got a little hot by mid-morning, but it was bearable. Starting at 4am would have been better, which would have enabled me to get to a high enough elevation and the trees to escape the desert heat. It also would have given me more daylight after summiting; I had to use my headlamp for the last three miles back to the tram station. The first trip was a great conditioning hike for the second longer trip. After the steep and strenuous trail to the tram station, the trail to the summit was a breeze.

Looking down at Palm Springs from the summit, I found it hard to believe I actually traveled that distance. After the hike, I still found myself looking towards the west to Mt. San Jacinto, but in a new light -- a feeling of completeness, like some missing piece of the puzzle was finally placed.

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