Days 11-13, Miles 179-207: Ice and Fire

photo credit: Matt Vasilogambros

One day, we're climbing a snow-covered peak with ice axes and spikes on our shoes. The next, we're battling triple-digit temperatures in the desert, thousands of feet below the summit. Such is life on the PCT. On Day 11, we started up Mt. San Jacinto, with Carter and Anna joining us. We were still getting acclimated to the elevation, and our hike was a steady climb, so we took it slow and planned to limit our mileage.

Piotr, Tigre and Cody (now called “Shutter” because of his photography skills) stayed in Idyllwild for the morning to rest weary feet and resupply before meeting us at the campsite later in the day. The rest of us—me, Carter, Anna, Matt and Gravy Train—took a leisurely hike up, stopping often to sit on rocky outcroppings and enjoy the stunning views. Even at our slow pace, the thin air as we climbed from 6,500 feet up past 9,000 had us taking shallow breaths.

The mountain also provided new terrain, a break from the desert as we went into alpine territory. The pine forest seemed more familiar, hiking among trees and smells not unlike the woods I grew up exploring in northern Michigan. Still, the boulders and vistas were regular reminders that this was not the Midwest. As we got up near 9,000 feet, sections of the trail were drifted over with snowpack, our first taste of the high-elevation challenges that will face us in the Sierra. We made camp early, and the rest of our gang rolled in a few hours later. We climbed up some nearby boulders, looking down on miles and miles of valley below, and watched the sun make its slow descent.

photo credit: Cody Simmons

The next morning, we were up early to start our climb to the summit. I spent a few minutes watching the sunrise with Carter and Anna before we said our goodbyes. They were splitting off to hike another section of San Jacinto and continue on to Joshua Tree National Park. It was possibly our coldest morning of the trip so far, and Carter shared a few much-needed sips of his coffee before we parted ways. It was a huge boost to see them, especially since we not only hung out in town, but shared a portion of the trail together. I headed toward the summit with Matt, Piotr and Gravy Train. El Tigre and Shutter are dealing with serious foot pain, so they decided to get more rest and meet us later where the PCT joins the side trail to the summit. Over five miles, we had about 3,000 feet to climb. Right before we split off from the PCT, we passed a small waterfall with nearby branches iced over. Brrrr.

Before long, we hit steady snowpack, which was ice-hard and made it difficult to get our footing. We strapped on microspikes, a smaller version of crampons, which made traction easier to come by. Matt and I both had our first encounters with postholing, which is when your foot breaks through the snow crust and plunges knee-deep in an instant. Thankfully, neither of us were injured.

photo credit: Ryan Fritsch

As the climb got steeper, the switchbacks were so snowed over that trail was impossible to pick up. We began climbing our way straight up the steep slope, rejoining the trail when we found it, but mostly just meandering up as best we could. After a while, the summit came into view, and we made a final push up a steep snowbank to the top. At the peak, we snapped pictures and enjoyed the stunning 360-degree view of the desert floor, other peaks in the distance and various towns and roads rendered miniature by our elevation.

Even though Mt. San Jacinto’s summit isn’t part of the PCT, we were glad to have done it. With massive snow levels in the Sierras ahead, it boosted our confidence to test our skills and gear on snow and a real summit. We descended and rejoined the PCT, as well as Shutter and Tigre. Back on the trail, we came upon a footpath stepped into a sheer snow wall descending to a rushing, boulder-strewn stream. Piotr, first in line, slipped down the snow, bounced off a boulder and fell into the water, thankfully not deep. Tigre made his way down, grabbed Piotr’s pack, and helped him out of the water.

The rest of us, seeing how precarious our position was, made our way down slowly, with various levels of success. I slid on the snow and split my knee open on the boulder, but kept myself out of the stream. The last miles of the hike switchbacked down pine-covered mountainside, much of it covered with snowpack. We took it slow, slipping at times, but avoided any major incidents.

We got to camp daunted by the prospect of facing Fuller Ridge in the morning. We’d been told it was snowy, treacherous and dangerous. Our imaginations conjured an exposed, snow-covered ridge with sheer drop-offs on both sides. We were more than a little relieved when other hikers told us Fuller Ridge was actually the hike through timber we had just completed. On Day 13, we descended about 6,000 feet, endlessly switchbacking down to the desert floor. It was like spending an entire day on a dusty spiral staircase, one that gets hotter the lower you go.

Just before we dropped below 6,000 feet, the alpine terrain disappeared and we were back in the desert we’d been hiking for our first week and a half. Lizards once again darted across our path. Shade became hard to come by. And the heat was again a factor, reaching 100 degrees by the time we finished our descent.

The farther we descended, the higher San Jacinto loomed above us, and it became hard to believe we'd been atop its snowy peak 24 hours before.

photo credit: Piotr Walaszek

After seeing icicles the day before, we were again fighting the desert, loading up on water and sunscreen. We still found ourselves parched and scorched and, as always, sweat-soaked and grimy. We hit mile 200 along this stretch, but since it wasn’t in the shade, didn’t stay there long.

photo credit: Piotr Walaszek

We found some rare shade behind a boulder and took a break to guzzle some water. I took out my Kindle to make a little progress on the book I’m reading, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. After a passage describing how desert animals don’t venture into the sun during the heat of the day, he writes: “Of all the featherless beasts only man, chained by his self-imposed slavery to the clock, denies the elemental fire and proceeds as best he can about his business, suffering quietly, martyr to his madness. Much to learn.” We shared a laugh at his apt description of our hike. Despite the sun, we kept a good pace, motivated by what was ahead. At the end of our hike, Matt’s Uncle Bill picked us up by the side of the road and drove us to his house in Palm Springs. Within an hour, we were poolside with Coronas, enjoying a luxurious reprieve. Uncle Bill and Aunt Phyllis prepared us an amazing meal—grilled meats of every kind, salads, vegetables—that provided a morale boost as big as the physical sustenance.

Earlier in the hike, some other hikers had dubbed our group the Sandlot, so we spent the rest of the evening watching the movie that inspired our nickname. Between the side hike to the summit, and family time for me and Matt, we haven’t been cranking out many miles the last few days. But with a long stretch of desert ahead, we’re refreshed and ready to press on.