Monday, December 19, 2011

Walking in a Winter Wonderland: San Jacinto Peak, 10,834 ft.

Walking in a winter Wonderland!
The holiday season is upon us and what better way to get in the Christmas spirit than to go walking in a winter wonderland. Our local peaks are just beginning to get some substantial snowfall so the idea of a snowshoe trip was very appealing. The snow coverage was thought to be too light for a backcountry ski trip here locally but snowshoes would be perfect. I had not been out on my snowshoes since my Mt. Shasta trip a year and a half ago as I have been bitten by the backcountry ski bug. This trip would provide good information on the possible ski conditions on Mt. San Jacinto in the early season and provide a great opportunity to get out in the snow with friends and enjoy the cool weather.

The idea sprang up just a few days prior when my friend Alan had mentioned he was heading up there with the San Jacinto Meetup group for a snowshoe adventure. I made some quick emails and found a few more that wanted to go. I decided I had better check the weather report to see what the forecast was. I was not happy with what I read. While the temps would be cold, 10 to 20 degrees, and there would be light snow that did not really bother me. What I was most unhappy about was the wind forecast of 25 MPH wind with gusts to 50! Since nearly all of my recent winter adventures have involved battling high winds I was really looking forward to a day of minimal interference from blasting snowy winds. I shared my thoughts and firmly stated that I was not up for that however the following day conditions looked much better.

Most people decided to go on the original day, including Alan who had other plans on the next day I had suggested. Fortunately for me, my friend Erica was able to go on the following day which was very fortunate for me for several reasons. I was not going to do this alone so just the fact that she was going meant the trip was on. Secondly, while I grew up in a beach community building sand castles and going body boarding she was raised in Northern Canada and was building snowmen and going snowshoeing, much more appropriate skills for what was before us. In addition to all that, she and her husband have done many winter travels and winter mountaineering courses together so her winter knowledge far outweighs mine.

I got a call from Alan on his way back from his day on the mountain. They did not make the summit and one of the main reasons was the slow and difficult conditions that the snow had presented. He said they were sinking up to their knees very early on and up to their waist in some sections up higher. This makes for very slow travel. He did say that the wind was minimal so at least that was good news. He also informed me that a lady named Ellen from their trip was planning on going the next day and that she was going to look for me at the tram station and try to join us.

Enjoying the easy part of our adventure.
For those that have never been up to the San Jacinto Peak area there are two primary ways to get there. I have been to the summit many times and all of my summer adventures have been variations of beginning over near Idylwild and hiking from there. Typically that is a hike of 15 to 18 miles round trip and 4,000 to 5,000 ft. of elevation gain. Those numbers are just not practical for a winter day hike so the cheater way must used, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway which takes you from just above the desert floor up to 8,500 ft. in just about 10 minutes. The route to the summit from the top of the tram is just 5 miles one way by trail but can be shortened to 3 miles in winter by utilizing cross country travel.

The infamous Ellen of San Jacinto on the left.
We arrived at the tram station in time to catch the first one up at 8AM. Erica and I were the only people there that looked like mountaineers so I figured Ellen was a no show. While putting on some of our equipment before getting on the tram along came a lady meeting the description Alan had given me on the phone. She walked right up to me and stuck out her hand for a handshake and said, "You must be Glenn, I'm Ellen." For a lady with a few years on me and white hair she had a firm handshake, a loud voice and appeared to be a battle hardened veteran of this mountain. Erica did not know quite what to think as I had not mentioned that Ellen may be joining us. We boarded the tram almost immediately and it became apparent that Ellen knows everybody on the mountain as she knew every ranger and worker on the mountain we came across and we could see why as she was a very easy person get along with and we all became quick friends.

Up top we stepped out of the tram station (after Ellen was personally greeted by at least 5 other workers on the mountain) and found the conditions to be perfect. No wind, about 20 degrees and partly cloudy skies. We headed down to the ranger station to get our permit. At this point we just let Ellen handle it as it was quite obvious she had done this a few times before (probably over 100) and we strapped on our snowshoes.

We headed out from the ranger station with Ellen in the lead and she shared the experience from the day prior. We were all very thankful for the efforts from the group the prior day as it meant we had a good stamped down path to follow with minimal trail breaking. Erica and I wanted to take the winter route, a much more direct yet steeper route to the summit. Ellen was pleased with our thoughts as the day prior the group had taken a longer more traditional route to the summit and got bogged down in snow drifts and ran out of time far from the summit.

Having fun with friends.
We reached the point where we needed to divert from the beaten path to forge our own trail and attempt to establish this seasons winter route to the summit. Once we got out onto the fresh untracked snow it got much more difficult. While we offered to take the lead, Ellen just kept on marching at the front, breaking trail and doing at least twice the work of Erica and I. We finally stopped to take a break and admired the winter wonderland we were surrounded by. The trees were completely covered in snow, a light snow was falling and we were the only people out there to enjoy it! It was a wonderful feeling.

View of the snow covered trees near the summit.
We began the serious portion of our climb towards the San Jacinto-Miller Saddle. The going was tough not just because we were headed up a very steep incline but also because the bushes on the slope were not fully covered in snow so every step up was met with a sinking into the snow and bushes below. More than once it took several attempts just to make a single step forward due to the slippage and sinking. My long legs and 36 inch long snowshoes were very helpful in getting through this section although we all took turns in the lead as the person breaking trail was exhausted within 10 to 15 minutes at most.

Summit picture on a snowy San J.
As we got higher, the clouds increased and the snow and wind did as well. They were both still light but noticeable. The bushes ceased to be an issue but that was offset by the deeper powder snow we were encountering. We were hungry but the summit was near so we pushed on. We finally reached the summit a little after noon and took our photos. Another couple joined us up top as well. They had been following in the trail we had broken and were most grateful for it. Due to the snow and light wind, we descended back to the hut near the summit for lunch. This hut is an old stone cabin built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps to serve as an emergency shelter. The hut is stocked by hikers with food, water, sleeping bags and other emergency items. It made a great shelter for us to briefly escape the elements and enjoy our lunch while talking with our new friends we just met on the peak.

Ellen invites us into her home away from home near the summit
The hike down was via a different route with Ellen once again in the lead. We opted to link back up with the more traditional trail to the summit to avoid the bushes. Ellen steered us off this trail at the perfect spot to intersect the path that had been beaten in a day earlier which made for a rather easy and fun descent back to the tram station and we arrived back at 4:30 just before dark.

Once back to the amenity filled tram station we could relax a little before catching a ride down the mountain. It is rather fun to see the looks we get as most of the people up there don't venture much farther than a 10 minute walk and some just came up to the top from the desert to see what it is like. They look at our gear, our windburnt faces and crazy hat hair and draw their own conclusions on who and what we are. Some probably just think we are a bunch of smelly homeless people but you still see many who are interested and amazed but are to afraid to ask what all this stuff is for. Others start a conversation and are completely unaware of the peak just 3 miles as the crow flies from where they are standing.

This trip was definitely what I needed to kick start my winter adventures. The weather was good, we made the summit and I got to do it with some new friends. Ellen, who considers San Jacinto Peak one of her family, is the real deal and a very enjoyable person to spend time with. Erica and I were happy to have met her up there and certainly wish to include her in our future travels. Yet another great weekend of making friends while climbing mountains!