Down in the valley, I could see the desert smog-haze smoking in the mid-day sun. Around us, I saw people looking at our gear with quizzical expressions. Five feet away from us, I saw the third shuttle heading up to the tram station. Behind me, I could hear Rude Boy (“RB”) cursing at his shoe. I smiled. It wouldn’t be an expedition without problems. I turned around, and saw that RB was actually cursing at his shoelaces, which were now lying in several unraveled pieces, rather than his shoes. Calmly, I put my pack back down in the parking lot next to Syrio and Jaime, and quipped to RB, “You know, when I said I’d teach you the ways of the ninja mountaineer, this wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”
It was Memorial Day, and the four of us were at the parking lot just below the Palm Springs tram shuttle. We had made it there by overcoming our holiday weekend inertia, a leaky ceiling, crappy traffic on the I-215, and a slew of preparatory e-mails. We had come to Palm Springs not to ride the incredible spinning tram with everyone else, but to hopefully bag the peak. Really, bagging the peak was the secondary objective in my mind; the primary objective was to see how half of the group handled snow, ice, and other mountaineering challenges prior to climbing Whitney. That’s right. Whitney. I was going back to lead another group. Clearly, either there was some unfinished business there, or I was a slow learner, or maybe the mountain had some sort of subliminal subconscious pull in my mind. In 2007, I had led my second group up Whitney in October, the “First and Last Pizza Port Mountaineering Expedition”, and had placed five out of six people on the summit. (http://last-adventurer.squarespace.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2008/1/2/the-first-and-last-pizza-port-mountaineering-expedition-day.html)
After that expedition, a myriad of things happened, and I could spend a million words discussing each of them, but for now, the pertinent information is that I was going back to Whitney, this time in the summer of 2010 with a new group of eight, in the “Who Dares Wins” expedition. I was going to make sure the group was as ready as they could be. This is why I was at San Jacinto, on a perfect blue sky holiday Monday. If you’ve never been, the Palm Springs Tram leaves the desert valley floor at 2500 feet, and heads up to the station at 8500 feet near the San Jacinto summit. It’s probably the easiest way to climb 6000 feet I’ve ever experienced; and according to the promotional material, it is the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world. (http://www.pstramway.com/).
Since the sun was rolling across the sky, I sized up the shoelace situation, and applied some master ninja mountaineering powers to the problem. Since mountaineering boots come with standard extra long laces, I cut off the surplus, and knotted them together into one new super-lace with which RB was able to use to tie his shoe. With that crisis solved, we were able to catch the tram and hit the trail at the top. The San Jacinto summit trail curves in a giant “U” from the tram station, through Long Valley, and then up into Round Valley, switchbacks, and then the summit. We acquired our permit from the Ranger Station (free), and began the ascent with lots of energy. As we headed up the trail, I was surprised to see that the upper reaches of the slopes were partially covered with large drifts of snow.
The amount of snow was surprising, because several years back, I had climbed Jacinto a week before Memorial Day, and entirety of the hike had been bone dry. I wasn’t going to complain, however, since I wanted the group to get some snow and ice experience. By the time we had reached Round Valley, they had definitely obtained a fair amount of experience, as the conditions had gone from partial coverage of two-foot drifts, to total coverage. I ski Jacinto yearly in the dead of winter, so I wasn’t concerned about getting lost, however, for a short period of time coming into Round Valley, the trail had disappeared under the snow, causing me to orienteer a route to the Ranger Station at Round Valley.
After taking a short break, we continued up toward the peak, only to lose the trail completely at around 9200 feet. Based on my recollection, and my compass skills, we cut across the now completely snow covered terrain to the base of the final summit ascent, where we picked up the trail on again on the switchbacks. The switchbacks were partially melted out, and by that time of the day, the snow was quite slushy, and we post-holed in numerous spots where the drifts still existed. Shortly before the hut, the trail was completely obscured by snow, but we powered on to the summit. On the decent, as it was quite late in the day, there was a fair amount of melting going on, and more post-holing, but as a bonus, we were able to pick up the main trail and follow it back completely, rather than following the route we had marked. It took us a little over seven hours, roundtrip, and by the end of the day, everyone had gained a substantial amount of experience. Overall, it was a great time, and I thought the group did a great job dealing with the adversity that we faced that day. Also, if anyone’s heading to Jacinto in the next couple of weeks, be aware that winter conditions still exist, even though it is now mid-June. See you on the trail!