Sunday, January 30, 2011

San Jacinto

It seemed like the alarm didn’t go off. I looked at the clock and it was already 5 after 5. Not sure that I can make the 8:00 tram from Palm Springs. I had a great day yesterday sailing (link to sail), but in the evening had received a call concerning an email being circulated by a “friend” that tried to make me look like an idiot . The betrayal feeling was the emotion that led to sleeplessness, which in turn led to taking a sleeping pill and not hearing the alarm. Such is life. Kind of feeling low energy, but after getting some coffee was ready to make the 150 mile drive to the tram .

San Jacinto is on the South side of 10 as you go toward Palm Springs. It is 10,834 feet high and can be seen from San Diego or more easily from out at sea . Although there are many trails to the upper reaches from the West side, one shortcut is to take the Palm Springs Ariel Tram. It starts out at 2643 ft elevation And ends at 8516. It takes about 11 minutes to achieve this altitude. I like the tram.

Afra making sure that we are where we should be

It was very icy last week when Afra and I tried skiing up a new route that Dave had found. This route headed about 300 degrees from Round Valley. The trail to that valley from the tram is well defined, but runs up a creek bed and is usually rock hard. Snowshoe people usually avoid the trail like the plague and head directly up the steep but less icy Tamarack drainage. Afra is a very positive Dutch lady, who dismissed our struggles with the icy Round Valley trail as “good exercise”. She was sure that everything was going to loosen up with the coming sunshine. I was not so optimistic. At 10,000 feet it was getting more like boilerplate, so we called it a day. We could see the slopes of Jean Peak (link to Jean Peak ski) and San Jacinto, so the route was proven, without benefit of GPS. The edges sang or should I say shrieked on the way back, but no one got hurt and it was quite exciting.

I made the first tram , with a few minutes to spare. In the car were two rangers, one lady with her petrified kid, a fellow gray snowshoer, a snowshoe couple, and the tram operator. One ranger is giving a summary of the personnel experience levels, problems and a dismal report of the dangerous conditions on the mountain. I was glad to get off the tram before hearing more good news. We rushed down the ramp toward the ranger station, to pick up a permit. The ranger at the desk squinted with a frown when I told him the route was 300 degrees from Round Valley, but didn’t come right out and say that a solo hiker shouldn’t be doing this route. I had a plan to mitigate the risk, which involved a cell phone and my runner’s Garmin 201, which can get lat long on a position. Anything goes wrong, call in the lat long and wait for the sled. Unfortunately, the Garmin locked up on the tram ride and my cheap pay as you go phone never got service.

I was the first one up the trail with my microspikes (link to pictures of microspikes). I had wished all last week’s trip that my gear included these little wonders. At less than a pound, they go on and off easily and provide excellent grip on trail type steepness. With two poles for balance, they allow fast hiking on icy trails. My backup gear included snowshoes for deeper snow (never used) and an ice axe, in case you get somewhere that a fall will result in a slide for life. Going solo in icy conditions, I wanted to be on my feet rather than on skis.

Got the Garmin to reset by a sequence of frantic button smashing at Round Valley. It is at 9000 foot and it took about an hour from the ranger station. Didn’t bother with the compass, because the route just follows the contour up the right side of the valley, then heads West for a while and then back to a little break in the flank of Jean Peak. My personal problem has pretty much receded out of the picture. My footing is good and the Boreal mountain boots can penetrate into the steeper snow to provide good purchase. I try to breath in through my nose and accentuate the out breath through my lips. As it gets steeper, I do this with each step. One step breathe in, another step breathe out. The breathing at altitude is kind of a natural pranayama. The trees look healthy and tall. Their shadows provide harder snow, which makes progress easier. The more your feet sink, the slower you go and the more energy expended. Just like sailing in a light wind, you go back and forth rather than heading directly toward an objective.

I’m kind of wondering where everyone is. Last Sunday, we saw at least ten people on the flank of San Jacinto or close to this part of the circ valley defined by Jean Peak and the former. I haven’t seen anyone. Even the wind is quiet. It’s a little unnerving. I pass the prominent boulder we used for a backrest last week. I feel pretty strong, but stop and munch on a sandwich to be sure that there is enough fuel in the tank. Crossing over to the San Jacinto side of the valley, I look for some tracks to lead the way. I finally settle on some ski tracks, but when I start using them the footing slips out a bit. If I were with someone else, probably would ignore this little surge of adrenalin.

I’m thinking those old thoughts again. Why do I really need to go up this steep slope? It’s been a fun day, but is it really wise to do this alone? A person could get hurt up here. It looks too steep and there are some cliffed out parts with lots of rocks sticking out. Maybe I can come back next week with a friend. I stop while doing all this great thinking. My leg is starting to quiver a little from being in the same position too long. Then the other voice starts. You are 66 and something that you put off may not happen. I tentatively try breathing regularly while kicking the front of my boot into the slope to get more security on each step. I’m feeling better now and it really isn’t that steep or icy. A person could get hurt anywhere, if they don’t pay attention to what is going on around them. My confidence comes back and I’m just back in the present, trying to pick the best route up the flank.

At the top, the grade eases off. I’m at 10,450 and only another 400 feet of elevation to go. Starting to see all the development around Palm Springs, the mountains to the South, the beauty of the snow capped San Gorgonio. This was worth it. At the top, I take a quick peek over the edge toward the North, where the exposure is impressive down to the desert floor. It is seven miles and 10,000 feet to the desert floor, one of the steepest escarpments in North America.

North Face of San Jacinto

It is a little before 1 o’clock, about four and a half hours to the peak. The phone has no service here either, so much for that crutch. Time to start down. Going down is easier than I thought. These boots and microspikes work great. Most of the time a simple heel stomp will give good footing. On the icier parts, simply canting the boot into the slope and giving it a good emphasis at impact makes for a stable platform. A little sliding in the soft snow is OK, nothing out of control so far today.

Finding the little entrance into Round Valley is easier the second time. I’m making great time going downhill on the icy trail from the valley to the tram. Am back to the tram by 2:45, which means the zoo is in full production. However, everything has changed in a subtle but good way for me. I’m laughing at things that might on another day have given a smirk. It’s easy to be nice to people. It’s been a good day.

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