How to Destroy Your Legs Running the Cactus to Clouds Trail
We laid down on the deck outside of the Round Valley Ranger Station. With my body splayed out on the wood planking, I felt the full warmth of the brilliant sun shining down from above. In the cool mountain air the rays felt…GLORIOUS!
The previous five plus hours were spent laboring up eight and a half miles and 7,000 feet of ascent from the desert floor of Palm Springs on the Skyline Trail (AKA Cactus to Clouds). It was midday when we arrived at the ranger station, our last checkpoint and water source before topping out.
Instead of immediately pushing on through the final five and half miles to the summit of Mount San Jacinto, my comrades Andrew, Rhea and I took an impromptu nap on the deck. Meanwhile Sawna, our fourth adventurer, went inside the ranger station to inquire about future wilderness training opportunities she had just heard about. Sawna was obviously feeling a bit more energized that I was.
A park ranger walked out and observed us while we rested our eyes.
“Are you ok” he asked while staring down at our prone bodies laying on his deck.
“Yeah. We’re just…sleeping.”
I replied in a tone that implied that it was an entirely normal time and place to be dead asleep…in public. It wasn’t on both accounts, but hey, we weren’t exactly caring about social norms at that moment. We were just tired.
After dismissing the khaki authorities we caught a few more z’s until Sawna came out and poked us awake. Touching my hand, she declared “It’s time to go”. Reluctantly my deckmates and I opened our eyes and obeyed, pulled on our packs and readying our bodies for the final ascent through the snow.
As I mentioned above, my day had started much earlier. Sawna and I had left her home in Hollywood a little after 2:30am Friday morning (yes, I was a little slow and might have caused a late departure). Coffee, tunes and excitement powered us on our drive down to Palm Springs where we met up with Rhea and Andrew—friends from LA—who had stayed in the area the night prior. Dawning headlamps and chock full of almond butter and excitement we began the climb upward from the desert floor at just past 5am, following white spots painted on the dry boulders.
Within a few hours the sun rose, warming the air and painting colors across the landscape. The setting was gorgeous, but the climb was unending. Unlike most trails that have some undulations, rolling up and down even as the trail overall climbs, Cactus to Clouds absolutely did not. Every step was up, up, up and the hours took their toll.
By the time we got to the Round Valley Ranger Station, my climbing muscles were spent. Too tired to even move my arms, my trekking poles dragged by my sides. We were all showing some amount of exhaustion. Lacking poles, the rest of my party even took up sticks to help with the climb. These were both used as ascending tools and played double-duty as pokers to probe holes in the dry grown filled with snakes/rats/scary-things as we labored upward.
(We didn’t really harass wildlife, we just joked about it.)
While our pace was slow, my lungs still felt underpowered. I did my best to put on a good face for the rest of the team. The truth though was that I was hurting.
I think Sawna caught onto my suffering because she noticed that “Quiet Joel” had come out to make an appearance. You see, when I’m really hurting I don’t complain outloud and mouth-off. Instead I stop joking or talking entirely, and focus my energy on putting one foot in front of the other in silence
“Just keep moving” I told myself.
By the time we got to the Round Valley Ranger Station, I had spent at least an hour pondering if I had the energy to continue on to the summit. “Am I slowing them down? Should I just stay here and let them go ahead?”
Luckily, water food and some good ‘ol fashion deck sleeping did its wonders. After my quick nap, I felt I had what was needed to climb the last five plus miles to the 10,834’ summit of San Jacinto Peak.
It’s Snow Time
Within a half mile after departing the ranger station we were now at over 7,000′ and were trekking fully in snow. Luckily the conditions were perfect.
The snow underfoot was neither too soupy to be mush or too cold to be slick ice. We just told stories, admired the view and kept trekking on. Andrew brought his GoPro and occasionally asked us to run for an action photo or video clip. As soon as the shutter closed, we reverted to our slower trekking hike. Luckily, we were still making progress.
On the final ascent up the ridge a PCT backpacker caught up to us. Melissa was a badass Canadian hiker sporting pink spandex shorts and well-worn Altra Lone Peaks. She was taking a day trip with fellow Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers to top out on San Jacinto before returning to their noth-bound hike (what a “rest” day?!?). Melissa, (watch the video below to discover her trail name) not only caught up to us on our climb above Round Valley, but did so while carrying a full 60lb+ pack.
Looking for a challenge and a great story Sawna offered to carry her load to the summit, however Melissa respectfully declined. She didn’t want to loose face in front of the other hikers (or her reputation for being a badass).
We all took one final brief rest below the ridge and grabbed a sip of water before making the final climb to the top.
The summit was windless and scenic–amazingly so on both accounts. The alpine air was cold, but otherwise the conditions were perfect for a few group photos and for taking a moment to revel in what we had achieved. We had just climbed over 10,000′ in less than 14 miles, all straight up. Wow!
After a few more photos, we reversed course down to the Round Valley where we stopped at an oasis-like resort. Sawna’s promise of a bar and food were spot on. Our party of four downed pints of frosty, well-earned beer while snacking on humus. Today was a good day.
Instead of running the final stretch of trail down to the valley below, we paid $12 each and took the sky tram to the Palm Springs below. The ride was thrilling, and didn’t require us to run or climb, so I was all smiles. It was the best money I’ve spend in years.
Thank you to Andrew, Rhea, and Sawna for allowing me to tag along on their adventure. It was the perfect mix of suffering and joy, and with the best people.