I woke up at 5am, tucked away in bed in the house the warrior hikes team had rented, snug and warm, but restless for what the morning would bring. It had been exactly two weeks since Susan had dropped me off at the southern terminus of the PCT in Campo. I had pushed myself hard to make the 179 miles to Idyllwild because I knew that she was coming to meet me on this day, and we would hike Mt. San Jacinto together.
I was eager to start the day for a number of reasons. First, the chance to see Susan alone had me giddy at the prospect, but more than that, the two years we’d been together had become defined by the hikes we did as a pair, the adventures we took on weekends to strange, off the beaten path locales, the ridiculous situations I got us into. We’d often discussed hiking San Jacinto, often as part of her six summits goal to train for climbing Mt. Whitney, which we plan on doing the first week in June, and here was our chance. It didn’t matter that it would be cold, or cloudy, or raining. We are going to climb that mountain if it killed us, though I prayed it wouldn’t come to that.
And so I lay in bed, wide awake and eager, while the other hikers in the house slept soundly. I got up, and put everything into my pack, then sat on the couch, ready to spring into action as soon as she arrived. It was there the other hikers found me at 7am, awkwardly sitting on the couch fully dressed and booted, my pack loaded and ready to be slung over my shoulder.
It was 7:30 when Susan finally arrived outside the house, and I hurried out to the car to say hi. I asked if she’d be willing to meet the other hikers and she agreed, laughing at my excitement to see her. We took her dog and i introduced the pair of them to Mama Goose, Eric, Anne, and the others who were drinking coffee in the living room. It was the first time my trail life and my life off the trail had come together. It was a strange feeling.
We left the house and stopped by the bakery for cinnamon rolls and coffee, and tore into the gooey pastry once we got to the car before driving up to the trailhead at Humber Park. Along the drive I saw several other hikers, Rain Man and Dundee, Narwhal, Rebecca and Marisa. Miso Strong was also supposed to leave that day, as were several others, and I pointed each out in turn as we passed them. I felt bad we had no room to help them get to the trailhead, but with the dog and our packs, the car was already quite full.
We parked and I lightened my pack, knowing we’d be returning to the car after summiting the 11,000 ft mountain. It felt like cheating, and it was, in a way, but I wanted to have a good day hike with her, not lug all 40 lbs of my pack up several thousand feet of elevation gain if I didn’t have to.
We set out on the trail, under the towering pinnacle of Tahquitz peak, up switchback after switchback into the clouds that swirled up ahead. The clouds were thick and white, and there were patches of blue sky, and I grew optimistic that we would have fairer weather than was predicted, enough so that I even put on my sunglasses on the way up.
That optimistic outlook lasted only a few minutes, however, until the dark grey storm clouds began to roll in, and the sun was lost to sight entirely. We reached the junction of the Pct and Devils Slide Trail, which we had just climbed, and set off toward the summit some 5 miles on.
Heavy winds whipped at our jackets and drove wispy clouds across the trail. We walked through a dense fog, the air damp and cold, pine trees lining the trail distant ones appearing as ghostly shadows amongst the gray of the clouds.
We made slow progress, talking and fighting the wet and cold. Susan, just two days from donating blood and having not hiked in a while, set a slower pace than I was used to from her, but I didn’t mind, it gave me more time to take photos and talk with her, catching up after our two weeks apart.
We hiked on, the dog leading the way, and eventually reached the junction where the summit trail left the PCT, and took it, ascending the mountain with each step.
The rain started a mile into the summit trail, and we hurriedly donned our rain gear, trying to protect ourselves from the icy drops that misted around us.
We walked through an erstwhile meadow, it’s once vibrant ferns now wilted and browned, laying flat against the ground like spidery tentacles from some alien plant. It all looked a bit like War of the Worlds, as if the Martians had been seeding the mountainside with the blood of the conquered humans. It was creepy and eerily beautiful, and it was really starting to feel like a John and Susan adventure.
We passed a small grotto, and Susan noted the icicles that hung from the upper lip. We took pictures and failed to process that we were still some two thousand feet from the summit, and that, if there were icicles here, what would it be like further up?
We continued, passing and being passed I turn by several pct hikers and day hikers who had come up from Palm Springs that morning. Many of the day hikers wore shorts and tshirts, and Susan and I laughed how blatantly ill prepared they were, somehow ignoring our own lack of proper weather related attire.
As we pushed higher, the rain started to freeze, and we found ourselves hiking through compacted layers of snow along the trail that was in turn becoming increasingly difficult to follow. Thin layers of ice coated rock and tree root alike, and thick ice crystals began to form on my hat and the ends of Susan’s hair. Even the dog had ice forming on her whiskers and along her back, though the way she ran through the undergrowth it didn’t seem to phase her at all.
Freezing rain and hail pelted us and the air grew colder and colder. We stopped to eat something, hoping the calories would warm us, but the act of stopping only made us colder. When we tried walking again, our steps felt leaden, our pace inexorably slow.
We only made it another two hundred yards when I turned to Susan and voiced my concern that, should we press on the final half mile to the summit, we might find ourselves in serious trouble. My rain gear, meant for far lighter conditions than this, had failed, and my down puffy coat and wool base layer were soaked clean through. I had started to shiver uncontrollably, and saw that Susan had too. We had threshed a point where our adventure had turned to legitimately dangerous, and I insisted we turn back.
“Sometimes you beat the mountain, sometimes the mountain beats you,” I said, though neither of us liked that the latter had happened in this instance. We walked downhill, trudging through the cold and the rain. It was already 1 in the afternoon, and we had eight miles back to the parking lot at Humber Park, so I set a fast pace, insisting that we hurry to warmth and safety, knowing we didn’t want to face the mountain at night.
It took us four hours to return to the car, and by the time we did we were both exhausted, freezing, and drenched to the bone. We grabbed what clean clothes we could from her car and dressed hurriedly in the restroom in the parking lot. We ran to the car and turned the heater to maximum. I had always mocked her seat warmers, but as we drove back through Idyllwild I relished their toasty heat on my bottom, and vowed never to mock them again.
Idyllwild was awash with rain water, thick rivulets coursing down the streets and into gutters. Nobody walked the streets, and few even drove in the downpour that assailed the small mountain town. We agreed that neither of us wanted to get out of the car in such conditions, so we decided to head to Palm Springs for dinner and a warm hotel, off the accursed mountain and into the desert where I could pick up the trail the next day after drying my gear and taking a hot shower.
We ate that evening at a Japanese restaurant in downtown Palm Springs, in the shadow of the mountain that had just defeated us. We slurped from huge steaming bowls of ramen and let the heat of the dashi warm our insides. It was good, made all the better by the fact that it was warm and comforting.
We stayed that night in a holiday inn in Indio, one of the few available rooms in the area due to the influx of people for the Stagecoach music festival. We laid out our wet clothes to dry and took a hot shower, and I slipped and fell in the slick tub, hurting my knee, wrist, and finger in so doing. We went to bed and talked for a time, until we both were too sleepy to stay awake.
When we finally fell asleep, her nestled into my arms for warmth, I thought to myself, today was a good day…