I Climbed the San Jacinto Mountain (almost)
If you’ve followed the Californian 2023 winter, I don’t need to tell you that I’m in for a real (snow) treat on my PCT adventures this year.
The high snowfall in California has created an ambiguous energy amongst the PCT community. Some hikers are excited to tackle an unprecedented high snow season and other hikers are (excuse my french): shitting bricks. I’d say I fall somewhere in between.
That’s why when I arrived in the San Jacinto National Park mid-April, I stopped in a little town called Idyllwild to figure out next steps with my tramily (trail family). I was very unsure how to tackle the next 31 miles, which included almost 3,180ft of elevation gain and melting slushy snow.
There was a lot of talk in town. The San Jacinto climb is too dangerous. Too much snow. You need mountaineering experience. Some may describe this talk as “fear mongering” or simply just sharing their opinion to help the hiker community.
The San Jacinto park was closed until April 7th due to the high snowfall and considered too dangerous to hike. A few weeks before I was to reach the mountains, the park reopened. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe and accessible to all hikers.
I took 3 days in Idyllwild to consider my options. Yep, I took 2 zeros and one of those days was spent in a chalet relaxing in a jacuzzi. I know, hiker life can be tough sometimes.
My tramily talked it out. We heard from hikers who had recently hiked this section and spoke with hikers planning to go in the following days. There was no certainty. It was a total mixed bag of approaches. It really depended on your experience and comfort level as well as risk tolerance. But most importantly, it came down to trusting your instinct and assessing what felt best for you. As we say on trail, hike your own hike.
All this talk made me feel quite stressed and anxious about the all uncertainty of what lies ahead. The snow was melting, which was great news. There was much less snow compared to only a few weeks ago. But the reality was there was still snow up there.
I’d never hiked in 10,000ft elevation, yet alone snow covered steep ass mountains. This was completely new terrain for me. I had no idea what to expect when I got up there. Was I capable? Was it too dangerous? Could it be fun? Was it safe?
What should I do?
I decided to trust my instinct and try it out. The good news about this section was that if you felt uncomfortable with the snow and steep slopes, there were places where you could bail and hike back down the mountain in complete safety. It felt like a low risk, high surprise opportunity.
My badass snow adventure began the morning of Wednesday, April 19th. I hiked up with my tramily and arrived safely at our campsite. We didn’t pass any snow at this stage and slept at 6300ft. We agreed to start hiking at 6am. I’m not a morning person and waking up before sunrise made me Chlumpy (grumpy Chloe).
The next day we hiked 10 miles and reached the snow about 1 mile before camp. With all the tree blow down, it was a tiring hike. I was climbing over fallen trees, sliding underneath trees, or sometimes finding an alternate route around the tree. So when we reached the snow after hiking 9 miles, I had to switch gears and channel my focused and alert energy.
This snow section was just before Spitlers Creek, a junction where you could bail down if the snow was too much for you. We passed this section and at this stage, one of our tramily members decided that she wasn’t comfortable continuing the next section through Apache Peak. She hiked back down the mountain the next day and we continued our epic journey. That night we cowboy camped and soaked in the views of the snow peaks of San Jacinto and Palm Springs below. The contrasting desert below with the snow peak mountains was impressive.
Another early morning start. Ugh Chlumpy. It was cooooold (although temperatures didn’t fall below freezing). But I was ready to face the renowned Apache Peak section. The snow traverses began 30minutes into our hike at 7am. I didn’t take out my snow gear and easily crossed the sloped traverse with my Saucony trail runners.
I repeated this technique several times until I reached THE slope.
I was hiking alone at this time, enjoying the solitude and impressive mountain views. But as soon as I turned this corner at approximately 11am and saw the sketchy slopes traverse, I knew immediately that I needed to wait for others to cross. This was an impressive vertical slope with heavy exposure (maybe a 200ft drop into the valley below) and would be considered a no fall zone. A no fall zone is described as an area where you should not fall to avoid injury or worse.
At this point, I felt pretty scared but I knew there was no way but forward. One slow step at a time. I’ve experienced steep slopes before with rock climbing and via ferata, so I was familiar with the creeping fear of falling to your demise, but never in vertical snow slopes that have been exposed to sun for the last 3-4 hours.
To add to the fun complexity, there was also a fallen tree that you needed to climb over in the middle of the snow traverse. I let my fear get the best of me and hesitated to cross with the hikers that arrived shortly after me. The more I waited, the more afraid I became. I reminded myself that I had all the gear to keep me safe: crampons and ice axe and there were tracks already created by previous hikers. I needed to stay focused and have solid and strong footing while I crossed. I finally crossed with a French couple (merci Hopscotch and Laure!).
The day continued this way for another 7 hours. The traverses became more challenging and steep as I proceeded, while the sun continued to melt the snow and create the perfect concoction of sketchy slushy snow. I walked 5.9 miles of steep vertical slopes with approximately 3 serious no fall zones.
It was the hardest day of my life (not exaggerating) both physically and most notably mentally, but it was also the most rewarding experience I’ve lived. I am so freaking proud of myself. Shortcut did it!!
But that’s where I trusted my intuition. I didn’t continue with my tramily who continued to summit San Jacinto peak and traverse Fuller Ridge - another 11.3 miles across a two day stretch of steep slushy snow traverses.
I felt that I had sufficiently challenged myself. I proved to myself that I could do it and was capable of a badass snow adventure. But my body and mind were speaking to me: time to rest. I didn’t need to go any further and experience more challenging snow terrain (for now)
I trusted my gut. I hiked my own hike.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have moments where I felt inadequate because other hikers continued on. I doubted my abilities. Was I a true PCT thru-hiker if I didn’t traverse ALL the unprecedented snowy sections in San Jacinto?
In these moments of self-doubt, it’s important to go back to your reasons “why” list. To check back in on why you’re out on this trail. One of my reasons why was the desire to be a total badass.
I received my badass credentials