As a training weekend to get in shape for bigger mountains, my buddy and I figured we'd backpack up to Round Valley on Saturday, then tag the summit and go home on Sunday. We camped Friday night in the nearby state park in Idyllwild, got our permits in the morning (more on that below), drove to Humber Park, and easily ascended to Saddle Junction via Devil's Slide. The snow was fairly firm or iced up, and neither of us used crampons up to this point. Heading north out of the Junction, the conditions became much more challenging. Though the weather was beautiful, the snow was getting deeper. My buddy chose to use his snowshoes from the Junction on up, while I soldiered on for a half mile or so before acquiescing. I quit slipping and sinking in, but my pace slowed considerably (1st time using snowshoes).
The steepness, snow, and full packs soon had us realizing we'd greatly underestimated our travel time (my buddy'd been up this way on a day hike once before in clear conditions), and by the time we got to the state/national park boundary at about 9000 ft, I was starting to suffer from altitude effects, and we knew we had to make a decision. We had a permit for the state wilderness, but you are supposed to stay only in the designated campgrounds. You can camp whereever you want in the national wilderness (I think), but we didn't have a permit for national. Lesson learned: get permits for both, as they don't seem to talk to each other.
Low on energy and losing light soon, we opted to camp on the border of the two wildernesses and take our chances with the rangers, figuring they'd forgive us a permit violation in lieu of a rescue attempt should we get in trouble trying to make the campsite. It was our first snow camp, and we learned two more things: gas goes fast when you're melting snow, and don't pack down the snow around your trekking poles so tightly if you want to retrieve them easily the next morning (we used them to secure the tent fly).
The view from our site was great, as the whole of the desert seemed laid out below us. The Salton Sea shimmered by day, and Palm Springs glowed all night. The next morning dawned clear, and we figured that at the previous day's pace, we'd never make the summit and get out in time, so we called it a failed summit attempt, but a useful training exercise, and a great stamina builder. We hoofed it back down pretty quickly, switching from snowshoes to crampons after descending most of the way to the Junction, and leaving the crampons on 'til the snow petered out on the way down Devil's Slide. Uphill had been okay without them on this part of the trail, but downhill with big packs was a big unnerving without the extra traction.
As a bonus, we discovered the state park where we'd stayed on Friday charged only a couple dollars for use of their showers. That made the drive back home much more enjoyable.
We'll try again later when we won't need the snowshoes.