Update: This trip was partly done as training for a possible John Muir Trail record attempt. I ended up breaking the record later in the year. The trip report can be found here
I don’t exactly remember how the idea popped in my head of trying to do the three highest SoCal peaks [in their respective ranges] in a single day. I thought standing on the summits of all 3 within a 24 hour period would be pretty cool in of itself, but climbing each mountain via the hardest trail would be icing on the cake. As I added up the mileage and elevation for each hike as well as transit time between peaks I realized I just might be able to actually do it, but it would be close.
To maximize the challenge, I chose the trails with the most elevation gain up each mountain while selecting descent routes which minimized the elevation loss (I like my knees). This algorithm led to the following routes:
Mount Baldy: Ascend via Bear Flat trail (Baldy Village) and descend via ski lifts to parking lot. Gain/Loss ~6000/3000 ft, miles ~11, summit elevation 10,064 ft.
Mount San Jacinto: Ascend via Cactus 2 Clouds and descend via tram. Gain/Loss ~10,500/2500 ft, miles ~23, summit elevation 10,834 ft.
Mount San Gorgonio: Ascend via Vivian Creek trail (Note, I have since learned of the Momyer trail which has a few hundred feet more gain. Oops! Guess I need to do it again!) and descend via same route. Gain/Loss ~5600/5600 ft, miles ~16, summit elevation 11,499 ft.
Total stats: Gain/Loss ~22,100/11,100 ft, miles ~50.
The Initial Strategy/Failed Attempts
My initial strategy for the trail sequence was designed to minimize transit time between the mountains as well as accurately control the time of day when I’d be doing C2C to avoid the horrendous Palm Springs heat. The plan was to start C2C at 2 AM and then catch one of the first trams down around 8 or 9 AM and take a taxi back to the car. Then I would drive to the Vivian Creek trailhead and start hiking at around 10:30 AM and return around 3:30 PM. Lastly, I’d drive to Baldy Village and start hiking at around 5 PM and finish around 10 PM and somehow get back to my car.
In early April I did the C2C to evaluate the snow conditions as well as gauge my fitness for the undertaking. I was encouraged by my 7 hour C2C time especially considering the snow conditions and some bonus technical rock climbing encountered below the tram due to route finding issues. I continued training and decided in mid April to finally give the SoCal Triple Crown a shot. I drove from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and arrived at 2:30 AM. So far, so good. Within about 15 minutes of hiking at a rapid pace I began feeling sick to my stomach and so I slowed down a bit. After another 20 minutes of feeling ill I knew it was over. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if you’re struggling on the first 1,000 ft of a 22,000 ft gain hike, it ain’t gonna happen. Secondly, it also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize one shouldn’t stuff oneself at a sushi buffet the day before said hike. What the hell was I thinking?!? Was I trying to fail?
The second attempt occurred on Sunday May 10th. After accepting the fact that I was irrationally committed to achieving my goal, my wife graciously offered to accompany me and to facilitate the car shuttles on Baldy and Jacinto. By mid May all snow had melted up to the tram but some remained near the summit of Jacinto and potentially other peaks as well. I brought snow shoes and planned to use them with my tennis shoes on the short snow sections. I never did. The high temps for Palm Springs were now reaching 100 F which necessitated the early 2 AM planned start more than ever. So, I started driving from LA at 12:30 AM only to hit major nighttime road construction along I-10. Every lane was closed but one! I experienced the worst traffic (even by LA standards) at 1 friggin AM in the morning! It took me 3 hours to get to Palm Springs. “I should have driven to Lone Pine” I thought…My start time was now 3:30 AM, with the temp being a balmy 76 F. I knew I was going to have to hurry to get high enough before the sun rose. I hiked at a fast, but sustainable pace and reached the tram in 3:55 and reached the summit in 6 hours flat. I felt pretty good and ran most of the way back to the tram, where my wife was waiting with a refreshing venti frappuccino.
We drove to Vivian Creek and I started hiking at 11:47 AM. It was hot. After C2C I was in good shape and felt I had a decent chance of completing the Triple Crown as long as I didn’t overheat. I hiked at a moderate pace and avoided excessive perspiration. Even though I was going slow and drinking ample Powerade I felt perpetually thirsty. I continued trudging up the trail and realized something must be wrong. I was drinking my 6th quart of Powerade, my stomach was full of Powerade, and yet I felt REALLY thirsty. Plus I seemed to have an artificially high pulse. I sat on a rock and rested, hoping all the problems would melt away in a couple of minutes. They didn’t. Grudgingly I came to terms with reality and accepted I needed to retreat. It was frustrating though because athletically I felt fine. From subsequent research online I learned that drinking large quantities of Powerade/Gatorade can have a dehydrating effect because the salt concentrations are too high. Some recommended diluting the sports drink as much by a factor of 3. Lesson learned.
On the summit of San Jacinto
Strategy v2.0/3rd Time’s A Charm
Given that my second attempt failed due to hydration issues, I restructured the peak sequence from minimizing travel time to instead minimizing strenuous hiking during midday heat. I decided the best sequence would be to start around sunset on Baldy on Saturday—basically climbing that peak at night, then heading over to Jacinto around 1 AM and doing most of C2C before the sun even rose. Gorgonio would need to be done during the middle of the day, but at least one mountain needed to be and I felt Gorgonio would be the coolest of the 3 for this. The obsession to complete the Triple Crown completely took hold after I devised the new strategy and I was determined to try again the following weekend. My wife again volunteered to assist with the car shuttles (I think she was a wee bit worried by this point).
The following Saturday (May 16th, 2009) marked the third attempt. I slept—or rather simply lay in bed—as much as I could during the day to prepare for the full night and day of hiking that was ahead of me. Eventually it became time to go and my wife and I started the ~1.5 hour drive to Baldy village. Just as we were nearing the highway on-ramp I mentioned again how I hope my ankle would be fine (I tweaked it the previous day running on the beach and it hurt whenever I applied any torque to it). My wife suggested I postpone the hike and thought I was crazy to even consider starting it with an injury. She then proceeded to remind of all the previous times I have ignored small injuries in the pursuit of arbitrary athletic challenges and the long term consequences that inevitably resulted from my stubbornness. I knew she was right this time (as with all previous times). Internally my brain agreed with her as well this time, but a mystical force of sorts prevented me from turning the car around. Once I got on the interstate the ball had been set in motion and wasn’t stopping. I was going to try, damn it! If I had to turn back a mile into the Baldy hike so be it.
We arrived at the Baldy Village trailhead at around 7:15 PM. We agreed she would wait at the restaurant across the street until closing and then head up to the Baldy ski lift parking lot to meet me upon my descent, which I said would be no later than 12:30 AM. We figured this would give me enough time to meet her before she left if I had to turn back due to ankle problems. I started hiking at 7:28 PM. I started up Bear Canyon at a moderate pace. Due to my previous hydration related failure I was paranoid about over exerting myself. My goal for the entire trip was never to hike sufficiently fast to require wiping sweat from my forehead. I reached the charred southeast facing manzanita slope with about a half hour or so of useful daylight left. Even so, I could still feel the stored solar energy radiating from the slope. It was still a solar furnace even after sunset up there! I was glad I was doing this part now instead of at the very end in the peak afternoon heat on Sunday. Once I gained the ridge I escaped the clutches of the furnace and the air cooled considerably. A slight breeze was a bonus. Since it was cooler I was able to kick it up a notch. I hiked at a much faster pace but still well below the maximum I could sustain on the steep trail. Night eventually took hold and I put on my head lamp (the half moon wouldn’t rise for many more hours). As I neared the summit plateau at ~9,000 ft or so I came across the first scorpion of the night—the first I’d ever seen in California. I would see three more on San Jacinto. When it rains….When I reached the summit ridge I saw what I thought was a headlamp in the distance on the summit, but I wasn’t sure if it was instead a bright star coincidentally aligned with the summit. As I continued hiking the light didn’t move and I realized people were probably camping on the summit. “Great idea,” I thought. I’ve wanted to do that for years and never got around to it. I picked up the pace again on the relatively flat summit plateau and reached the summit at about 10:00 PM—2.5 hours after starting. I initially didn’t believe my watch. I couldn’t believe how fast I’d gone. The colder temperatures must have really made a difference.
I stayed on the summit less than a minute and was trying not to disturb the sleeping campers. I briefly admired the amazing night-time view from the summit. The orange endless glow from the valley’s sodium vapor lights was quite impressive. I tried taking a picture of the giant snake of cars escaping towards/fleeing from Vegas on I-15 but the picture didn’t turn out. Unfortunately I didn’t think to take a self portrait on the summit…The descent was quick. I walked fast, but never ran and reached the ski lift parking lot at 11:00 PM. My wife was nowhere in sight. During my descent this possibility occurred to me. I realized too late that the Baldy Village restaurant had a bar and might not close until I was off the mountain! My wife would then probably wait until midnight or so before driving up to the ski lifts so as to not be kept waiting long. I accepted my fate and walked down to the end of the road and waited. After three false alarms from other cars driving up to the ski lift parking lot (for god knows what reason at that hour), my waiting ceased after 45 minutes. She came around 11:45 PM.
Sunset above Bear Canyon
Scorpion on Baldy!
The drive to Palm Springs was uneventful this time (thank god!). I ate my wife’s chicken sandwich she ordered from the restaurant but never ate and drank a little. From my previous attempt I learned that the final approach towards Palm Springs and the trailhead entails some suspense. As you leave I-10 and head down into the valley the temperature steadily increases. The previous time the temperature at the trailhead was 76 F at 3:30 AM, which I thought was rather balmy when I started hiking. This time I was quite distraught as I saw the temperature reading in my car slowly but steadily climb above 76 F and eventually reach a depressing 80 F. The forecasts were similar for the two weekends but this time I was starting the hike at 1:20 AM—the desert was still cooling. I consoled myself with the thought that the increased starting temperature would be more than compensated by the benefit of hiking most of way to the tram before sunrise. I loaded my bag with 2 quarts of water and 2 of Powerade and gave my wife my estimated tram arrival time (9 AM) and took off.
Again my strategy was to not overexert myself. I figured if I made it to the tram in good condition the Triple Crown was going to be mine. I went up a bit slower than the previous week at a rate of ~1700 ft gain per hour vs. 2000. About 10 minutes into the hike I met a guy descending with a heavy pack. “Wow, that guy must have started really early,” I jokingly thought to myself. Turns out he was recovering his friend’s pack after his friend “lost the soles of his shoes” and descended without them. I didn’t know exactly what he meant by this but sure enough later on I came across one and then later a second lost sole on the trail. Interesting. After climbing about 2000 ft I caught up to a couple guys who were training for something (I forget) and have loaded their packs with 20 lbs of rocks or so. Turns out one of them (Rick, I believe) is Jack McBroom’s mailman. Yes, the same mailman who ran into Jack, himself, during his successful California 15 14er record attempt. Small world…I stayed with them and chatted for a bit but eventually we parted company. The rest of the ascent towards the tram was an uneventful slog (which is good!), except for the 3 scorpions I nearly squashed. I got to within 500 ft of the tram before the sun rose and reached Long Valley at 6AM--4:40 from the trailhead, 45 minutes slower than the previous weekend.
By reaching Long Valley I was given the best treat imaginable—it was cold! This enabled me to run the flat stretches and aggressively hike everything else. I made up some time on this stretch and reached the summit at 7:45 AM for a total ascent of 6:25. Again I spent little time at the summit (which was surprisingly very crowded that early in the morning), but snapped a few pictures before leaving this time. I ran most of the way back to the tram and passed what seemed like about 100 backpackers—this place is popular! I was the sole paying customer on the 9:20 AM tram going down! While taking advantage of the abundant tram interior for stretching, I started talking to the tram operator and told her I was trying to do the Triple Crown. She matter of factly asked “Aren’t you a bit late for that?” A bit late? “But I’ve already completed 2 of the 3 mountains, 75% of the gain, and it’s still early morning, how can I be late?” I thought to myself. She then proceeded to describe the Triple Crown race
which occurs in February where people take the shortest routes possible to the three summits (including the tram for Jacinto). This is the first I’ve heard of the race and have since been unable to find any info for it on the net. Perhaps it’s discontinued? Anyway, this time my wife was waiting for me at the bottom and we started driving to Gorgonio after a 5 minute soda break.
Sunrise above Palm Springs
Two down, one to go
So close and yet...
In the car I ate a bagel sandwich and drank a bit more fluids. I’m sure I hadn’t been drinking enough to replace what I was sweating. We arrived at the San Bernardino ranger station and picked up the requisite permit and day use pass and continued onto the trailhead. Catastrophe nearly struck when the car nearly ran out of gas before reaching the trailhead. That would have really sucked. I probably should have gotten some earlier, but I figured I could coast all the way down to the nearest gas station on the way back if need be. Fortunately, this was never necessary. We arrived at the trailhead at 11 AM and it was a balmy 80 F here as well too. For the first time on the trip I applied sunscreen. We (my wife accompanied me up Gorgonio) started hiking at about 11:20 AM.
The ascent up Gorgonio was slow and agonizing. Not agonizing in a physical way (I was actually feeling surprisingly good), but rather in a trail topology sort of way. I don’t know of any trail that has so many seemingly pointless switchbacks! I swear half the switchbacks above High Creek camp actually lose elevation, or so it seemed. From High Creek camp we slogged up towards the summit plateau and began to really feel the effects of elevation. As we gained the ridge, the summit plateau finally lay before our eyes. Hiking towards the summit plateau seemed endless. I remembered thinking “21k feet elevation gain done and 1k to go. How bad can it be?” Our pace continued slowing as we trudged onward to the extent that it always seemed the top was yet another half hour away. Eventually, this ended—as it must—and the summit came in sight. I felt a wave of relief as it became clear I would finally complete this quest. We reached the summit at 3:00 PM with plenty of time to make it back to the car in under 24 hours. A few others were on the summit and one of them mentioned how he left Nepal prayer flags on the summit of San Jacinto. “Oh I saw them,” I said. “When?” “Um, actually today.” This then led me to describe the day’s events to the others on the summit. Jim(?) and the others encouraged me to write up a trip report and post it on Summitpost so here it is…
This time I stayed a bit longer on the summit and we eventually left at 3:30 PM, but not before taking a picture with one of the treasures found in San Gorgonio’s register—an ‘Easy Button’ which remarks “That was easy!” when pressed. I don’t think I necessarily agree with the button’s assertion, but I still posed with it. For the descent, my wife and I partly ran down to Halfway Camp. I realized then that I had a shot of breaking 22 hours car-to-car time. The thought of doing 22k elevation gain in under 22 hours was alluring. It was going to be tough but I was feeling pretty good so I proceeded to run like a mad man, even scaring a hiker, all the way back to the car. I finished at 5:24 PM, 21:56 from the start.
Three for three!
Finally, after 3 attempts I completed the SoCal Triple Crown. Between my wife and me, I don’t know who was more relieved. As always, however, such adventures are never the end of anything. They just form the seeds of even more ambitious goals. In the back of my mind I’ve been considering giving the unsupported JMT record a shot. I never thought I had a chance to legitimately try it but my surprisingly good performance on this hike is encouraging. I will need to utilize all the time between now and late summer to get in sufficient shape to give it a try. I’d say an attempt is 50/50 at this point. We’ll see.
Now for the PSA. Sadly, a couple days after the hike I learned someone died of heat exhaustion on the Sky Line trail the same day I was on it. The group started at 5-6 AM, eventually turned back, and descended into the mid-day desert heat. The forecast high for Palm Springs that day was about 102 F. The Sky Line trail up Jacinto is not a trail to be taken lightly. Retreating down to the desert may be worse than continuing up to the tram. I urge anyone considering the hike to be adequately acquainted with the risks involved before doing so.