Cactus to Slush
Dawn in Palm Springs
I had done Cactus to Clouds two summers ago and had enjoyed it, in some perverse sense, enough to want another helping. Since the Sierra are out of my league during the winter, and since snow on the top part of Skyline would add to the challenge, now seemed like a good time to return. So I rounded up two fresh victims and we were off to Palm Springs at an ungodly hour. Though I had lucked out and hitched a ride back to my car the last time, we opted for a car shuttle. (For reasons that elude me, the the road up to the base of the tram seems like a popular place for Palm Springs' retirees to stroll before dawn. Do they ride the tram, then return to their lowland caves after dusk?)
Savage cactus and hose plant Clouds over San Bernardinos
We got started around 6:00, and while it was not as punishingly hot as last time, it was still warmer than t-shirt weather. The climb still felt just as interminable, though, since the top is hidden much of the way, and it is difficult to get a sense of scale from the barren ridges around you or the plains below. I amused myself by playing with the local flora, including a savage cactus (it won) and a green plant that smells like a hot garden hose when crushed. Higher up, we were treated to views of an impressive-looking storm over the San Bernardinos.
The snow started abruptly as the trail crossed the drainage to begin the final climb, so Noah donned his heavy boots and I my bread bags. While we were a bit behind my pace last time, we seemed to be on track for the 6-7 hours I expected it to take to reach the tram. I remembered more or less where the trail went from here, but fortunately someone with a GPS track had been up recently, since the trail was not deep enough to show through the snow. We gratefully followed the tracks. The slush was ankle-, then calf-, then knee-deep, but snowshoes still seemed like more of a hindrance when winding through the scrub.
Old avalanche on our route
I was hoping it might be cold enough on the steep part for there to be some crust, but we had no such luck. Though we had three axes and six crampons between us, we had only four snowshoes. Retracing our steps was too horrible to contemplate, so Noah and I took one snowshow apiece and made our limping way up the last few thousand feet, knee- and then thigh-deep in a giant slurpee.
The gully we took
Crossing below a rocky ridge on the traverse to the final chute, we lost the tracks we had been following. After some time spent searching for a familiar-looking gully, we chose one that looked like it didn't cliff out, and began the final slog. There were clear signs of past avalanches, but things seemed stable now. While we definitely chose something steeper than the correct gully, some tiresome but non-threatening climbing got us to the valley and, with some relief, to the tram around 3:00. While it seemed possible to reach the summit by sunset and return to the tram by headlamp, the prospect held little appeal. It was Miller time.
Snowshoes, ice axe, 2-3L water, gloves, ghetto footwear system, shell jacket. More snowshoes would have helped.
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