Tram to the Clouds
A glorious Saturday morning bathes Palm Springs in mid-April. My partner and I meet at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, double check the contents of our daypacks, and take an early tram up to its terminus near Long Valley. Our objective for the day is a snowshoe to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto. Not having had the opportunity for a Starbucks run, we left it up to the pogo stick-like swaying of the tram car when it passes one of the towers to get us fully awake.
No one who has ever taken this tram ride can fail to be awed by the sheer beauty, ruggedness and verticality of the canyon that encases the tram route. The desert floor stretches out below and the massive facade of Mt. San Gorgonio in the distance draws the eye, all the more so because that 11,500 foot beast is fully clothed in white from recent Southern California storms.
The ride is all too short, but we have enough time to get our gaiters on and slather on some sunscreen. We confront the most dangerous part of today’s outing when we step out the doors of the tramway station. There is a circular concrete ramp about a quarter mile in length you have to walk down to get to the trailhead. This morning, the ramp is coated with ice. You almost always see at least one person go down when you negotiate this ramp in conditions like today’s. Fortunately, there are handrails on either side of the ramp. But even with the handrails, you have to step gingerly.
My partner and I made it down the ramp without a butt plant and took the short walk over to the Long Valley Ranger Station to get our self-issued permit. Then we set off towards Round Valley, Wellman’s Divide and, hopefully, the 10,804 ft. summit of Mt. San Jacinto. Because the mountain is completely blanketed with fresh snow due to a recent storm, the regular trail to the summit is not visible. About 10 minutes from the Ranger Station, we elect to abandon the delights of postholing and put on our snowshoes. Even with snowshoes, we sometimes sink a few inches; the cover is that deep and soft.
Zigging Instead of Zagging and Monique's Vista
Vista from an unknown overlook
The first two miles of this route traverses a gorgeous pine forest and passes through Round Valley. You then begin a one mile ascent to Wellman’s Divide. It was at this point that we zigged when we should have zagged. “Doesn’t that look like a trail?” my partner asked. Ah, the power of suggestion. “Yes,” I said, “it does look like a trail.” But by the time our navigational error became more than apparent, we had reached an overlook looking west on the mountain that, in truth, made going off route worthwhile. The scenery below us, including snow covered peaks and beautiful cloud formations, merited a good long look and lots of photographs. It was too pretty a place to leave unnamed, so we named it “Monique’s Vista.” Now to get ourselves found.
The Pied Piper and the Lemmings in the Forest
View en route to Wellman's Divide
After consulting our topo map, we were pretty certain where we had to go to get back on route. Just as we departed Monique’s Vista, a lone hiker approached. I asked him if he knew the way to Wellman’s Divide. The friendly hiker calmly announced “I was following your tracks.” Mr. Friendly Hiker didn’t have snowshoes so he was happy to have us break trail. We invited him to join us and the three of us set out to get back on track. Just as we were heading out, what should come into view but five or six other hikers who, like Friendly Hiker, were also following our tracks. They had all followed our footprints like lemmings to a jumping off spot. We felt like the Pied Piper. We left everyone to their own devices and continued our journey. With scenery as shown in the photos here, there is little that could have disturbed the exhilaration of the day.
Unparalleled Beauty: Wellman's Divide
View from Wellman's Divide Hiker taking a break from postholing
We got back near the drainage where we should have been [Navigational Tip: the trail to Wellman’s Divide follows alongside the south side of the creek. Near its headwaters, the trail crosses to the north side of the creek and then turns southwest becoming a series of switchbacks leading to the Divide] and in due time arrived at Wellman’s Divide. The photos in this section show the drop-dead gorgeous views on that day. The only thing you had to be cautious about was standing under a tree because the size of the melting chunks of ice falling from the branches could have done serious damage to your cranium.
From the Divide, the topo shows that we head due north to get to the summit. As we climbed, we closed in on a lone hiker who did not have snowshoes and his progress was painfully slow as he postholed to his thighs. The photo at the top of this section shows him laying flat on his back in the snow after he had fallen backward and just decided to rest for awhile on a soft cold bed.
Traverse and Turnaround
Soon, we found ourselves traversing below a ridge where the views caused us to stop frequently to feast our eyes. The air was crisp and cold and the sun bright. If you have a lust for Mother Nature, you could satiate it on this mountain on a day like today. As we aimed for the saddle that would place us within view of San Jacinto’s summit, the traverse got progressively steeper. I began to get concerned for Mr. Friendly Hiker who only had hiking boots on. He was a self-admitted neophyte at snow travel, but he was one of those types who is game for anything and hasn’t had enough experience to evaluate risks. He probably would have followed us anyway if I had told him that the traverse was too steep for someone of his experience level and without a traction device for his feet. However, the fact that time-wise we had been put behind by our navigational detour indicated that if we continued to the summit, our return would be very late in the day. Because we did not want to be rushing a descent, we elected to turn around.
We took a leisurely pace back to the tram station and ordered up a beer. I hope what I’ve described above explains why I was not at all disappointed at not bagging the peak today. Even without the summit, it was a glorious, incomparable day. You can’t ask for more than that and I won’t.
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