Day 9 - santa Rosa wilderness to idyllwild
April 5 | Miles 156.5 - 169.5 + 4.7 Mile Spitler Peak Trail detour
Today was brutal and challenging.
Last night, high winds had repeatedly ripped my tent stakes from the ground, causing my shelter to collapse in on me as I attempted sleep, and forcing me outside multiple times to readjust my guylines in the frigid wet darkness. The booms of sonic propulsion from aircraft thundered from above every one or two hours, but they were virtually indistinguishable from the sounds of the ripping gusts coming down from San Jacinto.
Nevertheless, the group was up early this morning. I tailed them in the thick, cold morning mist, on the trail by 6:30.
The sky opened up briefly for sunrise as the ascent started to intensify…
…But was again swallowed up in a matter of minutes. It felt like I was walking into the abyss.
For brief moments, killer views of the desert would open up before me, only to be overtaken again by clouds.
The trail passed through a spooky burn area where no signs of life could be found.
As we entered the San Jacinto Wilderness, difficulties began to stack up. Gale-force winds slashed through the mountains, practically pushing me over. Downed trees and scattered branches littered the trail, making it more of an obstacle course than a footpath. The incline was punishing. Some team members were in bad shape and bailed to town before noon.
The sky got angrier and heavier as we moved to higher altitudes. I lost the group when they stopped to boil some snow into water and I elected to keep my climbing momentum going.
Patchy snow was intermittent above 7000 feet. Crossing one bit, I lost my footing and slipped to my knees, sliding a few feet downhill on what was potentially a 100-foot chute.
I was freaked out. I tried my best not to panic as the screaming winds echoed against the sound of my own heartbeat in my eardrums.
And then, I came upon this.
A frighteningly steep 45°-angled slope covered in thick layers of snow and ice extended as far as I could see. Steps had been kicked in, but had turned slippery and unstable after the past night’s rainfall. As I stood motionless facing the traverse, I felt an icy and disturbing sense of dread settle over me, amplified by the freezing windchill.
I was forced to weigh the odds of a very long fall.
Just days before, I’d seen SAR helicopters buzzing through the hills around Warner Springs. It was later at Paradise Valley Cafe that I learned they’d been sent on a rescue call to San Jacinto, where a hiker had taken a 400-foot slide on steep snow and had activated their SOS beacon.
This was not the time to mess around.
Tears welled up in my eyes and my throat tightened when I realized what came next. The reality is, even with the microspikes I was carrying, this slope was impassable without an ice axe on a day like today with poor snow conditions, low visibility, and extreme winds. If I started to fall, there would be nothing to stop me. For a long way down.
I had to turn around.
Frustrated and defeated, I reversed course and headed for the Spitler Peak Trail Junction, which would lead to a highway where I could hitch into Idyllwild. On my way I passed members of the group. Three continued on, unfazed. Three turned around and came with me when they saw those photos, all of us deciding that we didn’t feel like dying today.
The way down was five miles of mental defeat as we descended to the trailhead. We passed a giant burn area, the remnants of the 2013 Mountain Fire caused by an arsonist that had completely destroyed almost 28,000 acres of forest.
At the end of the day, everything turned out fine. Two guys pulled up in a construction truck and let the four of us ride-literally-on their bumper, packs on, leaning against the back of the truck and gripping the high railings of the bed for support. We laughed at our good, weird fortune as one of the dudes took a video on his phone from the passenger seat. Within 5 minutes we were dropped at the highway and picked back up by a real stand-up guy named Art, a horseback rider and former backpacker.
In all seriousness, snow travel is no joke. Everyone has to make calls for the sake of their own safety. I knew what I was comfortable with, and I knew that this was beyond that threshold. Mountaineering is about nothing if not self-control and respect for the power of Mother Nature. This day will certainly force me to think long and hard about my decisions going into the Sierra in the next few months, but in a way I’m lucky that I have to reckon with that danger so soon.
I was blessed this evening to get a ride and a room from my trail angel for the day, Laurie, on a day when Idyllwild was nearly fully booked (lots of construction workers are lodging in town as they work to repair the roads destroyed by landslides and washouts this past Winter).
I’m not sure whether I’ll pick up with the trail back at Spitler, or whether I’ll bypass those 10 sketchy miles and resume at Saddle Junction. Time and weather will tell. Today beat me up in the head, and I need a few days to recover. I’m spending the weekend in Idyllwild to rest up, clear my mind, and get ready for what’s next.
My message to anyone in the mountains this early in the season: be safe and keep it real.