When I was a little kid, I read a National Geographic article that discussed the “3 Peak Challenge”. It was a 24-hour race in the UK with the goal of reaching the three highest peaks. People hiked up mountains, ran down, and shared vans to move between trail heads. Complete the thing in sub 20-hours and participants earned a belt buckle. I was hooked. So naturally, years later, when the opportunity presented itself to hike “3 High Peaks” within 24 hours, I jumped at the chance.
The three highest ranges in Southern California top out at San Gorgonio (11,503′), San Jacinto (10,834′) and San Antonio (10,064). In 2013, C and I hiked a lot and prepared ourselves to the best of our ability to hike these three peaks in a day. She pitched the idea and I had, without missing a beat, replied yes! Then the Mountain Fire happened on the flanks of San Jacinto and on our planned summit day – July 22 – monsoonal moisture produced wicked thunderstorms at altitude. We had already pulled the plug on the hike due to the fire; however, our disappointment was palpable. We vowed that we would make another attempt when the timing was right.
Fast forward to Spring 2014. Local outfitter Adventure 16, decided to host the “A16 3-Peak Challenge”. C and I went to the Solana Beach store’s presentation and quickly hatched plans to make an early July assault. Weather, luck, permit approval and everything else permitting – we would make it. Like last year, we had several tough, but promising long-distance hikes at altitude that helped build strength and allowed us to acclimatize to the elevation. Along with her spring marathon and my own long-distance running, we both felt very positive about our fitness levels and chances. As our planned assault day – July 5 – drew closer, I became increasingly worried about the monsoonal moisture and the 40% thunderstorms predicted for the day. I’ll be honest – I’m a wuss when it comes to shit weather, and lightning on high ridges. C is great and without hesitation, we moved our hike ahead a day to the 4th, in hopes that we would escape the storms. Thankfully we also had a permit for July 4th via the Vivian Creek trail on San Gorgonio (there were MANY permit applications that we made in preparation for this hike, lest we needed an alternate day).
With all of our ducks in a row, timeline, food, pit stops – everything planned out, I set my alarm for 11:55 pm on July 3rd and met C at our designated Park N’ Ride at 12:30 am, July 4th.
It was early.
SAN ANTONIO (10,064′) “Baldy”
Start: 2:24 am
Summit: 4:07 am
Finish: 5:40 am
Stats: 10 miles, 4,000 feet elevation gain
After parking at the Manker Flats TH, C and I grabbed our designated packs, threw on our head lamps and set off on our adventure. We made good time heading up the road, past the San Antonio Falls – which we could hear, but couldn’t see due to the darkness – and within a matter of minutes reached the barely discernible trail turn-off towards the “Ski Hut” trail. As my headlamp was significantly brighter than C’s, she had suggested that I take the lead. It always feels a bit awkward going ahead of her, as I’m so used to C being in the front. But I felt confident about my pace (just GO) and good about my route finding ability. I had scouted Baldy three weeks prior with C and two weeks earlier with N, on our final hike before he deployed. I knew that we could potentially save a lot of time by sticking close to the spine of the ridge, rather than hanging left towards the aircraft wreckage. Instinct kicked in, and we moved quickly and efficiently up the trail towards the peak.
Once we neared the top, the lights of LA came into sight, but we hardly stopped to take in the sights. There was mostly a lot of hard breathing (both of us) and peering (by me) ahead to make sure that a) we were going the right direction and b) weren’t about to get eaten by a mountain lion. At one point, I thought I saw cat eyes in the distance, but figured that it was probably just the far off lights from the ski hut. That’s what I told myself. We could also see the occasional headlamp from solitary hikers – but really, didn’t spend too much time investigating. At slightly after 4 am, and having taken probably the most efficient route I have ever taken, we reached the summit. It was awesome.
After meeting another hiker at the top, we snapped a few photos, ate a little something, and headed back down, the same way we came up. I may have trotted, but my pace remained brisk. At the back of my head, I was already contemplating thunderstorm risk on Gorgonio… the predictions had stated 30% after 11 am. Though we had allotted 4 hours of time to ascend and descend Baldy, I was hoping to improve upon that and get an earlier start on Vivian Creek. We kept our balance (mostly!) on the way down, greeted a few other hikers heading up (did you already go to the summit?) and were back at our starting point 50 minutes early.
I quickly made some NUUN, swapped shoes (holy dust Batman!), grabbed a ProBar, saved my GPS data and got ready to drive to Vivian Creek, our next trail head. If anything, racing Ironman and triathlons for so many years had me well prepared for fast transitions. This day was no exception.
Transition Time from Manker Flats Trail Head (Baldy) to Vivian Creek Trail Head (Gorgonio): 1:30
SAN GORGONIO (11,503′) “Old Greyback”
Start: 7:10 am
Summit: 10:32 am
Finish: 1:35 pm
Stats: 18 miles, 5,500 feet elevation gain
Driving in from Baldy to the Vivian Creek TH, C and I could see what appeared to be Lenticular Clouds, stationed over the very tips of the peaks in the Gorgonio Range. I watched them carefully for 45 minutes while (carefully!) driving with traffic above the speed limit on the 210 East – they seemed to be dissipating and instead, vapor clouds gradually amassed. At the back of my head, a little voice kicked in. “It’s not a matter of IF it’s going to storm, but WHEN.”
Then another thought kicked in: COURAGE.
In the past when I used to race triathlon, and even occasionally now when building towards a running race, I will use “key words” to help me focus during workouts and push aside negative thoughts and energy. Driving through the quaint, mountainside town of Forrest Falls, CA, I decided that “COURAGE” would be my word on Gorgonio. I also thought about other key words that I could draw upon, and quickly settled on “STRENGTH” for Baldy (because we moved fast) and it took strength to do what we were doing (and I realize that we had already finished Baldy – but still, both C & I had dug deep to make it up and back in 3:16) . I listened to my little Volvo engine whine, and settled on “FAITH” for Jacinto – have faith in the process…. believing that it could happen. Throughout the day, whenever I would feel fear or doubt, I would think about these words. They were very important and I carried them with me from that point on.
The Vivian Creek Trail Head was unusually quiet and C and I grabbed a primo parking spot right near the trail sign. We wondered how many groups were ahead of us on the trail and were surprised at how (for the most popular trail in the San G Wilderness and on the 4th of July) – how empty it seemed. Backpacks, camera, poles, my 38 essentials – everything was in place and at approximately 7:10 am, we set off on the second of our three peaks.
They day was, simply stated – stunning. After the initial (tough) push up to the wilderness sign, C and I settled into a sustainable, but fast pace. It was comfortably uncomfortable – we were toeing that endurance line of working sustainably hard, without burring ourselves out. And – I think – because of all the training that we’ve done and also with how hard BOTH of us enjoy working, we’re able to do this for a long time (in this case, for 40 miles and nearly 14 hours of hiking time). For the first 2 hours on Vivian Creek though, we saw nary a cloud in the sky and it seemed (knock on wood) that the weather would cooperate. I felt a deep gratitude for the day and anytime bits of doubt would surface, would remind myself of “COURAGE”. We also passed four groups of people, saw a deer (wildlife encounter!), and enjoyed the hard – but sustainable pace. Life was good.
We hit the San Jacinto overlook somewhere around 9:30 am, and my good feeling and confidence was replaced by bits of fear and doubt. I could see clouds – vapor clouds…were they? – streaming over the peak and hovering just above the San Bernardino Divide trail (11,200′ feet, give or take). Looking off in the distance, I could also see large cumulous clouds stacking up over San Jacinto, our third peak of the day.
I told myself “COURAGE”. And then I remembered what N had told me about thunderstorms and measuring cloud formations. When he flies, he compares cloud height to a known landmark, and can deduce the cloud height (and storm breakout potential). This trick worked for me while hiking Langley (14,028′) last year. Today, I could see Jacinto in the distance and, knowing that the peak was just short of 11K feet, deduced that the clouds overhead weren’t even at 18K feet. I figured that the cumulous clouds stacking up over Gorgonio would look similar to the ones on Jacinto; I felt safe as they hadn’t yet reached thunderstorm height. But I also knew that weather changes very quickly in the mountains and that there would be a limited window for attaining a safe summit & descent.
We pressed on. The clouds grew. So I kept my head down and just avoided looking up. As long as I could still see patches of blue (I could) and wasn’t experiencing hail or updrafts (I wasn’t) – I was okay. Just ahead on the trail, we could see another hiker or two and I felt comforted knowing that we weren’t the only ones this high up. Sometimes life just feels a little less scary when you’re not the only one.
I was out of my comfort zone during the final 10-minute approach to Gorgonio. A trail runner had just summited and was running towards us and then down the SB Divide Trail. He commented that there was one other person ahead of us, and then kept going. I wanted to get the fuck off the peak, but I told myself “COURAGE” and I looked at C’s back. Snapping a few pictures was always helpful – sometimes life is also less scary when I’m looking at it from behind a camera. I figured I would tell a visual story of what I was feeling and experiencing.
Clouds and vapor whipped over the top and I wanted to turn around.
But I kept going.
Within a matter of minutes, we heard a loud ‘WHOOP!’ from the hiker ahead of us. She had just summited and enthusiastically greeted us as we neared the final steps of the peak. We quickly pulled out our A16 flags and asked her to take a photo or two of us. She was very nice and took several from different angles – something that I appreciated.
As C and I were gathering our gear and re-strapping on our packs, I glanced in the direction of Vivian Creek and where we had come from. It looked horrifying. But there was no other way – save dropping into the bowl, lest it start thundering. The other hiker on the summit didn’t seem concerned and neither did C. We bid her farewell and I told myself COURAGE as we set back down the trail- half hiking, half trotting – down into the mist and fog. I reminded myself that it wasn’t jut about reaching the top, in order for a successful trip, we would also have to reach the bottom. It’s easy to forget that.
I was less than enthusiastic, but we kept on moving. It felt as though the mountain was shutting its door – we had managed to summit and now were hoping to make it down before the proverbial door was closed; this was probably the most uncomfortable part of the entire day for me. Physically I knew that I would be okay – I had spent so much time conditioning myself and training for this day, that I felt good about the physical aspect. Mentally, though – this was the challenge…to be afraid, but to keep going, continue on. I repeated the word “COURAGE”… it takes courage to move when you’re scared, to be out of your comfort zone… courage to press forward when EVERY fiber in your being wants to go the opposite direction. I trusted C completely and recognized that my fear of weather is very different from hers – and furthermore, that she has much more experience at high elevations and with hiking.
This didn’t really make it any easier.
Then I thought about N. I could feel rain – or was it miniature ice pellets? – bounce off my shirt as we jogged down the trail, somewhere above 11K feet. We were still above the treeline and I was distinctively listening for thunder. There was zero wind, and the stillness was eerie. But I remembered N telling me about some of his experiences, flying helicopters in Afghanistan during 2010. It was a very hard deployment, both for the guys overseas and the families back home. At one point after returning, he told me about one flight and tipping the nose of his UH1Y forward, and just seeing what looked like sparklers and fireworks going off in a field below him – but realizing that he and his crew were actually being fired upon and staring down at blazing guns. But they kept flying. I thought about that…thought about him and the crews running towards their helicopters whenever “the horn” sounded…it took a lot of courage to do what they did – run towards danger and answer someone’s calls for help. I, on the other hand, was merely hiking a trail and the weather looked slightly shitty. Small beans compared to what N and the Marines in that unit did. I focused on the back of C and we continued on.
Steadily the rain grew, turned to hail, and we (thankfully) dropped below the treeline and then passed two or three groups still ascending. Each group asked if we had heard thunder and if we thought they could make it to the summit. I wanted to say, “run in the other direction!” – but instead responded that no – we hadn’t heard thunder but to be careful, and that it didn’t look great weather-wise. By the time we dropped below the San Jacinto overlook, we were getting hit with hail, and could hear rolling thunder above us. Hail and rain pounded us, and the trail soon became a stream of water, flowing downwards. I was soaked and sashed my camera in my bag, pulling out my rain jacket. Thunder rumbled continuously and the hail was a reminder of cold air aloft. Gorgonio had shut its door, and I wondered briefly about the 9 or 10 hikers above us.
More storm clouds popped up and grew rapidly over the Yucaipa Ridge. C and I pressed on in record time, hoping to beat the rain back to the car. I was out of my comfort zone (again!) crossing the slightly flowing Vivian Creek. We had seen several flashes of lightning from the Yucaipa Ridge storm and being the tallest object in a large (mostly) dry 300-meter long creek bed was not cool. COURAGE. I kept my head down, and crossed in record time, though it seemed longer than it really was. We made it back to the car just as fat drops were beginning to fall, and I abandoned my plan to swap shoes and change my shirt. That would have to wait. Having made it safely up and back to San Gorgonio, we were two out of three peaks complete – and were going to take a planned lunch break in the Redlands before moving on to Jacinto.
Transition Time between Vivian Creek TH (Gorgonio) and the Palm Springs Areal Tram TH (Jacinto): 2:26.
During our transition, we had a planned REAL Food lunch stop (because let’s face it, gels, shot blocks and bars get old, fast). Chipotle was closed – boo – so instead, we went to Rubios. I added way too much salsa to my meal, while checking the weather over Jacinto. Having just experienced what we did on Gorgonio, neither of us were super enthusiastic about encountering similar conditions at our next peak. But we also didn’t want to quit or call it in. We figured that we would drive to the tram, talk to the rangers at the top of the station, and based on our observations, make a final summit push.
SAN JACINTO (10,834′) “San Jack”
Start: 4:10 pm
Summit: 5:57 pm
Finish: 8:02 pm
Stats: 12 miles, 2600 feet elevation gain
After primo parking in the “Cougar” lot, C and I quickly purchased our tram tickets and were up on the scheduled 3:45 pm tram. It was busy with many 4th of July revelers, parents and kids, a few hikers and people just wanting to spend a few hours away up at 8K feet, away from the sweltering 100++ degree heat of Palm Springs. Whenver the tram passed one of its infamous poles, it swung and dipped, prompting lots of, “Ooooohhhs! and Aaaaahhhs!” from the crowd. Given how few people C and I had seen throughout the day, how sensory deprived we were – the tram was slightly claustrophobic.
But we made it up, off the tram, availed ourselves of the facilities (real hand soap!!), and slightly after 4 pm, found ourselves standing at the top of “the ramp” leading down into the San Jacinto Wilderness.
Making our way down the ramp, C grabbed the mandatory hiking permit from the Ranger Station while I chatted briefly with the ranger. He looked slightly suspiciously at me and asked if I was “doing the 3-peak Challenge.” “We look that rough, do we?” I replied. But he said that we would be fine at the peak, that rain and distant lightning had been reported earlier….but that it was late enough in the day that nothing should materialize. We thanked him and set out for our final peak.
This was my favorite hike of the day. I always think of N on Jacinto anyways – it was the “last big peak” that we did before his 4th deployment. And he texted me a picture of Jacinto and Tahquitz Peaks when he arrived in NH on his way overseas on this last deployment. I remained cautiously optimistic, reminded myself of “FAITH” and developed a deep, overall gratitude for the day. It’s not very often that life works out just as planned, and there had to be a lot of moving parts that made this specific day possible. I was so grateful to be where I was, grateful for the experience, opportunity, to have the body and willpower that I do in order to undertake a challenge like this, the support of N, and most of all – an amazing hiking parter with C. GRATITUDE became my other word for the day.
When the sun came out – though I was still aware of clouds and cloud formations and sudden thunderheads developing – I was even happier. The trail was soft from pine needles, but squishily-firm from recent rain. People on the descent said that we were lucky, we had escaped the rain. We pressed on, each step coming closer to reaching our final peak.
Quickly we passed the Wellman’s Divide, somewhere around 9,500 feet. “1100 feet of elevation to go,” remarked C. We followed along the well-defined trail, and one couple descending from the peak remarked that it was beautiful and that there was NOBODY at the top. I was still a little touchy about weather and even though I didn’t really believe that it would thunder, I was still watching various cumulous clouds bubble up and then collapse on themselves. The lack of energy in the atmosphere was reassuring, but I knew that nothing was a given. Whenever I had these thoughts of slight doubt creep in, I would remind myself of FAITH and GRATITUDE. Though I was thankful for our 3-Peak Challenge day, I needed to trust that we could make it… trust in our ability… trust that – in spite of the weather on Gorgonio, the pitch blackness on Baldy – neither mountain had shut it’s proverbial door on us. Have faith in what we were doing and remain grateful for the experience.
Higher up, we passed some pretty cool rocks. I’ve always wondered why certain rocks are where they are. Or maybe I was just hallucinating. Later on, C claimed that she was slightly delirious.
We passed the turn off for Miller Peak and yelled a cheerful “Hello!” to it, and before we knew it, we had reached the long and final switchback leading up to Jacinto. The colors of the rapidly changing light were breathtaking – clouds skirted over Round Valley and we could see the tram station in the distance. I felt slightly emotional at the thought of reaching this peak, but still wary of the clouds on our left. FAITH.
The final few steps weren’t hard – physically, though boulder hopping for the final 30 or 40 feet was interesting. I probably didn’t take the best route – then again, I was 34-ish miles into a 40-mile day. That can be forgiven. The summit itself was breathtaking, and though I was afraid of a towering cumulous cloud that had – within minutes – blown up before our very eyes, we took a few minutes to enjoy the stillness of the peak. We were alone at the summit, something that never ever happens on Jacinto. We snapped each others’ pictures, took in the view, and started on our descent.
After boulder hopping the 30-feet down to the trail (again – shitty line on my part. Oh well), we started down towards the tram. The pace no longer seemed to matter and after we swung a hard left, heading back towards the Miller Peak turnoff, I was happy to see the towering cumulous collapse in on itself. FAITH, GRATITUDE.
We passed a group of three guys who were heading up to camp at the peak and watch fireworks. As we didn’t have a picture of the two of us taken at the peak, we asked if they would get a shot. We chatted briefly about our day – they didn’t believe us about hiking Baldy and Gorgonio – but after looking at us more closely, and asking about our timeline, they congratulated us. It was a little emotional shaking one guy’s calloused hand. They thought we were pretty cool. I just hoped that I didn’t have snot all over my face.
We took our time on the way back. I still felt GRATITUDE for the day, and commented that a lot of working parts just had to come together – along with a lot of luck. I snapped more pictures, my way of making up for the lack of shots on Baldy and with the rain on Gorgonio. The subjects were a bit more, ah, avant guard….clearly the day was getting to me. There was a port-a-potty, a PB Cup and even a random animal encounter. My legs felt good, my pack light, and heart happy.
The final mile was surreal. We continued on, passed the ranger station, and chatted about how the MOST DIFFICULT part of the day would be the final climb – the cement ramp leading back up to the tram station. I was convinced that it was a Strava Segment, but couldn’t care less about time. I just didn’t want to a) keel over b) use the railing or c) have anyone ask if I needed assistance. I DID end up using my poles – on the cement. It made a desperate sound. Both of us were breathing like a locomotive. A ramp such as this, seemed cruel at the end of the day. But given what we had done – oddly in place. No matter the terrain, the challenge, the elevation gain or distance – we had done it.
We could do it.
We would do it.
With a final WHOOP! – we were at the top. It was official 8:02 pm, and 17-and-a-half hours after starting our hike up Baldy, we had finished our 3 Peak Challenge. The little kid in me was proud, noting that had this been the UK version, I would earn my belt buckle. Yay! The big kid in me was even more proud, having overcome fears and the challenges that a day such as this presents. I reminded myself of STRENGTH, COURAGE, FAITH, and GRATITUDE. For me, this was what the day was about.
C and I made our way through the tram station (sensory overload!) and picked the most comfy, leather chairs possible in the tram waiting area. Shocking, but no one choose to sat by us. We didn’t really talk – I think both of us were in a state of disbelief. After more than a year of prepping, planning, training, thinking about this day – we had finally completed it. There are so few Bucket List things in life, and I don’t think that we realized (or were able to appreciate) what we had just accomplished yet. It was still sinking in.
Besides, we still needed a tram ride down and a safe drive home to Carlsbad and Solana Beach.
Adventure 16 officially lists the challenge as 40 miles, 12,000 feet of gain. We completed everything – the part that they cared about (start hiking – end hiking) in somewhere around 17:30. Our overall hiking time was just under 14 hours, leaving me too tired to figure out the stats/averages and crap like that. After fueling up in Palm Springs, it was a quick drive home to SoCal. We watched various fireworks displays in different towns and I cursed the shitty drivers. By 11:30 pm, 23 hours after meeting C, I was dropping her back off at her car. At home, I had a Fin du Monde Golden Belgian beer waiting (you had better believe that I was going to enjoy that sucker!) and a piece of chocolate sheet cake (um, ditto!).
It’s taken me a few days to edit some of the photos from our trip, and to really think about what we had done. I think the cue words – for me – were extremely helpful, and STRENGTH, COURAGE, FAITH will always have a special place in my heart. This hike wasn’t always easy, and facing one’s fears, either physical, mental, emotional – well that takes a lot of strength, courage, and faith. I learned that, even though I feel physically strong, that emotionally sometimes I need to just quiet my mind, NOT think, and just BE. Worrying about the ‘what ifs’ is a tremendous waste of energy, because at the end of the day, we don’t have any control, anyway.
I’m also filled with GRATITUDE. There were SO MANY working parts that had to come together. Between the weather holding out, training hikes with C, having a partner who I trusted to make a summit bid even as the weather was scaring the fuck out of me, health, traffic (hey – SoCal driving on July 4th between trail heads = potential disaster)…. basically there was also a lot of luck involved. For some reason, July 4th was our day and we were able to make it work.
I’m grateful for this experience, happy to have participated in the Adventure 16 Challenge aspect, and so thankful to have a hiking partner like C. She and I just work really well together, and I’m excited about our future adventures (yes – of COURSE we are hiking more! There’s more adventures to be had… like this weekend!).
And finally, I am so thankful for N, my person. I know that he wanted to share the day with us, to be a part of it in some way. And even though he’s currently half-a-world away, I carried him with me the entire day. He gave me strength, courage and faith all wrapped into one. It was very special to do this hike on July 4th, while he’s serving overseas – we have so much to be thankful for and this did not escape my thoughts. Overall it was an amazing experience – I got to spend a day doing something that I love with the best hiking partner ever… pushing myself to new limits and discovering strengths that I didn’t even know that I had. And if that’s not a highlight or incredible/epic journey, then I’m not really sure what is.
Thanks for reading – this got a bit, um, long. Then again, so was our adventure. Happy Trails!