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Failure on San Jacinto

February 24, 2016

Having decided that a Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley, Alaska) attempt is in my future I decided to begin peak bagging when at all possible.  To start this journey I decided to take a weekend and head to Idyllwild, CA.  Idyllwild is at about 5,400 feet and is the kick off for the route of San Jacinto peak which is the highest in the San Jacinto mountain range and goes in via Mt. Marion.  Having heard this was the best way up I was pretty stoked to give it a shot in the winter despite not knowing the trail or if it was marked up high to avoid the few feet of snow pack.  Despite it being in the high 80s in Palm Desert the night before I still expected some snow on the trail.  For preparation there really was only a couple trail reports from weeks earlier, all before the heavy snow fall in early February, so I could have been more prepared.

We headed out of Palm Desert about 04:00 expecting to check in at the ranger station and get our permit before dawn, here was my first failure.  In my packing rush I failed to grab my head lamp  and during the busy work week preceding the climb I had not gotten nearly enough sleep.  So looking over the various warning signs at the Idyllwild Ranger station the commentary about the need for ice axes and crampons and the lack of trail marking made me nervous from the start.  Due to the lack of light before dawn and lack of proper snow/ice gear we decided to doze in the car for an hour and grab coffee before hitting the trail after the sun rose.  The trail is not supposed to be that long, being close to 6 miles from the winter road side parking to the summit, it is still tough considering it rises almost 5,000 ft in that short distance.  I will not pour through all the detail of the hike up but rather display what it was like in photos below.  It was tough considering we mostly just looked for other foot prints in the snow to find the trail which ultimately was not a good strategy leaving us shy of the peak by 3/4 of a mile and about 1,000 vertical feet.

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The trail marks were few and far between since all the cairns were buried sort of like this sign.


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We had a predetermined turn around of 12:45 at the latest since I really had no desire to risk being stuck out in the snow overnight with no gear, little light, and few if any real trail marks. The peak seemed so close but with 2-3 feet of snow pack and no real map, gps, or trail marks we just did not know how to get there fast enough.  This coupled with the extreme vertical in semi-packed snow made everything over 8,000 ft a real challenge.

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Reaching the bottom after the failure with an hour of daylight remaining was hard on the ego but reinforced that mountains are about the journey sometimes and not always the peak.  I learned more about myself and what I can achieve based on my level of preparedness, even when that preparation falls woefully short.   I would be curious so see the trail again in more favorable conditions but guess that will be another trip.


Utah is up next.


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