Snow Creek is a notorious mountaineering route on Mt. San Jacinto (10,804 feet) in southern California. It is notorious for a few reasons. First, it involves about 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Second, in big snow years, like this one, it provides around 6,000 vertical feet of continuous, moderately steep snow climbing. Third, the normal beginning to the route crosses land owned by the Desert Water Agency and can involve a show-stopping encounter with the vigilant DWA caretaker. There is, however, an alternate start that skirts around the one square mile (grid 33) owned by the DWA. A call to the DWA confirmed that (1) they would not grant passage through their sacred square, but (2) their property rights do not extend beyond it. Thus, by securing a San Jacinto Wilderness permit and avoiding the DWA property, one can ascend Snow Creek with a clean conscience.
My alarm sounded this morning at 1:30AM. By 2:00AM, I was driving toward Palm Springs, drinking strong coffee and listening to The Way of the World by Ron Suskind. Shortly after 4:00AM, seven of us were walking briskly toward Mt. San Jacinto under the light of the moon.
Accessing the snow tongue involved about 4,000 vertical feet of cross-country travel, which included boulder hopping, fording a creek in the dark, thrashing through thick brush, and ascending steep, loose dirt. Twice I fell flat on my back in the brush with my head angled downhill. And despite 10-year old boots, blisters formed under extra large band-aids on both heels. After a particularly nasty section – which combined thick brush, steep dirt, and loose rocks – we crested onto a ridge just above Snow Creek and beheld the snow tongue. It was roughly 9:00AM.
With water bottles full and crampons afoot, we began crunching up the snow at around 5,000 feet. The snow was hard and icy, as it would be for the duration of the ascent. After a few hundred vertical feet, we reached what is usually the crux of the route: the chockstone. In drier years, surmounting the massive boulder suspended between canyon walls requires a pitch of 5th class climbing or a circuitous 3rd-4th class traverse. But this time, the boulder was just a large lump under a thankfully thick blanket of snow.
The buried chockstone is just above the climbers.
Above the chockstone, the angle steepened to around 40 degrees and remained that way for 5,000+ vertical feet. For the next five hours, I zigzagged upward, trying to move efficiently and concentrate on breathing. Blistered heels required side-stepping the entire way. Lagging behind the others, I missed two of the three group rest stops in order to keep up.
Climbing into a cooling wind at around 8,300 feet.
I really faded in the final 1,000 vertical feet and had to pause for several seconds at the end of every zig and zag. The zigzags became shorter and shorter as the chute narrowed and steepened near the top. From my private hell in the midst of the final chute, I watched enviously as one after another of my companions topped out far above and turned to holler encouraging words and woops. Complicating matters for me was a cough that worsened as I ascended, reducing my voice to a croak.
Getting steeper at around 10,000 feet.
Eventually, I reached the rocky headwall at the top of the chute. There I paused to watch a companion scramble over intermittent rocks up and left of me. Another companion yelled down that I should try the steeper section to the right leading directly to the summit. Though exhausted, I followed his suggestion. Traversing a few feet to the right, I ascended 50+ degree snow for roughly 30 vertical feet to some steep rocks. Surmounting this final ten feet of third class rock in my crampons was the hardest climbing of the day. It seemed like a fitting end to a marathon climb. Amid clicking cameras and helpful suggestions about dry-tooling, I grunted, lunged memorably, hauled myself over, and walked the final few feet to the summit. The time was roughly 3:40. Thinking it was much later, I was pleasantly surprised. It took me 11.5 hours to ascend the 10,000 vertical feet.
That's me climbing the final steep pitch directly to the summit.
Settling down for a much-needed break to hydrate, eat, and take Ibuprofen, I was called urgently for a group summit shot. That's when I realized there would be no much-needed break, because some of the others had been waiting in the freezing wind for nearly an hour.
One great thing about Mt. San Jacinto is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway that runs from the desert floor to 8,400 feet. Thanks to this, all we had to do was descend 2,400 feet over roughly three miles to the tram station. I was anticipating an easy, enjoyable descent, during which time we would reminisce about the climb and chat amiably. But this was not to be. My left big toe pulsed painfully with every step. In order to alleviate the pain, I decided to remove my crampons, which the others had done earlier. Due to a complicated strap system that was further complicated by frozen buckles, this took ten minutes. During this time, I fell far behind the others. Wandering alone for a while in a world of pain and exhaustion, I came upon one of my companions, who had run back to find me. It's a good thing he did, for although I had a map and compass and was following a boot path in the snow, I wasn't familiar with the route to the tram station. His pleasant banter also lifted my sagging morale.
2.5 miserable hours after leaving the summit, I arrived at the tram station. There I confronted the last obstacle: the paved, winding walkway that gradually ascends to the station. While people laughed and ran by in the spring of their youth, I inched upward with the slow, agonizing steps of a centenarian, pausing more than once to rest. That said, it is amazing what thirty minutes of sitting, 400 milligrams of Ibuprofen, a bottle of caffeinated soda, and a rapid, effortless descent of several thousand vertical feet can do to one's spirits.
After being entertained by upbeat flamenco music on the tram's airwaves while admiring massive canyon walls, we landed at the lower tram station, but not before being informed that the music we just heard was available for purchase at the gift shop. From the tram station, taxis took us back to our cars, where we bid farewell as night fell. At 10:00PM, 20 hours after leaving, I was home again.