Looking down at Skyline from the upper tram station. The trail follows the east ridge, which curls down to the right.
The Skyline (or Palms to Pines) Trail on Mt. San Jacinto is notorious. First, it gains about 8000 vertical feet in under ten miles. The trail starts at an elevation of 500 feet at the edge of Palm Springs and terminates at the upper tram station, which sits at roughly 8500 feet. Second, it is a frequent site of rescues and, unfortunately, fatalities. The accidents seem to be caused primarily by extreme seasonal heat down low and steep seasonal ice up high.
A few weeks ago, Tina Fiori, a local Skyline aficionado, had offered to take me up. Tina has done Skyline 100 times, including twice in one day (and she has done that twice). About a week ago, I called her bluff. But Tina was not bluffing. She jumped at the opportunity to introduce me to her favorite local hike. Thus it was that in the pre-dawn dark of February 6, I could be seen chugging fifty ounces of liquid and furtively watering the bushes in the art museum parking lot.
At 6:00AM, Tina, myself, and two other Skyline newbies (Mike Ostby and Phil Incikaya) were just about ready when the last of our group arrived. When I saw who it was, a little voice inside my head said, “Get in your car and drive home.” Between the two of them, Steve Irvin and Fernando Lara have done Skyline 350 times. Perhaps more impressively, they have each done it three times in one day – that’s 24,000 feet of elevation gain in one day.
I had gone “hiking” with Steve and Fernando once before and it was (1) by far the most elevation gain I have ever done in one day (10,000 vertical feet), and (2) possibly the most exhausted I have ever been. But there were two details that encouraged me. First, Steve and Fernando were looking ragged. Optimistically hoping that they were extremely hungover, I instead learned that they were recovering from a huge hike the day before, from which they returned well after dark. Second, they were accompanied by a delicate and unassuming lady named Patti Jones who looked to be another Skyline newbie. Surely she would be keeping Steve and Fernando to a civilized pace. But something in Patti’s appearance conflicted with my first impression. Her hair looked curiously windblown, as if she had been driving 90 mph in a car without a windshield. I would soon realize why.
We set foot on the trail at around 6:15AM. For the next minute or so, I watched Patti appear to get smaller and smaller until she disappeared over a hill high above. It was like watching a balloon rising into the heavens and then vanishing from sight. The next time I saw her, she was sitting patiently at a table in the upper tram station, still looking delicate and unassuming. She had been waiting there for nearly three hours and her hair looked even more windblown.
Mike down low.
I managed to keep up with Steve until about 6000 feet. My strategy was to slow him down with difficult questions that required him not just to think, but to stop and think. It worked. While Steve gave me a veritable guided tour of Skyline and the surrounding terrain, rich with fascinating stories and anecdotes, I conserved energy and mumbled “wow” or “really” as needed. One of his more interesting stories was about being helicoptered onto the ridge to install a few safety boxes for distressed hikers. Somewhere in the midst of that, Fernando (or something that looked like Fernando) suddenly flashed by, seemingly out of nowhere, and then disappeared around a bend as quickly as he had appeared. I didn’t see Fernando again until the upper tram station.
Steve in his element. And yes, we are going all the way to the highest ridge in the background.
Eventually, I had to stop for a rest and encouraged Steve to go ahead while I waited for Tina and Mike. Finally able to proceed at his own pace, Steve literally sprinted away. Like a changing of the guard, Tina promptly emerged from the dense chaparral and informed me that the pretty, wispy bushes surrounding us were called Ribbonwood. I’ve since learned that Ribbonwood, also called Redshank or Red Bush, can induce bowel movements and vomiting. That was one hazard I had not anticipated. After waiting a few minutes for Mike, Tina emitted an impressively loud yell that could have been heard for miles. To our amused surprise, Mike calmly replied “yes?” from about ten feet away.
Tina and Mike, with San Gorgonio in the background. No, we are not going that far.
Tina, Mike, and I continued on together for about twenty minutes, until we reached a place called flat rock. It was here that I again encountered Steve, who had found something that made him sit down – fresh baked cinnamon rolls. This obviously requires some explanation. Phil had never done Skyline, but he clearly wasn’t worried about it, because he carried a portable oven in his pack. By the time we caught up to Phil, five cinnamon rolls were baking in the oven. After smothering them with frosting, Phil distributed the cinnamon rolls to four people who had all, in a relatively short span of time, been reduced to staring wide-eyed at a small stove, around which they crouched, while licking their chops.
Phil and his cinnamon rolls. Steve appears to wonder why Phil hasn't served him one yet.
Above flat rock, we entered an expanse of thick Manzanita, through which the trail is carved. Beyond that, we finally entered the shade of conifers, and with that, snow and ice. Here, the trail makes a sharp right (northwest) turn and remains horizontal for roughly a third of a mile. This is the dreaded “traverse”. It is dreaded, because the traverse crosses at least one chute that can be treacherous for the poorly equipped when filled with ice or consolidated snow. An unarrested slip here could send one rocketing down the chute for several hundred vertical feet. However, this has been a light snow year, so the chute was only partially covered in snow. But there was enough snow and ice that some of us opted for friction underfoot. While Tina waited for me to adjust my Stabilicers, I encouraged her to go ahead. Her response was, “Nope, I’m waiting”. Considering all the people who have become lost, injured, rescued and worse in this section, I appreciated that.
Tina and me shortly before the traverse to Coffman's Crag, which is directly above us.
A view of San Gorgonio from the traverse.
After the traverse, which ends near Coffman’s Crag, we headed more or less straight uphill over consolidated snow for about 300 vertical feet. And then we were in the sun again. It took only a few more minutes of scrambling before we stepped over a fence and onto a deck at the upper tram station. It had taken Tina and her three newbies about seven hours to ascend 8000 vertical feet. Last weekend, she had done it two hours faster.
Mike on the home stretch after the traverse.
One of the great things about Skyline is that you don’t have to descend it – you can simply take the tram down. There are many amazing sights to behold on the ride down, but for me, the most amazing sight was Steve and Fernando standing still. Fernando compensated for his lack of action by talking a mile a minute. He spoke in hushed tones and whispers about secret routes up canyons and ridges, about hot springs and shortcuts, all the while pointing this way and that with a wild look in his eyes. It was as if he were revealing the location of buried treasure. In a way, he was.
Back at the parking lot, Mike and I joked about heading back up the trail for another Skyline. Steve and Fernando weren’t joking as they discussed their strategy for doing it four times in one day. At one point during the hike, Steve had stated earnestly that sometimes he feels like he could just keep doing it over and over and over again. I keep thinking about that.
By 4:15PM, Mt. San Jacinto was far behind me as I drove into Newport Beach. I felt very agitated. First, I had been suppressing the urge to pee and struggling to stay awake for thirty minutes. Second, I realized that I had overshot my exit by ten miles and needed to turn around. I don’t think I’m ready for a Skyline doubleheader just yet.
Our track, courtesy of Phil Incikaya. Skyline essentially follows the east ridge of Mt. San Jacinto from the desert floor to the upper tram station.