During my 400+ mile (640+ km) long hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in southern California, I went south, which meant that I was hiking from Interstate 10 -> San Jacinto, rather than San Jacinto -> Interstate 10.
This may not seem like a big deal if you do not know the terrain. However, countless hikers told me that, when they were going north from San Jacinto to the Interstate 10 freeway, they thought to themselves “gee, I’m glad I’m going north and not south.” Then they met me, the hiker who was planning to go south. One hiker, once it dawned on him that I was going south into San Jacinto, immediately told me that he could put me in touch with people who could give me rides so that I could go north through San Jacinto instead of south. I rejected the offer. Though I sometimes go northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail, this was a ~southbound~ hike, and for the sake of continuity, I wanted to go south through San Jacinto too.
If you are wondering what the fuss is about, let me explain. Interstate 10 is 1335 feet (407 meters) above seal level. Going south, the trail then dips down to 1251 feet (381 meters) above sea level over the next 2-3 miles, which is easy in terms of elevation, but it is through a hot sandy desert with no shade. Then, going south over the next 21 miles (34 km), the trail rises to 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level at the tributary of the San Jacinto river. That is a 7696 ft (2346 m) change in elevation. After taking into account the dips in the trail (because the trail is not entirely smooth), between Interstate 10 and the tributary of the San Jacinto river, I had 8883 ft (2708 m) of elevation gain in the space of 30 hours.
For those of you who do not hike, let me put that into perspective. Going from the 5th station on Mt. Fuji to the summit via the Yoshida trail (the most popular way to hike Mt. Fuji), there is an elevation gain of 4824 ft. (1471 m). Thus, going south from Interstate 10 to the tributary of the San Jacinto river is almost the equivalent of hiking up Mt. Fuji twice in a row – without going downhill. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (i.e. excluding Hawaii and Alaska). Hiking from Whitney Portal to the top of Mt. Whitney (the most popular route) takes 6,100 feet (1,860 m) of elevation gain. Thus, Interstate 10 -> tributary of San Jacinto river requires more uphill hiking than hiking to the top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.
And it gets
worse better. There is a water source at 1721 ft (525 m) above sea level, and then there are no more water sources until the tributary of the San Jacinto river, which is 19.5 miles (31.2 km) south on the trail, and 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level. That means I had to carry enough water to get me through that stretch, including the 10 miles (16 km) where there was little shade and it was surprisingly warm. And this 19.5 waterless stretch also includes Fuller Ridge, one of the most notorious stretches of the entire Pacific Crest Trail, notorious because far more hikers have disappeared/died on these 4 miles (6.4 km) than any other 4 mile stretch of the entire 2650 mile trail (even Old Snowy/Knife Edge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, which is notorious for killing horses/mules, has had very few human deaths. Meanwhile, Fuller Ridge seems to kill a lot more humans than horses/mules). On top of all that, the risk of being stung by a bee or encountering rattlesnakes was very high, but since I did not have any adverse encounters with bees or rattlesnakes on this stretch, that was not a problem for me.
The more water I carried, the more weight I would have to carry very far uphill. The less water I carried, the greater my risk of dehydration. It was a tough tradeoff.
I’ve heard from the local people that they hear rescue helicopters several times a day, and that at this time of year, helicopters are generally sent to rescue PCT hikers. I also kept on hearing stories about how such-and-such hiker had just been rescued. This is the only part of the Pacific Crest Trail where I heard about hikers needing rescue with such frequency.
I left Interstate 10 at around noon. I left that last water source before ascending San Jacinto at around 3pm. I reached the tributary of the San Jacinto river at around 6pm the following day. That meant it took me 27 hours to get from water source at the base of the mountain to the to the tributary of the San Jacinto river.
Of course I camped overnight on the trail. I definitely was not going to do the entire ascent in a single day. I camped 4.6 trail miles (7.4 trail km) south of the water source, at 3339 ft (1018 m) above sea level. That meant my next day was going to be physically intense.
The first stretch hiking up San Jacinto was just about the hottest hiking I did during this entire trip. It was not fair that it was so hot when I was doing a steep uphill carrying so much water, and that there was so little shade, even though I had made a point of hiking this part in the evening/morning. On the other hand, I was very motivated to hike so I could get to a higher elevation. I could see there were trees on top of the mountain, and I was eager to get to an elevation that was high enough for trees to go.
Finally, I reached a place where there were dead trees – the dead trees didn’t help me much, but at least I knew I was at a high enough elevation that I might find living trees too. And sure enough, shortly after I reached the dead trees, I reached a place which had living trees, and that meant I had REAL SHADE! Awesome! Also, the temperatures were significantly cooler around the trees, which was also very nice. I was still hiking uphill a lot, and had no water source, but at least I had shade, it was no longer hot, and my pack was less heavy because I had drunk quite a bit of water. Hiking became much more pleasant.
I reached the Fuller Ridge trailhead, which was the beginning of Fuller Ridge for me. And there was a water cache there! Usually, my policy is to disregard water caches. However, when I was at the faucet, I had to compromise between having more water and carrying less weight uphill, which meant I was rationing my water. I could have continued to ration my water all the way to the tributary, but that meant only drinking what I needed, not drinking enough to satisfy my thirst. Thus, I took some water (about 1.5 liters) from the water cache so that I would be able to drink as much as I wanted. It feels so good to be able to drink freely instead of just drinking the minimum to hold off dehydration. I also got to take a break at a picnic table in the shade and hang out with a couple of hikers.
Fuller Ridge sometimes holds snow well into May. When it is covered with snow/ice, a lot of people get injured, and some even disappear/die. Fortunately for me, even though it was April, Fuller Ridge was totally dry. The trail takes a bunch of weird little turns in the rocks in one part of Fuller Ridge, and I could totally imagine people getting lost in that stretch when it is covered with snow, or slipping off the rocks if it’s icy, but since it was dry, I could keep track of the trail as long as I paid attention, and I was at little risk of sliding down.
I’m surprised I don’t have any photos of Fuller Ridge. I guess I was too focused on hiking to take photos.
And then finally, I reached the promised land. Or rather, the promised tributary.
I ran out of water just when I got to the tributary (though I had been drinking freely ever since I left the water cache – if I had continued rationing the water, I would have drunk less). The photo above does not do justice. This tributary was a series of little waterfalls cascading down the mountain and across the trail. It was a lot of water – a glorious sight for a hiker who had been worried about water for a day. There were a lot of hikers at the tributary who were busy filling up, since all of them were going north and thus would not have reliable water for 19.5 miles.
I was practically jumping for joy at the tributary. Reaching this water source was more exciting than reaching the Canadian border when I hiked the entire Washington PCT.
I would have liked to have gone to the summit of San Jacinto – but by the time I reached the turnoff (which was just pass the water source), I could feel that I had pushed my legs to the limit, and I was afraid that ascending an extra 2000 ft. (which does not seem like much after ascending 8500+ ft.) might push my legs past their limit, and I could get an overuse injury. I did not want to risk an overuse injury, so instead, I just hiked another two miles past the water source, and set up camp (though the fact that I was able to hike another two miles after all that shows you just how much energy I had).
Strangely, though this was my most physically demanding day of hiking ever, it was also my giddiest. Here is my diary entry for the day I reached Fuller Ridge and the tributary (which I wrote at the campsite above):
This has been one of the most exhilarating days on the PCT ever. I made my legs do so much work, but they were up to the task. From hot exposed chaparral to cool pine forest. The views! And the knowledge that I did a mostly uphill 19.5 mile waterless stretch! (w/ a little help from a water cache).
Part of the euphoria was probably caused by endorphins flooding my body. It also helped that the worst part was the beginning, so it just kept getting better. And I think the fact that I was attempting something so ridiculous increased the giddiness.
I have no regrets about doing this segment of the trail southbound. Going south through here is definitely harder than going north, but I do not think I would have found it as memorable – or enjoyable – if I had gone north.