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Hiking the Three-Peak Challenge: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pain

3 peak

There’s an outside shot I’ll need a second knee surgery because of a series of hikes that will amount to nothing more than a blog post. This is all because my favorite outdoors retail store, Adventure 16, offered a couple raffle tickets if you summited the three tallest mountains in Southern California. I enjoy hiking and am notoriously cheap, so in the name of the chance to win free gear, I talked my buddy Jeremy into a series of three murderous day hikes that we now regret.

 

The challenge consists of hiking San Gorgonio near Big Bear, San Jacinto near Palm Springs, and San Antonio near the Azusa senior center, in either three months, three weeks, three days or, for a handful of psychopaths, 24 hours. Seriously, a couple of masochists start hiking before dawn and do all three in a day. We put the three hikes on the calendar over the span of June, July and August so that we would have something to say on Fridays when coworkers asked us about our weekends.

 

The thing I like about hiking is that it’s a discernible goal that’s easy to quantify. If you get to the top of the mountain, you win. If you don’t, you lose. That’s much simpler than most goals that involve nebulous measures like happiness and wealth and living life to its fullest and accomplishments and accolades. Not with hiking. If you get to the top you achieve your goal. Also, it costs nothing. Compared to hockey gear, you pretty much just have to walk uphill for a really long time.

 

I didn’t even have a good emotional hurdle to overcome, along the lines of Wild and Into The Wild. Those books were so popular because they weren’t really about hiking. They were about something else that was being worked through while the main character was on a trail. I would’ve loved to have had a mental block, or an emotional breakthrough on my drive through San Bernardino County, but the strongest emotional pull I felt was when we pulled into the West Covina In-N-Out. And that Into The Wild dude was kind of an idiot. I mean he walked into Alaska and died, that’s pretty much the book. Spoiler alert.

 

We knocked the best hike out of the way first, because apparently we didn’t want anything to look forward to on this stupid adventure. Mount San Jacinto was the most spectacular of the bunch, which would’ve been a lot more enjoyable were it not for the blood seeping through our socks. When you drive from L.A. to Palm Springs, it towers to the south of the 10 freeway. It can be hiked as a 10-mile trail from the Palm Springs tramway, 15-20 miles from a few trails starting in the town of Idyllwild, or the Skyline Trail (also known as Cactus to Clouds), which, at 36 miles at 10,000 feet uphill, is the highest vertically-climbing hike in America. We did not do that one.

 

We split the difference and picked the Devil’s Slide Trail from Humber Park in Idyllwild. This presented us with a 16-mile trek from a really nice town where we would’ve been better off spending the day. Idyllwild was a low-key Big Bear without the bling shops. The route took us along the Pacific Crest Trail for a few miles, a view of Palm Desert and Joshua Tree, and brief spells of flat terrain shaded with summer camp pine trees. For around three minutes out of our eight-hour adventure, it was paradise. The final mile was a grueling, rocky climb to the second-tallest mountain in Southern California.

 

On a clear day, you can see the ocean, Mount Whitney and even the curvature of the Earth from the summit of Mount San Jacinto. On the day we were hiking we could clearly discern the Morongo Casino. But views aside, our first hike was done which meant, unfortunately, we had to continue with the other two. If only one of us had broken our legs then we would’ve had the excuse we needed to quit.

 

Mount Baldy was the steepest and most fun (I use the word fun very loosely) of the three. Clocking in at 10.6 miles, Baldy starts at a packed parking lot and climbs straight uphill in a way that makes you question your life choices. The summit overlooks a huge bowl with a half-dozen peaks and a ski resort that global warming is putting out of business. The misery of hiking down a gravel ski trail is alleviated by the bar you encounter at the seven-mile mark. We snapped some photos of the lame zip line, questionable ski lift and battle of the beers before crossing the second hike off the list.

 

The three-peak challenge culminates in the final, worst, most unpleasant, brutal trek of the three: the 19 miles up the tallest mountain in Southern California, Mount San Gorgonio. In the same way I remember middle school bullies, I have nothing nice to say about this hike. There’s nothing redeeming and there’s no sense of accomplishment to justify the horrible pain this hike causes. The bottom of the trail and top of the mountain have vertical climbs determined to force your tibia to pierce through your kneecap. The trail spends most of its time in a forested valley so you don’t get any views. When it does become awe-inspiring, you’re already suffering from altitude sickness and sunstroke so you’re imagining all sorts of random stuff. You’re not sure if you have a great view of the endless high desert or if there are Pokemon everywhere.

 

You know when a dog is out for a long walk on a hot day and then before it gets home it just quits? Like it finds a spot in the shade on the sidewalk and lays down and that’s that? Right, so that’s our knees. With three miles remaining, we were limping like seniors using our hiking poles as walking canes as we took one ginger step at a time down the endless trail with the parking lot feeling like it was getting further away with each step. Until finally we descended with scores of hikers passing us along the way and finally we could proclaim that we never have to hike again.

 

The most insulting part was sitting in the car afterwards. After logging over 40,000 steps in a day, my fitness watch sensed that I was immobile for more than an hour and ordered me to, “Move!” Our enormous physical challenge amounted to topping the 29th-tallest summit in California, which barely fits on a bumper sticker. There was no emotional breakthrough, no real sense of accomplishment and nothing but pain to show for it (although the In-N-Out was nice). And I have a pretty solid hunch that I’m going to come up empty handed on the raffle.

 

I’ll never understand why people do iron mans and tough mudders, which is that race where you electrocute yourself for fun. But I guess there’s something good about setting goals and accomplishing them. It gives you a challenge to anticipate, it makes you push yourself, gives you something to do on the weekend, and you can conquer office small talk on Monday. You might even win a prize or two for your efforts. But the important thing to do before setting out on any endeavors is to make sure that the goals are easy. Because you actually have to work for the hard ones and there’s nothing fun about that.

 

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