Cactus to Clouds (C2C)
C2C. Cactus to Clouds. One of the top five difficult hikes in the U.S. according to Backpacker magazine.
Since I started peak bagging back in April, I’ve heard about it so often that it was sort of deeply carved in my mind. It was like Whitney or Langley hike that, as an avid hiker, one must check that off. Or, at least, that is how it has been lingering in the back of my mind. And it was one of the reasons why I did Skyline hike 2 weeks ago, as soon as I knew that my injured and yet healing left foot could handle strenuous hikes. Of course, ‘handle’ can be very deceptive, I learned.
As an assistant organizer/event host of the San Jacinto Hiking Club, I posted this C2C hike as my first post, for yesterday hoping that I could do it with those who want to challenge themselves. Initially 5 hikers expressed interest, however, just two of them who considered themselves fast hikers showed up – Kate and Dima. For me, that was good enough.
C2C, for those who are not familiar with the hike, consists of Skyline and the rest of the trail that goes up to the San Jacinto Peak. One can go down Wellman Trail from Wellman Divide, which is about 2/3 up the second part of the trail, and then to Saddle Junction, where multiple trails meet, including, the PCT.
Skyline is just over 9 miles, and once one reaches the end of it called Long Valley, he/she has option of taking tram down, taking Hidden Valley Trail down and eventually crossing the Saddle Junction, or keeping going up to the peak and ging down the other side of the mountain to Idyllwile.
Woke up at 10 minutes after midnight, grabbed my gear already packed-up before going to bed and the icebox that holds water and food and drove to Palm Springs Art Museum, where hikers are frequently seen for either Skyline or C2C (or even C2C2C) hikes.
Our ascend began at 3:11 am, and the temperature was perfect – slightly on the cooler side, which was very pleasant while we kept moving, and because we had a waning Full Moon, it was quite bright for the night although I still had the headlamp on for the first 2 hours or so.
The glow of the sun coming up brightened the atmosphere enough after a while, and the sun rose around a few minutes after 6 am.
We made pretty good progress to the point where we had about 2,000 feet more to go. Besides the minor but frequent leg cramps all over my thighs and calves, I felt very exhausted. In spite of the fact that I took some of the energy gels that I brought with me, there was no sign of my body recovering as quickly as I hoped. I eventually took a longer break and let my fellow hikers go ahead of me.
The last 1,000 feet was the worst, and I kept telling myself that I was going home once I reached Long Valley. I told myself that I would just take tram down because my body was not ready to take on extra more miles, let alone extra more elevation. To my surprise, my body was having a serious shutdown, almost giving up on me in the middle of the trail. I couldn’t believe that 2 hours of sleep was having so much impact on my body. All I cared about was reaching Long Valley, walking further up to the tram station and hopping in one of the trams. I already quit in my sane mind.
Upon reaching Long Valley at the elevation of 8,300 plus feet, I found my group resting and waiting for me. I told them how exhausted I was and that I might see whether or not I could continue depending on recovery progress. I sat down for about ten minutes there and started munching on some food, and soon got up and followed them to the Ranger Station, where we are supposed to get self registered permit. Up to this point, all I thought was saying good bye to Kate and Dima at the station and turn around.
After Kate filled out the permit form, she bumped into her friend, who decided to join them. I didn’t necessarily say good bye to all but as they started walking the trail toward the peak, I started treading in the opposite direction toward the tram station. Then, one of them called me out.
Are you not coming Peter?
I turned around and looked at them. It was Kate. By then, my body relatively recovered from the serious exhaustion while walking around the flat ground. And, just like that, part of me wanting to keep going came back. So, I joined Kate and the rest.
This remaining part of C2C to the peak is 5.5 miles with an about 2,400 feet elevation gain. It was supposed to be not as strenuous as Skyline, and Kate even joked that it would be like a walk in the park. I had hiked on the 1/3 of the trail from the peak to Wellman Divide in the past, so I knew what to expect in that part. The part that I didn’t know anything about was the first 2/3 of the trail from the Ranger Station.
And other than a major leg cramp breakdown, I was able to push through the remainder. Speaking of leg cramps, it was exactly what happened 2 weeks ago. I had them coming in both my thighs and calves. After having managed to let them subside and avoiding further attacks toward Long Valley, they eventually caught up. One came in my left thigh, which made me lose my balance at first and find a rock to sit on so that I could massage it, and then they came all at once! As if they knew it was time. My right thigh and right calf. I couldn’t even get up and had to stay down on that rock for a good 15 minutes till they were completely gone.
Strangely, once they were gone, I was ready to hop up on my feet and take on the remainder. What was a good thing about the cramping of my thighs and the right calf was that it felt like my legs were brand new. Definitely the resting and the gradual ascend from that point on helped a lot. I started marching up the trail, passing all the hikers who had passed me before, as if I was back on my normal pace again. So, one thing clearly I learned from this episode was that I can rest to hike faster. My feet and legs have not made the full transition from sitting out for close to 4 weeks to hiking in high altitude every weekend. And they were having a hard time coping with the steep ascend in a short amount of time. Now that I am done with C2C, I may want to take it down a notch, so that my legs can catch a break.
Last ascend was not strenuous, but I still needed to push through, and finally we reached the summit. San Jacinto Peak with the elevation of 10,834 feet.
I baggged this peak numerous times in the past, and yet this time was more special than before, including the first time when I came up here by myself via Marion Trailhead. It was truly rewarding in that I climbed over 10,400 feet under 8 hours.
The sun was bright as ever, and there was no single smear of clouds in the November blue sky. It was truly a humbling experience in many ways and learned about myself and my body more than ever. I was truly thankful for such a wonderful opportunity to test myself in the company of strong hikers and helped me push through the setbacks.
On our way down, we ran into a hiker named Jim, whom Kate’s friend knew close, to Wellman Divide. It turned out that he knew quite a few members of San Jacinto Hiking Club’s and that he actually hiked in San Jacinto literally almost every day. That is quite an amazing feat. Not only does he manage his time to hike but also he dedicates his passion in this particular mountain. He suggested he take us down rather quicker than taking the same trail down back to the tram, so we jumped on the opportunity. Especially for me, finding and exploring a new trail was exciting.
We first took Miller Trail down and then traversed along Miller and Cornell Peaks. And soon down Tamarack Valley, which met the main trail leading us back to the Ranger Station. It was 1:30 pm.
Jim took us through less travelled trails and showed us some unique landmarks.
The tram was packed with tourists. It was quite contrary to when I did Skyline 2 weeks ago.
He had a car parked at the parking lot and offered us a ride back to the museum, which was very nice of him.
It was quite a warm day down in Palm Desert. I replenished myself with a bottle of ice cold water that I left behind earlier in the morning and Gatorade that I kept in the icebox first. And chowed down a bowl of chicken salad that I prepared for lunch and an apple. Once I got those down, I felt much better and was ready to hit the road.