San Jacinto Peak: East Face
Somewhere in Southern California, the Powder Gods are Smiling
San Jacinto Peak, California — It can be easy to lose faith. Yes, any one of Southern California's three massive ranges ought to offer outstanding skiing.
But toss in a few years of drought, a few too many days of dirt, rock, and (if you're lucky) ice, and a relentlessly sunny and warm 'subtropical' climate, and even the most hardened ski mountaineer can come to believe that skiing and Southern California just don't mix. And then comes a day like this...
We are skiing light, flawless, untracked powder, floating as if on air through the forests and glades of Palm Springs' San Jacinto Wilderness.
Has it been a challenging season thus far? Yes—but with these turns, all is forgiven. A cold storm has blanketed icy and/or bare Southern California mountain slopes with three feet of snow and more.
Heavy rain, meanwhile, pounds the freeways and foothills in the Los Angeles Basin, creating all the usual calamities. Winter has returned to Southern California.
The plan today, given all the new snow and unsettled weather, is an exploratory look-see in the San Jacinto Wilderness. It's Sunday morning, and my skiing partner Bill Henry and I hit the Southern California freeway system at a reasonable 7:30 a.m., heading east to the Palm Springs Desert. From there, we'll take the vertigo-inspiring Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up to Round Valley and places beyond.
As for our ultimate destination, San Jacinto Peak's 10,804' summit is a tempting possibility. Though I've hiked the peak in summer, I've never skied it, but from past wanderings I know that much of the high-altitude terrain in the San Jacinto wilderness is gentle, low-angle fare, perfect for safe skiing in stormy weather—with certain spectacular exceptions, of course.
Cactus to Clouds
Our tram car is packed and the windows are fogged, limiting the view below. Still, what we can see of the San Jacinto Mountains' north facade is impressive.
From the parking lot, elevation 2500' we put on ski boots and enjoy a speedy vertical-mile boost from rainy Palm Springs Desert to the tram's 8516' Mountain Station and snow.
A purist I may be, but the prospect of climbing this technical route instead of gliding up makes your average Iron Man event sound like a tea party in comparison.
No description can due justice to the verticality of the tram's 15-minute ride: sheer spires of granite shoot up like massive, serrated teeth beneath the thin metal floor of our tram car.
That said, a very few nutcases do claim to enjoy climbing from desert to summit via the well-named "Cactus to Clouds" route.
And I myself in my more intemperate moments have contemplated climbing and skiing San Jacinto's legendary Snow Creek route—all ten thousand vertical feet of it—sans tram.
But not today.
Instead, some fifteen minutes later, just like that, Bill and I plus a gaggle of climbers, tourists, and sightseers arrive at Mountain Station.
Brilliant white clouds race overhead, bringing quick but fierce squalls of snow. The sun pokes out once or twice and retreats again. Bill and I scramble down a paved walkway to the snow and put our skis on, having been transported to a snowy winter wonderland for the modest fee of $22.25 per person, tax included.
Just ahead is the Round Valley Ranger Station, where we collect our required Day-Use Permits. That taken care of, we're all set: today's ski adventure is underway.
From Mountain Station, the terrain to the base of San Jacinto Peak is more Nordic than Alpine. We must cross a series of valleys that maintain a gentle but gradual incline.
So, over the valleys and through the woods we go. If there is a distinguishing feature to this part of the hike, it is how easy it is to become disoriented.
Brief patches of sun continue to alternate with heavy snowfall. San Jacinto Peak remains obscured by clouds—and trees.
The Peak lies a few degrees north of due west from the ranger station. The summer hiking trail to San Jacinto Peak, however, veers southwest, with a quite a few zigs and zags along the way.
Nonetheless, for now we've decided to follow the trail.
This confers two significant advantages: first, it assures us we won't get lost. And second, the heavily-traveled trail acts like a skin track, allowing far easier passage than pushing on own through deep, untracked snow.
Thanks in large measure to the presence of the Tram, Round Valley and the San Jacinto Wilderness is a high-use area even in winter. In fact, we regularly pass groups of winter campers hiking up or down from the peak and places thereabouts.
As for the snow, there is lots of it!
The San Jacinto Wilderness is giving us the red carpet treatment today: a deep, light blanket of powder in all directions that is putting quite a smile on my face. Bad memories of recent trips past are vanishing like morning fog over Santa Monica Beach.
I've got to tell you—this skiing on snow concept is looking like a mighty fine idea. I don't want to put the jinx on things by getting prematurely excited, but I've already got the tinglies and we haven't even done any skiing yet...
Up the East Face
Somewhere in the region of Tamarack Valley, our patience wears out. We abandon the easy but meandering hiking trail in favor of a more direct approach to San Jacinto Peak.
The weather has quite a bit more bite to it now. Driving snow pelts down from the sky with increasing vigor. Still, the whiteout lifts just enough to give us a glimpse of San Jacinto ahead—verifying that we are roughly where we think we are.
Our idea here is to skin directly up San Jacinto's east face, digging a pit somewhere above to assess avalanche hazard.
Perhaps a word about that here would be appropriate.
Much as I love to ski the backcountry in a blizzard, this is almost always an ill-advised activity. Conditions change so rapidly in storms—especially so when there is wind—that safe travel is often impossible.
Our saving grace today is the terrain: low-angle slopes that are too gentle to slide. That is not the case, however, with San Jacinto's much-steeper east face.
We feel comfortable on the east face today only because it is evident the coverage is too shallow to form dangerous slabs.
Tomorrow could be entirely different. Alternately, a few more hours of heavy snow could change everything as well. Do not take snowy travel lightly, even in Southern California.
Higher we go. The weather continues to deteriorate. I huddle in the shelter of a group of trees and pull my shell off to hurriedly put on more insulation. Unfortunately, this also covers my inner layers with a dusting of snow, making it likely I'll eventually get wet. Not ideal.
The wind picks up. I know we're close to the summit, but I don't know how close. San Jacinto Peak's 800 extra feet of elevation is feeling a lot higher than Mount Baldy's ten thousand today. I'm tired and cold. The allure of climbing high in a blizzard is rapidly fading.
A Frozen Summit
San Jacinto Peak's summit at last! I had hoped to scout the top of the Snow Creek route to the north, but visibility in all directions is a wash: featureless white.
Without the constant effort of climbing, our bodies quickly begin to cool in the fierce wind. I sit in the snow and eat a quick snack, knowing that our stay atop San Jacinto will be brief.
I can tell that my clothes beneath my shell are damp.
That puts me more than a little too close to the edge for comfort—but I know we've got a safety outlet a hundred yards away thanks to Franklin Delanore Roosevelt.
Bill, meanwhile, is even colder than me.
His saturated gloves are freezing through, forcing him to dig bare-handed through his pack in ripping winds for a fresh pair. Afterward, he tries unsuccessfully to warm his now-frozen fingers in dry but also frozen gloves.
Uh...it's time to get the heck out of here!
We snap into our skis and make a quick retreat to a stone shelter just below the summit. The shelter, built in the 1930's by F.D.R.'s Civilian Corps, is for hikers caught in storms—in other words, us.
Inside the shelter, we comment emphatically about the cold, punctuated with bouts of intense shivering. I've got a down vest in my pack which I put on. It helps immensely. And while the stone house is much appreciated, I find myself contemplating what might transpire were we caught outside right now without shelter and without the ability to ski down to warmth and safety.
We're both wet and cold. We've got a pair of lighters between us, but making a fire outside with frozen wood in screaming wind would be challenging to say the least. If needed we could dig a snow cave and at least escape the wind, but undoubtedly we'd both get even wetter. Realistically, neither of us is prepared to spend a night out there in these conditions.
Food for thought, eh?
Skiing San Jacinto Peak
Here we reach that part of our report where ordinarily we must begin apologizing (or at least complaining) about skiing conditions of poor or abominable persuasion.
Not so today! There is a bit of unpleasantness above, as we navigate from San Jacinto's east face (which is too spotty to safely ski) toward the slopes below Jean Peak's northeast face. If we inadvertently veer southwest, we'll end up in Temecula—a.k.a. the opposite side of the mountain.
In the whiteout atop San Jacinto Peak, we're just not sure where we are, so we find a friendly band of passers-by and shamelessly ask for directions. Luckily, they've got a map.
That taken care of, it's time to ski.
Today's skiing seems outright pilfered from places more commonly favored by the powder gods.
The Sierra, perhaps? Colorado? Utah?
In my astonishment I keep saying to Bill, "It's like real skiing!"
Bill wholeheartedly agrees.
As cold-smoke powder swirls about me, I settle into an effortless rhythm of smooth, flowing turns.
Ancient powder memories awaken, transporting me across time and space to Big Days of ski years past.
This sensation—this floating, airy dance—there's really no way to describe it, is there? It is an unforgettable wizardry of snow and gravity that keeps us coming back, through good times and bad, for as long as our legs will carry us.
We enjoy a thousand vertical feet of sublime skiing through snowy forests until we rejoin the packed-out hiking trail. Here, the angle of Round Valley is too gentle to allow deep-powder gliding, so we ride the boot track like a toboggan run, careening wildly through the trees like the Banzai-youngsters we used to be.
What takes hours on foot takes barely a moment on skis. All too soon we see the Ranger Station ahead, and the tram beyond, ready to whisk us back down to Coachella Valley and the low desert. Bill and I say goodbye for now to winter snow and the lofty slopes of the San Jacinto Mountains. But we'll be back. Yes indeed, we'll be back.