To the Peak of Mount San Jacinto, or, Trouble on the Mountaintop

May 16, 2017
Idyllwild to Summit of Mt. San Jacinto
Summit of Mt. San Jacinto to Fuller Ridge
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 12

Called and sang Ben happy birthday. I miss my brother a lot.

This morning we made biscuits and gravy for our cabinmates. Sam handled the eggs, and we used chorizo in place of breakfast sausage for the gravy. The chorizo presented some textural issues; it completely separated and the gravy became more of a chorizo sauce than gravy with sausage chunks in it. Sam's perfectly-cooked over-easy eggs made up for the subpar gravy.

A small group of us started out for the summit of Mt. San Jacinto from the lodge, rather than taking the shuttle. It was about five miles to get from Idyllwild to the Devil's Slide trailhead, so we were well behind the rest of our trail friends. 

The entire hike to the top of San Jacinto was exhausting. The elevation kicked my ass and I fell well behind even those who had started out walking from Idyllwild. The final 1,000 vertical feet to the summit I took at about one-half-mile per hour. I finally reached the summit an hour after the last of our crew. Sam was sleeping, Alex was tiptoeing around my horrible, exhausted temper. Everyone else had already begun their descent. We spent half an hour at the top before beginning ours.

About a mile into the descent I realized that, while Sam, Alex and Colten were putting solid distance between my slower pace and their quick feet, Denise was falling further and further behind. She is a very tough, strong woman and I had a suspicion that even if she was struggling she wouldn't say anything. I waited up, and it became clear that she was having trouble catching her breath. Not wanting to show her that I was keeping an eye on her, I walked really slowly but stayed ahead, looking back to make sure she was still close behind me. Eventually I realized it was a situation that could not be ignored, so we talked about it. Denise was not in a good space, and I was nervous because if something happened, what would my untrained, first-aid-clueless self be able to do to help? My thoughts were racing, and I started trying to get ahold of Alex or Sam or Colten, to see if they might be able to come back and help. If we could at least relieve the weight of Denise's pack, or if someone could go for help, or I could at least have another brain trying to problem solve what to do. The problem is, I had one intermittent bar of service and had no idea if anyone further down the ridge would be getting my messages or missed calls. We were late in the day and there was little hope of encountering anyone who had yet to descend the summit.

Finally, Alex responded. He was coming back. He dropped his pack and ran the mile and a half up the ridge towards us. Alex took Denise's pack, and we made a little bit better progress. We didn't have a plan, but we knew we had to get off the ridge, to a lower elevation and at least somewhere with a windbreak.

I think it's important to note that Denise is young, fit, and has a successful thru-hike of the high-elevation John Muir Trail under her belt. She's the last person I'd expect to be struggling with fitness or altitude.

Without a plan we continued descending from the Summit, when a pair of day hikers walked by. The asked us a couple of questions and I explained the situation. I can't remember whose idea was, but someone asked for albuterol. For us non-medical folks, that's asthma medicine. Brilliant. Fortunately, one of the two day hikers has asthma. Unfortunately, he didn't bring his inhaler. Scratch that potential solution. What the day hikers could help us with, however, was getting Denise to safety. They had a car in the parking lot at the trailhead 3 miles down the ridge. If Denise could make it there, they could bring her to Idyllwild and at least to a significantly lower elevation. We just had to get her there. At this point, the sun had almost completely disappeared below the horizon, the temperature was dropping rapidly, and we were not moving fast enough to keep our body temperature up. It was getting very cold, very dark, and the wind was beginning to pick up on a ridge that is well-known for its howling, frigid gusts.

Together, the five of us continued descending. Alex carried Denise's pack while she led the way so we kept pace with her and an eye on her.

About half an hour and half a mile later we came to the spot where Alex had dropped his pack. Denise and the day hikers insisted that Alex and I leave the three of them to finish the descent. After some coaxing we reluctantly agreed, which meant giving Denise's pack back to her. Before this happened, Alex had a moment of thinking on his toes, and ran over to the other group camped by where he had dropped his pack. He just said "wait a minute", ran off, and was running tent to tent, with no explanation.

He came back minutes later with an inhaler. Ben, a French guy who I haven't met yet, has asthma. Denise took one pull from the inhaler and almost immediately seemed to relax. She went from being totally unable to take a deep breath to repeatedly sucking in long drafts of air. Her confidence level seemed to skyrocket and, while the tension didn't disappear, the mood was transformed. Ben told her to take the inhaler with her to the trailhead in case she had any more problems, and the day hikers said they would hide it somewhere and text us the location so we could get it on our descent tomorrow.

We said goodbye to Denise, set up our tent in absolute darkness and what must have been 50-mile-an-hour freezing cold wind whipping from every direction. I crawled into the shelter as it threatened to rip from its guylines and stared at the ceiling in awe at how the universe had conspired to get Denise safely off the mountain.