The hardest day hike in the continental US. Why not?
It wasn’t actually my idea. My buddy Steve’s buddy Chris wanted a way to prove his mettle on his 50th birthday. I was quickly on board. I felt due for a little mettle-proving, even though I outwardly profess to be past my need to prove much of anything. Steve felt the same way. We’re both in our early 60s. Masters athletes, sure. But neither of us competes anymore. We just like to stay fit.
I do work out regularly—bike riding, though rarely more than 20 or 30 miles; trail running plodding; the odd burpee or whatever. I enjoy training. My health numbers are good. But it’s always great to gauge how my morning routine translates to the real world, especially when that real world is one of the world’s most daunting hikes: the Cactus to Clouds Trail from Palm Springs to Mount San Jacinto, California.
Cactus to Clouds has to be the most blogged-about trail in existence, and I read every post and forum comment. I knew that it gains about 8,000 feet in just over eight miles before it levels out…and then you have the option of pushing another five miles and 2,400 feet of gain to the top of Mount San Jacinto, 10,834 feet.
In other words, absurdly steep.
I also absorbed all the beta re provisions, the advice ranging from three liters of water to a five-gallon Sparkletts bottle…a stash of energy bars and a few Gu’s to clearing out REI’s entire stockpile of Clif Bars. I read that we should be on the trail before 6…before 4…before bothering to go to bed at all. They also advised doing some really long, hard hikes before the Big One.
I admit this excess of edification prompted me to up my quota of lunges, and to add some weight to my back for an occasional hill workout. But mainly I stayed true to my regime. Steve joined a boot camp. We didn’t say this out loud, but our 60-something pride dearly wanted to impress our newly 50 friend.
Who didn’t even make the trip. Sick as a dog, poor Chris, when we went to pick him up at 4 to be on the trail at 6. The 60s dudes had to go it alone.
Were we the oldest guys on the trail? Probably. The slowest? Not really. But a couple miles into the hike, as our Lekis clattered a steady drumbeat on the loose, rocky trail, an Adonis clad in Lycra knickers porting a sliver of a Camelbak trotted by us in a blur, and I said to Steve, “Steve, that’s exactly how I feel.”
“I know,” said Steve. “It’s just not how we look.”
But c’mon. We looked great. We made it in eight hours. We had a blast, even when the jokes subsided and we retreated into our individual private reveries. Mine: One foot. Next foot. My kingdom for more Gatorade. Next foot. Why did I bring these stupid raisins? One foot. Next foot.
The trail really is absurdly steep. It would be impossible to hike down, on knees of any age. Plus Wikipedia says, “Turning around is not recommended due to the heat of the desert. Most hikers are forced to ascend to Long Valley regardless of their condition.”
So turning back was never an option. But the beauty of Cactus to Clouds is the way station at the eight-mile / 8,400-foot mark known as the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It’s the place where a couple of weary 60-somethings could clamber into a gondola with tourists who had come up to admire the view, and glide back down. The view we admired was the sun setting on an absurdly steep mountainside that we had just scaled.
I work out for the intrinsic pleasure of it, and to carry good health into my later years. Nothing much to prove. But dang, it sure felt great to know that these two great friends still have whatever it took to do whatever it was we just did.