- Double and triple check your supplies (especially water).
- Check weather conditions the morning of your hike before you lose cell service.
- Always be aware of your surroundings.
- Understand the importance of creating an outdoor itinerary.
Create a plan in the event of your disappearance.
Use the Leave No Trace principles.
Mount San Jacinto is a 10,834 foot peak located in the San Jacinto Mountains in the Peninsular range of Riverside County, California. It is the sixth most prominent peak in the United States and the second tallest peak in Southern California. It is especially known among hikers for its infamous Cactus to Clouds trail, which ascends roughly 10,500 feet from the desert floor of Palm Springs to the summit of Mount San Jacinto via the Skyline trail. The Cactus to Clouds hiking trail has been called one of the toughest day hikes in the world.
According to Palm Springs news outlet Desert Sun, “From 2009 to mid-2015, 61 rescue missions occurred on the Skyline Trail below the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Nearly two-thirds involved hikers with heat-related trauma. Five died from their injuries.”
Each year, the continued media attention revolving around the C2C trail seems to attract a new batch of unprepared hikers in and around Southern California. However, in mountaineering circles, there is a far more difficult and remote route that ascends from the desert floor to this incredible peak.The North Face of San Jacinto Peak climbs over 10,000 feet in under seven miles, making it one of the largest escarpments in the contiguous United States. When California is fortunate enough to experience a strong winter, this drainage transforms into a massive snow tongue visible from San Gorgonio Pass and across the Morongo Valley. Snow Creek is the mountaineer's Cactus to Clouds. It includes little to no trail apart from sporadic animal tracks, dense brush, and one of the longest and steepest sustained snow ascents the United States has to offer. Of course, when a potential route like this is highlighted in such a way, there should be no surprise that humans would attempt to climb it. Outdoorists who attempt this route are required to be skilled in orienteering, with experience in 4th & 5th class exposure, and have the endurance/conditioning of a bighorn sheep.
Snow Creek, from Snow Creek Canyon Road.
There are several considerations to keep in mind when preparing to climb Snow Creek. Most notably, the route requires an extremely high level of commitment. Partially due to the above-mentioned closure, even reaching the base of the snow ascent requires a 5,000+ foot climb in six miles—all of which is off-trail and along some extremely rough terrain. Additionally, the Chockstone should be considered the halfway point of the route and is also the crux of the climb. Once reached, hikers must either commit to the remaining ascent or turn back. Even after managing to climb the Chockstone, a successful ascent depends heavily on snow conditions.
Perhaps the most important consideration is time. The only way down and back to your vehicle is by way of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Hikers need to make it to the tram station before it closes, or else be prepared to spend the night at the summit. If you intend to bivvy along the route, then this consideration may be less pertinent.Besides that, you'll also need a permit to travel into the San Jacinto National Forest.
Prior to this attempt, California experienced its most intense winter in thirty years. I spent a few weeks eyeing the forecasts in hopes of finding a window for the ascent. When there was a report in late February that an avalanche occurred along the entirety of the route, I knew that Snow Creek was likely now passable and safe.
On April 4th, I went out to the trailhead and hiked a couple miles of Snow Creek Canyon to get acquainted with a section I would most likely cross in the dark on my full attempt. A few days later, I was scheduled to meet a friend at the trailhead at 2 AM for an alpine start; however, they bailed hours before the start, and I ultimately walked a couple of miles in the dark before turning back because I didn't feel well rested. I wouldn't have another opportunity in the schedule to summit for several weeks, and, after a month, I grew tired of waiting and simply chose the coldest day of the week to climb solo. It wasn't optimal, but it would have to do.
Looking into Snow Creek Canyon from 2,000 ft elevation (Photo taken during reconnaissance effort).
CROSSING SNOW CREEK CANYON
The walk along the Snow Creek Canyon floor wasn't particularly difficult. The ground here is coarse and riddled with rocks and cactus, but the wide open desert landscape offers plenty of variable terrain to suit the hiker’s preference. I moved from the trailhead directly southeast toward the tip of the ridge. During my failed attempt weeks earlier, I slipped during two of the three creek crossings. This time, I managed to get across unscathed. I reached the aqueduct at the base of the climb after walking for a little over a mile and ascending 200 feet.
Terrain along Snow Creek canyon floor. Blaisdell Ridge in the background. (Photo taken during reconnaissance effort)
ASCENDING BLAISDELL RIDGE
From the aqueduct to the first peak on the map (Peak 3481) is a 2,100 foot climb in under 1.25 miles. Trekking poles are critical in aiding the ascent since this steep segment features a significant amount of loose soil. A few cairns mark the route, but “up” is the general idea in this section. At roughly 3,000 feet elevation is a collection of massive boulders. I aimed for them, then cut across the west side of these large rocks to avoid the rising sun. I ended up side-hilling across talus for an additional quarter mile. Reaching the top of the ridge revealed that aiming for the northeast side of those rocks would have been much more tame, as that route was comprised of more scenic views along the grassy meadows of the ridge.
Near the top of Blaisdell Ridge, Peak 4340 in the center.
LEAVING THE RIDGE AT PEAK 4340
Cumulative Distance: 3.25 miles
Cumulative Vertical Gain/Loss: 3,150 feet | -25 feet
Eventually the brush opens up above the canopy of the Falls Creek intersection. A steep and rugged descent brought me to the serene creek bed. I took a break to filter water and have another snack in the shade. All I could think about was the fact that I was less than a half mile upstream from some of the biggest and most desolate waterfalls Southern California has to offerAnd yet, an inaccessible road leads right to its base.
Hiker leaving Blaisdell ridge, traversing to the Isthmus.
Looking over at the Isthmus.
WANDERING AROUND THE ISTHMUS
Looking down into Falls Creek and the Isthmus.Click here to see my horrendous route finding here.
Crossing Falls Creek.
REACHING SNOW CREEK PROPER
I was relieved to find another creek bed just below a beautiful waterfall at 4,650 feet. I took another short break in the shade to hydrate and then ascended the falls on its east side. Following the creek bed offered some pleasant boulder scrambling over flowing water and fascinating views of an alternate route known as "Kristian's Cleavage". At the 4,950 foot mark, the route leaves the creek on its west side. A short and steep class 3 ascent over chossy granite and loose dirt brought me to a campsite at 5,150 feet. I noticed that I had some views of the city here, so I took a minute to see if I had service on my phone. My hunch was correct and I sent a text out to my emergency contact who responded immediately.
From this overlook, I could see everything that I had accomplished so far, including where my car was parked. I snapped a couple photos and did an about-face, continuing hastily along an obvious and gradually ascending path. This was the first time I wasn't fighting to achieve forward progress since a short section atop the Isthmus (and that was when I was going the wrong way). I stopped abruptly about a hundred feet past a campsite. I could now clearly see a snow tongue creeping along the endless Snow Creek proper and what looked like the Chockstone somewhere along its path. The sound of gushing water pulled my attention downstream where I could clearly see the edge of the snow line and its 4-5 foot depth.
Standing above the Falls at Kristen's Cleavage. Dirt path at the top right is where I dropped in.
Looking up at the creek bed rock scramble. Very fun!
Looking down into the east fork of Snow Creek.
GETTING OVER THE CHOCKSTONE
What I love about climbing up a snow chute is that it keeps you honest. With other types of terrain, you may need to stop to reorient, or find the best line. With snow travel, the only way is up, and thus your physical abilities are put under a microscope…and let me tell you, I did not like what I was seeing.
After trudging up the canyon for a third of a mile, I reached the mass of granite known as the Chockstone. The falls were so intense, I could feel mist from thirty feet away. Everything about this place was just getting more enormous by the mile. I took a short break to admire my surroundings, and then turned to the right. The Classic route to bypass the Chockstone was a class 5.4-5.5 slab, and, at first glance, it looked...possible? I walked ten feet closer to the edge of the snow line to find that I was about eight feet away from the wall and fifteen feet above the canyon floor with no immediate options for descending safely. I could also see that the lower portion of this approach featured some of its most difficult moves, so I wasn't very interested in pressing this option.
I backtracked ten or fifteen feet and found a promising alternate, but a degraded snow bridge is all that stood between me and it. I couldn't risk getting cliffed out on a hunch, so I backtracked fifteen feet more where I found a crack/ledge system I could exploit. This one involved a short jump to a ledge, but it was close enough to do both ways.
I had read in several places about a class 2-3 alternate that included a bushwhack, and I was sure that I saw it on the way up; but, in all honesty, having to remove my crampons to get intimate with manzanita bushes sounded about as appealing as rekindling a relationship with an ex.
The Chockstone (left). Class 5 route (center).
Looking down during the Class 4 alternate ascent.
View from the top of Class 4 ascent.
MOUNT SAN JACINTO'S NORTH FACE
The Chockstone bypass had placed me about thirty feet above Snow Creek on the western slope. I shuffled back into the canyon where I had officially reached the point of no return. Whatever I encountered beyond this point would have to be dealt with in order to return to the car, because there was no way in Hell I was going back the way I came. I was only 1.7 miles from the summit, and yet, I still needed to climb roughly 5,000 vertical feet.
11:53 AM -- Fatigue was setting in. The sun was baking the snow and I was post-holing significantly more than before. It was now a race to higher altitude and cooler temperatures. I found an exposed creek along the path at around 6,000 feet and stopped to filter water. I was fairly certain this would be my last opportunity, so I made the best of it by soaking my shirt as well. I struggled to ascend smoothly from here to about 9,300 feet before the snow started to feel solid again. The average slope for the final half mile is roughly 45 degrees, so this wasn't necessarily a good thing. A fall here could have sent me down several hundred feet in seconds. As the cloud cover came in, I was in a white-out for the remainder of the ascent. It was eerie and desolate. I absolutely loved every second of it, even when I was cursing myself for being so slow and useless.
The final 100 feet featured a bit of actual ice, which felt weird climbing over as if it were granite. I could hear the wind howling at the peak, so I dropped my pack and layered up as soon as I was out of steep terrain. I reached San Jacinto Peak at 5:12 PM and stood alone just above the clouds for about fifteen minutes—just enough time to fully soak in a panorama of the Southern California desert. I successfully soloed one of the steepest escarpments and toughest mountaineering routes in the United States.
The initial descent from the peak was pure bliss. I casually strolled down the snowy southeast slope of San Jacinto as the crow flies, occasionally sipping from my West Coast Lager by Burning Bridge Brewing. Once I reached Long Valley Creek however, my legs started to feel like Jell-o. For the first time all day, I started to see humans and they were all wearing tennis shoes and jeans, which meant I was closing in on the tram station.
I managed to reach the top of the 160 foot ramp without passing out. I walked into the gift shop, paid for my tram ticket, then proceeded to the cafeteria where I completely devoured a $20 rib entrée in under two minutes. Right as I was finishing, I heard the intercom announce that the tram was arriving shortly. I hustled over to the boarding area and took a seat. As soon as I sat down, a hundred emotions passed through my body and I almost started to cry. I would have if I wasn't surrounded by twenty people.
I completed San Jacinto via Snow Creek in 14 hours and 24 minutes and I bet I could do it a little bit faster next year.
Endless snow tongue.
Looking down into the white out.
- Undefined Class 2 route from Snow Creek Canyon floor to waypoint SC08.
- Dense brush, difficult sidehilling, Class 3 scrambling (in that order) to waypoint SC11.
- Class 3 boulder scramble to the Chockstone (snow ascent in my case).
- Class 4 slab ascent (minimum) to reach the upper East Fork Snow Creek.
- 5,000 vertical feet in 1.8 miles for the remainder of the route.
Download the waypoints