Cactus to Clouds, or How to Outrun Hypothermia in Palm Springs

About 3.5 miles from the summit on the Cactus to Clouds (C2C for short), 10,400 feet (3,170 meters) of total vertical and 21 miles from the Palm Springs Art Museum to San Jacinto Peak, I conclude malevolent weather is the trail’s forte.  Freezing rain pellets are stinging my eyes as I grind uphill through the ice water and slush stream of a trail. I’ve passed the tram ride of “last retreat” to the warm valley floor and Palm Springs. Oncoming is a group in full mountaineering gear – I am not.  I’m in shorts, a gear miscalculation based on conditions roughly 8,000 feet (2,438m) below and 60F (15C) warmer back in town.

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From within the encasement of outer-layers, mid-layers, under-layers, waterproof layers, full hiking boots and gloves, all accessorized by microspikes, one hikers says, “We just turned back, it’s too rough to summit.”

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Trying not to let my teeth chatter, I respond, “I think I’ve got this.”

In truth, I’m unsure if I’ve “got this” or not.

Another expeditioner exclaims, “Dude! Where’s your pants?”

Sartorially, pants wouldn’t make a lot of difference.  My running shoes, socks, shorts, thermal top layer, merino wool running singlet, water resistant shell, and my “emergency” toque are all a freezing tone of sodden. They have been since about mile 9 (kilometer 14.5) when I geared up fully in a cool mist.  Cold is the new black, but not blue; my nail beds aren’t blue yet.

Splashing along the slush river, I question the value of summiting.  I gave up on keeping my feet dry hours ago. Gusts of wind driving rain and sleet rip away any body heat accumulated in my wet gear. My exposed legs are still fine though. For good reason, they’re working hard.

C2C’s peak elevation is 10,833 ft (3302m), with approximately 8000 of those feet (2438.4m) done in the first 10 miles (16km).  During the months skirting winter, summit temperatures can be drastically lower than the city far below. The forecast needs to be watched hourly.  Murderous weather is this trail’s hallmark.

I’d targeted “temperate” spring, because on a hot day water is a serious issue on the Cactus to Clouds; the issue being there is none until 10.8 miles (17.3 kms), and 8,400 feet (2,560m) of vertical, up the trail at the Long Valley Ranger Station.  This is a trail infamous for heat stroke deaths.  Even on a warm day, I’d expected to burn though 3 litres of water, based training experience and increased consumption due to altitude.

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It started so well.

Instead of topping up water at the ranger station, I’d thawed my hands under the hot water tap.  I dumped two liters of water from my running vest’s bladder, then filled it with hot water for heat. The previous night’s weather forecast had been near perfect; mild temperatures in Palm Springs, and above freezing with light rain at the summit”.

Overnight the forecast had changed, and I’d failed to check on my way out the door at 5AM.

The slush is firming up, to heavy snow crusted with ice. It’s slow and tough going. Through the forest of ice-crusted trees, boughs bearing the weight of freezing rain, I take stock of my current condition.

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If I’m not moving, I’m shivering with my teeth chattering.  These are signs of hypothermia.

Full disclosure, I’m on a medication that makes me susceptible to hypothermia and heat stroke. My temperature window for adventures is narrow, and I’m vigilant for either condition.  Pushing upwards, I’m gauging my internal warmth, versus the distance back to the tram station.

Having trained primarily in the mountains around North Vancouver and Squamish in British Columbia, strong outreach by the area’s Northshore Search and Rescue, and Run Wild Vancouver (http://runwildvan.com), sees me carrying the “ten essentials” of backcountry survival in my vest.  So, I’m better equipped than the handful of tourists I encounter out in dollar store rain ponchos.

Looking at the ponchos, I contemplate using my kit’s emergency bivvy sack similarly by cutting a neck hole with my knife.  No, it’s better to keep this mylar sleeping bag whole, in case I need its waterproof shelter. The bivvy and my waterproof fire-starting kit could help make the hikers’ emergency hut ahead a warm retreat.  I make a mental note to add an extra emergency blanket to the kit, for future poncho-fication, or use as lean-to shelter.

My biggest error was not packing a fully waterproof shell, and an extra merino wool mid-layer would make a massive difference.  Or, is the biggest error judgement? I’ve come a long way to do this, and I’m a long way up the trail. I’m aware of the sunken cost fallacy, where you feel you’ve invested too much into a goal to abort, but where do you throw in the towel.

Worst case scenario, there is my inReach with its “call the search and rescue cavalry via satellite” SOS button.

That button press is not to be taken lightly; it activates an entire search and rescue mechanism.  I’ve a long way to go before I’d activate the emergency beacon. Reasons against it?

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A Small Stone Hut in the mist and freezing rain.

First, as long as I’m moving I’m still generating warmth.  So I have other options; summit and finish, return to the ranger station and warm up, press on to the hiker’s hut for shelter, or download via the tram to the warmth of the valley floor.  Second, hospitals are a hassle, the treatment for extreme hypothermia is the circulation of warmed saline around your organs through in and out tubes – and how often do Palm Springs’ doctors see hypothermia?  I’m particular about the number of ins and outs my body has. Third, I couldn’t handle the crushing ignominy of the “mountain guy should know better” embarrassment. Fourth, I’m not interesting enough a subject for a John Krakauer book.

I slosh, slog, and slip past the stone “emergency” hut, which is fantastic news two-fold.  There are voices, so help is handy if I need it. And, I’m only 0.3 miles (0.5kms) from the summit.

John Muir wrote, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!”  Wrapped in biting cloud and pelted by freezing rain, I have to take Muir’s word for it. It is the briefest summit imaginable in trail running history. Lashed by wind, my hands are so cold I can barely take a “summit selfie”, or record video through chattering teeth.  I turn tail, and begin the 5.5 mile (8.85 kilometer) run down to the tram station.

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My “Type 3” fun face.  Meaning this will be better in the retelling.

Briefly, I stop at the stone emergency hut. Accommodating three hikers, poly-pro underwear, gear, and hiker-odour festoon the place, but there is no fire for warmth.  “Damned dude, you are going light! How long did it take you to summit?”

“7 hours, but, I have to keep moving.  I’m pretty cold.” I’m not wasting warm air on words.

The time merits a teeth sucking, “Daaaammmmmmmn!”

Through the conversation, my teeth chatter, and my speech is a bit slurred – the latter being an additional indicator of hypothermia.  I need to outrun the cold latching onto my core.

I lumber, uncoordinated and leaden, through the ice, snow, slush and water.  I take a couple tumbles. In one I put my hand out to catch myself, leaving me to contemplate if I’ve broken my wrist as I down run to the Tram Station. My hands and wrists are so numb I have no way of telling if there’s any damage.

Throughout the graceless descent, I keep taking stock of my condition.

Hypothermia is a bespoke state.  There is no set temperature where you transition to “hypothermic”, it’s different for everyone and conditional.  In the wet and cold, it can happen above freezing. With my shivering, chattering, slurred speech, numb limbs, I know I’m on the edge.  Cold, however, is morse coded by warmth of motion, the signal interrupted by the weather-blasts of sleet – I’m still generating heat.

My heartbeat, pulse, and breathing are strong and regular, and I’m not feeling confused.  So I haven’t collected a full suite of hypothermia symptoms. I’m just on the good side of “adventure gone bad”, demarcated by a line you occasionally flirt with.  Heck, the line and I, we’re past flirting; by summitting we’re into groping with tongue territory.

Type three fun then, where the story is better long after the suffering, I’m outrunning hypothermia.  Or, outlumbering it. What feels like an all-out sprint sees me reaching the tram station in an hour and forty minutes. Even by my sluggish “back of the pack guy” trail running standards, that’s a damn slow 5.5 miles (8.5 km).

The adventure deserves a mea culpa in full. I prepared for warmer rather than colder conditions and failed to check the day’s weather forecast before heading out – those are mistakes that will never happen again.  On long runs, sometimes you regret the weight of your running vest, this run I was thankful to have that literal and figurative safety blanket with me; even if I didn’t use it. Lessons are learned through experience, that includes near successes and slight failures.  So, next adventure, despite the weight, an extra mid-layer, and a full on waterproof shell will be in the kit… perhaps even some tights.

Epilogue:

I knew enough about hypothermia to realize I was on the edge of it while on the trail.  What kept me from slipping over was not just physical effort on down-run from the summit to the tram station, but a series of small and large kindnesses which occurred after.

The tram operators let me squeeze onto the download, even though the gate had closed.  Apparently I looked suitably bedraggled. On the tram ride down, I got to chatting (or perhaps chattering) with a fantastic couple from Atlanta who offered me a lift back into Palm Springs.  I cannot thank these fine folks enough, especially for taking a mud-splattered trail runner into their rental car, cranking the heat, and dropping me off well out of their way. I suspect I looked worse than bedraggled.

I also have to thank my friend, Tom, who let me stay with him in Palm Springs.  He met me with fresh baked scones, and what, in memory, felt like the best blankets ever.  Sometimes adventures connect you with the landscape (the wrist was fine by the way), and nature.  Other times they connect you to people. The best times, they do both.

Cactus to Cloud Resources:

The Hiking Guy’s Excellent “How to Guide”, heed his advice: https://hikingguy.com/hiking-trails/best-la-hikes/cactus-to-clouds-hike/

The Hiking Project’s Cactus to Clouds page: https://www.hikingproject.com/trail/7012359/cactus-to-clouds-palm-springs-mt-san-jacinto

If you do download this GPX for guidance, and I recommend you do, keep in mind that it doesn’t include the run down from the summit to the tram station.  So add 5.5 miles / 8.85 kilometers to the total distance.

10 Essentials of Outdoor Survival for Ultrarunners and Day Hikers: https://medium.com/@neiljohnston/10-essentials-of-outdoor-survival-for-ultrarunners-and-day-hikers-5d59b9f5dd52

Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothermia#Signs_and_symptoms

 

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