Cactus to Clouds to Cactus (C2C2C) – Oct 6, 2013

So, this silly thing has been on my bucket list for a while, despite the fact that I never really wanted to do it.  Somehow the C2C part (going up) sounded awesome and has been a lot of fun when I’ve done it; but the going down part, while intriguing, sounded painful and a bit unsightly.

That said, after flaming out on C2C two weeks ago (bonking below tram), it felt like time to get back on the mountain and see if I could figure out my nutrition a bit better.  No incentive like a nice 33 mile hike with 10,500+ up and down with a nice hot death march to Palm Springs at the end.

So, this being as well planned as most of my hikes, I drove up from SD around midnight and was on the trail at almost exactly 3am, feeling pretty darn amped.  Almost forgot that an entire group of SD Hiking Group were headed up at the exact same time.  Didn’t see them in the parking lot (and, honestly, wouldn’t have recognized them — should fix that) and off I went.

Skyline Trail

First thing, it was dark.  Most times I’ve done the hike up, it’s been under a full or gibbous moon, but this time it was just plain dark, which meant headlamp light all the the way up; which is fine, but makes the trail shrink around you to a little pool of silver-gray rocks and dirt, endlessly changing yet somehow always the same.

Made the picnic tables in under 30, the end of the first traverse in under an hour, and the first emergency box shortly thereafter.  There were a lot of people on the trail, and I passed groups of 2, 3 and 5 or more.  At one point I jumped a bit when a rock moved and turned out to be a guy standing alone in the dark.

“Mind if I tag along?” he asked.  Nope.  At first his explanation was that he was ahead of his group but wasn’t sure where the trail was and didn’t want to take them off course, then we caught up to his group and told them he didn’t like hiking with a flashlight.  Probably just a bit lost, and didn’t want to admit it.

After that, I passed a few more groups and then I was alone in the dark, winding up the switchbacks under the first fin of rock above the lower traverse.  It’s a weirdly spooky area, with rock faces to the left and an abyss to the right.  Somehow always makes you wonder if a mountain lion is looking down at you and ready to pounce.  I imagined defending myself with a trekking pole and a really convincing scream.  How could that not work?  Maybe I could distract the lion with a tasty Gu pack.   Here, kitty kitty.  Here’s some delicious sugary goo for you.  There’s a good kitty.

And so it went, up into the night.  I passed one more couple and then there was a tiny spotlight ahead of me, winking up a dusty ridge to the north.  I caught up to him at the end of the slight descent before the next climb, and was surprised to find him above me going the opposite direction.

“Where are YOU going?” I asked, genuinely baffled.  I felt bad instantly; how was that any of my business?

“I don’t really know,” he said.  “I thought I was going up.”  Let’s call him T.H.

“You’re on a shortcut that goes back to the trail behind us.”

“Oh,” T.H. said.  “Yeah, I’ve been having trouble finding the trail.  Turns out I have no sense of direction.”

And so I acquired a very pleasant hiking partner all the way to the tram.  He had startup at 2am, gotten lost, gone down, gone up again, gotten lost, gone down, walked over to the alternate trailhead, and come up the other trail (they joined up fairly low down).  Then he’d gotten off trail a few more times.  He must have been going like a bat of hell to have done all that wandering and still be so high up.  Very cool guy, but yeah, no sense of direction. At all.

The sun came up before flat rock, casting the usual beautiful red light onto the rocky spires above us.  Probably my favorite thing about the trail.  The world opened up, the headlamps went off, and the real crux of the hike began.

I was being careful not to push that hard and to eat and drink regularly to avoid bonking as before, and it seemed to work.  Without pushing that hard (well, at the end it was a bit breathy), I got to the top of Skyline in 4:20 (my best time) and felt fine.  T.H. crested a few seconds later, looking a bit worked but pretty pleased overall.

Long Valley to SJ Peak

Then to the ranger station for permits and water.  I had thought T.H. would head to the peak with me, but he said he had to call his wife and let her know he was at the tram on time.  Apparently the prior time he’d done the trail, there had been a sligh lack of preparation, communication and the start of a rescue.  He headed off to the tram to make the call before continuing up, and I started toward the peak.

Despite being ahead of schedule in same abstract sense (I didn’t have a real target other than something like 12 hours R/T) I knew I had to keep a moderate pace on the way up.  The last time I’d done the peak with Andre, we’d run part way up to get close to 6:30 to the top, and there was no way I was going to have enough to get all the way down if I ran any part of it, so I picked a fast walking pace and tried to stick with it.  Soon realized I hadn’t eaten quite enough at the ranger station so I took a food break at Wellman Divide, checked out the view, and got to the top in 6:50.  Not too bad, really.  Then lunch time.  Starving.

Peak to Tram for Water

The way down to the tram was pretty easy.  I had extra energy, the legs felt good, and I resisted the urge to run at all.  Back to the ranger station by 11:45am only to find the bathrooms closed and the water cut off.  The sign on the men’s room told me to go to the tram station.  This was psychologically damaging.  First. it meant losing time to get much needed water.  Second, it meant climbing up the freakin’ ramp to the tram, which I consider an insult to all hikers.  You get down from doing C2C and there’s this ramp to climb up, passing cute little tourists in jaunty shorts and high heals while you smell like the backside of a backside.  Inappropriate, undiginified and a bit sadistic.  Bastards. 😉

Okay, so up the ramp to the water, then back to the top of Skyline.  Lost about 20 minutes.  Then I was standing at the precipice, looking over the tree root that crosses the top of Skyline and separates it from Long Valley like some magical portal.  I was a bit anxious.  It was more 8,000′ down, and somehow I’d worked it up in my mind to be more than it really could be.  Still.  One step and…

Down Skyline Trail

The top is the steepest part, and award on tired legs, but not that big a deal.  The impression I had all the way down was how much longer and steeper several sections were then I recalled from coming up.  Made the climb seem more impressive and the descent seemed, well, really painful.  But more of that in a second.

Near the top, I passed three or four people finishing their climb, then then no one else for some time.   I was down to flat rock in less than an hour, which meant I was moving at least 50% then I had been on the way up, which made sense.  I expected that at this pace I could be back at the car by 3:30pm and on the road to San Diego.  Easy peasy.  At this point, a 50+ year-old runner came down the trail and passed me, and I was even more encouraged.  This wasn’t such a big deal after all.

Almost immediately, my toes and back started hurting.  A lot.  Note to self — never stop or rest on the trail; it gives you body the chance to do mean, sneaky things.  Apparently my shoes were now too small or my toes were too big and every step resulted in a bit of stabbing pain, and every footfall added to the growing ache in my lower back.  Grr.

A while later another runner came down, and then I was on my own all the way down to the switchbacks where imaginary mountain lions had loomed earlier.  This should have been a great point in the down-hike; far more than half-way down, only a few major sections left, in view of the goal.  But although my quads were fine (due to ample if not gratuitous use of trekking poles), the pain in the feet and back was just psychologically wearing.  I slowed down.  Negative thoughts crept in.  Then some dude walks on by all bouncy and happy, heading down so casually it’s like he’s walking to the store for beer.  Didn’t matter than he clearly had taken the tram up and was walking down on fresh legs.  Mas Grr.

I’d say that up to that point, I was going about the same pace on the way down as I had on the way up, and was still more or less on a reasonable schedule.  After that, things fell apart a bit.  On a clearly related aside, whenever I think of the phrase “things fall apart” I think of how Chinua Achebe had originally planned to write his seminal novel about the physical breakdown of men’s bodies in their 40s rather than the tragedy of life in Soweto, until the editor had pointed out that he should write something that someone cared about.  That’s literally what I hear echoed in my head every time I hear that phrase.  Things Fall Apart.  Entropy, enthalpy, decay.  Thanks Chinua.

More pertinently, the collapse began thusly: I walked into a cactus (though, if forced to swear in court, I’d say the cactus was being overly forward and inappropriately prickly), bonked a bit, kicked one of many rocks, and slowed way down.

Turns out, when you’re focused on the pain in your feet and back, you forget to eat and drink.  And then your energy level plummets and you get grumpy.  When I passed the 1st emergency box and realized I was still 1,500 feet or so above the trailhead, there was a flush of instant depression, like a big dark wave of despair.  So odd how the mind betrays you.  I was more than ready to be done, and my quads had gone to hell a littler earlier.  Pace was…not speedy.

I won’t go into detail about the rest, but it was interesting.  I kept trying to perk myself up, tell myself that the pain and exhaustion was mostly mental — Andre would have told me something like that — and it would work for a few minutes until I kicked a rock and my mashed toes let me know that joy was not to be tolerated.  I slowed more.  I thought of stories I’d ready of climbers giving up on the way down and just sitting down to die.  I thought about ice cream.  I screamed when I kicked a really surly rock.

And then I sat down at the picnic tables and contemplated life.  It had taken me 30 min to get to this point in the way up, so it should take less than 20 to get down, but I knew that was a fantasy.  The reality was more like 45 minutes.  By the time I got to the parking lot behind the Museum I was moving so slowly, a rare desert tortuous tried to mate with me.  or would have if I had smelled a little sexier.  I wonder what smells sexy to a turtle?

Finally at the car, I sat, ripped off my shoes, made a lot of satisfied grunty noises, and was done.  Wahoo!

All I needed now was coffee and chocolate milk.   While parallel parking outside the Starbucks by the giant Marilyn Monroe statue, I managed to puncture my right front tire.   So, instead of bathing in a massive Mocha Frappuccino, I found myself under the car staring at my spare while absent-mindedly pulling tiny cactus spines out of my leg.  Then AAA showed up.  Thank God.

Oddly, after a milkshake and some food, I wasn’t that mentally tired.  The drive back was fine, and nothing hurt except for  a dull ache my back.  I wonder how much the pain in my feet resulted in a cascade of negative energy, failed eating and drinking, and generally silly behavior.  Next time, we’ll see.

Ha ha.  I said next time. Of all the things on my bucket list, this is one I don’t really need to do again.  C2C2C done.  Next!  Now where’s that ice cream?

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