This day was for Pete.
When I was small, my family went to the Lake District every New Year. Being short of leg (ish), we’d mostly pop over cols, climbing the shoulders of mountains to roll into new valley views and the odd pub with the golden promise of a half of Coke. Summits weren’t really our thing. When Pete and I walked the GR11 across the Pyrenees many years later, I couldn’t understand his puppyish keenness to go off-piste and bag a summit – why add extra kilometres when you’ve got more to come and kilos on your back? It sounded far too much like hard work.
But since then, I’ve found the joy in topping out. Scafell Pike, Great Gable, Great End, Skiddaw, Cat Bells, the Langdale Pikes in Cumbria. Kerkis, the top of the world on Samos. I’ve been in cloud for more than I care to mention, nearly blown off others as my pack cover turned into an involuntary parachute, but every one has been worth the climb. To struggle, to arrive, to stop and wonder.
(And eat sandwiches, turn your bag inside out looking for a wind jacket, and try and take photos with numbed fingers.)
So I found myself at the 10,834ft peak of Mt San Jacinto, not sure if I was gasping from the altitude, the effort, or the miles of desert views surrounding me in rare afternoon calm. I’d climbed out of Idyllwild by the Deer Springs Trail route, a peaceful option that sounded altogether more inviting than the Devil’s Slide, and forged my way through the bunches of day hikers who all had hilariously original things to say about the size of my pack.
One moment had probably redeemed me from giving up at around 9,000ft, after I’d fallen irretrievably in step with some youth playing awful, awful power ballads from a speaker in their bag. A guy coming downhill just said: ‘Dude, if you’re going to blast something from your pack, at least make it Metallica, not f***ing Bon Jovi.’ I didn’t really have it in me to speak, but raised my trekking pole in silent salute.
I nipped back up to the summit to watch the sunset – a big, dark, sci-fi triangle of shadow cast over Palm Springs to the east. Sun sinking glowingly over rows of cardboard cutout mountains to the west. Thinking of Pete, and missing our days of refugios in Spain, I slept in the mountain shelter with Scientist and Smokey, our food bags hung out of mouse’s way and swinging from the rafters like tasty punchbags.
The 20-mile PCT descent (plus another 3 from the peak) the next day was about as joyous as you could expect for a steep, waterless stretch dropping 8,000ft. The first twisting miles were deliciously pine-shaded, but before you could say manzanita, we appeared to be in desert again. I bumped into two rattlesnakes – one while looking the other way, marvelling at a butterfly like a Disney princess, that’ll teach me – passed the notorious bees’ nest at mile 201 screaming unashamedly and flinging my pack and poles onto the trail behind me (note: not a sustainable solution), fell over and left half my shin on a rock, and generally had an all-round excellent time of it. I’d not planned to make it all the way to the water tap at the base of the mountain, almost the lowest point on the PCT until somewhere in Oregon, but I could see a group of hikers gathered round the fabled spigot like animals at a watering hole, and charged down the final couple of miles drawn irresistibly by the water.
Here’s a fun activity to develop your hand-eye coordination, one that I expect to see on the PE curriculum/a level on the Crystal Maze before the year is out: trying to fill a narrow-necked water bladder, from a drinking fountain spout, that’s blowing in the wind. The dart-scoop-lunge, wet-foot-pirouette and direction-change-recovery manoeuvres were deployed with mixed success , but eventually I got enough to make supper and dodge dehydration for another day. After drinking my fill and dousing my shin in Fran’s aloe vera, I fell asleep watching the trains chooting across the valley floor, wondering what romantic cargo they were carrying west (spoiler alert: vats of hydrochloric acid, it turned out).