Climb Every Mountain

Well, not EVERY mountain but just the one.

It took Brandon and I 7 years of marriage to figure out that we both like camping.  Away from the cars kind of camping.

We have been investing in our camping gear.  When we were shopping for a backpack, the staff mentioned that REI does have overnight backpacking classes and that we should check that out.

So we did.

San Jacinto Backpacking

This past Saturday and Sunday, we were in Mount San Jacinto State Park backpacking for the first time with 2 REI instructors, Greg and Michael, and 5 other newbies.  One was gearing up for a trip to Bhutan.  Two were day hikers, taking things further. One was a budding outdoorsman.  And one wanted to learn to go camping in one pack instead of a carload.

Of all of these guys, we were the least in shape. Brandon has activity-induced asthma. And I, like how I was telling everyone else, have a case of activity-induced wuss.

It was no surprise that I came in dead last everywhere we went. However, it was definitely a surprise that I came in anywhere at all.

With 22 lbs. (10 kg) of pack on my back.

And just for perspective, that’s 1/5 of my body weight.

On Saturday morning, we all met early in Rancho Cucamonga REI for gear check at 7 a.m.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we quickly bonded over the fact that none of us, less one, had done this before.  We all had a chance to run amok the stores to be fitted with a pack or finding a tent to rent.  I traded in my rain jacket for a kid’s sized lined one and a pair of convertible pants/shorts cargo–both kids size.  We had some more talks and split up the foods, and then we were on the road to Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

The tramway shot us straight up to 5,900 feet (about 1.8 km) from where we were.  Thank GOD for the Bonine I took earlier for the van ride from REI, I would’ve barfed on someone during the tramway ride.

San Jacinto Backpacking

We found ourselves a spot on the observation deck to battle with fearless squirrels have lunch.  Thankfully, I had the mind to put 2 containers of sun-dried tomato and roasted red pepper bruschettas into one of our gallon zip lock bag as they leaked all over the place.  After lunch, we repacked everything and double bagged said containers.  We came to find out later that one of the lids had cracked on transit.

Then we hiked down what we have come to call the Switchback From Hell to the Ranger’s station to learn how to use our compass and maps and GPS units and to further acclimate ourselves with the altitude.

Everything reminded me of Brandon’s parents’ house in New Mexico with both the scenery and the thin air.  Oh yeah, if I could totally handle Red River, this altitude thing shouldn’t be too bad, I thought as I popped a few Aspirins to cope with the altitude.  (The Aspirin trick is a remedy Brandon’s folks always have us do before we started the drive up from Albuquerque.  It definitely helped stemmed the altitude headaches.)

The altitude kicked my ass like USC kicked San Jose State’s. (Knew I was going to tie that in somewhere, didn’t ya?)

2 miles (3.2 km) to Round Valley with about 600 elevation gain. It doesn’t sound like a lot but with the terrain and the altitude and the 22 lbs. on my back, that was the longest 2 miles of my life.  Brandon and I brought up the rear with Instructor Michael behind us.  And then we had to go from Round Valley up another hill, I’m guessing half a mile, to our campsite.

This was where I hit that proverbial “wall”.  Marathoners, according to this guy here, hit that when their bodies literally used up everything its got.  In many cases, it’s in our heads too, like in “Run Fatboy Run.”  And now I knew what that was like.

I wasn’t out of breath like I was earlier on the hike.  My legs just said no. My brain stopped thinking about the fact that the campsite was only just 2 minutes away: it just didn’t want me to go anymore.

I told Brandon and Michael that I just needed a minute as my legs refused to move. Seriously, I could see the top of the hill from where I stopped but I wasn’t going to go anywhere.

Without a word, Michael came over, took the sleeping pad off my pack, and continued his slow-and-steady pace up the hill.  Somehow, that little weight he took off was like a ton for me. My legs started to work again, and I made it to the campsite.

The spot came highly recommended by the rangers and now we knew why. The view at the site was beautiful, totally worth extra work.

San Jacinto Backpacking

We set up our tents and started in on dinner of pasta with pesto or bruschetta with chicken (chunks in pouches).  At this point, the oil from the leaky tub was everywhere and onto everything.  Pretty much anything we touched food-wise at some point was oily and/or smelled like the bruschetta.

I took the liberty and named our little group the Bruschetta Brigade.

And they, in turn, named me Captain Crunch for unknowingly contaminated the pot of pasta when I used my sand-crusted gloves to break up the noodles. Whoops.

That night, the Brigade split up into two groups: the Summiteers who would actually summit San Jacinto Peak, and Team Tamarack who would do a mild day hike to Tamarack Valley and then clean up the camp for the Summiteers.

The following morning, Instructor Greg and 3 guys left a bit late on their schedule to summit San Jacinto.  Team Tamarack was all girls except for Brandon and Instructor Michael. We cleaned up the “kitchen” and pretty much packed ourselves up except for a day pack for our little hike.  I was excited to be walking with just the camera. Photo ops, here I come!

Tamarack Valley was gorgeous. We even spotted some deer while we were out!  Michael packed us a lovely little lunch of hard cheese, tomatoes, and salami.  The Summiteers checked in on the radio and they were running about 2 hours behind, having left late this morning.  So we headed back to the site to finish up.  I was still a little winded going back to the site so that deflated me a bit.

San Jacinto Backpacking

So we packed up everything we can, and just as Michael was saying the boys weren’t going to make it back on time, I spotted the Summiteers coming up the hill.  I started cheering and the rest of Team Tamarack followed.  The Summiteers did so well!!

We helped everyone packed up the camp and got some group shots.  And down the hill, we went.

San Jacinto Backpacking

I was feeling pretty good. My toes weren’t hurting all that much and I managed to not get too winded most of the time.  I really struggled with the weight going downhill.  Every step down was a little scary like I was going to tip over.

Everyone eventually went past me and Brandon, who was helping me down every steep step, except for Francis who injured his toes summiting, Kevin who wanted to actually look at some scenery on the way out, and, of course, the ever patient and encouraging Michael.

This little group did get to witness the marvel that is my agility when I slipped heading downhill.  Trying to gain my footing while balancing the weight on my back, I somehow ended up with two trekking poles firmly on the ground in front of me, facing uphill.  Zero biff.

I may not have the physical strength or stamina, but I am definitely plus 10 on biff avoidance.  That little maneuvering proved to be entertaining for all.

We re-grouped at the Ranger’s station where we first set off.  And off we went to attack the Switchback from Hell.

I was out of breath mid-way up the first ramp with Brandon in front of me.  Michael was once again right behind me. He said gently to focus on the shadow of the rails cast on the path in front of me and to take VERY small steps.  I started my steps and I heard his trekking poles made the rhythmic clacks behind me.  Automatically, I tuned into the clacks and got in a pace.  I stopped for breaths at every bend.

Michael never once rushed me.  Just as he never did on the way in.  He waited patiently for me to get a hold of myself, physically and emotionally, and then get moving.

3 turns away. I hit another wall. This one was emotional.

My feet were still going.  I wasn’t in pain or anything but my heart was fluttering and my eyes were tearing up.  I felt like I either have to start crying or throw up, one of the two.  I did neither and I finally got to the station where everyone was waiting for me.

I tossed my pack and sat down to catch my breath.  I couldn’t catch one and started coughing.  A blessing in disguise really.  I was actually crying by that point but I claimed that the heavy coughing got me teared up.

In total, at least what I think I did, the distance I covered doesn’t sound very impressive: round trip (to/from camp and to/from Tamarack Valley) of about 8 miles (13 km).  But there was the 700 feet (213 m) in elevation gain in all of this and with only 2 hours to adjust to the altitude when we started out plus the weight of the pack on your back, that there was a true butt kicker especially for those like me who are pathetically out of shape.

All in all, I did it. All 22 lbs. of it.  All 8 miles and 700 feet of it.

On my own two feet.

This is probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life so far.


  1. Olaina   •  

    Well done, my friend. 🙂 So proud of you!

  2. Ken C.   •  

    That was quite an adventure! Very much enjoyed the pictures (and also the text). The brigade performed well, especially considering the altitude and terrain. I echo the previous “well done!”

  3. Amy @ The Q Family   •  

    Great job! I think that was a big accomplishment. I was thinking about doing REI trip as well but seeing that you seem to be more fit than me. Hmm.. I might have to rethink that. 🙂

  4. Ben Shingleton   •  

    Nice one Oakley! Give yourself a big pat on the back, some great pics also 🙂

  5. JACK CAMP   •  

    WOW, good job you guys! You know you wehre in my back yard up here in Idyllwild. I am inviting you to come up for some easy day hikes, especially my daily Strawberry Creak walk (2 miles) or the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail (5 miles). After a hike we can visit our new Brew Pub for a beer or two with an excellent fish&chip lunch. Does that sound good? Let me know? Ok?

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