By Annie Dube
It’s hard to believe a year has already passed since last Memorial Day, when my alarm went off at some preposterous hour for the third day in a row. A few snooze buttons later, I reluctantly dragged myself out of my warm cozy sleeping bag to find Ken loading up the car. We drove up to Forest Falls under the starlit sky, fueling up on peanut butter sandwiches and coffee for the long day ahead. Just before dawn, light flurries gave way to a coating of fresh powder as we passed through the quiet mountain village - now a majestic winter wonderland.
Dubbed the “Three Peak Challenge” by the SoCal hiking community, my friend Ken and I were attempting to summit the three tallest peaks in Southern California: San Antonio, San Jacinto, and San Gorgonio (the “three saints”). Ken had just flown cross country with the hope of climbing Mt Whitney. When severe avalanche risk derailed our plans, we began scouring Google Maps and weather forecasts for a plan B. It was nearly midnight when I stumbled upon a hiking blog referencing the Three Peak Challenge. Three peaks in three days? More winter storms in the forecast? If nothing else it would surely be an adventure. We set our alarms and drifted off to sleep for a few hours.
Peak #1: San Jacinto (10,834’)
We chose to tackle San Jacinto on Day 1 via the Marion Mountain trail (11.5 miles round trip with 4,600’ of elevation gain). The conditions on our ascent were glorious: sunny skies, warm temps, and lots of snow.
With fresh legs and full of giddiness, we trudged through the wet snow and gained the summit in just a few hours. John Muir notably documented the view from the top of San Jacinto as “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on earth!” I have yet to confirm or deny this claim, as a sea of clouds rolled in just as we crested the peak. The summit was far from a disappointment though. We were greeted by a crowd of fellow day hikers and PCT thru-hikers. We must have spent an hour chatting with the others on the rocks while indulging in jerky, dried fruit, and trail mix.
Peak #2: San Antonio “Mt Baldy” (10,069’)
The following morning, I woke to the pitter patter of rain drops. I stepped outside to assess the conditions and was greeted with strong blustery winds. Dark heavy clouds engulfed the San Gabriel peaks. It was a snuggle under a blanket, drink tea, read a book kind of day. Venturing up a mountain in these conditions seemed ludicrous. I told Ken I would be happy to sit this one out, but knew full well he would go up with or without me. Ken whipped us up some breakfast burritos and we sat hoping the storm might let up. It didn’t. Maybe it was the burritos but somehow, I was cajoled into going up the mountain, or at least attempting to. After a few last swings of coffee, we began our ascent up the Ski Hut route (8 miles round trip with 3,900’ of elevation gain). Bundled up beneath our rain gear, light drizzle turned to sleet and then to snow as we snaked up the switchbacks, gaining elevation. Lured by the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls, we found ourselves at the door of the ski hut halfway up the mountain. The hosts ever-so-kindly fed us some hot buttery rolls, lifting our spirits before our final push to the summit. Above the tree line the going got rough. The temperature fell dramatically and the 60-mph whipping wind felt like it could blow me off the mountain at any moment. We inched our way up the last few hundred feet of scree and ice to the summit in white out conditions. With numb toes, fingers, and noses we danced around the summit in total bliss, the pain melting away for just a moment while we soaked it all in.
Peak #3: San Gorgonio “Old Grayback” (11,503’)
Saving the best for last, we chose to ascend San G via the Vivian Creek trail (18 miles round trip with 5,800’ of elevation gain). The brisk pre-dawn air was the wakeup call I needed as I hurled my achy muscles out of the car. It didn’t take long for the adrenaline to coarse through my body, numbing the mental and physical fatigue that had built up over the past two days. There was just enough light reflecting off the fresh blanket of powder for us to forgo headlamps. We stumbled across the rocky Mill Creek flood basin and began up the heart-pounding switchbacks, all the while a wide toothy grin plastered across my face.
I was in the midst of what felt like a sensory euphoria between the pillow-topped trees towering above, the fresh scent of pine and cedar, and the soothing sound of the babbling creek.
Somewhere between Halfway Camp and High Creek Camp, the sun crept over the ridgeline. The warm sunshine, deep blue skies, and calm winds offered a nice reprieve after the madness of the day before.
Upon gaining the ridge, we were rewarded with unobstructed views of San Jacinto towering in the distance along with the surrounding peaks. We geared up for the final exposed traverse and, several false summits later, arrived at the massive boulder pile that marks the true summit.
Over the course of 72 hours, Ken and I successfully conquered the Three Peak Challenge, hiking over 36 miles, climbing upwards of 14,000 feet, and consuming dozens of PB&J sandwiches.