It was a dark and stormy peak

The 8000m Challenge is an annual event put on by Big City Mountaineers as a fundraiser. They invite all of the outdoor retailers to summit the three tallest peaks in Southern California, Mt. Baldy (San Antonio), San Gregorio, and San Jacinto. Also known as the Three Saints, all three peaks are in about an hour’s drive of each other. The challenge is in summiting all three peaks in 24 hours. You start at 05:00, and have until 05:00 of the next day to finish. There’s a catch, though: you have to make it to the third mountain by 20:00 to catch a tram that will bring you to the base camp. Over all the challenge is about 38 miles.

I’ve tried to participate in the challenge the past two years. The first year I had something come up and wasn’t able to attend at all. Last year I injured myself right before the event and had to bow out. This year I was finally able to compete. Just in time, too, as my endorsement program will be finishing up in March-ish, and, as I don’t know where I’ll end up, this could be my last chance at finishing.

We had a total of four members on our REI Marina team this year, two hikers and two drivers. They made sure that our packs were ready for each mountain, that we had food and water, and would drive us to each of the peaks, and finally back home to Monterey after we had finished. The challenge started on Thursday, September 4th, so we decided to head down on Tuesday to acclimate and, after a late start, we rolled into Manker Flats on Mt. Baldy close to midnight.

The next evening was the welcoming ceremonies for the 8km Challenge. As per usual, there was an excited energy that filled the room when the coordinator stepped up to welcome us to the event and give us an over view of what to expect. This year cut-off times were implements. If you didn’t reach the peak by that time, you’d have to turn around so that you could make the tram to the last mountain. After talking about upcoming ventures, the guest speaker, an ultrathon runner, gave her presentation and Q&A. Around 19:30, we all departed, excited and nervous for the next morning.

It seemed as if no time had passed between going to bed and the alarm sounding at 03:45 Thursday morning. After a quiet breakfast, my hiking buddy and I reviewed our packs and left for the first mountain. All 130 hikers were gathered at the trail head, headlamps on and packs cinched down. And, at 05:00 sharp, the coordinators let loose the floodgates, and we started up the trail. The fastest hikers and runners quickly made their way to the front of the line and left the main group behind while the trail was still wide. After we hit the junction that led to the summit, though, the trail narrowed and hikers could only hike in single file. Slower hikers would step aside to allow faster hikers to pass them by and visa versa. We looked like a bright Congo line as we serpentined up the mountain.

It did not take long for the elevation to kick in. I very rarely get altitude sickness, but I definitely started to feel it there. Even with the extra days, it’s hard to go from 0ft elevation to 11,000ft! I felt short of breath and lightheaded; I perpetually felt like I was going to hurl. Each step I took was heavy, like wading through a pool. I fought my way up the steep slopes, focusing on my goal. My hiking buddy and I took turns leading. All the way my hiking buddy was encouraging, cheering me on and giving me tips.

Mt. Baldy’s terrain was steep and rocky. You had to be careful about your footing so that you would not twist an ankle. This was not the tallest peak, but it is the most technical trail. My climbing pace felt frustratingly slow. I had trained for this, but the altitude was intense. While I had climbed other mountains during the summer, that was after I had spent at least a week at elevation. But, I kept moving. I rarely allowed myself to stop and slowly, I finally made it to the summit at 07:15.

Mt. Baldy’s summit was spectacular. The sun had breached the ridgeline, and the valley we had just skirted lay spread out before us. A brisk, cold breeze washed over us, cooling us after our climb. After checking in with the coordinator at the top, we began our descent with a second wind.

All I can say about Mt. Baldy’s descent is that it was tons of fun! It, coupled with the view from the top, made the climb all worthwhile. I ran down the mountain, leaping from boulder to boulder, and taking advantage of the banked corners. I didn’t race down it as fast as I used to, because I had to be conscious of my feet. If I pushed it too much my feet would give our due to my tendinitis and planter’s fasciitis, and I wouldn’t be able to continue the challenge. Despite my care, I did catch myself once on a rock and pitched forward. I caught myself, but I found out later that I had scratched and bruised up my knee. Pulling myself up, I continued onwards, and we made it off the mountain at about 08:35.

Our drivers had the car prepped and ready to go, with our new bladders full and food on our seats. My hiking buddy and I were hungry, and knew that we had to pack away calories for the next mountain, but we were over bars. I tried my best to eat my Cliff bar, but it was completely unappetizing after all the bars I had eaten on Mt. Baldy. My hiking buddy felt the same way, and we decided that it was mandatory that we make a quick detour to a fast food joint. After quickly consulting Google Maps, my hiking buddy picked out a nearby McDonald’s. Our driver did not hear the name of the exit. As the exit was approaching, she merged over to pass a car, and then returned in to the carpool lane. My hiking buddy cried out in horror as he watched the exit pass him by, and held his head in his hands. Needless to say, our driver made sure to stop at the next closest Carl’s Junior, where my hiking buddy got his burgers and I got my lemonade.

San Gregorio is the tallest and longest peak. It is about an 18 mile trek to the summit, though it is not as steep at Mt. Baldy. One of the most difficult things about the trail is that there are three false peaks right before hitting the summit.

We headed down the trail for about a quarter mile before we began our climb up the switchbacks to pass over the first ridge and into the mountain range. As with Mt. Baldy, my uphill pace was much slower than is typical of me, but we used my hiking buddy’s GPS watch to help keep our pace steady so that we would reach the summit in time to catch the last tram for the third mountain.

After about four miles my feet began to act up. I varied my pace, increased my water intake, and kept going, but they continually got worse. By this time I really should have turned around, but I had psyched myself up for this the past couple of years, and knew that, physically, I was in shape to finish. Except for my feet. My reasoning was that I didn’t want my feet to stop me from doing what I love, that is, hiking ridiculously long miles on hard, technical trails. And so I kept going.

As I continued forward, not only did my feet continue to get worse, but my hip and knee where I had fallen on Baldy also began to act up. I had slowed to a snail’s pace, but took advantage of flats and slight downhills to make up for it. Continuing forward, I knew that I could make the summit.

It had been pretty warm for most of the hiking, but as we were coming up on the first false peak the temperature began to cool and a light cloud cover blocked the sun. We didn’t think anything of it, and were grateful for the break in temperature. A few miles more and we had broken through the tree line and were on the exposed ridge when it began to rain. After a time, the rain began to turn to hail, and suddenly the light cloud cover turned dark, and a downpour of hail the size of peas came down, and then the thunder started, first in the distance, but quickly made its way to us. This sudden onslaught gave us pause, but when we saw our first lightning, we turned tail and began to run down the mountain into the cover of trees. The storm got worse and worse, and the hail came down heavily. Soon my arms and neck were covered in small, red welts from the hail. The thunder cracked directly above us, and lightning bolts came crashing down less than a hundred yards away. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

As my hiking buddy and I were sprinting for the first cover, I miss-stepped in my rush and put too much weight on my left foot, causing it to go out, pitching me forward and over onto my back. My backpack got stuck in the hail that covered the ground, and I couldn’t get up. After several failed attempts, I rolled myself over and pulled myself up, racing for the cover of trees. Before long, more people joined us, and we did everything we could to race down the mountain and out of the storm.

The storm was terrifying, awe-inspiring, and beautiful. The raw power that surrounded us was breathtaking, and you couldn’t help but be stunned by it. As I was running down the mountain, watching the lightning get closer and closer, I had four thoughts run through my mind. The first was that if I were to die on the mountain, that REI Marina would have to hire a new Sales Lead, and I wondered who that would be. The second was that I was pretty sure I knew exactly where my fleece back home was. As I contemplated my situation, I quickly realized that I could die up here on the mountain, but as soon as I thought that I decided that I refused to die on the mountain.

Our small group made it to the cover of trees, but we weren’t out of trouble yet. We had trouble keeping to the trail as hail covered it like a thick layer of snow. By this time most of us were completely soaked through, and the temperature was quickly dropping. We had to get off the mountain fast so we wouldn’t get hypothermia. After a reminder, we made sure that we ate to help keep warm and had to keep moving. If I stopped, even more a moment, my teeth would start chattering.

Thanks to the adrenaline running through my system I couldn’t feel any pain. I knew it was there, but I was too preoccupied with being cold to care. I kept moving as quickly as I could, gripping my trekking poles to try to increase circulation in my hands. My hands were almost completely numb, and my legs and arms were slowly losing sensation. I kept my focus on the trail, and pictured a hot coffee and shower at the other end of the trail.

When we first began our climb San Gregorio was dry. There was only one creek that had water in it. Now, as we descended, all of the creeks were swollen, and we had to take care of flash floods. The trail, being the path of least resistance, had turned into something of a creek itself, dislodging rocks and eating up the trail. As I continued down, I knew that if there was a flash flood, it would head straight for us, but we had no other way of getting down the mountain.

After a time, the rain started back up, this time accompanied by wind. Each turn I made seemed to pull me into the full brunt of the wind, chilling me. All the while I kept my eyes focused on the trail. I had to keep moving, no matter what.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, we dipped down into lower elevation and the temperature began to rise. It felt like my body began to defrost as I slowly regained feeling in my extremities. It felt a joy to be able to feel my fingers again. Unfortunately, as I grew less numb, all of my pain returned. My feet were pretty much dead after pushing myself so hard to get off the mountain. I felt shooting pain with each step I took. I also had tweaked my shoulder worse than I thought, and I could barely grip my trekking pole, much less put weight on it. My feet gave out several times on the hike down. Once my hiking buddy grabbed my backpack to keep me from falling, but the other times I caught myself with my trekking poles, inflaming my already hurt shoulder. As a result, I supported myself with my right trekking pole, over exerting my right shoulder, too.

As we neared the trail head, our radio buzzed. Our drivers had heard about the storm and were very worried about us. Upon finishing the last switchbacks and turning back towards the check-in point, we found a group of firefighters waiting for us. After making sure we were okay, they asked us if we had seen anyone else on the mountain, before sending us to the check-in.

Everyone waiting by the check-in cheered as we came into view at 18:35, relieved that yet another group had made it off the mountain in one piece. Our driver wrapped a towel around me as I double-checked that we had been checked in. Then my hiking buddy and I hurriedly changed into dry clothes and I pulled on my thick puffy. It was around 85 degree out, but I was very, very cold. I kept adding on layers as we ate. We were done with mountains, the cold, and the 8000 m Challenge. We were both tired of being cold, and wanted nothing more than a hot shower and real bed. The last mountain we summated was the third floor of a La Quinta in San Bernardino.

The next morning around 0930 Our driver received a phone call from our store. There was a miscommunication with the 8km Challenge coordinators, and our team had never gotten checked-in after San Gregornio. They were about ready to send out a search and rescue team to find us.

And now, two strained shoulders, strained feet and tendons, and a scratched and bruised knee later, I am very thankful to be alive.

When I got back I did some research about what to do when caught in a storm. Do not take shelter under any lone objects, like trees or picnic tables. It is better to take shelter in a short stand of trees, but take care not to touch the trees. Lightning will more likely strike the tallest object, and the current can be conducted down the tree and into you. If you are above treeline, like we were, make a bee-line for the lowest area you can reach, preferably an area with shelter and boulders. If your pack or poles have metal in them, keep them at least 100ft away from where you are hunkered down. Metal attracts lightning. If you are in a group, don’t huddle together. This will help prevent multiple casualties if someone IS struck. If there is no shelter available, crouch down on the ground on the balls of your feet.

This experience was a reminder to always hike with your ten essentials, even if you’re only planning a day hike.

1. Navigation

2. Sun protection

3. Insulation

4. Illumination

5. First-Aid supplies

6. Fire

7. Repair Kit

8. Nutrician

9. Hydration

10. Emergency Shelter

This time I had almost all of my ten essentials, but the ones I had left behind were the things I needed the most. The worst part of the story is that I knew better, and usually pack my ten essentials. The one time I didn’t to save some weight and space I almost died. If anything, let this story serve as a lesson to myself and all of you to always be prepared. Nature can be unpredictable and dangerous. This shouldn’t stop you from trekking, but always be prepared.

Here are some good articles that I highly recommend reading:

Storm Safety:

 http://hikingdude.com/hiking-lightning.php

http://sectionhiker.com/lightning-storm-safety-for-backpackers/

Ten Essentials:

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html

Preparation:

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/mountaineering-summit-adventures.html

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