As is typical for me I couldn’t stop fixating on returning to complete the full Cactus to Clouds out-and-back that I had attempted several weeks prior. A slightly late start and Jascha’s injuries led me to shorten my original plans to a Cactus to tram plateau out-and-back. As the target day (14 Nov) approached I saw a cold front approaching and I did not want to be up at 10,000 feet with highs in the 40s. I decided to postpone my trip until the following Tuesday when temps were predicted to warm up again. It had taken me 8:40 for my abbreviated out and back, so I was hoping to do the whole thing in under 13 hours.
I headed down to Palm Springs the night before and hoped that my intermittent insomnia would subside for at least one night. With 50 km and 10,000+ ft of gain ahead of me I needed the sleep. It did not, and I drug myself out of bed at 5:15 am with only a few hours of restless sleep. I arrived at the Museum trailhead just after 6 am with enough light to keep my headlamp in my pack. I borrowed Jascha’s GPS but I suspected that I wouldn’t need it, having just done the Skyline Ridge Route portion in both directions a few weeks prior.
The temperatures were mild and I made good time to the familiar landmarks: the picnic tables, the big horn sheep closure sign, the first glimpse of Coffman’s Crag, and the flat rock. I took mental notes on the places where the trail swung far from the ridge proper so I could ensure I was on track during the dark descent. As before I was glad the striking scenery was there to distract me from the steady grind. If I kept this pace I knew I could make the tram area in 4:30. Unfortunately, my left TFL and calves were screaming and I slowed on the grueling upper section. My time was almost exactly the same as before, 4:53.
I made a beeline for the Long Valley ranger station for my self-service permit. Having a copy of the San Jacinto park map was helpful, as there was no sign coming off of Skyline Route directing you to the ranger station and not all of the trail junctions mention San Jacinto Peak. The fresh looking tourons were coming off the tramway, oblivious that they were blocking off the entire trail perhaps due to altitude stupor. Although my legs would appreciate the gentler grade for the next 11 miles, I knew this would be the mental crux for me as I am not fond of flat, meandering trails.
The route to the summit was slow going and I was not pleased with the long shallow switchbacks. On the final portion I must have passed under the summit at least three times barely gaining any elevation. Finally I hit the talus pile that sits atop the unremarkable summit. I took my requisite summit photo, refilled my hydration bladder, and headed back down. I ran ~2 miles of the descent, not wanting to aggravate my chronic TFL issues before the brutal descent. I reached the top of the Skyline Route just after 3 pm. I knew I had at least 3 hours of technical descent in store, but if I kept the same pace as my previous attempt I could make 13 hours.
The sun was setting quickly and by 3:30 the shadow of the range extended far out into the surrounding valley. I hurried down the trail to get in as much distance as possible before darkness fell. My ascent homework paid off and I wasn’t caught off-guard this time when the trail made significant diversions from the ridgeline. I was feeling surprisingly good and was able to run some of the rolling terrain. At 5:15 I was forced to extract my light. Shortly thereafter I had a close encounter with a thorn bush, which left me with two nice scratches on my face.
After what seemed like ages I finally passed the big horn sheep closure sign. I knew the picnic tables (and trailhead) were not far below. The trail below the picnic tables is the most technical and a particularly punishing finish to the long day. I checked my watch and I was on track for a sub 13 hour finish as long as nothing bad happened. At 6:47 pm I reached the trailhead, 12 hours and 45 minutes after I had started. I hobbled across the art museum parking lot, which was filled with valets and fancy cars for what appeared to be a museum benefit, feeling grimy, worked and completely satisfied.