Three Saints

Friday, September 14, 2012 

Row 500m
10 Pushups 
10 Leg Swings, all directions
10 GHD Situps
10 GHD Hip Extensions 

30 minutes to establish 1RM Deadlift

1 min max effort Burpees
3 min rest
1 attempt max effort unbroken pull-ups, dips, pushups or muscle-ups
3 min rest
1 mile sprint

Cool Down:
Pike, 60 seconds
Quad on the wall, 30 seconds per side 
Calf Stretch, 30 seconds per side
Pigeon, 30 seconds per side
German Hang, 60 seconds


“Because it’s there” –George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest.

Last week I embarked on an incredible journey as part of team REI Santa Monica on the Jansport 8,000 Meter Challenge (8MC); a 33+ mile, 21 hour time cap, three peak ascent up Mount San Antonio, Mount San Gorgonio, and Mount San Jacinto.  Referred to as the “Three Saints”, they are the high points of the three tallest mountain ranges in Southern California.  The name comes from a mountaineer who used to do all three hikes in one day in order to train for scaling 8,000+ meter peaks in the Himalayas. The 8MC day starts at 5am with an 8 mile round trip hike to the 10,068 foot summit of Mount San Antonio, also known as Mt Baldy.  Even though it’s the shortest hike, the trail is the steepest and the most technical of the three legs.  Then immediately take over an hour drive and hike 16 miles round trip to the summit of 11,503 foot Mount San Gorgonio. The longest hike, it’s not as steep as Baldy but the massive distance and elevation gain make it the hardest leg by far. Make another hour or so drive to the Palm Springs Tram Station, and quickly catch the last PS Tram by 8pm sharp.  If you are late to this tram there is no other way to make it to the trailhead for the last peak and your day is over.  This is the most common way people fail the challenge.  After a 2 mile hike to a campsite where you will spend the night, finish with a 7 mile roundtrip hike up to the 10,834 foot summit of Mount San Jacinto by the 2am cutoff time.  While it’s the easiest leg by far, the midnight hike comes when you are suffering the most.  A crazy feat, the 8,000 Meter Challenge is free for outdoor industry employees and serves as a local fundraiser for Big City Mountaineers, an awesome non-profit program that mentors under-resourced urban teens through one-on-one, weeklong backpacking trips.  (I can’t think of a better way to enrich, broaden, and transform the life of urban teens.  Another reason the program is great is that there is no cost for the kids, the trips are paid for exclusively through fundraisers like this one.)

“You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” –Frank Shorter

All of the above information I literally learned the night before at the carbo-load dinner.  I’m really weird in that I will sign up and train for events but completely block them out of my thoughts in the weeks before, because I hate stressing out about how hard something might be.  It is partly due to the above quote, and looking back this experience did compare in a lot of ways to a marathon.  I personally find it advantageous to overestimate my own abilities, and assume with total confidence that everything will be alright.  If something goes wrong I will deal with it if and when it happens.  All I knew was that I was going to finish the challenge no matter what, and that failure was not an option.  I’m strong enough and in better shape than my teammates, so it would be more a matter of pushing through any pain that hopefully would never arise.  Nervous and excited, armed with my trekking poles, plenty of duct tape, cliff bars, lara bars, jerky, fruit, and coconut water, I was ready to go!

Mount San Antonio

3, 2, 1…GO!  It was 5am and 115 outdoor industry employees armed with trekking poles and headlamps started ascending the switchbacks single file up to Mt. Baldy.  I got 6 hours of sleep and I was in a great mood!  The morning hike was honestly one of the most enjoyable hikes I have ever done.  The light was slowly creeping over the horizon, the zigzagging line of headlamps led the way to the top, and the yellow glow of lights from Azusa could be seen in the valley below.  It wasn’t long before a giant, red sun peaked over one of the mountain ranges and appeared like an enormous fireball in the sky.  I took a couple seconds to soak up the sunrise and appreciate my mood, and came to terms that it would be the last moment like that for the rest of the day.  I was only halfway to the top and I already had a hot spot (rubbing and developing blister) on both of my heels.  I started freaking out, I was only on mile 2 of 34, but some duct tape on both heels solved the problem real quick.  From that point on it was all business.  We reached the top in two hours and seven minutes.  After only eight minutes at the top for check in, photos, and handstands, we were already back  flying down the mountain.  I hate running downhill but we ran the entire 4 miles.  My knees were killing me, and my left arch started hurting badly, but there was no time to stop.  I was getting anxious just thinking about hiking Gorgonio and wanted to get off the mountain as soon as possible.  An hour and five minutes later we were back at our cars.  It took three hours and twenty minutes for the roundtrip and we were stoked!


Everyone was pumped and we felt like we were on top of the world, and that is when we started getting cocky.  Because we were ahead of schedule we made an unscheduled pit stop at the gas station for Slurpees…you read that right, Slurpees.  I am proud to say that I did not partake, but I didn’t rush the group along either.  I don’t know what we were thinking, we still had 25 miles to go including the hardest hike still ahead of us. 

Mount San Gorgonio

In a blink of an eye it was now 11am and we just pulled up to the trailhead for Gorgonio.  The last tram in Palm Springs leaves at 8pm and it takes a little over an hour to drive there, so we set the time to be back at the car by 6:30pm and the turnaround time on the mountain, no matter if you had reached the summit yet or not, for 3:30pm.  That meant we would have only four and a half hours to hike up and three hours to hike down.  Crap, we screwed up badly with the pit stop and this was not going to fun or easy. 

“You are capable of 20 times, at least 20 times, what you think you are capable of.” –Mark Divine, Navy Seal

Gorgonio is actually an impressive and beautiful mountain.  I would love to go back sometime and start very early in the morning so I could actually enjoy it.  The elevation gain is pretty mellow for most of the time and it’s a pleasant hike, but it is never ending.  The forming blisters on my heels started hurting again so I put another layer of duct tape on top of the first layer and kept going.  The pain didn’t get worse but it didn’t get any better either, and it would be an annoying inconvenience for the rest of the day.  I started getting impatient with our ascent and decided to push the pace.  I put my head down, zoned out, and started hiking with a purpose.  I got into the same mindset I do when I run long slow distances.  I don’t want to talk to anyone, I stay focused on the task at hand and do a constant status check on my body to gauge how it is feeling, and then I leave my mind completely free to wander to whatever subject it chooses.  I am completely present and focused on the moment, but I am also completely detached from my body and the hike, daydreaming and thinking about anything and everything.  After a few switchbacks I realized I was panting pretty hard.  Then I realized I could feel my heartbeat through my chest, and that my temples were pounding with a headache on every beat.  I think I took it as a challenge and refused to slow down or stop.  At one of the steepest sections I had to use a strategy I use on the rower and in Crossfit workouts to keep from stopping: counting to ten over and over again.  I did this for probably ten minutes before I got bored and started daydreaming about something else.  The panting, pounding in my temples, and daydreaming would not stop until I reached the summit an hour and half later, at 3:20pm, only ten minutes before the turnaround time!  After checking in and taking some L-Sit photos (there was nowhere to do handstands as the summit is a bunch of jagged rocks) it was straight back down the mountain.  It took us four and half hours to go up and it was looking like we wouldn’t make it back to the car by 6:30pm.  We needed to haul ass.


There is something about reaching the summit that completely rejuvenated me.  I caught my breath, ate some food, and for some reason felt great.  I was full of energy but both of my heels and my left arch were hurting pretty bad.  The downhill destroyed my knees, but just like Baldy, there was no time to waste and I wanted nothing more than to get off of that mountain!  I couldn’t tend to my wounds or complain about the pain.  We ran/walked the entire time and it still took three and half hours to get to the bottom!  But what is crazy is that for me it only felt like an hour.  The pressure of making it to the last tram was so great that time seemed to fly by.  We had come so far and I was going to be pissed off if we missed that last tram.  Like I said before, I was going to finish no matter what, and failure had never even entered my mind.  This was the single hardest hike I have ever done and I was so happy when we finished.  It was 6:54pm and we flew out of that parking lot like our lives depended on it.   

Mount San Jacinto

I put my seatbelt on and let my coworker go 95 mph on the 10 freeway towards Palms Springs.  Based on our current speed, google maps said we would get there with five minutes to spare.  People warned us that the last tram left at 8pm sharp, and they weren’t kidding.  We got to the parking lot with exactly five minutes to spare and they were already making announcement on the PA system, “5 minutes until departure….4 minutes until departure…3 minutes until departure…”.  We grabbed all of our stuff, ran frantically through the parking lot, through the lobby to the ticket counter, bought our tickets and then ran to the gate.  With gigantic smiles on our faces we walked on to the tram, welcomed by huge cheers from forty other participants inside as the doors closed behind us.  It was a crazy adrenaline rush, and way too close for comfort. 

“The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” –John Muir

The tram up to 8,500 feet is quite a sight to see at night.  Within minutes the entire Coachella Valley is shrinking beneath you and lit up like a bustling city.  The ride is smooth and peaceful and you can see for miles in every direction.  Once at the top we tended to our wounds and regrouped before the final hike.  My heels were killing me but I was too scared to take off the tape to find out what was going on underneath.  I decided to put on two more layers of duct tape, for a grand total of four layers.  It didn’t help at all and every step felt like small needles going into the back of my heels.  It was nighttime and getting colder every second, everyone was hurting, and the adrenaline from making the last tram had long since worn off.  We were moving super slow at this point, at a snail’s pace of 2 mph!  An hour later we reached our campsite and took a food break before the final ascent.  It was now 11:30pm and we only had 3.5 miles left to go!

“The summit is just a halfway point.” –Ed Visteurs

This hike is ridiculously easy, but at that point I was just tired, cold, in pain, and just plain cranky.  I couldn’t help wishing that I had dropped out and just gone to bed.  But I was past the point of no return and on autopilot, trying to distract myself from the fact that I would be hiking for three more hours before I could go to bed.  At the very top I started getting so tired that I almost fell over three times in a row because I was literally falling asleep while standing up.  It was so bad that I had completely forgotten that my heels were screaming with every step.  Our pace was consistent and we hit the top at 1am exactly, one hour before the cutoff time!  We did it!  The Challenge was completed, high fives were given, and photos taken! But the summit was only the halfway point.  We were all hurting badly and took a much needed thirty minute break before descending.  The downhill destroyed my knees and tortured my left arch for a third and final time.  I was freezing cold, and the last mile was the longest mile in life.  I timed it; it took thirty minutes and seemed to never end.  Finally done and back at camp, I discovered I forgot to bring my sleeping pad.  It was 3am and I had been up for 23 hours.  At that point nothing else mattered except for the safe haven and sanctuary of deep sleep and relaxation.  I got into my sleeping bag without any pad or pillow, felt the rocks poking against my back, and faded away as soon as my eyes closed.



“Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize, just as I did, that there’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path”. –Morpheus, The Matrix

Above I tried to give an honest and detailed account of my trip so you could see what was going on inside my head at any given moment.  Although it may seem like an awful experience, I had an amazing time.  Talking with one of my teammates about it two days after, we were both beaming with huge smiles, both admitting that we would probably do it again.  Why?  We have no idea.  I wanted to give up so badly while hiking Jacinto from sleep deprivation.  One teammate threw up multiple times on Gorgonio from altitude sickness.  Another teammate looked like she was about to pass out on top of Jacinto, and took thirty minutes longer to descend than I did.  With that being said, I firmly believe everyone in the gym would have completed this Challenge.  Physically you are all capable, there is no doubt about that.  The Challenge is simply a mental test to see how much you are willing to suffer and what you are willing put your body through.  Just like a marathon, after the pain subsides and the soreness passes, you feel fulfilled by your accomplishment and only remember the good parts of the trip: the night views from Baldy and Jacinto, the obligatory gymnastic holds on each summit, the laughs and shared misery with teammates, making the last tram with seconds to spare…What an epic day!  I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did!

[Total Food Consumed:  11 Cliff Builder Bars, 2 Packets of Jerky, 3 Bananas, 6 Pears, 1 Avocado, 2 Handfuls of Mixed Nuts, 2 Lara Bars, 1 Cup of Chicken Noodle Soup]
[Total Liquid/Electrolytes: 5-6 Liters of Water, 2 Coconut Water, 6 Salt Stick electrolyte pills]

Now it’s your turn to “walk the path”!  A Mt. Baldy morning hike is currently in the works.  Post interest to comments below!

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