Report for those with twitter attention span:

3 Peaks; 38 miles hiked; 13,000ft elevation gained; 23h 31m start to finish. Done.

Full story if you have the time and interest:

The southern Californian outdoor equipment store chain Adventure 16 posted the "3-Peak Challenge". This challenge involves hiking the 3 high points of the 3 highest mountain ranges of southern California:

  • San Bernardino Mountains with Mt. San Gorgonio (11,503 ft / 3,506 m)
  • San Jacinto Mountains with Mt. San Jacinto (10,843 ft / 3,305 m)
  • San Gabriel Mountains with Mt. San Antonio (better known as Mt. Baldy) (10,068 ft / 3,069 m)

They offered prizes depending on the time frame in which the 3 hikes were completed (3 month, 3 weeks, 3 days or 24 hours). Naturally my hiking friends and I focused on the 24 hour time frame ;) We have hiked these mountains numerous times from various directions and thought this was an interesting idea and a good hiking challenge.

We quickly started organizing and came up with a group of 5-6 people who were serious about this challenge. Unfortunately injury and other commitments interfered for most. We put the plans on hold for some other time. Then, on another hike, the subject came up again and Matt and I "spontaneously" decided to give it a try the very next weekend. This meant, however, that we could not use the suggest easiest trails: Ski Hut, Vivian Creek, Tram + tram trail. The reason is that getting permits for Vivian Creek for a weekend hike in summer with less than a week notice is very difficult.

Matt picked me up Friday night after work and we headed up to Baldy Village to stay with a friend in his cabin. This would give us at least a night at some elevation (6,000 ft) rather than coming from sea level just before the hike. It also meant that we would get a fresh start since we were only a few minutes from the trail head. Upon our arrival my friend fed us a big carb load dinner.

Mt. Baldy
Mt. Baldy via Ski Hut trail:

  • Distance hiked: 7.9 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3,900 ft
  • Time on trail: 3h 45m
  • Time up: 2h 8m
  • Time on peak: 9m
  • Time down: 1h 29m

The next morning we took our time getting up and having a big breakfast (again provided by my generous friend!). We had set the starting time to 9:30am. We arrived at this time by planning to be on San Jacinto at sunrise and then having 3h to get down from there to the truck. Just after 9am we drove up to the trail head to get ready for the hike. At the parking area we met Jack and John, a couple of our hiking friends, who had decided to hike Baldy that day and timed it so that they could give us a send off.

We all started at the gate at 9:36 and hiked together up to the turn off for Register Ridge. Here we continued up the Ski Hut trail and the others took the steep ridge, but not before sending us on our way with some encouraging and motivating well wishes (I used that memory later in the adventure to keep me going). Matt and I made good speed and reached the peak at 11:44. We quickly took our pictures and headed back down. On the way down we took a few minutes at the Ski hut to replace and replenish our water with ice cold spring water from the faucet inside the hut. The hut is not always open, but when it is I always stop to get some of that spring water. We were back at the truck at 13:21.

We took our sweaty shirts off, changed from boots to sandals, grabbed some food out of the cooler and headed out to the next trail head. During the roughly 1h 45m drive we snacked and took in some liquids. We arrived at the South Fork trail head at around 15:15. We took our time getting ready and hit the trail at 15:52. Total transition time: 2h 31m, about 30m longer than in the original plan. On the other hand we were over an hour ahead of the plan on the Baldy hike.

Mt. San Gorgonio
Mt. San Gorgonio via South Fork, Dollar Lake Saddle Trail:

  • Distance hiked: 19 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4600 ft
  • Time on trail: 8h 20m
  • Time up: 4h 29m
  • Time on peak: 21m
  • Time down: 3h 30m

Even though the trail offers a lot of shade and the sun was already pretty low it was quite warm and my shirt was quickly soaked. Normally this is no problem. This time was different though and I had not planned for it. When we reached Dollar Lake Saddle and the sun was less than an hour from setting I started to get cold during our little break at the saddle. I took the shirt off and put a light fleece sweater on for the break. After the break, however, I did not feel like getting into that cold/wet shirt again. I was worried that I would get cold, hypothermia can set in quickly and be very dangerous up here far away from help. So I started hiking in the fleece. Well, just a few minutes into the hike I warmed up and was in danger of soaking the fleece also. This was not an option since it was the only insulating layer I had with me. With this layer also wet I would have been left with my thin wind breaker and that would be playing with luck since the peak is often quite windy. There was only one solution to the issue: hike shirtless. Which I did. It was quite pleasant to soak up the last sun rays for the day as we climbed on. As we reached the windy ridge below Mt. Jepson I put the fleece back on.

At around 10,500 ft I started to feel the elevation and had to slow down. Matt, who never seems to be effected by the elevation, patiently slowed down also. I had been up here twice before this year without any issue, but now when it counted I was at less than 100%. I kept pushing and we reached the peak at 20:21. Over to the east of us we could see people camping. We took our pictures and rested a little. Then we started our decent. Once below 10,000 ft I started to snack while we walked to get some calories back into the system.

Checking our progress I noticed that we were a bit slower than I had estimated. We concluded that it was due to the nature of the rocky trail. Nothing difficult, but if one can only scan ahead within the cone of light provided of the head light it's harder to walk fast. Also making out the exact shape of the little obstacles on the trail took more concentration than during full day light since the light came only from one direction. This experience was new to me. I have hiked a lot in the dark, but mostly up or on very smooth trails (e.g.Grand Canyon Rim-To-Rim-To-Rim). In those cases this phenomenon was no issue. Maybe it just takes more training.

We finally reached the truck around 0:12, went through the same ritual as after the Baldy hike and drove off to the next hike. I felt good getting into the truck, but then my stomach acted up and I was unable to eat. Fortunately that improved after 30m and I could re-fuel some. Matt was getting very sleepy. We kept each other enertained by talking during the 1h 45m drive to the next trail head. Total transition time: 2h 17m

Mt. San Jacinto
Mt. San Jacinto via Marion Mountain Trail

  • Distance hiked: 11.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4500 ft
  • Time on trail: 6h 38m
  • Time up: 4h 5m
  • Time on peak: 8m
  • Time down: 2h 25m

By the time we hit the trail we had only 7h 7m to complete the challenge within 24h. I was not at all confident that I could pull it off. Matt was also not certain of our success, but he was more optimistic than me. That motivated me. We did not waste our time with discussions on what might happen. We were here, we had made it this far, we were going to give it a serious try! So at 2:29 we started our last hike.

Anyone who has hiked Marion Mountain Trail knows that this trail means business. It starts steep and never really gives a hiker a break. It's also a rough trail with many roots, big rocks, etc. Not something where one can go into cruise mode and just walk up. After an hour I checked the GPS for our progress. I wanted to see our climbing rate. It was quite encouraging at 1,300 ft/h. On Gorgonio Matt had already said he'd prefer not to know too precisely how we were doing, so I kept the details to myself. After 2h we were still climbing at almost that rate. This is when I started to think that we had a shot at this.

Matt is always a good distance ahead of me during our hikes and waits every so often for me to catch up, but usually we just keep on going when I get close or reach him. So I was surprised to see him sit on a log when I reached Little Round Valley and not getting up right away when I reached him. He said he needed a moment and for me to continue he'd catch up. So I went ahead. We had exactly 4h left to get to the top and back down. It would be tight since we had another 1,000 ft to climb. It looked daunting to me at this point. I saw our chances slip. At the bottom of the climb I forced down a gel energy shot, telling myself that this boost would get me there. I also recalled all the encouragement and well wishes we had received from our friends and family. Matt was carrying a "Spot", a locator device that can be used to send location updates to an email list. He had sent a signal from each start, peak, and end of the hikes. I knew people were tracking and rooting for us. So hyping myself up I attacked the last climb as hard as I could. It worked. With every step I was telling myself "I want this" Along the way Matt caught up with me, but did not want to pass as he usually does. I kept on pushing.

At the intersection with the tram trail Matt sat down and said to forget about the 24h and just survive this. With just about 250 feet to climb and a little over 3h to get back down I was not ready to concede just yet. I still felt we had a chance. So Matt decided to just drop his backpack there and make it to the peak. We reached the peak just about 14min after sunrise, our goal. After some quick pics we started back down. We now had just under 3h left. This would be easy for us on a single hike day. Today it was not a given. We made very good progress, having day light helped with the speed. As time went by we got more and more confident that baring an accident we could make it. Which we did. Total time from stepping through the gate at the Baldy trail head to getting back to the Marion Mountain trail head: 23h 31m

I now have a new answer to the question "What is the hardest physical thing you have ever done?"....