Happy Hiking New Year!
Updated: Jan 8
Date: January 1, 2022
Distance: 13.07 miles
Total Elapsed Time: 7h 29m
Total Moving Time: 6h 46m
Summit Elevation: 6,131 feet
Elevation Gain: 3,359 feet
Trailhead: Oak Grove Trail
January 12, 2021
February 16, 2020
2022 ~ Here Comes the Sun!
"Same-Old, Same-Old" or New Beginnings? 🤔
How about a balanced mix of both? At one level today's hike was just another hike of many that I've completed, adding miles and elevation to my legs. The timing and conditions of this trip spiced things up a bit, but this was my third ascent to the Lookout High Point on Palomar Mountain. Since this was a familiar trail and I'd thoroughly researched current conditions (including snow levels), I really didn't expect any surprises. Both of my previous trips were solo ascents as part of completing the 2020 and 2021San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, today it was cool to hike with friends.
On another level, this WAS about new beginnings, of course, the obvious: the first hike of 2022, starting exactly at 00:00. It'd be easy (and expected) to go on and on about how I'm looking forward to a new year on the heels of the prolonged pandemic blah blah blah, but the reality for me is a bit different. My silver lining of the pandemic was that it provided the opportunity for me to be outside more, solo-hiking (away from people), exploring more of San Diego County in a year and a half than I had experienced in the 20 preceding years I've lived here, and simply enjoying nature. My plan for 2022 is to continue on that theme, exploring new trails and revisiting old favorites. One twist is that this year I'll be balancing my outdoor activities with a return to corporate life and a sharper focus on maintaining that essential work-life balance.
2022 San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge
This marks my third year of participating in the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge. Some people ask why I continue to sign up for and do the same hikes year after year, and pay for the privilege, 😂 when I could just go out and hike them. There are a few reasons; accepting a formal challenge, bragging rights as a finisher, camaraderie with fellow Six-Packers? I dunno, maybe I just like collecting the swag? 🤷🏻♂️
New Year, New Goal: Six Peaks in Less Than 48 Hours
The "new" twist was the goal of completing this year's challenge in less than 48 hours. Last year I completed all six hikes in 5 hiking days (12 calendar days), with this peak being the last one on January 12, 2021. It felt good to finish all 6 hikes in such a short period of time, but I was second on the finisher list! My buddy Phil finished all six in 3 days! 😳 Over the course of last year, we talked about doing all six in one outing and a couple of weeks ago Phil reached out to me to see if I was still on board with the plan. Absolutely!
Despite a significant reduction in hiking miles during 2021 thanks to a complete ACL tear in May, and starting a return to "office life" in July, I jumped at the opportunity for this unique "challenge within a challenge". The plan was simple: complete all six peaks on the San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge in less than 48 hours. Simple. Not Easy. By my calculations, we would hike 52 miles and pick up 13,900 feet of verticle gain. Transitions between trailheads would mean driving time and an opportunity to grab meals and necessary naps.
🙃 Spoiler Alert! I only completed Palomar Mountain High Point (Lookout Tower).
Here's the short version: After finishing this one, I lingered at the trailhead, made my coffee and oatmeal, and wished the rest of the crew well as they headed off toward Hot Springs Mountain. While my heart was in the challenge, my body had the final word. In a nutshell, descending the final 2 miles of single-track from the Oak Grove Fire Road to the trailhead was simply too much for my knee. The smart (and only) play for me was to be grateful for the 7 ½ hours on the trail and call it a day. But I get ahead of myself, let me back up and take you through the trip. I encourage you to keep reading for all the details and my perspective on the trip 😉
Planning for an Epic Adventure
Regardless of how accomplished a hiker you are, all outings require some measure of planning, whether it's a simple day hike on a well-worn trail, a multi-day backpacking adventure, or anything in between. The first piece of the puzzle was the order that we'd approach each hike. Logistics and transition time really drove this decision, so the loose schedule was to tackle all six peaks in the following sequence.
High Point Lookout - Palomar Mountain
Hot Springs Mountain - Los Coyote Indian Reservation
Volcan Benchmark - Volcan Mountain Open Space Preserve
Cuyamaca Peak - Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Corte Madera - Pine Creek Wilderness
El Cajon Mountain - El Capitan Open Space Preserve
The only hard-and-fast time was to meet at the Oak Grove Trailhead at 2330 (11:30 pm for you civilians 🤣) We'd step off exactly at 2400...or as my GAIA GPS App noted 00:00.
Starting about 10 days ago, I began watching the weather forecast on Mountain Forecast, keeping an eye on developing snowstorms. At one point, there were predictions of up to 12 inches of new snow expected to hit above 5,500 feet, adding to the few inches already on the ground. As it turned out, we didn't get any new precipitation, but we all brought microspikes and snowshoes just in case.
Even though we had four in the group and the plan was to hike together, I still opted to carry my usual gear including my 10 essentials. Granted we may not have needed 4 first aid kits (for example) but you just never know what could happen, I'd rather tote a little extra weight and not have to use something, than go light and NOT have something in an emergency.
Perspective is everything, this plan really boiled down to a series of consecutive day hikes with the ability to resupply, change clothes, eat, and nap in between as needed.
Dodge Dakota "Base Camp"
I tossed my sleep system (air pad and sleeping bag) into the back of my truck, with the camper shell on, I had a great place to stretch out and sleep when needed. Since I didn't have to carry it, I tossed one of my comfy bed pillows in for good measure 🙃 I had a full change of clothes that I kept in the truck: top and bottom base-layer, pants, mid-layer fleece, and extra socks. I packed my BearVault bear canister with my usual backpacking fare: coffee, oatmeal, soup, and some entrees. Again, since I wasn't packing the weight on my back, I brought both of my JetBoil stoves, extra fuel, 2 gallons of water, and a few cans of V-8 juice for good measure.
As things turned out, I really didn't need all this, but that cup of hot coffee and bowl of hot oatmeal after changing into dry clothes made the drive home a LOT more comfortable!🥰
20 Pounds, But Who's Counting?
So how did I gear up? I usually don't go into a ton of detail about what's in my pack, but if this is helpful to at least one person, it's a win. If you're a UL-weenie 😂 save your commentary about how I can shave pounds, this isn't a shakedown. It's also worth noting that when I completed the San Diego 100 Peak Challenge, my average pack weight was between 30-35 pounds on any given hike. Most of the time the extra weight was water, but I considered that my "training" weight range.
Pack: 32L Osprey Stratos
3L Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir
1L Hydropak collapsable bottle with Grapefruit Endurolyte Fizz tabs
Backpacking Trowel, mini tissue pack, WAG bag
2-person, 2-Day First Aid Kit
Topo Maps for San Diego County/Backcountry
Extra pair of gloves with waterproof shells
Extra Smartwool Balaclava
Rain jacket (outer shell)/rain pants
Extra pair of wool socks
Orange LED emergency light
Emergency Blanket, Handwarmer packets (2)
Duct tape, extra carabiners, 50' paracord, empty Ziplock bags (large and small)
Food: spam slices, boiled red potato, banana, beef jerky, 2 Kind bars, extra Fizz tabs, Honey Stinger performance chews, almonds
Tubbs Wayfinder Snowshoes
Cascade Mountain Trekking Poles w/snow baskets
Chest Pack: Large Hill People Gear Recon Kit Bag
SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Communicator/PLB
Anker Powercore 26800mAh Backup Battery, 6" micro USB cables, Lightning Cable
Endurolyte Extreme Capsules, chapstick, ibuprofen
Curious George (Trail Buddy) 😉
Notepad, pen, Sharpie marker, lighter, BT Remote for iPhone
2 - USB Rechargeable batteries for Headlamp (NL1834R 3400mAh 18650 Battery)
iPhone X with Quadlock clip, and tether, GAIA GPS App for tracking
Kestrel 2500 Weather Meter
On my body (to start): 32 Degrees lightweight baselayer bottoms, windproof/waterproof fleece-lined pants, Darn Tough hiking socks, Smartwool Intraknit Merino 200 quarter-zip baselayer top, Patagonia mini-puffy jacket (mid-layer), Sitka Storm Gaiters, AKU Alterra GTX Hiking Boot, Dorfman All-Season Crushable Hat, Cold Gear Balaclava, Black Diamond Wind Weight Convertable Mittens, Nitecore HC65 1000 Lumen White/Red/High CRI LED Headlamp, Whoop 4.0 Strap, prescription glasses, and of course, my DonJoy FULLFORCE Ligament Knee Brace.
We were actually geared up and ready to go about 3 minutes before midnight, so there was some shuffling around and joking about "did we REALLY need to start exactly at midnight?" after all it was cold, and we were ready. But, we putzed around enough to make it work, I clicked the RECORD button on my GAIA GPS just as it turned to 00:00, and off we went.
I did have to dial back the intensity of my headlamp at the start, my Nitecore H65 has 5 brightness levels ranging from 1 lumen to 1,000 lumens, this picture was taken at the middle setting of 550 lumens (2h 45m avg burn time) and it was just a little too much, so I dropped it down to 280 lumens (4h 45m avg burn time) which worked out fabulously. I swapped batteries at the turnoff from the fire road on the way back down, with only 2 miles left to go, I wanted to make sure I had good lighting for the descent on the single-track section. I was very impressed to get 6h 15m of burn time and still have battery life left!
Tweaking the Knee Brace
Given the scope of our plan, 52 miles with 13,900 feet of vertical gain, AND we'd experience snow on at least half of our hikes, I had to wear my FULLFORCE brace, it was non-negotiable. I've been doing a lot of survey mark hunting trips and small hikes without it and have been fine, but with the magnitude of what we faced and all the things that could go wrong with trail conditions and fatigue, I didn't hesitate to strap it on and snug it up tight before leaving the house.
The first few miles wearing the brace is always an adjustment period, it moves around a bit and settles in while I get used to the limited range of motion that is going to protect me from hyperextension and lateral pressure. As we worked our way up the single-track, I realized that I'd tightened the brace down too much when I put it on, the lower strap was uncomfortably digging into my shin and I swear my foot was going numb 😬 I let the others know that I had to stop and make an adjustment and I'd catch up.
This stop may have been my longest single pause on the trail, I had to drop my pack, remove my gaiter, drop my pants to my ankles to access the brace (I was wearing minus 32º baselayer pants, so I didn't freeze my 🍑 off 🤪), then I made the necessary adjustments to the strap system, re-dressed, and geared up again. The good news was that the adjustments worked and it was like instant relief. I quickly caught up with Sierra and we pressed onward and upward.
Simple. Not Easy.
Most hikes can be described as simple, but not easy. Simple, in that, all you need to do is follow the trail from bottom to top, turn around and follow it back. This particular trail was more than 75% on a graded fire road, so even more straightforward. The catch today would be the first two miles of single-track in the dark, snow and ice on the upper reaches of the trail, and below-freezing temperatures.
The hike starts out on the Oak Grove Trail (2E03) next to the U.S. Forest Service Oak Grove Fire Station, across SR 79 from the Oak Grove Campground. The Oak Grove Trail, the oldest established trail in the Palomar Ranger District, is a steep, 2-mile single-track trail that ultimately connects to the Oak Grove Truck Trail. This section of trail is a challenge in good weather and full daylight as you gain more than 1,400 feet in about a mile and a half. The trail is narrow, has a mix of rocky and sandy sections that are rarely level, and just seems to go on forever. During one of our brief pauses on this section, I was starting to sweat through my base layer, so I pulled on my puffy jacket to stay warm.
Hiking at night has a way of messing with your senses, even on familiar trails, I kept thinking the junction with the truck trail was just around the next corner, but it seemed to take forever to reach it. We regrouped at the road where Phil and Kayla were waiting for us.
Forest Road Designations
In the dark, you just follow the road up, it's actually pretty straightforward with only a couple of places where you could potentially take a wrong turn. From the Oak Grove Truck Trail (USFS Road 9S09), the route continues on for 3.5 miles where it terminates at High Point Road (8S05). During the daylight hours, when weather conditions permit, it's not uncommon for the gate at this point to be open to vehicle traffic, definitely not something we had to worry about this morning! Here you keep going straight (west) on High Point Road (taking the right branch heads north and would ultimately take you back to SR 79. Further up the road, you'll pick up the Palomar Divide Truck Trail (9S07) which turns into High Point Lookout Road (9S07A) as you near the summit. There are plenty of USFS route markers along the road, especially at junctions with other roads but I think it's a good idea to know where you are.
At the 4.1 mile point, and about 5,200 feet of elevation, we started to encounter ice and snow. You could tell we were getting close to "spike" time as the dirt road was getting more firm under our feet. We found a downed tree along the road and sat down to pull on our micro-spikes. I took this opportunity to pull on my outer layer (rain jacket), it wasn't raining or snowing, but the winds were picking up and due to the energy I was expending, I had sweat through both my base layer and mid-layer so it was very important to trap my body heat to avoid hypothermia.
Invest in a good base layer. During cold weather activities, this can make the difference between being miserable or comfy-toasty, and in many cases can be a lifesaver by preventing hypothermia. I have a few mild-weather base layer tops that are designed more for wicking moisture than for providing warmth. For this trip, I purchased my first Smartwool Intraknit Merino 200 long-sleeve, quarter-zip, top. It was AH-MAZING. Soft and designed with special attention to fit at the elbows and shoulders, this was incredibly comfortable.
I noticed the true benefit was once I started sweating, the natural properties of wool allowed me to retain heat, even when the shirt was wet. As I noted above, when the temperature dropped I added my puffy jacket and ultimate my rain shell to block the wind but was never cold despite both my base layer and puffy jacket being soaked!
Yeah, it was expensive, and I initially balked at the $130 price tag, but in retrospect, it was worth every penny. For base layer bottoms, I picked up a 2-pack of 32 Degrees lightweight base layer pants from Costco for about $15 and they worked absolutely fine, so there you go.
Fully geared up with spikes and outer shell, it was now just a matter of grinding out the remaining 2.5 miles to the summit. We had all brought snowshoes just in case we encountered deep snow, but given the conditions, they weren't necessary.
Working our way up the High Point Lookout Road, the winds had picked up significantly and it had gotten foggy, a lot of that last stretch was like driving in the fog with your high beams on so I had to keep my headlamp focused on the ground. As we rounded the last turn just below the tower, we could see Phil and Kayla's headlamps above us. Sierra and I reached the summit at 0413, Phil and Kayla had arrived about 15 minutes earlier. They had dropped their packs and were sheltered behind the building to stay out of the wind. Given the conditions, the traditional summit selfie was out of the question, but after a few attempts at backlighting with headlamps, we were able to get these summit pictures. (The first pic was an unfiltered attempt at a group shot with the summit sign, that's pretty much what it looked like with the naked eye and minimal lighting)
I took a couple of screenshots of my GAIA GPS to document my elapsed time on the trail, feet of vertical gain, the elevation of the summit, and mileage to that point. Usually, when I prep for these photos I will remove all of the informational layers so there is only one base layer visible in GAIA, this helps to show the peak and the trail more clearly. I will also "hide" my waypoints and waypoint labels as well as previous tracks, to declutter the screen, but it was too damn cold to mess around with that 🤣
So what you see in the first image below are side-by-side captures once I arrived at the summit, the blue background is the snow depth map layer, the second image is the snow depth legend from GAIA, and the final image is the ambient temperature reading from my Kestrel weather station just before we left the summit at 0420, I did check the windchill next, and it was at 20.7º but I didn't snap a picture of it.
💥This was a record for me, Shortest Time Spent on a Summit: 7 minutes! ❄️🥶 🤪
Analyzing my trip data, it had taken me 4h 13m to reach the summit and I completed my descent almost an hour faster, getting back to the truck in 3h 15m. The snow portion of the descent was by far the easiest and fastest and I was happy that we were making up some time. At this point, physically, I was feeling good and was mentally preparing for Hot Springs Mountain, our next peak.
Phil and Kayla were consistently a little faster than us, but we caught up with them when they had stopped to remove their spikes, we did the same as we transitioned from snow and ice to dirt. This was also when we began to see the stars again, at higher elevations the mixture of fog and cold temperatures really limited visibility.
Our next milestone was to reach the turnoff onto the Oak Grove Trail, at that point, we knew we'd only have 2 miles to go. I would have thought that once on the road, we'd be able to pick up the pace even more, however, I found I had to be more cautious about picking my route due to loose rocks, the pitch, and ruts in the road. Too, the sustained pounding on the hard-pack was starting to irritate my knee, and the downward pressure was driving the bottom edge of my brace into my shin. Despite the brace padding and my base layer, I ended up with a substantial bruise on my shin that took several days to heal.
The Turning Point
Once again, a literal and figurative reference. We reached the Oak Grove Trail turnoff at 0615, which meant only had 2 miles to go! YAY! At this point, I was thankful that we'd reached the trail because it meant our pace would be governed by the terrain (we'd have to slow down) and that might give my knee a respite from the continual pounding of the fire road walk. I also knew this section of the trail was far more technical and there were more opportunities to slip and fall.
The upside was that the sky was beginning to lighten up and I knew we should be in a good spot on the trail to catch the first sunrise of the New Year.
Honestly, it only took a few hundred yards on this section of the trail to solidify my decision NOT to continue on to Hot Springs Mountain with the rest of the crew. Every step I took was painful and when my right hip started to ache, I had to consciously fight the compensations I was making to favor my left knee.
This was my third trip on this route, both of my previous hikes were during daylight and I had perfect visibility of the trail at all times. It is totally different hiking under headlamps, the world seems smaller and more vast all at once. Views are limited to the edges of your headlamp beam, and then it's just darkness. As we hiked to the summit, the beam from my light reflecting off the ice crystals was so freaking cool it is hard to describe (and impossible to capture with my iPhone camera). On our way down we caught the sun coming up and the views were simply amazing.
On the descent of the Oak Grove Trail, I noticed how different plants and lichens responded to my light. Manzanita leaves, for example, lit up like they had their own light source! As with the sparkly ice crystals, I didn't think I could successfully capture the magic, but I tried!
Relive® 3D Video of The Hike
Outcomes and Mindset
Yes, part of me felt bummed that I only completed the first of six hikes, especially since I figured my likely threshold would have been 3 or 4 (based on sleep deprivation 😳) But I know and respect my limits. And while, in our meme-centric, performance-driven world, lots of ridiculous catchphrases come to mind "No Pain, No Gain", "Failure is Not an Option", "Suck it Up Buttercup" (and they continue ad nauseam), I was very content with my decision to stop.
This hike was a huge success for me personally; it was the longest hike, with the most elevation gain that I have done since completely tearing my left ACL on May 31, 2021.
While I am pretty consistent with posting these "Stats" images on my social media, I rarely include them in my trip reports. However, this may provide some insight into the data that I track for each of my hikes. I use the GAIA GPS App (premium) as my primary GPS tracking tool for hikes, it is just an incredibly capable tool. In the images below you can see that I have the snow depth map layer enabled. As I mentioned above, I was mindful to start recording at 00:00 ⏱😉.
Actually, for me, several months "post-injury", an average moving speed of 1.7 mph is pretty much spot-on. Surprisingly, looking back at my historical data, my average speed in 2020 was 1.9 mph, and in 2021 was 1.6 mph 🤔 Of course, when I solo hike, I have LOTS more Non-Moving Time because I visit with other hikers, look for survey marks, enjoy leisurely meals, etc.
My wearable tech is a Whoop 4.0 strap which is absolutely amazing. My HR ❤️ profile below paints a good picture of how much work this event was for me, bear in mind heart rate numbers are relative, an avg HR of 112 for me is pretty close to 70% of my MHR of 160 (using the simple formula where MHR equals 220 minus your age). From the last graphic, you can see that I came very close to my maximum heart rate while climbing up the Oak Grove Trail, and I spent almost half of my total time (3h 27m) at 60-70% of my MHR (YAY! Fat Burning Zone!🤪)
Disclaimer: I do have an affiliate link where you can get a free WHOOP 4.0 and your first month free when you join with my link. Click 👉🏻 HERE 👈🏻 to take advantage of that deal.
BTW, For those that weren't following me back when I had my slip and fall in the desert on Memorial Day last year, you can read all about that craziness in my article Coach Dale: 0 Desert: 1 Note: I opted not to have ACL reconstructive surgery, so I will likely be dealing with some permanent limitations based on my choices🤷🏻♂️).
I know I mentioned this before, but this was my first snow hike ❄️❄️of this winter hiking season, and it was great to hike with friends 🥰.
That's A Wrap!
Well, sort of 😂 Yes, I still have five hikes left to do on this Challenge, but it took me a couple of days to fully recover from pulling an all-nighter and from the physical stress on my knee, but the mountains will always be there.
On a closing note, I do want to give a shout-out to my friends, they are total Rockstars!
Congratulations to Phil and Kayla for completing the full San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, a total of 52.2 miles and 13,865 total feet in elevation gain in 35 hours 48 minutes. This included breaks during each hike, travel to and from each trailhead, and a couple of much-needed power naps along the way.👏🏻👍🏻 This was not a walk in the park for them by any means, but they persevered, kudos to them for their determination and pure grit.
Kayla went on to finish Hot Springs Mountain despite tweaking her Achilles tendon descending on the Oak Grove Trail. Again, another display of grit, but I feel she totally made the right decision to end with two peaks in the bag.
I am looking forward to heading out tomorrow, January 9th, and teaming up with Sierra to tackle Volcan Benchmark, Cuyamaca Peak, and Corte Madera, my next three peaks in the Challenge. 😊🥾🏔 Stay tuned for that trip report!