The Three Saints Challenge
A few years ago I started hiking all of the high peaks in Southern California. While it might seem that Southern California is a lot of urban trail, we actually have quite a few mountains at and above 10,000 feet. In fact, two years ago I decided I would hike the six highest: Mt Wilson, Cucamonga Peak, Mt San Bernardino, Mt San Antonio (aka Mt Baldy), Mt San Jacinto and Mt San Gorgonio, one after another, one per week for six weeks. It was also then that I decided… why not do three of them in one day; 24 hours. Honestly, it sounded fun. I knew it was and would be a challenge, but I am one of those people that is always up for a challenge.
The three peaks I would be doing in one day (24 hours straight) would be the three highest here in Southern California: Mt San Antonio 10,069ft, Mt San Jacinto 10,833ft and the toughest of them all being Mt San Gorgonio 11,503ft. The three of them make up what is called the Three Saints and are also known as the 8K Meter Challenge, as they all total 26,246 total feet of climbing, ascent and descent.
At midnight on October 3rd we started. I was already tired at the start, as I am not someone who sleeps during the day. We started with the highest peak and hiked all night through some very windy conditions. This challenge quickly became difficult and was no longer fun. I started dragging behind early on, but didn’t believe at that point, that I was done for. The sun came up as we finished and made our way down. It was a new day and we were off to peak number two.
Hiking, for the most part, is putting one foot in front of the other. I always say to people who are interested in going for a hike… “hiking is walking.” So when my brain and body started to slow on peak 2, San Jacinto, that’s what I told myself. I just kept going. As we made our way past the half way point and to the top of San Jacinto, our team began to disperse. This made things mentally tough. And as I dragged along the trail on what was now two day old sleep, I started to do the math in my head on what we had left and I realized that we might not have enough time to finish.
The other factor in completing the Three Saints is driving in between all three peaks. It’s not a traverse. It’s three different peaks and with LA traffic, the timing in between them can also be a factor in your finish time. I think we all knew as we finished San Jacinto we were not going to be able to get to, hike to the top and then finish the third peak in under 24 hours, so, as a group we all called it and went home.
Enter in… October 2017, almost exactly one year later. Leading up to the challenge this time around, I was in charge. Whatever order I wanted to hike these peaks, whatever time I wanted to start, it was up to me. I think that trip planning can make or break any adventure and being the one making these decisions was a huge relief this time around. I decided that we would sleep at the trailhead at Mt San Antonio, then hike San Jacinto, then San Gorgonio.
I trained really hard this time around. There was no way that I was going to find myself doing this again in 2019, for a third year in a row. I dieted. I worked on my cardio. I hiked, a lot. I hiked Mt San Antonio four times leading up to the day of the challenge. I was in great shape and ready to go and get this thing. Then, just two days before we were set to start… I got the flu.
For those of you who don’t know, I have a very weak immune system. I have lupus and also a rare anemia (AIHA) which kills off my red blood cells at an alarming rate. No matter what mountain I’m hiking, I’m already at a disadvantage. In fact, I’m not really supposed to be on these mountains. But, years ago and for many years since, I decided that I would live my life outside of my diagnosis, which led me here… to the mountains.
On Saturday morning after one full day of having the flu I had to tell some people what was going on. Nearly everyone responded with, “I am so sorry…” and I think that they all assumed that my challenge was then over. But, I was still going. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wasn’t going up and going after this thing. So, we rearranged our trip plan and 48 hours before the start I got an IV, some immunity shots, an extra night of sleep and woke up Monday morning ready to go.
We started at Mt San Jacinto on October 16th, 10:34AM. We started San Gorgonio at 4:30PM, a little late, but I wasn’t worried. It was on the way down where we started to slow and I knew that getting to, up and down the last peak was going to be a challenge. Elisabeth, my hiking partner this time around, wasn’t going to come on the last hike so she drove and I sat passenger as I tried to relax by body, and mind before the last climb. I shut my eyes and as I felt us veer off for the exit to the road leading to the trailhead… we were not at the right place. I felt panic. And defeat. It was now 5 AM and we were now still 45 minutes from the trailhead. It was at that moment that I had to start reasoning with myself that I wasn’t going to make it. Again. I also had to decide… was I going to keep going? I was exhausted. And if I was going to keep going… for what?
My very tired mind started doing the math in my head. I was going to start the trail at 5:45AM. I still had to layer up, put my shoes on and fill my bladder with water. Every minute was going to count. As we drove up Mt Baldy Rd I thought, okay… If I can make the peak by 9AM, I can run down. But… my legs. I had already hiked 30 miles. I hadn’t slept for 24 hours. My best time on Mt Baldy during training was 5.5 hours. But that was on fresh legs. I also hadn’t eaten a meal. There had been no time. We reached the trailhead, I jumped out of the car, laced up my shoes, filled my bladder with water… and went. It was 5:50AM.
As I hiked along the first leg, ‘to the notch’ I broke down crying. I was done. I was defeated. I broke. I went over the last few days in my head, the getting the flu, the rearranging of this trip and all of that stress welled up in my eyes. I cried tears of disappointment, which at some point turned into tears of relief. No matter what was going to happen between now and 10:34AM, I still showed up. I didn’t give up and quit when I got the flu. I didn’t not come to the last trailhead when I reasonably knew that I wasn’t gonna make the 24 hour mark, again. I chose to be there, so I decided I would keep hiking.
As I reached the notch the sun came up and I looked down at my watch. I had just set a PR for the first leg of the hike. And that’s when I knew… I can do this thing. As I hiked to the peak the sun lit and moved across the mountain and trail in front of me and it was beautiful. The wind picked up and pushed me around, but I kept going… and going… and going. And I reached the top of the 3rd Saint, Mt San Antonio at 8:45AM and I will never forget the feeling or coming up on that peak sign, knowing… I had made it. I cried tears of joy, recorded the moment, layered down and started down the trail as fast as I could.
I finished the Three Saints at 10:22AM, with twelve minutes to spare. As I finished I didn’t feel triumph or really much of any emotion at all… I had left it all out there on the trail. I was proud, and I was relieved. I also swore that I would never do it again. But that’s the thing about being on these mountains. It’s a love hate relationship, one that inevitably brings out the best in you. As you’re making your way down, having accomplished what had seemed like the impossible, you’re deciding, whats next, because its in that moment where it then feels like… anything is possible.
Video By Elisabeth Ber