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 above 10,000 ft. I said to myself, “Why not hike three of them in 24 hours?” Honestly, it sounded a fun challenge.
Two years ago, I tried and failed the Three Saints Challenge. Hiking, for the most part, is putting one foot in front of the other. So when my brain and body started to slow on the second peak, that’s what I told myself. I just kept going. We summitted two of the three peaks in 24 hours when my team and I realized we would run out of time if we attempted the final peak.
Almost exactly one year later, we tried again. 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 Mt. San Jacinto, then Mt. 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. Then, just two days before we were set to start I got the flu.
When I was younger, I was diagnosed with lupus and a rare anemia (AIHA) that kills off my red blood cells at an alarming rate. 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 Three Saints Challenge.
On Saturday morning after one full day of the flu, I had to tell someone what was going on. I think they all assumed my challenge was over. But I was still going. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wasn’t getting 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, at 10:34 AM. We started Mt. San Gorgonio at 4:30 PM. A little late, but I wasn’t worried. It was on the way down where we started to slow, and I knew that getting 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. She drove and I sat passenger trying to relax my 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, I knew we were not at the right place. I felt panic and defeat.
It was now 5:00 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 if I was going to continue. I was exhausted.
My very tired mind started doing the math in my head. I was going to start the trail at 5:45 AM. I still had to layer up, put my shoes on, and fill my hydration pack with water. Every minute was going to count. As we drove up Mt. Baldy Road I thought, “Okay, if I can make the peak by 9:00 AM, I can run down. But my legs.” I had already hiked 30 miles. I hadn’t slept in 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 hydration pack with water, and started my ascent. It was 5:50 AM.
As I hiked along the first leg, I broke down crying. I was defeated. I went over the last few days in my head, getting the flu, rearranging 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 10:34 AM, 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 going to 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 personal record for the first leg of the hike. And that’s when I knew I could do this thing. As I hiked to the peak, the sun lit the trail in front of me. 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 third Saint, Mt. San Antonio at 8:45 AM. And I will never forget the feeling of 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 10:22 AM, with 12 minutes to spare. As I finished I didn’t feel triumphant, or really much 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 what’s next, because it’s in that moment it feels like anything is possible.
Ambassador Nicole Brown