Cuyamaca Peak December 2012 Trip Report
© December 2012 Adam Helman

Note: Mouse-click images for enlargement.


As noted in my last Cuyamaca Peak report I shall return to Denali in June 2013. Not wishing to spend gasoline on another 1,000 mile journey to and from Flagstaff (for colder overnight temperatures), I consider multiple trips to Cuyamaca Peak for both a review of winter camping methods and to snowshoe with sled and a full-size pack. For all of these desirables the peak's 6,512 foot summit and an area surrounding the campground parking lot, some 1,650 feet below, are deficient substitutes for colder venues - venues that sadly cost a lot more to reach. A tradeoff.

There is a miserly inch of snow accumulation in the forecast as of last night. Still, the wind might gust to 30 mph with subfreezing dawn temperatures hovering in the mid twenties - a combination providing adequate excuse to drive before first light.

Trip Details

north vista
View north during the ascent

I get more than bargained for on exiting Interstate-8 a half hour before theoretical sunrise - it is drizzling and generally miserable outside the vehicle's cab. The precipitation was supposed to have ended around midnight! I wait for improved conditions, checking Email on my smartphone yet not replying since most of my communications are elaborate affairs with italicized text, hyperlinks to information sources, etc... - all features that are difficult to include in an iPhone message yet easy at my home computer.

I drive within a quarter hour, arriving at the parking lot under clearing skies and milder conditions than expected. My clothing is suddenly too heavy for comfort, including thick polyester pants and a wind shell over it that is best applied in subzero (Fahrenheit) conditions. I have brought nothing lighter in weight, having expected high winds which never appear.

Overnight ice accumulation

With only an inch of snow it's absurd to rig the sled and start out with plastic double boots. So I don regular leather boots (an older pair just repaired to lengthen their useful lifetime and allow for use in Hawaii next month). Ice axe and snowshoes are lashed to my pack's rear in the hope that higher up there will be adequate snow depth for their use (self-arrest practice and snowshoeing, respectively). I depart around 7:45 a.m.

That standard difficulty navigating the campground's dense road grid occurs prior to locating the paved fire service road - now barely covered in white. I continue uphill, my clothing an impediment as I overheat soon enough. In theory I should remove a layer or two (WAIT - I am wearing just two layers below the waist!) ... yet I can tolerate being too hot far easier than being too cold. Besides, on the lower Kahiltna Glacier a blazingly hot sun reflecting off the glacier's white surface is from all accounts an issue - so why not get some practice for that eventuality as well?

white road
Note the snowshoe tracks.

After some 500 vertical feet I don the snowshoes and wear them clear to the summit. That was not a goal of mine - yet being here it seems a reasonable course of action. Furthermore the combination of carrying the 25 pound pack with snowshoes and trekking poles is the closest I can currently come to the Kahiltna Glacier under the circumstances.

Self-arrest practice is never deemed feasible (let alone safe) with no more than an inch or so of snow - and with a hard asphalt surface immediately underneath. There is too much brush off the road for falling anywhere.

Around 9:15 a.m. at the newly constructed summit buildings I leave behind snowshoes and scramble on rocks the final 15 or so vertical feet, heading north, to the highest natural ground.

Perhaps the journey's most memorable aspect is a set of photographs. One in particular seems cause for celebration, of a summit tree cloaked in rime ice on its windward side.

summit vista
Summit vista towards the ocean

After a few tiny chocolates as snack I retreat downhill, arriving perhaps after one hour. There are now several groups of people preparing to hike in brightly colored clothing - many staring at me with glacier glasses and a pack overly burdened with winter gear. They are all likely greater San Diego residents who arose at a normal hour, ate breakfast, and drove with the expectation of a balmy clear day - no greater goal in-mind than that.

I drive the Sunrise Highway towards Mount Laguna recreation area to investigate it as a potential alternative to the $30 overnight use fee of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. However the snow becomes problematic, my vehicle beginning to slip uncontrollably at one spot. Not wishing to fall off the road's edge and require a tow truck rescue I immediately execute a "5-point turn" and head back.

glinting bush ice
Bush with shining ice on-descent.
At-times it was irresistable knocking
off ice with trekking poles.

Buying tire chains will more than offset the aforementioned use fee even for multiple visits. Therefore I shall continue to use the state park, and not Mount Laguna as convenient training ground this winter.

Back in San Diego I visit Target discount store before returning home, purchasing several items for group meals in Hawaii that I am charged with organizing. I hope my partners like rich, cheese-stuffed pasta dishes!!

I weigh myself to learn that I've lost perhaps 2 pounds in water, the result of sweating so much inside the overabundance of clothing for 3 hours on my ascent. I also found my glacier glasses completely fogged-over when I stopped, rendering them useless at such times when I open the pack to do something. I performed such tasks with them dangling around my neck. In addition my inner layers are soaked with sweat, and must be hung to dry on assorted house fixtures.

So the lessons learned are these -

I don't eat a "real" meal until 6 p.m., by then having lost my appetite - a sure sign that I have begun burning fat. That meal tails-off into the evening as I enjoy Star Trek - the Next Generation on the BBC America cable channel, and is most sizeable at some 2,000 Calories.

summit tree with ice
Tree on summit plateau encrusted with rime ice on each branch's windward side.