8000 feet of terror!

I exaggerate (perhaps not much). This weekend I took a little adventure up a mountainside. We decided to have dinner atop Mount San Jacinto, at 8516 feet. I’d bought a restaurant.com coupon for the sit-down restaurant when we moved to the Coachella Valley, and it was time to use it.

The mountain is steep and rocky, and the ascent is said to be the steepest in North America. I’m not usually impressed by superlatives; it seems you can find one for any situation these days. “Tallest mountain in the valley” or “first railroad of its kind with red paint on the caboose” doesn’t really help me understand anything. So when I heard people say things like ‘steepest ascent’ and ‘only rotating tramway in the US’ I didn’t really care. But I liked the idea of getting up the mountain in the tramway for the views and because I couldn’t handle the physical stress of climbing 8500 feet from the desert floor to a rocky peak. I was also drawn to the fact that it is about 25 degrees cooler atop San Jacinto Peak than it is at the base in our desert home.

We drove to the tramway, which was a learning experience in itself. It’s 30 minutes from home, so any ideas of buying a season pass and popping up there to escape the heat were dashed. The drive was rough, too. We drove 2000 feet up to the parking lot. The road doesn’t wind like many mountain roads. It is a steep, straight drive. Signs tell you to shut off your A/C so that your vehicle won’t overheat. So we drove with the windows down in 104-degree heat up to the lot. We could smell the coolant when we stopped. Poor little car! Next, we huffed and puffed our way on foot to the tramway station.

Once we got on the tramway, I learned that ‘rotating tramway’ doesn’t mean that cars rotate in and out of the two stations. It means that as you make the incredibly steep ascent, the gondola rotates. Imagine a slow motion carnival ride, spinning you as you move up or down cable. I looked at M, who gets car sick and motion sick. He looked concerned. I kept my purse at the ready in case we needed a barf bag during the ten-minute ride.

Yep–ten minutes. That’s all it takes to go from 2000 feet to 8516 feet. The gondola spinning, the sheer rock face looking a little too close to it as we reached each tower and rocked back and forth (all the while spinning and moving forward). The views are stunning. The scenery was fascinating, as we moved through 5 different types of habitat (desert, pinyon pine, and 3 others that I forget). But I was pretty darn scared. People leaned out the windows–yes, the windows open–to get photos or video. I prayed they didn’t drop their camera or worse. Two barefoot children (what was mom thinking?) stood too close to the edge, holding onto the stationery wall or doors as the floor beneath them rotated. They’d let go once their hands seemed too far behind their bodies, and I prayed they didn’t get their toes stuck in the space between the door and the moving floor. They did not. Whew!

As we stepped off the tram, M admitted that he too was terrified. It was the worst combination for him; he fears heights and gets motion sick.  Spinning, swaying, and going forward (while at times looking back) while dangling 8000 feet off a mountain was far more than expected. Everyone had told us about how pretty the view at the top was and how great it was to be in the cool air during the summer. But not ONCE did anyone mention the sheer terror of getting there!

Once atop the mountain, we saw a film about the making of the tramway. We explored the various platforms for viewing, some of which were closed because we went at sunset. Dinner wasn’t very good, but we can say we did it once and at a discount. I’m eager to go back and make a day of it, hiking some of the easier trails and looking for wildlife like bighorn sheep or bald eagles. We saw some bats eating bugs around a lightpost, but that was all. The view at sunset was very pretty, though. While we ate dinner, a wedding took place on the balcony outside the restaurant. What a stunning setting for it! It is a beautiful place to just sit in awe of nature. But I’m ready to do more exploring of the area.

I also want to go back when it’s snowing. There’s even a ski area! It’s so neat to see snow while standing on the desert floor. I’ve used the tram cam to look at the snow and the creatures up there. (Try it! You can even control the camera and move it around from your computer.) It will be exciting to experience it firsthand this winter.  I just have to prepare myself for the ride again.

The tram ride home was less frightening because it was dark. On the way up, we saw how fast the downward tram seemed to travel. All of us in my up tram gasped at it. It was too dark to really see how fast we were ‘falling’, so I concentrated on the lights of Palm Springs and views of the valley.

We rode down with employees, and I wondered how much they got paid. The busboy told us the drive down the mountain has worn out the brakes in his car several times since he started working there. Driving TO work is just as rough on his car. Then I thought about having to take the tramway to and from work.  Aside from the fear, you can never be just a few minutes late for work. If you don’t park and get to the tram on time, you have to wait 20 minutes for the next one. There’s no other way up. So just a minute behind schedule can make you more than 20 minutes late for work.


1 Comment

Filed under Life in Coachella Valley, Nature

One response to “8000 feet of terror!

  1. Jen

    Sounds cool yet a bit scary. I think it would be scarier in the snow!

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