“Gaaawd, this is grueling,” I said under my breath as I continued climbing straight up.
I was humping as fast as my dead legs could carry me up Kwaay Paay, an incredibly steep, 1200-foot climb, that would complete my 5 Peak Challenge attempt, and allow me to complete it well under my time goal of 6 hours.
When I reached the summit, I dropped down dehydrated, exhausted, and hungry, and just laid there, staring up into the blue skies of San Diego, and feeling …thankful.
What is the 5 Peaks Challenge?
Yea, I didn’t know either. I was ‘Google’-ing trails in and around San Diego, California, and stumbled upon the Mission Trails Regional Park. Before I could even research the place, the headline smacked me right in face, “Take the Mission Trails Regional Park 5-Peak Challenge”
The goal of the challenge is to get people to explore the entire Mission Trail Park system by completing five of the difficult peak hikes. Hikers (or runners) have as many days to complete the challenge as they need, and as long as you take a selfie at the top of each summit, with the summit sign in the photo, you can earn the challenge completion certificate.
Once I saw this, I knew I had to attempt it; and as an ultrarunner and trail runner, knew I had to try to do it in one day, in one continuous effort, completely self-supported, start-to-finish.
Peak #1 – Cowles Mountain Peak
Clearly, the most popular, and thus crowded trail in the Mission Trail system. Why? I have no idea because it’s not easy. I started out just before 7:00 a.m. and there were already a lot of people getting their fitness on. People of all shapes and sizes – hikers, runners, fitness groups – all enjoying the rugged trail.
At some popular mountains around the country, trail running is frowned-upon by the ‘locals’, and I’ve never really understood why, but on Cowles, they were super cool, alerting their friends that I was coming up behind, and making sure there was plenty of space for me to get around. It’s a very technical trail, so I appreciated this quite a bit and let each and every person know. It made a huge difference in my ability to summit this first peak very quickly.
Peak #2 – Pyles Peak
The trail leaving Cowles Mountain, headed to Pyles Peak, feels deserted. Seemingly, no one continues on past Cowles except ultrarunners. This section of trail rolls up and down, with plenty of runnable sections to open up the legs, and I did just that. It was still early morning, the temps were cool, and sky overcast, and I was feeling really good, so I went for it.
As you approach the actual peak, it gets really steep for a good 1/4 mile, so I settled into a fast-pack, and made my way to the second summit marker. At this point, I’m still feeling good, but recognize that if I want to continue to have a good day, I should probably slow down.
Peak #3 – South Fortuna Peak
Because I wanted to do the Challenge all in one run, I had to hop on the road for about 3 miles to another area of the park. I was actually thankful for the road as I needed to recover a little from kinda-sorta hammering the first two peaks.
This is pretty much where the Christian we all know and love started to shine – I got lost. I wouldn’t know this until later, like days later, but I took an incredibly out-of-the-way way to those Fortuna peaks. I knew something had to be off because it took me a really long time to get there, climbing and descending a number of mountain passes before finally getting to the Fortuna saddle where I stood dumbfounded for 10 minutes trying to figure out which way to go.
I eventually chose a direction, started climbing yet again, and finally ended up at the South Fortuna peak. Number three done, but now I had to figure out which way to go to North Fortuna peak. You’d think that would be easy, right? Head north. Yea, hindsight is always 20-20. I went south by mistake…
Peak #4 – North Fortuna Peak
“Why in the Hell don’t I see any peaks ahead of me?”
I questioned my directional choice from the get-go. I couldn’t see any peaks ahead of me that seemed reasonable and I started to panic because my fatigue was growing.
I asked a hiker dude with giant calves, who looked like he might know the area well, if I was headed in the right direction for the North Fortuna peak… he laughed at me. I was headed south and had done so for well over a mile, just about descending all the way to the bottom of the South Fortuna trail.
I turned around, backtracked, did a live Facebook video to pass the time, and eventually found myself climbing towards the North Fortuna peak. It’s one mile, straight up, and pretty unremarkable to be honest. Maybe I was just frustrated.
I took my pic with the marker, and headed out for the last climb of the day, tired, hungry, thirsty, low on water (as usual) and missing my Lindsay. She called me just as I sat down on a rock, snacking on a Cliff Bar, and trying to figure out my way.
Peak #5 – Kwaay Pay Peak
Once again, like my stellar navigation to the Fortunas, I took some ridiculously long way that, in retrospect, made no sense at all. But, also, like the the Fortunas, I eventually got to the trailhead despite myself.
Kwaay Pay is definitely the most difficult peak. It’s very technical, dusty, exposed and hot. Plus, the second half of the climb is very, very steep, making the effort a real struggle with about 18 miles on the legs.
I ran out of water on the climb. I asked a dude coming down if I would be able to find water once I sumitted and then came back down… he felt sorry for me and gave me a bottle of water. Phew…
After a nasty ascent, I finally crawled to the top, saw the marker, took my photo, and took a breath.
I did it. 4:56 was my time from start to finish, but now that I know areas where I went wrong, I think I could do it in under four hours.
You know I’m going to try.