The SoCal Triple Crown is a notoriously difficult challenge, pitting athletes against Southern California’s three highest peaks. Having a go at the FKT (Fastest Known Time) has been on my mind for well over a year. However, for a long time the logistics, snow conditions and planning didn’t line up. That was until March, when everything fell into place. I contacted my friend, Michele Graglia, a great trail runner residing in the Los Angeles (L.A.) area, and we made plans to try and beat the FKT on March 16th. I knew Michele was ramping up for Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) and with me training for my UK ‘Big Three Round’ (Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Ramsay Round), I figured the So Cal Triple Crown would make for a phenomenal training/ breakthrough run.
Few people have attempted the SoCal Triple Crown and even fewer have tried for the FKT, but that number is growing as things like GPS watches, SPOT and apps like STRAVA allow our sport to branch beyond traditional races. The number of people brave and willing enough to step up to this challenge is rising rapidly.
SoCal Triple Crown:
- 55-60 miles
- 23,000ft+ elevation gain
- Fastest Known Time (FKT) Brett Maune, 18hrs 59mins, 10th March, 2015
The idea to summit all three of SoCal’s biggest mountains must date back decades, but from what I could find on the internet, the oldest attempt was Brett Maune’s go at it in 2009 when he set a then-FKT at 21hrs 56mins. Due to the variety of trails and directions you can take on the mountains, we hoped our attempt would further solidify a ‘standard’ route for future athletes wanting to take it on or go for the FKT. The route we chose requires challengers to ascend and descend via the toughest way on each mountain.
Both of us knew pulling up in the dark to the first trailhead that beating Brett’s FKT was not going to be easy. Brett is a strong athlete. He has the course record at Barkley Marathons and also holds the FKT for an unsupported John Muir Trail (JMT) hike (210 miles). I know Brett personally. I rank him right up there with the likes of Rob Krar and Kilian Jornet. The thought of either of those two toeing the trail with us sat uneasy as we crept towards the trailhead.
SUMMIT #1 SAN JACINTO
Nickname: San Jack
Hardest trail: Cactus to Clouds, 27-mile round trip
Elevation gain: 11,000ft
Previous record summit: 4hrs 9mins
Our summit time: 4hrs 8mins
Previous round trip record: 6hrs 54mins
Our round trip: 6hrs 49mins
I’d done these trails dozens of times before and Michele and I both knew that a conservative approach on the steeper section, coupled by hammering the shallower gradients, was going to be the key to ascending the mountain quickly. Except for two miles of slick snow and ice towards the summit, the terrain was fast and we climbed strongly yet conservatively. When reaching the summit I was really pleased to see that we had beaten Brett’s ascent, even if it was only by one minute.
We had hoped to do the descent in two hours but lower down the mountain the temperature rose above 90 °C. Michele and I were miserable. He ran out of water with a mile to go, leading me to tell him that this section was more about ‘survival’ than the FKT. Despite the heat, we managed to slice another four minutes off Brett, without absolutely killing our quads on the 11,000ft descent.
Back at the car, I dumped freezing cold water over the both of us and, now soaked, we quickly shuffled into Michele’s vehicle before speeding off towards the trailhead for San Gorgonio. Currently there’s no standard for subtracting driving time between the mountains, so we were just hoping not to hit traffic! We made it to the trailhead still savouring the precious five minutes we’d gained on Brett during our run up and down San Jacinto.
SUMMIT #2 SAN GORGONIO
Nickname: Old Greyback
Hardest trail: Vivian Creek Trail, 16-mile round trip
Elevation gain: 5,600ft
Previous record summit: 3hrs 0mins
Our summit time: 2hrs 44mins
Previous round trip record: 5hrs 0mins
Our round trip: 4hrs 21mins
Both Michele and I had only ever done this trail once. We knew that the initial pitch was steep but that the trail itself was buttery smooth in comparison with what we’d run across on San Jacinto. Plus, there was an elevated start at 4,500ft and the joy of the lush Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines that shielded us from the scorching sun that had almost wiped us out back in Palm Springs.
The ascent up through High Camp went smoothly before we hit our first real big patches of snow. Nearing the summit, we misjudged the distances on a few ridges and were disheartened that the final stretch took us 40 minutes rather than the 15 minutes we thought it would.
The very top of the mountain was covered in drifts and, at times, we found our legs sinking 2-3ft deep into the melted afternoon snow. Reaching the summit we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We had made over 16 minutes on Brett on the ascent alone. I glanced over to look across the desert at the enormous San Jacinto that we had conquered just hours ago and then began running wildly down the mountain. We skipped, jumped and slid off everything and anything, our pace quickening with each passing turn. I felt like a kid just playing in the mountains. This feeling was reason to live. It reminded me why I love running so much.
SUMMIT #3 MT SAN ANTONIO
Nickname: Mt Baldy
Hardest trail: Bear Canyon Trail, 12-mile round trip
Elevation gain: 6,000ft
Previous record summit: 2hrs 30mins
Our summit time: 2hrs 26mins
Previous round trip record: 4hrs 29mins
Our round trip: 3hrs 59mins
We arrived at the trailhead almost a full hour ahead of Brett’s record. Our strategic push on the smooth trails of San Gorgonio had paid off, although our bodies were certainly feeling stiffer than when we had finished our first mountain! We dawdled around the parking lot, taking too much time to prepare our packs and scoff down a few calories, before lumbering off towards the trailhead. I’d never done Bear Canyon, but from all the photos and descriptions I’d seen over the years, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. What lay ahead was 7 miles and 6,000ft of ascent -almost 1,000ft per mile.
We took off believing that if we stayed strong on Mt Baldy, we would take the FKT. Fatigue, however, started to set in and the nighttime began to get rough. Our conversations became just a short series of “ughs” with the occasional “we got this!” to boost morale. We came to a narrow spine a mile or so from the summit and paused for a moment while Michele pointed out the different regions of L.A. -all lit up like a massive light board some 10,000ft below us. Up ahead, Mt Baldy and the record still loomed in the distance. We weren’t done yet and the clock was still ticking. We nailed it to the top in 2hrs 26mins. A miscalculation of the summit’s exact location put us only four minutes ahead of Brett’s ascent time. We were still safe in terms of the FKT but we needed to get down the mountain before any sort of relaxing could take place!
Using poles and relying on the grip of our inov-8 running shoes, we hammered the descent. Through snow patches, over tree roots and clusters of rocks, our pace quickened. A few miles out from the road, we shifted through the gears into overdrive and nailed the remaining distance back to the car, leaving everything we had on the trail. Our final time (driving time included) was 17hrs 44mins. We beat the old So Cal Triple Crown FKT by 1hr and 15mins.