MOUNT SAN JACINTO STATE PARK, PALM SPRINGS, Calif. --
“We’d be going that fast too if we had such small packs,” said a hiker with a full camping load on her back as eight men with military hair cuts and proper civilian attire passed her on the steep mountainside.
“Oh, those are the guys who started hiking at three in morning from the bottom,” said another man in her group.
“Never mind,” she said.
Seven Marines and a sailor from Scout Sniper Platoon, Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, passed a lot of hikers and weekend warriors June 12 on their way to San Jacinto Peak nearly 11,000 feet above Palms Springs, Calif., but the most important thing they passed was the wooden sign that told them they had reached the top.
After more than 10 hours into the hike, Sgt. Matthew C. Walker, a team leader with Scout Sniper Platoon, said it was pretty much the only thing on his mind.
“In my head I just kept thinking, ‘can I make it up to the summit?’ he said. “That is why we did this, more of a mental challenge than anything. So everyone would learn that if you keep pushing yourself you can just keep going and forget how you feel. Learn that your body can actually take a lot more than you think it can.”
Mount San Jacinto is famous for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which lifts thousands of tourists a year 8,516 feet to camping areas and trails throughout the state park. Unlike most hikers though, the Marines and sailor opted to start at the base of the mountain near the Palm Springs Art Museum, 16 miles from the summit.
“All together, from the museum to the summit and then back down to the tram it took 12 hours and 40 minutes. We went 22 miles and gained 10,500 feet of elevation,” said 1st Lt. Andrew H. Melander, the Scout Sniper Platoon commander. “It was definitely challenging. My feet felt like ground beef after it, but I was amazed by some of the performances of the guys. There were a lot of guys you could tell were struggling, and they just kept going.”
Everyone agreed on the high level of drive and endurance it took to finish.
“That was probably the most grueling thing I’ve done,” said Lance Cpl. Jesse R. Lopez, a rifleman new to the platoon. “It was not what I expected beforehand, because as we were hiking up, we’d get to the top of one peak where I thought I could see the top, but then they were like ‘no, we still have six more hours to go.’
“That was the point though,” he said. “What they wanted us to take away from that experience was to just have that ‘no-quit’ mentality, always be on top of our game and be ready to just tackle any challenge that comes our way.”
Putting the men through the struggle and labor of the climb was an important aspect of the training, said Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Solum, the Scout Sniper Platoon staff noncommissioned officer in charge.
“One of the things I learned early on in my career is that there is no better way to build camaraderie than being put through a shared, common suffering to accomplish big goals you can be proud of,” he said.
Melander agreed, saying after awhile, they would know all the pain would be worth it.
“I’m sure they were hurting quite a bit, but I know they got a lot out of it afterwards,” Melander said. “They’re going to drive down to Palm Springs now, see those peaks and know they conquered that mountain.”
Solum said he could tell the guys were “beat” after the climb, but he also saw that they built a solid connection with each other, by overcoming obstacles few have overcome.
“The hike was an excellent way to bring everyone together,” Solum said. “It was challenging and no one was looking forward to it because it was going to suck, and it did. But at the same time, even when it was sucking, the guys knew they were accomplishing something they could be proud of.
“This is probably something none of them have ever done in their lives before; most of them have probably never climbed a mountain,” he said. “Most of them probably never went 22 miles with a pack.”