Hiking From Desert Floor To Mountain

BY SEAN NEALON
THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE

09:36 PM PST on Thursday, November 29, 2007

Video: Hike up the Palm Springs Skyline Trail

It’s 5 a.m. at the Palm Springs Art Museum parking lot.

Nearby streets are empty. The hum of cars on Interstate 10 is barely audible. Cy Kaicener and Doreen Sabia pierce the darkness with flashlights.

Kaicener, a 70-year-old retired salesman from Rialto, and Sabia, a 54-year-old home seller and cancer survivor from Palm Springs, are set to start another hike on the Skyline Trail.

The 12-mile trail climbs 8,000 feet from the parking lot through cactus, chaparral, manzanita, and oak and pine trees to the Palm Springs Tramway.

It’s considered one of the most difficult and dangerous hikes in Southern California because of the elevation gain and lack of shade and water. Also, temperatures on the desert floor in the summer can be 100 degrees higher than in the mountains in the winter.

Kaicener has hiked it 236 times. Sabia has hiked it 235 times. They are one-two in an unofficial competition for most trips up the trail. That’s the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest almost 65 times or walking from Los Angeles to New York City.

Kaicener first hiked the trail in 1962. Sabia made her first trip seven years ago. They met on the trail about six years ago. They usually hike separately but frequently cross paths on the trail.

Sabia comes back for spiritual and romantic reasons.

“Someone once said to me I dance with the mountain,” she said. “That’s what it is. A love affair. We know each other very well.”

Kaicener, whose bad knees make it tough to hike downhill, is more practical.

“This is the most elevation gain I can do in one day and not have to hike down,” said Kaicener, who rides the tramway down.

The Skyline Trail started as a Cahuilla Indian path. Workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, turned it into a trail in the mid-1930s, said John Robinson, who has been writing Southern California hiking books since the early 1970s.

Robinson, who is 78 and has been hiking Southern California trails since he was 10, said the Skyline Trail is probably the most strenuous in the Southern California mountains.

At elevations below 5,000 feet, the trail passes through federal, Palm Springs and Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indian land and is officially recognized, said Jim Foote, manager of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

When it enters Mount San Jacinto State Park, it is not maintained and therefore not a trail, said Jerry Frates, the park superintendent.

In the summer, hikers are often unprepared for the heat and in the winter they are often not ready for ice at higher elevations, he said.

As the trail has become more popular in recent years, at least two hikers have died and rescues have increased, he said. There were at least five helicopter rescues this summer, up from two or three last year, he said.

“It’s a very dangerous place to hike when you don’t plan it or you haven’t done it before,” Frates said.

By 6:10 a.m., the sun crests the mountains to the east. Lights start filling the valley. Leafblowers can be heard.

Despite temperatures in the mid-50s, Sabia wears shorts, a T-shirt and a longer yellow T-shirt that covers her like a dress. In her backpack, she carries a pink flannel shirt, four 20-ounce bottles of water, an apple, an energy bar and a Baby Ruth candy bar.

She is about a quarter-mile ahead of Kaicener. She pulls out a towel to wipe sweat from her face. Flashlight still in hand, she takes a shortcut, careful to avoid cacti. She stops and looks back.

“Hello,” she says, calling to Kaicener in the Boston accent she hasn’t kicked despite 21 years in Palm Springs. “You all right?”

“I’m fine,’ he says, rounding a bend on the trail.

She continues on, Kaicener behind.

Kaicener came to the United States from South Africa when he was 21. Hiking replaced cricket, rugby, tennis and soccer.

He hiked the Skyline Trail in 1962, then spent the next 15 years on trails throughout California. He returned to Skyline in the mid-1970s.

He moved from Los Angeles to the San Bernardino County city of Rialto 24 years ago because housing was inexpensive and he would be closer to the mountains he loved.

He has had more time to hike since retiring from his job at a home improvement store seven years ago.

In 2004, he did Skyline 55 times to attract attention to his Web site, www.hiking4health.com.

He also tried to get the feat listed in the Guinness World Records. It wasn’t accepted because it couldn’t be verified, he said.

The Web site, which pulls together Kaicener’s extensive knowledge of hiking and mountaineering, has connected him to people around the world. He has led more than 75 people, from as far as Germany and Minnesota, on their first trip on the trail.

He hikes Skyline about 25 times a year, keeping a steady pace while traversing granite boulders with ease.

He skips fancy hiking clothes, instead wearing a sweater over a button-down shirt and a floppy hat with a paper towel hanging from the side to block the sun. Only the deep wrinkles on his face give away his age.

Family and friends think he’s “over the edge” and “hardcore.”

His wife of almost 25 years, Corinne, said she’s glad he has a healthy outlet.

She quickly added: “But I don’t go with him.”

By 8:45 a.m., Kaicener is halfway up the trail, his hiking boots continuing to crunch the gravely soil. The sky is clear. The wind turbines along Interstate 10 look like dots. A helicopter circles overhead searching for a hiker lost on a nearby trail.

Patricia Morlet, 50, and Jack Pansegrau, 59, both of Palm Springs, are taking a break on their way up the trail. Kaicener says hello.

“How many times you been up?” Pansegrau asks Kaicener.

“More than 100,” he says.

“Oh,” Pansegrau says, “you’re Cy.”

Pansegrau, who was hiking the entire trail for the first time, had just signed up atwww.mtsanjacinto.info, a message board he mistakenly thought Kaicener ran because he posts so frequently.

Morlet hikes the trail about 20 times a year and is training to hike Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Kaicener tells her Sabia is ahead.

At 8:56 a.m., he’s back on trail, closing in on Sabia.

Sabia has been obsessed with the trail since she first hiked it, she said.

“With all that growth, this is the only place you can come to feel the desert.”

She’s seen foxes, bighorn sheep, coyotes, rattlesnakes, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles. She stops about five times for a minute to two, always at the same overlook areas.

The hike is also a spiritual journey. She prays and talks to God.

Sid Swerman originally met Sabia on the trail. He has hiked it with her about seven times.

“I actually think she feels at home there more than anywhere else on the planet,” Swerman said from his home in Alaska.

Sabia lived in Palm Springs as a child and returned 21 years ago. She directed an art galley, sold gourmet food and now sells homes.

As a child, she was overweight. When she was 18, she started walking.

She now walks or hikes 60 to 75 miles a week, taking off, maybe, one day a month.

She logs her mileage and how she felt on a calendar. She credits that practice with helping her discover she had cancer in 2003.

She went to the doctor after realizing it was taking her longer to finish her walks and hikes. She found out she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which had spread to her lungs. The cancer kept her off the trail for two years.

On Dec. 24, 2005, she hiked the trail from beginning to end for the first time post-cancer. Swerman joined her. At the top, they hugged and shed tears.

At 12:50 p.m., Kaicener catches up to Sabia. She is sitting on a rock, talking to fellow hiker Joe Joslin, of Indio.

The three hike the last 30 minutes together.

Pine trees block out the sun. Pine cones and pine needles cover the ground.

Kaicener takes frequent five-second breaks, resting his arms and head on his hiking pole. Sabia’s coughing, a remnant of the cancer, continues.

Blue sky and sunlight peer through the trees. The end of the trail is just ahead.

Sabia stops. Everyone else stops.

She bows, as she has done every time she has completed the trail, to thank God and show her appreciation for the nature around her. Everyone else bows.

Kaicener and Sabia walk to the tramway, passing dozens of people who paid $21.95 for the ride. Sabia whispers that they are wimps.

Kaicener and Sabia flash their tramway annual passes. They catch up with the tramway workers, all of whom seem to know their names, and take the 10-minute ride down.

Standing in the parking lot, Kaicener asks Sabia: “Are you going next week?”

“Probably,” she says.

“Me, too,” he says.

Reach Sean Nealon at 951-375-3730 or snealon@PE.com


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