A few weeks ago, we arranged to meet some old friends at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. They have two teenage boys who wanted to ride up and admire the expansive views, at over 8000 feet. So after a very warm morning in the Joshua Tree National Park, we headed to the tramway, looking forward to cooler air and seeing our friends. Being a veteran of many a winter chairlift and gondola, I didn’t give the ride itself much thought – just as well, it turned out. I don’t think I’ll be riding this one again anytime soon…
It wasn’t a comfortable experience from a space point of view. As a comparison, at Lake Louise the various chairlifts seat between two and six, and the Louise gondolas carry up to six winter padded passengers. Can feel a little crowded with all those layers, but it’s a quick trip, and you’re soon off the chair and hitting the slopes. I can handle it. At Palm Springs, the gondolas are more crowded than a London Underground train at rush hour (that’s more crowded than you’d ever like to experience, and pricier than the Palm Springs tramway – even for a single ticket…) Not too comfortable for me.
It doesn’t help that there is a sign with maximum weight tolerance and maximum number of passengers. I’m sure it was exceeded. It felt like more than eighty passengers. I found myself sitting in the waiting area, trying to average out the mass of bodies. That child and that child combined probably weigh less than the portly gentleman sipping on the gallon of soda, so is that two passengers or three as far as potential cable snapping goes? I know it wouldn’t really be overloaded, right?
We all crammed into the gondola (carriage? conveyance? suspended coffin?), packed tightly, myself about as happy as a sardine in a can. The doors slid shut, I grabbed a handhold, pretending to look nonchalant in front of friends, and the coffin set off. Lurched actually, with a dipping start and collected lift, then slowly spinning and spinning, as we ascended the mountain. Yes! The gondola spins! If you wanted to to hold on, too bad, because the railing you are clinging to is slowly sliding past, and if you don’t let go, you look like you’re propping up a bar, and somewhat worse for wear. Each time the coffin passed under one of the pylons, it dropped alarmingly and caused the entire contraption to wobble and swing from side to side. Cue much laughter and whoops of delight from 99% of the sardines, and ever increasing nausea for OldPlaidCamper.
I know! OldPlaidCamper, unhappy heading up a mountain? Who’d have thought it? I certainly hadn’t, before we set off. All those other chairlifts and gondola rides on all those other mountains were no kind of preparation for Palm Springs. I tried to take my mind off the drop, the bumps, the screams of delight, (and the sneaky passenger who farted – making a tough to take situation even more difficult – my prime suspect was the portly gentleman…) by letting my thoughts wander.
Treacherous mind. It started thinking about one of my favourite books, “Touching the Void” – which is not one to be considered on such a shaky trip. But that’s how my mind works. Not content with a mountaineering disaster and survival book (a fine read if you enjoy a taut true story), my brain went further AWOL, and conjured up the opening scenes of Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” – come on brain, is that really necessary? You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it – and if you haven’t, why not? Stallone at his most entertaining, other than “First Blood” (I can’t drive over an iron bridge anywhere without saying “don’t push me!”) That teenage boy never grew up. Sad, I know.
When the tin can reached the top, I staggered out on jelly legs, grateful for the solid ground and clean air. Oh, was that air ever fresh! Over 8000 feet up, and appreciably cooler than the desert floor below. Far, far below. I continued to pretend I’d really enjoyed the ride, and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring a short trail, the amusingly named Grubb’s Notch Trail. I’ve no idea who Grubb may have been, and won’t Google it, in case the truth is less than the various fictions we came up with. Which can’t be repeated here.
The two teenage boys couldn’t be more different. G is very cautious, very much aware of potential dangers in his immediate surroundings. J is completely opposite, positively revelling in risk, very happy to scamper and frolic as close as he can get away with to edges of rocks and mountainsides – maybe to wind up his older brother? (Yes, it is ok to use the word frolic, particularly after surviving the ride up. You’d frolic too, believe me!) Both boys appreciated the location in their own way, another reminder that young people really do connect with their environment when given the opportunity, and the connecting can be thoughtful or exuberant or both. It was lovely to see.
The promised views were absolutely spectacular, the scenery up top a real delight, and the mild temperature, compared to the summer heat of the desert below, a welcome relief. We were all a little reluctant to leave the summit and make the return trip down. As we chatted on the trail, it turned out most of us were somewhat nervous during the ride up. Apparently, G, the older teenage boy, and a bit of a math whizz, had been calculating our chances of survival as we ascended. He’d come up with a plausible formula. He helpfully shared those increasing survival odds on the way down. Not that helpful, actually. Fortunately, I had an image of Sylvester Stallone, dangling from a rope high on a mountain, and wearing those leather short pants at the start of Cliffhanger, to take my mind off things.
A splendid adventure, and I’m so happy we made it back down without incident for all sorts of obvious reasons, but mostly because when I do shuffle off, short pants Stallone is not the last ever thought I want to have…
Oh dear. Magnificent wilderness scenery, an astonishingly beautiful place, and I came up with this. Hmm. Anyway, please do feel free to make a comment or share a story – perhaps about your favourite Stallone movie? (I think I’ve set the bar high!) Have you taken the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway? Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.