San Gorgonio, April 27, 28 2001

Return of the Backpacking Home

I recently returned from a short trip to Mt. San Gorgonio, reportedly the highest mountain in Southern California at around 11,500 feet. I really enjoyed this trip and since the trailhead is only about two hours from my house in San Diego it's one I'm sure to repeat. I went with two friends, Matt Otero and Brent Eidson. Total distance was about 14 miles over two days.

The plan was to leave by 2PM on Friday, arrive at the trailhead by 4PM get to camp by 7PM then eat and laze away the evening until we went to bed around 10PM or so. Well the whole schedule was about an hour behind except for the going to bed part. Since it was 39 degrees by 8PM we didn't stay up to late that first night!

On the trail at 5PM, this is by far the latest I've ever started out on a trail. This whole trip was full of firsts for me. I had trouble packing for this trip because it was an overnighter and I'm used to five-plus day trips. So I had to repeatedly remind myself to not pack so much. In the end I still brought too much, but really it wouldn't be a normal backpacking trip for me if I didn't.

I had some new gear I wanted to try out on this trip. A new Gregory Robson Pro backpack worked flawlessly and was comfortable the whole time but I was only carrying around 45 pounds. We'll see how it does later this summer with 65 pounds in Yellowstone, but that's another story not yet written… I had a new pair of trekking poles, Leki Makalu's with the shock in them. These were great and very comfortable and since we ended up spending a lot of time in snow I was very happy with the removable baskets! I also brought a digital camera for the first time on a backpacking trip. I was a little concerned about dropping it or something but nothing untoward happened and I got some great pictures and even some video.

We decided to take the High Creek trail, there are actually quite a few trails up this mountain. The trailhead is actually about a half a mile from the parking lot. You end up walking along the creek bed for a while, through the picnic area, and along a closed road. Eventually you cross the creek and on the other side is the San Gorgonio Wilderness sign. To my mind this signified the start of the trail. Actually, if you're still in early season shape, read non-shape, as I was this juncture signifies the start of hell! From this point you will gain 1000 feet in the next mile! It's, uh, STEEP!

And the trail is not just steep, oh no, it's not that easy. This section of trail is basically a layer of baseball-sized rocks, a total pain to walk on. Oh well, this is the section that you'll start to get above the brown air of the greater LA area and begin to see, smell, and taste that wonderful alpine air. Since we'd had a pretty good storm just the week before the north facing slopes were all still covered in snow making pretty much every direction, except down, a site to behold.

Matt and Brent got a little ahead of me here but I'll chock that up to the fact that they'd been on this trail before, not my lack of fitness… However this allowed me to just hike at my own pace enjoying the sights and sounds and take some pictures. You pass through aspens and maples and manzanitas and are eventually greeting with pine needles. This is when you know you're in the mountains again.

After about an hour of heavy breathing I came to a flat area, very pleasant and quiet, and came across two hikers on a log. After regaining my senses I realized it was Brent and Matt. Apparently we'd completed the hell leg of the trip were headed to a less steep area. We regrouped, caught our breath and headed off again. The next two miles would see a gain of another 1000 feet but this section isn't nearly as steep as the first mile. We also started encountering snow in this area. Big drifts of snow that sometimes hid the trail, we just headed across them. The snow, having been in the sun all day was pretty soft and made walking across it fairly easy.

After another hour we got to half way camp, our camp for the evening. This is a pleasant little area about 50 yards from a small creek. We were told campfires weren't allowed this time of year but we found a fire ring with pretty fresh ashes in it. We centered camp on this fire ring and set up our tents. It was starting to get dark, and cold so as soon as I got my tent up I got my long underwear, pants, and down jacket on. I'd considered bringing my fleece jacket instead of the down when packing but since the down jacket packed smaller, is lighter, and warmer I picked the down. Boy was I happy with that decision! I was cooking dinner until after 8PM and it was below 40 degrees before I started eating.

Brent and Matt politely stayed up while I cooked and ate my dinner. About 15 seconds after I washed my dishes they said goodnight and sprinted for their tent. I poked about for just a bit then headed into my tent as well. My normal evening activity is cards but it was just too darn cold.

After a typical night sleep in the backcountry, not very restful and I had to get up twice to pee, we got up late. I'm normally up when camping by 7AM but it was cold enough to keep me in my tent until 8AM, when I heard their tent being unzipped…

After breakfast we were on the trail by 9AM with daypacks and fanny-packs. The initial plan was to head for the summit, spend a little time up there looking around and snapping some pictures then turn around and head out. Within the first mile of hiking we ran into large blankets of snow. The snow obliterated the trail so instead of wasting time searching for it we pretty much just headed straight up. This was actually a lot of fun! The snow had a crust on it from the night but was just soft enough to kick steps into making it both safe and fairly easy to walk straight up the face. It was probably only 30 to 35 degrees but it had a very mountaineering feel to it.

We came across a few other hikers trying out different gear and just enjoying a beautiful day. At one point along the trail is a small waterfall and we stopped here to grab a quick bite to eat and to catch our breath. After several hours of kicking steps in the snow we arrived at lookout point, a small saddle at 10,300 feet. This is a real prize and we enjoyed the view from this vantage. We spent some time eating, talking, resting and taking pictures. After some discussion we decided that if we wanted to get home at any kind of decent time we would turn around here and head back to camp to pack up and hike out.

So after about a half an hour Matt and I put on our pants and gaiters and got ready for a high-speed descent. WHAT A BLAST! I've never snow skied but I think I'm ready! What took an hour and a half to go up took just 20 minutes to come down. I was sliding on my feet, butt, back and hands. Just take a couple of big steps and down you go. The only sketchy parts were when we'd walk over a buried tree and sink to our knees in the snow. We all took pretty good falls and never stopped smiling and laughing. I'm ready to do that all over again. Makes the tough hike up all worth it.

We got back to camp in short order and spent about 40 minutes packing everything up. Once packed, strapped, cinched, and buckled we headed down the trail for the 2000-foot, three-mile descent to the trailhead and the parking lot beyond. Like coming up, the first two miles weren't that bad just some typical downhill at the standard "I'm walking out of here, balls to the wall" pace. Then we got to that last mile and what a bitch!

1000 feet down in one mile while walking on baseballs is a major pain! Matt, tired of the whole thing, got ahead of Brent and I even though we were moving at a pretty good pace. With heads down and feet plodding we ended up at the trailhead in due time. A short creek crossing and a LONG half-mile to the parking lot ended this brief yet rewarding and challenging trip.

Thanks to the excellent companions, the snow, and the great weather we had a wonderful time and I'll probably be heading back up sometime later in the summer. A short hour and a half after leaving the parking lot we pulled up to my house and popped open some beers, ahhhhh this is why we backpack…