Weather Changed the GameWe had cancelled an earlier winter trip up San Gorgonio a month before due to weather. This time, in mid-February 2012, the promising weather made it easy to ignore the modest wind warnings.
In the first couple miles before Poopout Hill we passed a dozen or more people, mostly snowshoers out for the day. This traffic had nicely packed down the snow from a couple days prior and made the way easy all the way to South Fork (Slushy) Meadow.
At this point, where you cross the headwaters of the Santa Ana River’s South Fork, the usual winter mountaineering route is straight up the drainage below Dry Lake, which is where we headed, breaking trail through the snow. Fresh, powdery, yet sticky snow. The kind where you sink as much as a full foot down, and then bring several clumpy pounds back up with each step. The kind that has a way of slowing you way down and tiring you out.
We rested at the edge of Dry Lake and watched the ridges above as the windswept snow curled off and took guesses at how windy it was. We continued up above Dry Lake behind another pair of climbers. We thought there would be a bunch of people ahead of us, but it was just us 4 breaking trail through the beautiful virgin snow.
I had done this same route twice in snow last Spring, but this time it was surprisingly different. As we continued up the 2nd chute from the left (East), the light clumpy snow got deeper, the incline steeper, and the progress significantly slower. We had anticipated summiting easily in the late afternoon, but by sunset my partner was barely on top and I still had a quarter of the way to go up the chute. At that point, the wind kicked in as we neared the ridgeline. And the snow below us gave way to the underlying rocky scree blown clear of any accumulated snow.
Sometime after 6pm I finally made the top of the ridgeline, traversed the half mile to the summit, and found my partner in his tent. We conservatively estimated 50 mph winds with gusts into the 60s. Everything was frozen and we hunkered down in our bags for a long night, hoping the wind would lessen.
By sunrise the wind was worse. We figured conditions would not be getting any better and it was best just to pack up and head down, which we did. As we traveled back West along the ridgeline, the gust were so strong that I struggled to stay upright. A third of the way back down the chute, the wind quickly lessened in the shadow of the ridgeline, and the soft snow turned pleasant as we descended. At Dry Lake I had a warm breakfast, and we made great time the rest of the way back to the trail head.
The distance was a bit over 15 miles total round trip with the same out-and-back route. It took me over 9 hours to reach the top, which is 3 hours longer than previous trips. We came down in 3.5 hours, a half hour quicker than before. I guess we were motivated to get out of the wind.
See a detailed San Gorgonio Mountain Winter Trip Report, including more pictures and Lessons Learned.