A Full Plate for the DayThe menu for a planned outing in the San Bernardino National Forest’s San Gorgonio Wilderness Area last Saturday was enticing. The main course was to descend the last mile or so of Vivian Creek involving five rappels of 160, 120, 90 and two of 70 feet. The American Canyoneering Association rating for Vivian Creek is 3BII***[3 (technical canyon) B (water with no current) II (time commitment of about ½ day) and a 3-star rating designates a “classic” or “really good.”
The hors d’oeuvres on the menu were actually not light fare. Some of our party of seven planned to hike to Mt. San Gorgonio, at 11,499’, the highest peak in southern California. By the Vivian Creek Trail, the ascent is 8 miles with 5,500 feet of gain to the summit. Quite a warm-up for the canyoneering!
Three others, including myself, planned to do an exploratory trip down Vivian Creek. We planned to drop into the creek above the area where we would rappel later in the day. The exploration was for possible rappel sites that we could return to another day.
Our group gathered at the Vivian Creek Trailhead at 6 a.m. under overcast skies. After checking gear (we took two ropes), we headed off around 6:30 across the Mill Creek wash to the Vivian Creek Trail. The first mile of this trail is its steepest part providing the hiker with 1,000 feet of gain. At 1.2 miles we arrived at Vivian Creek Camp. There, we stashed our canyoneering gear and continued up the trail.
Exploring Vivian CreekAbout ¼ mile past Halfway Camp, the exploration trio veered off the trail toward the creek bottom. We dropped into the creek down a very steep slope that sloughed off rock at the slightest touch. Then we headed down river. It was an exhilarating feeling to be exploring with no particular destination and not knowing what we would find.
However, we had an objective and we encountered what we were looking for pretty quickly: a beautiful dry fall that would provide a two-stage rappel of about 125 feet. If we had a notion to feel like Lewis and Clark making a virgin discovery, that feeling was quickly dashed when we spotted a fresh anchor consisting of bright scarlet webbing around a stout tree trunk. Someone had already been this way. Still, this drop was worth coming back to another day.
There appeared to be no feasible way to proceed below this drop to see whether there might be other good rappels. But rather than heading straight back up to the trail, I suggested exploring upstream for awhile.
Upstream turned out to be mainly Class 2 scrambling over boulders and, at times, through dense brush. But soon, we came upon a series of beautiful running waterfalls. Climbing past the waterfalls involved moving up some 4th class sections and trying to avoid wet, moss-blanketed rock. My two partners opted not to follow me on most of these sections. For me, the spirit of adventure was manifest in getting past these little falls and continuing up towards High Creek Camp where the creek would intersect the trail.
Right below High Creek Camp, no longer seeing my partners behind me, I headed up toward the trail, figuring they must have done the same already. However, I chose a line of ascent that could not have been steeper. I literally had to move upward on all fours in many places. Toward the top, I spied my partners starting up the same route. They could not have been pleased at my ascent route, but they struggled as I had and eventually reached the trail where I was waiting for them. We did high fives all around to acknowledge a great side trip.
Interlude Under Stormy SkiesThe three of us hiked the short distance to High Creek Camp and had an early lunch. One member of our group had been behind us on the trail, and caught up with us at High Creek Camp. The remaining three group members had gone on to the summit. We decided to hike to the saddle and prominent overlook at about 10,000 feet adjacent to the trail. This spot is well known to anyone who has hiked this trail. It was about a half hour from High Creek Camp. We would wait there for the three that had gone to the summit to return.
While waiting at the overlook, it started raining. More ominously, the crackle and boom of thunder began to fill our ears. A few lightning bolts in the distance further caught our attention.
Just at the moment when the skies started their angry display, we saw a number of hikers double-timing down the trail obviously motivated by the flash and bang. They had been to the summit and had seen the three from our group there. Indications were that our three were not far behind and this turned out to be the case. By 1 p.m., the three had joined us at the overlook.
Rapping 5 Awesome Waterfalls Amidst Challenges Defining AdventureThe rain ceased as we headed back down the trail the 4 miles to Vivian Creek Camp. Arriving there about 3:30 p.m., we retrieved our stashed gear and started to prepare for the canyoneering part of the day.
At this point, an individual who not a member of our group, but had been tagging along with us all day, asked if he could go down the canyon with us. He was a newbie. I had hiked with newbie before and knew he was a strong and fit. Nevertheless, a couple of the drops were significant and the canyon would be wet. Even though I was not involved in planning this outing nor had any official leadership role, I should have objected to the newbie’s request. But I did not.
As we were suiting up and going over protocols for the descent (whistle signals, sequencing, etc.), a heavy downpour began.
It was now approaching 4 p.m. and I became somewhat concerned about getting 8 people down 5 rappels comfortably before dark. But two of our group had been down the canyon recently and assured me that we would have adequate time if we got started right away. I also knew that the total distance we would travel down the canyon was between 1 and 1.5 miles, not long compared with other canyons. In addition, from the point where the canyon ended in the Mill Creek wash, it was only about 10 minutes back to the cars. Mother Nature provided the final reassurance. The rain stopped and the sky seemed to be clearing. We launched down the canyon.
It took but a few minutes to reach the first drop, the longest of the day. It was somewhere between 140 to 160 feet. The water was running at a good volume down the waterfall. It would be an exhilarating rappel for us all, not to mention the newbie.
One of our group went down first so he could provide a fireman’s belay for newbie who was second. We did a two-strand rappel on this drop. Getting below the anchor to rig into your rappel device on this first rappel provided the greatest rigging challenge of all the drops that day. With our safety tethers clipped to the anchor, we had to drop and pendulum from left to right from above the anchor to get into position to rig up.
Not surprisingly, newbie’s descent was slow. But he did a good job. After the last person was down, I noted that it had taken us nearly an hour to do that first rappel. Oh well, we would be all right as long as we kept moving along now. But that was not to be.
When we commenced to pull the rope down, it wouldn’t budge. We yanked and yanked to no avail. Our most experienced ascendor started up using prussik loops, but didn’t like his the rate of his progress. He asked around for a mechanical ascendor. Someone had one that turned out to work quite smoothly. He had to go all the way to the anchor to fix the problem. This ate up another half hour.
I once again got a little concerned with the time factor. But with the remaining rappels, we began using techniques designed to maximize efficiency. We used a Stone Knot to isolate two strands of rope. One person would rig up on one strand and start down. While that first person was going down, the second person would rig her rappel device. As soon as the first person was down and off rappel, the second person would start down. Then the third person would start rigging, And so on.
Because we had two ropes, as we moved along, the first ones down on the first rope would take the second rope to the next drop and anchor the second rope to keep things moving.
On one of the drops, two pair who were evenly matched in weight, elected to simul-rap. I was one of the pair. My 150 lbs. was matched up with a 120 pounder carrying 20-25 lbs. of extra gear to even things out. These raps went very smoothly although simul-rapping is not for everyone.
On all the rappels, because of the wet conditions, the rock was continually slippery. Thus, cautious descending was the order of the day.
Although the first drop had been the longest, the last waterfall, itself over 100 feet of vertical cascade, was the most exciting. As with the other waterfalls, the water in this one was running very strong. However, unlike the others, on this last one, there was absolutely no way to avoid coming down all the way directly under pouring water. So everyone made sure that anything on their person that had to stay dry was protected. I had brought along a special hard plastic case for my camera to avoid a previous experience where I ruined a camera by getting it dunked.
The other exciting part of this last rappel was a lengthy free rappel section starting about the middle of the drop. It was a bit challenging because you had to maneuver an overhang and then start the free rappel. On this one, we lowered our newbie rather than have him try his first free rappel in a pouring waterfall.
By the time most of the group got down the last drop, it was 7:30 p.m. We would lose daylight in half an hour. Plus, by now, everyone was plenty soaked and the slight breeze began to cool body temperatures. So it was agreed that, as people came down, they should immediately head back to the cars instead of waiting for the entire group.
I and two others stayed to wait for the last person down. He touched down at 7:45. We washed off the ropes, bagged them, and headed down the canyon to the wash. By now, it was dark so we broke out our headlamps.
Soon we were back at the cars. The others were still there. Everyone was effusive about what a great day it had been. Dinner plans were debated—which was the best place to eat down the hill in Redlands for a tired and disheveled bunch? I had to get home so I don’t know the answer.
And newbie? He had performed very well and it was apparent he had enjoyed the experience immensely. Still, as a cautious outdoors person, my opinion is that he should not have been with us in this canyon. But like I said, when I the chance to object I didn’t and so I’m in no position to criticize anyone about his addition to the group.
It was an amazing day. This is one of the few local canyons that I want to repeat in the very near future. The gushing waterfalls were a real plus although with the same conditions a wetsuit might be in order next time. For dessert, I can hardly wait to return to do the waterfall we "found" in our exploration.