It was a trip I was planning for a month. San Gorgonio was a mountain that had been on my mind for a long time and I was determined to try for this peak to start of the year the right way. All of last year I was working two jobs and doing any kind of mountaineering was very hard for me to do. I ended up with over 60 summits but none of these peaks were on Bulger list and though many had great views and required equipment, none were on my top 20 list. Over the year of 2011 I gained 25 pounds of fat and was only able to cross over 10000 feet once. That was of course Lassen Peak with my wife back in last September.
Planning this trip was quite hard. It was hard for me to do a lot of research on the region because I was constantly at work and in the preceding two weeks before the trip I was putting in 80 + hours of work while physically training for the trip. I invited two partners, my good friend Gimpilator and Kristin5berry, to join me on this quest to tackle San Gorgonio. Gimpilator was having a hard time being able to do research because of the fact that he was having internet issues with his phone and Kristin5berry was tearing it up in Colorado, ice climbing some sweet cliffs.
All of us were getting conflicting information from the National Forest Service Ranger Stations about the Vivian Creek Trailhead and from the final thing we saw on the website the trailhead looked to be open. I had an idea that it might not from the information I had gathered from this and other websites but nothing seemed to be concrete. So at this point we decided to go to the original plan.
We also made aware of the fact that it had not snowed heavily in the mountains for the past four weeks. With snow not hitting the mountains for that long we figured to have some very compact snow, leaving little reason to bring up snowshoes to these mountains. Usually when snow goes that long it compacts to ice. Because of this we brought our ice axes, micro-spikes and crampons and leave the snowshoes in the car.
When we pulled up to the ranger station we found out that the Vivian Creek Trailhead was closed like same people had said on the website. The ranger station was closed and we did not have enough information on the South Fork Trailhead in Angelos Oaks to head over there. Had we did we would have headed over there instead. From there we altered our plans and decided to take the Alger Creek Trail up instead we were to park our car and then head up to the Dollar Saddle and spend a couple days there to knock off all the mountains in the San Bernardino Range before possibly setting off for other mountains in the region.
Starting Up Into The Mountains
We started up the San Bernardino Trail from the Alger Creek Trailhead. After crossing this creek we headed up the San Bernardino Trail all the way to the Alger Creek and Dollar Saddle cutoff. We had ran into patchy light snow at around 6500 feet but with the snow being less than an inch. The trail past the campground stayed in great shape all of the way through the Alger Creek Campground and around the as we continue past another campground and up towards Dollar Saddle where we were going to set camp for the night. It was very smooth sailing all of the way until we reached a gully at about 8400 of elevation, about 1000 feet below Dollar Saddle. Move of the way up the trail was basically free of snow but once we hit this gully we knew we were going to be in for a challenge for the rest of the trip up.
Quickly and ended up in knee to waist deep in powder. Even with snowshoes this was going to be a task but without snowshoes this was a nightmare! We quickly noticed that the bushes on the other side were clear of snow and there were a large area that was devoid of even that where there was only scree slopes. Hmm… Scree with occasional bushwhacking or knee to waist deep in powder. The answer it seemed was obvious. Unfortunately the occasional bushwhacking turned out to be anything but occasional bushwhacking.
Quickly this was becoming a grade two bushwhack and the constant slashing of the bushes was really starting to cut up Kristen in a bad way. Gimpilator and I were also taking some serious face shots from these nasty bushes. Add on the fact that the sun was setting on us and until then warm temperatures were cooling down extremely rapidly and we suddenly realized we had to fight these bushes if we going to have any chance to setup a safe camping site. We continue to slash through the heavy bushes all the way until we finally hit the ridgeline at the elevation 10,100 feet about 300 yards from the Dollar Lake Saddle in an area known as the Red Rock Flat.
It was dark and we could not see anything so we decided to set camp there. It was getting very cold at this time and we really in bad shape from the tough bushwhack. The elevation was also starting to effect all of our moods. After a quick meal we knew we had to knock out if we were to have any chance to summit San Gorgonio the next day.
The Night from Hell
During the night temperature continued to drop to at least the low teens. Luckily we all had zero degree our even lower temperature sleeping bags. That might have made it warm but not comfortable. The wind had picked up during the night making the trees shake above us and drop there ice on the tent all night. Throughout the night all we could hear was one crash after another. The howling wind reminded us that though we are in Southern California we are over 10,000 feet up and it is still winter in the mountains. Add on to the fact that I was sleeping on a nice assortment of bad rocks and you can figure out that I did not get the best of sleep that night. The others seemed to get good sleep but it that might have all been relative. The only major blessing is that there was no storm anywhere near the region and that we had stayed dry all night.
The Day of the Climb
The next morning we decided to give a shot at running the ridge to San Gorgonio. Though we were tired we wanted at least put in a solid effort to get to the highest peak in Southern California. The big question was the snow conditions. Within a couple minutes we got our answer the same, horrible! As soon as we passed Dollar Lake Saddle we ran into a potpourri of snow conditions from waist deep to icy and everything in between. There was no consolidation in the snow and no consistency in the snow either. We headed up Charlton Peak and the fatigue from the night before was finally get the best of us. It was clear at this point that San Gorgonio was going to have to wait for another day. We press on all the way to the top of Charlton Peak. From there we looked out from the partial clearing on the summit of Charlton Peak got the first good look at Jepson Peak and San Gorgonio. I stuck my ice axe in the snow signed the summit log and realized at that point that I was done for the day.
After Gimpilator, Kristin5berry and I had a discussion a little down from the summit we came to a group decision that it was time for us to head on off and call this section of climb done. We got a summit, and knocked off 5,500 or more of elevation gain much with a heavy backpack. All of us were quiet rattled by the situation and though there were thoughts of staying a couple more nights of giving another shot, none of us wanted to risk that situation and end up even more miserable. We quickly took down camp, packed our bags and headed down to the base to regroup and figure out where to go from there.
Victory and Defeat; Now it is Time to Head Down
Heading down was not easy at first. We decided to avoid the bushes and head down the knee to waist deep snow back where the trail was beforehand. Often we would slip on the consolidated powder and would have to maneuver branches that would probably covered up with consolidated snow at this time. While heading down we discussed other options and trip for the rest of the week. We knew there was a serious storm coming later in the week and we knew that we had to try to beat it. Our spirits were blasted from this mountain but the trip was still young and we could easily salvage the rest of the trip. Heading down the trail we were having our spirits raised by powerful southern California sunshine. We made good progress all of the way back to the car and soon we were off to find more adventures. After all this southern California and where we are from (Boston and Seattle) warm sun is rare to come by during these months.
All Was Not LostWe may only got one peak in the San Bernardino range but the trip was still a great success afterwards. All of us ended up with at least nine new summit for the week from both the Laguna Beach area and Death Valley. The largest of these peaks was Telescope Peak, which we got to the day before a major storm arrived to the region.
When we were not summiting summits we were able to take time and enjoy the beautiful beaches of southern California and relax while picking up valuable Vitamin D to help us survive through the winter blues. We were also able focus on other trips in the region for the next time we are to come down into the area. For me there is a chance that will be in March or next January for I have some unfinished business to attend to next time I am in southern California. The San Bernardino’s have not seen the last of me!