San Gorgonio 17 Peaks
17 peaks in 17 hours. Car to car.
With a recent thread about the San Gorgonio 9 Peaks I was reminded that this was one of the few monster SoCal dayhikes I still needed to do. Though I wasn't 100% committed I put it on my short list of possible things to do for the weekend.
The San Gorgonio 9 Peak Challenge is one of the harder hikes in Southern California and seems to have gained some popularity in recent years. The goal of course is to complete the 9 peaks on the ridge from San Bernardino Peak to San Gorgonio. It is popular with the Boy Scouts and though it can be done in a single day it is often done as a backpack trip. The Mill Creek visitor center even has a completion patch you can buy.
Of all the Sierra Club HPS (Hundred Peaks Section) reports I've read there is one that stands out and I've never forgotten about it since the first time I read it. In 1996 Erik Siering did a solo dayhike of the Gorgonio range which included not just 9 peaks but an astounding 17 peaks. This was truly a remarkable accomplishment and from time to time I've pondered attempting some variation of it. Erik's route (starting at Fish Creek and descending to Angelus Oaks) was the most logical and efficient. The only problem was that this required a car shuttle. Not that there's anything wrong with a car shuttle but I have a history of finding other ways (which typically involves a greater degree of torture):
5/29/05 - Shortys Well to Telescope Peak and back
2/11/06 - Palm Springs to San Jacinto (C2C) and back (no tram)
9/17/06 - Baldy 11 Peaks (loop)
3/25/07 - Panamint Traverse - Ballarat to Kilns and back
5/26/07 - Iron/Baldy Traverse - Heaton to Manker and back
In the case of the Panamint Traverse I followed a 30 mile hike with a 31 mile mountain bike ride back to my car. This seemed to be the likely solution to the Gorgonio puzzle but it posed some problems not the least of which was having to make the tedious drive to Fish Creek Meadows. If only there was another way. If only I could make a loop out of it. Yes, that's it! But is it feasible? After some thought I came up with a possible game plan that just might work and even better it would be a car to car hike without any shuttle. This would involve more miles and more elevation gain (making for a significantly harder hike) but this would be just my style.
4am. The time had come. My starting and ending point would be the South Fork trailhead. Here it was cold! With a low temp in the 30's it felt like winter. I estimated it would take around 20 hours to complete the hike if I could do it. This would unfortunately put me back down at midnight followed by a 3.5 hour drive back home so that I could be at work in the morning. Hmmm. Doesn't sound very feasible. Oh well, I'll worry about that later. If nothing else I knew that I could just stop with the 9 peaks and return in a reasable amount of time. Thus I had an out.
By 4:09am I was on my way. To complete the loop it was necessary to hike from the South Fork trailhead to the Forsee Creek trailhead. Fortunately it turns out this is only about 2 miles with a slight shortcut through the forest. At 4:46am I reached the Forsee Creek trailhead and started hiking up the trail. Shortly after 7am I reached the top of the ridge and soon I was ticking off peaks one after another. Everything was going well and I felt good ... though a bit lonely. I had hoped I might cross paths with some of the other hikers I knew were attempting the 9 peaks but so far I had seen no one. Turns out they were trailing behind me by about an hour or so and because I had written down the time they knew I was ahead of them. I imagine they thought they might be able to catch up with me but my earlier start left them at a disadvantage. After having completed the first five peaks (San Bernardino to Alto Dialbo) I took a short break at Dollar Lake Saddle.
Beyond the saddle I knew things would get more difficult. Having done all these peaks before (but not in the same day) I had some familiarity with the route. Like the others behind me I was concentrating on efficiency and attacked Charlton rather directly. Though acclimation was not as big of a factor for these peaks as it typically is on higher Sierra peaks it still plays a role and I had not made any attempt to acclimate beforehand. I made this same mistake 2 weeks earlier on a dayhike of Mount Kaweah with Bob Burd and Matthew Holliman and paid the price. Fortunately today the effects were limited and I could still maintain a moderate pace.
Charlton and Little Charlton were followed by another uphill climb to Jepson. Next was the descent down to Dobbs and East Dobbs followed by the not-so-fun climb back up to the trail. Back on the trail the next target was San Gorgonio. Along the way I tagged Peak 11,171 though I didn't count this toward my total. For that matter some of the "peaks" I had already done seemed pretty insignificant. Most are named however and my goal was to hit every peak that Erik had done. The number didn't really matter.
At 1:34pm I reached the high point of the day -- the summit of San Gorgonio. This was the only time I saw anyone else the entire day and I had now successfully completed the San Gorgonio 9 Peak Challenge plus Dobbs and East Dobbs. Now it was decision time. Should I head down or continue on? Fortunately the decision was easy. I knew I still had enough energy left to do Dragons Head, Bighorn, and Zahniser. At that point I could then skip the final 3 peaks and head down if I had too. So be it.
Of all the peaks of the day Dragons Head is the most interesting (at least when seen from the East). The east side of Dragons Head is an impressive and even scary sight. After Dragons Head and Bighorn I dropped back down to the tarn and then climbed up to the Mine Shaft trail. This was rather annoying because no sooner than I had done so I had to bleed off all this elevation gain by descending the switchbacks on the East side of San Gorgonio. I despise switchbacks! Unfortunately there was no other option.
I reached Mine Shaft Saddle at 4:12pm. This was followed by the horrendously difficult climb up to Zahniser Peak. Ummmm, ok it took 5 minutes. Perhaps because of it's insignificance this was one of the few peaks that had a nice undamaged register. After signing in on this one I felt my time was good and I continued on to Lake, Ten Thousand Foot Ridge, and Grinnell. I was cutting it close but I figured I would have just enough daylight left to finish off the final three peaks. At 6:27pm, with great satisfaction, I reached the summit of Grinnell -- my 17th peak of the day. With darkness closing in I knew that finding the register on Grinnell might be a problem. Since I had been here before I knew where the register was located. Unfortunately it wasn't there. Either it was stolen (like so many others) or had been moved. To be sure I explored the large summit area but the register was not to be found.
Leaving the summit of Grinnell I was elated but quickly my thoughts turned to getting down. I only had a few minutes of light left and a long way to go to get back to the South Fork Trailhead. At Fish Creek Saddle I turned on my headlamp and headed down the use trail to Dry Lake. This was a poor trail but a welcome shortcut. I only learned of its existence the day before while looking at the trail map at the ranger station.
From here on out there was nothing to see but darkness. I now wanted the day to be over and maintained a brisk pace down the Dry Lake and South Fork trails. Beyond Poopout Hill it seemed to take an unreasonable amount of time to return to the trailhead but finally just after 9pm the hike was over. It had taken just under 17 hours and was the most "peaks" I've done in a single day. As expected it was a significant challenge but I finished it in less time than I estimated. Now all I had left was the long drive home.
Log04:09am - South Fork Trailhead
04:46am - Forsee Creek Trailhead
07:25am - San Bernardino East Peak (#1)
07:52am - San Bernardino Peak (#2)
08:49am - Anderson Peak (#3)
09:12am - Shields Peak (#4)
09:39am - Alto Diablo Peak (#5)
10:10am - Dollar Lake Saddle
10:44am - Charlton Peak (#6)
11:01am - Little Charlton Peak (#7)
11:39am - Jepson Peak (#8)
12:05pm - East Dobbs Peak (#9)
12:19pm - Dobbs Peak (#10)
01:34pm - San Gorgonio Mountain (#11)
02:15pm - Dragons Head (#12)
02:51pm - Bighorn Mountain (#13)
04:12pm - Mine Shaft Saddle
04:17pm - Zahniser Peak (#14)
04:52pm - Lake Peak (#15)
05:28pm - Ten Thousand Foot Ridge (#16)
06:27pm - Grinnell Mountain (#17)
06:42pm - Fish Creek Saddle
07:47pm - NW end of Dry Lake
07:53pm - Dry Lake / Dollar Lake trail junction
08:25pm - Poopout Hill
09:02pm - South Fork Trailhead
Total time: 16 hrs 53 mins
Distance: 38 miles
Elevation Gain: around 12,000 feet