Gorgonio via Vivian Creek

Gorgonio via Vivian Creek

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Sep 15, 2015

Date: September 21, 2015

Climbing time: 7hrs 45mins

Difficulty: Walk-up via Vivian Creek Trail (Class 1)

Elevation gain: Approx. 5422’

Mileage: 18.23 miles car-to-car

Mountains climbed: San Gorgonio

Gear: Gregory Palisade 80L pack (30lb weight); 3L Platypus reservoir; 1-32 oz bottle of H2O; 2 half sandwiches; 2 GU gels; bonk bar; banana; orange; Keen Targhee II boots; Darn Tough socks; Columbia convertible cargo pants; North Face moisture wick tee; LL Bean 1/4 zip fleece; Native sunglasses; Garmin Forerunner 310XT; Shiseido sunblock SPF50; UCLA Alumni cap; poncho; Harbor Freight freebie flashlight.

Weather outlook: 49-75F, clear skies, little-no wind, chance of rain early afternoon.

Trip Reflections

Hiking up San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino Mountains is considered something of a rite of passage for climbers/hikers in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. The length of the approach (9.11mi via Vivian Creek from the car park at the foot of the trail) combined with the elevation gain (5,422′) and a summit height of 11,503′ (tallest in SoCal) provides a chance to gauge readiness for Sierra climbs farther afield in the east. The basic idea is: if you can finish Gorgonio on two legs (with major organs intact), you’ve a fair shot of doing the taller hills in the state.

I arrived at the Vivian Creek trail-head 415am. Actually, I’d arrived in the parking lot located closest to the trail-head. The actual trail-head is a short 1/4 mile hike along a path then over a dry riverbed. As other trip reports point out, variations in distance from trail-head/summit can be attributed to when folks start/stop their GPS (and the still slightly inaccurate nature of these machines).

I locked my car, stowed the key in chest pocket, cinched up the pack one more time, deep breath, and adjusting my cap and glancing up at a brilliant starry sky, began the 10min walk in the dark toward the trail-head at 445am. Signage directed me to the correct riverbed crossing location.

The reports are accurate – the first mile up from the trail-head is pretty brutal, with plenty of switchbacks carving up the rock-strewn use trail. My Garmin had me eclipsing the first mile in 23mins. My legs felt a slight burn, lungs felt fine. Being dark, I didn’t get a chance to note trail landmarks for the return trip. On the subsequent descent, I would falsely come to think I’d made a wrong turn!

Anyway, I’d worked up a solid sweat on the mostly gentle climb up through Mill Creek Canyon, lighting the way with the flashlight. In sections with no overhead canopy, I trusted my eyes to pick out the rocks and random root structures populating the trail. It’s a fairly technical use trail, certainly not well-worn sans obstacles. Vigilance required. At this point of the trail, some folks have commented on the gurgling sounds from Vivian Creek. While I heard slight indications of this churning liquid, today it came across more like a dribble and being dark, and I opted to continue the forward momentum and not take any detours.

By the time I reached the rather easily missed (in the early light) turn-off for High Creek Camp, the sky was just starting to radiate the first light of dawn. Energized, and chomping on a bonk bar interspersed with regular sips of water, I powered on. I paused to watch the sunrise by the waterfall below High Creek, collecting a few photos with iPhone 5. At the 2 hr mark, I’d come 5.10 miles. Not bad, and on pace for my goal of an 845-915am summit.

I encountered another human as I entered High Creek; he’d just topped off his water reservoir. We exchanged pleasantries and he asked if I was planning to summit. I concurred, and he suggested I make quick time, considering the pending rainfall. Asking how far left to the summit, he said it was “maybe 3.5 miles.”

Quite invigorated now, and facing a plethora of switchbacks that gain the shady side of the ridge eventually leading to the final summit push, I removed my hat and with head down, began a steady rhythmic gait. I paused thrice on this rather long series of switchbacks for water and photo ops. There were tall firs stretching up into the sky, and noticeably a lot of fallen trees, victims no doubt of the dreaded plague that’s been decimating forests in the west. Just as I made the top of the switchbacks, I spotted a lovely rock formation with some impressive exposure to the south; it had a terrific view of San Jacinto overlooking Palm Springs. I decided to take an unscheduled break here and enjoy a turkey sandwich, half a banana, and absorb the vistas. I packed away my fleece and kicking up my feet on a nearby rock, felt the sun warm my arms. It was getting hot, at 8am. The break lasted about 15 mins. Deciding I’d dithered long enough, and not wanting to relax my legs too much, I packed up, left no trace, and regained the ascent.

Annoyingly, I noticed my Garmin Forerunner battery despite starting the route fully charged, was on its last bar. Strange. No sweat, it’ll make it to the summit at least, plus I have a backup battery stick to recharge on the go. Oops, I left the Garmin charger in the car! I figured once the Garmin died I’d use iPhone stopwatch to track the descent time, and with the charge cable I could juice it up on the way down.

All things considered, I reckon the final 1.5 miles to the summit was the hardest bit of the climb for me. I felt it more difficult than the initial mile up the trail-head; no doubt this was on account of the 10,700′ elevation, coupled with the miles already logged and the sun exposure (there’s 0 shade the last 1.5 miles).

Around 9am I reached the false summit, which reports itself with a sign: ‘San Gorgonio Mountain.’ I took photos. From here the true summit is a 15-20min leisurely walk on an easy dirt track east. I passed an empty bivy, nestled behind some larger rock piles. This reminded me I needed to purchase a good bivy for future back country Sierra jaunts.

In no hurry, and smiling quite widely having made excellent progress approaching the halfway point of the journey, I ambled along to the summit. After some second guessing, I correctly decided the more elaborate of the two piles of rocks was the summit. Further inspection of this site later revealed the summit register, and the USGS summit marker. Other climbers have said the vistas from the summit were just OK; I found them rather splendid. Admittedly, the way I see it, attaining any summit is always a thrill, and this was no exception. It was 915am and for the next 15 minutes, I had the summit all to myself.

At around 930 I heard voices and saw a couple slowly threading their way up. I was already packed up and walking down, and we paused to exchange pleasantries. They’d been lodged at High Creek the past two days, “to acclimatize,” the fellow said, and had decided today the weather was fortuitous, hence their summit push. Laying siege to Gorgonio! The fellow excitedly asked if I’d just seen the small herd of bighorn sheep (I did not!) that apparently had announced themselves crossing the trail a few hundred yards west of the summit, disappearing just as fast down the north side. The only wild life I saw was a small fox early in the hike whose eyes caught my flashlight, a few mice darting among the summit rocks (no doubt hoping for bits of my energy bar), and some fabulous red-tailed hawks. Anyway, we shared our respective ascent times. I said words equating to “finish strong,” and started the long trek back down.

My descent was rapid, blending minimum 4+mph walking with the odd sprint scramble up small berms. Surprisingly, the 3L water reservoir was running low, this evidenced by the slurp sound emanating from the hose. About 2 miles down I retrieved a 32oz water bottle.

A mile after encountering the couple, I came upon a solo climber with trekking poles making his way gingerly across the exposed south face just below the summit. No doubt referencing my {UCLA} hat he said “Go Yookla,” to which I replied you must mean the football team! We chatted a bit. He was on course for a 5hr summit, though he seemed to get dejected when I told him my summit time of 4hr30min. Parting goodbyes, and we continued on.

About 4 miles down, halfway to the car, I came upon a guy slumped on a rock in the shade; he appeared to have hit the proverbial wall, and looked hollowed out. I offered him water. He helped himself to half my bottle, pouring it clumsily into his empty 32oz aluminum flask. I asked him how long he’d been at it. Taking a huge gulp of the water, he raised his hand and looking down, said he started up around 5am. He was sort of talking to himself. I tried to catch his attention, waving a hand in front of him, doing a “hey buddy, are you ok?” He asked how far it was to the summit. I told him 4 miles. He seemed nonplussed. I told him that in my opinion, assessing his condition (and likely AMS symptoms), he wasn’t fit to continue; and with rain forecast, he should turn back and try another day. He waved me off kindly, “I’ll be alright, son,” and thanked me for the water.

Later, I came upon a woman and her daughter. They both looked tired. The woman asked me about the summit. I answered honestly. She appeared saddened at the news, no doubt hoping to hear “It’s just up around the bend!” She commented on my UCLA hat (another!): “go yookla!” Proceeding downward, I came across a few more clusters of humanity, one notable group featuring a tall (and rather forlorn) looking fellow leading a pack of equally exhausted looking kids. He asked if there was water at high camp. I didn’t notice them carrying any water, and no packs either! High Camp has water, a couple miles up. He asked about the summit. Feeling deja vu, I simply replied, turning to race down the hill, “FAR!

It seems that group was part of a much larger straggling contingent, including the earlier mother-daughter tandem, and I’d pass related stragglers trailing down the mountain over the next mile. The last group, a woman and two young girls, were at least a mile behind the others. The woman joked how she was going at her own pace, but she’d a good mind to turn and head for the Mexican restaurant a mile down the road from the trail-head! I thought briefly of chicken enchiladas, then wished them safe travels.

About a mile from the trail-head, I experienced the aforementioned unfamiliarity. Having come up in the dark, there were no landmarks I could recall. I trusted my inner compass and continued at a quickened pace, the path a bit wider and flatter now.

The sky had grown increasingly cloudy the last hour, until at last I felt rain. It began to pour! I quickly rifled into my pack for the poncho. $17 from REI, and I was soon bone dry. I continued walking but the rain was coming down quite furiously. I noted a huge hollowed out oak tree trunk at least 3′ x 10′ standing off the trail some 10 yards. It looked as if the innards had been burned out. Why not! So I entered the rather large space, but only had to wait 10 minutes as the rain ended and sun rays pierced through the clouds.

Fifteen minutes later, at last I turned a corner and saw the San Gorgonio Wilderness sign above the initial ascent. Thankfully, I knew I’d not run off course. My car was waiting some 15 minutes away. It was about 12pm. I couldn’t wait to throw off this pack and remove my boots. I arrived at my car at the 7hr 45min mark. My descent had taken 3hr15min, with no rest stops apart from the pleasantry exchanges with fellow travelers on the trail, and the rain delay.


My lungs felt great, but feet were a bit sore, same with my knees; the latter two no doubt due to the rather cavalier plunging I’d been doing down the steep trail. It's a bit technical, with a lot of unearthed root structures that require eyes on point and lifting of the legs. I’d run out of water at the very end, which was expected, considering I didn’t plan on refilling at High Creek. And I felt sleepy, having left home to drive to the trail-head at 3am.

In all, it was a pleasant and rigorous 18.23 mile hike, and my body feels better for it. Weather permitting, I feel ready to tackle Shasta (14,179′) on the 29th, Dana (13,061’) on the 30th, and White Mountain (14,252’) on the 1st.


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