The sun was rapidly sinking below the ridge as I struggled to get my bearings. As it dropped out of sight, it would be dark in 45 minutes. A bit of panic set in as I lamented over my ineptness. Headlamp shattered, my flashlight was gone. Banged up and lost, it was going to be a long night.
Coming up on three years of hiking, I’ve spent many hours learning about backcountry navigation, survival and general stories of thru hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail. I’ve managed to put some of it into practice and have never been lost for more than a couple of hours. In southern California it seems that a hiker gets lost almost every week. What follows is a tale of something that I hope never happens to me – or you.
The day began like any other solo hike. I picked my route out ahead of time, texted my wife with my intended route and off I went. It was late March and there was plenty of daylight left. The Momyer Creek Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, is part of the San Bernardino National Forest. This area is loaded with challenging trails, many intersecting and often leading to multiple summits over 10,000 ft.
The trail, one of the less popular in the area is peaceful and offers good solitude. It’s also one of the least maintained with many blowdowns and much erosion. Volunteers take care of these trails and it is hard work, so no complaining here. It was also early in the season and there was still snow at the higher elevations.
I had checked the weather before leaving and it was pretty standard for early spring in the mountains of southern California. Above 6,000 ft, daytime highs in the 60’s, night-time lows in the 30’s with a slight chance of flurries above 7,000 ft. after midnight.
The hike up Momyer was a good workout, mostly a single track trail that generally followed an easterly direction. By late morning, the sun was warm and the sounds of the woodpeckers echoed through the forest. I stopped every couple of miles to rest and take in the surroundings. So far, no other hikers were around. Off in the distance, the rumbling of a rock slide could be heard. The melting snow must be loosening the granite on the slopes of “Old Greyback” as San Gorgonio Mountain is affectionately known.
My goal was to hike to 9,000 ft. and turn around. Stopping in Saxton Camp, I had a snack and noticed that it was around 4:00 p.m. Thankfully, Daylight Savings Time was a couple of weeks ago, so I could reach the trailhead by nightfall. Yep, 7 miles to go, I can do that.
As I was making my way down, I came across a landslide on one of the slopes. Debris totally blocked the trail. It was a steep talus, too steep to climb. The drop-off was even more precarious and too risky to traverse. No problem, I would backtrack and find a way above the slide. With approximately 90 minutes of daylight left, this needed to be a quick detour. I have a headlamp and flashlight, so I was prepared in case of a delay. Checking my map, I estimated that I was around 7,500 ft. and in an area of steep slopes for a half mile in each direction. Going back, it was difficult to find a path up a slope that wasn’t covered in scree, those loose rocks and pebbles. After about 15 minutes, I noticed an easier route and began a climb up. Reaching a clump of trees, I could see the trail below. Holding my hand up to the sun, I noticed two fingers between the sun and the ridge. That meant 30 minutes until it dropped out of sight.
Looking around for a reference point, that’s when it happened. One second I was standing next to a Jeffrey Pine and next thing I knew I was sliding downhill. Trying to slow myself down, I attempted to dig in with my heels. That wasn’t having much of an effect so I rolled over trying to grab the scree with my hands and clawed as much as possible. Digging my knees in, it felt like I was gaining more speed and bringing the mountain down with me. Then, there was a sensation like the bottom dropped out, and I landed on a ledge. The abrupt drop knocked the wind out of me. I was gasping like a fish out of water.
Well that sucked. After what seemed like an eternity, I rolled over and sat up to assess my situation. No broken bones that I could tell, lots of cuts and abrasions and a goose-egg on the side of my head. One hiking pole was still strapped to my hand, the other nowhere in sight. Worse yet, I was disoriented and unsure of where the trail was. Covered in a light, powdery dust, I must have been quite a sight. A crow flew over me and cackled. I’ve always disliked those birds.
Before the sun went totally down, I checked the supplies in my daypack. Emergency kit, first aid kit, water, snacks, gloves, knit cap, warm jacket, extra socks – you know the ten essentials and then some. My headlamp was a casualty of my excursion down the slope, the lens busted and bulb gone. The Otter Case protected my phone from getting demolished, but no cellular signal. I cleaned my wounds, none of the cuts too deep. The lump on the side of my head concerned me a bit, but I didn’t feel dizzy or lethargic. Looking for my backup flashlight, it wasn’t in the side pocket of my pack. What else could go wrong? With the sun setting and no light I needed to find shelter for the night, out of the winds that would come in from the northeast. Searching the immediate area, I located a spot that looked ok. The patch of flat dirt was clear of widow-makers, you know the dead trees that can drop branches and crush you in the middle of the night. I collected some pine boughs to insulate the ground near a boulder about the size of my car. I had about 1.5 liters of water, a couple of snack bars and an apple. I pressed the button on my Spot GPS to alert my wife that I was ok. Hopefully, she gets the message. Unfortunately, it is a one-way transmitter.
Like many areas in the mountains, cellular coverage is sporadic. Checking my phone one more time, I was disappointed to see no signal. Wait, one bar but no 3G – would it work? I tried a call, but it failed. Tried sending a text and it failed too. Oh well, better save my battery for when I do have a signal.
The last bit of light faded from the sky. No city lights for reference. Pulling out my jacket and space blanket, I settled in and stashed my pack to the side. Hearing crickets, the sky turned darker shades of blue, some pink and then black. Stars began to emerge as the daylight faded. A waning crescent moon was my only nightlight. My eyes adjusted somewhat and I prayed for an uneventful night.
NEXT- Lost in the San Bernardino Mountains-Part 2 – “Hey, that’s my pack!”
U.S.D.A. Identifier: Vivian Creek Trail, 1E08
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks, pine straw
Distance as hiked: 10.8 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,500ft., Top of trail-9,200ft.
Temps: 60-70 degrees
Did a spur of the moment hike back to San Gorgonio on a day off. A couple of weeks ago we did the Lost Creek Trail and discovered the solitude of a little used trail that intersects a few others prior to the summit of San Gorgonio. According to the San Gorgonio Wilderness website www.swga.org, the Vivian Creek Trail is the second busiest after the South Fork Trail. On this weekday, I would come across 8-10 others and several more in the Halfway Camp.
Pass through the little hamlet of Forest Falls and the road ends at a picnic area, which was still closed – perhaps to state budget cuts or an ongoing renovation. You will need an Adventure Pass to park in the large parking lot on the left. From there you can follow Mill Creek Wash east along the bank and you will see the trail sign come up on your right. Otherwise, you can follow the paved road in the picnic area east and you will come to the same trail sign.
The trail begins on an access or fire road for approximately .5-.7 miles and turns to the left where you are looking at Mill Creek Wash. The wash is approximately 300 yards wide, full of boulders with Mill Creek running on the north side. Today, the creek was barely two feet wide. On the far side of the wash, there is another trail marker where you quickly gain elevation on steep, rocky switchbacks. The gnats were annoying and continued to sporadically pester me for another mile. Around 7,000 ft., they thinned out and the hike became more pleasant as the view opened up to Mill Creek Canyon and points farther south.
This trail is one of the shortest (and steepest) routes to the summit of San Gorgonio. Today, I would do 5.5 miles of the roughly 9 mile hump to the summit. Not yet a speed hiker, I enjoy the eye candy (the wilderness views) and took a steady pace with stops to snap pics. Overall, the trail is single track and in good shape due to its’ frequent use. It traverses a rocky wash with lots of shade from various conifers. There are exposed areas with chaparral as well. I crossed several areas with decent water flow, each several miles apart. As always, recommend a filter to ward off the giardia and cryptosporidium. Man, that last bug sounds nasty, doesn’t it? I’ll talk about hydration in a future blog.
I stopped at the spur to Halfway Camp and had lunch on a boulder. No one in the camp yet, but people usually start settling in late afternoon. I wonder if the feds have a mandatory check in time for these camps? 🙂 The trail breaks in and out of small flats with dry creek areas. A mix of chaparral and deciduous trees slowly starts changing into mostly conifers. The landscape in this area varies immensely between 6,000-8,000 ft.
About two hours into the hike, I heard a rock slide that sounded like it was to my east, but the way sounds bounce off the canyon, wasn’t sure. Within 30 minutes, a helicopter was flying around near Mill Creek but I never did find out what happened. Not long after this trip, several guys from north county San Diego got lost off of Fish Creek Trail for a couple of days. Seems that these “experienced” hikers got turned around after they traversed a snow-covered gully. I will not make fun of them, it could happen to anyone, right? Next time bring a map or GPS fellas.
After hitting 9,000 ft. and reaching High Camp, I decided to take a break and head back down. Most of the time, I’ll take my shoes/socks off to air out before turning around. On longer treks, it’s a good idea to do it a couple of times each day. I’ve managed to avoid blisters with this regimen. Gorgonio Peak is certainly do-able in one day via this trail with an early start for a determined hiker. Still some patches of snow above 7,000 ft. in early May.
On the way down, I met a couple doing a 2 or 3 day trip to the peak. You meet the nicest people on the trail. Most are laid back and enjoy sharing their experiences with you. I ended up jogging for three or more miles until I hit the rocky part of the trail near Mill Creek Canyon. It was a good workout as my knees reminded me that I was no longer 18 years old.
This is a good trail if you are practicing for a High Sierra trip, as the elevation change and trail conditions are similar.
You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.
You ever heard of the adage “you can learn something new everyday”? Well, maybe it’s not an adage, but it should be. A couple of years ago, some young Marines taught me a valuable lesson on a backcountry hike. The lesson was one that I’ve taken to heart. Disclaimer: The observations that follow are based on my experiences and are not medical advice.
When you think about which part of your body takes the most abuse on the trail, what comes to mind? For me it is the feet. Your tootsies can really take a beating out there. If you’ve been hiking for a while, you have probably suffered from some of the maladies that I’ll discuss. My first cardinal sin of hiking was buying shoes that fit. In other words, I got boots the same size as my everyday shoes. They worked great on short hikes on varied terrain. However, my week of hiking in Yosemite demonstrated the flaw to my thinking. After a long hike, the downhill stretch hurt my toes. You see, the feet can swell and the arches tend to flatten a bit on long hikes. The result can be a foot that is up to one size larger than normal. Since the toes have nowhere to go, they bang up against the toe box in your boot. The result may take a few days, but the toenails turn black and blue and eventually fall off. Lesson Learned – Buy hiking shoes/boots that are at least 1/2 to 1 size larger than normal. You can make up the difference with thicker socks.
Blisters, unavoidable – right? Not always. While the primary cause of blisters is friction, moisture (sweat) is a key contributing factor. Reduce the rubbing and moisture and you will typically get less blisters. After your toes, the heels take the most abuse on your feet. You can reduce heel rubbing by a shoe that fits well. You can also use a lubricant made especially for runners which is somewhat effective. Shoes that are too wide in the back allow for excessive movement and will rub those seven layers of skin off by lunchtime. Some tips to reduce moisture – use synthetic sock liners followed by the appropriate thickness of wool socks. The merino wool works well for me. Together, these socks wick away moisture where it has a chance to evaporate. Lastly, as far as blisters go, dirt in your shoe – it is an abrasive that increases the risk of blisters. The solution is to pick up some gaiters to slip over your shoes. There are many varieties from simple synthetic pullover to heavy-duty trail blazers that resist cactus. They do a great job at keeping debris out of your shoes.
By far, the most comforting thing that you can do on extended treks is to occasionally stop and take your shoes and socks off. This is especially true on those warmer hikes, but the feet perspire on those winter hikes due to the thicker socks. A 5 minute break cooling your jets will go a long way in warding of those blisters. Massaging the bottom and ball of your feet is very therapeutic. Be careful, as I’ve read of hikers losing a boot over a cliff. Can you imagine hiking out in your socks?
On extended backcountry trips, it is imperative that you baby those feet at the end of the day. I usually break out the wet or antiseptic wipes and give my feet a good cleaning. It’s always a good idea to apply some triple antibiotic ointment to any open blisters or abrasions. It is possible to get an infection from an open blister or raw area on your feet within days, especially if you fiord a few streams. Afterwards, I’ll rub some foot lotion or ointment (like Gold Bond or Kerasal) to moisturize, before putting on a clean pair of socks at bedtime. Your feet will appreciate it and the socks will keep your feet comfy. Like many of you, I’ve logged hundreds of trail miles on these feet and they haven’t failed me yet. Take care of them and you’ll be amazed where they can take you. 🙂
U.S.D.A. Identifier: Lost Creek Trail, 1E09
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.
Distance as hiked: 8.8 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,300ft., Top of trail-8,200ft.
Temps: 60-70 degrees
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Today, we would venture out farther from home and drive the 90+ miles to check out the trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW). While a day hike to San Gorgonio Mountain is possible, it would be a very long day for us and is better attempted as an overnighter. All trails in the SGW require the perfunctory wilderness permit, which can be obtained by stopping by in person at one of several ranger stations, via fax or by snail mail. Follow the swa.org link above for permit directions. I’ve become a bit of a purist and believe trail permits are government out of control, but I am a rule follower.
We stopped in after noon to obtain our permit at Mill Creek Ranger station. While inside, Mary met an old friend and insisted that I take their picture.
From Mill Creek, follow SR38 to the South Fork Campground. Parking for the trailhead is across the road from the campground and is co-located with the Santa Ana River Trail. It is fairly well-marked and breaks off at a marker in the campground. The trail wastes no time gaining elevation over switchbacks that gain 400-500 ft. The trail joins a fire road for a mile and changes to a wide creek bed laden with rocks before narrowing into a rutted single track. Evidence of recent equestrians is scattered along the trail.
This is one of the most interesting and diverse trails that we’ve been on in the San Bernardino National Forest. We traversed areas with deciduous trees, rounded a corner and saw cactus on the verge of blooming. As we crossed the top of a meadow, we saw an area of seasonal springs. There were a few blow-downs and widow-makers throughout the hike. At times, the trail became narrow with sheer drop-offs into the Santa Ana River canyon below. Overall, the climb was gradual with few switchbacks and limited scree to slip on. Pine straw does cover sections of the trail and is a bit slippery. On a side-note, the PCT skirts many of the trails in the San Bernardino Forest and is located less than 10 miles east of this trail.
For the first couple of miles, Sugarloaf Peak to the north is the prominent land mass and the perspective changes as you pass through 7,000 ft. Eventually, the path takes a 180 and you head in an easterly direction with views of snow-covered peaks to the southwest. For this area in southern California, I believe the best altitude for hiking is between 6-8,000 ft. The temps are usually mild and the sub-alpine surroundings offer respite from the sun. This trail is especially appealing due to the solitude. We would run into only one other couple all day.
We stopped at Grinnell Campground, an open area with awesome views to the south-southwest. It was peaceful and we enjoyed our hot tea. When hiking 8-10 miles, it’s a good idea to cool your jets by removing shoes and socks to allow for some air to dry out those puppies.
Our descent was quick with minimal stops for photos. Rounding a switchback, we did see this in the distance and like most hikers is one thing you don’t ever want to see. Notice the smoke was blowing in our direction.
A fire in the backcountry is a scary thing. Fortunately, this one was far enough away and we were only a couple of miles from the trailhead. Cal-Fire had it contained within a few days. If you hike frequently in this region, you know how much fuel is on the ground. Fires can be swift and devastating. It’s a good idea to talk about an escape plan and how you would deal with a fire when out on the trail. Trail maps and/or knowledge of the local terrain is invaluable and can make the difference between life or death in a forest fire scenario.
Well enough of the gloom and doom. We lived to see another beautiful day in southern California and have discovered an amazing array of trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area. This will serve as our practice area for our section hike of the JMT this summer. My parting advice this week:
– Take trail maps, GPS and discuss escape route options. These Tom Harrison maps are the best: San Gorgonio Wilderness Map (2015) (Tom Harrison Maps Waterproof and Tear Resistant)
– In fire situations, avoid canyons and ravines as fires often ravage these areas.
– Consider a GPS locator for emergency situations. I use a SPOT GPS Messenger. SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange While there is no guarantee that it works 100% of the time, it operates consistently if used properly. There are other higher quality GPS locators out there.
– On day hikes, take extra water and snacks – just in case. This week, several more novice hikers got lost in SoCal. Fortunately, all were found quickly. None of them had water or food for their unplanned overnighters.
Use common sense out on the trail and enjoy the outdoors wherever you are. Consider stocking up on a couple of pieces of survival gear including: Heavy-Duty Stainless Steel Camping Mirror – Personal Use, Emergency Signaling or this whistle: UST JetScream Whistle