Lost in the San Bernardino Mountains – Part I
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!”