This is Part II of a story that I started a few weeks ago….
The temperature dropped quickly after the sun settled behind the ridge. Before it got totally dark I had gathered up some rocks and made a tiny fire pit on the ledge. There was enough kindling and scraps to make a small fire. I couldn’t imagine trying to keep it going all night and it wasn’t needed for a signal fire – yet. I was also a bit paranoid about setting the San Gorgonio Wilderness on fire and ruining the forest for everyone else. In 2003, the San Diego County Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres, destroyed 2,820 buildings and killed 15 people. It was caused by a lost hunter who lit a signal fire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedar_Fire Eventually, I let the fire go out.
I finally settled into an uneasy sleep, not really asleep but one like you’re in a strange hotel room and you wake up confused.
The sound was strange, in my dream it was a rustling sound. Except it wasn’t a dream. I woke up under the space blanket and peeked out from under to see what the sound was. My eyes strained to see the shape that was nearby. The shape snorted and began to move away. Omigosh, it couldn’t be! A bear came upon me and was dragging something. I shouted at him, “Hey that’s my backpack!”, but Yogi kept taking my bag away. Knowing better than to wrestle a bear for my belongings, I tried throwing rocks at him. Probably not a good idea, but I was mad and not thinking properly.
The rocks only made him trot away with my bag and he disappeared. I went back to my bed of pine branches and sat down. As the adrenaline faded, I started trembling from the encounter of a black bear only a couple of feet away from me. Thankful that they aren’t normally carnivores with human appetites, I was demoralized from losing my belongings to a stinkin bear. It was impossible to sleep from that point on as the thought of another ursine visit plagued me.
I was down to a cell phone, my wallet, keys and the clothes on my back. My pack had the water, emergency supplies and food. I began to wonder what else could go wrong when something cold landed on my nose. I went to flick it away and nothing was there. Another piece of coldness landed on my eyelash and then another. Wonderful, the 30% chance of snow flurries just turned to 100%. Clouds must have rolled in over the last couple of hours because I could no longer see the moon or stars. For a moment, I felt like Job and asked God if he hated me. However, Job knew that God loved him and so did I. He would see me through this.
The flurries turned to a light snow and I noticed the landscape became somewhat brighter. I huddled under the pine tree with my space blanket and thought about my wife and warm bed 100 miles from here. I knew that I would get out of this situation and continued to pray for safety and that the temperature wouldn’t drop much more.
The night seemed to last forever and the sound of pine cones and branches falling unnerved me for several more hours. The snow would continue and provided a cold blanket over the barren landscape. Eventually, the sky started to gain some color. I made up my mind that once there was enough light to make out east from west and some landmarks, I was getting the heck out of here.
It was overcast, and the snow had stopped. I couldn’t see the sun, but was able to make out the general direction of where it was. Knowing that I needed to head west-southwest, I began a slow traverse toward what I hoped was the trail. The snow had accumulated a couple of inches, so it wasn’t difficult to walk. Eventually, I broke out into a meadow with a lot of downed trees. It looked vaguely familiar, but the dusting of snow covered any trail that might exist. Continuing in a westerly direction, I heard what sounded like water flowing. That was a good sound and immediately boosted my morale.
The stream was a vernal one, but ended up cutting through a trail. Hallelujah!, I found the trail. I almost ran to Alger Creek, but saved my energy and focused staying on the path. Crossing Alger, I knew that cell phone reception was within 30-40 minutes. The path had less snow and estimated that the altitude was around 7,000 ft. Seeing Mill Creek Canyon through the trees ahead, I tried the cell phone and got two bars.
The phone was working and I was able to get through to my wife. I explained some of what happened, leaving out the parts about falling down a steep hill, the bear and snow. No need to worry her you know.
The snow disappeared around 6,000 ft. and I emerged into the Mill Creek Wash where I ran into a day hiker heading up. It must have been around 8 a.m. I didn’t tell him about my ordeal, but he did give me the strangest look. After I got to the car, I could see why. My face was covered in dust and I had abrasions on my cheeks. On my drive home, I had plenty of time to think about the past 24 hours. In my rear view mirror, Ol’ Greyback (Mt. San Gorgonio) faded in the distance.
While this was my attempt at fiction, the fact is solo hikers get hurt (and lost) a lot. It’s always a good idea to let someone know where you are going. It will give the Search & Rescue team a good starting point. Also, check the weather forecast and do not throw rocks at bears. Don’t forget the 10 essentials in your backpack:
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
Credit for the 10 essentials – Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, by Mountaineer Books.
It’s funny how much time you waste piddling around the campsite. By the time we loaded up, it was almost 9 a.m. We had a 7 mile descent ahead. Other than the difficulty of carrying a full load uphill, going down is harder. You tend to slip more and your toes feel like they’re coming out the front of your shoe. The talus was steep and the trail angled, which caused us to compensate by putting more weight on the uphill foot. It was slow going but we were ready to finish this. The focus required to maintain footing was intense. When you think about every step on this terrain being calculated, your brain gets a real workout too.
The volunteer trail crews have done an amazing job out here. On a previous scouting hike of Momyer Creek Trail, I counted no less than 10 blow-downs blocking the trail. By Memorial Day, they had cleared them all. Sometimes, I will make a note on the position of a trail issue and report it back to the ranger station on the way out. The hiking community is tight-knit and are good stewards of the trail. By noon, the exposed areas on the trail were heating up. It was a blessing to go in and out of the forest as the temps would drop 5-10 degrees in the shade.
Toward the end, we started to run into day-hikers and people who seemed to be out for a stroll. As we neared Mill Creek, we heard groups of people and lots of kids. We passed a family heading uphill, their daughter asking us “where the river was?” “River? Oh, you mean Alger Creek, it’s 3.7 miles that-a-way.” I doubt they made it that far as they towed an elderly woman who was inching along. They also had their sodas and snacks in a clear trash bag. Please don’t take me wrong, I don’t mean to make fun of them, it’s the contrast between a few days away from society and being thrust into an urban picnic. We came across another family and after we told them about our 27 mile hike, the daughter asked to take our picture. Of course, we agreed. Wow, we were puffed up now!
We entered Mill Creek Wash and the atmosphere was that of a park, with people gathered around the creek, umbrellas, blankets and picnic supplies. It was too much for us – as in culture shock too much. Civilization smacked us right in the face. What we saw as a simple wash with a creek running through it became a beach front resort to the people of metro San Bernardino.
After getting back to the car, we laughed for a long time about what we just witnessed. Imagine, going into the backcountry for a few days without having time to acclimate to society. We still giggle about it. In the end, our trip to Gorgonio was hard, but great practice for the JMT. Time spent together as a couple was primo. Taking the bear canisters gave Mary an idea what it was like to pack everything (including trash) in a can. One more hike up San Jacinto and we will be ready for one of the best treks in the country.
The scene at Mill Creek showed us one thing – people love to get out and away from the city. Imagine how much more fun it is to venture a few miles out. I encourage you to go higher and farther. Amazing times await you…
Day hiking is definitely a good way to warm up for section hiking. Just like car camping is a good way to warm up for wilderness camping. At least that’s how we approach it.
The first day up Momyer Creek Trail was a challenge. With 3,000 ft. of elevation gain and difficult terrain, we were ready for a quiet night. Our first task after getting camp set up was to get water for dinner and the next day’s trek. I’ve had a Sawyer 2-bag water filtration system for a few years now and it is dependable, albeit a bit bulky for two people. It does require an adequate water source and doesn’t work well in small puddles. The gravity feed from the dirty bag to the clean bag through the filter is slow and takes awhile to filter 6-7 liters.
Dinner consisted of dehydrated meals. Mountain House makes some decent ones that are fairly palatable. We use the portable Pocket Rocket stove with propane-butane fuel. Also found a MSR knockoff stove to use as a backup.
We settled in for the night into our tent as the temperature dropped quickly. After a full day of hiking, it’s amazing how fast you can go to sleep. The first night takes some getting used to, kinda of like sleeping in a strange room or hotel. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. At first, the sound of the helicopter was distant as we heard it pass through nearby canyons. Suddenly, the sound of the blades were overhead, followed by a bright searchlight. I was like, what the heck? I unzipped the door to the tent to see what was going on when the searchlight illuminated me like a Sci-Fi movie where the spaceship beams you up. The pilot announced through his speaker that they were looking for a lost hiker. I shook my head no, and the pilot proceeded a couple of hundred yards uphill where he lit up the camp were the boy scouts were. This continued for about 10 more minutes and then it was gone. That was midnight. The rest of the evening was uneventful. We never did find out who was lost.
Morning was brisk and breakfast consisted of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Crystallized eggs, sounds yucky huh? Actually it is one of the best inventions in a long time when it comes to freeze-dried type food. I don’t know how they do it, but when mixed with water and cooked in a skillet, it is exactly like scrambled eggs. Well, they are eggs. The pre-cooked bacon was also near normal taste and texture. Overall, a tasty breakfast with hot tea. Maybe coffee next time.
Today, we would hike from our base camp at 8,400 ft. to the summit at 11,500. I had Mary drop her main pack and carry a Camelbak hydration pack that I use for mountain biking. I dumped most of the stuff out of my backpack and used it to carry our days’ supplies. We hit the trail and continued through a sub-alpine forest before emerging on the edge of a meadow. Another small stream a mile away provided the last water until our return leg. Crossing above Plummer’s Meadow, we would see the first of many awesome views that day. The switchbacks up to Dollar Lake Saddle junction were steady and steep. This portion of the trail gained about 700 ft. per mile.
At the junction, we ran into a group of boy scouts trying to melt some snow. They had quite the quandary as they did not bring adequate water with them for the summit. It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow and in the end, I believe they failed to make the top that day. Planning, especially water – is everything on this mountain.
As we continued, the elevation ticked off, 9,000, 10,000… No altitude sickness today. It helped that we camped above 8,000 ft. last night to get acclimated. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is nothing to mess with. It could begin with a persistent headache, nausea or dizziness and can affect the healthiest of people. Don’t confuse it with a hangover because the symptoms are the same! For a mild case, often hydrating and a couple of ibuprofen help. For persistent or worse symptoms, the only cure is to descend.
We could see Mt. Baldy on one of the switchbacks and the views only got better. We passed through the last trail camp and the tree-line was around 10,700. Up the next switchback, Mt. San Jacinto came into view. The closest of the Three Sisters, its’ majestic peak stands out as a sentinel to the sprawling desert below. Streaks of snow remain at her higher elevations. The trail intersected with Vivian Creek Trail, the shortest-steepest route to the summit. We began to see more people as the trails converged on the summit like freeway ramps.
There are several false summits along the way. Unless you’ve been there before, each view to a taller hill appears to be the top. It’s only when you see people nestled in the boulders like eagles on their nests do you realize you are there. We would take our pics, write in the journal, text our families and have lunch right there – only feet away from people you’ve never met before. The summit had a celebratory atmosphere to it, with everyone smiling and quietly chatting.
You could see for miles or as far as the L.A. smog would let you see to the west. It actually wasn’t that bad today. Big Bear Lake to the north, the high desert to the east and the Peninsular Mountain chain farther south. By the time we left, there were over 100 people up there. Oh well, it is Memorial Day weekend.
The six-mile trip down was pleasant as we would run in to a few more people making their way up to camp at the top. We did not see anyone else after two miles. The constant downhill was harder on the feet and we took a “foot break” at Dollar Lake Saddle. There was a cool breeze as we aired out our socks. The pounding takes a toll on your arches and toes.
By the time we got to camp, we had logged 12 miles and were ready to eat dinner and crash. After filling up our reservoirs at the creek, we had a spicy Mountain House chili meal. It was actually pretty good and one bag was enough for two people. Well, one hungry dude could probably eat the whole thing. After cleaning up, we nestled into the tent around 8:00 with the intent to relax and read a bit. By 8:30 we were in la-la land.
I would be awakened some time later by a bright light next to my head on the outside of the tent. “What is that?” Mary was like – “huh?” I said “that light, what is it?” The flashlight in my backpack pocket must be on I thought. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the chilly night air. The full moon in all its’ glory had crested the ridge and lit up our tent like the spotlight from the rescue chopper. We laughed and went back to bed.
The wind picked up a bit that night and made a soothing sound as it passed through the conifers on the exposed ridges. Soothing, but a bit eerie as the pitch would vary. Our campsite was on a downhill slope and not affected by the wind. Eventually, we would drift off only to be awakened by the woodland birds at dawn. Most were pleasant to listen to, except for the woodpecker.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 3: Talus Is Hard To Walk On.
As part of our workup to a section hike of the John Muir Trail this summer, Mary and I decided to do a 3 day practice hike to the summit of Mt San Gorgonio via the Momyer Creek Trail. The tallest of the Three Sisters (San Antonio, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio) it stands out at 11,503 ft. Southern California isn’t necessarily known for its’ majestic mountains, but these peaks are often used to warm up for longer backcountry trips into the Sierras, especially Mt. Whitney.
It’s always good to check in with the rangers to get the latest on trail conditions. Also, get an update on the water flows at the creeks and streams. The office is often staffed with volunteers who are a wealth of knowledge. Having obtained the backcountry permit several weeks prior at the Mill Creek Ranger station, we arrived at the Momyer Creek Trail parking area around 0900 on what we expected to be a busy Memorial Day weekend. Altitude at the trailhead is approx. 5,450 ft.
This was Mary’s first time out with her new Gregory 60 liter pack, complete with a few days worth of food in a bear canister. While the canisters are not mandatory here, I suggested it to get used to our next backcountry on the JMT where they are required. She has the BearVault 500, and I picked up the Garcia canister. Both are highly rated, and I’ve rented the Garcia type in Yosemite. They are cumbersome and take up a lot of space in the pack, but we just dealt with it. My wife is an amazing hiking partner. She really kicks it on the trail and doesn’t complain a bit.
We began our trek by crossing the Mill Creek Wash, which has two sections of the creek that are fairly easy to cross. The terrain gradually changes from the rocky, sandy wash to a single track laced with chaparral. We passed through several wooded areas before breaking out into the open. You want to hit this section of the trail early because it does get hot by midmorning during spring and summer.
The trail begins a gradual climb (around 400-500ft. per mile) with a few switchbacks and moves in and out of deciduous forests. The acorns from the oak trees are among the largest I’ve ever seen. Due to the weight of our packs, we would stop every mile or two for a break.
The first water source on Momyer is Alger Creek, about 3.8 miles up. We climbed to 7,300 ft. before dropping into the canyon at Alger Creek Camp at 7,000 ft. Prior to the creek, I noticed a brightly colored snake on the switchback below. Knowing that it wasn’t a rattler and not poisonous, I slowly approached it. It didn’t budge, so I gently coaxed it with my trekking pole and it slithered away. Come to find out, it was a California King Snake. The water flow was decent with several cascades nearby. We dropped our packs, pulled our lunches out and enjoyed a break at one of the cascades. Taking our shoes off, we dipped them into the stream and laughed at how cold it was. We would also spend some time doing our couples devotion. It was time well spent.
We noticed a Boy Scout troop pass by. We would see them many more times throughout the weekend. We packed up and began a steep climb out of Alger to the next checkpoint – Dobbs Camp junction. We passed through an area of many fallen trees and a 500 yd. gauntlet of thorn bushes. Long pants are advisable through here.
The trail changed from dirt to decomposed granite and became even more narrow as it passed through areas of talus and scree. We encountered a volunteer trail crew pushing blow-downs off the trail. The trail crew leader politely asked for our permit and I obliged. Once he knew we were frequent hikers, he tried to recruit us. We are thinking about doing some type of volunteer work for the Forest Service, but trail maintenance is tough. 🙂 The one bit of bad news they provided was that the large Boy Scout troop was heading to the camp we were shooting for. Man, I wasn’t looking forward to camping near a bunch of kids, but knew that we could find another site in the forest. It was slow going as we passed Dobbs Camp junction but the views of Little San Gorgonio and Mill Creek Canyon were getting better. Momyer isn’t the most scenic of the trails around here, but is definitely less crowded.
We crossed another trickle of a stream before crossing a larger stream near our destination. It ended up being 300-400 yards before our site. As we neared Saxton Camp, I saw a clearing in the woods downhill. We bushwhacked to the area and found a semi-level location. There were some smaller widow-makers nearby, but the weather forecast was looking good, so it was a risk I was willing to take. We pitched our tent and set up for the night after hiking 6-7 hours. It was a long 7 miles today.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio- A Three Day Journey – Day 2: Lost Hiker!