Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Colds of Gorgonio

The storm came out of nowhere. A sunny day had become grey, and gusts of wind began to blow flurries of snow in every direction. It would have been a beautiful sight through the window of a warm cabin, but we were 10,000 feet high and the only hikers attempting to summit Southern California's highest peak, Mount San Gorgonio. Although we were only a mile from the peak, we made the decision to turn back. That decision probably saved us, as it dumped four feet of snow on us for the rest of the day. We awoke the next morning with only an inch or two of our tent peeking out above the fresh snowfall. With all the trails covered by deep drifts, we struggled to make it down to the trailhead; all thoughts of making the summit were abandoned. It was December 2004.

Nine years later, I still enjoy reminiscing with my buddy Duncan and his brother Andrew about our surprise snowbound trip and failed attempt at summiting San Gorgonio. About how it might have gone better if we had brought snowshoes in addition to crampons. About how it might have gone much much worse if we had made a mistake, gotten lost, or gotten hurt. But in nine years, we haven't gone back together.

This winter I tried my luck on San Gorgonio with my friend Colin. We've camped together a few times and we both found that we had some free time in San Diego this December. I've been up to the peak a few times in the summer, but it's snowy and cold enough that the mountain isn't as popular in the winter. The temperature was also predicted to drop into the single digits at night. After stopping by the ranger station, we found we were one of two parties on the mountain that week. Lucky for us, the other party had gone up a day or two before and we used their footprints to follow the trail up the mountain switchbacks. Also lucky for us, there had been recent snowfall, but nothing like the storm I had seen in 2004, so the snow had actually melted on a lot of the sun-facing slopes.

The way up was pretty tough with altitude, cold and recent snow slowing us down. By the time we stopped for lunch, we realized we would not be able to make the summit and be able to get back down to a campsite before nightfall. We parlayed that disappointment into a nice relaxing lunch on a fallen tree, watching the winter sun travel toward its early western terminus. We spent the afternoon pitching camp, hanging a bear bag and exploring a frozen waterfall.


The campsite that night held a mystery. When we arrived, there was already a tent set up in a protected clearing under a tree. We yelled out hellos but quickly realized no one was there. As dusk settled, we began to wonder where the tent's inhabitant was. Upon closer inspection, the camp looked like it hadn't been used in a day or two, but some cooking gear had been left out as if the camper had expected to return shortly. Was it a base camp for a climber? Had the camper gotten hurt or lost? Were they inside the tent, unable to call for help? By the time we had eaten dinner and climbed into our sleeping bags to cope with the night's below freezing temperatures, the mystery had not been solved and no one had returned to the camp.

We broke camp very quickly the next morning, as 15 degrees isn't super comfortable to stand around in. Snow wasn't super deep and we made good time back down the mountain with our snowshoes on. Halfway back down we ran into a dude hiking up with very little gear. "You don't happen to be the owner of a green tent up at High Creek?" I asked.


He was. Apparently his story outdid my 2004 blizzard and our 2013 too cold to keep going stories: He and his buddy had set up camp at High Creek and then took a day hike up to the peak. However, on the way down they attempted to take a shortcut and got lost. They spent the night in freezing temperatures with nothing more than what they had on their backs, risking hypothermia if they stopped and risking injury if they didn't. Their experience was so harrowing that they went straight down the mountain the next morning and checked into a hotel in town. They were just coming up now to collect their gear.

Mystery solved, but wow, what a disaster!

Colin and I had a pretty enjoyable time and a lot of pleasant conversation on our two-day backpack. But we hadn't reached the peak. You've won again Winter Gorgonio, but I'll be back.