San Gorgonio Mountain - December 3, 2023

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Rhody Seth

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My annual work conference took me out to San Diego in early December. I couldn't resist leaving a few days early to do some hiking. I set my sights on the highest peak in southern California - San Gorgonio. The hike would be a long one at 18.5 miles featuring 5400 feet of climbing over those miles. Those numbers didn't concern me too much but the altitude did - San Gorgonio stands at 11,503 feet. This would easily be my highest peak and coming from Rhode Island the day before, I knew the altitude could be a challenge. I tried to find a place to stay closer to the summit trailhead (6000 feet). Short of that, I gave thought to camping early on the trail and giving myself a chance to acclimate. But the logistics of bringing backpacking supplies on top of my winter hiking gear (and all my conference clothes) felt overwhelming. I opted to keep it simple and stay at hotels. But I'd pay a price.

I stayed in San Bernardino and had a 40 minute drive to the trailhead. With the time change I was up at 3 AM and thus it was no problem getting an early start, hitting the trail at 5:30 AM. Temps were in the upper 30s at the start and the forecast called for mid 30s and 20 mph winds at the summit so I was prepared for winter conditions. Near the bottom you cross a massive creek bed which was barely running but showed the power of water in high times. As I climbed I could see San Bernadino alight in the valley below. Driving and hiking in California, with it's elevated hills and lack of trees, there are some incredible points where you look down into urban civilization and it is absolutely a sea of lights. Probably something you get used to (and annoyed with) if you live there but for an outsider it continually amazed me.

You are pretty much always climbing so the grades are very moderate throughout with only a couple moderately steep sections. Those California woods are spacious and majestic - very different from our thick, encroaching forests. And without the technical terrain we deal with, it made for easy walking. There were a few water crossings but they were barely anything.

But once I hit 9000 feet, I definitely began to feel it. The effort was noticeable and my heart rate began to rise. I was taking breaks more and more frequently. A dull headache began to come and go. I was drinking water constantly and when I reached High Creek Camp, the last water source, I filled up my BeFree as well which turned out to be wise. Past High Creek was a series of switchbacks - I'm not sure how many. Fifteen? This is where I began to really slow down, taking breaks often. Finally I reached the end of the switchbacks and was treated to a fantastic view of San Gorgonio and the valleys below. I also saw a couple people not too far ahead, which was good to see.

From here on out it was a real slog. The forecast proved to be totally wrong - up high the sun was out and it was in the 50s. I eventually reached the summit, took my picture with those free-floating signs they like to use out west and enjoyed some lunch. A greedy chipmunk circled me, even running up my leg at one point. I dropped a piece of pita and the opportunist ran off with it before I even knew what happened. Incredible views from the summit - and gave a great perspective on the mountains and deserts of southern California. After about 15 minutes that couple I passed reach the summit - I took their picture with the signs and then made the slow trek down.

And slow it was. I imagined the fun that could be had running down these trails but there would be none of that for me. I've been battling a soft tissue issue in my left knee and while uphill is fine, the descent definitely aggravated it a bit. I passed a few groups still heading up, including some plucky young lads who were starting surprisingly late. Originally I had thought I'd finish this hike with hours of daylight to spare - but I would complete it just after sunset. I was very tired and the headache was coming back with a vengeance. I drove back to the hotel, talked to me wife on the phone and then promptly fell asleep at 6 PM. I woke up at 8:30 AM, feeling a good bit better, and ventured out for some nearby Dave's Hot Chicken (it was good but didn't provide the hallucinatory, flu-like effects like I've had in Nashville so I consider it mediocre). Then back to the hotel for more sleep. The next day I would be visiting Joshua Tree, an altogether different type of day!

 
I lived in San Bernardino when I was in the AF and stationed at Norton AFB, which has since closed. I taught my wife how to drive a stick shift (VW beetle) in the Orange groves in Redlands. If you're ever out that way again consider climbing Baldy (Mt San Gorgonio). It's a great dayhike. If you do it in winter consider micro-spikes/crampons. No permit needed.
 
I lived in San Bernardino when I was in the AF and stationed at Norton AFB, which has since closed. I taught my wife how to drive a stick shift (VW beetle) in the Orange groves in Redlands. If you're ever out that way again consider climbing Baldy (Mt San Gorgonio). It's a great dayhike. If you do it in winter consider micro-spikes/crampons. No permit needed.

Man, I miss driving a stick. That whole area has some great peaks. Our work conference has been switching between California and Florida for the past decade so hopefully I'll be back in two years!
 

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