Sunday, January 18, 2009

San Gorgonio - The Alternate Route

Setting out for our day hike up San Gorgonio Mountain, we somehow miss the Vivian Creek trail head in the chilly, predawn darkness. After casting up and down the creek without success - and becoming increasingly concerned about passing time - we decide on an alternate route: straight up the ravine to the first ridge line.

Dawn is breaking as we begin scrambling up and over the rocks. It is awkward going at first, juggling trekking poles, a mini flashlight (I'd lost my headlamp) and balancing the weight of a fully loaded backpack. We gain the ridge line - gasping for breath - and manage to pick up the trail for a short while. Inexplicably, we loose the trail again and and are heading up another extremely steep draw when we are hailed by our friends who have camped on the mountain the night before.

As we traverse toward their camp, I lose my footing on the icy snow and slide back down the mountain at what seems like warp speed. Attempting to arrest with a trekking pole is useless and I finally stop myself by literally digging in my heels. The others are staring silently as I gather up my poles and with trembling legs re-ascend the slope.

Then on to High Camp, up and around the shoulder of the mountain and we begin the final leg of our journey - to the summit. This portion is the most beautiful, and the most frightening. After my earlier fall I find myself doubting every step, anxiety churning in my stomach.

At last we reach the final ridge line. It is brilliantly clear with absolutely no wind - although you can see how the wind has previously sculpted the snow in long, sensuous curves. To the west we can just see the shining band of the Pacific Ocean.

We stay at the summit just long enough to snap a few photos - concern about icy conditions and the fading afternoon light make us hurry as we retrace our footsteps across the nerve wracking exposed upper slopes.

Then down we go through the lower, densely wooded slopes, the setting sun lighting our way for a short time. Darkness falls, but we still have a long way to go. The final several miles of the trail are miserable - rough, icy - and at one point I become convinced that we are actually lost and are condemned to wander the trails endlessly - a kind of hiker's version of the Flying Dutchman. But of course we eventually find our way back to the parking lot - and before my boots are dry I'm already thinking of the next adventure.

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