Ascent of San Gorgonio Mountain on 2016-06-04

Climber: Marcus Lostracco

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Saturday, June 4, 2016
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:San Gorgonio Mountain
    Elevation:11499 ft / 3504 m

Ascent Trip Report

I had a major urge to be in nature after two consecutive weeks working in LA. My resolve was to climb San Gorgonio - the highest point in Southern California and San Bernardino county. It is located in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, an area of nearly 100,000 acres with elevations ranging from 2,000 feet to 11,000 feet. I didn't anticipate the initiative being as adventurous and eventful as it turned out to be.

It was Friday afternoon and I got off work and on the road by 1pm, heading towards San Bernardino. It took 3 hot and sweaty stop-and-go hours in the Geo on the Highway 10 to get out to the ranger station at Mill Creek visitor center where you can get wilderness permits, which are required for hiking within the San Gorgonio Wilderness. They have a limited number of permits for each trail that approaches San Gorgonio, however at this time, due to wildfires in previous years, only two trails are open: Vivian Creek trail and the Momyer trail. Vivian creek is 8 miles one way to the summit with about 5000 feet of elevation gain, and Momyer is 13 miles one way with about 6500 feet of gain. There were only permits available for Momyer, so I accepted the fact it would be a longer hike. Next, I had to figure out how I would be spending the night. I had a friend's tent and sleeping bag in my car, and my intention was to camp at the base of the trail. I was informed there are no campsites at the base of the trail, and given the option to camp at Alger Creek, the last available campsite, located 4 miles into the Momyer trail at 7,000 feet. I was also told there had been bear activity reported at this particular site. Fun! Doing some quick math in my head, carrying tent, sleeping bag, water, clothes, food - I guessed it would take me 2 hours to hike to the campsite. With sunset at 8pm, I needed to get started ASAP. Permits in hand (both free, btw), I drove on into the little area of Forest Falls and loaded up on supplies at the general store. This store is stocked with nearly everything you need for a weekend in the woods. There is no cellphone service out here (unless you have Verizon). I then had a meal at the Mexican restaurant next door. I felt really tired from being up at 5:30 for work, driving, and now being at 6000 feet elevation.

I drove back down to the Momyer trailhead, parked my car, and started loading up my pack. Using some rope purchased at the general store, I managed to tie my tent to the outside of my pack with excessive loops and knots, looking amateur as possible. I considered camping in the parking lot because I really didn't feel like hiking. But I persisted, and started walking with my heavy pack at 6:15pm. Way too late and I was pretty nervous, trusting the map distance of 3.1 miles to the campsite. 10 minutes in, hiking with my head down, I was startled by a high-pitched hiss, making me jump. I was about 3 feet away from stepping on a rattlesnake! It wasn't big but I know they bite. This would be foreshadowing for further encounters with the wild. I carried on, more awake now and with my head up, alert to my surroundings. Tired and slow-moving due to the heavy pack (not used to this), I made sure to be present and enjoy the moment. It's a beautiful trail, which starts from a creek and through some giant pines and into then more exposed low-shrub desert climate which was approaching full bloom, and then transitions in to wooded forest environments. By the time I was in this more forested area, I got caught by a trail runner, giving me a sense of comfort knowing at least someone else was on the trail at this hour. He reassured me I wasn't far from the point where it starts descending down to the campsite. I't a pure climb until about 2.5 miles in where you enter the San Gorgonio Wilderness and the trail begins to level out, eventually descending a little bit down into the Alger Creek campsite. I made it at 8pm, just as the light was quickly fading. Exhausted, I considered sleeping under the stars, since it was a relatively mild night. I again, persisted and built up my tent, and had it up in about 15 minutes. Headlamp on, I finally rewarded myself with some beef jerky and a beer. While I was scanning the surrounding area of my campsite, a bit further down in the woods I noticed a pair of big green glowing eyes looking right at me. "Oh shit"... I thought... what is that.... a mountain lion?? A bear?? Survival mode, engaged. The set of eyes was probably about 50 feet away, and then vanished after about 30 seconds. I started making as much noise as I could, frantically hung up my pack -- normally I am no good with knots/rope, but in this high-adrenaline state I efficiently tied the rope to my pack and onto a big stick which I then launched like a javelin over a high branch, elevating my pack and then wrapping the javelin stick to the tree. At this point I looked up again and the bear was now closer! I could see the size of him. Size: Big. He was now about 25 feet away and at the same elevation as me. I began making more noise in as many directions as I could, dragging a big stick around on the ground, smacking rocks together.... primal stuff. When the bear carried on walking past, my adrenaline stayed elevated. I felt very exposed and alone. My primal human instinct now was to stack rocks and create structure in my campsite... I built about 10 rock pile "inukshuks", considering bears might confuse these for people, and in general, to make it feel like I had some company. I also dragged some logs surrounding my tent and collected all the sticks and stones as ammunition placing them in various areas around my camp. I wasn't tired anymore, but I needed to sleep. Without a mattress pad, and with the bear encounter, I wasn't going to catch much rest.

I woke up around 7am, uncomfortable, mentally hitting snooze... I was then re-awoken by a bunch of voices around 9am, to some confused hikers who had gone off trail speaking some foreign language. Time to get up I suppose. I had a big hike ahead of me. I hit the trail at 10am - another late start due to poorly sleeping. I hit the trail going lightweight and an easy jog. My hope was to maintain this pace up to the summit as altitude running training. This pace didn't last long - after a mile I was resulting to walk/running. The heat was also beating down pretty hard. At 7,000 feet it was hot in the sun. I soon made the rule to run in the sun and walk in the shade... until it became totally exposed around 10,000 feet. At that point it was slow going, just easy hiking with a lot of breaks, drinking a lot of water. The night before I had drank a gallon of water, and today I was carrying about 3 litres. By the time I was on the summit at 2pm, I had gone through most of my water and food. I was happy to make it up, the trail was amazing - I only saw 3 other groups in the 10 miles and 4 hours to the summit. By the time the trails merged with the Vivian Creek trail about 0.5 miles from the summit, it was a consistent flow of people, making for a crowded summit. I spent a good 25 minutes on the top, getting a few summit photos. There was a couple that had just reached the top that had already done Mt Baldy earlier in the day and were planning on doing San Jacinto - the "Triple Crown" - a challenge that involves summitting Baldy, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto within 24 hours. Maybe something for me to do!

On the way down I felt great, I kept a steady stride running from the top. I got a lot of comments from the hikers going up and also the ones I passed going down. Somewhere along the way my windbreaker fell off my pack and that really bummed me out when I found out about it. Such a good thing... I was stopped by a ranger with not more than 2 miles left on the trail who asked to see my permit. It seemed like he wanted to talk/show off more than anything. He called himself "Ranger Dave" and suggested I carry a bivy sack and some Vaseline (apparently if you coat your body in Vaseline your body heats the oil and you can stay warm without any insulation). A bit weird, but sure. I continued on making it down the mountain in 2 hours. At this point it was around 5pm and I was hungry for a meal, so I stopped at the Mexican place I ate at the night before, since they were really quick. Not so quick this time... 40 minutes for 2 tacos... it was busier I suppose, but this stoppage made me super tired.

I got to the car around 5:40, dropped my pack, hydrated, and started hiking up to my campsite with a water bottle and hiking poles with the intention of breaking down camp and hiking back down so that I could hit the road back home. However, a mile into the trail I was feeling the exhaustion catching up to me. I was moving a lot slower than expected. I was all alone on the trail this time, it was nice and quiet and the late day sun was really nice. Much better without a big tent to carry... Then all of a sudden I look up and spot some company on the trail. A bear! A big beautiful light-caramel colored black bear standing in the sunlight. Besides being surprised, I didn't really react , it was quite a peaceful scenario. It looked as if he was on the trail around a bend, and he seemed a bit tired, lazy, hot maybe. I stood there, waiting for him to get back to his business. He was looking back at me for a good while, and we probably stood there for 2 minutes. I talked to him a bit, just saying hi and whatnot, pointed to where I was going and moved on forward. Just these few steps allowed me to see his full body, and he was actually not on the trail, but standing on a log. He watched me walk until I was positioned behind him (the whole time he is probably about 20 feet away), when he got off the log and went behind a big bush. Fearing he had gone up on the trail, I started making noise and continuing along the trail. Passing the bush, he had gone just a bit further down in the woods and created distance between us. An amazing interaction. What a beautiful animal. I was kicking myself for not grabbing my camera at the car... would have made for amazing photos. The mental image is pretty amazing anyway.

I got to Alger Creek at 7pm to a group of 6 campers that had set up camp off of the main campsite, because obviously, my tent was in the main area. I technically was not supposed to spend the night there again, but in the interest of my own safety, I did not feel comfortable going back down in the dark by myself. I explained my situation to the group and expressed my apologies for inconveniencing them. Although understanding, I still got a very "stink-eye" vibe from the group. They were a volunteer association who worked closely with the park rangers, so it did feel like they had a sense of entitlement to resent my presence. Anyhow, I didn't have the energy to care. I know I was breaking trail etiquette... but oh well, things don't always go to plan. I ate some apple sauce, filled up my water in the creek, drank a bunch, and went straight to bed around 7:30pm.

Another uncomfortable night on the ground, I got up at 8am and started down around 8:30am. It was even hotter than the previous day, or maybe because I was at lower elevation. Near the bottom of the trail around 10am a group of at least 20 Chinese people fully covered from head to toe with boots, pants, jackets, gloves, hats and some people even face covers going up really slowly... it was very strange. They had to be dying of heat! No way they were making it very far.

The drive down to San Diego took forever. Getting home felt really good and being back in the cool weather felt great. Really satisfied with the experience and having wilderness camped for the first time in my life.

This makes 5 bear encounters on the trail for me.
1) Appalachian Trail in the Smokey Mountains with Grandpa in 2007. First night on the trail, visit from a black bear at the lean-to
2) Grandpa and I again, next morning, saw another bear (likely the same one) on the trail the next morning
3) Smokey Mountains (again) in 2015 - saw mother and 3 cubs in adjacent camping area
4) Night 1 in San Gorgonio Wilderness - visit to campsite
5) Momyer trail approach to Alger Creek campsite

Compared to most people I've spoken with, this is a lot of bear experience. I seem to attract them. Now let the rattlesnake counter begin!

Lessons learned on this trip:
1- Wilderness camping is really not bad. Kinda nice!
2- Adrenaline primal instincts are real.
3- San Gorgonio Wilderness is a huge, vast area and a beautiful place.
4- Bears are friendly if you're smart.
5- I am not fit for running at altitude at this moment in time.
6- I go through a lot of water.
7- The drive on Highway 10 from LA to San Bernardino is horrendous.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:7496 ft / 2283 m
    Total Elevation Loss:6996 ft / 2131 m
    Round-Trip Distance:21.7 mi / 34.9 km
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail
    Nights Spent:2 nights away from roads
    Weather:Hot, Calm, Clear
Hot in the sun, nice in the shade, easy breeze
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:6496 ft / 1979 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 5496 ft / 1675 m; Extra: 1000 ft / 304m
    Loss on way in:1000 ft / 304 m
    Distance:13.2 mi / 21.2 km
    Route:Momyer Trail
    Start Trailhead:Alger Creek  6003 ft / 1829 m
    Time:4 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:5996 ft / 1827 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 4996 ft / 1522 m; Extra: 1000 ft / 304m
    Gain on way out:1000 ft / 304 m
    Distance:8.5 mi / 13.7 km
    Route:Vivian Creek
    End Trailhead:6503 ft / 1982 m
    Time:2 Hours 
Ascent Part of Trip: San Gorgonio (2 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Big Draw Peak2016-06-04 a 
2San Gorgonio Mountain2016-06-04 b7496 ft / 2285 m
Total Trip Gain: 7496 ft / 2285 m    Total Trip Loss: 6996 ft / 2132 m
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Marcus Lostracco
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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