Ascent of San Gorgonio Mountain on 2018-02-04

Climber: Marcus Lostracco

Others in Party:Josh & Ewa
Date:Sunday, February 4, 2018
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:San Gorgonio Mountain
    Elevation:11499 ft / 3504 m

Ascent Trip Report

San Gorgonio – February 3 & 4, 2018

We left Carlsbad at 8am, picking up our permits at 10:30am from the Mill Creek Visitor Center, and starting our hike from Forest Falls, Vivian Creek trailhead at 11:00am on Saturday February 3rd with our goal of camping on the summit. In high spirits, and very heavy overnight packs, Josh, Ewa, and I began our hike up Old Greyback, otherwise known as Mount San Gorgonio. Our hike would require nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain in a matter of 9 miles. It had been a while since June 2016 that I last summited San G via the Momyer trail and down Vivian creek on a solo trip. Doing this in February was easy to get permits but added a whole extra level of difficulty due to the amount of snow and ice on the mountain. We were in for an adventure, none of us with real high-alpine mountain camping experience under our belts.

As we walked up the washed up riverbed following some other hikers, we soon found out they were all going the wrong way. Already off track! It was a minor mishap, so we all laughed it off and began the Vivian Creek trail. The first 1.5 miles to reach the Wilderness boundary is a strenuous section of switchbacks that is quite exposed to the sun. Josh and I were already sweating enough to require a break at the top to air out our shirts!

We continued on through the meadows and big-pine forested area up to “Halfway Camp” at 7,500 feet. This is not nearly halfway through the hike, but it was nice to know we were making good progress. It was about 1pm and we had about 5.5 miles to go to get to the summit.

The next section up to High Creek camp was when we first encountered snow on the trail at about 8,000 feet. It was more like slushy ice, but very prevalent and somewhat slippery. It was at this point where I was doubting our chances at making the summit before sunset (5pm). We were hiking fast and only taking breaks at the camps, but our pace was still not quick enough. I knew right then I had underestimated this hike. I knew it was time to make a rule. I told Josh – if we are not on the summit by 4:30pm we must camp wherever we find ourselves at that point. He agreed. 3.5 miles, 2,000 feet, and 2.5 hours later, we found ourselves at High Creek camp. It was at this point where we realized we still had about 3.3 miles to go to reach the summit and we were only 1 hour from our cutoff time. I analyzed the map I had to see if there looked to be any flat spots along the topography lines. It seemed at ~10,000 feet there was a crest of a ridge, and another at ~11,000 feet. We decided to press on and see where we end up.

This next section was the most strenuous part of the entire hike. A steep 1-mile ~800ft climb up pure snow. We had our microspikes on and our slow pace took us up step by step. I mostly followed the switchbacks, where in some places Josh and Ewa were following straight-line routes left by other hikers. There were tracks everywhere so it was somewhat difficult route-finding and locating the actual trail. All we knew was it was approaching 4:30 and we were nowhere near a flat spot to lay camp. Now it was decision time – do we continue on to the unknown and try to find somewhere to camp higher up? Or do we cut our losses and head back to High Creek? I had a good feeling we would find something at the top of the ridge, and Josh seemed to still have his mind set on the summit, so we would carry on. I reached the top of the ridge around 4:45pm after a charge to the top. This steep snowy hiking is exhausting. To our good fortunes, right on the side of the trail were 2 perfect non-snowy patches of flat land. Thank goodness. I dropped my pack down as Josh arrived not far behind me. Sweating, and breathing heavily he asks: “Is this where we’re stopping?” My response was simply “Yes.” No argument to be had there. Ewa was soon to follow and we took in our beautiful spot by watching the colors in the sky change dramatically for sunset.

It stayed very bright during dusk due to us being high up, giving us plenty of time to set up our tents. After I had mine set up, I really had to go pee, so I threw my sleeping back, mattress pad, and blanket in the tent and ran off to relieve myself. While I was going, there was a gust of wind. I had a bad feeling. I turned around to see my tent had been blown right off from it’s spot! Luckily it was not very far down the ravine, caught in some brush. I scrambled down to retrieve it and was able to drag it back up with Josh’s help. It was funny because all day we had not felt a single breeze of wind and now all of a sudden these gusts were appearing – it was time to seriously secure this tent. I staked it down in all the possible spots, laid some rocks on the 4-corners of the foundation, and then tied the windcover to a nearby branch to secure the top. The temperature was also dropping significantly. It was now dark, cold, and windy, but we were set up.

We got our headlamps out and began boiling water to make tea and our meals. It was my first time using a camping stove (yes, I should have done this by now in my life!). Ewa went to work with getting a fire started, and I was super impressed in how quickly she got it started considering all the wind, moisture from the wet snow, and the temperature. The fire made it tolerable to hang out outside of our tents for a little while. It wasn’t long before gusts of wind were becoming too overwhelming to stay outside, so I was in my tent and bundled up for sleeping at 7:45pm. I was quite warm in my sleeping bag despite the outside temperatures being about 25 with the wind chill. You could hear each gust of wind building up in the distance as it prepared to blow through… the sheer power of this wind was impressive to me, and it felt exciting to be up there. Until each gust of wind was getting stronger and stronger. The forecast from had predicted 36 degrees and 10 mph winds on the summit… that was way off. I would guess 25 degrees and 35 mph winds. Sleeping was impossible with the sound of my tent flapping and these giant crescendos of wind howls building up and blowing through. I’d be lying if I said my heart wasn’t racing at times. I began to sweat at one point and I couldn’t decide if it was from adrenaline or if I was wearing too many layers in my sleeping bag. I began coping with the wind with an intention of falling asleep. I was saying things to myself like “I am a tree, may the wind blow through my branches as I stand tall and solid.” It worked to calm me down and accept this violent wind and I felt safe and at ease. However, it wouldn’t help much for sleeping. The wind finally died down at maybe 4am and I drifted to sleep immediately.

I awoke thinking I was in my own bed, but realizing I was on a mountain at 10,000 feet. A happy place to be. The horizon was red where the sun was rising and it was bright enough for me to walk around and see shadows, even though the actual sunrise wasn’t until an hour later, 6:45am. I had made my breakfast and I brought my one-shot espresso stovetop mocha express with me. I was amazed how quick the espresso came up on the camping stove! I might have to start using it in my kitchen at home! Or just go camping more…
We unpacked our picturesque campsite and prepared it to be picked up quickly. We knew we had camped in an undesignated campsite which is grounds for a citation if a ranger was to see this. So, we were quick to pack our tents and remove the evidence of the campfire (another reason for possible citation). Although I seriously doubted a ranger was going to hike up there, it was the safe and smart thing to do. We assembled our day-packs and made our push to the summit, leaving our camp at 8am.

Starting the day in our microspikes and light packs and coffee buzz felt great. I was feeling 100% and ready to get to the top! After the first steep section of trees, we de-layered as we were already burning up. It’s amazing how fast the sun comes up and it gets hot again. After clearing the tree line, it became a giant snowfield in which the trail was not obvious at all. So, we basically made our own way across the snowfield towards the summit trail. There was a guy descending with his dog. He had spent the night on the summit and said the wind was not gusts up there – it was steady and constant. It sounded like he had a rough night. Maybe it was a good thing we didn’t make it all the way.

Crossing the snowfield was slow, steady work. The views were amazing – I was loving it. There were some shoulder peaks that looked like they were icy and untouched and looked very appealing to climb up – but the effects of altitude were true and present, so our pace was slowed down once more. A simple push for the summit is what would be in store for us today.

Josh and I made it up at 9:45am with Ewa not far behind. We had the whole summit to ourselves for a good 20 minutes. The views of San Jacinto, Joshua Tree National Park, Mount San Antonio, Santa Ana Mountain range… it really is incredible. We managed to get some photos in and had a summit snack before getting pretty cold on the top which motivated us to start going down. I’m sure it got well below freezing on the summit at night as well.

We began our descent at 10:15am. I was guessing it was going to take us 4 hours to get down. We made quick progress on the descent, using gravity and the soft snow to our advantage. Once we reached our packs we re-packed them and threw them back on. I didn’t miss carrying this huge pack, but at least we were going down.

Returning to High Creek from our campsite was so much fun going down. It was pretty much freestyle ski-running, and I was down in 10 minutes – going up it had taken us over an hour! We ditched the microspikes and continued down, taking it all in as went, taking breaks as necessary, and enjoying our last bit of time on Mount San Gorgonio. We reached the car at 3pm – 4hrs 45min to descend.
Mount San Gorgonio is a big mountain and it is a big hike. There are no easy trails up this one. Vivian Creek is the most popular and it is still a serious challenge. I loved this winter ascent and would do it again in a heartbeat. We are so lucky to have this beautiful mountain so close by. I also really enjoyed the overnight experience aspect of this trip. The camaraderie also made it super fun – Josh and Ewa are great company. Skilled campers, strong hikers, friendly and fun too. It was also Josh’s birthday today. How awesome is that, to celebrate on top of San G.

We made it back to Carlsbad in time for sunset and to put our feet in the water. It was amazing to say we saw the sunrise over the desert on the trail at 10,000 feet, and then watched the sunset with our feet in the ocean.

“A man close to trees is a man at peace”
- Backcountry saying

Lessons learned on this trip:
- Review all water sources along the trail prior to heading out. While the amount of water I carried was more than adequate for the entire hike, it was a lot of weight to carry (I had 10 litres). I could have carried less and brought a water filter for the 3 streams we passed on the hike. I am not sure these are as reliable in the summertime.
- Stake down your tent when you leave it in the open. Always! You never know when a gust of wind will sweep through.
- Wind makes it hard to sleep.
- Espresso comes up faster on a camping stove. Or was it the elevation?
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
On the summit of Mount San Gorgonio in February 2018 (2018-02-05). Photo by Marcus Lostracco.
Click here for larger-size photo.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:6299 ft / 1919 m
    Extra Gain:400 ft / 121 m
    Round-Trip Distance:18 mi / 29 km
    Route:Vivian Creek Trail
    Trailhead:Forest Falls  6000 ft / 1828 m
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Hot sun during the day - cold and windy at night
Ascent Statistics
    Time:7 Hours 45 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time:4 Hours 45 Minutes

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