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Bighorn Mountain, Dragon's Head, San Gorgonio Mountain

31 August 2001

By: Mars Bonfire


Leaders: Mars Bonfire & Carleton Shay

With Carleton Shay, Rich Gnagy, Joanne Griego, Karen lsaacson, Laura Joseph, David Comerzan, lngeborg Prochazka, Mars Bonfire, Brian Leverich, Christopher Davis, and George Tucker.

The original plan was to car camp at the trailhead and start hiking at 5:30am, doing only Bighorn and Dragon's Head. Some of us became alarmed, though, that such an early start involving only two peaks could put us at risk of coming out in the light. Oh sure, we could have walked at a leisurely pace and taken lavish breaks (actually enjoyed the hike) and that might have minimized the risk. But why take a chance with something so serious as light? We decided to move the start time up to 7:30am and throw in Gorgonio, thus guaranteeing we would be coming out in the safety of darkness, probably from Fish Creek Saddle to the cars.

What? You think I have it ass-backwards, upside down, and inside out? Okay. You're right. On the overwhelming majority of HPS hikes great care is devoted to ensuring the group arrives back at the trailhead while it is still light, preferably with an hour or so to spare in case of an emergency. For it's true, nothing slows down a hike and unleashes so many primal fears as being in the wilderness at night. Maybe it's our hyperactive imaginations. The other animals can't imagine anything out there beyond what they can smell or hear. We can imagine all that plus things that don't even exist:

"What was that sound? Did you hear that?"
"Yeah. I'll go take a look."
"No! Let's get the hell out of here. It could be the Psycho Goat Man or the Praying Mantis Avenger!! Run!!!"

And yet it's just as true that for the last couple of billion years periods of light have been regularly alternating with periods of dark. Every other living thing on the planet has gotten used to the dark part of the cycle. Maybe we should too. Since my partner, Carleton, is the Grand Master of the HPS List, with every doable route to every peak so firmly recorded in his mind that he rarely even uses a map (He first climbed Gorgonio as a 14 year old Boy Scout. That makes for around 63 glorious years of internally mapping the local mountains!), and since I had come out on this very trail in the dark a couple of times myself, we felt this would make a low risk introduction to Nighthawk Hiking.

Chris had let us know in advance that he planned to leave before us, do 10K by a shortcut route, and meet us at Fish Creek Saddle. As we left the Trailhead we saw his note, posted on the bulletin board, confirming his plan. We did the easy descent, passing Aspen Grove Trail coming in on the right, then crossing two minor streams coming down from the left, and then a gully with a rock marker indicating the ridge to its right (west) I assumed Chris was ascending. [I have done this ridge (43° from 10K to its intersection with the trail) several times and when combined with a short cut descent off Grinnell (113° from Grinnell to its intersection with the trail) it creates an efficient loop for hiking 10K, Lake, and Grinnell.] Then the uphill began. A couple of switchbacks, along with the side trail to Fish Creek Camp, came up and we soon heard the sound of a serious rock slide coming from the direction of the gully descending north off 10K. Good thing Chris wasn't there! That would be dangerous. Further along, just before the trail crosses Fish Creek, we noticed a rock arrow on the trail with a note. It was from Chris. He was there!

We started to worry. Was there a connection between the rockslide and Chris? We left the arrow in place in case we needed to refer to it later and crossed the creek (ample water for pumping). As we started the long switchbacks on the north side of Fish Creek we heard yelling from somewhere off the north side of 10K. It was Chris! He was okay. We couldn't definitively understand what he was saying and he probably couldn't clearly understand us either but we seemed to be re-agreeing to meet at the saddle.

We continued and at the switchback apex near 9200' Carleton pointed out an upwardly traversing XC route he has used to gain the 10K - Lake saddle. It's a route I have never done or even thought of but now I'm intrigued and must try it sometime. And then we carried on to Fish Creek Saddle. No Chris! After a long wait we left a detailed note on where we could regroup and a suggested turnaround scenario and ambled over to Mine Shaft Saddle. There we left a water stash. It was the last place we could do so because we were not yet sure how we would come off Gorgonio. It could be quite a bit forward of the saddle but in no event could it be backward of it.

We then took the left most trail and gradually ascended along the east side of Gorgonio, past the airplane wreckage, and began the seriously ascending set of switchbacks that led us around the southeast ridge off Gorgonio to a point where The Tarn becomes visible. Enroute it was disappointing to notice the recklessly aggressive shortcutting of the switchbacks people had done, creating mini-gullies that would deepen with each storm and eventually erode across the trail. We resolved to exit and enter trails on durable surfaces that would show no trace of our passage. After a long lunch and wait for Chris, for this was our last feasible regrouping point, Karen had the presence of mind to walk back the trail a few hundred feet to the other side of the ridge and look for him on the switchbacks. We waited and then, with great relief, heard her announce Chris and another guy were coming up. Carleton took the group down XC to the east edge of The Tarn and I waited for Chris and the other guy who turned out to be George Tucker. We shook hands. I was happy to see both of them and know Chris was okay. As soon as I glanced into his eyes I immediately sensed I was looking at a man who had just survived an epic. But that's his own story to tell you in his own words.

From the east edge of The Tarn we took a direct route to Bighorn. The lower third is steep and loose, the middle third is more stable being held in place by shrub roots, and the upper third is large rocks mostly locked in place. From the top of Bighorn we marveled at the wildly eroding east face of Dragon's Head and thought about how we might want to occasionally pull west of the use trail up to avoid being too close to that steep, unstable, and sometimes undercut face. We descended a fairly straight-line route from Bighorn through the saddle to its west and to the west edge of The Tarn and then began the easy contour through open forest to the saddle north of Dragon's Head. Some hikers left gear and water at the saddle, as we would be returning to that area before taking off to Gorgonio. Around halfway up Dragon's Head some of us did move to the west off the use trail and there are signs other travelers are trying to work out an alternative to the cliff-hugging route. After retrieving gear at the saddle we headed north up a south-facing ridge that took us across the Sky High Trail and on up to the easy plateau where we curved eastward towards the summit. At the end of an ample and well-deserved break we decided on descending Gorgonio via a northeast chute that crosses the trail on the Mine Shaft side of the airplane. As we entered the top of this very steep and loose descent some participants' eyes grew noticeably larger. To convince us that this was a sane and sensible thing to do Carleton kept reassunng us that he had done this with his wife, Hanna. And so down we went! He never did reveal, though, what she thought of it. Short of coming off on a hang glider it's the fastest way down San Gorgonio I can imagine and in no time we were back at Mine Shaft retrieving out water.

And it was still light! What went wrong? Had our routes been too efficient, our pace too fast, our breaks too short? Should we have included Grinnell in addition to Gorgonio? I tried not to be overly concerned. There was still hope. Yes, it was light but not that light. And so we began our descent to the trailhead and finally, as we approached Fish Creek, darkness put its arms around us. We would come out at night! And the paradigm shifted. We who had been the emissaries of a commercial world in a wild world, our voices raised loudly in animated technological speech so that the wind and the water, the plants, the animals, and the rocks might know COMPUTER and HIS PERIPHERALS and their simple existence be thereby enhanced, one by one fell silent as each in turn embraced the magic of moonlight and shadows; the mystery of animal calls and movements; the occasional melody of water rolling over stones; the descending envelope of heavier and cooler air; the herbal fragrance of the meadow to our left; the twinkling line of headlamps bobbing down the trail, each angled low, revealing a torsoless parade of marching legs; the increased sensitivity in our feet and in our ears as we moved less from seeing our way and more from feeling and hearing our way. Each confirming what we were increasingly suspecting with every step - Nighthawk Hiking is fabulous. Absolutely fabulous!

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