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Bighorn Mountain, Dragons Head, San Gorgonio Mountain

10 August 2001 (Custom hike)

By: Karen Isaacson Leverich

Leaders: Mars Bonfire

It was dark when I drove into Heart Bar Campground the evening of August 9th (after making an incorrect turn in Redlands and doing a pathfinder through the university), it was dark the evening of August 10th when we finished the hike. It wasn't until the following Sunday, on our way in to the Sugarloaf Mountain natural science hike, that I had the chance to see how lovely the country is along Highway 38. If you have friends or family who are into mountains, but only looking, not climbing, this would make an excellent drive.

The hike, on the other hand, wasn't for the faint of heart. Mars said it would be something like 19 miles, 5000' elevation gain. There were five of us car camped at Heart Bar -- Mars Bonfire, Ping Pfeffer, Martin Parsons, Sheldon Slack, and Karen Leverich. Ping and Martin had put some time and effort into selecting a really nice campsite, which was mainly unappreciated by the rest of us -- we arrived late and all we wanted to do was get to sleep. After milling around blearily in the morning, we bounced down seven or so miles of dirt road to the Fish Creek trail head, and were on our way to collect two of Ping's few remaining peaks. No, she didn't need San Gorgonio, but since we were going to be in the neighborhood anyhow, Mars offered to lead it for anyone interested. Martin and I had never been there, we were definitely interested.

One thing about a day with all that elevation scheduled -- you're going to have to go up. And up. And up some more. This is why switchbacks were invented? Ping counted sixteen of them on our way up to Fish Creek Saddle. She counted them by accumulating pebbles in her pockets. I had thought she had some elaborate system, maybe binary, to minimize the weight of the pebbles, but Martin corrected me later -- she simply divvied them up amongst her pockets to keep the weight balanced, and the system was just one pebble per switchback.

While resting at the saddle, we encountered a guy who'd been out backpacking for three days, looking for a missing teenager. He assumed the boy had been found, because the helicopters he had been hearing were no longer cruising around. We were able to relay what we knew: the boy had walked out the south side of the mountains, near Cabazon, a bit worse for the wear but very much alive. That little detail out of the way, Ping and I busily tried to recruit the guy (did I say he was good looking?) for HPS. Byron would have been proud of us.

Looming to the south, looking almost close enough to touch, was San Gorgonio. Given we thought we had just climbed a substantial distance, we were a bit daunted to realize we still had to go most of the way up San Gorgonio, crossing over one of its shoulders, in order to reach Ping's two peaks. Because the weather this time of the year is a bit dicey in those parts, with afternoon thunderstorms appearing as if by magic in previously clear skies, we wanted to do Dragon's Head and Bighorn first, then finish up with San Gorgonio, assuming the mountain was feeling generous.

We had a nice wooded hike from Fish Creek Saddle over to Mineshaft Saddle, spotting Dry Lake (it was a lake, it wasn't dry) along the way. And then, oh joy, more switchbacks! Ping counted these, too, but I don't recall what she came up with. Too many, would be my summary. The forest shifted to lodgepole pines, and then some really battered species that reminded me of bristlecones (but do they grow that far south?) with dirt giving way to boulders and more boulders. And a depressing reminder of the past: a crashed plane strewn on both sides of our trail.

On the corner of one switchback, we were able to see our first peak -- Bighorn. It didn't look too daunting. It was only later Martin and I realized it was the second highest peak on the list. (Karen: "So, what's the highest?" Dunno where my brain was, with San Gorgonio looming over our heads. My capacity for logical thought cannot be understated...)

Eventually we were over the shoulder of San Gorgonio, looking down into the eerie tarn. What, you may be wondering (I sure was) is a tarn? My Websters' Third New International Dictionary, an impressively heavy tome that outweighs my pack (no, I wasn't lugging it along) defines a tarn as "a small steep-banked mountain lake or pool; specif: one in a basin produced by glacial erosion or deposition." Right. Like many (most?) bodies of water in Southern California, there wasn't any water. The tarn between San Gorgonio and Bighorn Mountain is instead a small inhospitable level area, hemmed in by steep slopes. There's no way it could ever hold much water -- it's drained by an impressively steep narrow canyon between Bighorn and Dragon's Head. (From Dragon's Head, you can look down into it. It's awesome. Stay back from the edge!)

We chose a discreet (discrete?) tree and cached some of our stuff and took a bit of a break. While we relaxed, we spotted a solo hiker on the trail above us, apparently without water. Turned out to be a father, hiking separately from his sons. The sons had all the gear. We felt a queasy sense of deja vu -- this was how the other teen had gone astray mere days before. Will people never learn?

From the cache point, we headed straight down the hill, cross country, through trees and over needle-covered ground, to the tarn. Our footing was pretty sure, and Martin in particular had fun putting his new trekking poles to good use. He hoped he'd get the chance to use his new headlamp later. There's nothing quite like new gear.

The slope up Bighorn is initially slippery scree. Tiresome stuff, one slides back half a step for every step upward. Mars promised us the footing would be a bit better, once we got higher, into some bushes. He was, of course, right. We were soon on top, signed the register, and headed along the ridge towards Dragon's Head, dropping back down to the tarn at an intermediate saddle. We'd not yet seen the deep canyon separating Bighorn from Dragon's Head -- as we traversed the tarn to the north ridge of Dragon's Head, we saw how deep and rough it was. Clearly returning to the tarn is the only way to go.

Dragon's Head was also steep and rocky, but I think a tad less so than Bighorn, and more awesome, with a knife edge ridge and those views down into the chasm. We were starting to feel a bit tired, and after climbing back up from Dragon's Head to the trail on the south side of San Gorgonio, Sheldon and Ping opted to follow the trail back to the cache (we'd ducked it, drawn lines in the trail, memorized the shape of a fallen tree, etc., to be able to do just this), while Mars, Martin, and I kept going up. San Gorgonio was so close! And a miracle occured -- while the going was still steep, the footing was a lot easier. We took it slowly, and soon enough, the slope leveled out, and we were in the midst of an almost lunar landscape -- boulders and lichen and even more boulders. Mars explained that going up was in some ways similar to going north, that the top of San Gorgonio shared many aspects with Alaska. It certainly didn't look like we were in Kansas (nor California) anymore!

At the summit itself, we wandered through (and startled) a troop of scouts, settling in to camp for the night. I can't say that mountain top makes a very appealing camp area, though I suppose you could impress your friends and relatives later? Then we startled them again by wandering off in another non-canonical direction, heading cross-country back to where we'd cached our gear (not to mention Ping and Sheldon). A truly interesting shortcut, bumping up Martin's and my peak counts, mine to #79. Er, folks, don't try this at home by yourselves? And touch base with Mars to get the actual route, I don't think you can just randomly hike across San Gorgonio and have it turn out so happily.

It was now quite late in the day. If we really scurried, we might make it out before dark, but we were feeling too mellow to scurry. We were still many switchbacks from the cars when it got dark (sooner by half an hour for me than for Mars -- I'd swear he has cats' eyes!), and we donned our headlamps. A happy day for Martin and I, getting to try out our new toys. Except for Sheldon, we all had matching Petzl Tikkas. Informal product endorsement: these are wonderful! I have abominable night vision, and I didn't really expect the headlamp to help all that much, but with it, I could clearly see the trail, and especially the rocks, roots, and what not waiting to trip me up. It was almost as easy as hiking in full daylight. Cool!

Also neat: we stopped to rest a few times, and turned them off. It was a balmy night, and the stars as sharp as could be. Martin saw a shooting star. It's almost worth hiking out late just to be able to sit around in the dark. (What do you mean, I need a life?)

When we got back to the cars, I felt strong, as if I could go on for several more miles. Instead, I had a long drive to look forward to, not getting home until 2:30AM. I clean slept through a scheduled phone call with Byron the next morning. (Sorry, Byron!) And when Brian and I went out that afternoon to climb Kratka Ridge, well, that 700' of gain felt a lot more like 7000'. I'd swear I've never worked so hard to bag a peak. Strong enough to go several more miles, right, you bet...

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