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
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
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...