Last Saturday, C and I hiked to SoCal’s highpoint of San Gorgonio, 11,503′ feet above sea level via the Momyer Trail. As the tallest of the “3 Sans” of SoCal — the others include San Jacinto (10,834′) and San Antonio “Baldy” (10,068′) — and positioned between the Sierras and Mexico, it is the seventh most prominent peak in the contiguous US. There are several different trails that reach the top, all starting from various elevations and locations around the mountain; this means that some trails are really really LONG, while others are a bit shorter in mileage. The peak and trails are all relatively easy, being Class 1 (discernible trail, no route finding, no technical climbing required) – but it’s the distance, elevation, and time above the treelike that sets this peak apart from its neighbors.
Being in good shape is one thing… but being acclimated to 11K feet and not hating the world is something completely different.
I’ve been lucky enough to hike Gorgonio seven or eight times over the past two years, all via the Vivian Creek route (round trip of 18.6 miles and 6K gain). This is the most popular, shortest – but steepest – ascent route and because of a trail quota, requires an advanced permit to hike. Each time has been special and unique, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the mountain via this route with my various hiking partners.
However, C and I have some fun long-distance and high elevation hikes on tap this upcoming year, and as such, we’re looking to build upon our endurance and time “at altitude”. Hiking 27-ish miles all day from the Momyer Trail Head (5,400′) up to the Dollar Lake Saddle (9,980′), connecting us to the San Bernardino Divide Trail and on up to the 11,500+ foot summit and back, seemed like a great idea and excellent – if not ambitious – training.
After picking up our self-issued permit from the Mill Creek Ranger Station in Mentone, we drove the 15 minutes up to the trail head, properly displayed our Adventure Pass, ensured that the cooler (full of PB Eggs and Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi) was out of sight in the trunk, threw on our hiking gear – poles, pack, 38 essentials? check! – and set off across the nearly-dry creek. The trail gained altitude quickly, and we enjoyed a stunning sunrise and views of the Yucaipa Ridge.
And then…we just hiked. We chatted about this and that. I took too many photos and ran out of memory on my phone – hello, my name is Marit and I’m addicted to taking photos. There was some furious erasing of pictures on my phone, a deleted app or two – and of course I continued to take pictures. I’m not really sure what it is – it’s not that I don’t want to NOT remember these amazing places… it’s just that when I’m hiking, when I’m on trails, I feel this incredible connection and see so much beauty, big and small, all around. The light… trees….topography…the way the terrain seems to shift the earth itself and how, while climbing higher, our perspective changes – I love it all.
I know that I can’t “capture” it with one picture – but if I can somehow convey, through art, what I’m experiencing on a both physical and emotional level – well, that just speaks to me.
Anyway – we kept climbing. And the trail continued up up up. And I’m not going to lie – it was not easy. Though C and I have hiked a lot and have covered a fair amount of miles this year, and are in pretty decent shape with her spring marathon and my own racing, we hadn’t yet combined longer endurance with high altitude. Aside from my non-stop motor mouth chatting, we otherwise occupied ourselves with counting stream crossings (there were 4).
After a brief loss in elevation heading to the Alger Camp, the true test began – our climb up to Dollar Lake Saddle. It was a slog. Although beautiful, the trail was steep in some places, sandy in others… and it just felt – for lack of a better word – “clunky”. We could tell, based on our hiking time, that we were making decent time – but it just felt hard. At one point before hitting Plummy Meadow, C asked, “are you even feeling this?” I croaked out a yes – and we kept going up. And “Clunky” became the Word of the Day.
Sometimes when things get hard, I’ll take pictures. Hello, my name is Marit, and I’m addicted to taking photos. But I took several pics to distract myself on this section of the hike. It reminded me a lot of the Vivian Creek Trail.
Seeing the blue skies over C’s shoulder after constant up was great, as I knew we had either reached, or were relatively fucking close to the Dollar Lake Saddle, a trail junction between the San Bernardino Divide, Dollar Lake, and Momyer Trails. For the first time in a long time, we took a quick break. C and I hardly ever stop, usually we just motor through. But both of us were feeling the altitude and incline – so we listened to our bodies, took a quick seven or eight minute break, ate some food and took in water. And of course, I took a photo or two.
Post-break, life seemed to get better. Or maybe that was just my Luna bar kicking in – either way, both C and I felt much better as we cruised 10K feet high along the San Bernardino Divide. I had been on this trail before – just not this section. New trail = hooray! Usually when I think of the SB Divide Trail, I think of hitting the four or six bumps along its northern terminus from the Forsee Creek or Angelus Oaks TH.
C and I and our clunky feeling mostly gone, just motored on the four-ish miles from the saddle to the summit. Breaking out of the treeline somewhere above 11K feet is always a neat experience. And as we were hiking south towards the peak over north-facing terrain, we encountered a few snow fields. We’ve had a very light snowfall year, which while this is great for non-technical high altitude hiking, is horrible for this drought-ridden area. I am trying to not worry about fires, but as we’ve already had several outbreaks this year, I’m more fearful than I’ve been in the past. The snow wasn’t that bad and I only post-holed once or twice. C crossed each field like a pro.
After passing a few recognizable peaks (Charleton, Dobbs, Jepson), we rounded a curve and noticed the bright clothing of hikers in the distance. We knew the Vivian Creek junction was close, and within another ten or so minutes, approached the peak. Given the popularity of this segment, the trail was in excellent condition – not too sandy yet – and I really enjoyed the final views and stretch up to the summit. Mountain peaks are always special and it’s never a “given” that one will reach the summit when setting out to hike – I think that’s part of life and a big part of hiking long distance that appeals to me. There are so many “other things” that can happen along the way; part of being safe and a responsible hiker, though, is that I’m okay NOT reaching the summit.
The summit is wonderful (it’s like the icing on the sheet cake!!!), — yes. But the true beauty is in the experience itself… of being outside in a magical area, doing something you love, no matter how big or small. Getting to share that with another person is even more special. When I first started hiking, my perception was that the summit was always “the goal” and without reaching it, there was failure.
However, after traveling many many miles, experiencing incredible places, and learning some tough lessons along the way, my feelings evolved and perceptions changed. I’m absolutely still 100% competitive and driven – that will most likely never change. And I want to reach the top (and MORE IMPORTANTLY, get down safely). But my approach became different. I realized and accepted that I don’t always have to stand on the peak to have an awesome day… it doesn’t have to be perfectly executed or completed in a record-setting time – I just need to love what I’m doing while I’m doing it. And that’s easy to say, because there’s no pressure, no competition – I do this because I truly love love love it and have some amazing friends who enjoy this in the same way.
And with views like this – who could argue?
After looking around a spending a few minutes on the summit, C and I took a quick picture together (hooray, I had enough memory on my phone!) and headed back down the same route that we came up. Our up up up time was just over five hours, and our descent took just under. I always think it’s interesting – we hike efficiently and hard, but our time down hiking is pretty close to our time up – we don’t trail run.. we just hike hard. And sometimes Clunky. Although, with an extra incentive of PB Eggs and DWCP in a cooler waiting for us in the car, sometimes we will go a tad faster. Or less Clunky.
But the views remained stunning, and I really enjoyed experiencing the changing light through the forrest.
With the last stream crossing just before the Alger Camp turn-off, C and I noticed some awesome trail maintenance that we hadn’t seen before on the way up. Yep – that perspective thing just continues to tag along, like the ever-shifting light.
Just before 5 pm, C and I arrived at the trailhead, cooler, and car. We hopped in, hoping to reach the Mill Creek Ranger Station before they closed, but ended up being too late (Dagnabbit!). Our permit requests for Vivian Creek would have to wait – so instead we changed in the parking lot, cracked the DWCPs and broke in to the PB Eggs, and zipped home in (nearly) record time. Classy.
Overall, it was a great day. I got to spend 10 FANTASTIC hours in the mountains, with a great friend, doing something that I love. We covered nearly 27 miles and gained 7,000+ feet, making for great training for our future trips. And though we felt Clunky at times, our base-level hiking fitness is actually pretty good. And I got to experience a new trail and re-visit a beloved peak that makes me think about some pretty special people in my life, and about how lucky I am to be able to do the things that I do. The lack of thunderstorms, animals that can eat me not surprising me, and survey marker at the top were added bonuses, as always.
Until the next time – happy and grateful.