| Mount San Gorgonio
Mount San Gorgonio
Vertical gain: 4,800ft
Mileage: 13 miles
Date climbed 4/10/2011
Duration: 10.25 hours
Mount San Gorgonio or San Gorgonio Mountain, is in the San Bernardino Mountains and stands tall at 11,502ft, ranking it the tallest mountain in southern California.
Its summit can be viewed from San Jacinto and is surprisingly not too far from Los Angeles and is one of the few peaks outside of the Sierras that rises
above treeline. Together with San Jacinto, their prominence from the surrounding desert makes them particularly stand out from the landscape.
While there are several starting points for climbing San Gorgonio, and following some helpful advice from a local friend, I chose the South Fork trailhead as my starting point and route as
it seemed the best alternative in the winter conditions, particularly given the recent snowfall. I tried getting to the trailhead on the first day I arrived, but the road was blocked off due
to the recent foot of snow that fell (and apparently was still falling that morning). So, after securing my wilderness permit and required passes at the Ranger Station, I opted to wait a
day until the road was cleared. It was very strange driving up, passing swaying palms and tropical eucalyptus trees down lower while seeing cars and trucks coming down with 6+" of
snow still clinging to their cars as they drove by. California is a unique state.
Getting to the trailhead proved to be a bit of adventure as I underestimated how far it was and how long it would take my little rental car to climb the road as it spiraled up +6,000 feet into the mountains. The poor little Chevy seemed more tired than me that morning. Starting out at 4:30AM and considering the bit of time to finalize packing, some two hours later I reached the ~6,800ft trailhead after a long ride up the steep, winding and somewhat icy, mountain road. The ride up takes you through breathtaking alpine scenery and the recent snow painted the ground white as low as 5,000ft, quite a change from the desert below.
Again, given the conditions, and now late start, I managed my expectations and figured I was out for a nice hike in the forest; I wasn't sure what lay ahead of me on this day so summiting didn't really factor heavily in my thinking until later in the day when it seemed more realistic.
Temps warmed up a bit from the day before on San Jacinto. The temperature at the start read a calm 20*F, with a slight building breeze out of the east. Skies were clear
and the barometer was rising, finally! Snow covered the route from the start and got deeper with every step, though didn't warrant snowshoes, since it was cold
enough and thus firm enough to walk on without sinking too deep, save for the occasional drop to the thighs on drifts or slushier portions later on. I crossed several sets of animal tracks; I figured mostly coyotes and fox, though saw deer prints, some small rodent tracks, a rabbit and then one set in what appeared to be small feline, though, fortunately too small to be a mountain lion, perhaps a bobcat?
The route initially was not very steep and progressed with a mild grade, traveling through a wonderfully aromatic woods, filled with Ponderosa Pine, White Fir and Incense Cedar among others.
When the sun came out, it felt quite warm and coupled with my constant movement, enabled me to shed a couple layers allowing me to hike in a fleece. As soon as I'd stop though, the cold would
sink in. Although the temps were not that cold, my camelback soon froze. Luckily I had two backup Nalgenes filled up. The tube would thaw out a bit later in the morning as the sun
warmed it up.
Part of the beauty of this route was that due to the heavy snow pack and recent snowfall, I'd be able to skip most of the longer summer route (~20 +miles) and follow a crow's path
fairly straight up to the summit once I left the main forest, saving around 9 miles and probably 5 hours of hiking. It would be steeper, but shorter and thus doable in a single day, moving
at a brisk pace.
After a few miles of easy hiking through the snow, I reached a convergence of sorts of several streams that needed to be crossed, before making my way off trail
to an opening leading up, hopefully, to the route proper or at least a way to get to the end of the treeline before the clearing I saw on the topo map. I then hit South Fork
Meadow and the faint trail I had been following was to be left behind as I then was faced with a few options to climb up "Christmas Tree Hill" as this area was locally known.
I was still feeling strong and actually felt more energized from this beautiful day and from the enjoyable time on San Jacinto the day before, so I quickly ate a Powerbar and I pushed on!
Laced with several creeks and following the east face of what appeared to be Charlton Peak (10,806ft), I picked a line and started up.
I should add for those traveling in this area, you need to watch out for the many snow bridges in the area, which cross the many streams in the meadow and take care
where you walk and your weight distribution across these transient walkways. A fall through here could ruin your day.
The route now steepened to where crampons were helpful getting up to the forest line in the hardened steeper, snow. An hour passed and I reached the trees again, then
aimed left and continued up to what appeared on the map to be a line towards San Gorgonio.
After moving for another hour, through now, deeper, softer snow, I discovered this
peak was not San Gorgonio I was looking at but likely Jepson Peak (11,205ft), located a bit to the northwest of Gorgonio. So I veered left (southwest) and kept moving.
Some post holing slowed me down, but I didn't think it warranted snowshoes, so I trudged onwards keeping them strapped to my pack.
I was still alone and saw nobody all day. As I walked through the San Gorgonio Wilderness, the only sounds that accompanied me were that of some squirrels and
jays and an occasional raven. A red tailed hawk would soar overhead ever once in a while. Otherwise, it was silent. It was magnificent.
Everywhere I looked was a land turned marshmallow white merging in the distance with the deep blue skies. I walked on and finally saw my objective off over the next hill.
Shorter Limber Pines began to dot the landscape.
After roughly 5-6 miles at roughly 9,500ft or so, the final chute appeared comprising the North face of San Gorgonio. There were a couple of options here and different ways
to get up, but all would involve a steep climb in the hardened snow and ice and gain of roughly 1,500-2000ft (depending on how accurate my altimeter reading was).
The hiking was over, the climbing began. I stowed my poles and snowshoes and took out my axe and began moving up the slope. The slope angle probably averaged in the
low to mid 30s through most of the sections with some steeper and some more gentle. I then saw 7 people ahead of me about a thousand feet above me.
As the face shielded climbers from the wind and intensified the sun, it became quite warm moving up. I felt strong and moved up, planting my axe every two steps as
I happily gained elevation. Mt crampons bit well into the hardened snow with a nice positive, stable sounding "crunch".
A few of the people climbing didn't look so good,
and I'd discover later, that two turned around shortly after I passed them.
I initially switchbacked up the mountain in some mixed hard packed snow, but then found some solid firm snow and ice where my crampons bit into well and just opted to go straight up, dead reckoning to the summit.
Strangely, I still felt solid and not winded at all, so I kept moving up without even taking a photo on the way up.
I was feeling incredibly invigorated and as I looked around, up and down, was thinking this sure beats a Stairmaster in a stuffy gym!
I soon discovered that once on top, this was not the summit, but a sub summit of sorts, with the true summit another quarter of a mile to the southwest. Lacking the shelter of the
face just climbed, the winds now became ferocious, cutting through my fleece like a thousand cold knives against my wet perspired skin. It chilled me to the bone.
I had no thermometer, but with temps in the mid 20s now with 40+mph winds, it was a bit chilled given my scant clothing that the sheltered face allowed me to climb up in.
I stopped, ducked behind an exposed rock and put on two more layers and a hat and warmer gloves. A small degree of comfort returned. I pressed on.
After a 15 minute easy, but cold traverse over to the summit, with little vertical gain, I was on top!
San Gorgonio's rounded summit covered with ice and snow looked like a frozen moonscape. Rime ice covered everything, with horizontal icicles protruding off most rocks. No shrubs grew up here. Glancing over my shoulder, a climber soon appeared over the ridge and made his way to the top.
Looking to the south, the stunning profile of snow capped Mount San Jacinto filled the view with palm trees still seen some 10,000ft below on the desert floor.
it was an odd scene to take in while sitting on the summit, hunched over against an icy rock hiding from the frigid wind.
After snapping a few photos, without so much as sitting down, I packed my camera and started down, realizing I needed to pick a good line to down climb what I just went up.
Trying a few spots, I found a good spot filled with softer snow to the right where I was able to plunge step down with fairly large steps. I must have resembled Bigfoot from afar
with my gaping strides down the mountain.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):