San Gorgonio Peak
Vivian Creek Trail
Sept. 5, 2001
The full moon shone through the slats of the window blinds onto my bed casting a hypnotic pattern across my rumpled sheets. It had been another restless night in anticipation of our hike to the top of Southern California's highest mountain, San Gorgonio Peak. At 11,499 feet there are 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath causing your heart to pump faster and harder. Acute Mountain Sickness affects 75% of people climbing above 10,000 feet and I had experienced mild AMS symptoms on my last hike to the summit. Nausea, pulsating headache and slight dizziness made for an unpleasant memory.
I assured my hiking partners Troy and Dave that this would be the first real test of their ability to handle high altitude. Due to current research conducted by a Himalayan study it was determined that the herbal supplement Ginko Biloba prevented Acute Mountain Sickness during gradual ascent in 14 out of 21 people. While not staggering numbers Troy and I felt Ginko was worth a trial experiment. Starting five days before our hike I was taking 120mg of Ginko twice daily while Troy took one tablet continually. Our forced rapid ascent from roughly sea level to 11,500 feet in 7 hours would prove to be a worthy test of Gingko Biloba's ability.
I selected a mid-week ascent after the Labor Day weekend to assure fewer people on the trail so we could maintain our focus on the trail and enjoy the serene tranquility of the Vivian Creek Grotto. Due to our upcoming pre-dawn start for the Mt. Whitney Trail I thought this would be a great opportunity to test out our new headlamps and get a taste of what it's like to hike in the dark across rocky terrain. We set a time of 4:30am to meet at the Mill Creek Ranger Station where we would carpool up the the Vivian Creek Trailhead into the town of Forest Falls.
I arrived at the eerie floodlit parking lot of Ranger station at 4:00am, earlier than anticipated, and sorted out my gear in the bed of my truck while waiting for Dave and Troy to arrive. It was a beautiful night with high wispy clouds drifting by under the moonlight guided by hundreds of stars. I watched the headlights of cars approaching the ranger station and checked my watch frequently. At 5:00am I began to get worried and turned on my cell phone. I didn't know if Dave had my cell number but I thought if they were lost or had car problems he might try to call.
At home I had forced down a bowl of Honey-Nut oatmeal, a glass of Sunny Delight and 5 apricot halves and washed it all down with a 32oz bottle of water I had drank on the way to the ranger station. Now I felt the rumblings of my fiber rich diet and knew the restrooms at the station would be locked. In anticipation I stashed a smallish one pound Folgers Coffee can lined with a paper sack in my truck for emergencies. I slunk into the darkness and dropped a well placed turd into the can like a child dropping a clothespin into a bottle at a birthday party and stood back and admired my accomplishment. I removed the paper sack and disposed of it in the bottom of the nearby trash can. Just then I heard my Nokia phone ringing and shuffled to the truck pulling up my pants. "Angelus Oaks", I said as Dave spoke into a noisy payphone in a small town twenty minutes up the mountain past the ranger station. "You guys must have drove right past me", I told him and gave him directions back to the ranger station.
I donned my Petzl Zoom headlight and walked out to the road in front of the ranger station. Spotlighting the brush surrounding the parking lot I scanned for red beady eyes while waiting for headlights to come racing down the mountain. Suddenly I saw a white Nissan 300ZX drive past. Thinking swiftly, I focused the beam into the driver's side mirror as Dave slowed for the Bryant Ave. turnoff. Dave turned his car around and headed back up toward my bright light at the ranger station driveway and pulled into the lot. "I was getting worried about you guys", I said. "We never even saw the sign", Troy said. They pulled into the lot and we tossed their gear into the bed of my truck.
By the time we got to the Vivian Creek Trail Parking lot daylight was creeping in on us. At 6100 feet the only car in the lot harbored a grizzly old mountain man dressed in vintage hiking boots, a red and black buffalo plaid wool shirt and a long staff preparing to hike into the wilderness. He slammed his trunk and disappeared like an apparition up the trail never to be seen by us again. We decided to try out the headlamps anyway and started up the dirt trail towards the trailhead. "Stay on the dirt road", I told Dave. The last two times I headed across Mill Creek Wash too early and had to backtrack to the road. We didn't need our headlamps but kept them on just to get used to wearing them while we headed up the road to the trailhead. We passed the cabins alongside the trail and eventually got to the trailhead sign. "This is the wash that had the flash flood a couple of days ago", I told them. Troy ditched his headlamp in some nearby bushes to save weight in his pack and told us to remind him on the way back. We carefully crossed the rocky wash just as the ambient light illuminated the canyon.
"This is the steepest part", I told them and we better pace ourselves. We hit the switchbacks with determination and reached the top in about 40 minutes. The sunlight was having difficulty penetrating the dense canopy of the Vivian Creek Grotto. We stopped for a brief snack while I pulled out my thermometer. "50 degrees, a bit nippy", I told them.
The Vivian Creek Grotto is one of the prettiest spots in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. At 7100 feet, the immense incense cedars and pines overwhelm the grotto. Lush ferns and grasses grow in profusion alongside the trail where only filtered light reaches the trail.
The trail seems to flow along side the creek which trickles to your left as you enjoy the lessening incline. Dark shadows and sounds of the forest keep you ever alert for bear, deer and other wildlife. Large bushy tailed tree squirrels frolicked among the thick barreled tree trunks while Dave tried to get a close up photo. Checking my watch I hauled up my pack and told the guys we better get moving.
We headed up and crossed over a well worn log crossing Vivian Creek working our way beside the deadfalls and shadows through large trees hollowed out at the base. "We probably won't see anybody else on the trail", I said just as a group of ten boys heavily laden with full backpacks lead by two adults came thundering down the trail. We exchanged, "How's it going" greetings and the last adult told us there were two other groups about 20 minutes behind them coming down the trail. The trail climbs upward to the left and reaches some switchbacks heading towards Halfway Camp at 8100 feet and our second break.
Halfway Camp seams to come up quickly and after reaching a bend in the trail and coming over a rise, there it is. We took another quick break while glancing off to the right and down into Halfway Camp. Troy checked out the trail map to see how far we've come while I guzzled down some Gatorlode, a supercharged carbohydrate loaded energy drink. "This stretch between Halfway Camp and High Creek Camp seems to be the longest stretch between stops and it really wears on you, I told them".
After leaving Halfway Camp we passed the other groups of boys who had spent the night on the summit. They looked haggard and weary from the ordeal and some hikers had strung out from the others. "Web School", one adult told me as they passed by. We snaked our way up the ridge to our left and pass around two 180 degree bends that overlooked a beautiful valley below Dobbs Peak. The trail continues uphill at the base of some large boulders and rocks. I expected to see Charlie the Lonesome Cougar crouched down waiting to pounce on us at any moment. At the end of the last turn the view opens up S/W affording a birds-eye view of Mills Creek Wash and down into Redlands.
We rounded the ridge and dropped down toward High Creek Camp at 9600 feet. The falls below High Creek Camp were flowing swiftly and the sheer walls above them echoed the sound of crashing water below. I refilled my water bottle and dropped some iodine tablets into the bottle. We took another brief break and ate some high carb snacks for the long arduous east ridge switchbacks. Just as we were leaving a lone youthful hiker clad in a tee-shirt, swim trunks, trail running shoes with funky ankle braces and a small blue daypack came into the camp and followed us up into the east ridge. Feeling pushed I stepped aside and offered him a chance to pass us. He said,"Thanks", and motored by us at a quick pace. Within a few minutes he was completely out of sight and probably on top. "These seem to go on forever", I told them. Troy was hitting his stride and eased to the top of the switchbacks while Dave and I maintained an easy pace. The last few switchbacks toward the San Jacinto Overlook seemed steeper this time as I crested the ridge and dropped my pack at the 10,130 feet level.
I pointed out San Jacinto Peak and showed them where we were heading. "That's the summit", I told them and pointed out the peak. "We'll be heading up the ridge to our left and to the top before crossing over to the right", I said. We posed for a group shot and I told them the story of the boy who became separated from his father, slipped and fell, and eventually walked out to the Whitewater Trout Farm. This is where I first started feeling the altitude. Last time I was further up the ridgeline, about 10,500 feet. I bent down to get something out of my pack and felt a surge of nausea welling up from my stomach. I had a slight headache but knew I couldn't take anymore aspirins. I opened a roll of TUMS and chewed up four chalky tablets.
The trail steepens and becomes rockier as it heads up to the left. The trail tops out and levels off as it skirts the right side on the ridge and becomes dry and dusty. Here is where the wind whips up and I spotted Bighorn Sheep droppings scattered among the boulders. The sky is a bright blue and the views behind you are breathtaking off toward San Jacinto and Palm Springs. The sun is intense due to the high UV rays and breathing becomes difficult. Troy was feeling great and had no trouble with the altitude. Dave and I on the other hand were getting headaches and slowing our pace. I remember how bad I felt at this point last time and deliberately slowed down. This seemed to help me tremendously. My accelerated training program consisting of 13% incline treadmill walking, stair climbing and hiking at a nearby football stadium seems to really have helped. My legs did not feel tired and my endurance was hardly taxed. I had no trouble except for the headache , which was tolerable. The nausea was gone and I was actually enjoying myself.
Troy had gone up ahead as I waited for Dave to catch up. I admired the beautiful scenery and had Dave snap a photo when he came up. We rounded a corner and saw Troy laid out under a small bush in the shade. We rested for just a few moments then continued up toward the top. Troy led and Dave and I followed. We could see the young hiker coming down from the top now wearing a long sleeve fleece top and bounding down the trail like a deer. Troy stopped to talk to him while we caught up. "He just came from Whitney last week", Troy said. We talked about Whitney for awhile and he told us he saw a bear crossing the road near the Vivian Creek Trail parking lot. We continued up to the top of the ridgeline and passed through the Dollar Lake and Sky High Trail signs toward the top. As we crested the ridge Troy said, "Isn't that Big Bear Lake". "Yea it is", I told him and I pointed out the peak on top a pile a boulders off to our right.
At 11:55am we reached the top at 11,503 feet. Troy found the summit register and I told him to look for my last summit entry back on May 16, 2001. "It doesn't go back that far", he told me. I looked and saw that someone had replaced all the notepads and dates only went back to mid July. We found the summit benchmark embedded on the top rock, marked with a heavy cast iron bear trap looking think weighed down with a rock. The marker said 11,503 feet. I pulled out my Yaesu VX-5R ham radio and did a quick test hitting repeaters as far away as San Diego, Catalina, Barstow, Bakersfield and San Fernando Valley. I made an autopatch phone call to my wife at home but dialed the wrong phone number pre-programmed in the radio and called my mother-in-law by mistake. Meanwhile, Troy was busy playing with the chipmunks while Dave tried to take a close-up photo. The wind was gusting about 25MPH and my thermometer read 62 degrees sitting on top a rock. The wind-chill made it seem much colder and I was beginning to chill so I pulled on my fleece vest and beanie. Dave heated up his trademark instant meal- in- a- bag with the pull string while Troy fed the chipmunk in the palm of his hand. I ate some of my homemade Logan Bread and found the bite-sized snickers I had hidden in my vest pocket.
12:40pm we headed down with Troy in the lead, me in the middle and Dave bringing up the rear. We cruised through the saddle and quickly passed the SkyHigh and Dollar Lake Trail signs. Troy had pulled out ahead and I wasn't paying much attention until I rounded a small dip in the ridgeline and saw Troy heading back up towards me from a trail below and to the right. I could now see off the back side of the mountain and down into the high desert. Troy looked concerned and said, "I don't remember this". I looked around and told him that we should be able to see the summit all the way back to the San Jacinto Overlook and that we were too high up on the ridge. Dave was just now coming into view from behind me and I told him to head back towards the Dollar Lake Trail sign and wait for us. "We must have walked right past the trail", I told Troy. "We're on the Dollar Lake trail and this trail bends around the north side of the peak and meets up with the South Fork Trail. "Hell, we would have been damn near in Angelus Oaks if we would have kept going", I had to get the being late dig in. I headed cross country down the east side and told him to wait for me. About 50 yards down the talus I saw our real trail and yelled out for the guys to follow me. The wind was howling and they couldn't hear me. I whistled as loud as I could but they could not hear me over the noise of the wind. Because of the curvature of the ridgeline I could not see them. I took a deep breath and whistled again. This time I heard another whistle in reply. I saw Troy and Dave trekking across the rocks and heading down towards me.
Once we were back on the trail we ran into an older Hispanic woman in her mid fifties decked out in hiking garb and making for the summit. In passing she said there was two more behind her. Shortly after I ran into two guys with Australian accents with bulging 5000 cubic inch packs. They said they were planning on spending a night on top. We continued down the ridgeline and raced down the east ridge switchbacks, Troy and Dave taking a shortcut on the last few beating me to the creek crossing. Two hikers were resting at High Creek Camp proper while another pair sat in the shade down below the campsites. We just said hello and kept going towards Halfway Camp.
The trail back to the car seemed to take forever. Sore feet, backs and aching heads from the altitude and smog made the trail long and dreary. Dave stopped a few times to hunt down a mysterious pebble hiding in his sock while I stopped to suck the last drop of water from my hydration bladder. Crossing Halfway camp and heading down into the Vivian Creek Grotto gnats seemed to follow us all the way back. Constantly fanning our hands in front of our faces I contemplated taking out my headnet from my pack but I was too tired. "If one of them comes any closer to my mouth while I'm breathing in I'm gonna eat the bastard", I told Troy.
We crossed back over the log across Vivian Creek and started down the steep and extremely rock switchbacks above Mills Creek Wash. Knees trembling and ankles rolling we baby-stepped it down the trail to the Wash at 4:45pm and across to the dirt road and trailhead. The last 1/2 mile back to the car is tough and Troy said, "Why don't you go get the car while I wait here". I picked up the pace and beat everyone to the truck. I removed Dave's ice chest from the backseat and helped myself to one of Dave's ice cold bottled cream soda. Troy removed his boots and pulled off his sweaty socks challanging any one of us to smell his stinky feet.
I drove quickly back to the Mill Creek Ranger Station and dropped off the guys tossing my pack into the front seat of my truck. I grabbed another cream soda and congratulated everyone and told them what an accomplishment they had made. Roughly 16 miles and 5300 feet of elevation gained. This was our hardest hike of all in preparation for our Mt. Whitney hike in two weeks. Looking back I guess the Ginko Biloba helped but was not the resounding success that I thought it would be. Troy on the other hand, had no effects so I guess it worked great for him.
The next morning I saw Troy at work standing in front of his open locker in a daze. I said, "How Ya Feelin". He replied, "I curse the day I ever met you". Troy said he began to feel nauseated on the way home and felt worse later that evening. He said he thought it was due to the smog and could feel the burning deep in his lungs when he breathed deep. Two days later we both felt great and continued our training for our assault on Mt. Whitney in only two weeks.