Into thin air on San Gorgonio

Yesterday I summitted San Gorgonio via the Vivian Creek Trail. It took 4:50 to get up there (11,503 ft) and 4:03 to get down (6,080′) for 18 miles in 9 hours, but my overall moving time was 8 hours and that is pretty great for me so training has really paid off. I must say the GPS continues to not be fully accurate, something I don’t like, saying 18 miles but showing just over 17 in the elevation map; not reading the summit correct, varying elevation at the car, etc. I mean, it’s accurate enough to read and use, but the stats are annoyingly wrong and not sure what to make of it.

I felt pretty slow getting near 11k, but after that was great – the mean, hot sun on exposed trails probably wasn’t helping but the reality is the air is thin at that altitude and it’s pretty hard to be above 10k even in the Sierra Nevada for practice. Going down should have been faster, and I’m telling you I did jog in places, but I guess when you are tired and the path is mostly rocks there’s only so much you can manage speed-wise: I ain’t out to trip or fall, which is always my main fear hiking solo. My recovery was fast, I managed known issues pretty well, and I felt physically pretty good the entire time (standard back pain and knee complaints aside, strength training helps so much), though I am wiped from it just being a tough day plus I don’t think I ate enough so I did have a couple pouts coming down when I was extra hot and tired. My left front inner calf (does that make sense?) hurts again – on San Antonio I thought it was maybe a cramp but now it’s so localized it’s probably a repetition injury, like a sore ligament or something, not exactly shin splints, though – and I had a new shoe problem that hasn’t occurred in many, many miles that maybe was swollen feet from an extra long trek plus the instability of these runners on a trail that is mostly rocks – some seam rubbing on the outside of one foot.

Anyhow! I was driving before 5am and there were not many people out. It was cool in the morning but the thick fog on the final drive into the mountains sadly disappeared just before the parking lot. The day was cloudless and very sunny. Luckily, the way up is shaded in in the morning by not just Gorgonio (the entire range around the trailhead in a U facing east is above 10k) but also very dense pine forest despite the impossibly steep mountainsides. After bathroom trip, I walked up a rough dirt road for 1/2 mile before crossing the giant, rocky wash to the actual trailhead. The trail heads straight up with very steep switchback to the 1 mile marker. WHEW. Now that I’m all very worn out, time to do the majority of the hike! haha! It started by following it’s namesake, Vivian Creek, and it’s lush plant life through 2 campsites, but it was dry on this trip. That was a nice break – it felt flat, though the elevation map proves otherwise. Time to climb again – up and around more steep slopes until reaching High Creek Camp and it’s namesake waters, which were plentiful. Backpackers filtered water and I sat on a fallen log which is familiar to me. I haven’t been here in years but still this lovely place exists and I can swing my tired feet while listening to falling water in the all-day shade provided by a dense pine forest.

Now that I forced myself to take a break, even if only a few minutes, it’s time to climb. A slog of too many switchbacks get me up another steep slope and up onto a ridgeline. The view are astounding… San Jacinto looms south and a bit east, the saddle back (I was atop one last weekend) is visible above dense clouds to the southwest, and the eastern slopes from the trail down were all burned: blackened tree husks above brush just starting to sprout new green leaves. Now the trial followed the ridgeline up relentlessly – either straight or small switchbacks in steep areas. Trees start to thin out or get small and twisted, and this is where I get a bit tired as the 10k boundary is crossed and left behind. Ahead, I can see where the trail just straight up traverses the side of the mountain, leaving the ridgeline and clinging to the wall. I can see people walking on it and it seems far but I’m on it in no time. I just sucked it up and pushed though without much breathing breaks. People I passed are long gone, people I’ve been going back and forth with are no where to be found (honestly, some must have turned back because I didn’t see them again), and people that passed me are already at the summit.

A helicopter circled and I stopped to watch. By all accounts, it was a training mission. They flew dramatically, very low, made lots of circles, and landing on a clear, flat spot just southwest of the summit. Neat. The rest of the way is pretty flat – just a final short climb to the top. I must say I don’t remember it. It seems a smaller area than I recall, and there are lot of stone structures (not uncommon on bald mountains – wind breaks), and the very top is a small pile of boulders. Since the ridge is so high and long, and the area around the summit seems flat and wide, it’s not a very exciting summit to get to – you’re just kinda there. Lots of people today spread all over and chatting. I looked around and exclaimed ‘ta-da!’ and got some giggles and conversations from it. As expected, a fair few are training for Mount Whitney and, I think, this is about a good a trainer as you can get for some high miles on a steep but well-maintained trail – but, as others were discussing, nothing prepares you for sucking air above 13k trying to get to a 14.5k summit. Anyhow, I’ve run out of things to say and despite laughing at fat squirrels begging (this was a good crew – they did not feed them and no one was going to steel the sign, just holding it for pictures whom everyone but me helped take), so I leave. I’ve become quite poor at taking breaks. My feet and tummy would probably appreciate it if I did more substantial rest stops.

The way down was uneventful – it’s down, it hurts, it feels like I can’t go as fast as I “should” etc. I break again at High Creek Camp on the log want was so happy to just be there in that beautiful place. A backpacker stops me just after leaving and he’s young and new to these mountains and training for a Whitney overnight trip so we talked about hiking and plans and how lovely this small strip of meadow was. <3

I complain to myself all the way down that I’m tired and it’s so dang hot. I jog some bits, when it’s not too steep or rocky, including the final road back. I’m happy to be at the car but it’s soooo hot! Stupid weather forecast, it must be mid-80s – and it is. 70s my butt! I open the wee cooler and enjoy a cold boiled egg and chocolate protein drink while listening to laughter from the picnic area as kids are swinging dangerously in hammocks. I smile, start my car, and try to relax on a stressful drive home.

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