Just ahead of me, I could hear the muffled dub beats of the Hi Fi Killers (http://www.amazon.com/Hi-Fi-Killers/e/B000AQ4NLG) coming out of Rude Boy’s backpack pocket interspersed with his tired but now vocal cursing. A half-mile back, he had cranked the volume on his iPhone, set it to shuffle, and hit play in an effort to inspire himself to get down the last bit of San Gorgonio. While he had been occupied with that, I had been ransacking my gear to find my last liter of water, while my brain again had crankily noted for the third or fourth time that the Vivian Creek trail felt a lot longer than 15.6 miles on the descent; and this, according to my brain, was something that I had already known, and not forgotten, but ignored, which it, and my body were not happy about. Five minutes after hearing the Hi Fi Killers, I was about to experience one of the more surreal moments of my life, but at that moment, fifteen minutes before the Hi Fi Killers, and ten minutes before an intangible loss of reality, all I was thinking about was about how damn long that Vivian Creek Trail felt. That, and how much I hated giving blood to mosquitoes on a voluntary, or involuntary basis.
We had left that morning from San Diego for San Gorgonio, getting an early start at 5 a.m. Back in San Diego, there was no orange glow of the reflected late night onshore flow. What there had been was a heavy drizzle that soaked the pavement and chilled my bones with its soupy moisture. As I flipped the wipers on that morning, I had shaken my head for the 1,012th time at the strange San Diego weather of 2010. After Whitney (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/6/24/mt-whitney-portal-to-summit-june-21-2010-part-one.html), San Gorgonio was the next peak I had interested the group in climbing. Gorgonio, as you may or may not know, is the tallest peak in Southern California at 11,503 feet, rising up out of the smog and foothills of Los Angeles, to tower over the City of Angels and the surrounding mountains and desert. Based on my past experience, I had suggested to the group that we would take the Vivian Creek route, which, according to my information – and memories, was 7.8 miles one way. I had climbed “Old Greyback” as San Gorgonio is also known several times, and twice by that route, so I knew that it was definitely do-able, although, I also knew it would be a long day.
From San Diego, it’s an easy drive up to Gorgonio – you follow the I-15 North, to the I-215 (also North), to the I-10 (East), to the Highway 38 exit in Redlands. Up to that point, my passengers – Rude Boy and Pratt - had been pretty quiet, but once we hit Redlands, they began to stir, and note that we could finally see the sun – and that there were a lot of tattoo parlors in Redlands. (Maybe it was just the exit we got off at). In any case, I had plenty of eyes to help me find the Forest Falls Road intersection, which one makes a right turn at, toward the Falls Recreation Area. Once we had arrived at the end of the road at the Falls Recreation Area we found...people! Tons of people! Whether it was the lack of sleep or my own personal naiveté, I had not expected nearly the amount of hikers out and about on the Vivian Creek trail. As we circled the lot, I realized that I had based my assumptions about the trail’s popularity on my experiences climbing the peak eight years ago on a Wednesday in May. Fortunately, Pratt and Rude Boy were nonplussed about the amount of people, and accepted my sheepish explanations about trail usage. (However: do not pull a LA! Be sure to get your permit in advance for this trail, as it is now quite popular!).
I parked the car, and in a matter of minutes we met up with Brother Bear and Tan and set off up the wash after Cash and his friend, who had left an hour earlier in order to beat the purported “90 degree temperatures”. As we traversed the wash, the air had the cool crispness of a fall day, not July 31st – a fact that made us all realize that we had lucked out with another great hiking day. One of the other things I had remembered about the Vivian Creek Trail was that the first segment of the trail after the wash was a brutal, steep climb. Unlike the amount of traffic the trail received, this fact had not changed. By the time we arrived up in the hanging valley next to the Creek, all of us were sweating and panting in the cold tree shadows at 7100 feet.
Once we had our breath back, we kept trekking through the late growing valley, and up into Halfway Camp and then up into High Camp, where there were some great summer blooms. Just after High Camp, we ran into Cash and his friend at the ridgeline, resting up for the summit ascent. From the ridgeline, which is also roughly treeline and is at roughly 10,000 feet, it is easy to see why San Gorgonio is known as “Old Greyback”, as the top of the mountain is covered with a rolling grey boulder-and-talus filled slope. After cracking a few jokes, there was nothing to do but suck heaping breaths of the now thin air, and push up through the dusty, exposed slope one boot at a time.
I’d say that we reached the summit quickly, but the summit approach and the first section of the trail are the steepest – and toughest in my opinion. Since it was cooler, we didn’t get cooked to a crisp like ants under a magnifying glass on the approach, and were in great spirits by the time we reached the summit. After lounging with the herd of other hikers who had made it that day on the summit blocks, and making friends with our Angel Share, and marveling at the remaining snowfields, we turned back down, and were making record pace until people began to tire just after Halfway Camp and into the hanging valley, which was when the aforementioned Hi Fi Killers were turned on, which, among other things, powered us back to the cars in a tired but accomplished fashion.
After we had returned home, I received an e-mail from Cash, telling me in his own sardonic way, that I had misled the group into thinking it was a 15.6 mile hike roundtrip, when in reality, his friend had measured the hike at 18.0 miles roundtrip on his GPS watch. I was puzzled. After all, when I had started mountaineering, all we had to measure distance was maps, compasses, sextants, and pieces of string and no one ever allowed us to question things like distance, and all hikes were uphill both ways. Placing such thoughts about how times had changed from my mind, I focused on the memory of how damn long the trail had felt. Moreover, I was sure I had told everyone the correct distance – hadn’t I?!?!?
At this point, it was now a question of mountaineering honor for me, the LA! I began to research it, and I found out some interesting things: Most sites, including my old resources list is as 7.8 miles one way (At this, I felt better – my honor was safe – I had not intentionally misled anyone!); however, some sites list it as 8.4 miles one way (http://www.summitpost.org/mountain/rock/150533/san-gorgonio.html); and even more interestingly, the most recent USFS handout lists that trail as 8.6 one way (http://www.sgwa.org/trails2.htm). Now, you are probably wondering: how long is the Vivian Creek to summit trail? My answer: honestly, I now have to admit I have no idea! I think, based on having climbed the peak on that trail a number of times and reviewing my maps, I’d have to admit that it’s probably longer than 15.6 roundtrip. Is it 18-19 miles roundtrip? Probably not. Is it 17.2 miles roundtrip? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. In the end, all I can say is that it’s a great hike and a great time – but if you’re going to do it, be prepared for the extra mileage, and be sure to have fun doing it.