That time I almost died: San Gorgonio

January 2010.

Benny and I had dreamed for weeks about making a winter ascent of San Gorgonio, the tallest point in San Bernardino county. I had been up there multiple times in the summer and didn’t have much winter hiking experience. Benny had spent much of his life in the mountains of Utah and felt confident that with the little bit of rain/snow that we had had that season that it wouldn’t be much of an issue.

A friend was supposed to come into town to join us, but had to cancel at the last minute. While she was debated whether to come, we were debating whether we wanted to rent snowshoes or crampons. We both rode our bikes or walked past the rental shop on campus 5 times that week. We decided against it. *foreshadowing

FLASHBACK – February 2008. I hiked on San Gorgonio with snowshoes and crampons and realized that they were necessary. This was pretty much my only experience with snow hiking. I was postholing up to my knees in the softest snow and slipping on areas without my crampons on. It was a fun day.

We started at the Vivian Creek trail head on dry ground. It’s 6 am and we question why we aren’t at home making breakfast burritos and waiting for the NFL playoffs to begin. I think the Colts are playing. It’s a beautiful blue sky day. The last for 3-4 days as a storm is approaching. Early start, early down, beers, Monday off. It’s going to be a great day.

The first few miles are up hill and relatively easy. We cross one icy patch of snow, feel a little shaky but for the most part it is smooth sailing. I remember crossing that patch thinking I should be at home watching football.

About 2.5-3 miles into the hike we reach a steep little section of icy snow that requires us to grab onto a branch to pull ourselves up and over the lip. This is the first point of question where we have a conversation about what lies ahead. We had maneuvered the slope easily enough and it found ourselves crunching through soft snow any other time we encountered it. Boots, light jackets, blue skies.

As we continued for the next few miles, we would catch glimpses of higher slopes white against the horizon. The snow began to thicken at our feet, but the trail is easy to follow. There is a set of footprints in front of us that we can track from time to time. I don’t remember exactly when we lost them for good, but it was before the smooth sailing ends and we reached an ascent that is probably switchbacks in the summer. “It’s early, we have plenty of time,” we think, “We’ll take it slow, the snow will slush up and we can just cruise down.”

I kick into the side of the slope with the side of my boot, then do the same with the next one, mimicking the motions that I learned while hiking the Franz Joseph Glacier in New Zealand 7 years prior.  We ladder our way up the slope, traversing across when it’s safe, supporting ourselves on my hiking poles when it’s not. There are a few points where it is a bit icy. I grab on to the exposed branch of a mountain shrub. Supporting my weight, I pull myself a little higher and kick my boot into the snow. It sticks, I climb, we move.

We reach the top of the slope and look down at the glistening sheet of ice. We’ll be back in a few hours. I hope it melts.

From there it’s not too bad. We are on the ridge line looking up towards the summit. We’ve made surprisingly good time considering the conditions and are pretty sure that we will make it down before Eureka closes. Benny scurries off ahead as I struggle with the slickness of the the ice. My balance has always been bad, but it is most evident when the ground is slick.

From home, we couldn’t see that the summit was this white. It hadn’t rained in over a month. We were expecting the route to be a little bit easier than it turned out to be. Instead what had happened is that the snow had melted and refroze many times creating a thick layer of ice that didn’t budge in the winter sun.

We worked our way to the last ridge which was rockier and easy to navigate. We look of to the west and see the storm building in the distance. Wind whipping around us. Over 10,000′. Only a few more feet to ascend. We summitted around 1pm, blanketed in confidence from our speedy ridge line climb.  A Clif Bar, a questioning look and we head back towards our car. With stories of beet burgers and glissading in our heads.

San Gorgonio Adventure 012
Summit of San Gorgonio

Our Summit smiles quickly slipped off our faces as we navigated our way down to the saddle. We passed two guys who were hiking up towards the summit with ice axes, crampons, and snow shoes strapped to their backs. We embarrassingly conversed with them about the coming storm and their route to the top. We parted ways and I’m sure they shook their heads at our lack of gear. We hoped their fears wouldn’t be realized.

The ominous clouds in the distance quickly became the ominous clouds above as we traversed the icy path back home. As my legs and arms tired from the constant imbalance of the snow, I found it more difficult to move quickly. Benny and his soccer legs were a bit more nimble, by I found that my general lack of balance wasn’t working in my favor. My white knuckle grip on my hiking poles strained my hands as my heart pounded in my chest.

What the fuck are we doing?

It took a while, and I often had to stab my pole into the ground press my foot against it to prevent myself from slipping down into the abyss, but we made it across the initial slope and found softer snow on the other side.

San Gorgonio Adventure 017
Looking across the valley to Mt. San Jacinto

Smiles returned to our faces as we started making good time for the mile before the big descent that we had just finished climbing. Our hope was that the ice would have thawed a bit and allowed us to break through the snow and posthole our way down. Instead we were met by an infinitely wide bobsled run with a straight shot to broken bones or worse.

We nervously looked at one another and decided to look for a way around the mountain. The nice thing about being on top of a mountain was that all paths led down. We started navigating around the shaded slope and found some soft snow on the north side of the mountain. We were moving and grooving, smiling as we descended and making a path through the virgin snow. We kept track of our general direction and made sure to lean towards the direction the trail was supposed to be. Once we found a clearing we realized we had overshot the trail and needed to move back the other way.

It was 3pm. We were nervous, but feeling good about our progress.

The next stage of the adventure required us to traverse a rocky slope to get back to the trail. We performed rock climbing moves way above our pay grade, glissaded between out-croppings, and hopped between the boulders too smooth to grip. We were powered by adrenaline and we made quick work of it with smiles on our faces because we were homeward bound. We miraculously found ourselves back on the trail. The trail markings on the trees acted as a beacon home.

But it was now almost 4. It was almost dark. We had headlamps, but the trail in front of us had returned to the icy mess that we had spent considerable effort avoiding.

We were at one of the main drainages and knew that it led down to the river where we started so many hours ago. Given that there was only one way up and down the valley, we pressed our luck and headed off trail through the softer snow in an attempt to get off the mountain as quick as possible.

Down into the canyon we went. Increasing speed on the gentle slope and soft snow. Feeling good but cautious. We had to watch our steps as there were rocks beneath the snow, but we hurried as the sun was growing dim. We made our way around minor obstacles; a downed tree here, a short drop off there, up and around a big rock.

We made it about a half mile down when we were greeted by a giant FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK right in the middle of our path. The creek took a precipitous drop 30-40′ straight down, then it appeared to continue to drop off longer from there. Gutted. And with it our hopes and dreams of escaping this series of unfortunate decisions.

With nowhere else to go, we headed right back up the creek the way we came. We made quick work of it and were back up to the trail markers leading us the right way home.

And then it started to snow.

The storm that had been moving in, the one we knew about, the one that was supposed to stick around for three days was here. We had little time and many miles to go. We had headlamps. Knew that we only had a few miles and change of snow to go before we were mostly safe and sound, so we had to hope the quality of the trail improved quickly.

We followed the trail markers on the trees for a short while, a shot of joy coursed through our bodies with each one we past. And then we didn’t see them any more. And then, all of a sudden, Benny disappeared from in front of me in what appeared to be an instant is 20 foot below me picking himself out of a bush. Unharmed, he laughs it off and climbs back up a little farther down the trail. We started questioning whether or not we are on the trail anymore, but decide to reconvene underneath the tree just ahead of us.

Since Benny had just slipped on the ice ahead, I watch my step careful. Less than sure footed, I am sure to follow him down the slope. I try kicking my boots into the snow for traction and am able to get a few step before they no longer stick. I look ahead and in my tired state decide that the 3 inches of branch sticking out of the snow 6-8′ in front of me is a great target for my hands. Without giving myself time to chicken out, I lunged forward from my compromised position and grab the branch, swing down along the slope and kick my foot back into the snow at Benny’s side.

That was dumb.

We took stock in our location. Looked back the way we came, looked forward the way we thought we should be going. It all looked the same. We looked up to the sky and watched the snow falling heavier.

It was time to stop making bad decisions. It was time to own our bad decisions. It was time to ask for help. I pulled out my phone. Two bars of hope.

9-1-1.

San Gorgonio Adventure 020
Our home for the next 9 hours.

The first call was actually to my buddy Wolak, who had his gear packed before I finished explaining the situation to him. We talked him out of driving straight up the mountain to us and instead had him find the number for Search and Rescue. He quickly got back to us letting us know that we had to dial 9-1-1 ourselves.

Add that to the boxes I didn’t know I needed to check in life. Call 9-1-1 on yourself. Check. The connection was spotty as I talked to the operator and let her know what was going on. Vivan Creek trailhead. About 4-5 miles up the trail, but sadly not on the trail. In good health, a little cold, disappointed with ourselves. She told us to hold tight, took my number and told us they would call when they set up base at the trailhead.

At this point, the bad decisions became a distant memory. Instead we scoured our brains for all of the survival skills that we had learned in boy scouts and through our various wilderness training.

Step 1: Protect yourself from the elements

We found a nice thick tree to lean against that protected us from the wind and from the snow that was falling at a faster and faster rate.

Step 2: Don’t sit on the snow

We pulled as many branches as we could off of the surrounding trees to make a nice pokey bed to sit on. We collected them until in the process of trying to pull one down I almost slipped and fell on my ass.

Step 3: Get close to maximize warmth

I am not a large man, but my buddy Benny was all bones from too many hours playing soccer. This meant that I was the big spoon.

Step 4: Wrap yourself in an emergency blanket

I bought an emergency blanket for one of my hiking trips when I was in New Zealand. I hiked with it on almost every longer adventure I went on for the 7 years between purchasing it and today. That morning I looked for it for 30 minutes before we left but couldn’t remember where I had put it since it had been awhile since I had been hiking. No emergency blanket.

Step 4: Wrap yourself in the extremely thin extra layer that Benny brought

It was the best we could do to protect ourselves from the wind. It worked ok at first. The adrenaline from the experience still coursing through our bodies.

Step 5: Stay positive

We talked a lot during the next few hours as we waited. Re-lived the day a bit. Identified a few key moments where we should have turned around. Talked about life, grad school, was I going to quit? Sure. These are the experiences that make you realize what you want, I thought. 20 minutes later. Nah, these are the experiences that make you realize you need to be a more active participant in your life and stop making excuses why things are so hard. Slow down, pay attention to the details, and maybe you find yourself up a metaphorical mountain with your arms around wrapped around your buddy singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall.”

We really did sing that. I think we got down to 64 before we gave up.

San Gorgonio Adventure 022
A photo for our wake.

We got a text from S&R, they were at the trailhead. I quickly responded and got a text back 30 minutes later. Uh oh. delay. We figured out our 30 minute delay and the team was heading up the mountain by 9pm.

The snow was falling, but help was on the way. We had our flashlights ready and took a few practice blows into our whistles as we waited with smiles.

My phone wasn’t in much better shape. I think the storm blocked off what little reception I was getting.

So we waited. And it got colder. And we waited. And my foot started to go numb. And we blew whistles. And we waited. And we flashed our flashlights. And we waited. And we got a text saying they were halfway there and setting up a relay camp.

But we never lost hope. We started making plans for when the sun came up. It was only a few hours away. The snow would have built up enough by then and we could plod our way out. We planned.

Finally, after 9 hours of waiting under a tree, our rescuers appeared; Armed with hot chocolate, Clif bars, fresh socks, ice axes, and crampons.

They were a great team. Knowing our potential fragile mental state, they lauded us with praise for everything that we had done right since we decided to stop. They didn’t mention the laundry list of missteps along the way. They knew we knew.

One of them had to warm my foot up with his body heat as I couldn’t really move it when they arrived. It didn’t appear frost bitten, just almost frozen. After warming up our cores with the best hot chocolate ever, we had to stand to get in our crampons and get off the mountains.

Our bones and muscles cracked and stretched after spending 9 hours wrapped in each other’s arms. I think I had pulled my groin from shivering for the last few hours. Through the aches and pains,the adrenaline of not dying today got us on our feet and moving again.

We moved along the ice in crampons like feet in the dirt. It made me shake my head in disgust. We were cruising through what seemed like 6″ of snow that had fallen since we stopped.

The team had a GPS so we were able to quickly navigate back to the trail even in the snowy darkness.

After we reached the trail and were warmed up through exertion, we started quizzing the team on the search process. They said the lights were helpful once they got close, but the whistle was disorienting. Each blow ricocheted off the canyon walls and was dampened by the snow so they couldn’t figure out the direction it was coming from. So much for that Margaret Adams.

After a mile or so we met up with the B team and they checked us for frostbite and general awareness. By this time I was feeling great, the freedom of tomorrow plastered across the smile on my face.

We got down to the parking lot around 5am. Almost 24 hours after we had left the previous morning. We thanked everyone who was there, filled out some paperwork, and headed off to the closest restaurant to have the best meal of our lives.

As we settled in to our third cup of coffee, the adrenaline was wearing off and the reality of the situation started sinking in a little deeper. It was still raining outside. Snowing up above.

If I had to have the experience I did (which I didn’t), I was happy to have shared it with Benny. We were able to work together to keep ourselves mentally and physically stable throughout the night. No sense of panic ever arose. No doubts were ever spoken.

We left in silence and drove home with our thoughts. A day of sleep was followed by an evening of beers with friends who were even more dear to us than when we departed.

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