A Sleepless Winter Night On Top San Gorgonio
We had cancelled an earlier winter trip up San Gorgonio a month before due to weather. This time, in mid-February 2012, the promising weather made it easy to ignore the modest wind warnings. Just 15 to 25 mph, with gusts to 45? We’d experienced worse up there. Hadn’t we? This would be my 5th time up there in the last 12 months – no problem. Bluebird skies and fresh snow called us. Matt and I were on.
The number of cars in the South Fork Trailhead lot surprised us. Twenty cars seemed more like summer traffic, not winter. In the first couple miles before Poopout Hill we passed a dozen or more people, mostly snowshoers out for the day. A few people headed toward the Summit. There was one especially well equipped solo climber with what must have been a 60 pound pack, complete with a snowboard, helmet, and lots of dangling bags. The snowshoe traffic had nicely packed down the snow from a couple days prior and made the way easy all the way to South Fork (Slushy) Meadow.
At this point, where you cross the headwaters of the Santa Ana River’s South Fork, the usual winter mountaineering route is straight up the drainage below Dry Lake, which is where we headed. We passed a back-country skier with climbing skins on his skis and before we knew it, we were breaking trail through the snow. Fresh, powdery, yet sticky snow. The kind where you sink as much as a full foot down, and then bring several clumpy pounds back up with each step. The kind that has a way of slowing you way down and tiring you out. Matt kept plugging away and pulled ahead, aided by his bigger snowshoes and Ironman conditioning.
We rested at the edge of Dry Lake, enjoying the snowy expanse and our lunch. We watched the ridges above as the windswept snow curled off and took guesses at how windy it was. Funny thing was we never considered stopping, and continued up above Dry Lake behind another pair of climbers. We thought there would be a bunch of people ahead of us, but it was just us 4 breaking trail through the beautiful virgin snow.
I had done this same route twice in snow last Spring, but this time it was surprisingly different. As we continued up the 2nd chute (couloir) from the left (East), the light clumpy snow got deeper, the incline steeper, and the progress significantly slower. We had anticipated summiting easily in the late afternoon, but by sunset Matt was barely on top and I still had a quarter of the way to go up the chute. At that point, the wind kicked in as we neared the ridgeline. A cold hard wind laced with stinging snow. And the snow below us gave way to the underlying rocky scree blown clear of any accumulated snow. I wasn’t sure which was worse – struggling through the soft snow lower down, or balancing atop the steep scree in my metal-bottomed snowshoes. As it got darker, my quads continued to complain and cramped up. My water froze. The wind increased.
And yet in the midst of this, I was treated to the most magnificent sunset. Brilliant reds on the Western horizon. Deep purples and grays to the North and East in the clouds over Big Bear and Joshua Tree. Stunning. I wish I had been able to have photographed what lay below me, but I was too cold, too exposed, and too anxious to reach the summit.
Sometime after 6pm I finally made the top of the ridgeline and came across the other two climbers who were digging a platform in the snow for their tent. I asked them if they knew they were not yet at the summit, which lay a half mile to the East, and told them that I thought the rock shelters would be exposed and accessible due to the minimal snow accumulation above treeline. Anxious to get out of the wind, they followed me to the summit, where I found Matt in his tent. The other climbers searched for a spot among the rocks, but all the shelters were full of blown snow and pretty useless. They eventually gave up and went back to their original spot on the ridgeline. I felt kinda bad.
I’m not sure exactly how hard the wind was blowing at this point, but I was amazed that Matt had been able to pitch his tent, by himself, and that it hadn’t blown away with him in it. He invited me in, glad for the ballast. It was a cozy 3 season tent, which meant that the 2 of us barely fit, and that snow blew in through the ample vents and swirled inside. The wind continued to beat the tent. We conservatively estimated 50 mph winds with gusts into the 60s. Everything was frozen. No drinkable water. Too windy to cook or heat anything. After a bag of cold lentils and a few swigs of emergency whiskey, we hunkered down in our bags for a long night, hoping the wind would lessen.
It didn’t. It got worse. All night long the sides of the tent punched at us. The hours crawled by and I stopped looking at my watch. I unsuccessfully tried to ignore nature’s call. With the windchill, it was well below zero, and made any trips outside very unpleasant. By sunrise we figured conditions would not be getting any better and it was best just to pack up and head down, which we did. As we traveled back West along the ridgeline, the gust were so strong that I struggled to stay upright. A third of the way back down the chute, the wind quickly lessened in the shadow of the ridgeline, and the soft snow turned pleasant as we descended. We passed a large group from Pasadena practicing avalanche safety. At Dry Lake I broke out my stove, downed almost a liter of coffee, and ate a crunchy, frozen, hard-boiled egg. Yum.
Hydrated and fueled, we made great time the rest of the way back to the trail head. The distance was a bit over 15 miles total round trip with the same out-and-back route. It took me over 9 hours to reach the top, which is 3 hours longer than previous trips. We came down in 3.5 hours, a half hour quicker than before. I guess we were motivated to get out of the wind.
Afterword – Lesson Learned:
To quote Matt, “When they have to tell us it is going to be windy, we should probably pay attention.” Next time the weather report warns of high winds, and especially when I see snow blowing off the ridges, I will avoid sleeping up there and opt to overnight lower down. Had we left earlier, we could have easily summited and then come back down in just an hour to camp comfortably at Dry Lake.
Which leads me to the next point, speed and time. I wasn’t prepared for how much the snow conditions would slow me. Breaking trail in soft sticky snow with a 30 lbs pack increased the ascent time by 50% over similar previous climbs. Leaving earlier in the morning and planning on setting up camp earlier in the afternoon would at worse mean you avoid putting yourself in more compromising situations and at best mean you have daylight to enjoy lounging around camp.
The cold had greater impact than I anticipated. I was surprised at how quickly liquids and solids froze up. I need to add a Camelback insulating hose cover to my Winter equipment list. And better plan for the freezing of food, having more items that can be easily eaten without heating when tired and cold. Twice during the trip I put on heavier gloves, and twice, instead of warm hands, I got numb fingers. Cold gloves are heat sinks that suck warmth away. Mittens would be better, and keeping them deep in my pack or close to my body would help.
In terms of equipment, generally we were in good shape, although a good 4 season mountaineering tent would be added to the list next time. I slept warm and dry in my Mountain Laurel Designs Bivy, insulated by: long underwear, down pants and jacket, two comforters, a balaclava, and a down hood. I was on top of a full-length 3/8 foam pad and a torso-length Exped DownMat. With the exception of my numb fingers and driving snow hitting my face around the summit, I was comfortable climbing throughout the day in long underwear and a shell, and had extra layers if needed.
Overall, it was the weather that changed the game. The combination of fresh snow, low temperatures, and high winds all conspired to keep us on our toes, and created an environment where small mistakes or accidents could have been costly. Fortunately we were careful, or lucky – probably both. It is very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Just because you are within a couple hours of, and can look out and see 20 million people, doesn’t mean that extreme alpine conditions don’t exist. Be careful out there!