Saturday, November 3, 2012

Mount San Gorgonio: 1-3 September 2012, Part I

Mount San Gorgonio (Old Greyback)
1-3 September 2012
Shuttle: Momyer Trail to summit, Vivian Creek Trail back to Forest Falls
23 miles
11,500 feet above sea level with 6,060 feet of elevation gain from the Momyer trailhead
Camps: Dobbs and High Creek
Corrina Peipon, Jennifer West, Peter West

With all of the walking I'd been doing, I'd begun to daydream about staying out on the trail overnight. While I'd done a lot of car camping, I had never been backpacking. Rather than borrowing and renting gear to try it out, I'd decided to build a kit from scratch. By the middle of the summer, I was just about ready. I was lucky that the Wests were free on Labor Day weekend and even luckier to get a permit to walk and camp on Mount San Gorgonio. Jennifer and Peter have both been taking backpacking trips since they were kids. I couldn't imagine better people to go on a first backpacking trip with. And while the available campsites weren't ideal (the first day's walk was too short and the second day's was too long), we would make do. I was determined to climb the three highest peaks in the region in succession this summer, and after San Antonio and San Jacinto, Old Greyback was waiting for me. 

We didn't have far to go on our first day, so we took our time getting to the trailhead and packing up our gear and food. When it finally came time for me to put my pack on, I was genuinely shocked. It was so heavy. This was my first error: though I'd worn my pack a bit with all of my gear in it, I hadn't worn it with full rations of water and food. I'd spent a lot of time researching lightweight gear; each of the items in my kit, including my pack, was the lightest it could be for my budget and skill level. But with four liters of water (My second error: packing up the night before, I figured that, even though the trail guides indicated good water sources all along our route, I might as well start with as much water as possible... ) and a bear canister with enough food for two days, it was heavy. Much heavier than I expected. I took a deep breath and found my footing. It was only five and half miles to Dobbs Camp.

The only other people we saw on the Momyer Trail were Larry and Carrie, a bright-eyed, fit couple in their early sixties up from San Diego for the night. As it happened, they were also aiming for Dobbs Camp, and when we lost our way at one point, we were fortunate to run into them; they had camped there before and led us in the right direction. Dobbs is a beautiful camp nestled into the base of a little canyon. The campsites are situated on a small peninsula formed by the confluence of two streams. Looking up at the huge old redwoods and pines, I felt elated. I set down my pack and wandered toward the trees. I took a step and felt a sensation so strange and and pleasurable that I started giggling. I'd become so accustomed to the weight of my backpack that, suddenly freed of it, I felt as though I were walking on the moon. I took a few dozen steps before I was able to re-adjust my center of gravity and walk normally.

I started to set up camp and realized I was intensely hungry. I unpacked my pack, setting my bear canister aside with a curse. I understand that, if people like me are going to insist on spending time in wilderness wildlife habitats, it's important to practice "Leave no Trace" principles and to protect both animals and ourselves by keeping food as undetectable as possible. I hope that someone will invent a more flexible, lightweight material that is as odor-proof and indestructible as the plastic used for bear canisters sooner than later. If it weren't for the requirement of this bulky storage locker-cum-camp stool, my pack would have been three pounds lighter.

Jennifer's pack resting against the dried out roots of an old fallen tree.
Andrew Skurka taught me to take everything out of my pack at camp...
I quickly pitched my tent, blew up my sleeping pad, laid out my sleeping bag, and got down to the business of supper, at which point I realized my third mistake: my food was far too heavy. Though I'd spent hundreds of hours researching gear and backcountry survival, I'd only recently begun to study what foods I might want to take on backpacking trips. I was nervous about cooking in the backcountry. While I'd done a lot of cooking over campfires and on full-sized camp stoves, I hadn't used my backpacking stove much yet. I'd learned a lot about the stove on my trip to Idyllwild in July, but the San Gorgonio trip was different. I had ideas about quinoa and lentils, rice and beans, sauteed greens... But I didn't know how much fuel it would take to make these things, and I didn't know how cooking times would vary in the temperatures and elevations we would encounter. On the other hand, I worried that dehydrated or freeze-dried meals made specifically for camping would taste terrible and leave me unsated. So I went in a different direction, convinced myself that I would be happy to carry the extra few ounces of weight, and brought a number of "fresh" foods. I ate my black bean and quinoa salad for lunch before we left, but I would guess that the dal and prepared rice I ate for supper weighed about two pounds. The banana, eggs, and kielbasa I ate for breakfast the next day weighed at least another pound. With two fewer liters of water and three or four pounds of food gone, my pack was significantly lighter on the second day, and I learned a lesson I won't forget.
My little Tarptent Notch atop a bed of pine needles.
Heavy, heavy dal.
It was cool. The little canyon where Dobbs Camp is located doesn't get any direct sun. As we finished up our supper and night began to fall, the temperature dropped within minutes. By the time I'd washed up my dishes, I was glad that I'd brought extra layers of clothing. When I was packing the night before, I'd removed a layer of wool underclothes and a soft-shell thinking that I was being overly cautious. That morning, I added them back into my pack, and now I was grateful. We all turned in around nine. I read a few pages and then drifted off. I slept for maybe three hours and then woke, shivering and restless. I was cold, and I had to pee. I forced myself out of my sleeping bag and tent and begrudgingly shoved my feet into my boots. (Another mistake: when laying out the clothing I planned to bring, I included a pair of Vans slip-ons. But in the morning, I decided they were too heavy and bulky and left them behind. So, I had no camp shoes.) The air was so clear and cold, and the sky was illuminated by the bright, white light of the waning moon. I lay back down in my tent and marveled at the cold. Just a few hours ago, I'd been in heat over a hundred degrees, and now I was wearing wool leggings, fall-weight running pants, a wool t-shirt, a long-sleeved turtleneck, a mid-weight soft-shell, and a down jacket. I had both hoods up over my head, wool gloves on my hands, and wool socks on my feet. I was zippered up and cinched down into a thirty degree, 650 down fill mummy bag atop a sleeping pad with a five rating for warmth. Despite all of this, I woke at least once every hour feeling chilled to the bone. I longed for an "off" switch for the streams: the unceasing racket of their vivacious rushing and gurgling was cloying, and I longed for warmth, quiet, and sleep.

At five, I decided the hour was sane enough to be called "morning". I went to the stream and brought the frigid water up to my face and thought that I had never felt so alive or so real or so whole. I slowly performed my ablutions and then boiled water for tea. As the patch of sky above the canyon turned from deep indigo to bright azure, I sat against a fallen tree and read M.F.K. Fisher's account of her pet cat whose fighting ways left him gravely injured and taught her the power of nature to heal itself. I was moved by her observations and thought about my own patterns of fighting and healing. It is the resistance I put up against so many of the necessities of life that drives me to nature, where I can rest and be restored. Soon, Jennifer and Peter were awake, making coffee and breakfast. I ate my eggs and kielbasa, and once I'd washed up my dishes and broken camp, I felt a flush of warmth and anticipation. Today, we would walk to the summit of Mount San Gorgonio. At 11,500 feet, it would be the highest point I'd yet reached.

Continued in Part II


Anonymous said...

You really capture the experience of backpacking well. I totally relate to dealing with the pain and feeling the beauty at the same time. Also, I relate to learning what to bring/not bring each time I go out.

Corrina Peipon said...

Maybe learning new things about how to be a better backpacker every time we go out is one of the things that makes it so much fun!