Vivian Creek Trail, out and back
Made camp at High Creek and continued to summit Saturday afternoon; walked to summit again Sunday morning before breaking camp and returning to Forest Falls
5,600 feet of elevation gain from Forest Falls to summit
Not even a hundred yards out of the paved picnic grounds at Vivian Falls, and I was lost. I heard footfalls behind me. "Looking for Vivian Creek Trail? I'm headed there, too." As we crossed the rubble in the dry wash, we got acquainted. Mike was a podiatrist in Redlands whose church is San Gorgonio Mountain.
The Vivian Creek Trail is the shortest way to the mountain's summit. The first mile is a homely stretch of desert landscape covered by steep switchbacks made even worse by scree and rocks. At the San Gorgonio Wilderness sign, we found Rob. Without a wilderness permit authorizing him to walk any further, he was resigned to making this his turn-around spot. Mike suggested that Rob continue along with us since both he and I had permits. A retiree and veteran Boy Scout, Rob holds a distance record for peak to peak mirror signaling. Mike stopped to rest at Vivian Creek Camp, and Rob and I continued on, talking over gear selection and the best backpacking spots in southern California.
At Halfway Camp, Rob turned back, and I dropped into the canyon to sit down and eat a second breakfast. Back on the main trail, I found Mike sitting on a rock, snacking on a few nuts, and he told me about how his practice of calorie restriction had all but cured his formerly debilitating arthritis. We continued on together, not talking much. Mike pointed out a huge waterfall in the distance. I concentrated on the feel of my pack, sensing its weight on my back and the effect of it on my feet, knees, hips, and shoulders. I spent time mentally moving the weight around my body, directing energy from my center outward and watching it in my mind's eye as it moved through me, cycling with my breath. My breath, in turn, fell into a heavy, steady rhythm with my footfalls. Distributing the weight I was carrying all around my body and monitoring my energy as it circulated through my body while in the act of self-propulsion reminded me of the Earth simultaneously rotating around its axis and revolving around the sun.
At the sign for High Creek Camp, Mike ducked off the trail to take a short rest before heading back down the mountain. I continued on to camp, dropped my pack near a downed tree, and took a look around for a good campsite. When I was here back in September, we didn't arrive in camp until it was near dark and ended up in two sites right next to the trail. The following morning, we noticed other folks at sites farther up the hill. After walking through a few kind of sad, well-worn sites near the trail, I found one higher up the hill with a low fence of felled trees, rocks, and shrubs, anchored by a big old pine tree. I set up camp and sat down for lunch.
By half past two, I was on the trail again. Just over High Creek, the path takes thirteen long, shallow switchbacks up the side of the mountain. The afternoon air was warm and soft. I ran into a few people on their way down but seemed to be the only one going up. By the time I finished the switchbacks, I began to feel the altitude. Well over 10,000 feet now, my body was questioning the conditions, adjusting to the thinner air. My breath was labored, but I slowed my pace and felt good. I passed through a small talus field of white granite boulders before rounding another bend or two to a flat where the tree cover thins and the views to the south and west open up. I don't know if I could ever become immune to the beauty of that place.
A series of short, steep switchbacks led me up to tree line and the long straightaway that intersects with the summit trail. Around five o'clock now, the light took on a rosy hue as I approached the summit. A cold wind was already blowing. Behind a small rise covered with low bushes, a small group of backpackers had set up camp. I envied them at first, but I was glad I'd chosen to camp at High Creek. After seeing the rock shelters at Summit Camp on my first trip to the mountain, I had been wanting to sleep on the summit. Once I looked into the weekend's weather and made a few educated guesses about the conditions, I decided against it and changed my permit for High Creek when I stopped at the ranger station earlier that morning on my way to Forest Falls.
I got to the summit and signed the register. At 11,500 feet, it was cold, and the wind was blowing something fierce. The sun's angle flattened out the landscape, and the clear, thin atmosphere outlined the old rocks with sky. I looked all around. The overcast down below obscured the really long views, but the beauty of the mountain top was undiminished. I thought about the experience of beauty in nature, then. My experience of beauty on a big mountain is bodily, down into my bones, into my blood, and all through my heart and mind. Loveliness alone would not make the difficulty of reaching such places worth the effort, but the sublime, the all-over, all-encompassing experience of beauty is the thing that brings me back.
Walking back down to camp, I felt like I was floating. I encountered no one else until the stream crossing just before camp; two men, a father and son, were heading to the summit for the night. The elder of the two carried an enormous external frame pack with improvised shoulder padding made from baby blankets and red electrical tape. He had a folded up bandana tied around his head of long white hair and spoke with a thick Eastern European accent through his snowy beard. His clean-cut son carried a small pack and wore new lightweight technical clothing. They were both kind of humming with the low-grade ecstatic energy that surrounds so many backpackers. I told them they were about to walk thirteen gradual switchbacks before encountering the steepest push ahead of the summit spur trail, and they were more than pleased at the prospect.
At camp, I started supper. When I opened my bear canister, I was surprised to find a note from Brian, a beginning backpacker who was training for a Mount Whitney bid in just three weeks. He and I had met on the trail when I was on my way up and he was on his way back down to Halfway Camp. Part of the reason I do a lot of these outings on my own is that I don't know many other people who do backpacking, so it was nice that he left his card for me. Over supper, I watched the alpenglow fade into twilight and then indigo dusk. As the first stars became visible, I crawled into my tent. I awoke several times in the night, cold and restless from the altitude. I finally rose at dawn. The inside of my bear canister was coated with a thin film of crystalline frost. I took out some nuts, dried fruit, and carob bars as well as my cookset and oatmeal in case I felt like a picnic later on. I hadn't planned to do the summit twice on this trip, but I had the whole day ahead of me; it seemed silly to go back down the mountain already, and it was too cold to sit around in camp.
Just around tree line, I thought I heard voices. Cutting through the thin air, they sounded like they were almost right beside me. I looked around but didn't see anyone. I heard them again, and this time, I saw flashes of red and blue in the faraway trees; two men on their way up. I wondered what time they started. It wasn't long before they caught up with me. I stepped aside to let them by and watched, not without a twinge of envy, as they glided quickly and steadily across the long summit trail. I felt weak and slow, and I admired their strength and speed. When I met them a little while later on the summit, I learned that they had set out from the trailhead only an hour before I left High Creek Camp.
Walking across the summit approach trail, I saw the little group of campers and the father and son I'd seen the night before, all attending to camp chores in the morning glare. After signing the trail register, I talked with the two men who had passed me earlier about the John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Route, and lightweight backpacking gear. They were both experienced backpackers, and I was happy that our gear choices were aligned; it gave me some extra confidence that I was heading in the right direction with my kit.
Even though the morning walk was hard for me, I was glad I'd made the effort. The sky was much clearer that morning, and the views through the expanse of blue seemed endless. Back down at High Creek, I made some oatmeal while I broke camp and ate as the white morning sun angled into mid-day. Walking back down the mountain, I wondered why my pack always feels so different on the second day of backpacking. It's not just that I've eaten some of the food; that only gets rid of a pound or two. I guess my body becomes accustomed to the weight, welcomes it more easily and understands its purpose: while it may be a burden, it is also home and nourishment, protection and shelter. Maybe on the first day, my body resists the weight more, resents it and the discomfort it brings. But on the second day, my body knows that there is a reason for this effort, a need for it. I respond by doing the work I know I was made to do, perhaps not with less difficulty, but with a little more ease. I thought about the John Muir Trail and hoped that my ease would grow exponentially with each day of my journey. I would need it there more than ever.