The highest peak in Southern California is San Gorgonio Mountain. It stands at 11,503 feet (more or less), and its peak set the baseline for the original land surveys in the area. It usually is snowcapped throughout most, if not all, of the summer, and is a great place to hike and camp most of the year. Most of the year—not all of the year.
After I moved from Texas to Southern California, I entered the geology program at a local college. For several years I had been climbing around on the sides of mountains wondering about the rocks I was hanging on to. Some were crumbly, some were solid, some had lines of other rocks running through them, some contained seashells even though they were several thousand feet above sea level. I was curious about them.
At the end of my second quarter, several of the students decided to hike to the peak of San Gorgonio Mountain, and they invited me to join them. They didn’t have to ask twice. It had been a mild January, and the first two weeks of February were just more of the same. The mountain had seen some fresh snow, but not enough to stop determined hikers. We packed our backpacks, checked the weather forecast, and drove to a parking area high in the mountains where we could join up with the trailhead.
We had allowed for five days of hiking, and we took along enough provision for seven days. We expected to use up three days in total, but we were all experienced enough to know that any winter hike up a mountain could involve a sudden change of plans.
The first day was quite easy. We hit the trailhead at about 7:00am and by 1:00pm we were well above the tree line and surrounded by snow. We had put on our snowshoes much earlier and were having no trouble with the hike, especially after we had left much of our camping gear at the Dollar Lake campground. We each had daypacks stuffed with food, warmer clothing, emergency stuff, etc., just in case, but we weren’t anticipating any trouble. Then again one never anticipates trouble. Soon we had completed the hike to the summit, or what we believe was the summit since we assumed any marker was buried deep under the snow, and after an hour or so of taking in the vista, we headed back to our campsite.
The trip to the campsite was beautiful. Climbing the mountain was a lot of work, and we really didn’t look at much more than the trail, or what we thought was a trail, in front of us, but coming back down, we were able to follow our ascending tracks, and take time to enjoy the views. On this particular day we could clearly see Catalina Island more than a hundred miles away. Wow!
Back in camp, we had our dinner, and we prepared for a good night’s rest. We were hoping to just hike around in the area on day two and have some rest and fun before returning to the trailhead and our cars on day three. Just as we were about to crawl into the tents, Tom noticed the stars had disappeared. In fact the clouds were gathering all around us. Uh, this wasn’t in the weather forecast.
We guessed we were in for a cold, wet night with a little snow. How about a lot of snow? About two in the morning I heard a loud yell for help. Immediately I rushed out of my tent (the process of getting out of my sleeping bag, out from under the blankets and throwing on some warm clothes somewhat negated the ‘rush,’ but I did my best). I discovered my tent to be the only one I could see. All of the others were buried under a mound of ever-deepening snow.
I worked my way over to where Ray was still calling for help and pulled him out of his collapsed tent. We gathered all we could of his belongings and moved them over to where my tent was sitting in a protected area. I had about six inches of snow around my tent with very little on top of the awning. I had placed my tent next to a rock outcropping where the north and east sides were completely protected from the snow and wind. Overhead were the branches of several trees (admittedly, it’s never a good idea to place a tent where tree branches can fall, but there were no real clearings in this area), and the snow was just not coming down where I had set my tent.
Also, I had a three-man tent rather than the single-person tents everyone else had (I like some wiggle room), so I was able to move Ray in with me. We were just getting settled down when we realized Mick, Tom, Steve, and Kevin may be in trouble and not able to call for help. We went back out to check on them.
My seven-foot by seven-foot tent was quite crowded with six people in it, but we were warm. The next morning we crawled out to a wonderland. It took an hour or so to gather everything up and sort through it all, and we weren’t real happy with messing up the snow to do it, but just outside our camp was a scene of incredible pristine beauty. We made our breakfast, and every one of us decided to do what we had set out to do on day two. We rested and had fun. And we prepared for another night in a single tent.
Somewhere around noon or a little before, several forest service rangers entered our camp. They were a search party looking for us. We had registered our itinerary before our outing, and even though we weren’t yet due back, they guessed we hadn’t done very well in the surprise storm. The decision had been made to rescue us.
We were about to make lunch, so we invited the rangers to join us. They stayed for a couple of hours sharing stories of unprepared hikers they had extracted from the mountain over the years. But they also decided to leave us alone. We were obviously in great shape for this adventure.
One of the things they left with us was a rescue board. I don’t know what the thing is actually called, but it’s designed to strap someone on it and slide him or her over the snow to safety. The rangers thought we could use it to carry our packs when we decided to hike out, but we had other uses for it. Wahoo!! (Or is it Woo Hoo!!) We spent hours sliding around on that thing. Oh, such fun! But night came, we had our dinner, and soon we were stacked back inside my tent. Sometime in the late afternoon of the third day we stopped in at the ranger station to register our departure from the mountain and turn in the rescue raft, or whatever it was called.
Old Grayback, as the mountain is often called, has talked to me for many years since that trip. My five companions and I have not seen each other since a few months afterward, but I’m certain each one of them still treasures the memories of those three days.