Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Old Grayback

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.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What Time Is It?

For some reason I am usually aware of the passage of time in small increments.  If I look at a clock at 10:30, then for the next half-hour or so I tend to know what time it is within one or two minutes.  It’s just always been this way.  Rarely do I not know approximately what time it is.  Although I sometimes wear a watch, mostly I don’t bother since looking at a clock once or twice an hour is usually sufficient.

A few years ago I was on a “cattle boat” fishing near Catalina Island.  The sun was extremely bright and I lifted my hand at arm’s length to shade my eyes for a moment just as a friend asked me what time it is.  A few minutes earlier I had noticed the time on the watch of another fisherman, so I added about six minutes and said, “It’s 1:18.”  The fisherman whose watch I looked at glanced at his watch and confirmed the time as 1:18.

My friend was a bit confused by this since he realized I wasn’t wearing a watch and I didn’t look around for one.  He made the assumption I could tell time by holding my hand in the air and looking at the sun.  When I realized how he had come to this conclusion I knew I could carry this ruse on for a long time.

“How did you do that?  You just held your hand up and looked at the sun to tell the time?”

“Yep.  That’s what I did.  It’s really simple.  Just hold your fingers horizontal and spread out a little.  Count the number of hands the sun is above the horizon with each hand representing forty-five minutes.  If the sun is two hands in the air and the sun came up at six a.m., then the time is 7:30.  If the sun is between the index and middle finger, then the time is 7:45.  A little practice and you’ll learn to divide the spaces into individual minutes.  Works every time, unless it’s cloudy, then you need to use both hands to create the illusion of a shadow on the front of your shirt and read the results upside-down.  Give it a try.”

And he tried.  And tried.  Finally he came back to me and asked me to show it to him again.  Fortunately I had recently checked the time again and knew it was about 2:20, so I held my hand up and showed him how to count the distance from the horizon to the sun, add up the 45-minute intervals, calculated the individual minutes and came up with the time.  He walked over to a man with a watch and asked the time.  The look on his face was priceless when he discovered I was right to the very minute.  For the rest of the day until the sun went down he continued to ask me the time at random intervals.  And I was always right within one minute.

After returning to the dock we went our own ways as we each headed home, but his mind was apparently dwelling on this for weeks.  I was at his house one afternoon helping him with a project when he suddenly asked me what time is was.  Fortunately he was wearing a watch and I had looked at it about fifteen minutes earlier, so I held up my hand to the sun and made my best guess.  “2:32.”

He looked at his watch, looked at me, looked at the sun, looked at his watch again.  He didn’t say a word.  I wasn’t certain if he was confused or angry.  I realized right there this game had become a quest for him to debunk, and I wasn’t about to tell him the truth.

For nearly three years he kept trying to figure out how I could tell the time by looking at the sun, and for nearly three years I gave him the same answer.  Then one day he didn’t ask.  I was prepared for the random timing of the inevitable question, but it didn’t happen.  And it didn’t happen the next few times I saw him.  Now I was worried.  Was he just observing me to see if I was cheating?  Well, just to stir the pot a little, I confided in one of his other friends what I was doing and how I did it.  Then he decided to get in on the act by doing the same thing.

We had our mutual friend completely baffled by the process.  Of course we showed him over and over how we did it, but he just couldn’t get it.  Then it happened to me. 

I had taken a day boat out onto the ocean and I heard someone ask another person the time.  I looked over there and saw a man holding his hand up towards the sun for a moment before saying, “10:19.”

For the rest of the day I watched this guy to see if I could figure out how he did it, but every time he was asked, he knew the answer.  To be honest, it has me stumped to this day.  Was he pulling the same trick I was using, or did he really tell the time by looking at the sun?

I’ll never know, but there is no way I’m giving up my secret again concerning how I did it.

Oh, wait.  I think I just did.