Backpacking San Gorgonio Mountain Via Vivian Creek

Distance: 17 Miles  |  Elevation Gain: 5,840 Ft  |  Campsite: High Creek Camp

We pulled in to a pitch black trailhead parking lot at 5:30am, the headlights of our Outback eerily illuminating two other parked cars. It was the first time we'd be starting a hike in complete darkness and I was admittedly a little nervous. But as we left the warmth of our heated seats and stepped out into the brisk morning air, all apprehension was replaced by awe at an early morning sky full of stars that were definitely not visible when we left the city just a couple hours earlier. Shortly after, another vehicle arrived and I half jokingly asked David if he thought they were hikers or hooligans. "Do hooligans drive Land Rovers?" he replied, cool as a cucumber. Seconds later, two women stepped out in stylish hiking gear and we chuckled. Yep, definitely hooligans. With our packs strapped on and GPS activated, we walked out into the blackness to begin the first couple miles with just our headlamps, the moonlight and of course the sound of Shiba paws to guide the way. 

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Halfway up the steep 1000' vertical ascent that begins after the Mill Creek crossing, there was finally enough light in the sky for us to ditch the headlamps. At the end of one of the switchbacks, there was an opening looking out over Mill Creek Canyon and we took a second to take in a well-earned view, just made all the sweeter by the glorious layers of a dawn sky.  

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We reached Half Way Camp by 8am and debated whether to set up home base there or continue on another 2.5 miles to High Creek Camp, which would have significantly better views and is also the more popular of the two campsites. We decided to carry on and booked it to High Creek by 10am. 

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The rangers had warned us of snow and ice starting from 7500' so we were fully expecting the possibility of camping on snow since High Creek sits at 9200'. To our pleasant surprise, most of the campsites were dry and we found ourselves a spot with a good view and decent wind protection. We pitched our tent, swapped our heavy packs out for lighter day packs all too gladly, and pressed onward for the final, dreadful 3 miles to the summit. I know 3 miles doesn't sound all that bad on paper, but imagine it at altitude (which makes breathing more labored) through ankle deep snow after hiking a good 6 miles with 25lb and 30lb packs. Let's just say that the only one having a grand old time the entire way up was the dude with four legs. 

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About a half mile from the summit as we were trudging up the windy, diagonal traverse below the ridge, we started noticing that some hikers ahead of us were turning around. I looked ahead to the saddle leading to summit and saw snow literally being blasted into the air and swirling around before disappearing into the wind. They had tried to figure out a way to pass, the (bigger and stronger than us) hiker said, but it was impossible to even stand up straight. We stared at the summit, visible in the distance, just calling to us like the one ring. We had come so far. But hey, 11,000' was just as good as 11,503' if it meant living another day. A mountain as high as San Gorgonio pretty much makes it's own weather, and if it decides that you shall not pass, you respect it. If you're wondering what the summit actually looks like, prepare to be not that awed by this photo we took back in 2015.

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So back down the mountain we went, a little disappointed but secretly a little relieved. Back in 2015, we had said "never again" to San Gorgonio, but here we were again, suckers for punishment. I had wondered since then if Hoku, being older than the first time he climbed this mountain with us, would ever be able to do it again. And the answer was a resounding yes. And he schooled us, just like the first time. And I'm pretty sure he could do it again in another three years.

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We returned back down to 9200' to find our campsite awash with magic hour light. Using our new, super light Snow Peak LiteMax stove (which replaced our heavier Jetboil) we made and scarfed down a dinner of Backpacker's Pantry Kung Pao Rice with Chicken. While it was decently edible, I would not recommend it for cold weather, high altitude camping. Not only does it take twice as long to cook at higher altitudes, meaning that it will not be hot when you're finally able to eat it, it also includes these two packets of peanuts and chili flakes that are sealed in cold finger-proof, industrial grade thick plastic without easy to open tabs. A real PITA. 

The real treat was a cup of hot instant tofu miso soup that David so thoughtfully packed in the bear bin for me. My absolute favorite camp food. Next time, I'll pack a little ball of rice to add in and it'd be perfection. 

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↑A beautiful view of the "switchbacks of death" from our camp. 

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We watched the sky change from a fiery orange to vibrant purples and pinks before calling it an early night, tucking into our sleeping bags at about 7pm. The winds gusted sporadically and we drifted to sleep feeling downright fortunate to have an all-encompassing shelter, unlike our crazy camp neighbors who were um,  sleeping in hammocks. At 3am, our alarms went off and we awoke to an ungodly chill of 15° F. I squinted out of my sleeping bag to find David and a Rumpl-wrapped Hoku staring down at me. "Happy birthday," he grinned with a slight shiver. (Yes, the hilarity of choosing to wake up in a freezer on my birthday does not elude me.) We quickly ate a breakfast of frozen energy bars washed down with hot coffee before packing up camp at lightning speed to keep warm. With headlamps lighting the way, we began the long trek down the mountain, fueled by thoughts of a large bowl of hot pho waiting for us upon our return to civilization. 

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So there we were, two humans and a dog, hiking together down the tallest mountain in Southern California at 4:30am, to the sound of microspikes crunching into the ice beneath our feet, under the canvas of this insanely stunning starry sky. (Can you spot Jupiter and the constellation Hydra?) I don't think I've ever rang in a birthday in such a surreal and unbelievably epic way. Here's to 33. I think it's gonna be a good one.

Backpacking San Bernardino Peak

Distance: 16.5 Miles  |  Elevation Gain: 4700 Ft  |  Campsite: Limber Pine Bench

San Bernardino Peak left quite an impression on us back in 2015, and ever since then, we've dreamed of returning to our favorite trail and camping at Limber Pine Bench. So we figured, what better way to kick off the first weekend of 2018 than by crossing off a long-awaited bucket list item. Warmer weather and snowless conditions in the mountains just so happen to mean excellent cool weather hiking, so while my heart still yearns for snow here in Southern California, I admit that this was a pretty good silver lining.

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We arrived at the trailhead parking lot around 8:30am and hung up our Adventure Pass on the rearview mirror. Wasting no time, David and I strapped on our 45 and 25 lb packs, respectively, and hit the trail with the goal of taking as few breaks as possible. We hoped to power through to Limber Pine Bench and have enough time to set up camp and reach the summit by afternoon. Our pace was slow but steady, and we were pretty proud of ourselves for being able to keep up with the three day hikers that began a few minutes ahead of us. 

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By the time we reached Manzanita Flat, the wind had picked up significantly and we could see some dark clouds rolling in. Eventually the sun disappeared completely and we made a quick stop to put on our beanies and gloves. The last 2 miles from Columbine Spring to Limber Pine Bench was rough and seemingly never-ending, but the thought of pitching our tent and eating lunch was just enough motivation to keep us moving onward.

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When we finally arrived at a foggy Limber Pine Camp  (9200'), we immediately started scoping out campsites and decided on a little spot protected by a small man-made rock wall and a tall pine tree. By the time the tent was pitched and our bear bin was put away, the gusts had gotten so strong that it was impossible to stand up straight. Another wind-blown group of campers arrived shortly after us and it was pretty reassuring to know that we'd have neighbors to spend the night with.

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It's pretty amazing how much comfort and sense of protection even a thin-walled tent can offer and we felt instantly better once inside and cozied up in our sleeping bags. We decided that it'd probably be best to hit up the summit the next morning and hoped our fellow day hikers, who had continued on beyond Limber Pine, were doing all right. So then we waited. Waited to the pitter patter of dew falling from the pine needles above us with Hoku curled up at our feet, laughing at the fact that we chose to be on this cold, gusty mountain while our perfectly insulated and heated home sat empty 65 miles away. But then again, there was no where else we'd rather be. 

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Around 7pm, we left the tent to retrieve the bear bin for dinner. It was getting dark and the fog was still rolling in but our yellow tent shown bright like a beacon of hope. I hadn't zipped up the door completely, knowing we'd only be gone for a minute but lo and behold, we see our little escapee waiting for us outside the tent. (Can you spot him?) I don't blame him for having tent-fever though. 

After a chicken teriyaki dinner made with our handy Jet Boil, David went outside to put our bin away and immediately called me outside. The wind had died down and the clouds had finally parted to reveal the magnificent city lights below us. We sighed with relief, knowing that we'd have a relatively peaceful night ahead of us and crossed our fingers for even clearer skies in the morning.  

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After a frigid evening in the low 20's, we woke up to find that dew had frozen on our tent. To say it was difficult to leave our warm sleeping bags to step out into the brisk morning air is an understatement, but these sunrise views made it all worth it. 

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With breakfast and coffee in our bellies, we put all our things inside the tent and started the final 2.2 mile trek up to the summit, feeling light as a feather with just our day packs. 

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The overlook bench just before Washington's Monument offers the best views of the entire hike, but the short ridge line segment between the monument and the summit is a close second favorite. Finally, just a few steps from the summit, we let Hoku take the lead and he was first to reach the top.

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 ↑ It's always fascinating to see Big Bear Lake (sitting at 6700') just the next mountain away.

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We returned to a sunny campsite with clear views of the surrounding mountains and the city below. It could not have been a starker contrast to the sight we arrived to the day prior. Hoku took full advantage of the warmth and basked away in the sun while we dried and packed up our tent. After saying a bittersweet farewell to our camp home, we strapped on our monstrous packs once again hoping to gain some sense of comfort from the fact that at least we were carrying less water. But with aching muscles still tired from yesterday's grueling ascent, it honestly didn't feel very much different. (Dare I say, heavier, in fact.) We left Limber Pine at noon and returned to the trailhead at 2:30pm, ignoring our sore toes and keeping a brisk pace fueled by Haribo gummy bears. Hoku was a little slower than usual, but kept up with us and finished the hike like a champ, making us proud and proving that our 7-year old pup still got it in him. 

A Fall Camping Trip

As we drove into the mountains for our much-anticipated annual camping trip with friends, we rolled down the windows to take in the brisk air and views of the changing leaves while Hoku stuck his head out to take in the smells. After one brutal Southern California summer heatwave after another, it felt pretty wonderful to finally experience Fall in all its glory. (And after a busy few months of traveling and preparing to launch Fox & Bagel, it was even more amazing to be back outdoors for the first time since our backpacking trip in June.)

In a nutshell, we hiked, laughed hysterically over a game of Balderdash by campfire light, toasted an engagement with champagne, barbecued burgers, roasted marshmallows, and awoke wide-eyed to a pack of coyotes howling in the middle of the night. In the morning, we ate breakfast burritos wrapped in campfire-toasted tortillas and washed it down with hot coffee.

We left in clothes smelling like ash, with aching backs (because 30-year old backs don't recover from sleeping on a cold, hard ground as quickly as 20-year old backs), a dog covered in dirt, and another year of good camp memories with friends. To be honest, is there anything better? 

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