That Time I Learned A Valuable Lesson (or, better known as “The Time I Lost the Trail and Almost Fell Down a Ravine”)
I apologize! It’s been awhile since I posted. Recently, I wrote about backpacking + depression and then, for whatever reason, felt that I just wanted to sit with that for a period of time. It’s a really important topic for me, one which has become increasingly interesting as I’ve gotten older. How wonderful and lucky I’ve been, to encounter something that has helped me navigate the tricky aspects of my moods!
In other news, it seems to finally be fall here in the pacific northwest. The temperature has been milder, and fall colors are starting to peak out at the lower elevations. Higher up, the huckleberries have a lovely orange and red hue, turning the hillsides into gorgeous post-card worthy scenes (I have a post I need to write up for Modern Hiker for fall color, coming soon!).
Interestingly, as the seasons change here, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my time living in southern California. Anyone that knows me in everyday life will also know that I generally HATED living in Los Angeles. It was busy, angry, crowded, and always frustratingly warm and sunny (yes, that is something I dislike. What can I say, I’m a northern Californian at heart). In fact, leaving Los Angeles has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made. While driving out of the area at the end of May, I thought to myself, “I don’t have to drive back into this city again, this feels AMAZING,” as cars raced by me at 85 mph. That being said, as much as I hated Los Angeles as a city, I loved southern California as a place to explore. I miss Joshua Tree, the strange juxtaposition of high forested peaks with the desert below, and the feeling that I had when viewing vast open spaces spreading into the distance.
I’ve also been reminded of my last southern California trip before moving, when I learned a really valuable (and slightly scary) lesson in trusting my gut. Let’s set the scene:
I had just finished my full-time museum job, and was really looking forward to several mid-week backpacking trips (if you work full time, you know what a rare treat this can be). The first was a 2-night trip through the gorgeous San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW), an area with 10,000+ ft peaks less than 3 hours away from West LA. The plan was to spend three glorious days with another awesome lady hiker enjoying the Forsee Loop, a 17 mile trip we found thanks to Hikin Jim’s blog post describing six possible hiking loops in the SGW (by the way: I met this awesome lady hike via the Sierra Club WTC class! It’s a great way to make new backpacking buddies).
As an aside: I’m shocked I waited so long to visit SGW. It’s really a gem for LA outdoor enthusiasts. Not only is it VERY high in elevation (we camped at 9,360 and 10,440 feet), it’s easily reached from anywhere in LA with a doable drive for a weekend. I’m generally a huge fan of seeking out high elevations, because I love the different environments one encounters AND the big views that generally come with climbing high. To this day, Limber Pine Bench is one of the most beautiful and scenic trail camps I’ve ever encountered. Case in point:
(Note however that following the Lake Fire during the summer of 2015, many trails are currently closed. However, you can still reach much of what I did on this trip. See the end of this post for more information).
So it was, on a cool and slightly overcast Tuesday, that we found ourselves at the Forsee Creek trailhead, cold weather gear packed and ready to carry up 2500 feet to our first camp at Limber Pine Bench (mid May is still very cold at 10,000 feet). Our plan for the day was to set an easy to moderate pace, climbing up the Forsee Creek trail for roughly .5 miles, before we cut to the right to begin a loop that would take us through John’s Meadow at 7200 feet, another junction, and eventually to our (gorgeous) camp at 9360 feet. Simple, right? Follow the trail, see some great views, huff and puff up a big hill, camp. However, that day also involved traveling a 2.8 mile unmaintained section of trail, and as such, we gave ourselves all day to slowly navigate what we were expecting to be slightly more challenging but exciting terrain (extensive research via trail reports seemed to show it wasn’t too difficult, as long as you paid attention, and as someone who generally enjoys off-trail travel anyways, this sounded fun).
Well, apparently I wasn’t paying attention. I was in the lead, and after crossing Forsee Creek, I knew that I needed to be extra vigilant and pay attention to staying on what appeared to be “the trail.”
(Note: I have no photos of this one section, because it was stressful and I didn’t think to ever take out my camera).
Well, as you might expect, what “appeared to be the trail” began to take us along a loose and rocky hillside, one that had apparently had experienced some recent landslides. However, I saw what looked like a (very) lightly used trail crossing the dirt, so I decided without much thought, that perhaps it was just this section that seemed a bit iffy (exhibit 1: where I should have stopped to think). While it seemed slightly steep and loose here, it wasn’t too bad. What followed were several loose, steep, and admittedly scary sections (exhibit 2). However, we discussed it, and thought perhaps we’d rejoin the trail just ahead, which kept getting pushed back into some indeterminate short distance just out of view. In my gut, I didn’t feel sure we were in the right place, but I kept convincing myself that the few footprints meant something, and that I was paying attention and thus would not have missed the real trail.
“Well, It says unmaintained, so maybe they just mean UNMAINTAINED.”
Fast forward to roughly an hour later, when we determined that we were DEFINITELY no longer on the trail, and instead have somehow managed to be nearing a steep and loose ravine as we climbed over fallen trees on a very loose hillside. At one point, a small section of dirt gave way under me, and I slid a short way down the hill, scrapping my left leg and hand. Luckily, I could easily use a large fallen tree to pull myself back up the hill, pack and all. Shortly after this, my second winter sleeping pad fell off my pack, and I proceeded to nimbly climb down the same tree a short way to retrieve it (a questionable choice, but at the time, I NEEDED THAT PAD). This far in, after several loose and crumbly crossings, the idea of turning back didn’t seem like an option. However, we also didn’t see ANY possible place where we’d rejoin an actual trail, so we did the next best thing in this kind of situation: We stopped at a relatively safe and stable spot, pulled out our topo map, determined where we were, and figured out a bail-out plan. The decision? We’d head up a ridge to our left, which would eventually rejoin the actual maintained trail. Unfortunately, that ridge was relatively steep, full of downed trees, bushes, and general rough terrain, which was to say the least physically challenging with full packs.
You’ll be happy to know that after reaching the top of this ridge, we stumbled RIGHT into the trail, which happened to be next to the perfect rest spot. We stopped, both a little shaken, to finally eat a snack, and discuss what had happened and what we had done wrong.
This is what we determined:
- I should have stopped when I first felt uneasy about the trail. By the time I decided to do that, I’d already spent roughly 20-30 mins going in the wrong direction. Afterwards, this seemed like a really obvious mistake.
- After stopping and determining our bearings, we should have backtracked (in our case, to where we knew the trail had been).
- We should have paid better attention to our topo map. While in the end it was a valuable tool that helped us to solve our dilemma, I should have known that having a steep drop to my right wasn’t accurate.
- Something I learned about myself: I need to know the difference between the times to be bold, and the times to be safe. I love challenges, and have a tendency to push myself because I know it’s usually worth it. However, this was not one of those times. This was just plain stupid.
What you can learn from this:
- The stuff I just said. Do that. Or, don’t do that.
- We’re lucky we had map and compasses and that we knew how to use them. Having just finished the 10 week Wilderness Travel Course, we both knew the importance of STAYING FOUND.
- Have a bailout plan. Look at the map ahead of time to get a general idea of what you should be encountering.
- Do your research ahead of time. While I found no contrary information on online bulletin boards and trip reports, I did write up a report for others after getting back from my trip. If you ever encounter something that seems tricky or easy to miss, do your fellow backpackers and favor and be vocal about it.
Luckily, we ended up having a great few days following this ordeal, hitting some gorgeous high peaks and FULLY enjoying the well maintained and EASY to follow trail. In fact, we spent the next few days commenting on our appreciation of trails, and even hit (very easy and non-steep) off-trail Anderson Peak.
So, don’t do what I did. But, if you ever do, take the chance to learn from it.
P.S: Many of areas in and around the San Gorgonio Wilderness are currently closed due to the Lake Fire. However, some of it is still open and accessible! You can still go to Limber Pine Bench as of October 2015. Here is a September 2015 update from the San San Gorgonio Wilderness Association’s Facebook page: