San Bernardino East Peak, San Bernardino Peak, Anderson Peak, Shields Peak
20 July 2001
By: Karen Isaacson Leverich
Leaders: Byron Prinzmetal, Mars Bonfire
"We're all here because we're not all here." (Maybe you had to be there?)
I have to confess I was already feeling somewhat intimidated by this hike when we arrived at the Forsee Creek trailhead at the gruesome hour of 6:15AM or so. 20 miles and 5000' gain? Steep, brushy cross-country? Did I have oatmeal for brains, what was I thinking of? And then Byron welcomed us to the "Death March". If someone had shared with me at that point that the world-class ridge advertised in The Lookout was the one that had destroyed Sandy Burnside's ankle, I'd've started hiking back down the road for home, as fast as my feet would carry me! But that little tidbit of information didn't surface until much much later.
Gathered that day in the chilly dawn were our leaders, Byron Prinzmetal and Mars Bonfire, plus Rich Gnagy, Joanne Griego, Karen Leverich, Ping Pfeffer, and Ingeborg Prochazka. Ingeborg set a lovely pace and headed up the miles and miles (and miles and miles) of well-graded, switchbacked Forsee Creek Trail that separated us from the top of the San Bernardino Ridge. Byron, ever the optimist, warned us of the horrors in store as we ascended. I have a facility for later blanking out this sort of information, so can't recall if he was alarming us with possibilities of man-eating deer or what, but at some point I whined that he wasn't being cheery enough, and he changed his tune, promising us sun-kissed meadows of singing birds and dancing flowers and so on. Much nicer.
Many feet of elevation gain later, we had safely evaded all the dangerous whatever, entered an almost parklike forest of lodgepole pine, and arrived atop the ridge. The views alone made this worth the climb, never mind the four peaks. To the south was Yucaipa Ridge, to the east San Gorgonio, to the north Big Bear Lake looked invitingly blue. After caching extra supplies, we headed west and bagged San Bernardino East Peak, then continued west towards San Bernardino Peak.
Y'know, these peaks look a lot closer together on the map? So many false summits, so little time. Rich took us up the final slope to San Bernardino Peak, mumbling something inspirational like, "This looks like the top of something!"
Returned to the point at which we'd cached our supplies, Byron generously gave us something like two and a half minutes to eat lunch, tacking on an extra minute so I could check out my feet (yep, still there!) before we continued east up the side of Anderson Peak, this time with Mars in the lead. "Is that the peak?" someone asked. "It's up there somewhere," someone else responded. Do you suppose it's the thin air that makes our conversations so profound?
The first three peaks had been similar, a bit rocky, but fitting somehow onto the ridge. So Shields was a surprise, a big extrusion of boulders that looked like it had been beamed in from elsewhere entirely. We worked muscle groups I didn't know I possessed, scrambling up the ridge to the top, then down the north face to the trail.
At which point, there was a minor mutiny. We were tired, we didn't want to go down a world-class ridge when there was a perfectly fine trail that would take us back to the cars.
So, how was it we came to descend by way of the ridge? Hypnosis? Blackmail? Bribery? Nah, the explanation is simpler. Byron and Mars shared two facts with us. First, the return via the ridge was only two miles or so, while on the trail it would be six or more. Second, we'd have to go back uphill on the trail, before we could go down. That clinched it: we'd already done more elevation gain than we wanted, the ridge it is, let's go!
Mars continued to lead. The first part wasn't tricky, a stroll through an open forest of lodgepole pines, just lovely. But we needed to descend 4000' or so, and there's no way to do that in two miles without some steep parts. No (serious) problem, Mars and Byron found safe ways down the steepest parts, brush-free paths through the brushier parts, and down down down we went. We paused now and then to marvel at our good fortune, being in this unique place. A once in a lifetime opportunity! ("You'll never get me back here again," mumbled one participant who shall remain nameless.) At some point, they came clean about this being the very ridge where Sandy had broken her ankle, uh oh.
Seriously, this was a terrific route to come down, but don't attempt it unless you have excellent navigation skills. I felt privileged to have been able to descend such a ridge, and had a lot of (unexpected) fun doing so, but never could have done so without Mars and Byron making it possible.
Eventually, inevitably, the slope leveled off -- we were down. Where we weren't was at the parking area. Byron had his GPS at hand, and let us know that, "The trail is about .6 miles this way; the cars about .75 miles that way." Rich: "So why don't we just go to the cars?" Byron: "The trail is so much easier to follow." As if we hadn't tried to communicate that concept before descending that world-class ridge, huh?
So off we went, over and across a surprising number of annoying washes and small ridges. Byron spotted a water tank marked on the map, which reassured us all that we weren't hopelessly and forever lost. Then, hurrah, a trail! We all oohed and aahed and kissed the ground, terra firma! Except for Ingeborg, who pointed out that the trail was too narrow and nobody had been walking on it lately. It wasn't our trail, fiddle! But then, just where it was supposed to be, we found the real trail, oohed and aahed again (though perhaps not quite as rapturously), and walked on out to the cars. Twelve hours, four peaks, and who knows how many miles later, we had all survived Byron's Death March!
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