False Information From The Mill Creek Ranger Station

With the budget cuts that have so negatively impacted the Forest Service, I understand that a ranger station may not know the answer to a question. We all are dealing with those impacts and a simple “I don’t know” is understandable (though unfortunate and disappointing). However, I don’t understand giving out false information—especially in regards to something like the presence of water at an essential water source. Some minimum standard of assessing the truth value of information should be in place prior to a ranger station passing that information along to the public.

False Information Given

Since I was backpacking with three others on Saturday, I called the Mill Creek Ranger Station Friday afternoon and asked how much water was available at Limber Pine Springs. I was told that water is present but that I needed to bring all the water I required. I went round and round with the person on the phone trying to ascertain what he meant. He just kept repeating the same thing which I found nonsensical. If there is water, why would I want to carry at least 6 extra liters? I let everyone know that we might have a water issue and to bring enough water for the whole trip but that we would also stop by the Mill Creek Ranger Station to get better information in person. The information over the phone didn’t make sense as I’d hiked up the Vivian Creek Trail a few weeks earlier (when I also picked up the permit for this trip) and there was plenty of water then.

On Saturday we stopped by the Mill Creek Ranger Station and got more definitive answers (which turned out to be categorically false). Initially we got a similar response indicating some water existed but that we needed to carry up all the water we would require. None of us wanted to carry up all that extra water, so we talked about how we were backpacking and how much extra water that would be. I told them I’d hiked there before and knew where the spring was and mentioned that even if it wasn’t visible from the trail I’d know where to find its source etc. The more we asked the more definitive they became (including body language like shaking their heads no) telling us it was dry at Limber Pine Springs. They were adamant that we bring up all the water we would need for a two day backpacking trip.

Actual Conditions

It was over 90 degrees at the trailhead and loading up our packs with close to 14 pounds of extra water each was brutal. About a quarter mile up the trail I was already concerned that I was drinking too much water due to the strain of carrying so much extra weight. By the time we reached the Wilderness Boundary sign I was thinking about what part of the trail would be our latest turn back point if we needed to abandon our trip. About a quarter mile later we met a hiker who was coming down from Limber Pine Bench. Although he didn’t make it up to the springs he mentioned that he has hiked this trail for fifteen years and has never seen Limber Pine Springs dry. Sure, we might need to hike up above the trail to reach the springs but he was certain enough water would be flowing to filter. He suggested we pour out our excess water. However, given the certainty presented at the ranger station, we weren’t confident enough to trust the word of one person who didn’t actually see water. Fortunately, within another quarter mile a group of hikers passed us who were coming down from the peak and confirmed that there was plenty of water, that it crossed the trail, and that there was still snow on the trail by the spring. We decided to pour out some water as soon as we got a couple hundred yards up the trail to a flatter area where we could also stop and eat lunch. Along the way we met another group of hikers coming down from the peak that confirmed that there was water and snow at the spring. This further confirmation gave us the confidence to pour out about 6 liters of water each. Even after pouring out our water we asked the same question to each group of hikers passing us on their way down from San Bernardino Peak and got the same response.

Perhaps most surprising was that there was so much water at Limber Pine Springs that we could hear it flowing down the mountain over the sound of our trekking poles at least a couple hundred feet before seeing it cross the corner of trail.

Snow next to Limber Pine Springs (June 2, 2013)

Snow next to Limber Pine Springs (June 2, 2013)

Water flow of Limber Pine Springs (June 2, 2013)

Water flow of Limber Pine Springs (June 2, 2013)

Close up of where I was able to fill a dry sack with about three liters of water in a few seconds-- which I filtered at the bench nearby (photo taken June 2, 2013)

Close up of where I was able to fill a dry sack with about three liters of water in a few seconds– which I filtered at the bench nearby (photo taken June 2, 2013)

Following Up And A Suggestion

This morning (Monday) I called the Mill Creek Ranger Station to let them know what the actual conditions were. Before I could explain why I was calling I was given a more accurate report (though still over cautious enough for me to want to explain exactly what I saw). While explaining what happened to us I learned that someone they knew stopped into the ranger station late Saturday and gave them better information. I was told that prior to that they were just “sharing what they were told.” I find the idea that someone could see the conditions I saw and report back that water was so low that water couldn’t be guaranteed to be there impossible to believe. Further, given the reaction of the hiker who has hiked in the area for the last fifteen years, I find it apathetic (at best) that the ranger station would simply accept such a ridiculous report and share it with the public without confirming its truth value. In our back and forth I learned that there currently aren’t enough rangers to give timely updates on water conditions and that they rely on reports from hikers.

As I was giving the woman on the phone my blog address so she could see the photos and internalize how much water is still flowing at Limber Pine Springs, it occurred to me that a system of asking for photos of water sources from hikers could go a long way in providing accurate information to the public. Everyone is required to get a wilderness permit to hike in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (not doing so could land you a “fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment for not more than 6 (six) months, or both”). A large number of people pick up their permits at the Mill Creek Ranger Station. It wouldn’t be that difficult to ask for people to volunteer to take photos and share them so that their reports are verifiable. I’m sure enough people would understand the importance of such a system and happily take the photos that a reliable weekly report would be the result. I suggested this idea to the woman on the phone and also suggested that the ranger station just post a sign at the counter to facilitate getting volunteers.

Granted that idea is “off the cuff,” but something needs to change. If I learn about any change in policy from the Mill Creek Ranger Station, I’ll write a follow up story. I realize one alternative is to not trust any information coming from them but that would make the ranger station a joke. Hopefully they will decide they need to do better than that!

Internalizing That Making it to the Summit is Optional

Looking toward San Bernardino Peak on the way to Limber Pine Bench

Had I stayed the night at Limber Pine Bench or got more water at nearby Limber Pine Springs, I might have made it to the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio.  Instead, I headed up to Trail Fork Springs planning to camp and replenish my water supply there.  Unfortunately, I never found the campground or the water I was told would be there.  I know the campground is there, water is probably still flowing from the spring, and I’m sure I got real close to it.  I just couldn’t find it.  As a result, dealing with becoming extremely low on water, my resulting dehydration, and accepting I wouldn’t make it to the summit became what I focused on for the remainder of my backpacking trip.

My decision to go to Trail Fork Springs didn’t appear at all risky when I made it.  I called the Mill Creek Ranger Station a few days prior to find out where to find water between Angelus Oaks and Mt. San Gorgonio and asked about which campgrounds had nice views.  Trail Fork Springs or High Meadow Springs (another four miles up the mountain) were the recommended places to camp.  Since I got a late start, I had already ruled out High Meadow Springs.  The only reason to consider Limber Pine bench was because I was also slowed a little by a light afternoon rain along the way.  However, the rain had stopped by the time I reached Limber Pine Bench and it was still before 5pm.  I could easily make it to Trail Fork Springs by 7:30 or 8:00.  Since I wanted to arrive closer to 7:30 and have more sunlight to set up camp and because I had plenty of water to make it there; I decided not to invest the time to replenish my water supply at Limber Pine Springs which I passed a little further up the trail.

Clear Skies and plenty of light on the way to East San Bernardino Peak

All appeared to be going well.  The trail and views were great and I was making good time.  At junctions in the trail, clearly marked signs indicated the way to Trail Fork Springs.  So, I was feeling great about my decision to hike a little longer to make the next day’s journey shorter.  Then I came upon a junction and the sign indicated one way to Jackstraw Springs and the other way to Dollar Lake Saddle.  It made me a little uneasy that all of a sudden there was no mention of Trail Fork Springs.  I pulled out my Harrison Map and saw that the camp should be on the way down to Jackstraw Springs.  Along the way down the trail I passed what I thought could be the beginning of Forsee Creek.  There was more green vegetation and the soil was moist, but there wasn’t any flowing water.  I continued down the trail expecting it to meet the creek again or to cross the spring hopefully close to Trail Fork Springs Camp.  After hiking at least a mile, I knew I had gone too far.  The distance listed on my permit from Trail Fork Springs to Anderson Flat (above the junction heading toward Dollar Lake Saddle) was only 0.8 miles.

Enjoying last sunlight before heading into the darkness to try and find Trail Fork Springs

Realizing I’d gone too far, I watched the last couple minutes of the sunset while contemplating my situation.  It was time to accept a few things.  The day’s hiking was going to continue into the night under the light from my headlamp.  So, I might as well enjoy the last moments of a sunset before embarking on a journey into the darkness.  Water was now an issue as I hadn’t yet found Trail Fork Springs and couldn’t be confident that I would.  I had a liter plus whatever was left in my bladder which I now needed to conserve.  I would need to set up my tarp for the first time in the dark.

It didn’t make sense to continue down the trail because I didn’t know for sure that there was water at Jackstraw Springs and that direction was only taking me away from where I expected to be going the next day.  Besides, I wasn’t exactly full of confidence that I would find that camp either.  At that point I was also still holding onto some hope that I would find Trail Fork Springs on my way back up the trail.  Perhaps I should have gone up at the junction instead of down.  Before setting out however, I needed a plan B if I couldn’t find the camp.  In that scenario I decided I would continue up the trail at the junction (hoping Trail Fork Springs was really up instead of down) and continue to Anderson Flat if necessary at most two miles away from where I was.  I never found any sign of Trail Fork Springs.  Worst, after heading up from the junction, I reached to next junction in the trail where Anderson Flat was supposed to be and didn’t see it.  In John McEnroe fashion, I yelled out “you can’t be serious.”  I was physically tired, mentally drained, frustrated, hungry, and thirsty.  I decided to find a flat spot near the trail and camp the night.

As I was setting up my tarp, I realized dinner was out of the question.  I couldn’t spare eight ounces of water to rehydrate my food.  So, I had a bar and a little more water to wash it down.  Tired as I was I didn’t sleep well.  I considered my options over and over again for hours.  Other than Trail Fork Springs, the closest water sources are High Meadow Springs four miles up the mountain or Limber Pine Springs about four and a half miles back down the mountain.  I quickly ruled out Trail Fork Springs as I’d already missed it twice and if the moist area was the spring, it had dried up since the last report.  This was my last training exercise for my Mt. Whitney trip beginning on Monday and I really wanted to summit Mt. San Gorgonio.  However, after much consideration and accepting that I wasn’t going to make it to the summit on this trip, I ruled out High Meadow Springs.  Considering that I’d missed two campgrounds and a water source already; attempting to continue up the mountain to a camp ground I’d never been where I didn’t know the location of the water source just seamed reckless.  If I didn’t find water there, I had no plan B.  The next water would at best be another two miles down in another direction away from Mt. San Gorgonio.  I’d most likely need to press my SOS button on my spot connect device and wait to be rescued.  So, I settled on hiking down to Limber Pine Springs whose water I crossed on my way up.  I would at least be heading toward help if things got that bad.

Tired but restlessly anxious, I knew I needed rest to hike another four miles and had no desire to hike in the darkness.  Normally, I drink about a liter of water through the night and I was already down to about 750 ml when I went to sleep.  I decided that as soon as I noticed enough natural light to see my way, I would get going.  Waking up a few times throughout the night, I thought about the terrain I would be walking down.  Except for about three quarters of a mile of trail that was more direct than going toward Trail Fork Springs, I had travelled the rest of the trail the day before.  This allowed me to plan out my water breaks.  Paying attention to my night time sips of water, I managed to drink only 250 ml before morning.  I was down to half a liter, but I felt I could make it to water.  I packed everything up, took a few pictures, and sent out a message from my spot connect device to let people know who were tracking me on the internet that I’d changed plans and was heading home early.  Sitting on a fallen tree, I looked up and noticed a sign on a tree that my tarp had been set up below the night before.  The sign read “Anderson Flat” with an arrow pointing in the direction I camped.  There was no delineated path leading further from where I was.  So, it’s possible I actually found and camped at Anderson Flat after all.  That realization made me think that it was now more possible that the moist soil I saw the day before was a newly dried up Trail Fork Springs.

In the morning light, I realized that I might have camped at Anderson Flat after all (note the sign on the tree–subtle especially at night).

Down to only 500 ml of water, I knew I needed to manage my level of exertion and maintain a comfortable pace because I would need to hike close to three hours to make it four and a half miles down to Lumber Pine Springs.  Fortunately, the trail is beautiful; the cool morning air was clear, views out were magnificent, and the soft morning light gently illuminated my path through the trees.  Allowing myself to take photos and engage in the distractingly beautiful natural surroundings I was hiking through helped me stay calm, go at a reasonable pace, and not fixate on my thirst.

My last view of Mt. San Gorgonio as I was accepting that I’d need to summit it another day.

I drank my last drop of water from a spot with a view of Limber Pine Bench which appeared to be within twenty minutes of my location.  Almost immediately though, I was again thirsty and it was getting hot.  I felt I was heading toward some kind of limit.  At the same time, I was the most confident I’d been since I went to bed the night before that I’d make it to the springs.  Interestingly, about ten minutes from Limber Pine Springs I passed a group of hikers.  We talked briefly about where they were going and of my water situation.  I would have accepted water if offered but didn’t feel the need to ask.  At that point I knew I could hike another ten minutes and was sure if I was in distress they would have helped me.  As one of the reasons to hike down instead of up, their presence put an exclamation point on the rightness of my decision to head down the mountain.  I felt good about how I handled cutting my losses, accepting my mistakes, and altering my plans.  Meeting them was the last mental boost I needed to make it down to the springs.

Limber Pine Springs

At the springs I took my time and drank close to a liter of water.  I then replenished my bladder and my Nalgene bottle so that I’d have four liters to make it down the last six miles to my car—which I drank most of.  Along the way down I reflected upon my experience and how I felt about not making it to the summit.  Although initially very disappointing, it was probably the best final training experience I could have had before setting out to climb Mt. Whitney.  Realizing that really helped me make it down the last couple miles.  The last year and eight months of training has me easily physically and mentally ready to make the climb over a three day period.  Not completing a climb and internalizing Ed Viesturs words “getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory,” was a more important experience that rounded out my training.  In a few hours I leave for Mt. Whitney for four days.  The trip will be a celebration of losing a lot of weight getting myself in shape to make it.  While I want to summit badly, I now know I have it in me to turn back if I need to.