San Bernardino 9 Peak Traverse

Looking up at the cloudless blue sky, it was hard to imagine that the ranger who told us to watch out for thunderstorms and to get off the mountain at the first sign of lightning was doing nothing more than messing with a few minimalist (see: way too under-prepared) trail runners. A few hours later we would be running as fast as the muddy trail would let us, through freezing rain, hail, flashes of lightning and simultaneous ear-numbing bursts of thunder in an amazing mixture of fear and the excitement of being in the mountains, exposed to the elements, running hard, feeling alive and smiling like a lunatic.

I've been wanting to do this route for awhile. Ever since I read Toby's nighttime account a couple of years ago (I think it was before I had ever met him, I had just heard stories and legends). The 9 Peak Traverse is a 27 mile point to point route with about 9,000 feet of climbing. The route meanders along the top of the San Bernardino mountain range on the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail, passing 9 peaks all of which are over 10,000 feet and include a summit of San Gorgonio, the highest mountain in Southern California at 11,500 feet. We started at the Vivian Creek trail-head and finished at the Angeles Oaks trail-head.

 The 9 Peaks:
San Gorgonio (11,500’)
Jepson (11,205’)
Little Charlton (10,676’)
Charlton (10,806’)
Alto Diablo (10,563’)
Shields Peak (10,701’)
Anderson Peak (10,864’)
San Bernardino East Peak (10,691’)
San Bernardino Peak (10,649’)
After the soothsayer/forest ranger checked our permit, Jess, Paul, David, Toby, and I hit the trail for the climb up San Gorgonio. It was a beautiful morning, but the day would be a reminder of how fast things can change in the mountains.

Overall, the day went very well. My legs felt great, and we made it to the top of San Gorgonio in under 3 hours, which I think is the fastest I've done that route, but as we hit the top of San Gorgonio, the dark clouds started rolling in, but they didn't look too ominous, so we carried on, running along the ridge, and over the rocky single-track middle miles. We would stop and re-group every half hour or so, but as the rain and hail started to come down, we stopped less frequently because it was just too hard to stay warm. I was so thankful that I had decided to throw a wind jacket in my pack at the last minute (water resistant and weighing 4 ounces, the Patagonia Houdini jacket has become one of my favorite material possessions).





"I have a great idea. Let's head toward those."


Peak 1 -- San Gorgonio

As we reached San Bernardino Peak, we waited for one of our group who wasn't too far behind, but it had been awhile since we had re-grouped, so we weren't sure how far behind he was. We each tried to find some kind of shelter from the hail and rain. There wasn't much shelter at the top, so we stood around, shivering, and waiting. I'm not sure exactly how long we waited, probably between 30 minutes and an hour, before someone said there was no way he was that far behind. David back-tracked and didn't see any sign of him, so we figured that he skirted the peak and was already headed down the mountain. We were scared and worried about him, but as the thunder and lightning got closer, and as we realized we were on one of the most exposed and highest peaks in Southern California, we figured it was time to get the F off the mountain.



For some reason, I was drawn to this tree.

Trying to get out of the rain.




We were in the middle of a thunderstorm for the initial descent, and each time the thunder would hit, it felt like it was going through me. I've never been that close to lightning before, and it was amazing and terrifying. We all breathed a sigh of relief as we ran past a small campsite and spoke to a ranger who had seen a solo runner about a half hour ahead of us. The rain had let up, and as we ran into more hikers who confirmed that a runner in a blue shirt was ahead of us, I breathed easy, took advantage of the descent, turned on some music, opened the legs up a little, and felt the pull of the Ballast Point IPA waiting at the trail-head.

I feel great going into another big training week, and then a taper for Cuyamaca 100K. I primarily used Allen Lim's rice cakes for nutrition and I couldn't have been happier with how they worked. I didn't feel hungry all day, and I had no problems with digestion or bonking; just a steady stream of energy. I also used Skratch Labs for hydration.

Some useful logistical details for anyone who wants to do the 9 Peaks Traverse:

  • It takes two cars, one parked at Vivian Creek trail-head and the other at Angeles Oaks trail-head. It's about a 15 minute drive between the two.
  • You need an adventure pass to park at both trail-heads (REI and A16 sell annual passes, or day-use permits)
  • You need a permit to hike the trail. It's free, and easy to apply here.
  • If you go in the direction that we did, there is a stream (please check that it's running) about 6 miles up, so I carried a 500 ml bottle to the stream, then filled a 2-liter bladder at the stream. The initial ascent was much easier without carrying all that fluid. I ran out of water about two miles from the finish.
  • Check the weather (San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail weather).
  • Be prepared for wind (light jacket, gloves, hat).
  • Take a map.

9 Peak Traverse
One last thing, after you finish this route, you should go eat a huge plate of delicious Mexican food at Casa Maya in Redlands. I recommend the mole enchiladas. They have Negra Modelo on tap, and as you sit around eating, drinking, and talking about the adventure, realize just how lucky you are that you can spend a day messing around in the mountains with good friends.

Thanks for reading.

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