10,294-foot Grinnell Mountain lies in the San Bernardino Mountains toward the northeast corner of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. I've had my eye on Grinnell for a long time—it's big and it's interesting, obviously one of the range's major peaks.
Grinnell's summit is close enough to the 38 that you might be tempted to think of it as an easy climb, but the peak rises over four thousand vertical feet above the highway, and there is no north-side trail access. Also, the entire mountain was devastated by 2015's Lake Fire, greatly complicating overland travel.
Nevertheless I decided on an exploratory Grinnell mission last Friday, accompanied by my friend Preston, who remains admirably undaunted by my impressive history of Southern California ski mountaineering misadventures.
We got thumped.
We started hiking at the South Fork/Lost Creek campground off Highway 38, starting elevation 6265'. The previous night I'd spent a good hour studying the area both via Google Earth and my Gorgonio Wilderness Thompson map, and it was still a challenge to identify a viable route.
We ascended Grinnell's northwest ridge, intending to ski back down the way we came, but conditions were not favorable. We didn't hit snow until around 7500', and even then, the snowpack was too thin and erratic to ascend on skins. A big part of the problem was deadfall from the Lake Fire, which made everything very snaggy.
Climbing up, I wasn't happy with the steepness of the pitch. It was snow-covered, but the snow was hard, and it was too thin to ski down, and in my judgement, therefore too dangerous to attempt to descend on foot without an axe and crampons.
We made it to about 9200' on the northwest ridge, at which point it was getting close to 4 p.m.
Knowing we were in danger of running out of daylight, we decided to abandon the summit. Instead of retracing our steps, we traversed into Grinnell's Lost Creek drainage. It looked deep and narrow and thus more likely to hold snow, allowing us—hopefully—to stay on skis for most of the descent.
And thus began a bit of an epic. I know, I've sworn repeatedly never to go off-route in the Southern California ranges, but in hindsight this wasn't an easy call. Hiking down steep, hard, patchy snow intermixed with deadfall would have been risky. One misstep, and we would have been sliding into a thicket of rocks, stumps, and sharp branches.
Sometimes there just isn't a clear good choice. So we bailed into the unknown of the gully. Luckily, the gully and creek did not close out on us, but it proved to be a very tough exit. Extensive deadfall debris including giant tree stumps choked the gully, along with rugged talus, steep steps, thickets of willows, and treacherous patches of ice and snow.
Then the sun went down, and we spent a good two hours navigating through the snaggy ashy hellscape with only one headlamp between us. We spent so much time climbing over, under, and around deadfall that by the end of it my arms and upper body were at least as sore as my leg muscles.
Sometimes a good gruel is worth it. I'll be thinking carefully about that decision to go off route, and what alternatives we might have chosen instead to avoid putting ourselves in such a bad situation. But it sure felt good to be out there in the trenches. And know this Grinnell: I'll be back.
— February 1, 2022
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
Dan Conger February 2, 2022 at 10:15 am
Quite the adventure. I’m disappointed that our winter seems to have stalled out.
Brad Brown February 2, 2022 at 9:26 pm
The beat down tradition dies hard at SD, I’ve heard of Grinnell, barely, couldn’t pick it out of a line up. Ive been on 6 of the big peaks in the range so I’ve probably seen it…maybe… Looks like a similar ski to
Sugarloaf, er minus snow, plus trees, er dead ones, lots of ‘em, kinda randomly scattered so as to maximize distance traveled-yum! Seems early in the season this year for this romp considering temp, aspect, grade, elevation, time since last snow, lack of snow, etc. so admire your adventurous spirit. Preston’s turns did revealed some ok snow
right!?! I get the attraction having looked across from Snow Summit’s, er, summit, across the valley to SG/Jepson and let my mind wander. Good recon and beta for us less intrepid adventurers and a fun video.
Mike Ryan February 3, 2022 at 11:29 am
Check out FATMAP as a new and mostly free tool for investigating some of your routes. Beats the pants off Google Earth for hiking and backcountry skiing route analysis. The aspect, gradient, and avalanche overlays are tailor-made for skiing.
Love the adventure stories, keep up the great work!
Matt D February 3, 2022 at 2:30 pm
Kind of a haunting beauty to those opening shots of the snow and scorched forest. Looks like at least some of it skied pretty well!
Andy February 3, 2022 at 3:41 pm
Yes! And each time I watch those opening shots, I think to myself, "get used to this". The term trans-apocalyptic seems apt
Bill February 5, 2022 at 6:46 am
Love seeing/reading you're back in the backcountry doing what you love, inspiring the rest of us.