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Backpack blather

What's with all the trail chatter? On the Southern California peak circuit, the 'W' in wilderness stands for wag your tongue -- either in person or on the cellphone. Mary Forgione listens in.

June 22, 2004|Mary Forgione | Times Staff Writer

Hollers and whoops rake the thinnish air as dusty boots stagger up the last 10 feet to the highest peak between the Mexican border and the Sierra.

Trail talk turns giddy:

"I'm on top of a freaking mountain!"

"Where's the Gatorade you promised?"

"My legs feel like they're exploding."

Sherman Lambert gets to the summit, then whips out his cellphone and dials. "I'll call you when I get off the mountain," the Westchester High School chemistry teacher yells into the phone before hanging up. "William? William? You didn't want to talk to Mommy, did you?"

His son, 12 and deep in an electronics-deprived funk, begs to go back down.

"It's really boring up here," William says flatly, eyes cast at the dirt rather than at the nearby ridges or stark folds of Mt. San Jacinto. Backpacking with Dad isn't even in the same universe as playing Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2 on his PlayStation 2.

It's high noon and standing room only at Club San G. A jumble of packs and people spill over the tawny boulders of Mt. San Gorgonio's treeless summit on Memorial Day weekend. They hunch over phones and paw through gorp-filled Ziplocs when they're not posing for one of the endless permutations of group photos.

Yeah, the weather's gorgeous; yeah, gas prices are hideous; yeah, it's lucky we're not stuck in holiday traffic on the 10 Freeway, a distant thread off the east face.

Technically, this high point in the San Bernardino Mountains is wilderness, capital W, a federal designation defined, in part, as offering "outstanding opportunities for solitude" -- and everyone up here packs a permit that says so. But that little green paper doesn't mandate piping down while racking up the miles.

John Muir took off alone on long treks through pristine Sierra wilderness; but in places like this, less than 100 miles from L.A., friends and strangers whoop it up nonstop.

"This is the most crowded spot on the mountain," says John Bleeker of Yucaipa, who shouldered a full backpack to the top with his teenage son. "For the most part, we have the mountain to ourselves, and it's big enough to accommodate everyone here."

At 11,502 feet, San Gorgonio demands strong backs and trail-toughened feet from backpackers who take two or three days to bag the peak. They shoulder heavy packs and bed down at backcountry camps below the summit so they can rise early and head to the top.

By the time they uncinch packs and scout a tent site, they have bonded while conquering relentlessly steep switchbacks and slogging through pockets of crusty snow. Shared exhaustion and summit fever loosen the tongue better than tequila.

"There are no taboos in our group. People can bring up whatever topic they want, whether it's TV, religion, though we try and stay away from politics," says Jamie Hogan of San Diego, who camped with seven members of his hiking group at about 10,000 feet.

Multiply that hum of conversation by the 100 or so people gabbing along three major trails to the top on a busy weekend and San G buzzes. It's distracting enough in places to squelch the essence of this wild place: the squawking Clark's nutcrackers, the lodgepole pines and the late-season snow tufted in minarets.

The only way to escape trail talk, says Brian O'Donnell, associate director of the Wilderness Society's Wilderness Support Center, is to go deep into a vast wilderness, such as Alaska.

Backpackers can find solitude closer to home in remote spots along the Sierra -- such as Goddard Divide and the Lake Basin area of Kings Canyon National Park -- or even on this mountain midweek. But anywhere close to an urban area on a busy weekend....

"You can hear us coming a mile off wherever you are," says Hogan, 44, in an accent from his native Australia. "The thing that hits you is the laughter, almost nonstop laughter."

Or singing, as in the choruses of "Buffalo Soldier" and "I Shot the Sheriff" that erupt from a troop of tone-deaf Boy Scouts -- at a breath-zapping 10,000 feet.

On a trek where a typical pack contains tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, compression sacks, flashlight, first-aid kit, bear canister, water filter, cellphone, Sony Discman and other gear, chatter about everything from Oprah to Osama eases the load.

For Hogan, observations on the trail shade the topic and tone of his conversation.

On this trip, he and his friends lament the drought as they pass brown trees near the bottom of the mountain, something he says he doesn't think much about in the city when watering the lawn or taking a shower.

At the summit, though, Hogan breaks away from his group to reflect alone.

"On the top, you're certainly physically not away from it all, but mentally you can tune out [the crowds]," Hogan says. "You can look east at Mt. San Jacinto and south at Mt. Palomar." In the evening, camp talk shifts to site-specific trivia.

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