A Mountain ImpulseI woke up lucky last Monday morning. The day dawned without any court appearances, client meetings, or briefing deadlines scheduled. My impulse, no pun intended, was the mountains. Mt. Baldy (10,064') is always a good bet, being only an hour’s drive from L.A. I decided on the Register Ridge route because I hadn’t done that route in a while. The route is actually the southeast ridge of Mt. Harwood (9,552’). Harwood is a scree pile just east of Mt. Baldy. The route gets its common name because it’s starting point is just past a metal register box at the start of the Ski Hut Trail.
The mountain forecast was for windy but sunny conditions. I gratefully accept chilly winds as a trade-off for crystal clear views. I managed to get a late start but even at that there was only one car at Manker Flat trailhead when I arrived.
To Harwood and BaldyI took along crampons and ice axe just in case. From the trailhead, I headed out along the fire road and in a few minutes stopped to admire the San Antonio Falls, which were running nicely. I then found the Ski Hut Trail turn-off, passed the register box and stepped up onto Register Ridge. The route, which starts at about 6, 700’, is relatively steep, covering about 2600’ feet of gain in 1.5 miles between its start and its junction with the Devil’s Backbone Trail. During the first 500’ of ascent I kept stopping to admire the views looking south into the gaping San Antonio Canyon (one of the major access points into the Mt. Baldy area) and southeast to the snow –covered ridges featuring Telegraph Peak, Cucamonga and Ontario peaks.
Unfortunately, the south-facing Baldy Bowl, northwest from Register Ridge, was barren of snow except for the extreme west side. I hit patches of snow above 8500’. The wind was blowing hard, but I always find this exhilarating. The ridge is beautiful and the skies were saturated deep blue. I thought “IT DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS.”The only thing I could have wished for is a companion to share the experience with.
I stopped for a snack on a prominent flat spot on the ridge at about 8400’. Above this flat, you get into a lush lodge-pole pine forest and within 10 minutes you come to a section of 3d class rock. You can climb over the section or go around. The section of ridge between the flat area and the junction with the Backbone Trail is particularly steep, a little over 900’ of gain in .4 miles.
After reaching the Backbone Trail I veered northwest towards the summit of Mt. Harwood, avoiding crossing as many snow patches as I could. The summit was barren exposing its scree pile characteristic. The only thing notable about the summit was the fierce wind which prompted me to move on quickly. Baldy beckoned in front of me.
I dropped into the Baldy-Harwood saddle and found the Backbone Trail again. I then began the 700 foot ascent from the saddle to Baldy’s summit. There were substantial snow patches along the route, but I found a path skirting most of them. One patch just below the summit I couldn’t avoid was very hard with some icy sections. Fortunately, the steps of previous hikers were frozen in the snow and I used these to ascend saving me the trouble of putting on crampons.
When I reached the summit, it was surprisingly calm. I met just one other hiker. He had driven from Ventura, taken the ski lift up to the Notch, and hiked up the fire road and Devil’s Backbone Trail.
I had first thought of returning via the Ski Hut/Bowl Trail to make the outing a nice loop. But I’d enjoyed the ridge so much and besides, I had never descended on the ridge, so I opted to go back the same way. Descending the section of hard snow where I had used pre-existing steps on the way up, I found I could not safely use those same steps. I found the solution in a sitting glissade with my ice axe for control. This worked nicely.
Once I reached the saddle again, I chose, just for the exercise, to ascend to Harwood again. An easier option is to follow the Backbone Trail from the saddle back to the turn- off to Register Ridge.
Courting a BivouacAfter summiting Harwood again, I dropped back down to the junction with the Backbone Trail and veered left onto the ridge. I then embarked on a major episode of daydreaming and inattention –the day was so beautiful, the hike had been great, etc., etc. Little by little, I began to realize that the terrain was getting unfamiliar. In particular, it seemed a lot steeper than I recalled from the ascent. But I’d never descended the route before so maybe it would seem steeper coming down. I continued descending, now several hundred feet below my starting point. The “light” came on when I encountered some precipitous rock sections with gullies on either side I certainly hadn’t seen on the way up.
Rather than doing the immediately prudent thing and going back up to correct my mistake, I examined the terrain below, as far as I could see it, and seemed to detect a way to descend and then connect up with a route that would get me back to the Ski Hut Trail. But what looked doable in terms of safe down climbing at first, became patently insane after I had descended a couple of hundred feet more.
No more waffling. I had to go back up. I took the further overdue step of consulting my topo. I always carry the appropriate maps with me, so why not use them? What it looked like I had done was to veer off onto a spur from the main ridge. I climbed back up the loose, crumbly terrain accompanied by a cotton mouth that reflected my anxiety that I would either find the correct route or lose daylight pretty soon. When I had ascended far enough that I could traverse the large concave gully separating my location from what my topo told me was the main ridge east of me, I went for it. Success!
I had found the correct route just as late afternoon shadows began to fall. I hustled down the ridge and made it to the bottom just as darkness fell. I had earlier told myself that if darkness caught me in unfamiliar terrain, I would simply bivouac. I had warm clothes and food and water. I always carry a headlamp of course, but I didn’t want to be wandering around at night on steep terrain with just headlamp light.