Iron Mountain and Mount Baldy
The Iron-Baldy Traverse - 2/4/2006
The Iron-Baldy traverse seems to have it's share of epic tales and perhaps that's what makes it so alluring. Though I've finished most of the HPS peaks in the San Gabriels for some reason I just never quite got around to Iron Mountain. In part this was due to the fact that I wanted to do the Iron-Baldy traverse but didn't want to have to deal with setting up a car shuttle. More recently I began to consider doing it without a shuttle and just hiking all the way up and coming back the same way. This would allow me to do the traverse in both directions. Twice the fun right?
I arrived at the parking lot below Heaton Flat shortly before 5:30am. By 5:38am I was on my way. It was a bit nippy at first but it didn't take long before I started peeling off layers. I reached the Allison trail junction at 7:21am. Up to this point the trail had been pretty mild and I was almost disappointed. I thought Iron Mtn was supposed to be harder than this. Things soon changed. Just beyond the Allison trail junction the Iron Mtn trail gets pretty steep. This is more like it! It was a good workout and I felt great all the way to the summit which I reached at 9:06am.
I had now finished my primary goal. From the start I figured I would only decide on doing the traverse once I got to the summit of Iron Mountain. I was a bit surprised how quickly I reached Iron Mountain. It had taken less than three and a half hours. Since it wasn't even 9:30am yet how could I not attempt the traverse? How long could it possibly take? The time, elevation gain, etc. were items I didn't really research in advance. I figured if I knew what it would take it might deter me. Of course this was probably the same kind of reasoning that has lead to so many epics. Was this another epic in the making? If this was to be my epic so be it.
Thus, at 9:25am I started down the ridge traverse. The class 3 sections of the traverse all occur within about the first mile from Iron Mtn. This section consists mostly of downclimbing on a jagged rocky ridge. I thought I remembered Rick Graham saying something about staying on the top of the ridge so that's what I did and indeed that seemed to work well. The climbing was rather subdued. I never felt uncomfortable though it's certainly not without some danger. One of the steeper portions is right above Gun-Sight Notch. Here someone tied a rope around a bush but it certainly wasn't necessary.
A bit further down the ridge mellows out and is fairly gentle until you close in on West Baldy. There are several bumps along the way that result in additional elevation gain along with one or two sections of buckthorn brush. The last big push is up the ridge to West Baldy. This last push requires a little over 2300 feet of gain. Before me lay two options. On the north side of the ridge were snow patches. On the south side was brush (buckthorn and manzanita). I would have to pick between the lesser of two evils. I headed toward the north side of the ridge to avoid the brush. Unfortunately the snow patches had nearly turned to solid ice and without crampons were virtually impossible to cross. I had to hunt around for paths between the patches or look for patches that had vulnerabilites (embedded rocks, bare spots, logs, etc.). This didn't prove to be very effective so I traversed over more to the south and dealt with some of the brush instead. Either way the obstacles slowed me down and I really felt that I was making poor time. My original estimate of 3 hours from Iron to Baldy was obviously optimistic but even if it took 4 hrs in each direction I felt I would be fine.
Slowly but surely I progressed up to West Baldy. Once there it was necessary to cross one or two large low angle snow fields. Like the other snow fields these were icy too but fortunately they had a texture pattern on them that provided a small amount of grip. I was now only minutes from the summit of Mount Baldy but knew that I couldn't stay long. There were a half dozen others on the summit. The traverse had taken 4 hrs and 20 minutes. I stayed all of perhaps 5 minutes and then turned around. My day was only half over. I would now have to do the Iron-Baldy traverse in reverse and climb back up and over Iron Mountain on the way out. By now I wasn't really looking forward to even more elevation gain but it had to be done.
On the way back down from West Baldy I shot for the south side of the ridge and avoided nearly all the snow fields at the expense of having to deal with some brush. Fortunately the brush wasn't that bad. By the time I was half way back to Iron Mountain I was starting to feel pretty good again. Then came the push back up and over Iron Mountain. The class 3 climbing up the last part of the ridge was actually more enjoyable in this direction. I was kind of glad I got to experience it in both directions. At the time however I was primarily just concerned with getting back to Iron Mountain before dark. As expected that last climb up and over Iron Mountain was taxing but I did indeed make it back before dark. I stopped on the summit only long enough for one or two pictures. I was now really hoping that perhaps there would be enough time left to get down the steep part of the trail before darkness overtook me. Unfortunately that was not to be. Coming down the steep part of the trail in the dark by headlamp was not pleasant. It seemed like it took more time than it really did however. I was really happy to finally get back down to the gentler part of the trail. Shortly after this point I began to question whether I was more tired than I felt. At least twice within 10 minutes I accidently put one foot off the side of the trail which immediately forced me down to the ground. How had I managed to get down the steeper parts of the trail above without a significant slip and now here on the gentle part of the trail I fall flat on my face? Go figure.
Despite a couple spills I maintained a fair pace and finally arrived back down at my car at 8:19pm. Though I suspect I could have done better I was fairly happy with my time. Despite an obstacle or two, overall everything had worked out rather well. It had been a good day.
Total distance for the day was 23.8 miles round trip.
Total elevation gain was about 12,100 feet.
Photos are here:
Iron-Baldy Traverse - 2/4/06