A Word on OrderMt. San Antonio, known by most everyone as Mt. Baldy or Old Baldy, is the highest peak in the entire 50-mile long San Gabriel range, and the only one over 10,000 feet. It gets its nickname from its empty, gray, round granite head, which is flanked on many sides by impossibly steep scree slopes. Often covered with snow, its surroundings include long West- and East-running narrow ridges, pine-covered highlands, and beautiful river canyons shaded steeply by granite butresses. John Robinson, author of Trails of the Angeles, says, "Probably no other werstern mountain not reached by road is climbed by so many people." Old Baldy draws sometimes dozens of people a day to its granitic summit, where views unmatched can be seen in every direction. Many different trails travel up its side, however--some much harder than others. I have ascended it thrice, a different way each time.
The first time proved the addiction, and though it was the simplest way it proved the hardest ascent, due to, um, lack of preparation and extreme conditions, to put it simply. But after a harrowing experience, I was hooked on the mountain, and I knew I would come back to climb it a different way, or several ways. This is the story of my returns to Mt. Baldy, and the adventures therein.
Ascent 2--More Than Half Gone Less Than HalfOn a beautiful March day I decided to return to Mt. Baldy. I took four friends with me--Joseph, my companion on the first trip to Baldy and other adventures; Brenda, whom I had not hiked with before but who had been hiking before; David Fronk, a good hiker; and Michael Tran, who had never been hiking before but was certainly up for adventure. We were going to start the route where we had started before--the fire road at the lower end of the ski lift parking lot. This branches off East (left) from the road and meanders about a 1/2 mile before reaching a stunning view of San Antonio falls. It is very fun to hang around by this waterfall for a long time, and each trip I go on usually results in travelling the short trail down to its base.
The trail then continues for another 1/2 mile before reaching a faint and unmarked steeply climbing trail on the left. This is the start of the San Antonio Ski hut trail, and is very easy to miss if you are not looking for it (I walked right past it my first time without knowing). This trail ascends very steeply and quickly to the San Antonio ski hut--about 2000 feet up--through now meadows of small green bushes, now through forests of pines, some warped terrifically by the wind (Ha! wind! More on that later), creating fantastic shapes, and now through long slopes of scree. This is a beautiful section of the trail, and you realize you are close to the hut when you see it up a steep slope above you, and you switchback to it through the most beautiful area yet--a rolling green meadow with a sparkling brook babbling through (this same brook becomes San Antonio Falls) that can be covered in alpine flowers if you come at the right time of year.
The Ski Hut is reached at 8200 feet. This building, built in 1937 with peices carried up wholly by the hands of enthusiastic Ski Mountaineers, is a wonderful little cabin right in the middle of pristine alpine beauty. It features electricity (wood-burning stove), power (solar panels), a kitchen, and seating room for 24. Nifty little cabin. And anyone can stay there by contacting a Hut Host at the hut's website.
Anyways, one of our number had dropped out early in the game. Fronk had been feeling bad to begin with--he was getting a fever. So he left us and went back to his car right where the small trail up to the Hut started. And along the first part of the steep trail, Tran was having much trouble. He had not been hiking before, and his asthma was kicking in--he was breathing hard. I give him much credit, though, in spite of all he was trying his very hardest to keep up with me. In the beginning of the Hut trail (as we will call the stretch branching from the fire road to the hut) he brought up the rear, but by its end he was right behind me, though Brenda and Joe were 10 minutes behind, lagging due to Brenda's bad knee acting up.
We rested for quite a while, ate a bit, at the Hut. Longer than I wanted to, really. Brenda and Joe didn't even seem too keen about making it to the top. Brenda didn't know if her knee could make it. Tran was down for continuing up though.
After a long 20 minutes we continued. This last stretch of trail is known as Baldy Bowl, a popular retreat for backcountry skiers. It is so named because the immense South face of Old Baldy slopes down in gravelly slick scree at a sickeningly steep angle, and at an impressive and bizarre curving angle from West to East. It creates a natural half-funnel, 1500 feet tall, all sloping into the little area where the Hut and brook stand. The trail from this point goes West, crosses the brook, and proceeds up around the end of the Bowl, up a steep ridge at its western boundary.
The trail switchbacks up until the top of this ridgeline is reached at about 8800 feet in about 3/4 miles. At this point, amazingly, Tran was right behind me--huffing and puffing, perhaps, but right there, and full of determination. Brenda and Joseph, however, were nowhere to be seen. I called them on our convenient walkie-talkies (smart Boy Scout move, Joseph). Brenda's knee hurt even more, and neither of them wanted to make it. Sigh. They would turn around, and meet us at the beginning of the trail.
Then there were 2. The last 3/4 mile and 1200 feet left to go. The landscape at this part begins to look very sparse, very alpine. Granite gravel is everywhere, with ever-more rare patches of green bushes and shorter and shorter wind-warped and gnarled trees (these trees are a unique marvel: short, stout, and strange-shaped). Tran was putting in an exceedingly valiant effort, but wheezing and gasping behind. Would he say it? How many times have I heard this phrase by now, after all the hikes I've been on?
"I don't think I'm gonna be able to make it," he gasped. My spirits sank, but I climbed on, hoping the end was soon. Then suddenly as I rounded a hill I did a double take and a scream for joy, dropped my backpack, and went running back to Tran.
Tran was panting, head hung. I grabbed his arm and started pulling as we continued. "I've got something to show you at the top of this hill." I pulled him up that hill (quite a lot of effort, to be sure) and then--
"What? What is this?"
"We're at the top!" I yelled at him, pointing at the plaque that was sure proof. "Ha ha ha!"
Amazing view. Unparalleled in any direction. To the South, the whole Inland Valley, spreading out miles and miles, Los Angeles, every city--30 miles away, the Santa Monica range of mountains, and beyond that--ocean! Miles and miles, hundreds of miles, of ocean. Catalina stands out clearly. In the Southeast, more mountains, they must be many many miles away, distant snow-capped peaks. To the North, the whole of the High Desert, a view never seen by city folk over these prodigious heights. Miles and miles, so much desert, so many small towns. To the East, more mountains, specifically Ontario Ridge. To the West, endless folds of mountains, Mt. Wilson with its towers glinting blue 21 miles away.
And then, quite a surprise. "Hey! What's that?" I said, noticing little heads just a few feet below, coming up the Southern trail. Two bighorn sheep meandered into view and began eating some plants. We got to see them rather close. We were the only people on the summit that day, though it should have been much more for a Saturday. Just two kids and two goats.
We went down via the Devil's Backbone--which I refuse I travelled down on every summit, though I refuse to tell about it until the final tale. Then, instead of the conventional way of going down from the lodge at Baldy Notch, the ski lift (it wasn't working), or even the long fire road (we did not have time for a three-mile trail), we took the ski trail down. Needless to say, very steep, very slippery--and we ran down the whole way. Have to say that was the worst part of the trail.
We met Joe and Brenda at the waterfall again, and went back to the car. So two out of five had reached the top of the mountain: two goats had accomplished their goal.
3 Tries for the 3rd SummitFor the third time I decided to climb Mt. Baldy the hardest way--from Mt. Baldy village. 5900 feet up in 3 horizontal miles--this is the second steepest one-mountain trail in the whole San Gabriels (second to Iron Mountain). I decided to give it a try.
And yes, it's true, it did take three times until I finally reached the top for the third time. But the two times I did not make it were not because it was too hard. I could have done it, if certain...things...did not happen. Read on.
I Know It's Supposed to be Steep, But...
I took my good friend Chris on his very first hike on this trail (wow, what kind of friend am I?). The first part of the trail meanders on a paved road through a stunningly beautiful river canyon, one of the prettiest I have ever seen. The area is beautiful, green, and cool, and the trees, all kinds of alder and pine, are taller than about anything I have seen--in fact, 100 feet from the trailhead lies the tallest bigcone douglas fir in the world: 145 feet tall, named "Old Glory," growing right next to a cabin, with an explanatory plaque on the side of the road.
In about 1/2 mile the paved road ends, leading to a trail that begins switchbacks, still alongside the beautiful canyon. Chris and I walked along this trail until the canyon seemed to end....Then, seeing what looked like a trail (maybe, wow, is it really going to be that steep?) going North, we turned off and climbed. Literally. Hands and feet, we scrambled. This was insane. Chris was having real troubles, mostly stomach-related: he had eaten bad food the night before. To make matters worse, we were suddenly climbing through an area that had recently been burned....The ground was all ash and soot, and the usual chaparral was replaced by blackened sticks in the ground, filthying whatever they touched. We climbed and climbed, not making much progress. Then all of a sudden a trail intersected our route. Oh. What we were walking on wasn't a trail at all. I sat there, waiting for Chris to catch up.
What happened next was a very foolish and pointless game of running back and forth, trying to figure out what was going on with the trail. When Chris caught up, I told him to go East, and I would go West. I would see whether my route led to Bear Flats, a little meadow we were supposed to pass after 2 miles, or would continue to go up, and be the correct trail. He would go the opposite way (I figured his way would be the right way to get to the top), and then I would turn around at some point and catch up to him going the other direction. This admittedly stupid plan makes me very embarassed right now.
We followed the plan, and I found that my way was going mainly flat, and back into the river canyon, though several hundred feet up from it. In fact, the trail didn't seem like it was going to Baldy or to Bear Flats. I was confused, so I went the other way.
I met up with Chris. "I just came from Bear Flats." Now I was really confused. Then more stupidness began. "Okay, you go the way I just came from, and I'll go down your way (why? I don't know. Was I afraid it really wasn't Bear Flats?), then turn around and catch up to you." So I did. It was indeed Bear Flats, Chris wasn't lying. I turned around to catch up to him.
Something very amusing to see were the Post-It notes that Chris had written and planted on rocks and ferns. "11:39. I'm hungry." "11:46. Heard weird zapping noise from across the way." "11:52. Getting scared of loud noise." Great stuff.
I caught up to Chris, and we ascended the trail together. The little creek petered out quickly, and, strangely, so did the trail. That's not supposed to happen. We got very confused, and so ended up climbing a little hill and eating lunch in a beautiful pine-dotted meadow.
The joy was in the journey on this trip, and in the views. In all my times hiking, I have never felt so secluded, so far from civilization, than on that trip. We were on something that wasn't even a trail, just wandering in the wilderness, a wilderness virtually undisturbed and very rarely seen by man. The silence and feeling of peace was great in the meadow and along little conifer-covered canyon. We went back home having had a great day, even if we had just gotten hopelessly lost.
Second Time--Disappointing, But Still Beautiful
More bad decisions the second time round. My friend James came with me this time. I love this guy, he's a great friend, but he would definitely be willing to tell you himself that he is the about the laziest person there is at Claremont High. His favorite thing to do in the world is sleep, and it is expected that he will be very late to school almost every day (doing guess what? sleeping). And I took him for the 2nd hardest hike in the San Gabriels.
He did have quite a bit of trouble, but to his credit, he put in great effort. This was just a bad trail for him. We climbed past the paved road, and I found the spot where we had gone off trail the first time. We went straight when we should have zigged. So we zigged and went up, the trail emerging above the canyon into chapparal and great views of Sunset Peak. James was huffing and puffing, and going at an intesely slow pace.
We did reach Bear Flats, a beautiful little meadow. Apparently it was burned in the recent fire, for the ground was covered with ash, but it was hard to tell because of the bright green ferns everywhere and the blue wildflowers. We made it 1/3 of the way to our goal, but James could go no further--and I could not go 4 miles ahead of him, leaving him panting behind. But, we did have about 5 hours before my dad was scheduled to pick us up. In other words, we were stuck for quite a while.
The miracle of this trip was that, on a whim, I climbed along the trail about 50 feet higher, where I had a clear view of the towers on Sunset Peak. Then I pulled out my phone and called dad. Who would think I could have service so high up and so many miles from civilization? The phone rang. My dad answered. In an hour we were back in the parking lot, and my dad was waiting.
A good trip--not the adventure I was expecting, but time spent in the mountains, and who can ask for better? Then James and I went to go see "Dark Knight." So all in all, a very good day.
Casey's Grand Adventure
Of course I had to go back. I wouldn't let the mountain beat me, especially not with such lame reasons for not finishing. So in May of the same year, I took Chris again, and another wonderful friend, a very tall, athletic, spirited blond named Casey. This was the third attempt, and all the factors were in place--a beautiful day, I knew where the actual trail was, and strong friends.
We eagerly started, passed the paved road, began the switchbacks....We met a ranger on his way down from Bear Flats with encouraging words for us: "You guys are on a death march." Great omen. And now Casey was panting and puffing, muttering about forgetting his inhaler. Uh oh. Casey. We can do this, right?
We reached Bear Flats. 1/3 of the way there. Onto the "actual" steep part. Up, up, up through scorched chapparal. It was beginning to get rather hot. It started to feel like a death march...Casey was rather far behind; every few minutes Chris and I stopped to wait up for him.
I don't know how we got so far. I really don't. The trail only got harder and harder. Up, over one huge ridge we emerged, the chapparal suddenly replaced by forest groves, Jeffrey and sugar pine, lots cooler. Another huge ridge we climbed, the trail becoming impatient, deciding it didn't need to switchback, and so often going straight up, as steep as it could, over the large hills. Casey was running wholly off of a steadily diminishing reserve of determination but yet a full tank of prayer power. And he began doing what you should never do on any peak--he cursed the mountain. He muttered and ranted oaths against it: "I hate you, I hate you, I hope you fall down!" Never, ever a good idea. Things can't get easier once you've cursed the mountain.
Onto the "Hardscrabble" pitch--gravelly scree, not much tree cover, steep slopes dropping down thousands of feet on both sides. One ridge after another. Casey was falling severely behind. I was getting panicked, for there was no way we could not finish this time. And I wasn't being melodramatic, my dad would meet us at the ski lift parking lot, meaning we literally could not turn back, for we would have no ride waiting for us at the Baldy Village trailhead. And we were fast running out of time.
I dropped my pack at the top of a large hill, not knowing how far it was until the summit, and turned back. The hills were wearing me out too, I did not know if I had the energy for this...I grabbed Casey's arm and pulled him up the large hill, then collapsed onto the gravel. Whew! That effort wore me out! I had little left in me, but there was still a way to go. I recognized where we were--the saddle at 9200 feet. I estimated still a steep mile-and-a-half to go. I urged the others on.
I went on and on, and the others fell further and further behind,Chris staying with Casey. I was about out of strength, wondering what was going to happen--when I emerged over the top. About ten people chattering loudly up there on the nice hot day. Without so much as a look at the view, I turned around, dropped my pack, and went for the others. After I had gone some ways down, but still in view of the summit, I realized with despair that I would have to go back up everything I had just come down. The thought hit me so hard that I layed down on a rock and went to sleep.
A half hour later my friends awoke me, and we stumbled on, all so exhausted that we were running just off the thought that it would be over soon. We climbed the last slope in a chain--I gripped Chris's arm, and he gripped Casey's, and we halted forward--here a little, stop, there a little. Then we emerged together over the top, and there was nothing so great as that satisfaction. Beautiful view, what an adventure! No vista so great as from the top of the highest peak in the range. Such a clear day. Three started out, three made it to the top and back down. Such accomplishment, such unity for the three of us. A great way to end the second hardest peak in the range--down the Devil's backbone, then riding the ski lifts, Casey screaming most of the way (he has a hilarious fear of flying). Good times, wonderful mountain. Thanks, Mt. Baldy, for all the adventures.