The First Time-The Start of an Obsession
It all began with a trip to Allison Gold mine in early November 2008 (that's where we were headed, anyways). My good friend Kyle and I wanted to go on a hike one Saturday, and I chose the mine as a good jaunt. We got a very late start, reaching the trailhead at noon, and so went up the Heaton Flat trail, on and on...the trail got steeper and steeper. Up over one large bump we went, back down, then up, up, up again till we reached what must be a helicopter pad: plastic reflectors glued to rocks on top of this hill.
"Whew! This is steep!" we both thought, "Did it say it would be this bad in the book?" For Trails of the Angeles
is the San Gabriel's Bible, and we relied on it wholly. Being very inexperienced, I had no clue what to look for as the "saddle" the book described, where we would turn left and find the mine. But I could see the mountain hovering above us, a precipitous, immense gray face with stripes of-what could it be? Iron? along its flank. I knew what that mountain was.
"We're going to Big Iron!" I exclaimed. "Not today, but someday I'll be at your summit Iron Mountain!"
"Huh?" Kyle answered.
Time #2-What's more important?
Kyle, pointing at the top, at the "helicopter landing pad," 2nd attempt.
The hiking bible describes Iron Mountain as "by far the least accessible peak in the San Gabriels." It says that Big Iron is the hardest one-peak hike in the whole 60-mile San Gabriel range, going up up 7200 feet in 7 1/2 miles. That number is ridiculous, and I knew it. As I searched the internet for more on this peak, I got more and more scared--and more and more excited. 600 feet of elevation gain on the way back, making the total gain a breathtaking (ha! literally) 7800 feet. I had recently hiked from Mt. Baldy Village to Mt. Baldy, which the book described as the 2nd-hardest hike in the San Gabriels. Could I make this one?
Now it was an obsession. I had
to make it. I had to beat this mountain, for I would not let it beat me, and I wanted to climb all over these mountains. It should not have been urgent, but the mountain was calling me. Ask others, it's no joke, this mountains draws you back, wills you to climb it. It was attracting me, pulling me there...if I could beat it, every other hike would be easy in comparison. And so on a sunny cool day, November 29th, 2008, to be precise, I called Kyle, George, and Jory, and we were soon at the trailhead at 9 in the morning.
The four of us climbed. That was the most painful and difficult experience of my life (thus far, remember, this article still has a way to go). After about a mile, George was in the back, laboring under a backpack with even the kitchen sink in it, dying. And that was the “easy” part of the trail, as it got progressively harder the further you went. We went on about another mile, and everyone was slowing down. We had only just passed the first of the "three hills" section, as I would come to know it, and I thought that perhaps we would not make it the rest of the way at this pace. So I ordered everyone to drop their packs. I let the others go on ahead, as I stayed behind and loaded all the food and water, and nothing else, into my pack.
We then together undertook the hardest part of the trail, a series of ridges. The path climbed an impossibly steep slope to the top of a hill, went back down a shorter one, and then climbed a higher one at an even steeper rate, each time inching closer to the great height, Iron Mountain, our goal. How tall could this mountain be? It still towered above us, and the time got later and later. In fact, it was past time to be heading back. We had to stop in a little saddle covered with the first substantial group of pines we had seen. We had, in actuality failed. We did not know at all how close we were to the top (it looked close) but we were running out of daylight, and had to turn back in order to make it out by dark. There was not enough time in the day to complete this hike!
We had failed. I was furious. How could we? We had tried so hard? I stood at the highest point we were to reach, looking up at the path, fuming. But then I turned around.
It was absolutely silent where we were: no cars to be heard, no airplanes, freeways, nothing. But the mountains were all around, silent, watchful, beautiful, increasing in gentle or precipitous folds in all directions. And to the South, where I was facing, beyond the mountains were the cities, all laid out, more than a mile below, small as ants, and beyond those, more mountains, and beyond those—forty miles from the coast of Southern California, I could see the ocean. Sparkling blue, and in the midst—Catalina Island, and other islands. I looked above, and noticed that the ocean seemed to stretch on forever. I must have been able to see at least a hundred miles into the ocean—so high up was I and such was the clarity of the day.
And then my friends joined me. I felt such a sudden burst of love for them—we had had so much fun along the way. We turned back, talking and rejoicing all the way. My anger had left. This confused me so much. Why was I not angry? I had failed; I had not accomplished my goal. But then I realized something very important, something that has stuck with me ever since. The goal was not to get to the top, the goal was the journey. The goal was to grow closer to friends, to nature and to nature’s God. I realized that it doesn’t really matter where you are on the trail, as long as you end going up. We had not given up; we had tried our best. And thus I had not failed at all: I had succeeded, and won the prize.
Attempt 3--A Good Place to Stop? I Think Not.
View of Mt. Baldy through the trees during the last mile.
It was a wonderful prize, but different from the one I came for. And as we went down, the others just happy to have made it so far, I knew I would come back. Then we met a man who overtook us as we made it back.
"You guys stopped at the saddle? You should've kept going. You were only 1900 feet below the top."
"1900 feet?!" I thought, "That's how far I was? How hard can this mountain possibly be?" that almost thoroughly discouraged me. But not enough to put out the fire, and the sparks kindled after and became a roaring flame, urging me to return...I spent so much time talking about it at school, you definitely would not want to be one of my peers.
The time finally came, the perfect day when there was not too much snow on the summit, a free weekend, on January 19th, 2009. I took Kyle and Chris, and we arrived at the trailhead at 8 AM. We had 7 1/2 hours of daylight, and my physically strongest group yet. Could we do it?
Up, up, up, the trail seemed easier than before. For both me and Kyle. Chris was having trouble, though. In fact, he seemed likely to do what George did: curse the mountain and vow never to go hiking again. (Chris did, in fact, curse the mountain and vowed never to hike it, but he will go hiking elsewhere, thankfully.) We reached Allison Saddle, and onto the hardest part--the last 2 1/2 miles. Actually, I think now is a good time for a more concrete description of the actual trail.
View from the top of the "Warm Up," looking West back at the trail
A quarter-mile meandering jaunt leads down a wide dirt road from the parking lot to the Heaton Flats campground, where a small, intimidating trail branches off and up to the right (East). From there the trail takes long switchbacks through chapparal up to a saddle where Cucamonga Peak and the East is open to view. This 1-mile section of the trail is steep for an "average" trail, and usually puts you out of breath and "breaks in" your legs, starting their burning so they will burn less as you go further. This is the warm-up.
The Slow Rise and Two Hills
View from halfway up the "Slow Rise" section, looking South back at the trail and Glendora Ridge road.
Turning left (North) at the mini-saddle, you switchback slowly but surely up the ridge. This part is steep for a "normal" trail, and switches between East and West side of the first monumental ridge. Looking behind, you will be satisfied to see your progress, seing the trail snake down far below, and further behind, Glendora Ridge Road, which was once high above you, but is now getting lower and lower. Yes! Progress! Then after two miles of this you round a bend and abruptly come to your first view since the start of Big Iron. Gulp. All smug satisfaction gone. There is a long way to go.
View of the second hill, right center.
Thus begins the first two of the Three Hills section. Up, way steep up the first hill, then swooping down. Up, up, up, three times the second hill goes up, levels out, then goes up some more. By this time the landscape starts looking drier, though the rocks are very cool, red and orange, some sparkly. Iron ore! You are now consistently in deserty chaparral, bright green manzanitas everywhere, along with prickly, unfriendly bushes, and the very worst, the yucca. This trail is not well maintained at all, as bushes intrude. You will get at least several scratches from the plants, often including poisoned yucca spikes buried into your skin, often causing thin but inexorable bleeding. Ah! Make it stop!
And in case you have not yet determined to never ever attempt this mountain, you may read on to the next section.
The Third Hill
From somewhere on the Third Wall. Does this give you a clue?
So about two miles from first view of Iron the second hill ends at the "helicopter landing pad" (I have no clue if that's what it actually is) with plastic blue and yellow blinkers. Then the trail descends steeply through a pleasantly cool oak-shaded area. You do not feel pleasant though. "This just means it's going to go up again," everyone thinks.
And it does. At the bottom of this trail you are at Allison Saddle, where a small hard-to-find trail branches off to the left (West)and hugs the mountainside. But our trail now looks like scaling a wall. Yes, up that you go, hands and feet the entire way. When it seems like you are at the top of this particular hill, you are not. It still goes steeply up. But, I think I realized in a yell of frustration, when you are anywhere along this third wall, and yell to the mountains in the Southeast, your voice will travel West along Glendora Ridge road, creating a very nice travelling echo I have yet to hear elsewhere. Good bonus!
This third hill goes on for quite some time, levelling, then climbing steeply up again, and again. You lose track, and often times are consumed with inexplicable bursts of frustration and rage, and you really do want to stop and not take another step. But remember to look behind. By this point, if it is a clear day, you should be able to see the whole Inland Empire stretched out before you, including the diminuitive artificial peaks of LA. Look carefully. Beyond the Santa Monica Range in the South, you should be able to see miles and miles of sparkly ocean. No, it's not some smog effect. It's sparkly ocean. You should see Catalina Island, and other islands (what are they? Anyone know?) besides. And then, a harbor, buildings lining the ocean, docks, and, yes, if it is clear enough, you can see little boats, small as ants, clustered by the harbor. An unparalleled view. Big Bear and others to the East, Mt. Wilson to the West. The picture gets clearer the higher up you go.
The Longest Mile
After about a mile and a half you reach a clearing where the landscape is changed. Pine and scree replace the manzanita. It is a shady improvement. Depending on what time of year you go, snow should start turning up about here. The summit looks close...don't be deceived. There is only a mile left, but this is the about the hardest, longest mile you are likely to see in a long time. This was the longest mile I had ever seen. 1900 feet up in one mile. That's an average
36 percent grade. Completely ridiculous. Isn't it nice how the trail keeps getting harder the further you go?
During the last mile.
This last mile will beat you up. Everyone goes at a snail's pace at this point, one impossibly steep slope after another. If this doesn't make you thoroughly miserable, at least for a moment, then you are made of stern stuff indeed. But if you do have the presence of mind to look around, you are traveling in some of the prettiest country yet. Pines everywhere, and rocks of every hue. White piles of rocks like a ruined temple; orange, red, brown, dusty stuff; and blue, sparkly, striped rocks. More snow too.
Thus went the third trip. We got very far, but the last mile was near impossible. Chris and Kyle had lost the will to go further, and were at a crawling pace, in a daze, ignoring my pleas to hurry. Time was running short, in fact it had already run out. I stopped a large hill ahead of my comrades, in a snow-covered meadow full of pines and purplish-grey spiky bushes. All I knew was that I could see one more hill ahead, and with the way things were before this, there were likely more behind that. I took pictures from there--beautiful view--rested a bit, then turned back, dejected.
On the way back, looking up at the mountain, I could tell where I had stopped at the last. A wide, flat place, and behind it, a very small bump, above which was the very summit. What?! I had come that
close? I was 100 feet, max
, below the top. How could I have stopped? Why didn't I continue? Couldn't I feel I was so close? This was my torment as we came down. And to top it all off, we were back a half hour early. There definitely was time to go to the top.
Number 4--All Odds Against
My obsession grew, needless to say. Nonetheless, determination does not eliminate problems, and these started to pop up rather quickly. Kyle had had enough. He did not want to go back to Iron, unless we were to do it very slowly with no intention of reaching the top. And that was completely out of the question. Chris had sustained enough injuries from his first attempt--he would not return either. And track season had started, meaning that Jory, my only willing partner, either was working on Saturdays or had a track meet. No good at all.
I found a new willing group: Alex, a Boy Scout, Edric, an enthusiast of everything, and Kalyn, whom I had told everything about Big Iron and she was not deterred--on the contrary, she wished to go.
And then more problems, of course. There was not a free weekend in sight, and March was advancing swiftly forward. We would have to skip school to do it.
As I expected, Edric and Alex could not skip school, but fellow Senior Kalyn could, and so on a hazy Thursday Kalyn picked me up, we stopped at the donut store, and rode Glendora Ridge to the trailhead. At 8:30 we started, having 10 and a half hours till dark.
Hot and hazy. Not good conditions for this hike. In fact, the only things I seemed to have on my side this time were time and Kalyn.
Whoops, spoke too soon. "I don't think I'll be able to make it," Kalyn said about a mile and a half from the trailhead, "You shouldn't have taken me. I'll just slow you down way too much." And so on. But none of it was true. She was doing just fine, only a little bit behind me, and that's because I had been through this trail three times before! She had had less experience, and did not know the intense pain was completely normal
. But she was thoroughly discouraged as we entered the three hills section.
I persuaded her (sometimes quite slyly, I would go to the top of a big hill and motion her to join me) to reach the top of the second hill. There I told her that if we went back there would be no other chance for me to climb this mountain (I'm going out-of-state for college next year) and that nothing awaited us back at the car except the possibility of going back and catching some of school. But I told her the choice was hers. If she wanted to go back (it was hard to voice this prospect out loud), I would go back with her. She said that I should go ahead, on to the top, and that she would be following slowly behind. I considered. It seemed a very reasonable plan. I agreed.
I dropped my pack and took out the fanny pack inside, equipped with survival and first aid kit, two water bottles, and naught else, strapped it on, and plunged forward. Up the third hill, onward. Wow, this trail seemed much harder than usual. Was it the 85 degree weather? Yes, this trail is in direct sunlight almost the entire way, and the heat was wearing me out. That third hill and what followed was about at least 5 times harder than any other time. Ow! Was this even possible? I reached the pine tree place completely exhausted. How could I do 1900 more vertical feet? Two water bottles were definitely not enough. I found snow at the pine clearing, put some in my bottle, drank it, lay down, and fell asleep for 5-10 minutes. Then I awoke and continued the climb.
That last mile was too much. I staggered forward, slower than slow, completely beat, noticing nothing of my surroundings. I had to sleep-rest at least twice more, and stopped every couple of feet. I kept filling my bottles with snow and drinking them, but still I felt like blacking out almost the whole mile. That last mile must have taken hours (of course I had left my watch in my backpack, so I had no sense of time).
The snowy purple meadow.
Then I reached the snowy meadow with the spiky plants, and now excited, I plunged forward. Of course this had to involve plunges into deep slippery snow with just sandals, and in places there was no passage through the thorny plants except right through them, paining my feet and legs badly. Then suddenly ahead of me was the last slope, very, very steep, paved with blue sparkly striped rocks.
The very last hill.
Adrenaline took over. There was no exhaustion (okay, a little) on the last slope, and all of a sudden I emerged over the top and saw no higher mountain above me and the Sierra Club register box.
There is no way to describe the feeling I had at that moment, so naturally, I will try my best to do so.
I forgot everything--all the pain I had endured, any small or large problem I had, I just stared around, stunned. I took pictures of everything, in every direction. I signed my name in the notepad. I was euphoric.
The feeling of euphoria.
I went back for Kalyn. She had reached the pine tree place, having gone up 5300 feet thus far. I had gone up 7200 feet, and there were to be 600 feet of elevation gained on the return trip
. She had gone up 5900 feet, and I 7800. We had both conquered more elevation than any other trail in the San Gabriels.
I took more notice of views like this on the way back.
This made the return trip incredible, instead of distressing like usual because of the slippery, scary slopes flanked by cliffs and the maddening uphills ("No! I've already gone uphill way too much! Make it stop!" But there is no way around it). It is wonderful to have a great friend to talk to the whole way down, and wonderful to hike this trail in the Spring, when certain bushes are blooming, creating a fluff of white along many slopes; when butterflies fly all around, small white ones, orange and black ones, and the magnificent monarchs; when much of the ground has a new light green coating. It was a very hazy day, and the cities and ocean were completely obscured by clouds, but Santa Catalina and other islands poked starkly through the clouds, creating a beautiful picture. There was the usual protest of the limbs, but there was the sense of triumph overriding all pain. I could not help looking back several times at Big Iron, yelling, "So long! I beat you! 7800 feet, and you are finaly conquered!"
We rocked the mountain. It was definitely worth it to be spiked up, sunburnt to a crisp and sore for days just to beat that prestigious mountain.