'Ol Iron Mountain has been on the tick-list for awhile now. Being an avid weekend warrior/armchair hiker, how could it not be? With phrases like "toughest hike in the San Gabriels" being touted with its lofty summit, how could one not be intrigued?
Well, I finally had a good enough reason to make my way over there this past weekend, Saturday, June 25, 2011. I had listed Iron Mountain in my series of training hikes for a possible dayhike of the Presidentials in New Hampshire. Iron would be a good test to see how I fared with substantial elevation gain in a single day, so I was excited to see how I felt during and after the hike...
Partners and the Weather...
As most SP'ers in the CA forum know, I posted a thread seeing if anyone was interested in trudging up Iron sometime in June.
No one seemed interested.
I had asked some of my hiking buddies of mine, but it seemed like everyone had something going on, was too out of shape, or just plain didn't want to go.
We had been experiencing some phenomenally cool weather for June in Southern CA, and I was hoping it would last until I had time to head up Iron's south ridge. In fact, on Father's Day there was significant cloud cover for most of the day and temperatures in the 60's! Peeeeerrrrrrrrrfect.
Unfortunately, that's not exactly how the 25th of June worked out. It was sunny for the majority of the day and supposed to be in the low 80s. Not exactly ideal for slogging up a south facing slope with little shade, but it was the coolest day listed within a 5 day span, so I decided it was now or never.
My packing for Iron was last minute. I had just gotten home from a trip the night before, and I didn't have a vast amount of time on my hands. My pack looked something like this:
Backpack: Golite Gust
Water: 8 liters in 3 separate platypus style hydration bladders
1 light rain jacket (for POSSIBLE wind)
10 essentials bag
4 peanut butter bars and 10 gus
GPS and map
Other than that I made sure I brought my gators for all the loose stuff bound to try it's way into my shoes, a hat and sunglasses, and was ready for the morning.
East Fork to Heaton Flat
Most of the time I'm heading up Azusa Canyon is for going to the West Fork of the San Gabriel River to do some fly fishing. I always forget it's takes a little longer to head over to the East Fork. Despite waking up at 3:50am, and due to some delays with making coffee, lack of sleep, and forgetting a couple of things, I wasn't able to start hiking until 5:30am. My original goal was to begin hiking by 5am and finish by noon.
Arriving at the East Fork trailhead a little after 5am, the parking lot was already full. There were even some people SLEEPING right in the parking lot, nearly in the driving portion of the parking lot. After a not-so-brief call of nature, I was heading up the Heaton Flat Trail.
The first part of the trail is pretty overgrown in spots, and that had me worried about what was to come. I knew the south ridge was a "climber's trail," and therefore technically not maintained. If I was already experiencing overgrowth this low, what was to come higher up?
The other thing I noticed was a multitude of cobwebs that I had to keep wiping off my face. It wasn't until around 6:45am the sun finally crested over Baldy to understand the shear magnitude of all the webs and the insects about. Luckily, however, I was happily hiking in the shade for the majority of the time. Around 7:20am I arrived at Heaton Flat, a full 2 hours after leaving the parking lot. Elevation 4700 feet and covering just over 4 miles with around 2700 feet elevation gain. (The trailhead is right around 2000 feet in elevation according to my GPS software)
Heaton Flat to Iron's Summit - The South Ridge
I pulled my extra 3 liter bladder from pack and tried to find a spot that would remain shaded until I returned. I stacked up some rocks around the bladder, then made the quick descent to the beginning of the ridge proper. By now it was 7:30, and although the sun was out, I was still able to avoid most direct sunlight on this portion of the ridge. I had remembered reading the first 600 feet of climbing were some of the steepest, so I was glad I was feeling comfortable with everything thus far. I was also impressed that the climber's trail was very easy to follow and well defined, albeit loose with lots of broken rocks.
It was at this point I decided on a 10:30 turn-around time if I didn't reach the summit. After cresting the first bump, I was now more or less in the sun for most of the time, and I didn't want to chance getting dehydrated or overfatigued because it seemed like it was heating up quick, and I figured if I wasn't on top by 10:30, giving myself 3 full hours to ascend the ridge, that would be a good sign I should turn around.
The South Ridge.... KEEPS GOING!
About an hour went by, and I was feeling pretty good about my progress. With the weight from the extra 3 liters of water off my back, I felt I was moving fairly quickly given the steepness of the slope. I decided to check my GPS elevation, just to see how "close" to the summit I was. I was figuring I was at least somewhere around 7000 feet at that point, seeing as Iron's summit lies just a tad over 8000 feet. I scrolled through a couple of screens and looked in dismay at the elevation:
Many four letter non-niceties later, I couldn't figure out how I had been hiking on the ridge for right around an hour and STILL have 2500 feet of elevation gain left! From the beginning of the ridge to the summit spans just over 2.5 miles, starting at right around 4550 feet and ending on the summit at 8007 feet above sea level.
I put my GPS away and started looking at some pine trees coming into view.
A Curious Case of Pine Trees...
I'm not quite sure what it was about these pine trees that made me feel better about seemingly not getting to the summit more quickly. Maybe it was because the ridge starts bending and I started getting better views of the San Antonio Ridge.
Maybe it was because the plants started spreading out a little bit instead of always having those dastardly knife-piercing yuccas around every corner? Possibly the sight of pine cones maybe has "holiday effect" that reminds me Christmas?
So does the mind wander whilst amidst the pines in the shadow of Great Iron Mountain. Maybe I was just getting dehydrated? I finally finished my first 2.5 liters of water that I had started drinking at the trailhead. I switched over to my other 2.5 liter platypus bladder, which would have to last me until I got back to Heaton Flat.
Now although I was having all this elation about walking in the pines, it was now getting noticeably hotter. The ridge at this point feels much more like a proper ridge, rather than seemingly scrambling up the side of a slope. The unfortunate part of having the trees spread out is getting the full brunt of the sun.
From Pine Trees to Light Posts
As you continue to head up, up, and up in search of the evasive summit, I think my mind began to wander more than normal, and with the exception of some pictures, I remember very little. Up until this point I was doing the usual amount of complaining to myself, asking myself why-on-earth would any sane person be out here, alone, in the blistering heat, trudging up this god-for-saken hillside kind of nonsense, but between the beginning of the pine trees and the summit I mostly remembering repeating, aside from four letter expletives, THIS THING IS JUST RELENTLESS.
With that said, eventually did top out just before 10am, just shy of 4.5 hours from the trailhead. The first thing I saw on the summit appeared to be a lightpost.
"Now what the hell is that lightpost doing on the summit of Iron Mountain?" I thought to myself. Perhaps someone had run some electricity up here for a night camp and didn't want to bring a lantern? In reality, though, the "lightpost" turned out to be a sign with "W 15" printed on it.
I think I stayed on the summit for maybe 5 minutes, snapped some pictures, looked for a summit log for a total of about 15 seconds - didn't find one - then immediately began looking for a shaded spot to reapply some sunscreen.
Ibuprofen Time - The Beginning of the Descent
In order to try and spare my knees and legs, I decided to pop a couple of ibuprofen before heading for the descent.
My legs were still feeling pretty good, but I knew the way down was going to be rough. Basically you try to maintain a controlled slide on the steeper areas and avoid the yuccas as much as possible. Other than that, plan on getting plenty of scratches on your legs and tripping a couple of times, hopefully not resulting in any type of debilitating injury. I managed to scrape through with 3 trips, lots of scrapes, and some semi-intentional sliding. I only lost the trail once when I should have walked through this one stand of chaparall and decided to go around it. I found myself on a loose, rocky slope descending to Iron's nether-regions, and quickly made the decision to ascend, rightfully finding the trail with no harm done.
Everything was Class 2, with hands for balance only. I had made it back to Heaton Saddle by 11:30am.
I should also note at this point I began to feel the full effects of the sun bearing down. I noticed even coming off the summit around 10am and began constantly drinking nearly the whole descent back to Heaton Saddle. By the time I arrived back at my water stash, I only had about a 1/2 liter left of the 2.5 liters I had switched over to on the ascent.
Water, Serpents, and a Quick Dip
I quickly filled my 2.5 liter hydration bladder with my 3 liter stash. I had about 1 liter extra and tossed it to limit my weight while trying to run. I figured if I made good time, I should be back at the trailhead by 1pm, which wouldn't be too far off of my original goal of 12pm. I didn't run the whole way, but on most section I kept a pretty brisk pace. I came across one snake lying across the trail and came within 6 inches of directly stepping on him before I realized what it was and leaped over it.
I made it back to the river by 12:50, took off my shoes, pack, and shirt, and completely submerged myself in the cool water.
Absolutely amazing. I just sat there for a couple of minutes going over the blur that was Iron Mountain and wondered if I would ever venture up there again... At that moment, though, I was content for the day.
STATS ACCORDING TO MY GPS:
8,458 feet elevation gain
I would recommend the book A Foot and Afield Inland Empire for a description of the hike. I WOULD NOT recommend this hike if it's over 70 degrees. On the descent I had taken off my watch to try and get an accurate reading of just how it was. The thermometer on my watch was fluctuating between and 85 and 95 degrees. Ouch! For those people still looking at doing it during the summer, I would leave around 3am and just sleep at the parking lot. As for water, I drank a total of 6.5 liters on trail plus a liter before I left the car.