The Trip Report
The trip began at Heaton Flats with Mark J and me at 5:07 when it was light enough that we did not need headlamps. This was the first time Mark had been to Big Iron; this made the 6th consecutive year I had been there at least once, but this was my first trip across San Antonio Ridge. We are not the youngest nor the fastest of hikers (I am 54, Mark is 61), so our estimated time for the trip was 6-7 hours to get to the summit of Iron Mountain, 4-5 hours to get to the summit of Mt. Baldy, and 2.5 hours to get down via the ski hut trail. Although I had wanted to leave earlier, the compromise start time would allow Mark to see the first leg of Iron Mountain. Also, we had been to Mt. Baldy the week before to scout the route down to the ski hut, and we felt confident it was doable at night with a headlamp, if need be, so we felt reasonably comfortable with our plan, the only uncertainty being the leg from Iron Mountain to Mt. Baldy. Finally, in terms of preparation, Mark and I had been hiking every Saturday on a fairly regular basis, travel plans and illness interruptions aside, for several months. So we were ready for an adventure, and that is exactly what we got!
The initial part of the trail up from Heaton Flats is relatively easy hiking, with good scenery, and there is thick forestation off to the southern part of the valley going up to Allison Saddle. As one looks back down the trail and across the East Fork River from the early going you can see a series of distinctive areas that have a triangular or half circle shape above a cut-out road (see photo IMBT1); these distinctive areas will be visible later from Iron Mountain and will be a visual marker to where the hike began. After turning left at Allison Saddle, there is still a well defined trail that proceeds up a series of ridge “bumps.” There were a fair amount of flowers in bloom and it was shaping up to be a nice day, with the bees just starting to come out as we passed through the bumps. There is a road off to the right across the valley and on the opposite ridge that is distinctive and visible all along the hike from here on to the summit. The last bump has reflectors strategically placed on a cleared, relatively flat portion of it. I speculate this may be some type of helicopter landing area that is marked by the reflectors (see photo IMPT7A). (Does anyone know?) After passing these reflectors, the trail goes left and then down a hill to a little valley right before the beginning of the first steep hill on the south face of the ridge going up to Iron Mountain. This marks the transition from the easy part of the ascent to the harder part of the ascent. It also marks the end of a maintained trail and the beginning of a use trail.
The trail up the South Face of Iron Mountain is initially steep and crumbly, then gains a ridge, and goes over another series of ridge bumps. As the elevation increases, you eventually get into areas with pine trees and then you will come out into a small sloping plateau filled with buckthorn through which you proceed to a rocky hill that marks the last gain until the summit.
After we got past the first steep hill on the South Face of Iron Mountain I became concerned that I was missing a liter of water. Upon checking my pack, it was confirmed that I only had 6 liters of liquid (4 Gatorade), instead of the 7 I thought I had. This was our second glitch, the first being that Mark forgot to bring his headlamp. We continued on our way and proceeded on to summit Iron Mountain, arriving in 6 hours and 10 minutes, well within our plan. So we were feeling very good about things on the summit of Iron Mountain.
Although one can look at pictures of the view from Iron Mountain, they simply cannot do justice to the panoramic view. It is unimpeded for 360° and is truly spectacular. I really love this view and am always drawn back to this mountain; we are fortunate indeed to have such a resource so close to us in Los Angeles. We were blessed with panoramic views without much haze when we reached the summit. We had a snack and enjoyed the view for about 20 minutes and then headed toward San Antonio ridge from the summit. It is relatively easy to progress down from the summit to the beginning of San Antonio ridge from the summit.
It really is best to stay on top of the ridge. We made a decision to initially go a little to the right, but quickly decided that was ill-advised, and got back on its top. The initial ridges and bumps are not terribly difficult, but they are slower than trail or use hiking. They provide a chance to get in the flow of this segment of the hike, which is much different than anything else we encountered during our trip. One does have to be careful of loose rock and rock fall (see, e.g., picture IMBT30). It is best to let one person proceed and get clear, and then have another follow at many different points.
We soon came to some notches that proved a little more challenging. When approaching what turned out to be the second to last notch, picture IMBT37, the route is to go over the tree, down the incline, and then progress around the right side where one will find a ledge that is not really difficult to negotiate when one is facing into the rock. After we did this notch we thought it was Gun Sight Notch and felt pretty good about San Antonio Ridge. What was all the fuss and talk of Class 4 rock? Our elation proved premature, however, when we reached the real Gun Sight Notch. It was very demoralizing to realize we had something even harder ahead and that we were not done. We looked carefully at Gun Sight Notch. You could see a way down 5-10 feet that did not look too bad; trouble is, you could not really see what was below that. And, having never been here before, the question was how should we proceed? I thought it looked a little dicey. This was enough to convince Mark we should go below, especially since this was his first real foray into this type of situation, and it was already proving more than he had bargained for. (We both had scoured trip reports prior to this trip to try and get a feel for what we would be facing; based upon pictures he saw, he thought it would not be so bad. When faced with reality, he thought the pictures had not let him appreciate the magnitude of the situation. So, if one does this route with no experience on this type of rock, be forewarned.)
The fact that there is a traverse of Gun Sight Notch is a good thing. By this point the thought of turning back was not an option at all. We went down a fair distance on the right side, then angled up some, through some rocks, and then regained the ridge after the notch. Along this traverse, and looking back, the portion we bypassed does not look so bad, at least from a distance. But there is no room for error and, for a first time experience, I am glad we did the much safer traverse. The only problem with this route was time and the fact that my poles would not collapse completely, which meant it was very difficult to get through some of the bushes where the extended poles kept on catching. (I’ll have to take the poles back to REI.) Another big problem during all of this was that I lost a full Gatorade bottle from my outside pocket while down climbing. The minute it popped out and fell off the edge I was more than upset; I would have climbed down the cliff edge to get it if it had stopped and I could see it, but it was gone. I knew instantly that this would be a problem, and not a small one. Also, I could not believe I had let it happen. I remember reading that this had happened to somebody else, so I knew better. The trouble was, however, that I wanted access to liquid during the San Antonio Ridge, so I kept a bottle in the outer pocket, and when I got to a down climbing situation where it was obvious, in retrospect, that a bottle could come loose, I forgot to secure the bottle inside my pack. This is example of “knowing” something from a knowledge standpoint that you read about and really “knowing” something by virtue of personal experience. So, anyone reading this and making the traverse, you now have two trip reports warning you of this hazard. Don’t become a third statistic.
After we went up the other side of the ridge from Gun Sight Notch we found a nice shaded area in pine trees with a fantastic view where we rested and took stock of our liquid situation. Mark dubbed this spot the King’s Chair for the view (see picture IMBT46). We checked our liquids. I now had 2 liters; Mark had 6 pint bottles. Given that Mark was feeling flush with water, and I was still upset about my loss, he gave me a bottle, which I quickly gulped down without a breath. (This means we each only ended up having 5.5 liters of liquid apiece for this trip, which was not enough.) After a short rest and enjoyment of the spot, we proceeded on. Although we considered eating something, and probably should have, neither of us felt very much like eating at this point. I think we left this spot 2 ¾ hours after leaving the summit of Iron Mt.; Mark thinks it may have been an hour more.
Having now crossed the difficult portion of San Antonio Ridge, we thought we were in good shape. But there were more ridges and distances to cover. Plus we still had over 2,500 ft. of elevation gain to achieve. As we crossed these ridges we tried to stay left to avoid brush. A good portion of the effort on these ridges involved keeping out of the brush. Given that the difficult portion of San Antonio Ridge was completed, we were still feeling good about things, but recognized we still had some distance to cover to summit Mt. Baldy.
As we finally finished the ridges and approached the continuous up slope to Mt. Baldy Mark found what appeared to be a slight use trail. We started taking this to the right. In retrospect we should have ignored this and proceeded left up the mountain, and I am sure we would have been fine. After awhile following the footsteps, I became concerned that this was taking us too far out of the way and that we needed to be going up instead of traversing around the mountain, so we left it and started up. We gained several hundred feet of elevation during slow going, having to avoid the brush. It was during this segment that we came to prefer buckthorn over Manzanita. While the buckthorn may get you with the thorns, at least it is thinner and easier to get through. Eventually we got to a point where the brush was just too impenetrable to make any real progress, and now we had several real problems. We were running very short of water, we were tired and we were starting to run out of time. Plus, our energy was low, and we didn’t feel like eating, especially since our food was dry (sandwiches and bars) and we could not spare the liquid we would need to choke something down. (I have decided I am going to have to make a serious effort at finding better food sources I will actually eat, and maybe I’ll reconsider Gu or something else.) Facing an ugly realization that all was not well and that we had wasted much time and energy on a wrong track, we sat down to take stock of the situation. Going up any further on the current track was not a viable option, so we would have to go back down to where we began, despite the significant amount of time we had invested in getting to where we were. The next question was what to do when we got back to our start. We could either retrace our steps further, back to where we should have just gone up the mountain to the left, or we could follow the footsteps further traversing the mountain until we could find a new route up. We made the decision to continue following the footsteps, after at least one further stop for reflection heading back down, because we could see a ridge that looked free of brush further on down the same direction.
In trying to figure out what went wrong on this segment, after the fact, it is now my opinion that we ended up in the exact wrong position to proceed up. Picture IMBT54 has a triangular appearance of darker material that points toward the top of the mountain and the center and right sight of the top point appears thick in bush. This is where I think we were. Looking at this picture, if we would have gone left initially, we should have been okay and all would have been well. Also looking at this picture, you can see the ridge outside and to the right of the triangle—this is what we ended up ascending. Looking at a topo it is clear that we managed to make a big detour to the south of San Antonio Ridge that then put us in a position of having to ascend much steeper terrain, loosing much time and expending much effort, making everything far more difficult than it should have been.
The ridge we ended up taking did not have a brush problem. It was steep and often had rock fields/talus sections, as well some steep crumbly sections where keeping your footing was not always easy without careful placement on a rock to avoid sliding back. Now we were very tired, and somewhat apprehensive, and very thirsty, which probably made our performance that much worse. It was after 6 o’clock and our confidence was shaken. I had resigned myself to the fact that darkness was going to be an issue, but we simply could not spare any more water, as we were both down to a pint, and I told Mark not to drink any more water until we were on top of Baldy so we at least had some in reserve. Mark kept thinking we were just about there when we approached a ridge top; I knew better from my altimeter watch. By this time the going was very slow and rest stops became frequent.
As we gained altitude I thought that we should end up linking up with the Bear Flat Trail which I had done before, so I thought that obtaining that trail would put us back on a trail, and get us out of the unpleasant situation we were in. We did eventually end up obtaining a trail, by which time the sun was setting (see picture IMBT55 taken from the trail), which we took up to West Baldy. We were crossing from West Baldy to Mt. Baldy without a headlamp, as there was still enough light for a portion of the traverse, and then we got to a large rock I recognized from the weekend before when we were scouting this area. The week before we had gone from this rock back to the trail down the ski slope as a shortcut, so I thought let’s do it again. Another mistake. As we were doing this, we lost all light and switched to our one headlamp, and we ended up missing the trail, leading us to wander around trying to find it, completely divided among ourselves as to its correct direction.
A very good point of all this was an absolutely incredible view from Mt. Baldy. The LA lights were unobstructed and beautiful; a real sight to behold. The air was crisp and you could see forever. It made it all worthwhile and is something I will never forget. Plus, one is far less thirsty out of the sun in the evening.
We spent some time looking for the trail and disagreeing over the appropriate course of action now. I was concerned that the direction Mark wanted to go might be taking us toward Baldy Bowl, which I definitely did not want to accidently venture into at night. When we finally agreed we were not sure where we were, we agreed to stay put, as we were both tired and lacking any better course of action. We were at 9,750 ft. by my altimeter watch and the chill was setting in. We set up an improvised bivouac under a low spreading pine and began to settle in, something I never really thought I would have to do, but something Mark mentioned to his son might be a possibility if things went poorly. (Mark had long thermal pants, so he was not totally unprepared.)
We rested for an hour. Mark said he did not sleep and I snored for a moment or two. The rest did us good. The thought of spending the night on top of Baldy was not all that appealing and, with the new vigor provided by this rest, I thought we should go up to the summit of Mt. Baldy and either try to find the trail again or go the much longer route of Devil’s Backbone and then the fire road down to our second car, a prospect I did not really want to do. So we packed everything back up, took stock of our 4 ounces of water each, and went up to the summit. Once we were at the summit, we were easily able to find the trail back down, which we followed with one headlamp and light from a half moon, making everything slower. We started from the bivouac at approximately 10:45 and made it to our second car at 2:15 am. I think this is what one labels as an epic. But, as we said when we started this trip, it was an adventure, and we made it back to tell about, mistakes and all.
Suffice it to say, this trip is much harder than simply doing Iron Mt. from Heaton Flats. I’ve read that this trip has a 10,000 ft. gain and is 16 miles. If this is so, we know that the mileage from Heaton Flats to Iron Mountain is 7.5 miles and from Baldy via ski hut trail to the road is 4.25 to 4.5 miles, leaving only 4 miles or so for San Antonio Ridge to Baldy. It is hard to understand why so much time was lost on the approach up Baldy. It has a twilight zone type feel to it. I still don’t understand where all of that time went. Stuff happens.
Now that a few days have passed since the trip, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if we had started at 3 am, carried more water and better food, and kept to the left ascending to Baldy summit. I think the result would have been much different. That will be my next trip.
As an aside, we never saw a single person during this trip, nor did we see any animal larger than a reptile. However, for fun, I have included two photos of a bear I saw after an earlier trip hiking Iron Mt. from Heaton Flats. The bear was alongside San Gabriel no. 1 reservoir on Highway 39. The bear was mature and the pictures were taken from about 10-12 feet away out my open car window.
The following is an index of the photographs attached to this trip report. All photos are labeled with Iron Mt Baldy Traverse and then a number, the lowest number being at the beginning of the trip, the highest number being at the end. All photos that also have a letter after a number were taken on a different trip, but the number in their location indicates where they were taken relative to the photos from this trip. Some comments on the photos follow.
1This is probably within the first mile, looking back toward the start. Note the distinctive areas above the road.
2The heavily forested area is seen in the left of the photo. This is just shy of the saddle.
3Taken at the saddle.
4View of Mt. Baden Powell
5Yucca plant in bloom along ridge bumps. Taken looking right toward the prominent road.
6This photo is for context. It is taken along the ridge bumps. Do you see the path? That’s the point.
6AThis is along the same ridge bumps, taken on another trip. If you look carefully you can see a path.
7Looking at Iron Mountain and south ridge approach from the ridge bumps.
7ATwo of the reflectors on the last ridge bump before heading left and then down of the ridge bumps.
8This is the initial south ridge hill and probably the steepest part of the ascent to Iron Mountain.
8AAnother view of the initial south ridge hill; you can sort of make out the use trail up this.
8BLooking up the initial south ridge hill from the low point.
9This is at the low point, looking back toward the start. The ridge bumps are visible beginning at the left of the picture, about midpoint, extending across to a little more than the middle of the picture.
9AA portion of the initial south ridge hill; a person is visible in the top third center of the picture on further up the use trail.
10This is a view in the same direction as picture 9, but with elevation gain up the initial hill of the south ridge.
11This picture shows you some of the ridge bumps of the south ridge, looking back. You can also see a portion of the initial ridge bumps and, as well as the prominent road on the further ridge.
12A view of the beginning of the San Antonio ridge on the approach up to Iron Mountain.
12AA view of Mt. Wilson from the south ridge approach to Iron Mountain.
12BA close up showing the prominent road, looking down from the south ridge approach to Iron Mt.
12CA close up from the south ridge approach to Iron Mt. showing the distinctive areas from photo 1.
12DThis is looking back from the south ridge pretty far up once you are into the trees.
12EThis is pretty near the top of the south ridge approach to Iron Mt.
13This is just shy of the plateau near the top of the south ridge to Iron Mt. Note this is not really very steep at all.
14This is the plateau. Note the buckthorn. Luckily, there is a use path through the buckthorn.
14AThis is taken from Iron Mt. summit looking down the last little distance to the summit. Note the width here, which is the width of the flat summit.
15Summit view looking toward the ocean. Note the initial ridge bumps and prominent road in the distance.
16Summit view looking toward Mt. Wilson.
17Summit view looking toward Mt. Baden Powell.
18Mark J. on summit, Mt. Baldy in background.
19Myself on summit, Mt. Baldy in background.
20Summit view looking at Mt. Baldy.
21-23Summit stitch views looking toward the ocean, 21 being left, 22 center, 23 right.
23ASummit view on different visit to Iron Mt. looking toward ocean.
23BView from summit looking down back of Iron Mt. toward East Fork River. Note the incredible drop off.
23CAnother summit view of different visit to Iron Mt. looking toward ocean.
24The approach to San Antonio ridge a little way down from the summit.
25Looking up toward the first ridge bump of San Antonio ridge.
26Looking back to Iron Mt. summit the ridge bump of photo 25.
27Moving along the beginning of San Antonio ridge going toward Mt. Baldy.
28Moving further along the San Antonio ridge going toward Mt. Baldy.
29A view looking left and down off the San Antonio ridge.
30A relatively easy, and fun, portion of the San Antonio ridge, looking back at Mark approaching after I am out of the rock fall area.
31This is a slight down climb on the right (coming from Iron Mt.). There is a nice ledge here to proceed on once you down climb from a small tree. Not really very difficult, but the beginning of more serious work in traversing the ridge.
32A view along San Antonio Ridge looking toward the desert.
33A view looking along San Antonio Ridge toward Mt. Baldy.
34A view looking back along San Antonio Ridge showing some of the bumps crossed.
35A view from San Antonio Ridge looking toward road entrance to Baldy Village.
36A view looking forward along San Antonio Ridge before a notch.
37A view now looking down the area to be down climbed on a notch of San Antonio Ridge.
38A view looking back at the down climb area of the notch of photo 37.
39A close up of the down climb area of photo 38.
40A view toward Mt Baden Powell from “the King’s chair.”
41Looking back at San Antonio Ridge before getting to Gun Sight Notch.
42Looking across Gun Sight Notch toward Mt. Baldy.
43A close up looking down Gun Sight Notch.
44A view looking toward the ocean during the beginning of a down traverse around Gun Sight Notch on the right side.
45A view looking up at the crux of Gun Sight Notch during a down traverse.
46A view looking toward Mt. Baden Powell after traversing Gun Sight Notch and returning to San Antonio Ridge.
47A view looking toward the ocean after traversing Gun Sight Notch, taken from San Antonio Ridge.
48Mt. Baldy coming into view from San Antonio Ridge.
49A thin traverse ridge heading toward Mt. Baldy.
50A ridge to the left of the thin ridge from photo 49 that must be followed until one starts up Mt. Baldy.
51Moving up the ridge of photo 50.
52A view of Mt. Baldy from the ridge of photo 50.
53Mt. Baldy coming into view along the approach ridge.
54A good view of the last gain still to be made of Mt. Baldy.
55Sunset from the ridge approaching West Baldy.