A childhood dream come true.
Well, not really. I (finally) climbed Mount Baldy, the impressive bump in the distant sky that I used to look at everyday and dream of climbing. Inspired by the mountain adventures of my best friend Jeff, I spent my entire Friday morning planning for this trip so that absolutely nothing could go wrong. Further inspired by Jeff’s report of a man who bagged ten peaks in the Mount Baldy area in one day (yet ignoring the fact that I am relatively inexperienced), I highlighted all of the surrounding peaks on my map, hell-bent on bagging ten in one go, too: Baldy, Dawson, Harwood, Thunder, Telegraph, Timber, Cucamonga, Bighorn, Ontario, and Sugarloaf.
What a pity I didn’t wake up until 7 AM, thus starting my lonely sojourn up Baldy at a very late 9 AM.
I stroll up the Ski Hut Trail (from Manker Flats) at a steady pace, my self-esteem lifting each time I pass another cluster of hikers: a group of college kids from USC, a Long Beach Sierra Club organization, too many Boy Scouts, and more. After about two hours, “How much further to the top?” I ask a Boy Scout troop leader. We continue a conversation on my plans to get to the top then loop around and climb some more peaks. “Your plans are more than ambitious,” he says, his sentiments echoed by all of the other people I shared my plans with, “but definitely doable. Nothing is impossible.”
“See you guys up there!” I shout back at the people I pass, and, “Have a great day! Happy descent!” to the people coming down.
The top of Baldy is seriously… bald. Bald, cold, and windy. Thick tongues of cold cloud licked me on the way up, then wrapped themselves about me on the top. I hunker down next to a random clump of twenty-something year-olds (my age), share food, and offer up my map. “Think I can do it?” by then, it is already 1 PM, with a gray sky, zero view except to West Baldy and Dawson. I get a resounding peal of laughter. “Yes, but not all of it,” answers one of the guys, eyeing my loose clothing, “and not with what you’ve got.”
With one greedy last glance over at Dawson, I head down the Devil’s Backbone, determined to bag Harwood, then make further decisions at the Mt. Baldy Notch. Overly intent on the trail, and cheering on the gasping people coming up (especially a group of hardcore bikers with their bikes hanging across their shoulders, legs straining up the mountain), I miss Harwood and make it to the Baldy Notch much faster than anticipated, excited by seeing my first-ever ski-lift.
I enter the Ski Lodge, an immediate warmth and aroma of baked food hugging my cold yet sweaty body. “Have a great day guys! Come again!” trumpets a large merry-looking lady, who somehow makes me think of Mrs. Claus.
I walk up to her, “Hi! Are you the owner of this place!”
“Yeah! How’re you doing, honey?”
“Just wondering, where’s the trailhead from here to get to the Icehouse Saddle, and do you think I can make it there in time before Helios moves on?”
I blush. “The Sun God… before the sun goes down.”
“You’re young, it’s mostly downhill, and roughly six miles.” She points out the trailhead. “Be careful! You alone?”
She gives me a piercing look, then repeats, “Be careful!”
I start jogging down towards the trailhead, then from behind me, “Hey honey! What’s your name?”
I’m confused, yet pleased. Of all the people I’ve conversed with today, she’s the first to ask for my name. “Joyce!”
“Just wanted to know… just in case… be careful!”
I clamber up the ugly scree and talus on the large fire road to Thunder Mountain, “Be careful, be careful” and “Go faster, beat Helios” drumming through my mind, gasping as I reach the disappointingly ski-lift dominated top of Thunder, then start jogging down the “3 Ts” trail towards Telegraph. On Telegraph, I’m rewarded by a slight cloud lift, and I devour the beautiful 30-second view, the marvelous expanse of the San Gabriels, immediately veiled again by the tirelessly tiresome gray clouds, which spit some laughter onto my camera lens before moving on to consume the scenery.
Down Telegraph, I run across a small snow-bank that obscures the trail, and temporarily lose my way. I turn 180 degrees. Aha! There it is! I see two trails, one on the top, the other on the bottom. Somehow, I assume that I came from the bottom, and choose the upper path… taking me directly back to Telegraph. Mightily confused, I consult my map and compass, “I was going the right direction…” then realize my impressively idiotic mistake: I’d looped right back to my origin!
I run on and across to Timber, looking down at my watch every 5 minutes. The clouds flit across the sky like large heavy beasts, with random sprinkling occurring more and more often, increasing my worries: not only of losing to Helios, but now by drowning in rainfall.
The final downhill trudge takes me down into a small clearing with four signs and a laminated map, Ice House Saddle. The four signs point to the trail I just came off, Middle Fork Trail, Cucamonga Peak Trail, and Kelly’s camp; there were two parallel unmarked trails. I assumed that the upper trail was the Chapman Trail, the lower as Icehouse Canyon Trail, consulted my map and compass, approximated it slightly off and thinking, “the sun is to my right, so I’m fine,” setting off on the lower trail.
I see another path below me, and more switchbacks below that. Ignoring the rest of the trail and capitalizing on the availability of loose rock, I scree all the way down into the canyon, encountering a massive change in terrain and a small stream: utter green beautifulness. Down in the canyon, it’s already dark and slightly chilly. I can see the light steadily pulling away from the shadowing peak. Against my desire to stop and make photographs, I start sprinting, breaking into a frantic sweaty run.
The water flow is pleasant, the ground soft, coated with pine needles and pillowy fern. I often lose the trail, stumbling into bushes, then rediscover it again. Suddenly, rocks line my path in a clearly man-made delineation of “this is the trail; follow me.” I get excited, taking it as a sign that I am close to the trailhead. After a final twist of the ankle, I shout, “F***!” a loud curse into the darkening twilight, literally stumbling upon a camp of three men sitting around a pot of boiling something and drinking alcohol.
They stare at me as if I’m either God or an alien. “Is this the Icehouse Canyon Trail?” I gasp, “How close am I to the trailhead?”
They look at each other, then back at me, a non-stop smile glittering around the circle. “You’re in the wrong canyon, sister.”
I laugh, nervously, “Don’t joke like that! Really!”
“You’re not joking.”
They shake their heads.
Turns out I went all the way down the wrong canyon; my desired trail is on the opposite side of the mountain I just came down.
“Sorry, sister. You want to stay with us tonight? We’ll take care of you.”
I groan, testing my screaming toes against my battered running shoes, contemplating whether to head back up, risk getting lost again, the plausibility (or impossibility) of hitchhiking a ride back up to Manker Flats from the Icehouse trailhead at such a late hour, etc. I’d originally planned to go home that night, clean up, go visit my parents. But oh, what an adventure! While I’m making my decision, I’m enjoying a lively discussion about alcohol, adventure, and happy mishaps with the three fifty-something year-old men gathered around the pot, and ultimately decide to hunker down and stay with them for the night.
Rick, Scott, and Dave. My saviors. “There’s death in these mountains,” said Rick, “you’re lucky you ran into us!” They’ve been hiking together in these mountains since their teens. “And doing pot since I was 14,”winks Rick. They guzzle down incredible quantities of alcohol. “It’s part of what we do in the mountains,” says Scott, “drink, smoke, and hike.”
We munch on packets of MREs for dinner, then string the remaining food up in a tree so that bears cannot access it. “What if a bear comes to me while I’m sleeping?” I ask, “and what other animals are there here?”
“You have nothing to be afraid of,” answers Rick, “Just always keep in mind that you will EAT whatever comes towards you.” He takes a bite out of his MRE, “Like so.”
I laugh, “But I’m vegetarian!”
The three generously split up their sleeping supplies: I use Rick’s sleeping bag, Scott’s ground-mat, and Dave’s poncho. The 40-degree night still kicks our butts though; we wake up in the morning. “How did you sleep?” The unanimous answer, “I was cold.”
I speed-walk back up to Icehouse Saddle with Rick in the morning; the other two lag behind, hung-over from the previous night’s drunken revelries. From the Saddle, I hike up to Kelly’s camp, taking a quick detour to load up my Nalgene with snow; I’m running out of water. There is no better candy and ice-cream than the sweetness of fresh mountain snow. I then grab Bighorn (stumbling over fallen pines) then Ontario Peak (climbing both the “fake” peak and the peak itself), admiring the beautiful cloudless day, an expansive view that I could not see from yesterday. I visually retrace my previous day’s route, from where I imagined Manker Flats to be, to the top of Baldy, across the 3 T’s, down into the Icehouse Saddle. I limp back down to the Saddle, my legs slightly sore, but growing accustomed to the constant movement; however, my toes pinch against the inside of my shoes.
I take off my shoes when I reach the Saddle, noting purple thumbs and pinkies on both feet, and an unhealed wound on my left foot with dried pus that stuck to my socks. My toes are extremely bruised and painful. I hobble down the Icehouse Canyon Trail, gasping at the pain in my feet and the awesome beauty of the waterfall-dotted, green-spotted canyon, the light a glittering blanket upon the earth.
The lower I descend, the less people respond to my happy “Hi!” I receive less return smiles, less eye-contact, less random little conversations about where I’m going to, coming from, how nice the weather is. Higher up, as Jeff put it, “There’s more hardcore hikers, backpackers, peak baggers, etc. Everyone’s nice.” And the lower you go, “There’s more babies.” I surmise people are closer to the city, still connected to the stressful hustle and bustle of daily life, coming up to the smaller trails for some family time, fish massacring, a small walk with a potential lover, etc. They’re more self-involved. After about six no-responses to my smiling and greeting, I too am pulled into a selfish studying of the ground. My euphoria at being alone and high up in the mountains disappears as I descend back to mundanity, carefully picking each step not to go faster, but to avoid further toe-pain.
I finally reach the trailhead, grumbling to myself, and ill at ease with the world, suddenly looking up and seeing the mountains beaming down at me, remembering my luck the previous night and all of the adventures surrounding this two-day relatively impromptu trip. I smile. One final Baldy adventure for today.
I start my final limping trudge up Mt Baldy Road towards Manker Flats, giving my first ever attempt at hitching a ride. Ten minutes roll by; I’ve stuck my thumb at about seven vehicles already, and am beginning to lose hope. I then see a white truck rolling up the hill, with a panting golden retriever in the back. I grin, and dramatically flourish my head, arm, hip, and thumb at the truck. It rolls to a stop.
I ecstatically fling open the door, “You going to Manker?”
“Yup.” He’s a young man, slightly bearded, a hardy sort of good-looking, seems nice enough. “Hop right in.”
Thus I meet Nathan, who somehow has a lot in common with me: he originated from my place of birth, went to college in the town I grew up in, and now works Mt Baldy’s ski-lifts. I’m fascinated by his job.
“Trust me, it’s not as cool as it seems,” he smiles, “unless you enjoy watching ski-lifts all day… I just passed my EMT training, and will be moving on soon…”
I congratulate him, then explain my interest in his job: I love nature, and have been researching outdoorsy work from being a ranger to a ski-lift operator. The fruit of the job-hunt? I’m going to be a wilderness therapy instructor, taking at-risk youth out backpacking for a week, teaching them wilderness survival skills, letting nature do her thing and heal the youngsters. Nathan gets excited. “I totally get that! I was healed like that!” He reveals that he was a heroin addict back in his younger days, moved to California to start a new life, and got into skiing and snowboarding. “Doing that totally helped me get over my addiction. I’m clean now.” We connect in so many ways in the quick 5-minute ride up to the parking area. I hand him a list of link to various wilderness therapy programs, “You should look into it.”
Nathan shakes my hand again before I hop out of the car. I see him as a sort of angel, same as Rick, Scott, and Dave. His eyes are glowing. “Have a great day, Joyce. It was great meeting you. I hope you help some people change--- I think you will. You definitely will.”