Saturday, September 29, 2012

Icy Hiking Conditions in the San Gabriels

Hiking and backpacking have long been two of my greatest passions in life. As a student in Baltimore, a buddy of mine and I made a ritual of spending our entire spring break hiking the Appalachian Trail, which runs the entire length of the east coast.
Our spring break was a week and, in that time, we would traverse an average of forty miles or so of it, covering a stretch of it that went from Pennsylvania down into Shenandoah, by the time we graduated. It was, without a doubt, some of the finest times of my life and we saw some great historic Civil War sites such as Harper's Ferry. After graduation, I kept my hobby up, next taking on the Grand Canyon with another friend.
A year or so back, I joined up with a hiking club, based here in southern California. In the brief time that I have been with this club, I have tackled a number of local mountain peaks; Mt. Baldy, San Gregornio, Cucamonga Peak and Black Rock, to name a few.
Prior to all this, as a boy, I hiked the hills and mountains of the San Gabriels quite a bit, as I grew up in southern California and only went to college back east. These mountains were my back yard. The same is true, I suppose, of a great many people who go up into these mountains on a regular basis, so it's easy to understand that the change in hiking conditions, during certain times of the year, could catch people by surprise.
During the last five years or so, from about the end of October through about March, I'd say, conditions in these mountains are not just snowy but also icy. This ice shows up in un-expected places as large, hard packed sheets that literally form ice chutes that stretch down the side of a mountain.
I had first hand experience with this a few years back; I had decided to take a solo hike up to the IceHouse Saddle. The IceHouse Saddle is a ridge that you pass through on the way to Mt. Baldy or some of the other peaks in this area. I took the IceHouse Canyon Trail that begins just outside of Mt. Baldy Village.
This is a picturesque trail that runs by a stream with small waterfalls and large pine trees. You ascend through a canyon, so all around you are the beautiful mountain peaks covered with fur trees and the deep blue sky above. I knew that the Saddle was much cooler than the base of the climb and that there would likely be patchy snow. I made it there for lunch and to enjoy the excellent view.
It was windy and cold, with patches of snow around just as I had anticipated. Just before one reaches the Saddle, there is a fork in the trail where another trail takes you back to the same trail head at Mt. Baldy Village but via a route that travels the upper ridge of the mountains and then descends during the last bit, into the trail head where you started.
I elected to take this 'upper' trail back. Things were fine until I came to a huge sheet of ice! Fortunately, I recognized the danger before I attempted to trudge across. Luckily, I had a walking stick with me, so I used it to carve footholds in the ice. This was, by no means, a flat walking surface you understand, but a steeply slanted plane of solid ice, probably a hundred yards or more wide!
It took me more than an hour to cross, slowly digging out holes to step in, knowing that if I made one misstep, I would go shooting down the mountain slope like a human bobsled until I smashed into a tree or a rock. It was very stressful and not fun at all.
I was lucky to make it back and, by then, it was getting dark. I was so stressed-out and exhausted that I tripped and fell on my face just before getting back to the parking lot! At least I didn't go sliding down the mountain and I landed on the hardest part of my body; my head, so I wasn't hurt substantially.
Obviously, some factors took me by surprise, but obviously as well, I did a few dumb things, one of which was hiking alone. Joining a hiking club has remedied this. It's good to have the judgment of other experienced hikers no matter how experienced you yourself are. With all those people around you are not likely to get hurt or lost and there's always someone there who has been there or experienced certain conditions before.

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