HIKE07: Mt. San Antonio (Old Baldy)

(Hike date:  June 13, 2010)

Four weeks.

That's a long time without practice when you're training for something big....at least big for a couple schlubs who could be in better shape.

First, we had a busy weekend.  We talked of doing a shorter local hike, but it simply wasn't in the cards.  So be it.  The following week we did split family time. I was in Baltimore and Liz had mom in town in LA. And then there was a little illness and Liz's birthday to contend with.

Two options...ease back in or go big.  Only two more weeks until Yosemite.  Easing back might not cut it.  Big it be!

The first thought was a hike up Mount Baden-Powell. It offered a challenging--but not TOO challenging-- 9-mile hike in an area of the Angeles NF we'd never visited.  After investigation we learned that the most direct driving route to the trailhead was still closed from damage and rock slides after last year's Station Fire. That would mean a 2 1/2 hour drive each way.  Pass.

With that we looked back to the Baldy area (again, I know).  We didn't really want to explore from Ice House Canyon again after starting there for the last two hikes.  So....um....go....big?

Big means Mount San Antonio.  Or as almost everyone commonly refers to it--Mount Baldy or Old Baldy.

A few fun facts for this adventure...
  • The summit of Old Baldy breaks through the clouds at 10,068 feet.   This beats our previous high water mark to the top of Timber Mountain by almost 1700 feet.  But more impressively...the highest ground either of us ever previously set foot on in our lives was the top of Haleakala in Hawaii at 10,023 feet--and we didn't hike up that one.
  • Old Baldy is the third highest summit in Southern California.  Topped only by  Mount San Jacinto near Palm Springs at 10,834 feet and Mount San Gorgonio near San Bernardino at 11,499 feet.  Future peaks to bag!
  • Our hike carried us up nearly 4,000 feet of elevation...exceeding our previous gain by nearly 1000 feet.
  • The top of Half Dome is "only" 8,800 feet.

On the day before, Liz made the genius decision to purchase a light long sleeve shirt designed for sun protection as well as one of those "buff" things popularized by Survivor a billion years ago.  Best decision ever as sun wasn't at all a factor this trip.  (Good thing because everything else would be!)  Not sure why we didn't go the extra protection from hike one.  Better now than never.

We followed our normal routine and set out all our gear and clothing the night before. Set the alarm for 630AM and made it out the door by around 7. With the stop for fast food breakfast and a prehike bathroom break, we were passing the trailhead a bit after 9. The hills were filled with hundreds of Our Lord's Candle in full bloom.

The trail begins up a moderately steep road to San Antonio Falls.  The falls had a decent 60-foot drop but the flow wasn't all that impressive. I imagine it'll be dry in a few weeks.

We followed the road a bit more until the trail forked up a steep hill with no sign or marker.  If a few guys ahead of us didn't take this route, we may have missed it.  (A few feet up the trail they asked us if this path was the correct route--little did they know. "Of Course!" we answered with faux authority.)

I signed our name in a register at the start of the real trail.  How long it takes authorities to check this register if someone goes missing?  Would my scribbled name be printed in the LA Times?  With that macabre thought, we started up the trail....and UP was all we would be doing for the next 4 miles to the summit. The climb would be almost 1,000 buttkicking feet/mile.

We weren't very far when the first sign of trouble arrived--Liz started complaining about pain in her hip. This same hip that gave her problems on our Timber Mountain hike nearly a month earlier.  Uh oh. We had a LONG way to go. We chatted about options. She could continue, we could both go back,  or she could go back to the car and take a chairlift to meet me halfway back down the mountain 8 miles from here. Giving up wouldn't bode well for our future plan, so Liz decided to fight through it and we kept going...although very slowly with many stops.  We decided it didn't matter how long it took as long as we made it the whole way.

I spotted a small green building waaaaaaaaay up the hill. (this pic was zoomed a bit)

That building marked the half way point in distance and elevation to the summit--an old Sierra Club Ski Hut used as a refuge for backcountry skiiers and climbers in the winter. With Liz's injury, it took us over 2 hours to get there. It was a stretch up switchbacks through several distinct climate zones--gorgeous scenery the entire way.

As we arrived at the Ski Hut all the many hikers who passed us going up were chilling out, stretching out, and taking a well deserved breather. We found a spot in the shade and did the same. After a snack and outhouse visit, it was decision time.

Continue or go back?  We decided to struggle through the second half--expecting it to be much of the same.  The summit towered above us at the top of the extremely steep, crescent-shaped Baldy Bowl but the trail leading away from the ski hut looked like an easy stroll that avoided the steep climb. We imagined, no, *hoped* it just followed a longer route that slowly worked up to the top.   We were wrong.

The trail deceptively continued along an almost leisurely route with an easy scramble through a boulder field.  Liz declared here that she could definitely handle it and wasn't giving up, pain or not...until we started going up--VERY up--with very little switchbacking for relief.  One trail guidebook referred to it as the hiking version of San Francisco's Lombard Street.  The author wasn't far off.  And it came in three stages--with each stage hiding the increasingly difficult stages that follow.  We survived the first heavily wooded section and took a break on a small oasis of flat. From this perspective we saw the steep loose gravel ahead.

As the pain level reached a new level of intensity for Liz, she set short goals for herself---"I'll go to that bush or this tree." Then another break followed. Then a few more feet and another break.  But we kept going up. And up. And up.

Yes, it really was this steep...

This primitive footing made for more difficult travel for those going down. We saw a few people slip and fall. Over half the other hikers had those damn poles--something Liz may need to invest in for the sake of her hip.

The final stretch was damn intense haul up a final very steep section surrounded by patches of lingering June snow.

As we stopped for one of our frequent breaks, a guy with a huge backpack passed us and cheerfully said he's pouring beer at the summit in 30 minutes--encouraging us not to miss out.  90 minutes later--after many tears, declarations of defeat, and a little bit of frustrated anger--we summited Mount San Antonio. (Unfortunately our beer-hauling friend was leaving JUST as we arrived.)

SUCCESS!  I turned to Liz and she smiled for the first time in an hour.  All the pain and frustration from her body disappeared with triumph.

Around 30 people were hanging out, chatting, eating a late lunch and resting on the broad wide summit. Everyone up there couldn't have been more friendly. One guy offered to fill our water bottles for the walk back (we came prepared--so I politely declined). Not exactly sure why he hauled a heavy 2 gallon water jug up the hill.

The 360 degree views were stunning. Strolling around the summit you can see deep into the Mojave on one side, into the Central Valley on another and back to LA from yet another.  A bit off to the east and southeast we could see the only two higher points in southern California.

For a couple moments the winds picked up to a strong, chilly, invigorating gale.  Piles of rock gave shelter to those staying longer (or even overnight).

It was getting late so we hung out for only about 25 minutes before heading back down the Devil's Backbone trail on a different side of the summit.  While a challenge on our knees, it was nice to be going down and much like our last hike, Liz's hip issues were less of a factor on the descent. She passed on the "you're almost there" encouragement we were given earlier to a few hikers struggling on their final steps up.

After the first section, our trip down leveled out along the ridge line for a mile or two.  With solid ground beneath our feet, our pace picked up greatly.  Along this stretch I spotted this fantastic tree...

Eventually we found ourselves on the namesake section of the trail--a pointed ridge with very steep hills down on both sides.  Fortunately, the trail itself was nearly flat so it never felt dangerous despite the steep drops.  This little lizard was about the billionth of its kind I spotted on this hike--only one to pose for me.

The end of a chairlift was a sign that we were getting closer and we followed a ski trail back to the lodge at Baldy notch. This plan worked perfectly well at first but the last section of trail was just a steep wide swath of gravel with no switchbacking foot path to be found anywhere.  This took forever.  We watched a few hikers ahead of us slip down the hill.  Only after did we realize there was a longer, far-less-steep fire road option.  Oh well.

We took a break for a snack at the Baldy Notch lodge.  It was nearly closing time and the sun was getting low.  Decision time yet again on this Choose-Your-Own-Adventure hike....walk 3 miles down a boring fire road to our car....or take a chairlift down and walk another 1/2 mile.  As it was 5PM on a Sunday and we had an hour drive and work the next day, we opted for the chairlift.  Cheating?  Maybe.  But we walked up and halfway back down by our own power so I don't feel bad about it.  (That said, the $10 each for the three-minute one-way ride is highway robbery.)

After a short skip to the car we were done.  Our long day filled with struggle and triumph came to a close.

Now about Liz's hip...and what's that?...is my knee getting sore?

Two weeks to go...

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