Category Archives: photography|landscape

Savoring the Snow Between Islip Saddle and Mt. Baden-Powell

Snow on the PCT east of Mt. Burnham.
Snow on the PCT east of Mt. Burnham.

The two hikers stopped on one side of the broad chute and I stopped on the other. We were on the Pacific Crest Trail about a half-mile from Little Jimmy Campground and had paused to put on micro spikes before crossing the icy slope. It was the same chute that had been so unnerving for a couple hiking down from Little Jimmy on a chilly morning two weeks before.

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Mt. San Jacinto from Mt. Baden-Powell. Click for a larger image.

After the hikers crossed we chatted for a moment about the snow. They were doing the PCT and I asked them what gear they used on Fuller Ridge — an infamous section of the trail on Mt. San Jacinto. They said they’d used micro spikes and ice axes. The segment had gone well, but at one point it had taken them four hours to do two miles!

It’s not often there’s this much snow in April in the mountains of Southern California. After venturing to Mt. Hawkins a couple of weeks ago, I had wanted to get back to the San Gabriels and check out the snow on the higher part of the crest between Mt. Burnham (8997′) and Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′).

Mt. Burnham (near) and Throop Peak (behind) from just west of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Mt. Burnham (near) and Throop Peak (behind) from just west of Mt. Baden-Powell.

The photo on the left is a view west along the crest from the shoulder of Mt. Baden-Powell to Mt. Burnham and Throop Peak. Strong, southerly winds that accompany Winter storms blow from left to right across the crest, depositing extra snow in the wind-shadowed lee of the ridge. Snow accumulates along the ridge in dense, deep drifts, which in a big snow year can persist well into Summer.

Snow at 9100 feet along the crest just west of Mt. Baden-Powell
Snow at 9100′ along the crest just west of Mt. Baden-Powell.

The PCT between Mt. Baden-Powell and Throop Peak generally follows along the crest, tending to the north (right) side of the ridge and detouring around Mt. Baden-Powell and Mt. Burnham on their north slopes, and around Throop Peak on its southeast side.

Today, I stayed more or less on the crest between the summit of Baden-Powell and the PCT’s junction with the Dawson Saddle Trail, using the trail and snow where possible, but avoiding big drifts and steeper snow slopes. Between Throop Peak and Islip Saddle I stayed on the trail, and used micro spikes in a couple of places.

Lower elevation snow is melting relatively rapidly, but snow on the north-facing slopes at higher elevation could be around for weeks. Some patches and drifts may last into June or July. We’ll see!

Snow-capped Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powe;;

On the summit of Baden-Powell I pondered Mt. Baldy and thought about Sam and his love of the outdoors and Mt. Baldy. His effusive spirit will linger there always, and we’ll smile when we encounter it.

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Warming Up for the PCT

Snow on the Pacific Crest Trail near Little Jimmy Spring. April 2, 2017.

Seasonal snowfall in the mountains of Southern California is inconsistent at best. According to Tony Crocker’s Your Guide to Snowfall, in the past 20 years SoCal snowfall has ranged from a record high of 267 inches during the strong El Nino of 1997-98, to a low of 29 inches in 2013-14 during our prolonged drought.

Snow-covered slopes from the Pacific Crest Trail near Little Jimmy Spring. April 2, 2017.
Snow-covered slopes from the PCT near Little Jimmy Spring.

So far this season, Your Guide to Snowfall’s total for SoCal is 143 inches, which is a bit above average and far more than we’ve had in recent years. After seeing the amount of snow on the higher peaks of the San Gabriels from Mt. Waterman a couple weeks ago, I was curious to see what the conditions were on the PCT between Islip Saddle (6650′) and Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′).

Joining me on today’s adventure was Patty Duffy. An avid outdoorsperson and ultrarunner, Patty did the JMT last year, and will soon be embarking on an epic border-to-border journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Epitomizing the “hope is not a strategy” approach to challenges, today she was using much of the gear she would be using on the PCT — and in addition — carrying a sleeping bag, tent, stove and two days food!

Icy stretch of snow on the PCT at 7100', about 0.7 mile from Islip Saddle.
Icy stretch of snow on the PCT at 7100′, about 0.7 mile from Islip Saddle.

Even though we started an hour later than normal, and temperatures had warmed  the past couple of days, the snow on the shaded, north-facing slopes was still icy. Two hikers on their way down from Little Jimmy had trouble crossing one slippery slope. They had no crampons or micro-spikes and threw dirt on the snow to get by. It was obvious when we reached the area they described – a northeast facing gully. The slope was steep enough that a fall would have been very serious. Steep slopes, chutes and gullies are common along the trail between Islip Saddle and Baden-Powell.

Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from near Mt. Hawkins.
Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from near Mt. Hawkins.

The question of what is appropriate gear for hiking an icy trail in this kind of terrain doesn’t have a simple answer. Boots, “real” crampons, and an ice axe provide a lot of security when crossing a steep, icy slope; but many other combinations of footwear, traction devices, poles, and self-arrest tools are commonly used. Conditions can rapidly improve or deteriorate and equipment can fail. Whatever combination of equipment is selected it’s important to understand its use and limitations.

After reaching an elevation of about 8000′, we stayed on the crest all the way to Mt. Hawkins (8850′) and the Mt. Hawkins lightning tree. The ridge route had the advantage of being mostly snow-free, but in places is quite rocky and steep. There are also a number of downed trees scattered across the ridge — vestiges of the 2002 Curve Fire.

Summit of Mt. Hawkins (8850').
Patty on the summit of Mt. Hawkins (8850′).

In middle of Winter in 2014 there was so little snow on the PCT between Islip Saddle and Mt. Baden-Powell it was possible to run to Baden-Powell and back, do Mt. Hawkins, Throop Peak and Mt. Burnham along the way, and be back to Islip Saddle in the early afternoon. Not today. Winter’s storms had left more of the trail snow-covered than snow-free — and not with just a little snow.

A little beyond the Hawkins – Throop Peak saddle we stopped at a sunny, wind-protected spot with a nice view of Mt. Baldy for a few minutes, and then headed down. The snow conditions had improved considerably, and at one point we glissaded down a short slope.

It had been another outstanding day in the mountains, and I could only sigh, thinking of the many great days and experiences that Patty would have on the Pacific Crest Trail.

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Downed Trees, Melting Snow and a Waterfall

Snow-covered slopes from the Mt. Waterman Trail

Climbing up the slope and around the big incense cedar I stopped for a moment to enjoy the smell of the splintered wood. There had been so trees across the trail I’d lost count, but this was in the neighborhood of the 35th tree I’d had to work around on my way to Mt. Waterman.

Trees near Three Points burned in the 2009 Station Fire
Trees burned in the 2009 Station Fire

My run on the Mt. Waterman & Twin Peaks Trail had started at Three Points. Initially, I’d been encouraged to see some trees had been cut and removed from the trail. But the area was hard hit by the 2009 Station Fire and the combination of fire, years of drought, and rough winter weather seemed to be felling an increasing number of trees each year.

Across the canyon the north face of Twin Peaks was still blanketed in snow. On this warm, south-facing slope the snow was almost gone, exposing a veneer of pine needles, last Summer’s gray and wilted ferns, and the Winter excavations of industrious moles. In every gulch and gully water spilled down the mountainside; splashing, bubbling and burbling downslope under gravity’s spell.

Snow-covered Mt. Baldy from the Mt. Waterman Trail
Mt. Baldy from the Mt. Waterman Trail

This was supposed to be a recovery run, following last Saturday’s abridged — but arduous — run on the Backbone Trail. (Many thanks to Howard & Mike and all the volunteers!) The plan was to just go to the summit of Waterman and then back down the same way. But… the idea of crawling over, through or around more than 40 trees a second time just didn’t sound that appealing.

When I reached the junction with Mt. Waterman’s summit trail it took about a millisecond to make the decision to continue on the loop. It would be longer, and would have more elevation gain, but it was a beautiful day and my legs felt OK. Who knew when there would be another opportunity to do the loop in these conditions?

Snow along the Mt. Waterman Trail about a half-mile from Buckhorn
Snow along the Mt. Waterman Trail

Much of the trail down to Buckhorn was covered with snow. Not so much snow as to be a problem, but enough to be interesting and scenic. The weather was great and snow conditions excellent. Following the tracks of hikers, my socks didn’t even get wet!

Reaching Angeles Crest Highway, I ran east a short distance to the entrance of Buckhorn Campground. The gate was locked and the campground still closed for the Winter. Patches of snow, deadfall and other debris littered the area. When the camp is open, I top off my water here. Today the faucets were dry, but with the cool weather that would not be an issue.

Most of the hikers on the Burkhart Trail were going to see Cooper Canyon Falls. Seeing the falls was one of the reasons I’d decided to continue on the loop. My thoughts drifted back to April 1995 when Gary Gunder and I carried our kayaks down this trail and paddled Little Rock Creek from Cooper Canyon to the South Fork. (We put-in below the falls.)

The flow over the falls was the most I’d seen in several years and was probably nearing its peak. After enjoying the falls for a few minutes I scrambled out of the gorge and headed up the PCT. Like all that visit the falls, I now had to climb out of Cooper Canyon.

Drought-stressed young pine in Cooper Canyon
Drought-stressed young pine in Cooper Canyon

The effects of a prolonged drought don’t just disappear overnight, no matter how much it rains or snows. This was particularly evident on the sun-baked segment of the PCT above Cooper Canyon Camp. Just above the camp a large, green-needled Jeffry Pine had collapsed, leaving a large crater where its roots had been. In the year since I’d been on the trail, trees on the warmest, south-facing slopes had become more drought-stressed. It seemed additional trees had died and more had yellowing and brown needles.

Cooper Canyon can be hot, but today the temperature was pleasant. Eventually I reached Cloudburst Summit and clambered over a final steep patch of snow to reach the saddle. Three Points was now just a few miles away. I crossed Hwy 2 and started running down the trail.

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Kanan to Mishe Mokwa and Back

Rock formations along the West Fork Arroyo Sequit near the Grotto

As I rounded the rib extending down from Peak 2658 — the site of the old Triunfo Lookout — I peered down into the deep canyon of the West Fork Arroyo Sequit and the towering rock formations above the Grotto. As is the case along many sections of the Backbone Trail the view was superb.

Marker recognizing the significant contributions from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Betty Weider in the creation of the Backbone Trail
Marker recognizing the significant contributions from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Betty Weider in the creation of the Backbone Trail.

Earlier, from the Etz Meloy fire road, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands had seemed to be magnified by the ocean haze — the lighter-colored rocks of San Pedro Point clearly visible on the east end of Santa Cruz. To the south, Santa Barbara Island, the smallest of the Channel Islands, had been visible near the horizon.

I was doing an out and back run on the Backbone Trail from the Kanan Road trailhead, and wondering if I had enough water to go to Mishe Mokwa and then the 15 miles back to Kanan. The irony was that, following several years of drought, this Winter it had rained and rained. Water was everywhere, but I had not thought to bring a UV pen or filter.

Padre's shooting star (Primula clevelandii) along the Backbone Trail below the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead.
Shooting stars near the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead.

Reaching the point where the trail turns to the north and has a great view of Sandstone Peak, Circle X and the Mishe Mokwa trailhead I again debated turning around. Across the canyon, sunlight gleamed from the cars parked at the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead. The rocky knolls below the trailhead were green with rain and though I couldn’t see them from here, would be covered with a spectacular patchwork of purple and yellow shooting stars.

Hmm… I’d run a little over 13 miles, so Mishe Mokwa was less than two trail miles away. Going there would add about 3.5 miles to my run.  I lifted my pack to see how much water I had left, and then continued down the trail.

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Caballero Canyon Sunrise

Marine layer spilling over the the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains into Caballero Canyon.

At the start of my run from the Top of Reseda (Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park) the visibility above the fog-filled San Fernando Valley was at least a hazy 25 miles.

Ahead of another rainstorm, offshore pressure gradients had weakened and the onshore flow was rapidly increasing, pushing marine layer clouds into the coastal canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains and spilling over the low points of the crest.

Marine layer fog flowing between Rustic Canyon and Garapito Canyon
Marine layer fog flowing between Rustic Canyon and Garapito Canyon

My first stop was going to be Temescal Peak. This little peak is about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, near the junction of Temescal Ridge fire road and the Backbone Trail. It’s a nice way to start a run, and on a clear day it can have surprisingly extensive views.

Fog flowed over Fire Road #30 between Rustic Canyon and Garapito Canyon, but once through this ethereal river, it was clear all the way up to the Hub. I wondered if I was going to be able to see Mt. San Jacinto from the top of Temescal.

The answer to that question turned out to be no. In fact I could barely see my nose from Temescal Peak. In the 12 minutes it had taken me to get to the peak from the Hub the entire area, including the summit of Temescal Peak (about 2100′), had become enveloped in fog.

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