I was running up Calabasas Peak Mtwy fire road trying to get a better view of the eastern sky, but the view in that direction was blocked by a steep hillside. The road turned to the northeast up ahead, and I hoped the best moments of a rapidly-evolving sunrise would not be lost.
A couple of breathless minutes later, I rounded a corner and was rewarded with an unobstructed view of a vivid, pink-red-orange mackerel sky. Focusing on the ridgeline near Topanga tower, I shot several sets of bracketed photos.
Excited by the sunrise, I continued up the fire road, scanning my surroundings for another photo. My eye settled on the gibbous moon. High in the sky, it’s bright face was subdued by a thin veil of pinkish-gray cloud. I’d previously experimented with handheld shots of the Moon using my running camera — a Lumix ZS100. Zooming to an equivalent focal length of about 250mm, I held my breath, steadied the camera the best I could, and took a few shots. Here’s one of the images — cropped and sharpened — with enough detail to see craters, maria, and some other lunar features.
At the bottom of Topanga Lookout Ridge there were several bigberry manzanita bushes covered with flowers. A hummingbird was up before sunrise, buzzing about the blossoms, busily drinking the precious nectar. Although it had rained a couple days before, this rain year there had been little rainfall, and a corresponding scarcity of early season wildflowers.
As I climbed higher on the ridge, the mountains northwest of Los Angeles came into view, white with snow from the recent storm. The snow-covered peaks are south of Mt. Pinos and Frazier Mountain, in the area of San Raphael Peak, McDonald Peak, Sewart Mountain and Snowy Peak.
Like snow on a mountain, there is a purity in the form and appearance of clouds. When a long, dark streak appeared across a layer of high clouds, it was hard to miss. In this case, the dark line appears to be the shadow of a contrail of a jet flying above the clouds. At the time LAX was reporting scattered clouds at 19,000′ and 23,000′, with a broken layer of clouds at 28,000′. Given the height of the clouds and orientation of the contrail, it may have been from a flight from San Diego to San Francisco.
Topping out on the ridge, I smiled when I saw the masked couple dancing on the Lookout, and continued west toward Saddle Peak.
The out and back to Mt. Baden-Powell from Islip Saddle has become a springtime running ritual for me. Sometime in April, May or June, I like to get back to the high country, and see what there is to see — including whether there’s any snow left on Baden-Powell or Mt. Baldy.
Sentinel satellite imagery showed a lot of snow along the crest at the end of April, but hot weather and dry winds in May accelerated the melt. By early June most of it was gone. It didn’t seem likely I would see any today.
I hadn’t seen any snow along the trail this morning. I’d run past Little Jimmy Camp, Windy Gap, Peak 8426, and was now at an elevation of about 8700′, near Mt. Hawkins. Above me, I could hear the excited voices of a couple of hikers near its summit. Thinking they might be part of a group, I looked up the trail toward the crest.
Something was missing… Where was it? Usually prominent on the skyline at this point, the “Mt. Hawkins Lightning Tree” was gone. I walked up the trail to look for the familiar landmark. The trunk of the lightning-scarred Jeffrey pine had been snapped like a twig. The crown of the tree lay 50 yards down the steep slope, jammed against two trees.
It must have been a hard Winter. Several other live trees along the crest between Mt. Hawkins and Mt. Baden-Powell were either blown down or broken in half. In some cases, the damaging winds appeared to be from the south side of the crest and in others from the north. December 2019 was stormy in Southern California, particularly around Christmas. Weather data suggests this might have been when most of the damage was done.
Today, only two large trees blocked the trail. One, on the west side of Mt. Burnham, was easy to go under or around, but the other, west of Throop Peak, was a bit more of a challenge. Given the brush on either side, climbing over the tree worked for me. Some others had detoured well above or below the tree.
Surprise, surprise! It turned out there were a couple of small patches of snow on the north side of the crest near Baden-Powell. These were the remnants of an area of wind-deposited snow on the lee (north) side of the crest between Mt. Baden-Powell and Mt. Burnham. Large drifts can collect here, and in a heavy snow year, can persist into July. The deposition area can be seen in the Sentinel satellite image.
With its long views, sub-alpine elevation, and weather-worn limber and lodgepole pines, Baden-Powell is a rewarding summit. Just a few miles to the southeast, Mt. Baldy looms above a mile-deep canyon. If the visibility is good, San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain can be seen beyond Mt. Baldy, many miles in the distance.
Rocky Peak Road is one of my go-to wet weather running spots. The sandy soil — thanks to the Chatsworth Formation sandstone — doesn’t cake on your shoes when it’s wet. It isn’t entirely mud-free, but as long as you don’t mind a few steep hills, it’s a good choice when the weather turns wet.
According to preliminary rainfall totals tabulated by the NWS, Rocky Peak recorded 1.22 inches of rain during the Christmas storm. The snow level had been forecast to drop to 2000′-2500′ in some areas, so as the storm was breaking up I headed over to Rocky Peak to get in a run, and see what I could see.
I’d dressed for a cool and breezy run, and was comfortable as I worked up the first steep hill. But I hadn’t run half a mile when I stopped and put on some gloves and a pair of stretch shorts. That helped, but the higher I went the colder it got. Up top, a little past Rocky Peak, my thermometer registered a chilly 38 degrees and the wind was gusting 10-15 mph. According to the NWS Wind Chill chart, that put the effective temperature at around 30 degrees.
And that’s what it felt like. Part of the problem was that I was running into the wind, which increased the chill. I had a wind shell in my pack, but once I’d reached my turnaround point and had the wind at my back, it wasn’t needed.
There was no snow on Rocky Peak Road or Oat Mountain, but from time to time the setting sun broke through the clouds and highlighted the snow on the nearby mountains. It was a far different scene than on the usual Rocky Peak run.
December has been wet in the Los Angeles area. As of December 27, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) has recorded 4.84 inches of rain this December, which is nearly three inches above normal. Rain year and water year precipitation totals are also well above normal, and at the moment, ahead of last year. We’ll see what the new year brings!
Update January 24, 2020. Well, the new year hasn’t brought us much in the way of precipitation. January in Downtown Los Angeles has been about as dry as December was wet. So far, Downtown Los Angeles has recorded only 0.32 inch of rain this January, well below the climate normal for the date. If there is no additional rain this month, Los Angeles will end the month with about normal rainfall to date for the Rain Year (Jul 1 – Jun 30) and Water Year (Oct 1 – Sep 30). Then we’ll have to see if there is a pattern change in February, or if it is also drier than normal, as most guidance suggests.
One of the things I’d been curious to see when running the Kodiak 50K in mid-August was how the summit snow band on San Gorgonio Mountain was holding up. The answer turned out to be fairly well. Now, a few weeks later, I was back on Gorgonio, chugging up the South Fork Trail, and on my way to see if any snow remained on the mountain.
Runoff from thunderstorms during the week had left the trail rocky and rutted. From the views of the mountain I’d glimpsed from the trail, I wondered if the rain had also washed away any remaining patches of snow.
In addition to that question, I also want to follow up on my earlier “field checks” this Summer and see how much water there was in Dry Lake, and if any snow remained in the avalanche debris above Dry Lake.
I was about a quarter-mile from the Dry Lake – Dollar Lake junction at South Fork Meadows, making decent time, when I heard footsteps behind me. I stepped to the side so he could pass, and we talked as we worked up the trail. Kevin said he’d been climbing in the Sierra just about every weekend and was really well-acclimated.
I asked him what route he was doing to the summit, and he said the Dry Lake route. I told him I was doing the Dollar Lake Trail route up and the Dry Lake route down. He was clearly moving faster than me and said he was shooting for a time of 4:20 to the summit. I mentioned the Dollar Lake route was shorter and faster, and depending on the number of stops for photos, I expected to get to the summit in around 3:45. We talked about some Sierra peaks and being in the mountains, and after a couple of minutes, he began to pull away.
The early morning temperature had been a little more chilly than my earlier trips up Gorgonio this Summer. I debated pulling on my sleeves, but by the time I was in the sun on the Dollar Lake Trail, the temperature had warmed to a comfortable 50-something — perfect for ascending the peak.
The summit of San Gorgonio was a very busy place when I arrived. I’d estimate 40-50 people were on or around the summit. Most were part of one huge group that had come up Vivian Creek.
Kevin caught up to me on the descent of the Sky High Trail. We’d both made the summit within a couple of minutes of our projections, leaving little doubt that the Dollar Lake Trail is the fastest route to the summit from the South Fork Trailhead.
I didn’t see any snow remaining in the avalanche debris above Dry Lake. The lake itself was in great shape, and the streams at South Fork Meadows were flowing nearly as vigorously as they had been a month ago.
Update November 26, 2019. A small amount of snow from the 2018-19 season has survived on San Gorgonio Mountain until the first persistent snow of the 2019-20 season! Copernicus Sentinel satellite imagery from November 17, 2019 showed small patches of snow in two areas. The first winter storm of the season brought snow to the mountains a couple days later, and more snow is expected over the Thanksgiving holidays.
The weather was Southern California perfect. Shorts and short-sleeves were the dress of the day. Winds were light, no thunderstorms were in the forecast and no large wildfires polluted the air. Although temps in the valleys were nearing 100 degrees, the weather on the summit of 11,499′ San Gorgonio Mountain was altitude-conditioned bliss.
I’d spent about 15 minutes enjoying the summit, then run back down the Summit Trail. Turning left onto the Sky High Trail, I continued a keyhole loop that had ascended the South Fork Trail, Dollar Lake, and San Bernardino Divide Trails. Altogether, the route was about 21 miles long and the approximate elevation gain/loss was 4700′.
From the start of the run, the effects of the wet 2018-19 Winter and big snowpack were everywhere. Wildflowers bloomed in profusion, seeps and small streams greened the landscape, and grasses and ferns grew thick beneath the trees. The roar of the streams at South Fork Meadows left little doubt as to what kind of Winter it had been.
On the way up the Dollar Lake Trail, I’d seen elongated patches of snow in the chutes along the crest. While there was no snow directly on the trail between Dollar Lake Saddle and the summit, there was more snow than usual on the north side of the peaks.
But there was snow on the Sky High Trail. Topping out at over 11,300′, the Sky High Trail is one of the most spectacular trails in Southern California. I marvel at its airy location every time I run it. Near the top of the trail, I’d crossed a small patch of snow and thought, “Well, at least there was a little snow on the trail.”
A little disappointed, I’d put my poles away and continued running down the trail. At around 11,100′ I rounded a corner and surprise, surprise — there was a much larger patch of snow on a southeast-facing section of trail. It was about 100 yards across and steep enough that a fall would be a bad idea. Fortunately, the snow conditions were perfect. A few hikers had recently traversed the snowfield, and I followed in their footsteps.
However, that wasn’t the last of the snow. At an elevation of about 10,200′, not far past the C-47 crash site, the trail crosses a long chute that extends nearly to the top of Gorgonio. The snow in that chute had melted just enough that a thin strip of trail was exposed.
Thinking that had to be the last of the snow, I continued the traverse to Mineshaft Saddle (9936′) and began the descent of the Dry Lake Trail. Once past a rocky section of the trail, I picked up the pace, energized by the increased oxygen at lower elevation. Enjoying the downhill, I descended into an area of converging chutes and gullies, when the path through the lodgepole forest abruptly ended.
The trail was obliterated. Large trees were ripped from the ground, broken, tossed, and piled up as if they were matchsticks. Underneath the debris were mounds of dense, icy snow — the remnants of an avalanche. This report on SoCalSnow.org includes photos of an avalanche in February 2019 on the north face of San Gorgonio and mentions previous avalanches.
That snow, at an elevation of about 9400′, had finally been the last on the trail. Because the compressed snow is effectively a big block of ice, it could be around for a while.
In the area of the avalanche, the Dry lake Trail enters a large area of rocky rubble that extends into the Big Draw. According to the Dibblee Geologic Map for San Gorgonio Mountain, this rubble is glacial till, produced by the largest of several pocket glaciers that existed on San Gorgonio Mountain, Shields Peak, and San Bernardino Peak.
Continuing down the trail to Dry Lake I saw where some of this season’s meltwater had gone — for the first time since 2011, Dry Lake was full in late July.
Last Saturday’s run was so enjoyable that yesterday I went back to Gorgonio and did it again. As might be expected during a Southern California Summer heatwave, the snow on the Sky High Trail, and elsewhere, is melting fast and won’t be around for long.
Here are a few photos taken along the way. The album includes photos from both the July 27 and August 3 runs. A couple of photos from a run on September 7 were also added.