Category Archives: trails|san gabriels

Mt. Wilson Fire and Mt. Wilson Area Trails

October 2017 Mt. Wilson Fire and Mt. Wilson Area Trails

The Google Earth image above shows the VIIRS fire detections from the Wilson Fire. The data is from USDA Forest Service Geospatial Technology and Applications Center Active Fire Mapping Program. The square markers show the approximate location of yesterday’s detected fire activity. The markers do not indicate the areal extent of the fire. This Forest Service Briefing Map shows the completed line and uncontrolled fire line earlier today.

The fire started before dawn yesterday and according to a tweet from @Angeles_NF at 9:31 this morning was 25% contained and at 50 acres.

The yellow traces are GPS-based tracks of trails in the area. The tracks are subject to various errors and should be considered approximate.

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Trail Games

Mountain bikers taking a break on the Strawberry Peak Trail.

The group of five mountain bikers first passed me at Strawberry Potrero, a picturesque area on the north side of Strawberry Peak. The circuit around Strawberry Peak is a favorite of MTBers and in recent years I’ve encountered bikes on the loop nearly every time I’ve done it. It’s also an excellent run and part of the Mt. Disappointment 50K course.

Josephine Peak and fire road from the Gabrielino Trail.
Josephine Peak and fire road. Click for larger image.

The trail segments that make up the usual loop are Josephine Fire Road, Strawberry Spur Trail, Colby Canyon Trail, Strawberry Peak Trail, Gabrielino Trail, and Nature’s Canteen Trail. Today, I was doing a variation of the circuit that swapped out some fire road for trail. Instead of parking at Clear Creek, and running up Josephine Fire Road, I parked at the Colby Canyon trailhead and ran up the Colby Canyon Trail. This variation joins the usual course at Josephine Saddle** and continues around the peak. (Another option climbs over Strawberry Peak.)

Stand of Bigcone Douglas-fir near Josephine Saddle that didn't burn in the 2009 Station Fire.
Stand of Bigcone Douglas-fir that didn’t burn in the 2009 Station Fire. Click for larger image.

I thought I’d seen the last of the mountain bikers, but found them taking a break near the beginning of the two mile, 750′ climb to Lawlor Saddle. We chatted about the great weather and the next section of trail. As I turned to continue, one of the riders asked, “Hey, do you need a GU or anything?” I told them I was good, and started running.

Mountain bikers expect to be faster than a runner — and they usually are — but there are certain situations where runners have an edge. This was one of them. The first half-mile of the climb to Lawlor Saddle is relatively steep. After that the trail backs off a bit, but is still a decent climb. Since I had a head start, I decided to play the “How Long Can I Stay Ahead of Them” game.

I didn’t know if they were going to play or not, but it really didn’t matter. It was a way of having a little fun and motivating myself to push a little harder and run a little faster.

Parish's goldenbush (Ericameria parishii var. parishii) along the Colby Canyon Trail.
Parish’s goldenbush. Click for a larger image.

Whether you’re doing the Mt. Disappointment race or not, the climb to Lawlor Saddle will tell you if you are having a good day or bad. Today I was having a good day. The temperature was about 30 degrees cooler than at this year’s Mt. D, and after the initial steep section I ran nearly every step to Lawlor Saddle. A couple of times I thought I heard the bikers behind me, but somehow made it to the saddle without being tagged.

But now I was in trouble. Just past Lawlor Saddle the uphill ends. The question wasn’t if they would catch me, but when. Just before the trail turned to the east I caught a glimpse of a bike at the saddle, so the when might be in just a few minutes. It would depend on how spread out the riders were and if they decided to take another break.

Hikers on the Strawberry Peak Trail on the flank of Lawlor Peak.
Hikers on the Strawberry Peak Trail. Click for a larger image.

From Lawlor Saddle the trail contours around the south side of Mt. Lawlor for a mile or so, winding in and out of one ravine after another. It’s not particularly technical, but I hoped the frequent turns might slow a bike. I pushed the pace as much as I could.

About a mile from Red Box the trail finished its traverse around Mt. Lawlor and dropped down a rocky section of trail to an abandoned Forest Service road. Foolishly I started thinking maybe, just maybe, I’d make it to Red Box ahead of them.

Only about a quarter-mile from Red Box and in sight of the parking lot, I heard the tell-tale jingle-jangle of a bike bell. It wasn’t far behind me, and I moved to the side of the trail to let them pass. As the lead bike rolled leisurely past, he commented, “Hey, we weren’t sure we were going to catch you!”

The game over, I settled back in for the last few miles of the run.

Some related posts: Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail; Strawberry Peak Circuit; Strawberry Peak Summit Loop.

Holly-leaved cherry, a favorite of coyotes and black bears in Southern California.
Holly-leaved cherry, a favorite of coyotes and black bears in Southern California.

** The location of Josephine Saddle is currently mismarked on Google Earth and Google Maps. The saddle at the top of the Colby Canyon Trail has long been known as Josephine Saddle. It is marked as such on the U.S.G.S 7.5 Minute Condor Peak Quadrangles from 1959 to 2012. It is called Josephine Saddle in John Robinson’s authoritative guidebook Trails of the Angeles and numerous other guidebooks and route descriptions.

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Bear Canyon Loop: If the Poison Oak Doesn’t Get You, the Stinging Nettle Will

Bear Creek

Running or hiking the Bear Canyon Trail is always an adventure. The loop from Red Box, past Mt. Disappointment, down Mt. Lowe Road, over to Tom Sloan Saddle, through Bear Canyon, and up the Gabrielino Trail is about 15-16 miles long. But it isn’t it’s length that makes it interesting.

The two miles of trail between Tom Sloan Saddle and Bear Trail Camp is isolated and little-used. The difficulty of the trail above the camp varies from year to year, and today it was a bit more challenging than usual.

Black bear scat along the Bear Canyon Trail.
Black bear scat along the Bear Canyon Trail.

Copious Winter rain had promoted the growth of all things green in the canyon — including much poison oak and stinging nettle — and the trail wasn’t always easy to follow. Thunderstorms had recently washed away any tracks, so the only sign on the trail was bear scat and some cut trees from years past.

Because of the lush growth, fallen trees, brush, fire debris and flood debris, the trail ahead sometimes looked very improbable. A couple of times I stopped and walked back up the trail a few steps to confirm the trail was a trail and I hadn’t missed a turn. The path repeatedly crossed the creek and the creek is where the difficulties tended to be. In places the poison oak and nettle blocked the way and were not easily avoided.

Click for more information.

Dealing with the poison oak was easy — I just ignored it. That’s something I could worry about later. Hopefully the Technu Extreme I had in my car would take care of it. On the other hand, when you are bare-legged and bare-armed ignoring stinging nettle is a hard thing to do — contact with the plant produces instantaneous burning and stinging.

I always thought formic acid was the culprit, but apparently stinging nettle’s micro-needles contain a potent blend of chemicals that produces a poorly understood and unusually prolonged reaction.

Arroyo Seco below Switzer Falls
Arroyo Seco below Switzer Falls

There isn’t much you can do about the burning and stinging in the middle of a run or day hike. Some say flushing the affected area with water (without rubbing) can help. If you Google “first aid stinging nettle” you’ll see various suggestions. By the time I reached Bear Canyon Trail Camp my legs felt like they had been painted with horse liniment.

The trail between the trail camp and the canyon’s confluence with Arroyo Seco is well-used and is usually in better condition than the trail above the camp. From the confluence it’s about a mile to the Gabrielino Trail, which is followed past Switzers Picnic Area to Red Box.

Some related posts: Bear Canyon Bigleaf Maple Leaves, Red Box – Bear Canyon Loop Plus Brown Mountain, Bear Canyon Loop Plus Strawberry Peak, After the Station Fire: Red Box – Bear Canyon – Gabrielino Loop

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Record Heat for the 2017 Mt. Disappointment 50K & 25K

Record Heat for the 2017 Mt. Disappointment 50K and 25K

The heat was oppressive. The air was sweltering and still, reminding me of hot nights in the South, when heat lightning flashed on the horizon, and any movement was an effort. An adductor muscle in my left leg started to cramp and I jumped up from the reclining chair. Heat, and more heat had been the theme of this day. I had returned home from running my eleventh, and hottest, Mt. Disappointment 50K, only to be caught in a widespread power failure caused by a transformer explosion and fire in a Northridge distribution station.

How hot was it for the 2017 Mt. Disappointment races on Mt. Wilson?

In the sun temps recorded by the Clear Creek RAWS for all the Mt. Disappointment races
In the sun temps recorded by the Clear Creek RAWS for all the Mt. Disappointment races. Click for larger image.

– Between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. the in the sun temps recorded by the Clear Creek RAWS (on the 50K course) ranged from 115 °F to 121 °F. Out of the sun temps ranged from 94 °F to 98 °F.

– Between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. an ANF portable weather station adjacent to the Mt. Wilson Observatory recorded in the sun temps ranging from 106 °F to 114 °F. Out of the sun temps ranged from 92 °F to 96 °F.

– The temperature (inside a ventilated instrument housing) on Mt. Wilson at CBS Radio reached a high of 103 degrees. This appears to be the highest temperature at that location since it came online in 2008 and may have been the hottest temperature on Mt. Wilson in several decades.

– Downtown Los Angeles (USC) reached a record high for the date of 98 degrees, breaking a 131 year old record.

Even more remarkable than the weather were the performances of the top runners. Ruperto Romero was the overall winner of the 50K with an astounding time of 4:38:44. This was only a couple of minutes slower than his winning 2015 time — when temps were 20-30 degrees cooler. In what must have been an exciting finish in the Women’s division, Elizabeth Ochoa cranked out a 6:19:45, just edging out Ana Guijarro by eight seconds. Victor Martinez won the 25K in 2:08:01, with Jay Nadeau taking the top women’s time in 3:05:13. All the Mt. Disappointment results are available on UltraSignup.

The heat continued to build past noon, peaking between 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. This made for a long day for those of us in the back of the pack. At 1:00 p.m Red Box Road was a blast furnace, facing directly into the sun. I was very glad to have scouted the final seven miles of the course last weekend. The creeks crossing the road really helped to keep from becoming over-heated. Strayns Creek on the Kenyon Devore climb also helped me to cool down.

Many thanks to Gary and Pam Hilliard and all the Mt. Disappointment staff, volunteers, sponsors and runners. The aid station personnel were phenomenal, and all their assistance was much appreciated. The efforts of the Forest Service were also much appreciated. ANF personnel were on the trails and at the aid stations, helping runners.

Some related posts: The Kenyon Devore Trail and Mt. Disappointment 50K,  Mt. Disappointment 50K Returns, Mt. Disappointment 50K 2012 Notes

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The Kenyon Devore Trail and Mt. Disappointment 50K

Strayns Canyon from the Kenyon Devore Trail in Angeles National Forest

The photograph above was taken a little more than a mile from the top of the Kenyon Devore Trail, in the San Gabriel Mountains, near Mt. Wilson. The deep canyon seen through the trees is Strayns Canyon, which the trail follows on its way from the West Fork San Gabriel River to the shoulder of Mt. Wilson.

Bright green Bigcone Douglas fir cones
Bigcone Douglas fir

Today, I’d run down the Kenyon Devore and Gabrieleno Trails to West Fork and then up the Red Box – Rincon Road to point on the map marked Camp Ah-DA-Hi. (A former Woodcraft Rangers Camp.) With hot weather forecast next Saturday for the Mt. Disappointment 50K, I’d been glad to see the small streams that had been dry during the drought were running again.

Trails have stories to tell and when I run or hike a trail I’m always curious about its history. A trail between the West Fork San Gabriel River and Mt. Wilson is shown in the 1:62500 1897 edition of the USGS 1894 Los Angeles Sheet. Like many trails of the era, it followed a ridge, in this case a ridge just east of Strayns Canyon.

Antennae on Mt. Wilson at the top of the Kenyon Devore Trail.
Antennae on Mt. Wilson at the top of the Kenyon Devore Trail.

The first USGS map to show a trail along Strayns Creek was the 1:24000 1934 Mt. Wilson Advance Sheet. The trail remained unnamed in USGS maps until the 1966 edition of the 1:24000 Mt. Wilson Quadrangle, when it was labeled the Rattlesnake Trail. The trail was renamed the Kenyon Devore Trail in the 1995 edition of the map in tribute to Forest Service patrolman, hydrographer, and Angeles National Forest volunteer, Kenyon DeVore.

The Kenyon Devore Trail is part of the Mt. Disappointment 50K course. It is one of several trails maintained by runner-volunteers under the guidance of Forest Service volunteer and Mt. Disappointment Race Director, Gary Hilliard. Today, as I was on my way back up to Mt. Wilson, I ran into Gary and two volunteers cutting logs from the trail in preparation for next Saturday’s event.

Gary Valle and Gary Hilliard on the lower Kenyon Devore Trail.
Gary and the Other Gary on the lower Kenyon Devore Trail.

The grueling 5 mile, 2650′ climb from West Fork to Mt. Wilson on the Gabrieleno & Kenyon Devore Trails comes at about mile 26.5 of the 50K and is the highlight of the run.

I have to laugh about what happened on the Kenyon Devore climb one hot year. I’d jammed my Camelbak(TM) with so much ice at the West Fork aid station that when water was added, it melded and froze into one large chunk. I didn’t discover this until about halfway up the climb, when I ran out of water. You can’t drink a chunk of ice and even at 90 degrees, the ice was melting at an agonizingly slow rate. At best I could only get a minuscule sip of water from the pack every few minutes, and it nearly imploded from my efforts.

Some related posts: Mt. Disappointment 50K Returns!, Mt. Disappointment 50K 2012 Notes

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Along the Crest

Trees and clouds along the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains. Photography by Gary Valle.

I rounded the corner, driving from deep shade into the golden glare of the rising sun. There was almost no traffic on Angeles Crest Highway. Up ahead, in the shade of some trees, there was something in the road. Was it a rock or a pine cone? Driving into the sun it was hard to tell. At this time of the morning — before the CalTrans truck has swept the road — one small rock can ruin your whole day. Getting to the trailhead unscathed is always the first challenge of the day.

Middle Hawkins from the Pacific Crest Trail. Photography by Gary Valle.
Middle Hawkins from the Pacific Crest Trail.

Today, Craig and I were planning to do a point to point run from Inspiration Point to Islip Saddle — one of the best stretches of trail in the San Gabriel Mountains.

PCTA volunteer Ray Drasher often takes care of clearing the trees from this section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s quite an undertaking to get the required stock and equipment to the trailhead and then cut trees spread over several miles of trail. Because of conflicting reports, Ray wasn’t sure whether there were trees still on the trail or not. We’d let him know after the run.

On the drive up you could see it was going to be a spectacular day in the Angeles high country. A low pressure trough moving through central California had pulled in the marine layer and a tumultuous ocean of cloud reached from the south-facing canyons far out over the Pacific.

Trail runner descending the PCT near Mt. Burnham.
Craig descending the PCT near Mt. Burnham.

I drove through the double tunnels at Mt. Williamson and then around a left-hand curve. Up ahead I could see the northwest ridge of Mt. Islip dropping down to Islip Saddle. What the heck? Orange cones? The gate is closed? The HIGHWAY is closed? That didn’t make sense; the Winter closure had ended weeks before.

After parking, I talked to a hiker who said it was closed for “road work.” I assumed there must have been a rock slide in one of the problematic areas between Islip Saddle and Vincent Gap. Later I learned the problem was a “sink hole” west of the Grassy Hollow Visitor Center.

After Craig arrived we discussed route options to Mt. Baden-Powell. Either we did the South Fork loop, which I’d done a couple weeks before, or we did an out and back on the PCT. We opted for the out and back.

Weather-beaten limber pine near the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell. Photography by Gary Valle.
Weather-beaten limber pine near the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.

The run was as spectacular as expected. The visibility above the deck of stratus was at least 100 miles. San Bernardino Peak, San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto were easy marks to the east and Owens Peak and the Southern Sierra could be seen to the north. Before it was immersed in a tide of cloud, the summit of Santiago Peak (Saddleback) had been visible to the south. High clouds and a gusty westerly wind kept the temperatures moderate. Only one very small patch of snow remained on the trail.

I’d hoped to be able to tell Ray the trees had been cleared from the trail, but no — they were still there. He said the next time I ran there, they would be gone. Thanks Ray!

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Say Goodbye to the Snow in the San Gabriel Mountains

Patches of snow on the PCT west of Mt. Baden-Powell

Each year around Memorial Day weekend I like to do a run that includes Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′). It’s a good time to check how much snow remains at the higher elevations of the San Gabriel Mountains. In a heavy snow season, such as 2004-2005, higher sections of trail may still be buried in snow and drifts can persist into July. In below average years, such as we experienced from 2013 to 2016, there may be little or no snow.

South Fork Trail below Islip Saddle
South Fork Trail below Islip Saddle

There are several good runs that summit Mt. Baden-Powell. If Hwy 2 is still closed between Islip Saddle and Vincent Gap, I’ll usually do an out and back from Islip Saddle to Mt. Baden-Powell. If Hwy 2 is open, then a point to point run from Inspiration Point to Islip Saddle or Eagles Roost is a good option. Today the choice was one of my favorite loops in the San Gabriels. It starts at Islip Saddle, descends to South Fork Campground, then climbs about 5000′ to the summit Mt. Baden-Powell. From Baden-Powell the route follows the Pacific Crest Trail back to Islip Saddle.

Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.

This was my third time on the PCT between Islip Saddle and Mt. Baden-Powell this Spring. The first was at the beginning of April and was more of a snow hike than a run. The micro spikes went on at 7000′, less than 0.7 mile from the Islip Saddle trailhead. The second trip was two weeks later, in mid-April. Micro spikes were still helpful in a couple of places and there was still plenty of snow on the north side of the crest. Based on other seasons with a similar amount of snow, I thought some patches of snow might last into June, or even early July. Today (May 27) only a few patches remain on Baden-Powell and along the crest, and these will soon be gone.

Manzanita Trail between South Fork Campground and Vincent Gap
Manzanita Trail between South Fork Campground and Vincent Gap

Except for being a little disappointed there wasn’t more snow, the run went well. The South Fork Trail was rocky and rough — as usual. The Manzanita Trail, which connects South Fork Campground to Vincent Gap, has seen a lot of work in recent years and is in relatively good shape. Even the gnats weren’t bad. I saw no one on the South Fork and Manzanita Trails. As might be expected on a Saturday on Memorial Day Weekend, there were “a few” hikers, thru-hikers and runners on the PCT.

The South Fork Trail is part of a long and little-used “official” PCT detour around the mountain yellow-legged frog closure at Eagles Roost. Based on the number of thru-hikers I see on Hwy 2, most opt to hike the 2.7 road miles between Eagles Roost and Buckhorn Campground and then descend the Burkhart Trail to the PCT. It’s been more than 11 years since the initial “temporary” closure of the Williamson Rock area in December 2005. Hopefully it won’t be too many more years before the proposed plan to reopen the PCT and partially reopen Williamson Rock is completed.

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Misplaced on Mt. Wilson

View from the Rim Trail on Mt. Wilson

I’d just finished an 18 mile loop from the top of Mt. Wilson and was changing my shoes, when I noticed a group of six hikers walking down the Mt. Wilson loop road toward me. I’d started my run before the Mt. Wilson gate was open and was parked in a turnout near the top of the Kenyon Devore Trail.

Poodle-dog bush along the Rim Trail on Mt. Wilson.
Poodle-dog bush along the Rim Trail on Mt. Wilson.

The run over to Newcomb Pass, down to Chantry Flat, and then back up to Wilson had gone well. If you don’t mind a little Poodle-dog bush and a lot of poison oak, the Rim Trail is one of the hidden gems of the San Gabriels. And the Gabrielino Trail’s excursion through the forests and along the creeks of Big Santa Anita Canyon is a classic.

When the group reached me, one of them asked,”We’re looking for the Winter Trail, do you know where that is?” I did know where the Upper Winter Creek Trail was, because I’d just been at the top of it about 45 minutes earlier.

With its maze of antennae, telescopes and other facilities, it’s not uncommon for hikers and runners unfamiliar with the top of Wilson to become temporarily misplaced. The trails are, of course, on maps — including Google Maps — and described in various online and offline resources.

Bigleaf maple along the Gabrielino Trail in Big Santa Anita Canyon.
Bigleaf maple along the Gabrielino Trail in Big Santa Anita Canyon.

In this case the hikers didn’t know where they had parked and they didn’t know the route that had taken up the mountain. If you don’t have a clue where you need to go, a map isn’t very useful.

When I described where they needed to go, there were groans all around.

It was midday, the weather was good, it wasn’t hot, they had water and a phone, they would be hiking mostly downhill, and there were plenty of other hikers on the trail. Unless they did something really stoopid, it was just going to be a long day.

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Front Range Duo: San Gabriel Peak and Strawberry Peak

Bigcone Douglas-fir on San Gabriel Peak
Bigcone Douglas-fir on San Gabriel Peak

The two highest peaks in the front range of the San Gabriels, Strawberry Peak (6164′) and San Gabriel Peak (6161′) are about three miles apart as the raven flies and about 6 miles apart by trail. If you don’t mind running/hiking a third of a mile on Mt. Wilson Road, you can do both of them from Red Box as a 12 mile run/hike with a total gain of about 3000′.

Strawberry Peak and Mt. Lawlor from San Gabriel Peak.
Strawberry Peak and Mt. Lawlor from San Gabriel Peak.

Earlier this morning, I’d done San Gabriel Peak. It’s the shorter of the two ascents — from Red Box it’s about 2.4 miles to the summit. While the elevation gain is nearly the same as climbing Strawberry, it is a less strenuous and more straightforward peak. Except for a short stint on the service road below Mt. Disappointment, the grade of the San Gabriel Peak Trail is relatively constant — and the trail goes all the way to the summit.

Josephine Peak (5558') and Mt. Lukens (5074') from the summit of Strawberry Peak.
Josephine Peak and Mt. Lukens from the summit of Strawberry Peak.

The route up Strawberry Peak is distinctly different. The initial 2.5 miles follows the Strawberry Peak Trail to Lawlor Saddle, gaining a moderate 500′ along the way. From there a steep, rough and sometimes rocky use trail ascends 950′ in a little over a mile to Strawberry’s summit.

That’s where I was now — nearly at the end of that brutal mile-long climb. My heart was racing and my legs felt like Jello. Reaching the crest of Strawberry’s final false summit, I jogged across the shoulder of the peak and on uncooperative legs climbed the final few feet to the summit.

To the southeast, San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Disappointment stood across the canyon and further to the east, indistinct in the morning haze was snow-capped Mt. Baldy. To the west, the view extended past Josephine Peak and Mt. Lukins to the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Susana Mountains.

The southwest side of San Gabriel Peak was burned in the 2009 Station Fire.
The southwest side of San Gabriel Peak was burned in the 2009 Station Fire.

Recovery from the devastating 2009 Station Fire continues on both peaks. The amount, extent and size of Poodle-dog bush (Eriodictyon parryi) in the burn area is slowly diminishing. Some plants have died, but there are still viable plants of which to be wary. These plants were on the San Gabriel Peak Trail, above the notch, on the final climb to the summit of the peak. I don’t recall seeing any Poodle-dog bush on the ascent of Strawberry from Red Box, but it is still present on the west side of the peak.

Some related posts: Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail, Bear Canyon Loop Plus Strawberry Peak, After the Station Fire: Ten Miles – Four Peaks

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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.

https://photographyontherun.com/content/binary/SanJacintoDawsonBaldy1020343c.jpg
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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