Unlike most of the rainy season, March rainfall has generally been above average in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Last Saturday I’d enjoyed a run in Pt. Mugu State Park following a few days of wet weather, and today my outing would be in the wake of the strongest storm to affect the area since January.
The storm had been a warm one, with high snow levels, and I was surprised to find the morning temperature at Red Box in the mid-30s. The surface low and trough associated with the storm were still along the West Coast and the circulation was creating a strong southwesterly flow. This was pushing mostly benign mid-level clouds into the valleys and mountains. More picturesque than threatening, the clouds imparted a high mountain flavor to the surroundings.
Last year I’d done San Gabriel Peak first, so today I started with Strawberry. It’s the more difficult of the two peaks. The route to its summit is about a mile longer; it has a bit more elevation gain; and it includes a stretch on rough, steep, unmaintained trail. Of course, that’s part of its appeal.
The clouds were ever changing. While Strawberry Peak escaped most of the clouds, San Gabriel Peak was often obscured.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
** 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.