When I broke through the top of the stratus layer, bright sun glared from the jagged granitic rocks along the ridge. To the west, Josephine Peak (5558′) was nearly immersed in an ocean of clouds.
The route I was doing was a variation of the Strawberry Peak Circuit described in the posting Spring Growth. Instead of going around the peak on the Colby Trail, this 13-mile loop climbs up and over Strawberry’s summit (6164′), ascending the class 3 northwest ridge, and then rejoins the circuit at Lawlor Saddle. Although a couple of miles shorter than the circuit around the peak, this route has more elevation gain, and the class 2 and class 3 sections of the ridge require careful route-finding.
Class 2, class 3 – what’s that about? Basically, class 1 is hiking, class 2 is easy scrambling where the hands are used for balance, and class 3 is when the scrambling gets serious, and handholds are required. Another element of class 3 climbing is that staying on route can be important. Deviating from an established route may significantly increase the difficulty or hazard. This is certainly the case on the northwest ridge of Strawberry.
Like much of the San Gabriel Mountains, the rocks of Strawberry Peak are old and fractured. Large landslides have originated from the northwest face of the peak. (The Colby Trail passes through the moraine-like debris of one of these slides.) Because of its friable nature, extra care is required when climbing the northwest ridge. Hand or footholds can break, or footing can be lost on a sandy shelf. Or, as described in a story by pioneering aerodynamicist Paul MacCready, the climber can be trapped in a situation where they cannot climb up or down.
The northwest ridge of Strawberry is by far the most frequently climbed class 3 route in the San Gabriel Mountains. Done with care and appropriate skill, the climbing on the ridge can be an enjoyable and unique experience.
On the summit ridge, I admired the steep northwest face of Strawberry Peak as it plunged through the morning shadows to Strawberry Potrero nearly 1500′ below. Did I hear voices down there, or was it just the wind…