Saturday, June 14, 2014

San Jacinto, Sort Of

Yesterday I hiked up most of Mt. San Jacinto. It's the second tallest mountain in southern California, located in between Idyllwild and Palm Springs, and it stands at 10,843 ft. From the peak, you can see all the way to the Salton Sea. Or, I should say, from near the peak, because I did not get to the peak.

Yesterday I learned a very important lesson. There are times when you are aiming to hit the summit and, at a certain point, you need to realize that you aren't going to the summit and your new goal is to save your own behind and get off the mountain while you can. Which I did. I was 0.3 mi from the summit when I turned around.

As noted here before, I hike very slowly. If I ever did a long thru-hike like the PCT, I'm sure my trail name would be something like Tortoise or even Molasses. I'm OK with that but it has some implications. On long trails, I am on the trail for a very long time and I need to carry a lot of water. Only I'm also not terribly strong. I can carry about a gallon - but not more. Therefore, especially in hot weather, I need trails with water sources along the way. I carry a filter with me. I might switch to Aqua Mira drops because they are faster and lighter. I went with my filter because it filters out debris and pesticides as well as microbes, and because Aqua Mira chlorinates your water and I'd prefer my water sans chlorine.

There are 4 ways up San Jacinto and one of them is out of the question for me, at least for the foreseeable future. It's called Cactus to Clouds. You start in Palm Springs near sea level and the total hike is some 23 miles. A more sane approach takes the same basic route but uses an aerial tram to bypass all but the last 6 miles, for a 12 mi roundtrip hike. The tram costs $24.

I didn't want to fork over $24 for the tram so I had 2 options, both leaving from Idyllwild. (In retrospect, the tram's a bargain compared to the alternatives.) There are more ways to get up there if you are planning to camp along the way, but for a day hike most people either take the Devil's Slide from Humber Park or the Marion Mountain Trail.

The Devil's Slide is gradual but long - 8 mi to the top, 16 mi total. There is no water on the trail right now. There typically is but we're in a dry year. The Marion Mountain trail is notoriously steep, particularly in the first 2.8 mi. It's a 5.6 mi trail, for a total of 11.2 mi. And it has water at about the 4 mi mark as of right now. (If you plan to hike it, check with the ranger about the water, because it could dry up.)

Either option has great scenery, although I actually preferred the scenery of the Marion Mountain trail. Both have tons of wildflowers blooming right now. The two trails meet 0.3 mi from the top. From there, you head the last little bit to the summit, and I am told it requires some rock scrambling to get up there.

I'd heard horror stories about the steepness of the Marion Mountain trail, but it's actually no harder than the Ski Hut trail I did up Mt Baldy. So, although I'd planned to do the Devil's Slide, I opted for Marion Mountain. I took 3 liters of water and a water filter along, and started up around 9am. (FYI, you need a free permit for either route, and there's a quota of 30 people per day on the Devil's Slide route during weekends the summer. Devil's Slide also requires a $5 Adventure Pass parking permit, but Marion Mountain does not.)

I was immensely enjoying myself on the Marion Mountain trail, feeling great that it wasn't too hard after all. Then, about a mile and a half in, I got lost. I had a compass and the $2 trail map the ranger sells on me, and I had my GPS running on my phone using the Backpacker Lite app, which is not always too reliable (once it told me I traveled 1/4 mi while I was standing still). The $2 ranger map, in retrospect, sucks. A good 7.5 minute topo is the way to go, or at the very least, the $10 map from the ranger.

Where I was at, the trail was making switchbacks that were too small to be covered by the map I had. The map just showed the general direction of the trail as it meandered from going NE to going SE for a ways, all the while heading (on average) straight east. Then, at a certain point, it made a steep turn NNE. And the map had no markings on it for coordinates or anything. It did have altitude, in 400 foot increments.

According to my phone's imperfect altimeter, I was at about 7200 feet when I lost the trail. The trail makes its turn north around 8000 feet. As long as I headed east and generally went up the mountain, I'd hit the trail again. Unless I was south of it. So I decided to head slightly northeast. It was rough going on very steep terrain, with plenty of boulder scrambling and some walking through thorny shrubs and climbing over fallen logs. I wasn't too panicked. At a certain point you just have to accept that you are going up the mountain but not on a trail, and eventually you will be on a trail once again. And, somewhere around 8000 feet, I did rejoin the trail as predicted.

By this point, my phone's battery was low so I turned it off. So long as I stuck to the trail from here on out, I'd be fine without my not-very-helpful GPS. And with my phone off, there went my source of checking the time. This was around 1pm.

I kept on the trail and hit the next few milestones, where the trail meets up with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Deer Springs Trail, and then the PCT veers off after half a mile. The next segment is one mile to a campground called Little Round Valley. And from there it's 1.3 miles to the summit. The water is just before Little Round Valley.

I ran into some other hikers at the stream and we all stopped to filter water to refill our bottles. I let them borrow my filter and spent extra time there as a result. Just before Little Round Valley, I ran into another hiker going down and asked his advice.

Here was the situation. It was already 3:10pm and I was about 1.5 mi from the summit. The sun would set around 8pm. He was the last person on this trail heading down, and there was nobody else on this trail at all besides us. The Devil's Slide Trail would be more populated and also easier to see because it's better marked. Particularly if I ended up going down in the dark. But to get to the Devil's Slide, I had to first go UP to where the trails meet, 0.3 mi from the summit and a bit over 1 mi from where I was at that point.

I still really wanted to make it to the summit. I asked the other hiker if he thought it was a bad idea, but he didn't. I kind of did. But off I went, toward the summit. In retrospect, I should have gone down with him.

I realized I should have gone down with him and almost turned around before I'd even gone another half mile. But it was too late. He was probably much faster than me, and he had a good head start. I did not want to attempt the Marion Mountain trail going down for fear I would get lost. The only other option was to make it to the saddle where the trails meet, 0.3 mi from the top, and then head down the Devil's Slide. Maybe there were people on the summit who were going down Devil's Slide and I could hike down with them, in fact.

I went as fast as I could and finally made it to the saddle around 4:15pm. I don't go fast, but getting lost really slowed me down. By then, I'd been hiking since 8:55am and I'd gone 5.3 miles and 4000 feet up. I was at 10,500 feet or so. I stopped and ate a sandwich and an apple while waiting to see if anyone else was coming down from the summit.

I thought about going to the summit. Just 0.3 mi. I was so close. If I could do it, then I was still in the running to complete the "3 peaks in 3 weeks" challenge I signed up for and then I'd get a $30 giftcard to an outdoor retailer to buy more gear. But I realized: my health and safety are worth more than $30.

Another issue? My car was parked at Marion Mountain, NOT Devil's Slide. But I just did not feel good attempting to go down the Marion Mountain trail alone, knowing I was the only person on the trail and the trail was so hard to follow I'd already been lost once. Especially with the sun setting. I'd rather get down the mountain safely and THEN worry about the car. Worst case scenario, I could call the police and ask them to pick me up or something once I reached the bottom. There would be cell phone service there.

So I headed down the Devil's Slide path - nearly 8 mi to get down with about three and a half hours to do it in. I tried to go fast but I'm sure I was not going fast at all at that point. My phone was down to 30% battery and had no reception. I turned it on to check the time when I reached the various landmarks on the way down - Wellman's Divide after 2.4 mi, then a spot where the trail joins the PCT after another mile, then Saddle Junction after another 1.8 mi. After Saddle Junction, it was just another 2.5 mi to the end. I reached the bottom at 8pm, just as the sun was going down.

Going up took me 7 1/2 hours to go 5.3 mi. Going down nearly 8 miles took me 3 1/2 hrs. All in all, I went about 14 miles and it took me 11 hours.

I'm not that disappointed I didn't hit the summit. I can go back. If I do, I'm taking the tram. This is just a rough year to do those other trails because of the lack of water, unless you're faster and stronger than me and you can carry all the water you need. I can't.

All in all, I learned a lot on the trail yesterday. I had a space blanket for warmth in case I got trapped up there, plenty of food, enough water, a headlamp, a sweater, a warm hat, a Swiss Army Knife, and even stuff to start a fire if need be. I wouldn't be happy or comfortable if I was stuck overnight on the mountain, but I knew I'd be safe. My map and compass bailed my butt out when I got lost, but the map was insufficiently detailed, and my phone, while helpful, ran out of batteries too quickly. Next time, I'm spending the money for a better map. And it was good I actually KNEW how to use the map and compass. And I had practiced it before.

Despite my troubles, I actually had a great time. There were tons of flowers - columbines, shooting stars, ceanothus, beardtongue, beaked penstemon, scarlet bugler, and another yellow flower that could be a snapdragon or something related but I have to check. The views from the Marion Mountain side were the best, but the Devil's Slide was not bad either. On the way down the Devil's Slide I could easily see Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock, both of which I've hiked before.

After I'd already gone maybe 13 miles and I was near the end and my feet hurt and I had a few blisters, I passed some azaleas and the breeze blew the scent over to me and I was in heaven. That is why I hike. Because even at that point, when I'm ready to be back down to my car and a nice meal and a shower and my bed, I am still enjoying myself, especially when I encounter something as wonderful as the scent of azaleas.

Now that it's all over, I realize I probably could have gone to the summit and gone back down the Marion Mountain trail to my car before dark. And I probably could have found my way down OK and not gotten lost. But I can't be sure. And I would have worried the whole way down. So I still don't regret my choice.

If anyone wants to go back up San Jacinto with me, I'm game - but we're taking the tram.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Two Kickass Southern California Hikes

In the past week, I've done two extremely strenuous hikes. Not the hardest hikes around in absolute terms (Google "Cactus to Clouds") but strenuous in terms of long mileage and very steep terrain combined with hot weather and little shade.

The first was El Cajon Mountain at El Capitan Open Space Preserve in Lakeside, CA. This hike is notorious for its difficulty and some say it's the hardest hike in San Diego county. Around here, we often call it El Capitan, since we have a city called El Cajon, and calling it that might be confusing. I realize that, for non-San Diegans, El Capitan might refer to the place of the same name at Yosemite. So, FYI, that's not what I'm talking about.

The second was Mt San Antonio, more commonly referred to as Mt Baldy. It's located in the Angeles National Forest, in the town of Mt Baldy, more commonly known as "Baldy Village."

El Capitan is an 11.2 mile hike, out and back, through chaparral. If you go, do it in the winter. Of course, since people use this hike as training for places like Mt Whitney, which you typically hike in July and August, that means hiking El Capitan when it's hot. And I mean HOT.

Why is it so hard?

El Cajon Mountain

Most of the uphill segments are extremely steep. As you can see, there's a bit of downhill when you're going up, which means you have to go up hill when you're going down. This makes the trail a physical and mental challenge. For one thing, once you hit the peak, something in your brain clicks off that the main challenge is done, it's time to go down now. Only with this mountain, you still have to go up. I found myself uttering a lot of four letter words on the way "down" every time I looked ahead of me and saw something like this:

El Cajon Mountain Trail

The second reason it's so hard, besides the sheer length and steepness itself (up to a 42% grade) is simply because on the way down, you've already gone 5.6 miles to the top and your legs are somewhat shot. But I felt pretty good when I hit the top. It's not til you go back down a mile or so, and hit the first up hill of your trek "down" and it just isn't pretty. Even after you pass the last major up hill segment around mile 2.5, you still have short bits of steep up hill to go until you hit the 1.0 mile marker. And at that point, with 10.2 miles behind you, you can breathe easy because you are really going DOWN - and only down.

The last reason it's hard - particularly in the summer - is the heat. You can start early - the parking lot opens at 7am, but you can park on the road earlier than that - and hit the peak when the weather is nice. And then, around 10:30am, the weather becomes uncomfortable and continues heating up until its downright miserable or even dangerous. I thought three liters of water would be enough the first time I hiked it. They weren't. I needed four. Which means carrying a full gallon on your back (8 lbs), so now you're doing this trek and carrying a lot of weight as you go.

I first tried this June 1. The weather forecast said it would get up to 81. When I arrived back to my car after hiking 10.2 miles, it was 93F. I ran out of water and had a time constraint that made it impossible for me to finish the last mile of the trail - probably a good thing given the heat and my water situation. I went back a few days later and did the whole thing - with 4 liters of water. It was still hard, but not as hard. And it was a few degrees cooler that day, thank god.

That brings us to yesterday, June 8, and Mt Baldy. The mountain stands at 10,064 ft, just a few feet taller than Haleakala, in Maui. The trail starts around 6000 feet. To acclimate to the altitude, we camped out at the Manker Flats campground near the trailhead the night before. And since the web is piss poor at providing this info:
  • No reservations, the campground is first come, first serve. Even though it was 8pm Saturday night, we found a spot no problem.
  • The campground WAS open even though one website said it was closed (I think it closes in the winter)
  • It costs $12/night for one vehicle, or $10 if you have an Adventure Pass. No other permits are needed.
  • There are fire rings, picnic tables, and bathrooms with flush toilets. The women's has no sinks, but the men's does. I was not shy about going in there and using them. Each site also has its own running water.
  • There are bears but we had no trouble with them, and we did not use a bear canister. We did keep the food in the car. (In some parts of California, that would be a BAD way to go, but for here it was fine.)
  • There were LOTS of mosquitoes. LOTS. Be prepared.

The campground is shaded by beautiful conifers and dotted with wildflowers.

Pine tree

Beardtongue, Penstemon grinnellii

We decided to do a popular 11.3 mi loop, hiking up the Ski Hut trail to the summit, then down the more gradual Devil's Backbone to Baldy Notch and back down to the car.

The Ski Hut trail supposedly leaves from the Manker Flats campground, but it's actually from a parking area just up the road a little bit. Drive over and park there. You need an adventure pass for the car but no other permits.

We found the spot, parked the car, and got on our way. And I'm aware that my hair looks ridiculous. I didn't bother with it since I was going to wear a hat all day and end up with it ultimately looking even worse.

Starting the Hike

My big mistake is that I packed too much. I did El Cajon mountain with a day pack, my 10 essentials, a gallon of water in 2 64-oz Kleen Kanteens, a peanut butter sandwich, a banana, trail mix, and an energy bar. I should have stuck to that. This time around I switched to my Gregory Cairn 58, which weighs nearly 4 lbs, plus 2 Kleen Kanteens full of 3 liters of water, 10 essentials, a sweater, a heavy jacket, and way more food than I needed. In all, it weighed at least 17 lbs. That was a dumb move. REALLY dumb. There are some people who can carry 17 lbs like it's nothing. I am not one of them.

The Ski Hut trail begins by passing San Antonio Falls after 0.6 mi (not the most spectacular waterfall this time of the year) and continuing along a gravel road for about one-third of a mile. At that point, an unmarked steep trail leads off from the left, and that's the ski hut trail. Apparently there was a sign and people kept stealing it, so they leave it unmarked nowadays.

From that point, until you hit the summit in another 3.7 miles, you are going pretty much straight up. There is a stream where you can get water near the Ski Hut, and if the Ski Hut is open (and that's not a given), there is water and a latrine there. The Ski Hut is not far past the half-way point to the summit.

The trail is stunningly beautiful, much prettier than the way we went down, but it is STEEP. It climbs 3900 feet in 4.6 miles. There are a few short sections where it levels out a little bit, but not too many. Still, if you can do it, I think it's worth the beauty to take this steep route.

Mt Baldy Ski Hut Trail

A California King Snake!

I spotted the snake near the Ski Hut and got pretty excited because I've never seen a king snake before. This guy is obviously not dangerous if you remember "Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, friend of Jack." Or Jill, in this case. But when I told other hikers about the snake, some got scared. The snake responded by hiding under a rock right after I got the photo. So clearly, he was a huge threat to human life (not).



The plant life on the trail was mostly conifers and manzanita. I saw quite a bit of golden yarrow, beardtongue (the penstemon in the photo above), and some snow plants. I am no expert with conifers but I think I saw limber pines, some kind of spruce, and incense cedar, plus some other kinds of pines.

Some of the pines have tons of sap that have spewed out of them and ultimately dried on the tree. I saw a woodpecker and a friend helped me identify it as a Williamson's Sapsucker. Sapsuckers are cool because they peck the tree to get the sap to flow. Then bugs come to eat the sap and get stuck... and the bird eats the bugs.

My friend Kevin near a big tree. You can see the mountain's kinda steep.




The photos do not nearly capture the beauty of this hike. They don't even come close. After a tough climb, we finally reached the top. By this time, I was running low on water. I did not refill it at the Ski Hut because I was tired of carrying so much weight. Dumb move. Even with the elevation, it was hot outside and I had to really chug my water to avoid dehydration. Three liters would have been enough IF I had refilled them when I had the chance. If you aren't certain that the Ski Hut is open or the stream is flowing, then bring 4 liters on this hike.

Me Atop Mt Baldy

Me Atop Mt Baldy

You can go down the way we came, and in retrospect, it would have been nice from a scenic point of view. On the way up, we had our back to the panoramic views surrounding us as we concentrated on the trail. It's always nice to enjoy them on the way down.

Instead, we completed our loop by taking a much more gradual route that takes you along a ridge (the "Devil's Backbone") to Baldy Notch, a ski resort. At Baldy Notch, you reach a restaurant (Top of the Notch) with water, food, and bathrooms, and ski lifts. The ski lifts allow you to bypass 1.8 miles of the trail, which is just a boring gravel road for that section. An adult ticket is $12 down and at that point we felt it was not worth the money, and sort of cheating. So we started walking. But as we walked those 1.8 miles - and yes, they were boring, scenery-wise - that's when we really just wanted to be done with the hike.

To be fair to my companion, he had just day-hiked Mt. Whitney two days before. If it weren't for that, he would've felt fine at the end of the hike. He's in great shape. I'm in great shape... for me. But compared to most humans, I'm a wuss.

The one nice thing we saw on the way down were matilija poppies. I had never noticed this before, but these poppies are weird because they have six petals. Most poppies I've seen have four, and most eudicots have petals in multiples of fours and fives. Monocots tend to have petals in multiples of three or six, and poppies are not monocots.

Matilija Poppies

Matilija Poppies

At long last, we reached the road, and then it was a short walk down to the car. By this point, I smelled probably worse than I've ever smelled in my life. Changing clothes felt GREAT. I only regret I did not have a change of shorts. I did have a fresh change of every other article of clothing and I was grateful for all of them.

My last photo is of a sign that cracks me up, since I'm a midwesterner who became a Californian as an adult:

No Throwing Snowballs

Silly Californians. They like to drive up to the mountains in the winter to play in the snow, and apparently they find it so exciting that they need to be told not to pelt passing cars with snowballs.