Thursday, September 29, 2011

San Gorgonio Mountain via Vivian Creek Trail - 9/25/11

Everyone who writes about climbing Mt. Whitney makes sure to include a reminder that the hike is 22 miles, not 11; you need to be prepared to hike not just to the peak, but back down to the trailhead. This is a concept that Matt and I can't seem to learn, no matter how many mountains try to teach it to us. On the summit we'll be like "hey that wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting" and then end up hobbling down the last half of the trail.

San Gorgonio Mountain is supposed to gain 6000' feet in 8 miles and we read that is starts out steep, ends steep, and it's a jerk everywhere in between. It's definitely a jerk the entire way, but we got to the summit in around 5 hours and could've easily continued. We figured we'd run down in about 3 hours, but I'd say the descent was actually tougher than the ascent, and took us just over 4 hours. It's impossible to give an objective difficulty rating for a hike, but this has to be one of the easiest big hikes I've done in a while.

After the first creek crossing around half a mile in, there's about a mile of very steep switchbacks where it felt like we gained at least 1000' (our gps decided to take the day off). There are some short steep stretches scattered throughout the next few miles, but it's pretty flat for the bulk of the trail. We kept waiting for the trail to get harder, and thinking that the longer this section lasted, the harder the end of the hike would be.

The 3- or 4-mile flat section goes through a lush forest with some unique views of the San Gabriel and San Jacinto Mountains. There are a few spots where you can leave the trail and look out to see the surrounding peaks. I kind of liked the suspenseful build up of hiking just below the ridges, waiting until I'd finally get some views in other directions. In a way, it's more exciting than a hike like the Whitney Trail that has amazing scenery the entire way; the view from the summit can't possibly be that much more breathtaking than what you've already seen (Although everything about Mt. Whitney is exciting, amazing, and breathtaking. Yep, I've developed a bit of a crush.)

Vivian Creek

Lush forest

Clouds and San Gabriels

View to the south

To the east

San Jacinto Peak

Once you get out of the forest, you finally see the summit for the first time and there's another steep mile just before the summit push. This part of the hike reminded me a lot of Alta Peak (complete with hot shirtless dudes), which we hiked exactly a year before Gorgonio. Unlike Alta Peak, the final 1/3 or 1/4 mile to the summit almost feels like a joke; I wouldn't have believed I was on the peak if I hadn't seen the summit register(s).

Hikers about a mile from the summit (the hard part)

My turn

It turns out that in San G's case, the suspense isn't really building up to much. It was cool to see views we hadn't seen before, this being our first peak in the San Bernardinos, but I wasn't really impressed. We spent about an hour on the summit and Old Greyback bored me so much that I fell asleep on top of him. I did appreciate the silence and solitude of the summit approach though--for at least a few minutes, there wasn't another person in sight and the only sound was the wind.

Easiest summit push ever

Almost there

Mountains to the north

San Jacinto from the summit

I don't hate this mountain like a lot of other hikers seem to, but the hardest part of the hike (or most painful at least) was descending the steep section at the very end of the trail. After 15 miles of hiking you really don't want to have to put that much pressure on your knees and I'm pretty sure Old Gorgie put that section there on purpose just to be a dick.

Two years after hiking Mt. San Antonio for the first time, and one year after San Jacinto, I was happy to finally hike San Gorgonio if for no other reason than to complete the Three Saints and stand at the highest point in Southern California. Next time we'll make a weekend out of it (it's about 90 miles east of LA and I'm not a big fan of waking up at 4:30am) and try one of the less popular routes listed here.

Matti took the pics.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Three T's (Timber, Telegraph, and Thunder) 9/11/11

I've only been on the Icehouse Canyon Trail three times, but I've already learned to hate it. The 3.7 miles feels like 10 when you've just done a big hike, or even after a relatively short one like Cucamonga. So this time, we went with the Chapman Trail just to switch it up.

You can't call yourself a Los Angeles peakbagger until you've done the 3 T's. It's one of those rites of passage like learning how to drive, or getting drunk and peeing under a bridge in Venice.

From the Chapman Trail it's 5.3 miles to the Icehouse Saddle, versus 3.6 on the Icehouse Canyon Trail, but it didn't seem to take much longer since the 2600' of gain is stretched out over an extra 1.7 miles. The trail is also much less crowded than Icehouse and you get some nice views of the surrounding peaks before you meet back up with Icehouse for the final 0.6 miles of switchbacks.


<3 Mt. Baldy <3

From the saddle, Thunder Mountain is only 3.9 miles away. We'd done Timber before, so we just ran up (stashed our packs around the 1/4 mile sign), got our summit shot, and ran back down and got on our way to our main destination, Telegraph Peak.

3 T's Trail between Timber and Telegraph

Once we got past Timber, the rest of the trail was almost completely empty. Like the North Backbone Trail, after each peak, you have to descend way too far down to a saddle where you get to look up at the next peak and wonder why you chose this masochistic hobby. It looks like you're going to be gaining something crazy like 2000' per mile but the ascent to Telegraph wasn't horribly steep until the final 1/4 mile. Great views from up there, but you have to go back down the trail a few feet if you want a comfortable shady spot to eat lunch.

San Bernardinos

Apple Valley from Telegraph

Once you've gotten up to Telegraph, you've done all the hard work on this trail. There's only one more mile from Telegraph to Thunder and it's not much of a climb. The summit is also not what you'd really expect, mainly just a skiing area.

From Thunder, you can go back the way you came, but looking back at all the ups and downs it's not really all that inviting. It was only about another 1.5 miles to Baldy Notch so we headed that way instead.

From the Notch, we took the "trail" under the ski lifts back to Manker Flats instead of following the kindler, gentler fire road back to the parking lot. This rocky trail cuts off a few miles and it's steep and slippery but not very dangerous, and I'm proud to say that I only fell 4 times.

We were parked by the Icehouse Canyon Trailhead so we had to walk on the road from Manker Flats all the way there. I'm not so sure I preferred saving the 2 or 3 miles by taking this route back. I live in the middle of LA and I spend most of my life breathing in car exhaust, so hiking is pretty much the only time I get to escape that. No idea where everyone's going late on a Sunday afternoon on Mt. Baldy road, but I had to hold my breath pretty much every other minute to try not to breathe in the fumes as each car went by. If you enjoy hiking, stay on the hiking trails. Walking on a car road is not hiking, and it's not the least bit enjoyable. You're better off just taking the longer route. I think I actually might have preferred the Icehouse Canyon Trail to the road we took.

No more fucking shortcuts!

Matti took the pics.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mt. Whitney 8/31/11

One of the best things about hiking is being reminded of how insignificant we are. The most obvious places for this are Yosemite and The Grand Canyon. They're indescribably huge and perfectly constructed and they make you feel like it's okay to be relatively useless.

Less obvious is the tallest mountain in the contiguous US, Mount Whitney. Driving up from Los Angeles, the mountain starts to come into view when you reach the town of Lone Pine and it's not all that impressive. The perspective makes it and the nearly 3-mile tall mountains that surround it look only slightly taller than the cute little Sierra foothills in front of them. 

Once you get into the Alabama Hills and closer to the mountain, it starts to look as monstrous as it really is.

From the Whitney Portal campground, you finally realize that you're seeing a 14,505' mountain and (at least in my case) the tallest thing you've ever seen in person. You're surrounded by Sierra peaks and ridges.

As always, Matt and I did our research before doing this 22 mile hike so we knew that two days acclimatizing at the 8365' campground would be essential if we wanted to make it to the summit without getting sick. From what I read, I was expecting the campground to be full of hikers preparing to cross Mt. Whitney off their peak lists, but it ended up being one the most peaceful and relaxing campgrounds I've ever been to. It's right by Lone Pine Creek and the sound of the creek is pretty much the only thing you can hear. Somehow, even though almost all of the sites are taken, you rarely hear your neighbors. The humans are great, but the animals can get aggressive and annoying whenever there's food around. Any time you eat, yellow jackets will surround you try to share your food, and there are signs everywhere warning you to make sure to get your food put away before dark so the bears don't get to it.

The signs are no joke. This guy walked right up to our bear locker when we were putting our dinner away just as the sun was going down.

While sleeping at 8000' is helpful in acclimating to the altitude, it's also supposed to be a good idea to spend the two days before climbing Whitney taking shorter hikes up to higher elevations. Our first day there, we took an easy 5 mile hike on the Mt. Whitney Trail to another incredibly peaceful spot, Lone Pine Lake. It's just under 10,000' so it's a good place to go to hang out in the thin air (but you can't go past the lake without a permit). You also get a preview of the trail you're going to be on for the big hike, which is especially helpful if you're planning on starting the hike before sunrise.

There are unfortunately not a lot of other options for last minute training and acclimating hikes in the area (but if you're up for driving about 20 miles, the rangers at the visitor center recommend Kearsarge Pass Trail).

We went for the Meysan Lake Trail instead. According to our map, there are several lakes on the way so we were hoping we could get to one without having to climb 4.7 miles all the way to Meysan Lake.

The trail gave us a good workout and a nice view of the town of Lone Pine but at around 4 miles and just under 11,000 when we still weren't able to find a lake, we decided we'd had enough and didn't want to wear ourselves out the day before the big hike.

Most of the trip reports and people we talked to beforehand recommended starting the dayhike around 3am so that we could take our time and still get back to the trailhead before dark (although it's not really a problem if you don't make it before dark since you have the headlamps/flashlights for the start of the hike anyway). The early start time is also to ensure that you make it to the summit before noon to avoid thunderstorms, but we were lucky enough to have perfect weather. The average dayhike time seemed to be around 15 hours, but we weren't trying to break any records; our only objectives were to have a fun and challenging hike, see some great views, and hopefully make it to the summit without any injuries or sickness. 

I never thought my first night hike would be on the Mt. Whitney trail. It was creepy at times, but there were other hikers behind and ahead of us. It's strange to wake up at 2am and find that half of your camping neighbors are also awake preparing for the same ridiculous dayhike as you. It was comforting to know that we wouldn't be hiking alone in the dark.

The only bad thing about starting when everyone else starts is that it's harder to find a private rock to squat behind once the sun comes up.

Our start time ended up being just right for getting the perfect view of the sunrise. This, not the summit, was by far my favorite part of the hike. I've never felt smaller.

At 6.3 miles, we were more than halfway to the summit and took a long snack break at trail camp. This is where most of the hikers who are lucky enough to score an overnight permit set up their tents. Once we reached trail camp, we were officially at our highest elevation ever, 12,000'. If you're not feeling any symptoms of altitude sickness, that's probably a good sign that you've acclimated sufficiently. If you're filtering or treating water, this is the last place to get it (we ended up drinking around 3 liters each). Don't get too excited, the second half is much more challenging than the first.

The lake at trail camp

The 97+ switchbacks weren't quite as tedious as I expected. You can look back at trail camp and watch all the tents get smaller and smaller, and then look up as trail crest keeps getting closer and you finally see your destination come into view. There's no real threat of slipping off the trail at this time of year, but the fall down to trail camp is so far that it's still kind of scary in spots.

Sauntering our way up the switchbacks

The cables - not very dangerous at the end of August

Consultation Lake

Needles and Whitney

Just when you start getting sick of the views on the switchbacks, you reach trail crest at 13,600', my second favorite moment of the hike: you round a corner and suddenly an entirely new breathtaking subrange comes into view.

Trail Crest

Mt. Hitchcock and Hitchcock Lakes

Based on the numbers (only 900' left!), you'd think the toughest part of the hike was behind you, but the final 2.5 miles feels like the hardest, mostly because of the altitude. The trail isn't very narrow, but the drop is so inconceivably far down that you have to put all of your concentration into keeping your footing.

Mt. Whitney window
Just to add to your anxiety, there are several "windows" along this part of the trail where the trail narrows and the drops are on both sides of you. The windows give you a view to the east straight down to the lakes by trail camp.

Mt. Whitney, Keeler Needle, Crooks Peak

When the west side of Whitney starts coming into view, it's pretty much only recognizable because of the hut at the top. It looks nothing like the eastern view you're used to seeing.

The last section before the summit push was the only place where we actually had to walk through the snow, even though there was plenty of it off the trail.

After just a few more minutes, the hut comes back into view and you know you've made it. Less than half a mile to go now and you get to join the party at the summit with the other hikers and marmots.

Smithsonian Hut from the summit

The summit plaque

Great Western Divide

Lone Pine Peak

Wales Lake

Mt. Langley (our next 14er)

As spectacular as the views from the summit are, the scenery all throughout the hike is so amazing that unlike on most climbs, the best part of reaching the summit is the accomplishment.  Even climbing part of this trail is enough to give you incomparable views so there's no reason to push yourself further than your body can handle. There is no shame in having to turn back at trail camp or after the switchbacks at trail crest. Sometimes you just can't handle the altitude even with the recommended amount of acclimatization.

The rumors are true--everyone you run into on the Mt. Whitney Trail is extraordinarily friendly, even by hiking standards. There must be something about being in the presence of an intimidating mountain that makes us realize that we're all equally insignificant.

Matti took the pics.