Saturday, November 12, 2011

(Big) Iron Mountain (#1) - 10/23/11

According to John Robinson, author of Trails of the Angeles, "Iron Mountain is the biggest douchebag in the San have to start really fucking far away and there isn't even a trail."* Iron Mountain turned us away back in February and we've been pining for it ever since. It's one of those mountains that will reject you and then lay on an incessant irresistible charm until you return for another attempt. And once you've bagged Iron, you'll be tormented by this cocky mountain for your entire hike of shame back to the trailhead. Then when you get back home and check out your pictures of all the sexy views from the summit, you'll forget about the bad times hiking this asshole and you'll want to go back to bag it another time, fully aware that you'll be treated like a filthy mountain hussy yet again.


Iron Mountain's southeast ridge
We didn't want to attempt to climb Iron in the Summer as it starts out around 2000' and most of the hike is on an exposed ridge, and we didn't want to wait until the Winter when the days get too short since we'd heard of hikers spending around 12 hours on the trail. We kept an eye on the weather forecast and went for it on a day predicted to be clear but hot. As much as we've enjoyed our two night hikes, we weren't excited about having to climb Iron Mountain in the dark, so we planned to get there right around sunrise, hoping we could finish before sunset. 

Because of its reputation as the hardest single peak to bag in the San Gabriels, ballsy hikers are always blustering on about breaking their record times hiking Iron Mountain, while even experienced hikers are happy to complete it within daylight hours. 

Heaton Flat Trail (the calm before the storm)
On our first attempt, we started way too late and weren't really expecting to summit. We only got about half a mile past Allison/Coldwater/Heaton Saddle and reached our turn around time so we only got a small taste of the really steep part of the climb. In my memory, this final section of the trail was at least class 2, but after the most recent trip, I guess I'd agree that it's class 1, even though there are some spots that I'd consider class 2 (which is especially noticeable on the return trip).

On a weekday in February, the trail was understandably empty. After our first attempt, we read a considerable number of trip reports so we were expecting to see at least a few people on a clear Sunday in October, but we were definitely the only people around. We didn't see any bears or mountain lions either, but they left plenty of evidence of their close proximity all over the trail. In the forested area right before the saddle, we heard a large animal rustling around, fortunately lacking the characteristic stealth and aggressiveness of a mountain lion. Unfortunately, we didn't spot the bear that saw us, and we thankfully didn't see any of the mountain lions that were surely aware of and annoyed by our presence on their mountain

Iron Mountain has been called lots of things, but a disappointment isn't one of them. It might not be the highest peak around (8,007') but it's so isolated that it every time you turn around on the trail you see rows and rows of ridges that you've never seen before even though you've done dozens of hikes on trails just a few miles away. 

Pine, Dawson, and Baldy
Just like with most of the hardest hikes, the summit of Iron Mountain rewards you with incredible views in absolutely every direction. If you weren't so exhausted from the first 7.5 miles and ready to get started on the dreaded descent, you'd want to just stay up there and turn around slowly until you've seen everything there is to see from Iron. As usual, don't bother giving yourself a foolish pat on the back once you reach the summit; the descent is harder than the ascent. You only gain about 600' on the way back (for a total of around 7000'), but you realize how steep the ascent was when you're trying desperately not to go flying down the trail as you slip helplessly on all the loose soil. I should point out that self-arresting is much harder in sand than in the snow.

Once we finally passed the hardest part of the hike and got back to the saddle, we made sure to make as much noise as possible to avoid surprising any angry lions or bears and kicked up the speed to make sure we got back before dark. We did run in spots, but as smart people might point out, running is not a good way to avoid confrontations with mountain lions since running humans look strikingly similar to running deer, through the eyes of those silly deadly lions.

*I'm paraphrasing.


  1. Your paraphrase of Robinson included (As Mr. Spock might say) a lot of colorful metaphors. ;D

    I've only gone as far as Heaton Saddle. Hard to believe, but that was almost 11 months ago. My impression then was that it would be basically a cross-country hike if I wanted to keep going further in any direction from there.

    Thanks for another entertaining post!

  2. Very good blog - is in my favorites. Greetings from Poland :)

  3. A friend and I set out to conquer this beast yesterday. Given the summer heat, and mostly exposed route, we got underway at 4:45 a.m. This is one humbling adventure but we got it done in 6:45:52 according to my Garmin. That's including a much-needed and earned dunk in the East Fork River before hitting the last small patch of trail back to the gate. My body got hammered in the process and we each went through 3-4 liters of water and electrolyte drinks along the way. Thanks for putting together this kick-ass blog!!!

    1. Damn, you guys are fast! Must have been hot as hell on the trail yesterday.

    2. The return was a death march for me with incessant heat,cramping, and tendon issues but had no choice but to press on. I was glad to make it back in one piece without incident.

    3. Sounds rough. Glad everyone made it back safely.

  4. Great blog! I did iron in late may 2012. Reading this recalled the agony as well as the exhilaration and sheer joy of the hike. The yucca were blooming brilliantly. I'm going back to iron for another beating the day after tomorrow. It's gonna be a thrill!

    1. Awesome! Hope you had a fun and safe climb.