The last few years that I lived in the Los Angeles area, I spent most of my free time in the mountains. Usually it was the Santa Monica or San Gabriel Mountains, but I also enjoyed the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains. They were my cure-all for work related stress, city traffic and the need for fresh air and exercise. Because the Santa Monicas were closer to my home in the South Bay, I spent more time there at first, especially for mountain biking and after work hikes. But as I got into longer hikes, backpacking, and especially peak bagging, the San Gabriels became my favorites. Anyone who doesn’t like living in the crowded big city of greater L.A., just needs to look up to the hills, where a whole different world awaits.
The main trail in the Cucamonga Wilderness is the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek Trail, which is accessed from Interstate 15, via Sierra Ave. I had hiked the trail numerous times, including my first solo overnight backpacking trip. Wanting to share this beautiful area with others, I organized a number of backpacking trips in the area. To me, any hike is better if it involves a mountain summit, so the first one was supposed to be a trip to Mt. Baldy. I figured this would be a nice overnight trip, especially because it would avoid the crowds on the normal Baldy routes that start in the Baldy Village area. Of course it would be a lot longer, but that is the purpose of a backpacking trip, something longer than a day hike. The trip would be about 28 miles, and was planned for December 8th and 9th, billed as the last backpacking trip before winter.
I was listening to the weather reports, and keeping an eye on Baldy as well. From the second floor windows of my house in Torrance, I had a great view of the summit, to check on snow conditions. Yes, there is snow in the mountains in L.A., and there is even a popular ski resort on Mt. Baldy. There had been some snow visible there already, but as the weekend approached, I was happy to see that it had all melted. Maybe others were wiser than us, but Frank was only other person to sign up for the trip. I hadn’t met him yet, but we were both on the Pacific Crest Trail email list and he responded to my invitation. Frank had previously through-hiked the PCT, from Mexico to Canada, and as that was one of my dreams, I was looking forward to meeting him and talking to him about hiking the PCT.
We met at the Lytle Creek Ranger Station at 8:00 on Saturday morning, where we got our needed permit, and were planning on taking my car from there to the trailhead, a few miles east of there. As Frank was putting his gear in my car, he realized that somehow he had forgotten his sleeping pad. I had a couple of extra small pad pieces that I used for double thickness under my hip and shoulder, so suggested that he could use those, instead of driving to the nearest Wal-Mart to buy a new pad, which was probably 45 minutes away. In the interest of saving time so we would still be able to reach our goal for the evening, Frank agreed with my plan. Our goal was to camp someplace along the section known as “The 3 T’s”, which are Thunder Mountain – 8587 feet, Telegraph Peak – 8985 feet, and Timber Mountain – 8303 feet. We started up the Middle Fork Trail, which climbs steadily up to Icehouse Saddle, which is at 7580 feet. Here is a major trail junction, with one trail going up to Cucamonga Peak, one up to Ontario Peak, another going to The 3 T’s, and a fourth one going down Icehouse Canyon.
As we hiked, I was enjoying getting to know Frank and hearing about his Pacific Crest Trail hike. We were about the same age, so it encouraged me to think there was a chance for me to do it as well, even though I was over 50. However, I hate being cold and wet, so when Frank told me about the ice cold river crossings in the Sierra Nevada, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do it. There were soon other things to consider though; we needed to find a camping spot for the evening. For some reason, I wanted to camp on a peak, so we had three options, one of The 3 T’s. The summit of Thunder Mountain isn’t on the trail, and I don’t even remember if we took the side trail up to it, but we decided to go on to Telegraph Peak – besides it was higher – and higher is cool to a peak bagger. Somewhere on our way to Telegraph, we were surprised to encounter snow, which wasn’t supposed to be there.
My house faces the southwest side of the mountain, which is clear of trees (hence the name Mt. Baldy) and was clear of snow as well. We were now on the northeast side and in the trees, and there was hard and icy snow on the slopes and on the trail. Of course neither of us had crampons or an ice axe, because I had said we didn’t need them. When we got to the summit of Telegraph Peak, there was snow all around. We finally found a small bare spot of frozen ground, but at least there was no snow. I think Frank spent one of the worst nights of his life that evening, trying to sleep on frozen ground with two small foam pads under his hip and shoulder. It wasn’t just a bad night’s sleep, I don’t think he got any sleep; he was so cold and uncomfortable! In the morning, it didn’t take us long to decide to call off the Baldy summit attempt. The trail was very icy, and on a steep slope. We had tried going up on the bare ridge to avoid the icy snow, but that didn’t continue long – soon we were back on an icy trail. We agreed that is was best to call off the summit attempt and head back down to the car.
We of course made plans to try it again in the spring, but Frank wasn’t able to fit it into his schedule. On a second attempt in the summer, the problem turned out to be a lack of water, but I, along with my friend Jady, made it to the summit, while two others decided to turn back. Jady and I finally found water at the lodge at Baldy Notch on the way to the summit, and enjoyed a nice lunch there on the way back. It’s a great overnight trip, just be prepared for snow and ice in the wintertime and bring lots of water in the summertime.