30 March 2013
Over the past couple of years, Luca and I have tossed around the idea of driving down to the Angeles National Forest to tackle the Iron to Baldy traverse. This traverse involves 10,000 grueling feet of elevation gain over 16 miles of steep, loose and brushy terrain. And that's if you are lucky enough to arrange a 1-hour car shuttle between the two trailheads. An out-and back would feature 12 thousand feet of gain and 24 miles.
We were initially planning to do an overnight snowshoe in West Tahoe, but with a forecast for nasty weather we started to question the intelligence of this idea on Friday morning. After desperately checking the weather forecast in just about every mountainous region reachable in a two-day weekend from San Francisco, we were desperate. Bad weather everywhere, except for a small window on Saturday in Southern California. At that point the decision was obvious. We'd leave work an hour early, toss our gear in the car, make the 6.5 hour drive down to the trailhead, sleep two hours, and then do the out-and-back version of the hike. Sounded like a good idea to me.
We pulled into paved parking lot on the East Fork of the San Gabriel River at about 2 in the morning. There was a surprising number of cars parked in the lot and people camping below at the river bank. We pulled out our bivy gear, set the alarm, and tried to get a couple of precious hours of sleep. The night sky was perfectly clear, and the nearly full moon was so bright that headlights were not needed. It was surprisingly warm, with almost no wind.
The alarm sounded at 4:47. After stalling and savoring a few extra moments of rest, we got up, grabbed our packs, and started off. It was hard to wrap my mind around what we were about to attempt. The trail started climbing very gradually. It gains about six thousand feet in 7.5 miles to the summit of Iron. Since this part is all on trail, I thought it would be fairly easy and fast-going. Well, I thought wrong. If I could give this trail a technical rating, it would be class 1.11d. At some point it becomes insanely steep, loose dirt -- probably worse than scree. And if you slide too much, your butt ends up making friends with a cactus. Nice.
It took us 4.5 hours to get to the top of Iron. No speed record, for sure. We had a quick snack while scoping out the traverse ahead of us. Baldy looked massive, towering 2,000 feet above us. Between the two mountains is a sometimes gentle, and sometimes spiny ridge. The first mile and a half involved some beautiful scrambling. Nothing felt overly exposed or difficult, but it was enough to make you think. As the route-finding was not trivial, this part of the traverse was by far the slowest. I had read somewhere that it's best to stay on top of the ridge as much as possible, and this strategy worked out rather well for us. The ridge contains a series of bumps, some big and some small. The technical crux is a large drop leading down to Gunsight Notch. So after every class 3 down climb we encountered, we thought we had reached the notch. But then after climbing 10 minutes we'd reach another notch. It took us a while to find a good route down to what turned out to be the actual Gunsight Notch. There appeared to be a use trail leading left, but it led to a very steep cliff band. We ended up staying high and to the right, where there was a series of ledges linked by short class 3 sections that led all the way down.
At this point, we were feeling pretty beat up; the prospect of doing an out and back seemed less and less realistic. Luca was under the impression that descending Baldy to the Manker Flat trailhead, we would have an additional 16 mile hike along the road back to our car. Although quite long, we might be able to hitch a ride, and at the very least we would avoid all of the nasty terrain we had just crossed. We decided that if we saw anyone at the top of Baldy, we would try to be friendly and then beg for a ride.
From the notch, it's a 2,500 foot slog to the top of Baldy. Many trip reports I read complained about giant, overgrown patches of buckthorn (i.e. spiky, dense brush), that are virtually unavoidable. Fortunately we were able to find a use trail slightly below the ridge and to the left that let us avoid much of the misery. There were a few more inconvenient "bumps" along this portion of the ridge. By this point, we were getting a little sick of the ups and downs. We had a magnificent view of West Baldy the whole time. The slopes leading up to its summit steepened greatly. At this point our legs were starting to tire and shake, but we pushed onwards and upwards, making fairly good time. To motivate ourselves, we watched the altimeter carefully and shouted with joy every time we climbed another 100 feet. There were several false summits along the way, but by this point we were used to it.
From the top of West Baldy, we could see a large group of people at the summit of Baldy. We could be saved!! We stayed at the summit no longer than 17 seconds, and then ran as fast as we could to Baldy. When we were maybe a tenth of a mile away, we saw the party start to head down. My heart sank. When we finally reached the summit (around 4:30pm), we found a couple of guys about to head down. We took in the views (which were incredible), made small chat, and explained our situation. They said they would give us a ride, no problem. I couldn't believe it; was it all about to work out so perfectly? The only catch was that they had taken the longest trail possible up to Baldy. It would add a couple of miles and a thousand feet on the descent. Fine by me!! At that point I would have given anything not to go back the way we had came.
The descent was absolutely treacherous, though. 6,000 feet over 6 miles. By the time we made it down my knees were aching and my feet were covered in blisters. I was so happy to have finally made it. We've done many hikes before with similar statistics, but I never felt remotely as beat up as I did from this one. All I could think about, though, was what a fun adventure it had been.
Unfortunately, the adventure wasn't quite over. It turned out that there is no road leading from the Baldy trailhead to where we were parked. In fact, the drive from one to the other takes around an hour! We felt terrible for misleading our new friends, but they insisted on driving us anyway (I had offered to take a cab instead). We gave a nice sum of cash to our saviors as a thank you.
This was our first outing in the San Gabriel Mountains, and we'll definitely be back. I never realized that there is such a beautiful and vast wilderness just outside of LA.