Saturday, December 27, 2008

Into the Heart of Wilderness: Hiking to Big Horn Sheep Country

Initially, I felt hesitant writing about the series of three hikes where I attempted to reach Fish Fork Campgrounds -- because I never found them -- but, perhaps my note could still serve as an aid to anyone trying to a locate the place in the future. The fact that I no longer reside in the States will inhibit my further endeavors, so I have to register these attempts as my best efforts.

A note on this trek: (1) the hike is relatively long, isolated and quite poorly marked. (2) Water is only available at three places unless there is still snow on the ground. (3) As the name suggests, the place is Big Horn country, so mountain lions are probably also around. While there, several times I had distinct sense of being watched and my normally calm dog was also positively spooked. Hiking alone for the outlined reasons is probably not recommended.

There are two other ways to reach Fish Fork, hiking up through the East Fork of the San Gabriel River from Chrystal Lake, or from the direction of Mt. Waterman. This blog offers a trek description from Manker Flats through Baldy. Because of the length and elevation variations, this hike is best attempted after the snow completely melted from the peaks but before the hottest summer months, giving a relatively short window for ideal conditions. During my first attempt on May 6, '08, there were only few spots of snow on San Antonio Peak. At the same time the north face, however, still had two feet of snow cover and occasionally six-feet-high drifts, even down at 7000'.

The backside of Baldy does not have a marked trail, only a cross-country path down to the saddle (8659 ft.) and up again toward Dawson Peak (9375 ft.) on a relatively well-worn trek. In many ways this part of the hike is one of the most visually dramatic, thanks to its giant roller-coaster quality and because of the view offered up to the San Antonio Ridge running perpendicularly in the back, the double peaks of Dawson and Pine Mountain along the ridge line up front, and the Wilderness down to left.

Continuing halfway between Dawson Peak and Pine Mountain, the trail goes off left and runs a bit below the peak of Pine Mountain, eventually reaching the old and barely noticeable signpost of Fishfork Junction. At this area where I had the singular pleasure to run into a band of big horn sheep. This is also where the last tangible evidence of any kind of trail planning is visible in this region.

The junction turns 180 degrees and follows the trail going the opposite direction for a while until it soon entirely disappears among a series of fallen large pine trees and becomes detectable only occasionally from this point on. From here I can only provide GPS points and their corresponding descriptions. I also must add (with some reservations) that I think I found the Upper Fishfork Campground, although I can't be entirely sure because my assumption is only based on a split in the trail at the end of my last hike where I also found a rusty coffee can.

At N 34.18.324' W117.38.665' the trail runs down in a two sets of switchbacks and veers off the right approximately following the path of N 285' W 692', N 295' W 772', N 219' W 823', N 262' W 39. 011'. The trail here is a little bit easier to follow as it moves along the mountainside and crosses a couple of wooded canyons. The second canyon also holds a seasonal creek providing a source to replenish the water supply at N 478' W 38.974'. At N 499' W 39.457' the trail reaches an open mountainside overgrown with dense brush. Here the on-again-off-again trail switchbacks down to a high, wooded outcropping forked by rushing water from both sides some 1000' below. The coordinates to follow are: N 502' W 652', N 405' W 728', N 395' W 832' (a fine spot to camp). Further on the trek goes lower, off the right to another mountainside following the points of N 395' W 908', N 531' W 864'. At the second set of coordinates where the trail splits again to a waterfall on the right and to another wooded lowland straight below. I suspect that the trail going to the waterfall is where the Upper Fishfork Campground is(was) located. I did not go to that direction because I only saw the fork in the trail on the way back.

Again, I did not physically located either of the campgrounds, although I assume I got quite close to both of them, if they still exist. I do not know if anybody else manage to find them lately because I could not see any shoe print or sign of human disturbance of any kind. The country, however, is magnificent and definitely worth further exploring.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Kick-Ass Day Hike Sans Mountain Driving

After eyeballing this hike for a while, this week I finally decided that the time was right to do it: a Mt. Wilson Trail-West Fork Loop combo. Due to the length of the trek (approx. 30 miles) and elevation gain (700' - 5700'), a long but relatively cool day is required to avoid extensive night hiking and heat exhaustion, while maintaining a substantially brisk pace. For reference: it took me 12 hours to complete this hike with a half hour stop at West Fork Campground.

The first leg (Sierra Madre-Mt. Wilson section) should not take more than three hours to complete. There is a possible alternate starting point, Chantry Flats. I decided against this latter option though, in fear of not making it back on time and getting locked in.

Once reaching Mt. Wilson summit and start heading down to Newcomb Pass, the trail at this section suffers from various degrees of disrepair. Although the view is astounding, this goat trail is cut into a near-vertical face. At times, the footing is less than adequate, so trekking poles here truly come handy. Further down as the trail starts to levels off, the only occasional manzanita overgrowth creates some obstacles.

Arriving to Newcomb Pass, there is a bench for temptation, several beat up National Forest Service (NFS) signs and a memorial plaque commemorating a dead volunteer. Please note that the Wilderness Press: San Gabriel Mountains recreation map shows only three possible directions to proceed from the Pass; there are in fact four choices. To continue to Devore Campground, one must take the trail directly to the left. Further down as the trail crosses the Rincon-Redbox Fire Road, it does it in a rather awkward fashion: hikers have to walk on the fire road approximately 30 feet left to find the continuing and barely visible track.

Below the fire road, a series of narrow canyons shelter expansive groves of California Laurel. Consisting 60-80% of this single species of trees in the area, the canopy here takes an unusually bright, green appearance and some respite from the dirty-old oaks. More uniquely, some green grass grows here even as late and dry as in September, hinting of higher levels of ground moisture in these canyons.

Further down, Devore Campground is reached at the west fork of the San Gabriel River. Being a typical backpackers' camp, the site's only notable feature is perhaps its vicinity to a fine swimming hole. The trail here takes an East-to-West direction and runs along the riverbed to West Fork Campground. Continue to Strayns Canyon (which not once marked on any of the worn NFS signage), hikers must take the left at all trail branches.

Strayns Canyon might as well be called strains canyon. The first half of the path runs straight up without any switchbacks gaining 800 vertical feet. After that, the trail levels off somewhat and later climbs the north slopes of Mt. Wilson, through richly covered groves of pine. Once below the antennae, the trail pointing to "Mt. Wilson parking lot" takes its hikers back to the top of Mt. Wilson-Sierra Madre Trail, to proceed down to the starting point.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Biker rescue at Mt. Wilson Trail

On my recent training hike to Mt. Wilson, as it occasionally happens, I ran into a mountain biker flying downhill. I stepped aside to let him pass, but instead he slammed on the breaks and hastily let me know that his buddy was further up lying immobilized with a broken leg. Then he asked me if I knew, "What trail we were on!?"

Now, to me it seems rather imprudent to hit an unknown track where one risks a fair chance of getting hurt in the first place, however, some of these hapless bikers can only be partially to blame. The top end of Winter Creek Trail at Manzanita Ridge is clearly marked as a bike trail, without any suggestion for further bearings. Although the Altadena Toll Road one half a mile up is the natural choice to proceed, no signs indicate such a direction. So, invariably the riders that make it up to the Ridge, just take the first trail down to the left. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Mt. Wilson Trail (especially above Orchard Camp) with its steep banks, loose dirt, less than 6 inches width in many places, brush cover of less than five feet height at times and tons of bees during buckwheat flowering season is hardly conducive for riding. Just as this unlucky rider found out after the first hundred feet on the trail, where he was down with a broken tibia and a dislocated foot.

I checked on his condition, helped him elevate his leg, and just tried to get him as comfortable as it was possible under the circumstances, before hiking further up in an attempt to get a cell signal. When I reached 911 and gave them my location, they dispatched me to the LA County Sheriff air rescue who promised to send help shortly. I was only about two miles from the top, so I summited, before heading back to the sight of the accident.

Just passed the Toll Road on the way down, when I first spotted a Jolly Green Giant circling overhead, realizing that the guy must have been lying there by then for close to two hours. Noticing that the rescue chopper made several passes on the other side of Harvard Peak and the north face of the Ridge, I also recognized that they must not have the exact location of the stricken biker. I ran down on the firebreak to David Trinkle's Bench, and threw down my trekking poles into a cross on the middle of the clearance, in an attempt to mark my location. I got out my headlight too, set it to flashes, and held it to the direction of the helicopter for about two minutes, when they finally noticed me.

When the thing hovered close enough that I could make out the rescue guys' facial expressions, I started pointing wildly down-trail to let them know where the injured biker was. I thought I would hang around, and check out how they are going to come down, until I realized that the giant S-61 was making a beast of a sand storm as it was getting lower. I quickly picked up my gear and scrammed for cover.

At least I managed to shoot one picture with my cell phone. The biker called me a few days later. He said, he had been airlifted to Huntington Memorial and been sent in for emergency surgery the same night. He got a plate and some screws in that leg. Eric, I am glad you are all right, buddy...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Finish the 8k Challenge on the First Try!

timing schedule for runners and first-time participants
This post aims to help the first-time participants to better prepare for the Jansport 8000 Meter Challenge and to provide a guide for the course timeline. Attempting and completing this unique meet initially in '07, by no means I claim expertise on the subject and would never pretend to advise anyone on how to run the entire course (a feat, several participants do); I only want to share my experience, so with proper training and planning, others will have an enjoyable and successful experience at the Challenge.

Training for the Challenge
Initially quite a few of my teammates started hiking and running regularly at six-thousand-feet-elevation and above before the race, sometimes around mid-summer. It seemed intuitive to train at higher altitudes, considering that all three target peaks are above 10 thousand feet. Driving to a suitable trailhead several times a week, however, did not appear to be a practical solution. I trained, instead, at a local trail (Mt. Wilson Trail) that starts at 700 ft. and ends at 5600 ft. in a course of about seven miles. In retrospect, hiking a relatively steep terrain and the length close to half the distance of the event was quite sufficient. Also, sleeping at the starting point of the Challenge (elev. 6106 ft.) the night before, gave me plenty of time to acclimate for the altitude.

I started regular, timed hikes six weeks before the meet. By the last two weeks I ran much of the trail every other day. I also hiked twice in a hundred plus degree heat to check my endurance, considering that the event is held in September in Southern California's own Inland Empire inferno. I essentially wore the same gear during the training that I used at the Challenge too. Hiking with the same poles, breaking-in the shoes, and running with the pack that I later wore, gave me ample time to get rubbed, rashed, blistered and ultimately callused on the specific spots where the same gear would have given me plenty of misery during the 8K. Once I even ran my training route shirtless with my pack on, which left my back and shoulders pretty raw, however once healed, I never had further complaints again!

The event was held midweek in '07 and I imagine that being a standard practice, it will be the same every year. If one manages to arrive to the starting point the night before to get enough sleep, it is probably not necessary to get the day off from work. It is definitely worth getting there the night before and taking off rested as opposed to rushing up for the 5 a.m. start. Getting some time off the day after the event, on the other, hand is highly advisable mainly to recover from the inevitable weight and fluid loss.

Also, getting a friend to drive will make the hour-plus commute from trailhead-to-trailhead an extremely valuable time for rest, rehydration and recuperation. Just to calculate how much water and food to bring along, I had a two-liter hydration pack and a Cliff bar for San Antonio and drank a liter electrolyte replacement along with a light snack on the drive to Vivian Creek. On Gorgonio trail I carried a three-liter bladder, an extra liter-bottle of water and one liter of electrolyte replacement along with three Cliff bars and three packs of energy gel packs. This may seem like an overkill, but I saw several people turning back on this trail because of lack of water or severe leg cramps.

This second leg of the Challenge is also probably the most testing, and not only because of the distance (nine miles each way), but due the elevation difference from trailhead-to-summit, which offers some serious temperature swings. It is strongly recommended by the organizers to carry extra clothing and headlight. Also, due to the time constraints to catch the last tram going up from Palm Springs in order to complete the final leg of the event on San Jacinto, the participants are forced to push along as fast as possible, especially on the way down on this particular course.

Going up to San Jacinto requires a whole new set of gear mainly because of the overnight stay. I had a fully packed backpack with all the essentials to spend the night at Round Valley. I also switched into a heavier pair of boots because of the extra weight. Even though the distance from the top of the Tram to the camp is only about three miles or so, with the heavy pack it feels much longer. On the plus side, there is water at the camp, so no need to carry any liquid. Also, once reaching the camp and after ditching the big pack, reaching San Jacinto summit feels like a short but delirious otherworldly stroll in the night.

The Event
The Challenge starts at 5 a.m. Most everyone starts running up the fire road and some incredibly fit individuals pretty much stay with that initial speed throughout the event. The rest forms a big stampeding bunch, kicking up a whole lot a dust. Staying behind for about five minutes still allows plenty of opportunity to pass people while going up single-file on the Ski Hut trail. Once on the top, there is a little wait to register for the first peak completed. Use this time to grab a quick snack!

After getting back in the car and dumping some cold water on the feet, it is off to Vivian Creek. The best way going back to the freeway is through Mountain – hwy 210 –hwy 215 – hwy 10 or Mountain – Euclid – hwy 10. To reach Vivian Creek, exit at Live Oak Canyon Rd, go North on Oak Glen Rd., North on Bryant St., East on Mill Creek Rd., and continue to Valley of the Falls Dr. At the Forest Falls parking lot there are restrooms.

The Gorgonio trail starts up quite steep on the other side of a wide sandy creek bed. As mentioned earlier, this trail is where it is absolutely crucial to push on hard, all the way up! It certainly ought not take more than 4.5 hours to get up and 3.5 to get down. If one leaves the Forest Falls parking lot later than 6 p.m., there is really no practical chance to catch the last Tram going up to San Jacinto.

Once on the tram though, stressing about time becomes rather irrelevant. It is replaced by a simple sooner-to-finish-sooner-to-go-to-bed philosophy. Also, building a tent at Round Valley before going up to San Jacinto summit offers a hassle-free way to promptly pass out once back at the camp.

The posted spreadsheet of the time/distance breakdown of the Challenge used two timing; one for those long-legged, superhuman maniacs who will run the entire course (you will see them throughout the day); and one for the rest of us, mere mortals.

Good Luck!