One foot in front of the other. Stab ice axe into ground, take two steps, stab ice ax into ground, take two steps.
Yesterday, Michole and I climbed a snow and ice covered Mount Baldy. For a mountain known for being snow capped, relatively few people ever see a snowy Mount Baldy from the top down, and most of those who do, see it in the shoulder season, when only a few hundred meters around the summit is holding snow. The recent two bouts of winter storms in Southern California have left the mountain covered in snow, all the way down to the visitor’s center and below. Given how unusual this is, and not knowing if we will be in Southern California for another chance next year, we headed out yesterday morning at 4 am, planning to assault the summit, and make it home in time for us both to be at work by 5. (for a description of baldy including trail directions)
It was by far the most intense winter hike that either of us had done. Covered in 4 feet of frozen snow, the climb lies somewhere between hiking and mountaineering. On the trail by 6, just before dusk, the snow started immediately upon stepping out of the plowed parking lot. In less than half a mile we broke out the crampons, and at the ski hut trail turnoff, we both traded a trekking pole for an ice axe.
Fortunately, there were a few sets of footprints to follow, which stuck loosely to the ski hut trail route, but largely forgoing the many switchbacks. This was key for us, because they showed that someone had successfully crossed the numerous avalanche shoots crossing the trail. The scenery was beautiful, and included a great sunrise, but the sunrise wasn’t entirely welcome, as it would progressively thaw the ice for the rest of the day.
Highlights of the hike included a sketchy run up to the ski hut, which ascended straight up the gully carved by the stream. Even by 7:30am when we hit it, it was fairly thawed, and we could hear the water gurgling beneath us as we trudged up to the ski hut, moving as quickly as we could, but the length and grade of the slope made the going slower than I would have liked. Here we took in the view, had a snack, shed a layer, and continued on.
Soon after, the bowl loomed large above us as we traversed under it. A fleeting thought of climbing one of the shoots vanished as soon as it entered my mind. The footsteps in the snow continued on past the bowl, and went straight up the ridge south of the last chutes on the bowl, but north of the trail, staying just in the northernmost edge of the pine trees. From here the going was slow and steep, with no switchbacks, each step was a battle, and the warming temperature softened things up enough that we frequently had to kick steps, but exiting the trees on the ridgeline yielded amazing views, and a huge sense of accomplishment.
From here, all that remained was a mile, straight past what would have been the switchbacks, up the ridge, past two false summits, to the summit. Again, with no switchbacks, it was a hard climb, though not as steep as what had come before. The going was slow, and it felt far more exposed than I ever dreamed the trail could when we climbed it in the summer. The ground fell away from us in all directions, more gently behind, steeply to both sides, but it continued inexorably upward in front of us. By now we were consistently punching through the ice with each step on the unshaded ridge which had taken the full brunt of the sun for around three hours at this point, and considering we live a single flat mile to from the ocean, we could feel every one of the 10,064 feet of elevation.
Finally, after three and a half hours, I paused to let Michole close the distance between us, and we summited together. Our only other experience there had been in late September, when we shared the summit with probably 20 people, and a fierce wind that actually made it much colder than yesterday, when I didn’t even put a jacket on for the summit. We rested, took a few pictures, took in the view, I made a half hearted attempt to dig to where I thought the summit placard should have been, and then we headed down. Beautiful though it was, all I really wanted was to get off the summit and to the bottom of the bowl as quickly as possible, because my anxiety level rose with the temperature, and the thawing of the snow.
Fortunately, we were able to glissade down much of the ridge, though a few exposed spots on the side made me wonder that I had climbed them in the first place. Near the hut, we encountered several people hoping to make the summit, and it made me grateful for our early start. I don’t think I would have pushed up the ridge with the snow already that soft and the sun that high. At the hut, we stopped and stripped down to our base layer from the waist up, then hurried down the couloir below the hut. From there, it was pretty straightforward back to the parking lot, 6 hours after we’d left it.
At the car, I felt a rush of euphoria. I was so happy to have made it to the summit and back down safely. While I was happy to reach the summit, I couldn’t let myself relax, my mind had been dominated by the descent. Even on the last paved mile I guess I hadn’t really let my guard down. So all at once, it was like the experience dawned on me at that second.
I feel so blessed to be able to explore the world around me, and our first true winter hike was such an amazing experience. And on top of that, I get to do it all with the love of my life, knowing that we are both in it for the same reasons. All of this washed over me, and I spent the rest of the day in a glow, even when I had to shower and drag myself, bone tired, to teach my boot camp at 6 pm.
There is something about being in the wild places on this Earth that brings me closer to the Earth, to myself, and to my wife. The conditions on the mountain yesterday seemed to take us to a far wilder state than normal, and it was an experience that, no matter what happens in the future, I know I will always hold close to my heart.
I hope that this will inspire you to venture into the wild places of the Earth, even if you have to bend yourself around a schedule that would make it easier not to. I hope you experience it, and I hope you find in it all that we do and more.
Mount Baldy Trailhead Parking Just Past Manker Flats Campground:
Parking Just Past Manker Flats Campground
Gear We Used on This Trail
Altra Lone Peak 6
A great pair of lightweight, zero drop trail running shoes that are great for hiking. I first bought these shoes after I had injured my foot, and was looking for something with an especially wide toe box. I have loved these shoes for both hiking and the occasional run. If you have never tried zero drop shoes, they take a bit of getting used to, but I loved them so much I wish I could get backpacking or mountaineering boots that were zero drop!
Saucony Women’s Peregrine 6
Lightweight trail runners. If you are not ready to make the switch to zero drops, or if they just don’t agree with you, this is a great, neutral pair of trail runners. Michole has used these for fifteen plus mile hikes in rocky terrain with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, and loved them every step of the way.
Men’s Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec
Another pair of lightweight, adjustable, folding poles. I use these and feel that they are the perfect pole for me. I am confident that if/when these poles are retired, I will replace them with another pair of the same. If you would like to read my full review of these poles, you can find it here.
Black Diamond Distance FLZ Womens Poles
A great, lightweight, adjustable, folding set of poles. Michole uses these poles and loves them. In fact, she wrote a full length review on them. If you would like more info on these poles, you can read it here.
Osprey Stratos 36
This is a great daypack, and will likely serve you on overnight trips, depending on how lightweight and compact your gear is. It features Osprey’s “Anti Gravity” suspension system. This lets more air flow to your back and, more importantly, shifts the weight of the pack from your shoulders and back to your hips. I love the “Anti Gravity” suspension so much, it’s hard for me to imagine ever buying a pack without it. I wrote a full review for this pack, you can find it here.
Osprey Manta AG 28
A great women’s daypack, the Manta is a dedicated hydration pack that comes with a 2.5 litre reservoir. This has been an extremely solid day pack. Like the Stratos, it features Osprey’s patented “Anti Gravity” suspension. The external mesh storage compartment, as well as several divided compartments with easy access make this a great pack for storing snacks, gloves, hats, or anything else you might want on the go.
Black Diamond Vector
Whether you are climbing at the crag or mountaineering, the Black Diamond Vector is a great choice. It is well ventilated, lightweight, very easy to adjust, and features very functional headlamp clips. We chose this helmet over some of its competitors mostly due to the fact that it offers a bit more coverage on the sides. This is extremely important for climbing, because you will likely turn your face away if you hit the wall, exposing the side of your head.
CAMP USA Stalker Universal
The Stalker by CAMP USA is a great crampon for general mountaineering. The universal, strap on bindings means that they can be used with almost any mountaineering, backpacking, or hiking boots. This makes them an excellent choice for anyone who wants/needs a solid set of legitimate crampons, but does not want to spring for a pair of mountaineering boots. They have served us well on several hikes in ice and snow, including our climb up the iconic Baldy Bowl.
The Petzl Glacier is a lightweight ice axe with a straight shaft and a hot forged, positive clearance pick. Michole uses this ice axe and has been extremely satisfied with its performance. The same hot forged pick as the more expensive Petzl Summit and its light weight both set this ice axe apart from others near its price point.