Friday, July 26, 2013

Mount Whitney Day Hike

Hiked: 7/25/2013
Distance: 22.6 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 14505'
Prominence: 10075'
Elevation Gain: 6189'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 4.95
Recommended water: 336 oz. (water available on hike)
Parking/Fees: $15/person for day hike permit, parking free at Whitney Portal
Difficulty: Very Strenuous

Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48. For that reason alone, it is very popular and requires a complicated lottery process to get a summer hike date on the main trail. In addition to the red tape, Whitney is a tough physical endurance test at 22 miles and 6100' in elevation gain, and the stress of very high altitude climbing. There is nothing technical on the main trail, it is just a long hike up a very big mountain.

I set a goal for myself to climb Whitney in December, 2011, and that goal directed a lot of the hikes I chose over the previous year. My official training hikes leading up to Whitney focused on distance, elevation gain, and altitude exposure. In order, they were San Jacinto, Harwood, Pleasants Peak, Chicken Spring Lake, San Gorgonio, and Cucamonga/Bighorn/Ontario. Looking back, while doing training hikes at altitude helped, it was no substitute to being acclimated, which can only be done in the days immediately before the hike.

My lottery hike date was July 25, and I drove up to Lone Pine the day before to pick up the permit and wag bags at the visitor's center and get settled in the Dow Villa motel. I was lucky to be able to check in early. When I got to the room, neither door key would work. The manager verified the door was broken and sent a handy man over to repair it. I had checked my GPS batteries the day before and it read four bars. Now, it read one. Once the door was repaired, I found a hardware store to pick up more AA batteries. With those annoyances behind me, Rod and I headed up to Whitney Portal to look around. We checked out the store and walked a short way up the trail. We met up with Sandy and her brother at the Portal. We had all been concerned about lingering thunderstorms from early in the week. Bad weather could ruin any summit attempt.

I requested a wake up call at 1:30 AM and set my phone alarm as well. I had a breakfast of chunk white chicken and pop tarts, got armored up and met our group in the Dow Villa parking lot at 2:30 AM. We got on the trail at 3:30 AM in complete darkness. I used both a headlamp and flashlight for lighting. There were several stream crossings early, one over logs. All the streams and lakes were high due to heavy rain early in the week. The forecast for hike day was a 30% chance of thunderstorms, and ominous clouds hovered throughout the day. The clouds broke and returned several times, but it never rained and lightning was never a danger.

The beginning of the hike went quickly and we passed Lone Pine Lake, Outpost Camp and Mirror Lake. We saw a deer on the other side of Mirror Lake, but it was too far away for a photo. The forest smelled strongly of pines and everything was lush from the recent heavy rains. Sandy was having hard time keeping pace with the group, so she and her brother set their own pace and planned to meet us at Trail Camp.

Sunrise on Whitney Trail

Waterfall near Whitney Portal

Rod, Sandy, and Danny on one of many stream crossings

After sunrise, we passed the stream and waterfall of Trail Side Meadows, then climbed a granite section to Trail Camp at 12000'. We took a long break here to eat and refill our water supplies from the small adjacent lake. There were a dozen or so tents set up a lot of people milling around. As we were heading out, Sandy and her brother made it to Trail Camp and started their break. The other four of us began climbing the 99 (technically 97) switchbacks. Like the rest of the trail, the switchbacks are mildly graded and generally easy for a 1700' ascent when there is no snow present. The stream around switchback 23 was flowing strongly and crossed many lower switchbacks.

Trail Side Meadows

Rod and Rich at Trail Side Meadows

Consultation Lake

Mt. Whitney obscured by clouds from Trail Camp

At the top of the switchbacks is Trail Crest at 13600'. It allows spectacular views both east and west of the Whitney ridge. Many of the large Sierra lakes come into view from here. The trail continues north along the west side of the ridge behind Muir Peak, the needles, and finally Mt. Whitney. Although the gain is only about 900' from Trail Crest to the summit, I think this is the most difficult 2.5 miles of the trail, far more so than the switchbacks. The trail gets more rough, there are many dangerous drops on the left side, but mostly because it is all done above 13600'. For many people, altitude sickness bites here. The temperature changed quickly as the clouds broke and reformed, causing us to add and shed layers accordingly.

Trail Crest sign and random hiker

Spires at Trail Crest, the trail goes left

Guitar Lake and Hitchcock Lake from Trail Crest

Hikers on the Whitney Trail past Trail Crest (can you spot them?)

View down a window

Mt. Whitney in the distance

Rod in front of Keeler Needle and Crooks Needle

When we reached the summit, I took a few photos, ate a snack, and signed the register. I thanked Rich, Roz, and Calculated Risk for inspiration. Rod was crashed on a summit block. Rich and Roz were eating and resting, and there were a dozen or so other summit loungers. A playful marmot came out looking for food, and by his plump size, apparently had been quite successful. After 10-15 minutes, my headache was suggesting descent. The others agreed. On the way down, AMS hit Roz pretty hard. She required assistance navigating the stretch back to Trail Crest. We met Sandy and Danny at Trail Crest. Danny continued on the summit while Sandy waited at the John Muir Trail intersection due to her nagging AMS. Danny got to the summit and we all met up again at Trail Camp. We refilled water again at Trail Camp and headed down.

Rich and Roz heading toward the summit house

Standing on top of the lower 48, for a little while

Keeler, Crooks, and third needle

Upper Boy Scout Lake from the summit

Wales Lake from the summit

Summit marmot

Rod made an excellent video of the trip.

Reflecting on Mt. Whitney, it takes a confluence of events to make the summit on the first attempt. All of the following need to work out in your favor:
  • win a lottery hike date (or get an abandoned permit/go off season)
  • have favorable weather on your hike date (completely out of your control)
  • have reliable transportation to get to Lone Pine and the Portal
  • make it to the Portal at the right time
  • don't get sick immediately before the trip
  • don't have any family emergencies immediately before the trip
  • do the hike without getting severe altitude sickness
Being willing and able to do the hike is only one piece of the puzzle. You also need a little bit of luck.

Additional Info:
Mount Whitney Portal Forum

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cucamonga Peak, Bighorn Peak, and Ontario Peak

Hiked: 7/12/2013
Distance: 16.4 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 8862' (Cucamonga), 8444' (Bighorn), 8696' (Ontario)
Prominence: 1299' (Cucamonga), 361' (Bighorn), 1039' (Ontario)
Elevation Gain: 5262' (combined)
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 4.20
Round trip time: 8 hours 20 minutes
Recommended water: 192 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Difficulty: Strenuous

This was my final training hike for Mt. Whitney, and I wanted it to be difficult. I chose three peaks in the San Gabriels from the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks List and added a splash of cross country. Bam! I planned a route starting from Icehouse Canyon to Cucamonga Peak, dropping back down to the saddle between Cucamonga and Bighorn, off trail up the ridge to Bighorn, then back on trail out to Ontario Peak, returning through Kelly Camp and Icehouse Canyon. The plan was to bag 3 out of the 7 peaks in the Cucamonga 50 (C50), a superhuman hike-a-thon completed by Sean Green and documented on the San Gabriel Mountains forum. I broke one of the C50 rules by going cross country, but I have no aspirations to attempt the full C50. I don't think anyone else has taken up that challenge either, so far.

I started at 5:40 AM from the Icehouse Canyon parking lot with the required permit. There were a couple of other vehicles in the lot with people preparing their own hiking or camping adventure. I started toward the saddle moving at a decent pace and passed a couple of hikers. On the upper section, a couple passed me, also on the way to Cucamonga. They were moving fast, and I would run into them later on the Cucamonga summit. When I got to the saddle, I took the second trail to the right, signed as Middle Fork, but stayed higher when Middle Fork dropped. If you see the fallen tree on the trail just past the saddle, you are on the right track. There is no clear sign for the Cucamonga Peak trail, but it skirts the opposite side of Bighorn Peak from the trail to Kelly Camp and Ontario.


The Cucamonga trail eventually passes the saddle between Cucamonga and Bighorn, then starts steep switchbacks to the top. The lower switchbacks are talus and scree. It gets sandier as you ascend. Near the top, the Cucamonga sign is flat on the ground, but someone wrote "CMP =>" with the arrow pointing in the right direction where the summit trail leaves the main trail. The views from the top are maybe the best from any local mountain. The drop off is severe, leaving nothing but views of the metropolis below and the lower mountains and foothills. It was still mostly cloudy and hazy so my photos didn't turn out great. The couple that passed me was on the summit and we started talking. They are both competitive marathon runners (so I don't feel so bad), and were at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs exploded. They told harrowing stories of the chaos. Because of the events, they both felt compelled to run it again and both qualified for the next one. They were very nice people and took a picture of me with my phone and I snapped one from them before they trotted back down.

Caves on the Cucamonga trail. Some reports say the lower cave goes back about 30 feet.

Downed summit trail sign. It pointed in the right direction, straight ahead.
The main trail continues to Etiwanda.

View of metropolis and Saddleback in the distance

On the Cucamonga summit

Rob and Terri on the Cucamonga summit, having blazed past me in Icehouse Canyon

After resting for a while and looking around, I headed down toward my next goal, Bighorn Peak. As I was descending Cucamonga, I could see a pretty clear use trail going up the Bighorn ridge, at least part of the way. When I got down to the saddle, I followed the trail up the ridge. There is a steep part, then it levels out, then it gets steep again. A short way up, I saw two faint use trails. One followed the ridge and the other was about 40 feet below the ridge. Both looked usable but I stuck to the ridge. As I neared the top, the trail faded in and out, but that close, it was not really needed. The summit of Bighorn had a tin chocolate can holding a fresh summit log. It appears to have been started around July 1, 2013 and my entry was about the 5th. Bugs were buzzing me on the summit, so I didn't stay long. I followed the more clear trail toward Ontario Peak.

Starting up the Bighorn ridge

Looking down, part way up Bighorn ridge

Bighorn summit

Descending from Bighorn toward Ontario Peak, I passed a sign at the trail junction to Kelly Camp and continued straight. The trail stays on the Icehouse Canyon side of the rough ridge line, avoiding a lot of roller coaster action. The trail was nearly overgrown with bushes and weeds in several places. Worse, the bushes were filled with buzzing bees. I've never seen or heard so many bees. I was reluctant to force my way through some of the sections and considered trying to find a way around, but ended up just pushing through. As I got closer to Ontario, the trail cleared up. It seemed like I traveled a long way before finally spotting the Ontario summit. The views were nearly as good as Cucamonga, and it provided better views of Baldy and friends. The summit consists of a small boulder pile, but I found a summit log under a prominent tree. It was also a fresh log, only dating back to June 24, 2013. There was also a bottle opener installed on the tree. I didn't have any bottles to open, but appreciated the sentiment. I climbed the summit boulders, ate the last of my food, and started down. Just below the summit, I met two hikers on their way up. They told me they had seen a family of bighorn sheep just below Kelly Camp and showed me a photo. I was quite envious, since I had never spotted a bighorn sheep in the wild.

Ontario Peak descending from Bighorn

Rough and tumble Ontario ridge; the trail bypasses it

Sign at trail junction

Overgrown trail section, buzzing with a thousand bees

First sighting of Ontario Peak

Ontario summit tree, log, and bottle opener(!)

Cucamonga Peak from Ontario Peak, it was a long day

When I got back to the trail junction for Kelly Camp, I readied my phone (which is also my camera), and started scanning around for the bighorns. I had not seen anything when I reached Kelly Camp. Shortly before reaching the Icehouse Canyon saddle, I saw two bighorns maybe 50 feet above the trail. There were a total of five that I saw, and more may have been a little ways up the hill. I took a few pictures, then a video, then some more pictures. I thought they might run if I moved or made noise, but other than staring at me in curiosity, they were unconcerned. I was very much in awe of them. This encounter with a group of noble bighorn sheep was one of the best experiences I've had while hiking.

First sight of the bighorn herd

Staring contest, three in this shot (one is lying down in the shade)


Back at Icehouse saddle, there were about a dozen people resting, and the trail was busy with afternoon hikers. I was about 50' behind a couple walking single file, the man in front, when the lady screamed and jumped off the trail. Then, she did some kind of involuntary shudder. As I caught up with them, I asked if she had seen a snake. She pointed in horror and said "I almost stepped on it". It was a rattlesnake, slowly crossing the trail about a mile up from the Icehouse trailhead. It had 7-8 segments in the rattle, but the snake was possibly a juvenile. It made no attempt to warn anyone nearby by rattling. The sun had finally come out and now so had the reptiles looking for some basking time. I left a growing crowd with the snake and made my way back to the car.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Aliso Canyon Meadows Trail to the Pacific Ocean

Hiked: 7/7/2013
Distance: 10 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 888' (high point on the ridge)
Elevation Gain: 1250'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.00
Round trip time: 3 hours
Recommended water: 64 oz.
Parking/Fees: $3 OC Parks
Difficulty: Moderate

Like all hikes that start at the Aliso-Wood Canyon parking lot, there is a tedious 1.5 mile segment along the road to get to Wood Canyon and the other trails. On the plus side, there is a surprising amount of wild life in the canyon and sometimes you spot a bobcat or rattlesnake along the way. For directions and maps, check out the OC Parks web site. For a good description of the first 1.5 miles, check my post on Aliso-Wood Canyon to the Top of the World.

From the parking lot, follow the road or trail parallel to the road until you reach the main trail into Wood Canyon. Almost immediately after turning right into Wood Canyon, the signed Meadows Trail branches off to the left and wanders parallel to the road until you cross a wooden foot bridge and hit a T-junction at a dirt road. At the junction, turn right and continue on the Meadows Trail up the ridge. This is where most of the elevation gain and work is. Watch out for mountain bikers coming down.

Start of the Meadows Trail

Tiny bit of shade at the start of the Meadows Trail, then none the rest of the way

Looking east into Aliso Canyon from the ridge, Saddleback in the distance

The Meadows Trail ends at the top of the ridge where it intersects Sommet Du Monde Road. I turned left on a use trail before the road and followed it past a fenced goat farm with about 50 curious goats. The City of Laguna Beach uses these "fire goats" to clear dried grass and brush from the hills to reduce the threat of fires. I continued southwest about half a mile to Moulton Meadows Park, staying on the left side of the park as I approached. The park has water fountains and picnic tables, but I didn't see any restrooms. Near the south end of the park, there is a playground. Before that, there is an exercise sign that reads "Achilles Stretch". Just past the sign is a pine tree and a use trail veering left. Leave the park and take the use trail to continue along the ridge of Aliso Canyon. I did not find the trail immediately. I ducked into and out of the brush a few times, as a lady with two dogs sitting at one of the picnic tables watched with suspicion. She might have thought I was a shady burglar casing the neighborhood, cleverly disguised as a hiker.

"Fire goats" on the ridge!

Looking back north into Moulton Meadows Park

Sign and pine tree where I exited the park on the use trail

The trail turns into a fire break, then eventually back into a single track trail as the ridge line descends a few hundred feet. I followed the ridge to a small unnamed hill directly overlooking the well hidden Aliso Creek Inn 9-hole golf course tucked into the canyon, Laguna Beach and the Pacific Ocean. From the hill, I could see the packed parking lot for Aliso Creek Beach and a mass of humanity enjoying the 4th of July weekend. The hill had what looked like an Orange County Surveyor benchmark sticking out of the ground, but it was missing the cap. I rested a bit, ate my snacks, and pondered whether this trek into the Canyon would allow me to list my house as "within walking distance of the beach". While returning along the same path, I spotted a large road runner on the trail, who was always a few seconds ahead of my camera. As I was returning through the Moulton Meadows Park, I saw an orangey bobcat on the edge of the brush, but once again, he was faster than my camera and slipped silently into the brush.

Heading to the unnamed hill overlooking the beach

Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course hidden in Aliso Canyon

Aliso Creek Beach, Laguna Beach, and the Pacific Ocean

Possible OC Surveyor benchmark with no cap