Saturday, April 15, 2017

Sugarloaf Redux (Orange County)

Hiked: 4/14/2017
Distance: 7.6 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 3227'
Elevation Gain: 1507'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.20
Round trip time: 4 hours 15 minutes
Recommended water: 72 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Difficulty: Strenuous (class 5 summit block)

One of the first Lower Peaks I hiked four years ago was Sugarloaf in the Santa Ana Mountains. The Sierra Club guide mentions a class 5 summit block. With fledgling rope skills, I felt an obligation to return and stand on the summit block. I upgraded the rating on this hike to strenuous since it includes carrying the weight of the climbing gear out and back, and climbing the summit block. I parked at the small turnout near Blue Jay campground, taking the same route to Sugarloaf as I did in 2013. Since my last visit, the road had been repaved and was in great shape. I started down the San Juan trail staying left at each side trail leading up to the campgrounds. At the first 4-way junction, I turned left, though going straight would also get you to the next 4-way junction in a more leisurely and shaded way. At the second 4-way junction, I continued straight dropping down to a series of glades near Chiquito Spring. This is probably the most scenic part of the hike. I saw two mule deer in the glade but they bounded away too fast for my camera. Poison oak was heavy along the trail through Chiquito Spring, even intruding in a few places. The trail then started to grow more rutted showing heavy mountain bike use. I passed 8 bikers on the day, 4 out and 4 back. By comparison, I only met 3 hikers. When I reached the use trail to Sugarloaf, I followed it to the summit area and unpacked my climbing gear. I took a few pictures around the summit boulders and scrambled up the class 3 lower boulder to look at the air gap. The lower block is only about 4' lower and is separated from the higher block by a 4' air gap. It is possible to make the leap to the higher block, but there is no margin for error. After I completed this hike, I found a picture of my friend Brad Stemm on the summit and jumping back from it on Patrick O'Neills blog. A slip or bad landing might lead to a 15' "plinko" between the two blocks, banging your head multiple times on the way down. A successful jump requires a risky leap back to the lower block. I wanted no part of it my first trip and looking at it again, decided that using a rope was safer.

Sugarloaf from the start

One of the lush glades near Chiquito Spring

Use trail start

New summit sign, highest boulder in the back middle

West face, shortest ascent line of the class 5 boulder

Air gap from below, between the highest (left) and 2nd highest (right) boulders

View of the gap from the 2nd highest boulder

Standing on the edge of the lower boulder looking at the highest boulder across the air gap

I circled the highest block looking for the best anchor locations and ascent lines. The boulder is strangely shaped, kind of L shaped. The shortest line was up was the west face, about 15' and also the most convenient to climb. There were tiny imperfections in the rock that might serve as holds. I checked out a few boulders on the opposite side for anchors, but one was rotten so I decided to use two healthy trees instead. I threw the 30m dynamic rope over from the ascent side, (it took three tries), then I rigged the anchor with 1" nylon webbing and two carabiners. I returned to the ascent side and geared up. I attached my harness to the rope with a prusik for protection, and rigged a second to use as an aid if needed. I made a couple of attempts to start up using only rock holds, but the rock was not vertical. It was a little more than 90 degrees, and tilted back at me in a slight overhanging angle. I could not stay on the holds for more than a few seconds. I fell back on my 2nd prusik for aid, but as I stepped down, the dynamic rope stretched and negated much of my effort. I should have brought the static rope I used on Squaretop. Eventually, I was able to struggle up enough to get a foot hold on the rock. Then, I used upper body strength to pull myself close enough to swing my left leg over the lower part of the summit and pull myself the rest of the way up. It was probably the ugliest climbing I've ever done. First class ugly, but I got to the top. The summit was big enough for several people. Layers of rock were flaking off the very top. The views were great and I took some video and photospheres to enjoy later. There were no official marks on top and I didn't expect any. After a short celebration, I realized I left my belay/rappel device in my bag below and would have to rely on the prusik to get down. I learned another important lesson today -- always rappel from summits if possible. I had re-positioned the rope to what I thought was ideal for friction, then slid toward the edge. As I started to go over, the prusik hung on the lip and I was stuck. I had to find purchase on the rock with my feet to ease the pressure on the knot so I could slide it down. I worked it free and lowered myself further. What happened next, putting a positive spin on it, was a semi-controlled rapid descent to the ground. I came down quickly through part of a tree into a sitting position on a small boulder at the bottom. I took a quick inventory of body parts and found no major damage. Whew. I did have a pretty bad rope burn on my left hand from the rapid descent. I was surprised the prusik did not bite past the lip. It might have gotten tangled when I tried to free it. Anyway, I should have combined it with an arm rappel and not relied solely on the knot. A teachable moment. After a brief rest to catch my breath and sign the register, I gathered up my gear and started the hike back. Despite two aspirin, my hand screamed at me all the way to the truck. The class 5 summit boulder was more difficult than I expected, but it was worth it to nab the true summit block. I left a good-natured comment on Bob Burd's site prodding him to come back and climb it, but he may not have taken it that way. The comment is gone. I am sure he would do a better job climbing it than I did.


Looking up the rope from the ascent side

Rope coming off the back side to the anchor

Climbing the rope more than the rock

Over the edge

Looking back over the ascent side

Old Sugarloaf from the Sugarloaf true summit

Looking at the air gap back to the lower boulder

Looking south to the summit area, register can is underneath the large boulder


  1. The problem with those summit blocks is coming back down!


    1. Hikin' Jim,

      Yeah, getting down is often more difficult, especially if you've left equipment behind. Doh!

  2. Congrats on getting to the top. Glad you didn't break anything. Then one of those mountain bikers would have had to ride you out on his handlebars.

    1. Sean,

      The first rule of rope club is we don't talk about injuries related to rope club. Haha.

  3. You have graduated nicely to more technical climbing. Them trail walks are gonna seem dull now by comparison. We'll have to conjure up some poison snakes and whatnot when we go out to keep things interesting for you.

    1. Madison,

      I'm still a peakbagger at heart. Technical climbing is just a means to an end. Trail walks that lead to great summits are still at the top of the to do list. Poisonous snakes are always welcome (at a safe distance).

  4. Optional summit block? What optional summit block? haha

    Good stuff.

    1. Mike,

      No longer optional for me, and crossed off my list, but I'm not sure my story will inspire more people to climb it.