Mount San Antonio (Mount Baldy)
Loop: Devil's Backbone Trail to summit, Mount Baldy Trail to Manker Flat
10,064 feet above sea level with about 4,000 feet elevation gain from Manker Flat outside of Baldy Village
5 1/2 hours walking, about 1 hour at the summit
Corrina Peipon and Jennifer West
Jennifer was waiting for me at Manker Flat when I pulled in around 7:30. On our first Mount Baldy excursion, Jennifer had been enamored of the blooming yuccas and wanted to go back with her camera. I just wanted to do the walk again, to try it with different shoes and to see if I'd make better time. Jennifer carried her (very heavy) 16mm Bolex camera, and I wore New Balance 993s instead of my Zamberlans. I'd just gotten a pair of gaiters. Even though I thought they actually looked super cool, I figured anyone else would probably find them pretty silly. So, I asked Jennifer not to laugh at them, but she did anyway...
There were a ton of cars parked at Manker Flat, of course, but once we got onto the fire roads that lead up past the Mount Baldy Trail turn-off, we were on our own. It was quiet and already pretty warm, and we set a slow pace as Jennifer did some arithmetic to determine a rough shot list for the day and started filming. I moved ahead, and we met up again at Baldy Bowl. After a little snack, we headed up the ski run. It's no joke, walking up that thing. I came to a turn-off that looked like a really good idea: the relief of a few switchbacks was welcome. I looked back to make sure Jennifer would see where I was turning, and I noticed she'd struck up a conversation with another walker. When they caught up with me, I met Matt, a pilot and formerly avid hiker who was just getting back into taking long walks. He was walking on Baldy a few times every week as conditioning for a Mount Whitney bid planned for the end of the month. As we rested in a little shady spot to the side of the trail, he pointed out various peaks and other landmarks and told us about his days hunting down plane wreckage.
As we approached the Devil's Backbone, we all found our own paces, Jennifer hanging back to film us walking up. Walking ahead, I wouldn't see Matt or Jennifer again for another hour or two.
I felt free and light on my feet as I rounded out the trail at the end of the Devil's Backbone. I looked out at the incredible scene below me and continued on, my breath and my footsteps communicating through my body. As the trail wound its way through the boulders and pine trees, I thought about the last stretch to the top of the mountain. It was already quite warm, and I hoped that Baldy's infamous wind would provide a palliative to the high, bright mid-day sun on the bare slope leading up to the summit.
Leaving the last bit of shade behind, I gathered my focus and headed into the bleak terrain of sand, pebbles, and rocks, following the path slowly up and up and up. A young girl with a full multi-day pack stood to the side of the trail, breathing heavily, bright red cheeks too cheerful for the sad, tired look she had on her face. I asked her if she was OK, and she puffed, "Yes. Thank you." Once I noticed she had a friend up ahead looking out for her, I continued on. I must have gotten a little lost in my thoughts of how it felt to be walking because all of a sudden, I was there. I saw the sign marking the trail and all of the people giving each other high-fives, and I smiled and continued right on past everyone. When I'd stopped to check on the backpack girl, I tried to spot Jennifer but didn't see her. I figured I had enough time to get over to West Baldy before she made it to the summit.
It's funny how big things can look much closer than they actually are... It took me a little longer to get there than I had anticipated, but it was worth it. There was no one else there, and I admired the view over to Mount Wilson, where I'd been just a week before. I looked out the other way, over to Mount San Jacinto, where I planned to be a week later. I felt so lucky to be there up above the city in that sweet, clear air, and I ran all the way back to Mount Baldy's summit, where Matt had just arrived. I also saw that the backpack girl had made it and was in much better spirits now. Matt pointed out Mount Whitney way out in the distance and spoke of his worry about the climb. But he seemed none the worse for wear, having just arrived on Baldy's peak, and I had the feeling he'll be fine. Jennifer arrived a couple of minutes later, and we sat down for water, snacks, sunscreen, and fresh socks. Jennifer wound her film back so that she could double expose it on our way down.
Matt was heading back the way we'd come, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. As soon as Jennifer and I lit out down the Mount Baldy Trail, a walker coming the opposite direction stopped and said, "Wow! Nice camera!" Such was the case all the way down. Some people were so hot and tired and focused on getting to the summit that they barely noticed us passing. But there were so many people remarking on Jennifer's camera that it became almost absurd: one person even asked to take a picture of it!
Going up to the summit, I was so pleased with my footwear choice, but walking down the Mount Baldy Trail, I started to regret it. My runners weren't doing very well on the steep grade that's composed almost entirely of scree. I fell a couple of times and realized I need to find some more technique for walking on that kind of terrain. I'd been practicing sliding on Mount Wilson the weekend before, but the ground cover was different, and I was wearing my hikers. These things make a big difference... But once we got into the woods, we were out of the woods: as the tree cover increases, the grade of the path decreases, and the footing is much easier. We rounded out a few nice, shady switchbacks then hopped over the long stretch of boulders leading to the Sierra Club ski hut. At the stream that gurgles past the hut, some teenage girls sunned themselves like lizards on the big rocks and some young men at the side of the trail pretended to be consulting their map about which way to go next. Jennifer stopped to film, and I waved back at her that I'd meet her down at the foot of the trail.
I bounded on but stopped running when I turned my ankle just a little bit the wrong way. I passed through a thoroughly unwelcome cloud of aerosol sunscreen deployed by a hiker stopped in the middle of the trail and pressed ahead, hoping to get far enough past him and his girlfriend that I wouldn't have to listen to their conversation the rest of the way down. Unfortunately, he decided that he wanted to keep up with me... So, I gave in to the situation and eventually lost them. I passed two teenage girls, and one said to the other that she thought my "ankle things" were super cool. Yes!
I was buoyed by the teenage endorsement of my gear, but the fact was, my knees were killing me. I was already set to walk on Baldy again, but I vowed to never take the same route. The Mount Baldy Trail is meant to be walked up; walking down it is totally brutal. Next time, I will take the loop in the opposite direction or take one of two other routes that I'd like to try: the trailhead leading from the Baldy Village Ranger Station to the summit (out and back) or from Icehouse Canyon, across the three Ts (Timber Mountain, Telegraph Peak, and Thunder Mountain, into Baldy Bowl, and down via the Baldy Village Ranger Station Trail. These are much longer walks. Especially the latter. But the scenery is excellent, as is the condition of the trails. It's likely that these routes are less traveled, too. As much as I enjoy the sense of communion and camaraderie I feel with my fellow walkers, part of what I am looking for out on the trails is a little solitude, and the route I've taken twice now is simply lousy with people.
Back out at Manker Flat, our cars baked in the late afternoon sun. Jennifer and I said farewell, and I rolled down the mountain and back into the humming city evening. Can't wait to see Jennifer's film.
(For a few more pictures from our May 27 Baldy summit, click here.)