Manker Flat to Ski Hut Trail, Devil's Backbone Trail, Mount Baldy fire roads
4,000 feet of elevation gain
Manker Flat was almost full by the time I arrived, but I managed to squeeze into a tiny spot near the gated access road, pulled all of my things together, and set out. After winding up the access road, I climbed the steep entry to the Ski Hut Trail (also known as the Baldy Bowl Trail) and started into the tight switchbacks that make quick work of a couple thousand feet of elevation gain. I passed several people with full backpacking kits and chatted with some who were training for upcoming Mount Whitney bids.
As I approached the the Sierra Club ski hut, the canopy of pine trees opened up onto a view of the large talus field that forms a dramatic basin to the southwest of the hut. A steady line of hikers formed a zig-zag stitch across the landscape. The ski hut and its grounds teemed with hikers, and I passed through quickly, crossing the stream and navigating the boulder strewn path that crosses the talus field. I was famished, but I didn't dare stop for fear of being overtaken by all of the folks gathering at the ski hut, so I ate some hard cooked eggs and nuts and dried fruit while I walked. Soon, a mild, swiftly approaching cacophony became audible behind me. Bounding footfalls, falling rocks, prepubescent shouts, and teenaged grumbles signaled the awkward approach of a Boy Scout troop. I gave in, stepped aside, and watched the motley parade of young men pass by, trusting they would disappear into the side of the mountain soon enough.
The trail leveled off for a few hundred yards before sloping steeply upward again. Faint use trails snaked like wild vines up the mountain. I chose one and stuck with it. As I walked farther into a canyon, I began to doubt my choice. I came upon two piles of twisted, rust-eaten metal, the remainder of a bygone plane crash. I'd been on this walk twice before and never saw this wreckage. Rather than following the use trails that headed farther north, I turned eastward and uphill. As long as I was going up, I figured, I was sure to meet up with the main path to the summit, and it wasn't long before that I did.
The peak was lousy with folks, as always. I continued northeast across the summit to a small rock shelter where I put on a soft shell, laid my pack out to dry, and sat down for lunch.
I was glad to rest my legs and feet. I am still getting back into shape after a winter at sea level, and I seem to tire more easily than I remember. On this day, I was testing a new footwear setup. After developing some pretty severe foot pain and blisters on my backpacking trip in the Sespe Wilderness, I put my old New Balance 993s aside and bought a pair of New Balance Leadville 1210s in a men's seven and a half with a wide toe box. I also bought a pair of injinji sock liners that separate the toes. I wore the liners under a mid-weight wool hiking sock with the trail runners and desert gaiters, and my feet were feeling good. No hotspots, and no pain. I was so relieved.
On my way to the perch where I ate my lunch, I noticed that the rock peace sign that I like to think has been there since the 1960s was out of whack, so restored it, making it more legible again.
I shouldered my pack and shoved off down the Devil's Backbone Trail. Knees bent and light on my feet, I felt like a skier slaloming down the side of the mountain. My hood was up over my head, and the cold wind slammed against it, causing a racket inside my head while the rhythmic crunching of the scree and sliding rubble underfoot filled the air around me with tumble down sounds. Nonetheless, that particular kind of mountain quiet engulfed me, and I felt like I was both rooted to the ground and hovering just above it at the same time.
I crossed the sketchy trail that leads to the Devil's Backbone and looked out into the views to the north and south. Blurred by haze from nearby wildfires, the horizon shimmered its pale brown and blue, rising up all around me. I shot down the ski run and filled my water bottle at Top of the Notch before heading back over the four miles of service road I had to cover to get back to Manker Flat. The roads were being used that day by just a few mountain bikers and trail runners. As they passed, their speed underscored my slower pace, and I settled a little deeper into the Walk.