Mt. San Antonio
Sierra Club Ski Hut Trail
June 16, 2001It was a star filled early morning when I awoke from a fitful sleep. I scrambled out of bed to turn off the alarm so as not to wake my wife and padded downstairs to eat a high carbohydrate southern breakfast of white rice with milk, sugar and butter. It was only 4:00am and my mind was in a fog as I gulped down each bite of rice forcing it into my stomach. I repacked my Lowe Contour Mountain 40 daypack, checking off items as I went making sure nothing was omitted. At 10,000 feet in the mountains a missing compass, first aid kit or firestarter could be a deadly mistake. I loaded my truck and made one last trip upstairs to make sure the kids were still asleep and gave my wife a gentle kiss on the cheek. This would be another day away from them that I dreaded but I knew it was necessary as I was preparing for a fall climb up Mt. Whitney. I drove out into the darkness and onto the Northbound I-15 Freeway from Temecula California to the Eastbound I-10 Freeway and exited at Mountain Ave. in the city of Claremont. Arriving earlier than expected, I stopped off at Denny's Restaurant and took advantage of their clean restrooms, as this is now my early alpine ritual. I parked in the Von's Pavilion parking lot and anxiously awaited the arrival of my climbing partners, Troy and Dave, who were carpooling in from Orange County. I checked the outside temperature with my pocket thermometer and checked my altimeter while I waited.
Dave and Troy drove in the parking lot earlier than our 6:00AM start time so we loaded up the bed of my truck while Troy crammed into the rear jumpseat of my truck after careful logistical rearrangement of some of the gear. He mentions that he needs to use the restroom so we look for a place along the way to the trailhead at Manker Flats.The road to the trailhead is uphill, as it usually is going to the mountains, and the truck lugged itself and its cargo toward Mt. Baldy Village. Mt. San Antonio is better known as Mt. Baldy and is the third highest peak in Southern California at 10,064 feet. It looms above the L.A. Basin and is the backdrop for many Hollywood films and postcards. I drove through the snakelike twists and turns past Mt. Baldy Village and the Trout Pools toward the locked U.S. Forest Service gate that would signal our arrival at the trailhead parking lot. The Sierra Club Ski Hut trailhead is about one mile past the parking lot and San Antonio Falls. With the passing of a new regulation requiring an Adventure Pass for parking of Forest Service Lands in Southern California, I could tell our monies were being wisely spent. Signs advising everyone that an Adventure Pass would be needed were erected everywhere while the trailheads and parking lots were left mostly unmarked. I drove past Manker Flats Campground and looked for a possible trailhead sign. I had spoken to an employee at the Mt. Baldy Visitors Center the day before who told me to park in the designated parking area in the middle of the road and look for the San Antonio Falls trail sign. I spotted the locked Forest Service gate and noticed it was the only area where vehicles could park in the middle of the road. "This must be the place", we said aloud but no signs indicated the presence of a trailhead or San Antonio Falls. We parked across from two bright blue portable toilets and threw on our packs. I ran across the road for a photo then we all squeezed past the Forest Service Gate toward the Falls.
This was Troy and Dave's first trip with me as I usually go solo. I had been planning this strenuous dayhike for about a month and suggested what gear they would need and the reasons why. I stressed the need to be prepared in case of accident or injury, as the mountain environment can be a cruel classroom. I made them a gear list and brought in my things to show them exactly what I meant proving everything fits in a small daypack. We began our hike up the semi-paved section past several cabins nestled among the pines and came to a sharp U-turn in the road and the San Antonio Falls. This June, the water was flowing swiftly and cascading down 100 ft crashing into a pool at the bottom. From here we could see the massive slide of the Baldy Bowl and the tiny little teal Sierra Club Ski Hut perched on a ledge 2 miles above us. One of the biggest apprehensions of the trip planning was actually finding the Ski Hut Trail. I had read other trail accounts and knew it was unsigned and not readily visible from the fireroad. Where's the Adventure Pass money where you need it! I had read one account that stuck in my mind which said, "After the falls, follow the road to where it bears to the left slightly, go another 70 feet or so and look for 2 prominent features, a dead tree and a rock outcropping. Just a little further and the trail goes up to the left." I checked my topo map and took the slight left turn and "BAM"; there was a single dead tree on the right and the rock outcropping on the left. Just past the rock outcropping I spotted a faint footpath in the rocky hillside. We all knew we had found the trail and scrambled up 100 feet of loose rock and dirt into the trees. Here is where Troy found the reddish brown metal stand off to the right in the shade of the trees at the top of the hill. I opened the top and found the trail sign-in register. I signed us all in and Dave checked for the oldest log entry in the spiral notebook, December 1999.
"This is where the trail really starts", I told them. Here the altitude is 6200 feet and it's 2 miles to the Ski Hut at 8200 feet. I figured that we could make the Ski Hut in two hours and the summit in four if we kept an even pace. I reminded them of the adage,"Drink Little, Drink Often" to fight dehydration and to ward off AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness. I planned on drinking two liters of water then refilling at the spring near the Ski Hut. This should carry us through the Summit and across the Devil's Backbone to the Mt. Baldy Ski Lodge where we could refill if necessary.
The trail was steep but easily followed. We gently climbed skyward through the pines and picked our way along the trail with only the sounds of our trekking poles clinking over the rocks. As we climbed our view of San Antonio Canyon and westward toward the L.A. Basin became more apparent. I had pre-marked a location on the map where I had set an azimuth to the entrance to Gold Ridge Mine. Now having arrived at the spot I was disappointed to find our view blocked by brush. Further up the trail I pointed out a likely looking spot of the mine but encroaching rockslides covered the entrance, Yeah, that's it. After passing the clear spring gushing out below a rock on the trail, we arrived at the ski hut. Ski mountaineers built the Ski Hut in 1937. The "Founder" of Southern California backcountry skiing, Dr. Walter Mosauer, made a ski descent of Old Baldy in 1932 and was so impressed with the natural bowl and snow conditions that he first suggested the erection of a "Ski Hutte" in Baldy Bowl. After founding the Southern California Section of the Sierra Club in 1934 he acquired a permit to construct the Ski Hut. It was built by pure sweat of human labor and volunteer workers who hiked up to the 8200 ft site near a year around spring. The hut was burned to the ground the next year but rebuilt and remains in its original condition today.
We dropped our packs and got out our cache of nuts like squirrels. Trailmix, banana chips and energy bars were quickly devoured as we admired the view from the front steps of the ski hut. We snapped a few photos and dodged other hikers passing through on their way to the summit. I admired the teal colored wood sided ski hut that looked like a Swiss Chalet. I noticed how clean and well cared for it appeared. Maybe some day I'll get permission to spend a winters night here, I bet its gorgeous at dusk. I reset my altimeter to 8200 ft and told the guys it's time to refill the water bottles and head out. We dropped into the headwaters of San Antonio Creek and chatted with other hikers who had picked a shaded spot next to the water. I set my pocket thermometer in the water while I filled my water bottle. After refilling, Troy and I dropped a couple of iodine tablets into the clear cold water, swishing it around with the cap loose to disinfect the threads and set the bottle aside a few minutes to breathe. Dave arrived as we crossed the creek and started up the ridge on the west side.I told them this would be the crux of the hike, especially where the trail turns northward. We met up with a friendly female hiking alone. She said she had been up this route before and pointed out the direction across the boulder field. I started up toward the west ridge while Troy and Dave followed. She said she moved to Long Beach, Ca. from Upstate New York and was training for a hike up Mt. Shasta. She said the trail gets sketchy for the next couple hundred yards and to keep my eyes open for the trail. I picked a likely looking path among the rubble and found our group on a loose dirt and scree covered hillside, high and right of the trail which she was on. I apologized to the guys and we got back on track. Once across the rubble field we hit steep switchbacks up into the trees. We were at about 9000 ft. and we could feel the altitude. Troy said he was getting a headache and starting to feel nauseous. I had a slight headache too but thought it was from the compression on my skull due to wearing a ballcap and sunglasses rather them an early onset of AMS. I told everyone, "Baby Steps" to pace ourselves as we chatted about Mt. Whitney and Mt. Shasta feigning interest to keep our minds off the long arduous climb ahead. We had to high step over bulging tree roots and relied heavily on our trekking poles as they encouraged us over the steepened terrain toward the top of the ridgeline. Here is where I remembered my thermometer, still chilling, in the stream beside the ski hut.
We took a brief rest while our female companion continued northward alone. This is the beginning of the final stretch toward the summit I told them. Here is where we'd feel the altitude and told them to drink twice as much water as you think and to maintain a slow and methodical pace. We're making good time and it's important to look good at the summit.We enjoyed the brief slightly inclined trail until it began to attain a rock outcropping overlooking the valley below to the southwest. The views downhill to the southeast opened up to reveal the Saddleback Mountains (Santiago & Modjeska Peaks), Santa Catalina Island and off toward the L.A. Basin. Here the trail narrowed and steepened. We approached an older couple in their late 60's or early 70's who had paused on a rock just off the trail. They were both clad in long sleeve denim shirts and pants and appeared ready to go work in the garden. She had red & white cotton gardening gloves along with a wide brimmed hat. They had stopped to let the young bucks race ahead with our mouths agape gasping for air. I half-heartily said, "Are we there yet", (like I did as a child to my parents on a road trip). "Almost!" they replied. "You'll see the summit after topping out on this ridge", he said. I only had the energy to wave over my left shoulder and grunt as I passed.
Here is where Troy displayed his tremendous conditioning and trail prowess racing up ahead of Dave and I. I whispered to Dave, who had snuck up behind me while I paused for a breath, "Where's Troy going"? Dave is an avid runner who always seems to be in shape whether he trains or not. I think he stayed behind me out of politeness so I wouldn't feel like the oldest and fattest, which I certainly was. I told Dave, "I think Troy just wants to get it over with", as we made a final push for the summit. All of a sudden a solo oriental lad carrying a tiny daypack took the inside track and passed us all like a he was in the carpool lane and beat us all to the top. Troy had stopped up ahead for no apparent reason and looked down on us from above. We finally gathered together and made a push for the last 100 yards, together, as a team, as it should be.We welcomed the slight rise to the summit and rejoiced in our accomplishment. This was their first climb above 10,000 feet and first to a spectacular view. I had summited San Gorgonio and San Jacinto but this was my first ascent of Mt. San Antonio and first as a team. We rushed to the windbreaks and dropped out packs. I ran over to the summit marker and snapped a photo. I was disappointed to discover this summit did not have a summit register but was just as proud to be on top of the third highest mountain in Southern California. It was a breezy 70 degrees on my spare R.E.I. zipper thermometer and there was not a cloud in sight. The view was about 50-75 miles and we took in the vista towards Catalina, Hollywood, Victorville, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. I pulled out my map and located some landmarks pointing out Troy's house in Brea.
Twenty people adorned the summit. Some looking like grizzled mountain climbing veterans with expensive packs and glacier glasses, others clad only in running shoes and shorts. Two ladies brought their dogs while another hiker brought his 8 year old son. We shared our windbreak with a hiking club from Redlands while I pulled out my Yaesu VX-5R Ham radio and gave a demonstration to an interesting duo wearing all white NorthFace Cloud backpacks. About half the folks looked they knew what they were doing, the others were typical tourists. I thought to myself, I wonder what they consider us. Both men and women of the experienced group looked the same, darkly sun-tanned and sinewy with nary an ounce of fat. The rest of them looked like Mr. Potato Head. I admired their tenacity for making the tough climb but dreaded the thought of giving CPR until help arrived. We hung around for about an hour chugging water and munching on food with a cardboard consistency while Troy took off his boots, socks and shirt to get a quick tan in the high UV atmosphere. Dave bathed in sunscreen while I tried to keep things from blowing off the summit from my opened pack. I never sat down, afraid my legs would stiffen and partly because I didn't want to miss anything going on in base camp on Everest. Interesting people, interesting gear and interesting expressions once they reached the top.
I had a general idea about the beginning of the trail down across the Devil's Backbone eastward towards the Baldy Notch 3 1/2 miles away. I'd seen photos on the Internet and read warnings advising against winter travel due to severe exposure. We were all somewhat apprehensive about crossing the backbone but from the summit it appeared to pass to the right of Mt. Harwood and didn't look that difficult.
We started down the steep East Ridge towards the backbone. The loose scree trail was steeper than it looked from the top. Many people were coming up toward the summit from the easier Baldy Notch route and we had to maneuver around eachother in passing. Once we passed Mt. Harwood the extent of the Backbone is readily apparent. The trail narrows to just a few feet with drops over 1000 feet to each side. The view is spectacular eastward towards Lyttle Creek and down the Baldy Bowl towards San Antonio Canyon. Along the backbone the off shore breeze blows swiftly across the trail. Dave stopped and offered us some lip balm if we would get it out of his pack for him. Troy and I passed it around and gave it back to Dave who used it to rim his nostrils, which were drying out. Glad we got to use it first.
Sometimes you must tiptoe sideways, sucking in your gut, while passing weary people coming up from below. At one point the trail drops off severely to your right with a loose dirt and scree slope to your left. The trail is about 2 feet wide as you circle around the head of a bowl, a crossing of about 50 yards. Passing others hikers was exciting, as you would have to lie up against the slope on your back while others slithered sideways, back to the drop-off and face to you. I passed an older oriental woman who grabbed onto my shoulders as I snuck by her on the outside edge. As we passed toe to toe my heels started a small scree avalanche off the edge sending my heart racing. After seeing this I noticed other hikers on the other side of the bowl decided to wait until it was clear and traverse this section single file.
Along the way I noticed sharp jagged pieces of broken off pipe poking out of concrete buried in the trail. After awhile I noticed they were spaced fairly evenly and remembered an article I had read a few months back. According to the article, the Devil's Backbone had the route cabled for safety due to heavy winter storms. The poles were bent over and busted off by snow loading, never to have been replaced.We eventually completed the backbone section as the trail turned into a dusty and rocky service road towards the notch. I spotted the upper ski chair lifts and stopped for a break and more photos. The temperature had increased 15 degrees and the sun beat down on us relentlessly. Troy was getting low on water and was reluctant to sip out of the brown tainted iodine water he had acquired at the ski hut. We knew we were close to the Mt. Baldy Ski Lodge and figured we could get water there if needed. I peaked into the shack at the top of the lift and looked at the Ski Patrol Rescue Toboggan and "Danger Avalanche" signs made with crossed skis. Bright yellow rope hung high up in the trees near the steep drop-off behind us warning skiers of "Out of Bounds" areas. We could see the buildings of the Mt. Baldy Ski Lodge and started down.
I picked up the pace and arrived at the lodge well out front of the others. I waited for them at the front of the Mt. Baldy Ski School and large bell out front. We were all pretty dusty and parched dreading the thought of a long 3 1/2-mile walk down the hot fireroad back to Manker Flats. We went into the cool ski lodge. I bought a large icy cold coke and checked out the vintage ski photos and Elk antlers while glancing out the front window. . Troy washed up in the bathroom sink and rinsed out his water bottle refilling it from the faucet. Dave bought a soda but threw half of it away just as we walked out the door.I stepped it out going down the dusty fireroad, 2 trekking poles in one hand and a gigantic white Styrofoam cup in the other. I was savoring every drop of ice. We walked about a half mile and ended up right below the lodge. Troy saw a faint footpath and decided it'd be a great shortcut. The trail was steep and full of loose scree but it did cut off a lot of boring fireroad. I hadn't seen where the shortcut met the fireroad again but Troy assured us that he had seen it. Reluctantly I followed balancing the coke cup and screeing downward behind the others. Sure enough we met the fireroad and decided it was easier to plod along on the road rather than take our chances in the scree. We eventually passed the turn off for the Ski Hut Trail and Falls but we kept going until we got back to the truck at 2:45PM. Dave and I celebrated with an ice-cold beer while Troy took off his shirt. On the way down the mountain we stopped off at the Mt. Baldy Visitors Center. I checked out the stuffed Bighorn Sheep and raccoon while the nice lady rung up a patch that I bought to add to my summit patch collection. Troy got an education in the mining industry and Dave guarded our stuff in the truck since he had already taken off his boots. We arrived back in Claremont and Troy treated us to burgers at Carl's Jr because we couldn't find an IN & OUT. I dropped them off at their car and headed home to Temecula.
Ithink the trip was a success. We didn't get lost, injured of ill. I bagged another 10,000-ft. peak and whet their appetite for another climb. All of our gear performed well. My hydration bladder didn't leak this time. Troy and Dave's new boots didn't give them any blisters and their Masters Trekking poles performed admirably. All of our headaches went away after we took off our hats and I had fun with post AMS flatulence on the way down.
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