Monday, July 5, 2010

Mt. Baldy via Ski Hut/Devil's Backbone aka "Nemesis: Conquered!"

Hike: Mt. Baldy

The Inspiration: Climb Up So Kids Can Grow Up

Highest Altitude: 10,064'

Trip Mileage: 7.4

Total 2010 Mileage: 118

Money raised, nemesis faced, mountain climbed!

It was about this time last summer that Rebecca and I first talked about hiking up to the summit of Mt. Baldy. We decided to spend the summer whipping ourselves into shape and mentally psyching up for the (seemingly) dreaded Devil's Backbone trail, and by the time our minds and bodies seemed ready, the Station Fire whipped in and screwed up the whole thing. 

We knew we'd get a crack at Baldy this summer, but the opportunity came sooner than expected when Modern Hiker put together a team to raise money for the American Foundation For Children With AIDS, as part of their nationwide Climb Up S0 Kids Can Grow Up event. Rebecca signed up, I signed up, we both raised a nice wad of dough, and on Saturday, July 3rd, we found ourselves staring down 10,064' of mountain madness.

A nice scrum of people gathered at the trailhead, and after passing out some mini Larabars (note: Key Lime Larabars= tangy tropical vomit) and a few words of encouragement, our intrepid leader laid waste to the trail, with a baker's dozen of us in tow. We soon passed a hairpin turn with a vista of the somewhat non-splashy San Antonio Falls, and (purposefully) ran into photographer David Kiang, who snapped some pro-pro shots of the group in various states of adventure.

Moments later, Casey shouted for us to hang a left.

Where? I thought.

I looked to my left. Nothing but slope. And trees. And dirt. And rocks. And wait...was that a faint-looking, very steep-looking, very unpleasant-looking footpath?

Why, yes it was. The Ski Hut trail. Our trail.

Memories of internet-researched trip reports all flooded back at this moment - the climb from trailhead to summit on this route was about 4000' in about 4 miles. For those non-hikers out there, this is like hiking at a 45 degree angle for an unbearable amount of time - add to that the steady thinning of oxygen, and its various effects, and you'll soon come to understand the slightly masochistic undertaking ahead.

True to my fears, this sucker wasted no time ziggy zagging up the slope, sending us 2.5 miles up to the Sierra Club's adorable little green ski hut. Though I spent most of these miles sucking in air and giving off steam, it was hard not to appreciate the gorgeous alpine scenery surrounding us - conifers galore, butterflies, birds, and peaks for miles.

At the hut, we took a well-earned break, and Rebecca made a break for an outhouse behind the ski hut that she heard was the most beautiful outhouse in the universe - or something similarly incredibly (inaccurately) superlative. I shot a few snaps of the outhouse from afar and when Rebecca returned, she summed it up: "It's bad. It's really, really bad."

For some reason, this sent my bladder into overtime - kind of like when someone says, "This is disgusting - try it," and you try it. Suddenly I HAD TO PEE. I wandered up to the adorable green outhouse, emblazoned with an adorable crescent moon. And then I smelled it - and heard it - before I got close enough to grab the handle. The flies (and I would soon learn, bees) were swarming around inside and out, and what can only be described in my best Vincent Price voice as the foulest stench in the air, the funk of forty thousand years, all massed up inside this tiny little green outhouse.

I choked a little bit. I let two people go before me. Then I decided that I'd rather pee in this rank den of poo than off the side of the mountain, so I dashed in, did my business, and made a mental pact with myself to try and forget what I smelled, lest it permanently taint my olfactory sense.

After a decidedly more pleasant hang outside the ski hut, we refilled our water bottles at a tiny waterfall just down the trail, and made our way across the "Rock Garden," a jumble of large boulders that brought back memories of the alien above-treeline landscape of San Gorgonio

All was well and fine until we hit the portion of the "trail" that would take us up the far slope of the Baldy Bowl. "Trail" is in quotations because this was not a "trail," this was a dusty, loose, gravelly little death march straight up the side of the mountain. This part was quick, but this part was not fun, and I'm pretty sure I used up my fairly healthy stock of swear words here. 

We came out on top of a ridge, and headed up for another set of scrambly, hand-and-foot-power-requiring "switchbacks" (Hahahaha, trailbuilders - you guys are a freakin' hoot!), coming to rest on a wide saddle with the rest of our group, where we refueled for the final climb. At this point, my pace was down to an elderly shuffle, and switching to autopilot, I was stunned when I crested the last "switchback" (Ha! HA HA HA!) and yelled out to no one in particular, "Is this Mt. Baldy!?!?" 

And it was.


Not content to lounge about, I ran back and forth across the wide summit, snapping photos of everything and anything. In my semi-crazed summit fever, I barely registered the mustachioed man carrying on about singing something together, until I was handed a lyric sheet for "America, The Beautiful," which we all sang, terribly off-key, but joyously, at the top of our lungs. All four verses (three of which I didn't know existed until this moment). 

Pumped full of patriotism and delirium, I was ready to face the challenge of the much-ballyhooed Devil's Backbone trail on the way down. Mildly obsessed, I spent a lot of pre-hike time scanning the interwebs for horrifying photos of this ridgeline trail, and subsequently spent a lot of time trying not to throw up when thinking about crossing it.

Before the most devilish part that gives the trail its name, we had to descend some 700' in a little more than half a mile. On loose, gravelly, poorly-constructed, slippery, slidey "switchbacks." I would just like to state for the record that whomever constructed these trails is a total jerk. 

I found myself on my butt at least twice (once on purpose; once not), and nearly hugged the mountain when the trail spit us out on relatively flat ground next to Mt. Harwood. The next part was easy going, until we started winding around Harwood and the trail got a bit thinner and steeper, and my heartbeat got a lot faster and stronger. 

But then the ski hut came into view! And the narrowest stretch of the Devil's Backbone came into view! We were almost there!

And then there was a rockslide, and you know how we feel about rockslides. This one occurred on a particularly thin section of trail, probably mere minutes after the bulk of our group passed this very spot. First, one rock. Then two. Then more than two. Then a lot more than two. 

I estimated the rockslide to take about minute, but it felt like a century. And in that minute/century I had one very concise, clear thought: "I am not going all the way back up Mt. Baldy and down that damn Ski Hut trail. I will wait here patiently for rescue." And then the rocks stopped falling and the family in front of us crossed carefully, one at a time (and set off a smaller rockslide below), and then Rebecca and I crossed carefully, one at a time, and that was that. Rockslide over.

When we finally got to the supposedly hairy portion of the Devil's Backbone, it didn't feel very hairy at all. The views were superb, spread for miles and miles on either side. This is what I spent an entire year worrying about? This grand patch of trail? I chided myself and enjoyed the epic views as we descended to the ski lodge, where I promptly devoured the best bunless cheeseburger, Coke, and french fries that have ever crossed my lips.

Then we paid ten bucks and took the chairlift down, because according to Modern Hiker, that's not cheating. I had a mild heart attack when our chair suddenly stopped and swayed gently over this yawning gap in the mountains, but soon we were on solid ground, in the car, and on the way home, and in the days since, I've crowned this not only the hardest hike I've done, but also my absolute favorite. 

Now, having topped out on Baldy and San Gorgonio, it's time to complete the trifecta of Southern California's mountain crown jewels - San Jacinto. Soon enough, soon enough... 

What Would Ed Do?

Ed would be proud. Damn proud.



  1. Great write up and a great time meeting you, Shawnté! Good luck with San Jacinto!

  2. Kolby is proud. Damn proud!!! Nicely done, Shawnté!

  3. Nice to meet you, too, Rob! Pretty great hike, right???

    And thanks, Kolby :) Proud of you and your Telescope Peak marathon this weekend!

  4. Sweet writeup, and very helpful for my upcoming trip along the same route... Mahalo and Aloha.

  5. Hi, Roo!

    Thanks for reading - let me know if you have any specific questions. It's a pretty sweaty, but incredibly gorgeous trail - a must do!!!

    (And awesome blog, by the way!)

  6. Love the write-up! I completed The Trifecta on the 3rd (tho not on Baldy, but on San G). When I did Baldy, we did the opposite route (sans the ski lift). Up to the lodge, across Devil's Backbone, and down the Baldy Bowl trail (grinding our knee joints into useless pulp in the process). Good times...

  7. Hi Shawnte,

    Thank you for participating in Climb Up and I loved your write up. It's a classic!

    I hope that we can catch up sometime soon.


  8. Hi, SoCal Hiker - we'll have to meet up on the trail one of these days! We'll do San J this summer - did San G last year (first time Team WWED, Modern Hiker, & The Hike Guy, Kolby Kirk all hiked together! Ah, memories! Can't imagine taking the Ski Hut trail down - although we saw quite a few people slide their way down the slope rather than follow the switchbacks at some of the steeper points!

    Hi, Bill! - I'm so honored to have been a part of Climb Up So Kids Can Grow Up via this hike! I'd love to continue to be involved in future projects!

  9. Hey Shawnte - love your blog as well!

    What's the scoop on water nearby the ski hut? You said "tiny waterfall." Enough pooled to make use of a filter?

  10. Thanks!

    Plenty of water there right now for the drinking - once you leave the ski hut and head towards the Rock Garden, you cross over this "tiny waterfall"/stream business -I filled a 3L camelback there in a nanosecond, purified it chemically (yum), and went on my way. Should be enough pooled up to make use of a filter, too.

  11. Awesome, thanks! Will post how it goes.

  12. Funny write-up.

    I planned to try that steep route up Baldy last week, but I blew right by the little rock ducks for that turnoff. I ended up going all the way to Baldy Saddle, then across on the Devil's Backbone, and returned the same way. My write-up is here.

    Went up San Jacinto earlier this week. That was a tough one.

    Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I don't have the endurance to do Gorgonio as a day hike.