Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tom Sloan Trail aka "Rockslide Mountain"

One-third of my body is covered in Neosporin, which is in turn covering an interconnected network of deep scratches and stabby wounds. It kind of looks like I got into a girlfight on the playground in middle school, and the girl who won musta been sporting some mighty pointy Lee Press-Ons.

It all started innocuously enough: Rebecca and I, preparing for an upcoming ascent of Mt. Baldy and an eventual trek up Mt. Whitney, planned a "we'll wing it" hike from Eaton Saddle in the Angeles National Forest to either a) Bear Canyon Camp, b) Dawn Mine, or c) Mt. Lowe. It being the most mountainy of the three options, Mt. Lowe totally won.

The plan was for us to go from Eaton Saddle to Tom Sloan Saddle, then circle back up the East branch of the Tom Sloan Trail to meet back up with the Mt. Lowe Railway, and continue to Mt. Lowe from there. Log some miles, deal with some slightly hairy terrain, catch a little elevation, come out victorious. Done and done.

And wrong.

When we parked at Eaton Saddle, there were some mysterious signs posted on the lowered gate...but we didn't read them. Who needs signs when you have a keen sense of direction, intuition, and intellect? Not us! Signs schmigns! We coasted up the fire road and reached the tunnel, which had a bit fat yellow "FALLING ROCKS" sign posted outside. Well, falling rocks, schmalling rocks - we had a hike to do.

And then we saw it. The rockslide. Freakin' big chunk of rockslide blocking the trail at the end of the tunnel. "Hm, I don't know if we should cross that," thought I. "Hm, I don't know if we should cross that," thought Rebecca.

And then we crossed it, one at a time, the other person looking out for FALLING ROCKS. Rebecca went first and right after she buttslid down the far end of the slide to the trail, a rock fell. A freakin' FALLING ROCK. A FALLING ROCK the side of a baseball. Right where I had to walk. Gripping the mountainside in fear, I crouched and shimmied my way down without being bonked on the head. Rebecca and I exchanged a glance, then continued on our way.

We passed Markham saddle, descended through some switchbacks, and finally found ourselves at Tom Sloan Saddle. To Mt. Lowe it was.

Not ten minutes later: "OW!"

Spanish Bayonets. Yucca gone wild. Stabby little asshole plants. Blood sprung up from the back of my hand.

Five minutes later: "DAMNIT!"

Manzanita fortress. Stabby little bushes, forcing us to plow through them with elbows and knees and hats. Scratch, scratch, scratch.

Five minutes later: "SHIT SHIT SHIT!"

The Spanish Bayonets and Manzanita join forces on a rather thin, unstable section of the trail, as a gnat flew right into my eye, to stab me RIGHT BETWEEN MY PEACE-SIGN FINGERS. More blood.

We kept going, the trail got gnarlier, and we found ourselves leaping over gaps, sinking into scree, sending rocks careening over the side, and generally acting as one-woman adrenaline manufacturing plants. An hour into the hike, and we wanted to turn back, but "back" was a crap sandwich of a trail, and we just KNEW that the fire road had to be getting closer. So we kept going.

Then Rebecca uttered the two words I never want to hear her utter on a trail again:

"Uh oh."

And then some more words I'd rather never hear again:

"Um, I think we have a problem."

I rounded the corner of the washed-out "trail" and saw what she was "uh oh-ing": another freakin' rockslide, this one a completely diagonal slash of scree and rock pouring over the trail. I considered crying; Rebecca considered our options.

"I think that we can do it."

I protested. I did not feel like dying in a rockslide today. I started thinking about just staying right there until help came. And then I thought about how many bloody stabby scratchy wounds I had on my body, and about how delicious that might smell to a mountain lion, and I decided to listen to Rebecca's idea.

"I think that if I can hoist myself up and get a grip on that boulder, I can grab that tree and swing over the rockslide to the other side."

Um, no. Let's not and say we did.
Wait...cougar dinner.
On second thought...let's.

She planted one foot deep in the rocks and grabbed for the boulder. Then she dangled there, considering the tree branch. I considered peeing my pants a little. Luckily, Rebecca is full of the kind of internal fortitude that gets one through a situation like this (and gets me through a lot of situations like this), and in an instant she was swinging from a tree branch, wrapping her body around a boulder on the far side. And then she was over.

I stared at her. I stared at the rockslide. I stared at my battle wounds. I stared behind me at the hell-trail we just spent at least an hour navigating. I stared at the rockslide.

An eternity later, I went for it, thrusting myself through the rock, gripping the crumbly boulder with every inch of my fingers, hands, and arms, and found the tree branch. Then I froze with fear and my feet started sinking deeper into the scree. Rebecca coaxed me forward and as I gave my body one last swing to get around the boulder, I triggered a rockslide within the rockslide, which sounded like a small waterfall or herd of oxen and made me think that we were going to be swept into the shrubby abyss below, never to be found.

"LET'S GO," I said. And we went. And then Rebecca stopped. "Did you hear that? I think I heard something?" We stopped. I listened. She turned to me with a boatload of fear in her eyes: "So what are you supposed to do when you see an animal in the forest? Act big?" Instinctively, I threw my hands above my head and stared at Rebecca. She stared at me. I acted big.

We continued on the trail, clapping and shouting for a few minutes, until I convinced the both of us that it was just a lizard or something, even though in my head, I thought the mountain lion was coming to lick my wounds and enjoy a fine afternoon snack of Stupid Hiker.

We spent the last 40 minutes of Tom Sloan Hell-Trail mostly in silence, having entered the "Get Me Off Of This Mountain" portion of the hike. When we finally made it up the steep slope to the fire road, we collapsed in the shade. We would live to see another day, another hike...and we'd never take that damn trail ever again.


Ed would not have risked life, limb, and sanity by crawling through piles of loose scree and rock. Ed would have read the damn signs posted at Eaton Saddle and turned around.



  1. Hey ladies, perhaps you should look in to a course in situational awareness? Listen to more stories of SARs (Search and Rescues)? Go out hiking with a really boring friend?

  2. When I saw the title of your blog I though you meant Ed Abbey - he would totally do what you did only he'd bring whiskey (to disinfect wounds of course). Thanks for the good story.

  3. Well, in regards to the both of you - Rebecca and I have already discussed our next hike being a fairly tame one to the liquor store.

    Just kidding.

    Sort of.

  4. Does a team need to come out there and clear the slide? Is the trail actually blocked right now?

  5. The trail is actually blocked right now by a sizable rockslide. Although we maneuvered around it, it was a poor decision on our part, and I'd hate to see anyone else try the same...lest they end up on Hiker Hell!

    Rangers were notified, and they indicated they'd look for volunteers to take care of it, so if you have access to a team of volunteers, I'd definitely get in touch with them to take care of it!