In Training, Man!
Copyright © 1997 Jon Trent Adams
The San Gabriels are Born
Gordon sat transfixed as the San Gabriel Mountains erupted from the Earth, in the distance beyond the sycamores and alders. Riding in the back of the pickup truck, facing the east, he was stunned that this event could occur with such a lack of commotion: No smoke, noise or dust, no hellfire or brimstone. Nothing. Sigh. Although it wasn't quite like he had been taught it should be in school, he nonetheless felt exceedingly fortunate to be witness to such a gala premiere.
Of course, once I pulled the truck into the parking lot at the trailhead, and he had related this tale to both Wiggins and I, we began to have doubts regarding his sanity. It is true that we did entertain, just for a moment, the possibility of searching his knapsack for mind-altering drugs or other medicinals that could cause the mind to go for such a broad loop. But we didn't. We did consider this to be quite an omen for the journey ahead of us; but was it to be pernicious or blessed?
Our journey would begin here at the south trailhead of the Gabrieleño trail in Altadena, on the eastern edge of the Devils' Gate Reservoir, and forge northward into the very same San Gabriels that only a moment ago were seemingly so agile. I hope Gordon was mistaken, that it really was an optical illusion, described later by Gordon as an effect caused by the angular height of the nearby trees diminishing much more quickly than that of the distant mountains, thus making the mountains appear to rise up from the land. Yeah, sure.
I awoke at five minutes before six; the alarm hadn't stirred quite yet. This morning, like most others, I tried to shut off the bell before it's had a chance to interrupt my sleep. This way it's less of a burden on the heart and nerves. I've noticed that when I first hear the alarm my heart rate goes way up- it strikes me that it is as if my body has been lifeless all night. Then the alarm occurs, my heart begins pumping anew; since it has been dormant all night it takes a few minutes of extra-hard pumping to get fresh blood to the outlying regions. Not a very comfortable feeling. I prefer to use the sun as my alarm clock.
At his retirement luncheon last Friday, Wiggins convinced me that I should go on this little walk this morning. He said that there'd be himself and two friends and co-workers besides myself. I hadn't hiked in the San Gabriels in a good long time, and Wiggins is usually pretty good company, so I figured what the heck.
Wiggins is retiring at a proper age: he isn't quite twenty-five, I think, and he still has a few good years left ahead of him. His first task, beginning in a week or two, is to hike a fair portion of the Pacific Crest Trail from near Ashland, Oregon, up to near Mount Jefferson. From there he will get someone to ferry him across to Washington, where he'll pick up the journey once again and continue up to somewhere near Seattle.
Because of these plans, he feels the need to get acclimated to walking, carrying packs and dealing with other essentials of the bhiku experience. Thus the reason for this and other journeys he's taken in the last couple of weeks.
I hadn't been doing much in the way of exercise in the last few weeks. I've become a bit lazy; I find things to occupy myself like work or amateur radio. So, I attempted to prepare for this walk.
I ran a few miles Friday evening after work, then chased trains (on foot) in the Cajon Pass on Saturday. Saturday afternoon I went for a bicycle ride over to the demolished area north of the airport. From there I can watch airplanes coming in and leaving on runway 24R, and I listen on my scanner to the tower and the pilots talking back and forth. I find it quite enjoyable to do this; the controllers seem to have a good camaraderie with the pilots and it is evident in their voices. I get to feel for a few minutes that I'm part of their little world.
So, with all the training effort of the last forty-eight hours, I know I am ready for any fate that might befall me. I begin Sunday by breaking the handle off the toilet.
Well, maybe this won't be such a good day after all; I soon find that some of the things that I know I will need I cannot find: adhesive tape for my feet, for example. I check, to no avail, all the standard storage places for this stuff. Many of the things that I expect to be in their niches seem to have wandered away.
Time is running out. I finally leave the house about ten minutes after seven; I stop by my favorite donut stand a few blocks from home to grab my highly nutritious breakfast (six donuts: two devils food, two plain, two powdered sugar) and toss these down my gullet. Now I feel like I have eaten a couple hundred pancakes...
The low clouds around home persist all the way up La Cienega to the Santa Monica Freeway; it seems to get gloomier as I go through downtown. By the time I get out of the arroyo into Pasadena, the clouds have been left behind and the makings of a beautiful day are laid out before me: The early morning sun casts strong, westering, knife-edged shadows across the scarp of the San Gabriels, the air looks clear and visibility good, the traffic is light, my truck still runs (something that I am always grateful for).
I arrive at the designated meeting spot in Altadena just before eight am. While waiting for the rest, I transfer unneeded things from my belt sack and pack the necessities: knife, toilet paper, matches, two bags of peanut M&Ms, my lunch (tortillas and cheese), two containers of water (3/4 gallon total), jungle juice, suntan lotion and sunscreen. I realize then that I had the adhesive tape all along, right in the bag in which it is supposed to be. I load the pocket camera with a new roll of film, put a few dollars into the hidden pocket of the beltpack, adjust all the tiedowns.
About this time Wiggins wheels up in his car; with him is a guy whom I have seen before at work but whose name I do not know. I am soon introduced to Gordon, a part-time JPL'er and full-time Caltech'er, who will complete today's hiking trio. The others who were to have come along seem to have had a little too much fun the evening prior and today aren't in any shape. Somehow I knew they would bail; this will be a tight, taut bunch of seasoned mountainmen.
The original plan was for Wiggins and another to drop off a return car at Switzer's Camp some nine miles up the Arroyo. This would be done about 7:30am, then they'd drive back to this point: we would hike up to the car at Switzer's, then drive back home to complete the walk. A leisurely half-day hike. Things were not to turn out quite as we thought they would.
Gordo whips out a map; we peruse it, debating the merits of this route over that. None of us have been over extensive portions of the trail system; this is good and bad, for many sights will be new for us but also we can underestimate the difficulty of trails or perhaps even get lost. I think it is I who points out our eventual path.
We will go up the Arroyo starting from here by JPL. We will leave Wiggins' car over in upper Altadena, near the old Cobb Estate, which is also the outlet for the Echo Mountain/Sam Merrill trail. It'll be an eight-mile journey up the Arroyo, then up the Bear Canyon trail just below Switzer's. Back down into the Arroyo we'll go, and climb the three or so miles of the Bear Canyon trail to the Chaney Trail just west of Mount Lowe. From there it's all downhill to the car parked over at the Cobb Estate. Simple; child's play.
We ferry the car on over to upper Altadena. On the way back to the starting point Gordon sits in the bed of the truck and experiences the miracle. A major problem with miracles is that most nobody wants to believe the observer of said miracle. It's really an inner-faith experience, completely out of line with today's modern, scientific world. Especially when the listeners to such a tale are scientists and engineers. Unbelievers, each and almost every one of them.
The Gabrieleño Trail
I have traveled on portions of all our trip's intended routes, either on foot or by bicycle. So long as we didn't get lost, we'd be OK. But even a few hundred yards away from the start, my legs feel tired and make small complaints. Another bad omen.
The first few miles from the parking lot are nearly flat: our elevation increases by only a couple hundred feet or so. The creek at the bottom of the arroyo is running and the water looks, feels and smells fresh and clear. None of us would be foolish enough to try and drink from it, though. What a depressing reality when people are afraid to drink from the water that flows from their own mountains. Oh well: I didn't even bring any iodine tablets.
I also find out that both Wig and Gordo are carrying only a quart of water apiece. The day is warm and this trail, like all others in the Angeles National Forest, is without supplies of fresh water except at a few places located away from our path. I am carrying 3 liters of water and hope that will be enough. It looks like I may be sharing my water later on.
Wiggins is carrying, in lieu of water, a book of the complete works of William Shakespeare. I think that this will be nice as when we are all dying of thirst he may be able to read to us, through cracked, parched lips, inspiring soliloquies to nourish our spirits. He says he carries it in the pack to add weight. Always training, that boy...
Along the way I idly relate my adventures of about a year ago on this same trail: then I was traveling the opposite direction, in the dark, long overdue, on my mountain bike. I remembered all the turns and twists, the hairball downgrades with nasty yucca sticking out at the fatigued riders. It was a great ride, in retrospect. Wig says something like "He hasn't lived who hasn't gone over the edge". He says that the quote is from Hunter Thompson. He's right in a lot of ways, whether the quote is from Thompson or not. You must push yourself beyond what you thought were your limits to experience the thrill of living.
Along the path we encounter few walkers. There is a jogger or two, and two outright runners, both with a large dog as a canine entourage. These guys run far too fast for me. I feel uncomfortable watching them rush by. We spend so much effort trying to ford the stream at the right places in order to keep our boots dry; we chatter like hens about which rock is best, which foot to lead off with. Then one of these mercurial maniacs speeds along and with no thought just plows right on through the water and continues onward. I don't like wet shoes or socks. I imagine I can hear their shoes squeaking.
Eventually we arrive at Oakwilde Campground, about five miles up from our starting point. Here we all stop for a water break, and to rest for a few minutes before we begin the tougher climb. Along the way so far we've stopped here and there to adjust boots, apply adhesive tape on heels, attempt to prevent injury with a little precaution. A little tape forestalls a lot of intumescence.
Out of Oakwilde we forge, to the east and north following the Arroyo Seco. We come to the cutoff at Long Canyon, where the water from Long pours down a ten foot slide into a ten foot diameter pool, thence spills out of the pool into the Arroyo Seco below. At the top of the slide are four mountain bikers, enjoying the cool water and shade. They have come down from the top up at Switzer's.
Up Long Canyon we step, the temperature in the shade a comfortable 70 degrees. The trail winds up Long Canyon for a few hundred yards, then branches off onto one of its tributary canyons. From there the path pulls away and switchbacks out around the ridge that separates this drainage from the Arroyo drainage. Once we cross the ridgeline, it smoothes out and we travel east along the Arroyo but some 400 feet above the creek.
The trail crests just before the Switzer's/Bear Canyon decision point. I think that water will be a difficulty later on and so I suggest that we head on into Switzer's Camp to refill. We've been sweating profusely for the last hour and probably are in danger of some real dehydration if not wary.
My partners agree: we descend the mile or so long path to the campground, running into many tourists walking down from the parking lot at Switzer's. Lots of people carrying coolers and smoking cigarettes. It's tough enough walking around out here having to breath the smog; add to it the fumes from a cigarette and it becomes positively unbearable.
At Switzer's, we water up, topping our bottles and filling ourselves with as much as we can comfortably drink. If you're not peeing a lot, you're not drinking enough. That's my motto. Also break out Wig's supply of gorp. A pretty good batch which he purchased from the local grocery store. I add my M&Ms and Gordon adds his raw almonds; we do these seemingly generous acts out of selfishness; if I don't have to carry those M&Ms, my pack will be that much lighter. Let Wig do all the work.
We dawdle about at Switzer's for far too long. Finally we scoot about 1:30, head back up the trail to the fork, then head down past the big Switzer's Falls to the Arroyo bottom below the falls. The Bear Canyon trail, which we're now on, was the last place I got lost out here. That trip on mountain bikes just over a year ago began at the top of Altadena, near the foot of the Chaney Trail. From there we grinded uphill, covering the ten horizontal miles and three thousand vertical feet in just under two hours. After joining up with the Mount Wilson Road, we (actually my partner (well, that's not exactly true; the decision had to be bilateral otherwise I wouldn't have gone)) decided that the neat way back would be to ride down to Red Box, at the head of the Arroyo Seco, then follow the Arroyo trail all the way down to its outlet at JPL, then pedal back up to where the cars were parked.
This would have been all fine and well, and was working out quite nicely before we met up with the fork that was the Bear Canyon Trail. That time we came up from Switzer's Camp and instead of taking the right opportunity and heading up the Arroyo Trail, we didn't notice the fork and followed the left trail, which immediately plunged us into the depths of the Arroyo on the way to oblivion.
To make matters worse, it was nearly six pm when this happened; the sun had set below the canyon edge, though the sun was still above the regional horizon. After floundering about in the bottom of the Arroyo for a half-hour to forty-five minutes, we realized that we had made the wrong turn somewhere and began to retrace our steps. Anyway, the point of all this is to stress that I have gotten lost twice at or near the point that I now find myself. Yet another bad omen. We shamble down the trail along the arroyo, looking for the break in the east side of the wall that signifies the mouth of Little Bear Canyon. When we pass that, it will be a scant few hundred yards to the mouth of Bear Canyon, our immediate destination. Soon we leave the well-trodden trail for a lesser-used one that continues down the arroyo. The well-used trail, I am told by my fellow travelers, is not the trail we are looking for; they were on it recently and went quite some distance up it. It ran generally to the northeast; therefore it must be the Little Bear Canyon, although the map does not indicate a trail going up that canyon. I defer to their judgment. After all, Wiggins has the compass.
Soon our trail begins to turn into a scramble. We edge ourselves around rock abutments, hanging on the rock face with our fingernails, trying not to fall into the creek water under us. Sure seems like an awful difficult trail for being so well marked on the map. We all wonder whether this is the right trail. Gordon bangs up his knee on one rock climb that requires one to straddle a convex 90-degree corner with several feet of water directly underneath. It looks worse as we continue.
In a few hundred more feet, we rest for a few minutes, eat a bit and study the map again. The Arroyo is now running northwest; big trouble. We have missed our turnoff by at least a quarter-mile. It now seems that the only possible answer is that the trail that my partners had earlier dismissed is actually the right one. So back we go, somewhat demoralized and certainly feeling a bit tired now. It is nearly ten minutes after three.
We finally make the trail. Now I am beginning to flag visibly, and my steps shrink. I figure I'm not moving more than a mile or two an hour. I wonder privately if the others are feeling better than I and I'm holding them back. I notice that we've all gotten a bit quieter.
We need to cover about a mile to make it to Bear Canyon Camp. My partners were up this trail last week or so and so far we have not covered any territory that they haven't already seen. We seem to go on and on, winding around one bend then another, still getting no closer to the fabled campground. I think Wiggins read his compass wrong; the canyon is trending east southeast to southeast. Occasionally it cuts to the northeast but then turns back to the correct direction. This must be the right canyon.
We are plodding along now; I attempt to step over a dead, rotting tree and proceed to whack my left knee into a protruding branch stump, banging my knee and cutting the skin in the process. After a few strong words and horrible noises, I find that I will live. The wound isn't deep; mainly long and so there's a bit of blood flowing, but it soon stops.
The bugs have come out to bother us. I feel like an Aussie, continuously waving my left had in front of my face while using the right to balance with. I brush off ticks before they can find a soft place to burrow; I seem to keep walking through spider webs. I find flies eating the blood off my knee. I wonder why I'm out here.
Our progress slows further; not knowing where we are and having had no landmarks for the last hour or so, we straggle along grumpily. Our separation grows, as if to gives us all a bit more room for private grousing. Keeps tempers cooler that way. We are stopped once again, debating our plight, when two people who we confidently left a few hours before back at the arroyo come jauntily past us, downhill. I think they recognize us as the dummies who confidently plowed off down the arroyo in search of fantastic trails; they inform us that the Bear Canyon Camp is only just around the bend. I think I murmur a wheezed Thanks.
The smog is affecting all of us now. I began to feel the sensation a couple of hours ago; my head began to hurt and I began to pant shallowly even when walking at a slow pace. This uphill hike had been made that much tougher because I can't breathe full lungfulls. God, it hurts. I realize that I must get out of this city; it's gonna kill me one of these days.
We make the campground. It is nearly 4:30 now; the last mile was covered at the startling rate of nearly one mile per hour. The general consensus is that this is now a death march. Fairly grim humor about who will go out when the others die, whether to carry bodies out or bury them here under a pile of rock. Jolly fun for a pleasant afternoon in the San Gabriels. We rest at the camp for fifteen minutes or so, trying to collect enough strength to go on. The trail out of here isn't well marked; Wiggins finally locates the path and we struggle onward and upward.
The bugs are taking advantage of our weakness; they fly into our eyes, ears, noses and mouths. I realize that I have bug repellent but I seem to be too tired to stop, unpack it and apply it. It won't matter, I think. I'll be dead soon enough. My feet feel as if a two-year old has been whacking on them with a ballpein hammer for a day or so. The bottoms are bruised and battered from the rock gardens we've traversed. My severe sunburn from hiking shirtless in the Cajon yesterday is come back to antagonize me. The shirt feels itchy and rough on my reddened, irritated shoulders. I have a kerchief tied around my neck to keep critters from going down my shirt. It serves also to wipe my brow when the sweat begins to pour into my eyes.
We are now moving somewhere between a quarter- and one-half mile per hour. I have never walked so slowly in my life. Gordon says that it has become a total effort to just place one foot in front of the other. He is concentrating on that one action. I find that I am getting quite dizzy; my head is pounding with every step, my stomach hurts, I feel very queasy. I watch my feet and the immediate five feet of trail. I almost don't see the beautiful little cascades and slides along the canyon walls. I try to look up occasionally but nearly fall over in the process. I know we're gonna die.
Wiggins seems to be getting nearly surly. This is a rare state for him. I worry about Gordon also. He lags far behind, sometimes several minutes. He tells us he is able to walk about ten feet, then must sit. We all seriously consider the possibilities of just flat sleeping where we fall, so to speak. Too many ants and other unsavory insects, and none of us have ground cloths or any kind of protection. And anyway, we're only ten miles or so from the car!
We reach the switchback that will lead us out of Bear Canyon. I am so excited by this event that I am able to make a burst of speed and get nearly a hundred or two yards up the canyon wall before I must rest. Every rock I find to sit on seems to be the most uncomfortable rock yet. They all have points and ridges that dig into me and force me to maintain my sitting position by holding myself up with my legs. My legs aren't happy about this; neither are the balls of my feet. The blood on my knee has congealed finally; it is a ribbon of brilliant red, nearly translucent, smeared only where my hands have rested on my knees for support. Kinda pretty in a lurid way.
I am so very tired. I wonder if tomorrow I will think, as I have almost always in the past, that this was a swell thing to do. If I live I think that probably I will think so. If I live. I think how much better it would have been if this morning, when the alarm went off, I had considered the possible gravity of this walk and had decided to turn off the alarm, roll over and go back to dreamland. But, I had told Wiggins that I'd be here, and (at the time) I thought that the least I could do is go to the start point and tell him that I wasn't interested in going, and now look at me.
The switchback winds (seemingly unendingly) up the north side of Brown Mountain Ridge. Finally the trail loses some of the arboreal canopy and I am able to see the sun, and even begin to see the valley that we have spent the last hour and a half hiking through. I can see, dimly through the enveloping smog haze, the meandering of the canyon defined by the lush greenery looking like some bizarre leafy river flowing through the white and orange rock of the San Gabriels. I am gladdened (perhaps too strong; made no more depressed) to see that we are now beginning to climb above the smog. The air begins to freshen a bit; my nose notices it first. The lungs are pretty far gone, though. I don't hold out much hope for them.
We pause several times up that long and twisted grade to the saddle at the top. During the climb, when glimpses of the ridge afford themselves, we all wonder which of the many eastern humps we can see far above us is the FINAL hump; which is the one from which we will make the Chaney Trail, and enjoy smooth sailing all the way back to the car? We debate local and global maxima, speculate on curves and derivatives of curves. We sound very funny gasping out bits and pieces of argument while also trying to concentrate on breathing and keeping both feet on the path.
Brown Mountain Ridge
We finally make the ridge. Wig immediately collapses with his pack for a pillow. I find a log to sit on, considering my immediate future and waiting for the map bearer Gordo to roll on in. Gordon finally rounds the far bend and he straggles into our weary encampment. He yaws and rolls a bit, but is able to maintain enough motor control that he can park himself next to me on the log. I fetch the map from his pack and stare at it once again. My eyes see many lines and squiggles but my mind comprehends little.
From this point it looks to be another 800 feet or so vertical up to the road. The horizontal distance to the road from here is less than 3/4 mile, but combined with the relief would constitute a near 20 percent grade. So, there must be massive switchbacks again, reducing the grade but greatly increasing the distance we must travel. I guess it doesn't matter much. We won't make it; we're all gonna die.
Grand Canyon is directly south of us; there is a trail marked on the map that will take us from here, wind down the steep south side of Brown Mountain Ridge, and eventually deposit this unhappy band of weary campers on paved road at Millard Campground. Then it would be a half-mile very steep climb (on pavement, though) up to the intersection of the Millard Road with the Chaney Trail, and then downhill from there to Alta Loma Drive. A dilemma confronts me. Wiggins' car is parked up Alta Loma Drive nearly 3/4 mile uphill from where the Chaney Trail dumps out; my truck is parked some two miles DOWNHILL from the same point. I am concerned that the remaining light will die out before we reach the bottom of the foot trail; if this happens we will have no direct light from the city as Grand Canyon is deep and narrow. Also, going downhill on a narrow foot path is dangerous enough; when the travellers are exhausted, in pain and there is little light I can only foresee more injury. It seems that the only reasonable alternative is to continue up the ridge as we originally planned and then down the Chaney Trail all the way to Alta Loma Drive.
I get antsy to move. I don't want to get stuck out here with no light and the temperatures dropping off. Gordo looks like he may be able to kick out another few hundred yards; Wiggins looks so peaceful that I hate to disturb him. But I do. We begin to move again.
The first hundred feet from the saddle is only mildly uphill; it turns to the east and travels through a little patch of burned stumps of juniper. Looks like a bomb went off here. The view from here is magnificent. Mount Disappointment towers over us to the north. Below is Bear Canyon running east to west, deep and quiet with a haze layer in it. The outlet of Bear into the Arroyo is somewhat obscured by smog, but I can see the approximate twists and turns that confused us earlier today.
The southerly views allow great expanses of the smog-shrouded Los Angeles Basin to be seen. No definite landmarks like Palos Verdes or Santiago Peak are visible, but other peaks and ridges and clouds lend a very alien look to the horizon. The air is fresh here and a breeze comes up over the ridge from the southeast and washes our nostrils. I trade places with Wiggins taking the lead; almost comically, he pauses in the path and we are suddenly two dottering old men, wheezing and gasping, attempting to steer our way around one another without colliding with one another or just plain falling over. With the clean air helping to clear my lungs, I'm able to cough more, trying to loosen up my chest. I drink a little more water; my stomach still hurts. My headache is moderating itself. I try not to exert myself too much on this grade. Wiggins is a few dozen yards behind; Gordo is not in sight. I find another conveniently uncomfortable rock to gingerly perch on and conserve my energy for a few minutes.
The rock has graded into the Lowe Granodiorite; here it is coarsely broken, either gravelly or even pea-rock sized. Not too many ants. I think I could sleep on this. But the breeze over the ridge promises a cool night and that will make it very difficult. My partners arrive.
We forge onward. At 10 minutes to seven, I make the peak of the ridge: up here there is a water tank and a clear area that may be used for landing fire department helicopters. I pause to gather enough energy then turn, spot Wiggins down the grade a hundred yards or so, and yell to him that this is the top! That it's all downhill from here!!! He nods his assent. Gordo has not made it up to where Wiggins is. Then I see the big G come slowly around a far bend.
Wiggins is watching the southern horizon; he looks like he is trying to revive himself. He sucks in as much of the life-returning air that he can, breathing through the nose. It is apparent that he likes the view from up on this ridge, although flawed today by the smog and our exhaustion. Gordon meets up with him and they turn my way.
The Chaney Trail
I walk down off the high point to the road. The Chaney Trail. The object of our last several hours of struggle. The penultimate goal. Et cetera. I am feeling quite a bit better now; I unbag a piece of cheese, a tortilla and scarf these down, immediately inducing an attack of the hiccups with all that dry, poorly chewed food stuck halfway down my gullet. Between spasms I get out the water bottle and take a few well-timed swigs to wash the food down. The hiccups end. I feel nearly human. My left knee hurts.
My partners arrive at the road. I attempt to do a high-spirited little dance in celebration of our deliverance from the maw of Death. They seem pleased. We pause a few more minutes then begin the long trek down the Chaney Trail.
The Grand Canyon separates us from the other side of this valley; we are perched high up on the north wall and the continuation of the road we are on is plainly visible across a mile of emptiness over on the south wall. So close and yet so far. We must walk all the way around this giant tree- and rock-lined bowl to get there.
Mount Wilson is not visible behind Mount Lowe; Mount Lowe Campground is a mile or more distant, several hundred feet below and to our right. As we work into the wind shadow of the ridge, the chill breeze that washed over us moments before is blocked and the air becomes comfortable and calm. Our mood brightens as we pick up speed; the clean, calm air, the even grade of the road, the expectation that a ranger will come along any moment in his (or her) pickup truck and will generously offer us a ride (All Gordon's idea) help to reaffirm our belief in ourselves and our survival.
In ten minutes I am now moving nearly three miles an hour. Since downhill uses a different set of muscles than the ones I have been flaying all day, I can maintain this pace so long as the bottoms of my feet don't get overly battered and the ankles hold out. The rocks dig into my boot sometimes and make me feel as though I am walking barefoot. I remember that the pressure on my feet when walking this fast downhill is probably three or more times my body weight. I will be in pain soon. No blisters yet.
At seven forty-five we round the bend and come to the intersection of the Chaney Trail, the Idlehour Trail and the Echo Mountain Trail. We must make an important decision here. Shall we stay on the road, which I have seen before, which is wide, well-graded and predictable? Shall we take the Echo Mountain Trail down to Echo Mountain, then from there the Sam Merrill Trail right down to the Wig's car at the corner of Lake and Alta Loma? The road will cost us at least a few extra miles. It is past sunset now; soon it will be dark. Where do we wish to find ourselves when darkness sets in some thirty minutes from now?
By taking the road, we guarantee the extra distance which we can sorely afford. But, in the darkness and in our debilitated condition, the width and grade of the road will be easier to negotiate. The road is also shielded from the lights of Los Angeles for a good portion of the distance. There is no moon tonight, and starlight is never a factor in L.A.
The Echo Mountain / Sam Merrill Trail is just that; a footpath a couple of feet wide at best, switchbacking along a hardrock slope where the wall angle can be vertical in many places. One slip and it could be a lot of pain for someone. But, the route is substantially shorter and the majority of the path may be illuminated by the city lights. (One time I appreciate all those damned lights.) In our present condition, we can make perhaps four or even five miles per hour as long as there is light; we may be able to make it a good portion of the way before we have only the eternal twilight of a Southland evening to go by. We choose the Trail.
Wiggins takes the point, flaming along the path ahead of me. Gordo takes up the rear, keeping close in as we move along the north side of the south wall of the Grand Canyon. The trail here is very gently descending; there are a few minor rises but the path quickly levels or turns downhill. The trees are a bit more open up here; we can see out into the valley more and occasionally catch glimpses of the Chaney Trail below us on the same wall. We can see the glorious late colors of sunset directly ahead of us; they act as a beacon to draw us onward, downward to home. Earlier, Wiggins had pointed out a spectacular sundog to the north of the sun, back when we were up on top of the Brown Mountain Ridge; the whole sequence of celestial lights this afternoon has been beautiful.
We reach the west end of the ridge on which we are traveling. The trail wraps around the prow of the mountain, then falls down to the southeast along the face, twisting back and forth on its way to Echo Mountain, some thousand or more feet below. It is just after eight pm when we can see Echo. I recognize the Mount Olympus-type juniper trees down there, the tall, narrow evergreens that always seem to be used around Greek architecture. We're on the homeward stretch.
Below is Rubio Canyon, forming the eastern drainage of Echo Mountain. I hiked up to Echo from Rubio Canyon once, back in 1982, on a very hot, smoggy day. I followed no trail; until 1938, there was a funicular railway that went straight up the side of the mountain from the mouth of Rubio Canyon to the Echo Mountain Lodge where those junipers are all that now remain. I followed the path of that funicular, right up the side of the darn mountain, climbing up rocky escarpments, sifting my way through rock flour, bits of ancient concrete and rebar, a few pieces of railroad-type parts and a lot of very sharp yucca plants. When I reached the top at the abandoned, demolished and forgotten resort, I couldn't see the bottom of the mountain for the smog.
We wind down the face of this mountain, first east then west, as quickly as we can go. The pace is battering our feet, ankles and legs; knees complain, hip joints murmur threats. Speed is of the essence. Soon there will be only the light of the city to go on, and it will be barely enough to see the better-lit parts of this trail. We must hurry.
Fairly flying down this trail, I quickly end up well out in front of the rest. I think that my concept of pain and accident is not as well-constructed as my partners; I seem to be more willing to half-run down a rocky, ill-defined trail in the lengthening twilight, where any step could twist my ankle or break something. I'll rather lead the way than follow, though.
This downhill trek is battering my feet something awful. The muscles that were dormant all day are taking a real beating now, and the balls of my feet are heating up as my feet slide around a bit in the boots. I am fortunate to have good night vision, so that I can still look ahead several yards but catch the peripheral stuff well. It is not completely night yet.
While blistering my way down the path, I can occasionally look out and below at the top of Echo Mountain, or farther out, the vast and shadowy expanse of the city beneath. Some park in Altadena is running large mercury-vapor lamps; these lamps already provide a substantial source of light and I think that as night falls these lights may provide enough illumination to follow the trail in safety. Perhaps not at four or five miles an hour, though. I think that the park is a baseball diamond located on Lake just south of where Wiggins' car is parked; the lights now have a double value. Not only might they provide light, they provide a target to aim at, the goal of this high-speed journey.
We finally make it down to the platform that describes Echo Mountain. Echo is a somewhat triangularly-shaped mountain that juts out from the main body of the San Gabriels. The top of the mountain is quite flat compared to the surrounding ridges. The pathway of the old funicular runs up the south face; we approach from the north, down off the main bulk of mountain. In this area three or four trails all intersect at different points along the ridge. The problem is to determine the proper trail down.
It is night now. The trail-marking signs provided by the Forest Service are nearly unreadable in the gloom. I drop to my knees to more closely examine the low signs; using the light from the city reflected by the haze in the atmosphere, I am able to read them. The first sign indicates the distances up the trail I just finished. Lowe Campground, Mount Wilson Trail up thataway... Not the trail I want.
When I was up here way back in '82, I used the Sam Merrill Trail to get off this mountain. I am not sure where along the ridge it begins. So, I walk south along the path to discover any pathway to the west that might indicate the start of this trail. Neither my partners or I can discover anything that looks like a reasonable trail, though some look good enough in the dark that there is some concern that we'll really get ourselves into trouble.
I walk all the way to the south end where the old cable wheel and station foundations are located; from here, I then retrace the steps of six years ago, walking the same path that in 1982 I traveled in broad daylight. It sure does look different.
I continue north-northwest along the ridge passing various signs and markers for trails that I know are not the one I want. For some reason the sycamores that are up ahead, silhouetted by the city light reflecting off the mountainous backdrop, remind me of where the trail should be. I head on over to them. Peering into the dimness, I know that if I continue in this direction I will begin to go up a gradually sloping trail that hooks left on the wall of the concave bowl formed by the mountains behind Echo Mountain.
This trail is the remnants of the old Mount Lowe Railway that ran from here at Echo up to Mount Lowe, winding its way up the Chaney Trail. This railroad, built in the late 1880's, eventually became part of the great Pacific Electric Railway that provided public transportation for Southern California until its demise of the Railway in 1961. This particular line was built to service a resort up on Mount Lowe; tourists could come up for a breath of cool, fresh air on a hot summer day or play in the snow after a winter day spent basking on the Southland beaches. As much an advertisement for the Southern California way of life as anything else in this city, the resort and this railroad that served it lasted until 1938, when yet another of the biannual Southland brushfires wiped out the resort a final time. They didn't rebuild. All that remains now are bits and pieces, stones and mortar.
The Sam Merrill Trail
It is now 8:40pm. I find the trail; it falls away to the left while the main trail continues its gradual uphill climb to the Chaney Trail. Summoning the crew, we reorganize and begin our final descent from oblivion. At this point, we are well up in the bowl formed by the protective arms of these front mountains. The light from the city is marginal here; it ekes its way and provides the face of the ridge high in front to the north with a eerie, phosphorescent glow that makes the mountain look more massive and quite alien. A few bright stars in the northwestern sky peek over the west ridge.
We move slowly down this track, no more than a few miles an hour, testing our ability to cope with the trail in the dark. Again, my attention to carelessness forces me quickly out in front. These last two and one-half miles will be the most difficult. Our progress, which has been aided so far by the city's dim scatter and our relative strength, will slow now that we drop into this final stretch and we burn away the little energy reserves that we have left. The canyon that we find ourselves falling into is narrow and so very dark; the few stars and atmospheric scatter are all the light we will have to see by while the trail stays on this side of Echo Mountain.
The trail reverses its northwesterly path and continues to fall away, now this time to the south-southeast. I do not remember how far the trail travels in this direction; I think that I will come around to the south side of Echo and then the city lights will be a great benefit again.
The air has changed in quality; far more moist now than at the upper elevations, the familiar stink of smog is there again, making me fortunate to think that I do not have to hike uphill and perform hard work, sucking in the now-invisible gunk. The smells of other things are here too: the sagebrush, night-blooming jasmine, an occasional wave of ocean breeze, other complex and undefined scents. There are other sensations: the sensation of barreling blindly (or nearly so) down this grade, the feeling of invisible cobwebs that seem to be draped all across the trail, the scrape of shrubbery as I cut corners closely to avoid the ill-defined trail edge and the brush of unseen bugs and moths as I fly by, stirring up their quiet evening. I hear Wiggins and Gordo no more. They are now quite some distance behind me. I see a rock crib built up ahead, holding a small landslide back. I stop there and sit to ease the pressure on my aching, bruised peds.
Soon my partners find their way along to my location; Gordo, I think, is having real night vision problems; perhaps he's just far more sensible than I and when he cannot see anything, he does not presume and guess. They are still in one piece; we talk good-naturedly about what we plan to do, the exact sequence of tasks once we all make it back to reality. Gordo plans to be taken home, coerce one of his roommates to go out and get him dinner, while he rests with boots off and feet up. Wiggins plans a stop at the market; there he will collect apples and beer, then on to home where off the boots will come.
We continue along at a good pace. Soon the trail has switchbacked several times, providing the only substantive measure of our loss in elevation. The angle at which the city lights appear to us is beginning to change. We are drawing nearer to their plane. Gordon says that he heard dogs barking down in Altadena from atop Echo Mountain. I hear cars now; an occasional horn. Houses are beginning to have form and substance. We are getting closer. Three great powerlines travel along the south scarp of the San Gabriels here. I can see these lines and their supporting towers now; they are still below my line of sight, but I can tell that we will soon be upon them. The path falls away to the southeast; the lights from that baseball diamond in Altadena cast a distinct glare that projects my shadow on the rock face beside me. The glare is so great that when the trail turns so that those lights are in my main visual field, I have great difficulty detecting the trail and must shield my eyes from the light and move somewhat more slowly.
The trail travels around the south face of the mountain. We pass through the legs of the middle power line support tower; the lines themselves stretch off into the dark to the southeast and northwest. The towers themselves are black, silhouetted against the hazy night sky. I remember a movie from the late fifties called "The Tower Murders" (I think); this movie, filmed in Britain, chronicled the murders of young women at a isolated boarding school in the British countryside. The murders were committed near a high-tension line tower like the ones we had just walked by. One image I remember from the film (just about the only one, too) was one woman, left for dead, laying on the ground with her eyes open; the camera view depicted her first-person perspective and showed the huge weblike silhouette of the transmission tower against the night sky. Weird.
This excursion over to the east side of the face of Echo Mountain has placed us technically in Rubio Canyon again; quickly I try to remember if there are two trails, one that will cause us to come out down there at Rubio, the other at our intended destination. I do not wish to walk the half-mile or more from the trail entrance at Rubio back over to the car on Lake. Gordon says that if it does, he will walk up to someone's door, ask to use the telephone to call one of three people that he knows he can summon. He figures that he can get one of these three to come out and transport us over to our car, and to take him home afterwards. Fortunately, we shall not require him to pound on strange doors in a dimly-lit neighborhood at ten at night. This trail does go where I expect it to.
The End is Near
I am approaching the final levels of switchback; the hill has sloped off markedly and I can see things in windows in the houses before us. Suddenly, the trail falters; there are multiple false opportunities, each looking somewhat like the desired path. In the lead, I poke around these blind paths and find the correct one, or so I think. I relay the information back to my partners, who find their way down through the confusion to join me in a rock garden that I think is a wash draining the canyon to the right. Crossing this wash, I can see houses a few hundred feet downstream; there is even a house above me to the left, with a bright porchlight that casts a bit of illumination to help me on the path. The path narrows; it follows a iron pipe on the right, a little flood control dam is below on the left.
The path goes up slightly, bends to the left a bit and heads straight for a house. I nearly trip as I find that now the path is a narrow concrete drainage channel and I stepped against one of the edges. I warn my partners and wait for them at the end of the path. There is less than two hundred yards to the car.
Could it be that the car is not there? Wiggins has worried over this for the last hour or two, thinking perhaps that he misread the "No Parking" sign located at the end of the block. I don't think he has much to worry about; Gordon intends to make that telephone call if needed. We see the car as we trip along the unkempt, tattered concrete-paved path out of the Cobb Estate.
Up ahead, the gates. We pass them on the left, stumbling over to Wig's car. Gordon and Wiggins take off their packs; Wiggins unlocks the door and the hatch; I get out the camera, set it to auto and prop it up on roof of the car. We step into the middle of the street and mug the camera, waiting for the flash.
Clambering into the car, moaning and groaning about our real and imagined aches, Wiggins drives me back to my truck as I look out the window and watch the San Gabriel Mountains, in all their massiveness and blackness, rise up above the trees.