Deaths, Rescues, And Trail Closures

It might be helpful if more of us (myself included) who post hiking photos or write about our hiking experiences told more stories about when and why we turn back sometimes prior to reaching our planned destinations.

Helicopter rescue getting under way last Wednesday in Icehouse Canyon.

Helicopter rescue getting under way last Wednesday in Icehouse Canyon.

I mention this in part because two people died this past week in Angeles National Forest. The first, Daniel Nguyen, died falling from the Devil’s Backbone Trail near Mt. Baldy last Tuesday. The second, Dong Xing Liu, died falling in the Icehouse Saddle area last Saturday. Lieu’s wife and ten other people were airlifted off the mountain as well. Four of those people suffered injuries including a broken hip and broken ribs. I followed this link from a post from Modern Hiker on Facebook to learn more about one of Saturday’s rescues. Another hiker, Jason, suffered multiple injuries including a fractured skull and eye socket in a fall from Timber Mountain on January 23rd. As far as I can tell that has only been reported on a gofundme page set up by his brother-in-law Andrew (who posted on my Facebook page) and shared on other social media. Last Wednesday, I played a minor role in a rescue where a hiker needed to be airlifted out of a gully in Icehouse Canyon (he had a broken ankle/leg and should be OK). I was merely one of the several people helping the first helicopter locate the hiker. I also helped walk his dogs down to the trailhead after one of the rescuers shepherded them back up the steep mountain from the gully to the trailhead–which there’s no way I could have accomplished. As far as I can tell, that rescue has only been reported on social media by myself and one of the other hikers (Bonnie) who helped with the dogs. I wonder how many other rescues happen that don’t get reported in the popular press. I’m guessing more than I want to know about. I called the Mt. Baldy Visitor’s Center this morning and verified that the Icehouse Canyon Trail is temporarily closed. With great hesitation, the person I spoke with said Baldy Bowl and Devil’s Backbone are still open. However, it appears that has changed. About an hour later the US Forest Service posted “Be Advised: Until further notice, all Mt. Baldy Trails have been closed due to icy conditions and severe risk of injury.”

Starting downhill with the hiker's three dogs.

Starting downhill playing my minor role with the hiker’s three dogs.

Of course, there’s a lot of criticism floating around on social media. Criticism of the hikers, criticism of the Forest Service for not closing the trails down sooner and also for closing them down at all–the Forest Service really can’t win on that issue. I’m not interested in those discussions. Daniel Nguyen died trying to help someone else. People fall on dry flat perfectly maintained walkways wearing appropriate shoes all the time. I’m thankful I’ve never needed to be rescued but that doesn’t mean I won’t no matter how reasonably cautious I think I’m being. To those who’ve been so critical and condescending, the story of Ranger Randy Morgenson’s death in the High Sierra’s might help slow down a desire to judge and spew out pronouncements. Also, I wasn’t part of the decision-making process the Forest Service used to temporarily close the trails. Without being part of that process, I don’t know all the issues they were dealing with when they decided to make those closures.

Help came quickly with hiker's Anthony and Bonnie ending their hikes early to help me bring the dogs down. Two members of the forest service (who were great) met us part way down and helped as well.

Help came quickly with hiker’s Anthony and Bonnie ending their hikes early to help me bring the dogs down. Two members of the forest service (who were great) met us partway down and helped as well.

I rarely see first-hand accounts of people deciding to turn back earlier than planned on a hike. I certainly don’t write about that every time I decide to turn back at an appropriately early time for me. My turnaround point may be too early or too late for others. However, sharing my decision-making process may help others think through when they might want to choose to call it a day. At the same time, I’d like to underscore that unavoidable accidents do happen. Sometimes a slip is just that; no amount of preparation, gear choice, or reasonable level of caution would prevent it.

I had already hiked to Mt. Hawkins in snow before on November 9, 2011. I bought snowshoes after that hike. Note the post holing track I left on my way up. No sinking into the icy snow occurred on my way up to Windy Gap on this year's attempt.

I had already hiked to Mt. Hawkins in snow before on November 9, 2011. Note the post holing track I left on my way up. No sinking into the icy snow occurred on my way up to Windy Gap on this year’s attempt.

I’ve been on three snow hikes this year. I’ve needed to turn back early on two of them–one was last Wednesday when I turned back just above the junction with the Chapman Trail. On January 25th, I headed up the PCT expecting to go to Mt. Hawkins, microspikes on, using my trekking poles, and carrying snowshoes in my backpack. I had already hiked up to Mt. Hawkins in the snow back in November of 2011 and thought this would be a perfect day for a repeat trip.

The view from Windy Gap looking up the PCT in the direction leading toward Mt. Hawkins.

The view from Windy Gap looking up the PCT in the direction leading toward Mt. Hawkins.

Heading up from Islip Saddle, my microspikes worked great, the trail was comfortably wide for me, and it was a gorgeous day. By the time I got midway between the lower junction with the road to Little Jimmy Campground and the campground itself, the trail began to narrow. Frozen postholes and other clues showed the snow to be over a foot deep in some areas. However, the hard icy conditions prevented me from sinking in. I had never been in conditions like that before. My previous experience with snow that deep meant it was time for the snowshoes because I’d be sinking in. The narrow flat ledge remained wide enough to remain at a reasonable distance inside the edge of my comfort zone. At my skill level, though, I needed to be laser-focused, paying attention to my feet instead of the fantastic views around me, and go real slow in many places. When I reached Windy Gap, I wasn’t physically tired or winded at all, but, I was starting to feel mentally drained. The view up the PCT looked like something I could handle physically. At the same time, I knew there would be lots of areas where I’d need to be super focused mentally and I wasn’t sure I’d be up to the task of doing that. The presence of tracks indicating others had made it higher up didn’t matter, the fact that I had made it as far as Mt. Hawkins in the snow in the past didn’t matter. What mattered was how I felt at that moment, and I felt a little apprehensive. I was concerned about the icy conditions and whether or not I’d know in time if I got too tired to maintain the focus required to descend safely. Unlike the snow that gives, allows one to sink in, and slows one down; this icy hard stuff meant one small slip and I could find myself accelerating down the mountain.

The view from Windy Gap looking toward Mt. Islip.

The view from Windy Gap looking toward Mt. Islip.

After deciding not to go to Mt. Hawkins, my attention turned to Mt. Islip. I wasn’t ready to be done for the day and I’d seen a few photos on Instagram of people who had recently made it to Mt. Islip. Well, there wasn’t any form of ledge or trace of trail present. That may be no problem for some people better trained and more experienced than I, but I need some form of a trail/ledge or I feel too unsteady to move forward. So, that wasn’t an option. I sat on the bench, ate lunch, enjoyed the view and got ready to focus on making it down from where I was.

The road to Little Jimmy running just above the PCT.

The road to Little Jimmy running just above the PCT.

By the time I got to Little Jimmy Campground, I decided I needed another break mentally. This reinforced in me that I made the right decision back at Windy Gap. The trek down from Windy Gap wasn’t even that tough, but, I recalled most of my need to achieve laser-focus was between the campground and the junction with the road. Then I thought about the fact I had never taken the road before. Surely it was wider and much safer. What a relief, the road was perfect. I could just relax, enjoy the rest of my day, and not worry about a few patches of thin and icy trail. From above, I was surprised to see how close the road follows the PCT as I looked down on it. In many ways, it’s just a wider version yielding almost identical views. This road would be great for snowshoeing on another day. In fact, I can’t imagine a scenario where I will take the PCT instead of this road up to Little Jimmy in the snow in the future. A key thing I’ll remember moving forward is the sense of relief I felt when I got to the road. While I know I would have turned back on my way up the mountain if the trail disappeared or got much narrower on the way to Little Jimmy Campground, that sense of relief made me realize the importance of tracking my mental tiredness–especially in areas where there is no real margin for error. How many times have I turned back later than I should have and just got lucky? How would I even know? Accidents happen where there’s nothing one could have done to prepare and there’s nothing one could really do differently (which is why I carry a device that can send messages for help via satellite and $100K of search and rescue insurance). Knowing when to turn back on a hike is a fundamental part of hiking that we hikers should also be training for. I hope other’s will share their stories of turning back as they may provide some inspiration for this form of training as hike reports do in finding trails. One person’s accident is another person’s bad decision making and vice versa. I think there are too many factors to judge whether something is a misfortune or a mistake from afar and that there’s really no point in doing so. It’s up to us to determine what we shouldn’t do. Lot’s of people could have easily made it to Mt. Hawkins on the day I clearly shouldn’t have tried. I’m happy I turned back!

Favorite Places #2: Inconspicuous Trail Camp Near Mt. Baldy

I must have hiked the Baldy Bowl Trail 6-7 times before exploring a spur trail off the official trail (between the ski hut and Mt. Baldy) that looked like it would be an interesting place to go. If you’ve ever hiked the Baldy Bowl Trail, I’m pretty sure you’ve thought about going there too. Unnamed and unmapped (at least as far as I know), it leads to an inconspicuous trail camp that it is one of my favorite places in the forest.

Spur Trailhead leading to trail camp. Left and down leads to the ski hut.

Spur Trailhead leading to trail camp. Left and down leads to the ski hut.

Normally, when I hike the Baldy Bowl trail I find myself chasing light and never wanting to break out my headlamp to finish off my hike. Last year, I went on a hike with my wife and daughter and we stopped after making the steep climb up to the ridge where this spur trail begins. While they were resting, I finally took the opportunity to go exploring and within a few minutes I found myself in an area that clearly gets used as a trail camp. It’s easy to get to, just follow the spur trail.

The most conspicuous of several sites that are flat and appropriate to set up a tent.

The most conspicuous of several sites that are flat and appropriate to set up a tent with a view down to the city below.

Last Sunday I used it as a wonderful end destination for a few of us who are training to do a multi-day hike of Mt. Whitney at the end of July. We are getting used to carrying full packs and rehydrating meals etc. We will be stepping things up on a weekly basis and hiking the usual training destinations.

View toward Mt. Harwood from another flat area.

View toward Mt. Harwood from another flat area.

We spent a while there enjoying the excellent views and I’m sure I’ll camp there someday. In my opinion, the view from there is much better than that of the Ski Hut area, it isn’t exposed the way the summit of Mt. Baldy is, and it is half the distance to water than it is from Mt. Baldy. I think it would be a great trip to hike up to this campground starting in the afternoon, set up a camp site, then go back down to the creek next to the Ski Hut and filter a bunch of water for the night and the next day’s hike. On the next day, hike up to Mt. Baldy and come back down via Devil’s Backbone.

View out toward Three Tees, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak.

View out toward Three Tees, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak. (click to enlarge)

Also on Sunday, I crossed paths with one of my favorite bloggers (Lady on a Rock). Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out why I recognized her until she was too far away for me to say hello. I also wasn’t entirely sure it was her until I read on her Facebook page that she had hiked to Mt. Baldy that day. Since ours is a very public outdoor activity and with so many people blogging and reading blogs about hiking, I’m sure some of us cross paths but never know it. For those who would enjoy saying a quick hello, I’ve decided to start including photos of me on some of my posts.

Kyle Kuns enjoying the view from his "rocky chair". Photo by Debbie Kuns.

Kyle Kuns enjoying the view from his “rocky chair”. Photo by Debbie Kuns.

Snow Hiking in Los Angeles: The Baldy Bowl Trail

This is the second post in a series on snow hiking in Los Angeles.  My first post in this series emphasized an opportunity to hike at relatively low elevations closer to the edge of the city where a recent storm is required for snow to be present and no chains or special equipment are needed.

This one goes to the opposite extreme where snow is guaranteed until sometime in spring.  At 10,064 feet, Mt. Baldy is the highest point in Los Angeles County.  The trailhead from Manker Flats is above 6,100 feet and can often be in snow as well.  There is a ski area and restaurant up at Baldy Notch (elevation over 7,800 feet) and it’s worth taking a look at the weather conditions posted on their website (which typically includes an update on road conditions) before making the trip.  Unlike treks at lower elevations, it is important to carry chains.  It is also important to have microspikes, crampons and/or snowshoes as deep snow and icy conditions are common.  Due to over 3,900 feet of gain on this hike, conditions can change dramatically from a thin layer of mostly slippery ice to snow knee deep or more.  Therefore, I now carry both microspikes and snowshoes.

View of West Mt. Baldy from Mt. Baldy with Catalina Island in the distance.

View of West Mt. Baldy from Mt. Baldy with Catalina Island in the distance.

Interestingly, both times I’ve hiked the Baldy Bowl Trail (aka The Ski Hut Trail) in the snow it was with someone I met on Mt. Baldy last summer while I was training to hike to Mt. Whitney.  If I didn’t write this blog, I wouldn’t have stayed in contact with either of them.

The first hike was with Charles.  At that time, I only had snowshoes and the terrain from the trailhead to the ski hut was mostly soil with patches of ice and some stretches of shallow snow and I was better off carrying my snowshoes up to the ski hut on my back pack.   So, this portion of the trek was slow going and a little slippery for me.  Charles had crampons and experienced no problems.

Mt. San Antonio Ski Hut

Mt. San Antonio Ski Hut

At the ski hut, it didn’t look good from a time perspective for me to make the summit.  There were others there who all had crampons.  One of them had an ice axe and was about to head straight up the bowl.  Another had hiked the bowl in snow numerous times.  It was getting late and we all had concerns about the safety of my hiking the trail without crampons as it would get more icy and slippery after the mountain began to block the sun shining on the trail.  Charles could easily make the summit because his crampons would make it easy to negotiate the trail after dusk.  So, Charles and I agreed that he would go on ahead while I put on my snowshoes.  I would turn back after around 2:00 pm and talk to him later.  After everyone else left and I had my snowshoes on, I met a couple skiers who trekked up to the ski hut (which is nowhere near the maintained ski slopes) and were eventually planning to ski down a ridge that had been very good to them in the past.  At this point I realized that there were at least as many people hiking this trail in the snow as there are without it and that there is a large range of equipment used and activities pursued.

A good thing about so many people hiking this trail in snow is the trail is made clear by those who arrive early.

A good thing about so many people hiking this trail in snow is the trail is made clear by those who arrive early.

It was a pleasure to get my snowshoes on and start snowshoeing in deeper snow as I made my way up the trail.  It turned out to be quicker for me to hike through the rocky base of the bowl in snow than it is in normal conditions as enough snow filled in the space between rocks and made a more uniform surface.

Looking up at the ridge from the base of Baldy Bowl.

Looking up at the ridge from the base of Baldy Bowl.

After passing through the comparatively flat base of the bowl the trail gets steep and the snow became much deeper.  As a result, the advantages of snowshoes on this part of the trail became apparent.  My feet didn’t go as far into the deep snow and the Televators on my snowshoes which support raising my heal while keeping the snowshoe flush with the terrain made it significantly easier to handle the steeper slopes.

One of the steeper portions of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

One of the steeper portions of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

With my new found speed, it didn’t take long to pass Charles.  It soon became clear that I would have a shot at making the summit after all.  I caught up with another hiker named Jim and joined him for the last part of the way to the summit.

Kyle Kuns at Mt. Baldy (photo by Jim).

Kyle Kuns at Mt. Baldy (photo by Jim).

There were excellent views all the way down the mountain.  I was once again slowed below the ski hut allowing Charles to catch up with me after he also made the summit.

View looking down the Baldy Bowl Trail and across toward Thunder Mountain, Telegraph Peak, Timber Mountain, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak. (click to enlarge).

View looking down the Baldy Bowl Trail and across toward Thunder Mountain, Telegraph Peak, Timber Mountain, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak. (click to enlarge).

The next hike with Scott was significantly different and he also blogged about it.  Learning from my last trek, I bought a pair of Kahtoola microspikes  which worked fantastically on the lower part of the trail where there was more soil and slippery ice than snow.  These are lightweight enough (and would have been very helpful on my trek to Mt. Whitney) that I’ll be bringing them on this year’s summer trip to the High Sierras.  A key component of this hike was the weather.  The hike began under clear skies with clouds off far in the distance below us.

Clouds off in the distance as seen from the Baldy Bowl Trail below the Ski Hut.

Clouds off in the distance as seen from the Baldy Bowl Trail below the ski hut.

We saw the clouds rolling in as we made our way up the mountain.  After we crossed the base of the bowl and started making our way up the steeper part of the mountain, the clouds started reaching our level.  The view south began to be completely blocked by incoming clouds.

Clouds rolling in along the steeper part of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

Clouds rolling in along the steeper part of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

When the trail met the ridge the view was split between clouds coming up quickly from the south and clear skies to the north.

Clouds to the south, clear skies to the north along the Ridge of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

Clouds to the south, clear skies to the north along the Ridge of the Baldy Bowl Trail. (Click to enlarge)

As we moved higher, the clouds continued moving in quickly and began to darken causing me to start to think about the possibility of getting caught in a snowstorm.

View south from the ridge along the Baldy Bowl Trail.

View south from the ridge along the Baldy Bowl Trail. (click to enlarge)

As impressive as the speed that the clouds were overtaking us was their depth.  At least a few hours from the trailhead, it became unclear whether or not we could summit and make it back down the mountain before snow started.  In addition, Scott was breaking in new hiking boots and it was his first time snowshoeing causing him to be more tired than on his previous summit.  So, we both decided that we wanted to head back.

Tall clouds starting to overtake the higher elevations.

Tall clouds starting to overtake the higher elevations. (Click to enlarge).

The way down was filled with amazing views of fast swirling clouds.  The sky was so turbulent that the scene would usually change before I could snap a photo.

Swirling and turbulent clouds made an amazing trek down to the trailhead.

Swirling and turbulent clouds made an amazing trek down to the trailhead.

At times it felt mostly sunny with only a hint of the cloud formations.

View along the base of the bowl just above the Ski Hut.

View along the base of the bowl just above the Ski Hut. (click to enlarge)

At others we were in the mist of the clouds.

Scott Turner photographing the mist just below the Ski Hut.

Scott Turner photographing the mist just below the Ski Hut.

Once we got below the clouds we were treated to a pretty clear view out to the ocean.

View out toward Catalina Island down near the bottom of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

View out toward Catalina Island down near the bottom of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

I had two very different days where I thought about different challenges.  Hiking in the snow can require special equipment like snow shoes to be safe.  The trail looks different in the snow and will be significantly harder to follow in a storm where lack of visibility can become a serious issue and the trail can disappear with snowfall.  Driving home could become a problem without chains.  All this and more should be considered in determining when to turn back.  The mountain will be there another day.  As recently as last Sunday someone died on this mountain.  This is a hard climb without snow.  If you go, be careful and be willing to turn back too early rather than too late.  That said, this place is amazing and I’ve taken numerous photos of the Baldy Bowl Trail these past two years on over ten assents.  If you’re ready for it, it’s a must do.

Ski Lift Short Cutting Our Way To Mt. Baldy

There is no easy hike to Mt. Baldy.  There is just a comparatively easy hike among a myriad of significantly more strenuous options.  We chose this easier version for our weekly family and friends hike.  The hike begins by taking the ski lift up to Baldy Notch from the parking lot at the end of Mt. Baldy Road.  This eliminates over 1,500′ of gain over the next easiest way.

From Baldy Notch we took the Devil’s Backbone Trail to Mt. Baldy which gains a fairly steep 2,225′ over 3.2 miles.  The views are spectacular and descriptions and photos don’t capture what it feels like to walk and look out from the often precarious trail which has at some remarkable stretches drops of thousands of feet on both sides from a roughly four foot ridge.

Fortunately, we were treated to a crystal clear day.  Normally, the views of the Mojave Desert are clear.  However, to be able to see Catalina Island with reflections of the sun on the water is uncommon.

View toward Catalina Island from Mt. Baldy at 10,064′.

Going down the Devil’s Backbone Trail in the late afternoon provided many opportunities to enjoy the sun setting and casting reflections on the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

View toward the ocean from the Devil’s Backbone Trail

Using a tree to block the sun and allow me to enjoy looking at the Pacific Ocean.

As the sun went down and shade began to cover the trail, our focus turned toward making it down in time to eat at the restaurant.

After enjoying a festive meal celebrating the first Mt. Baldy summit for five of my companions we headed down the ski lift and enjoyed the last moments of sunlight and the lights coming on from the city below.

Science on Mt. Harwood

Mt. Harwood is a peak that the Devil’s Backbone Trail traverses the south side of connecting Baldy Notch to Mt. Baldy.  The way to the summit isn’t obvious and is part use trail and part scree scramble.

View looking toward Mt. Harwood heading down the Devil’s Backbone Trail from Mt. Baldy.

Since hiking to Mt. Baldy is reasonably strenuous on it’s own, most people don’t bother peak bagging Mt. Harwood.  I didn’t the first several times either.  However, on one of my training hikes for Mt. Whitney I met another hiker (Charles) on Mt. Baldy who told me about his summit of Mt. Harwood as well as some science equipment near the summit. I had to see it myself and learn more clearly what the scientists are researching.

Description of the research objective of learning about the movement of the Earth’s crust.

View of the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory Station with Mt. Harwood in the background.

I enjoyed looking at Mt. Baldy from another vantage point as I headed up to the summit.

View toward Mt. Baldy heading up the scree scramble to Mt. Harwood.

Heading down from the summit and looking toward Mt. Baldy yields probably the most comprehensive view of the last portion of the Devil’s Backbone Trail leading up to Mt. Baldy

View of Devil’s Backbone Trail and Mt. Baldy.