I’m Becoming a Cloud Chaser

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I hiked to Mt. Lowe with my friend Etienne starting from the Upper Sunset Ridge Trail.  It rained the previous couple days and it was raining Saturday night when Etienne and I were planning our Sunday hike.  Since I usually avoid hiking in the rain, I had already ruled out a solo hike.  So, I’m definitely not a storm chaser.  As we texted back and forth and I was deciding whether or not I wanted to go, I studied the hourly weather report.  It indicated that at 7 am the chance of rain would go down to 10% and remain that way for the rest of the day.  Significantly, the weather icon on my weather application showed the sun with clouds.  I’ve found that hiking just before a storm or just after it are amazing times to be on the mountain.  A lot of what amazes me has to do with what the clouds are like at those times.  It was the possibility to walk up into the clouds, make it over them, and see the wonderful light generated as the sun reflects off of them or breaks through them that inspired me to accept Etienne’s invitation a go on this hike with the potential for rain in the forecast.  After I sent him my last text agreeing to go, I realized I’m becoming a cloud chaser.

When we left my house it looked like it could rain at any moment and there was no sign of the sun.  The clouds were low and we couldn’t see any peaks.  This meant we were at least guaranteed to be able to walk in them.  It actually didn’t take long to reach them.  We were among them about half way up the Sunset Ridge Trail.

About half way up the Sunset Ridge trail among the clouds.

It turned out that they were moving up the mountain with us essentially filling in all of Millard Canyon as they made their way over the San Gabriels.  Depending upon whether or not it was misty where I was hiking, I felt like I was either walking next to them or through them.  The haunting impact that the clouds create allowing the burned trees to stand in silhouette always appeals to me.  The trees stand out in a way that they no longer can on sunny days having lost all or most of their foliage.  The view out is temporarily gone and once again these trees dominate the viewable landscape.  Under these conditions, the vegetation that is making a comeback appears more vibrant as moisture and the grey surroundings help emphasize their green presence.

As we made it higher along the Sunset Ridge Trail we started to feel more like we were in the clouds instead of next to them.

Arriving near the top of the Sunset Ridge Trail allowed us to view out toward the city for the first time.  We finally saw the sun breaking through the clouds and some patches of blue sky.  However, we were not over the clouds and couldn’t see far off into the distance.  Mostly we could see the path they were making over the mountains.

Near the top of the Sunset Ridge Trail looking toward Echo Mountain.

Although our view out toward the ocean was still blocked by clouds, the initial view up the Upper Mt. Lowe Railway Trail yielded plenty of hope that our continued trek up the mountain would lead us to a view above the clouds.

View up the Upper Mt. Lowe Railway Trail.

Soon it became clear that the blue sky we saw was a temporary break in the clouds and not a preview of sunshine and views over the clouds waiting for us further up the mountain.  By the time we were heading up the East Mt. Lowe Trail along the south slope of Mt. Lowe, it was obvious that the clouds were rising in height as they made it over the ridge line that includes Muir Peak and Inspiration Point only to drop down again into Eaton Canyon to the east and Grand Canyon to the West.  The odds of hiking over the clouds on this day were rapidly diminishing.

Clouds coming over the ridge line including Muir Peak to the left, Inspiration Point at the saddle in the center and two unnamed peaks to the right.

Turning the corner and heading up the east slope of Mt. Lowe, Mt. Disappointment and San Gabriel Peak were clearly visible below the clouds.  Unlike a prior day, the clouds were going over San Gabriel Peak instead of around it.

Etienne walking up the east slope of Mt. Lowe next to the clouds as they made their way up Eaton Canyon.

Heading up the north slope of Mt. Lowe, the clouds were swirling around the mountain coming up from both canyons.  Watching the flow of the clouds was loosely similar to watching waves come in on a rocky beach with cliffs.  The clouds were swirling around, moving down and then up, coming together and meeting from the two canyons and hiding San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Disappointment in the process, and then moving apart and allowing a patch of blue to be seen.

View of Mt. Disappointment and San Gabriel Peak from the south slope of Mt. Lowe. Mt. Markham is overcome by clouds.

Etienne in the clouds on Mt. Lowe

The only remaining question to be answered was what would the conditions be like on the peak of Mt. Lowe.  Would we be engulfed in clouds as was the case of Mt. Markham during time we were able to try and view it, or would we have moments where we could look out a reasonable distance as it was clear one could do periodically from San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Disappointment?  As we made it to the junction with the Upper Sam Merrill Trail, we were already in the clouds.  A large part of lunch was shared in the clouds at the summit.  However, there were some nice moments when the swirl of clouds rose high enough to allow a little view.

View from Mt. Lowe when the clouds rose high enough for us to no longer be in them.

The way back down yielded similar experiences with the clouds until we got to a point on the Upper Mt. Lowe Railway Trail where we far enough under the clouds that we could see out to the ocean.

View from the Upper Mt. Lowe Railway Trail

The clouds were now higher than in the morning when they blocked the view of the city and lower canyons.  The rest of our day was under the clouds with great clear views of the canyons, city, and ocean beyond.  For me, chasing clouds is a dynamic experience worth repeating whenever possible.

Hiking Into The Clouds

Hikes with significant elevation gain guarantee a diversity of landscape to trek through.  Obviously this is due to the micro-climates created largely by the difference in altitude that one moves through on the way to the high point of the journey.  While the amount and character of the diversity is clearly tied to numerous other factors, meaningful differences are assured.  Having taken several Environmental Science courses in college, none of that surprised me.  I find experiencing this diversity to be wonderful and the specific details naturally have unforeseen aspects to them. Of course, prior to beginning my weekly hikes in 2011, I wasn’t aware of the what was in Angeles Forest, or things like how high the mountains reach–which is why I started this blog. However, the overall idea wasn’t new for me.  The first time I planned a hike with over 2,000 feet of gain, I new I would see diversity. 

Unexpected for me was my personal discovery (countless others have known this long ago) that at certain times these differences being so close together become more magnified than seen on a typical day.  Weather , for example, will impact these areas differently creating interesting edge conditions and small areas of dramatic difference that can be experienced on a day hike.  I first came to this understanding unintentionally on a hike from the Cobb Estate to Mt. Lowe in February 2011.

Starting at the Cobb Estate, the ground was dry and it was a little cloudy.  The clouds were pretty high though and while hiking up the Lower Sam Merrill Trail it was easy to see Downtown Los Angeles and the ocean off in the distance.  The weather report showed zero percent chance of rain, and the clouds high above the mountain didn’t appear threatening or reachable.  At Echo Mountain (about 1400′ of gain up from the Cobb Estate), Inspiration Point–another 1300′ in elevation was visible.  This was pretty typical so far and I didn’t take any pictures.  At Inspiration Point, the view out was still great, but the view up Mt. Lowe was blocked by clouds.  Before making it to the summit, I found myself in snow, literally in the clouds, and feeling an ultra light mist.

At the Summit, I thought about how the mist felt like walking in fog along the ocean.  However, walking up into the clouds and snow from the city below made the overall experience different.  Less than 500 feet lower down the mountain, the city below was still in sunlight, the trail had no snow and one could see as far off as the ocean.  While it did take hiking over 3,000 feet of gain to reach the clouds, the idea that they were reachable from below was exhilarating.  Never before had such an obstructed view been so appealing to me.

Being in the clouds and not being able to see out naturally caused me to focus more on what was immediately around me.  I saw many interesting things I hadn’t paid much attention to in the past because I was so blown away by the view outward.  For example, I found the composition of some rocks and vegetation to be very beautiful standing out against the grey background.

That experience taught me to pay more attention to what I’m trekking through on future hikes and to stop more often and take some pictures of interesting details along the way.  On a later hike, I searched out the same composition and photographed it with the view of Mt. Wilson in the background.

On the way down the mountain along the East Mt. Lowe Trail, the clouds were significantly lower.  The mist started to feel a little stronger and I started to wonder if it was going to rain and if the sun was still shinning down on the city below.

At about 1000 feet lower than the clouds were on my ascent, I broke through them along the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.  It took about 5 minutes to move through the edge condition between being in the clouds and not.  After walking through the cloudy grey for hours, I now had a view of both the grey fuzzy edge of those clouds and out to the sunlit mountainside across the canyon.

As I made my way downward, the shadowy view of Echo Mountain emerged with the sunlit view of the city beyond.  As I stood and took in that view, I’d look back up the mountain to see the view of the mountain top blocked by the clouds.  Then I’d look out and see that the cloud cover went out into the distance about as far as Downtown Los Angeles.  The light was making it to the lower part of these mountains due to the low angle of the sun.. The cloud cover then felt like nature’s grand cantilevered roof jutting out from the mountain top.

On another hike in early March 2011 up the Mt. Lowe Railway Trail, I found patches of snow on the trail and Mt. Lowe in view below the clouds.

By the time I made it to the north side of Mt. Lowe along the Upper Sam Merrill Trail, I was ankle deep in snow and close to the clouds.  Markham Saddle was still visible, but San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Markham were in the clouds.  At that point, I knew Mt. Lowe would be in the clouds too.

In late March 2011 on a hike on the Sam Merrill Trail  to Inspiration Point, the clouds were low and not much higher than Echo Mountain.

Uniquely, the most interesting view for me that day was of Inspiration Point through the cloud mist instead of out from it to the city below.

In April 2011, I again hiked up to Mt. Lowe via the Sam Merrill Trail.  Along the upper Sam Merrill Trail, I got interested in how the clouds helped emphasize depth and made some tree branches look further away than they do in sunlight.

This time after I made my way back down below the clouds I looked up to see the sun shine through the clouds.  The thin layer of clouds blocking a direct view of the sun and muting it’s light made the sun easier to see as a light bulb is when viewed through a lamp shade.  Not wanting to hurt my eyes by staring at it, I looked at it through my camera lens and took many pictures like the one below that look a little like an abstract painting.

I found the color of the sunset when viewed after so many hours in the grey of the clouds to be even more beautiful–especially as the darkness of the clouds were also in view.

Seeing the sun descending through the clouds and it’s light now able to shine directly onto the landscape I was hiking on caused me to spend more time contemplating my own experience being able to see out into the distance once I had descended through the clouds.  I stopped for a while to enjoy the moment.

I was almost down the mountain when the sun was setting behind the mountains beyond. Even when it was out of my sight for the day, the indirect light in the sky lit my way and allowed me to see further into the landscape than I was able to do while in the clouds during the afternoon.  I found the juxtaposition of experiences while hiking during a single day to be wonderful.

On a hike along the San Gabriel Peak Trail to San Gabriel Peak in December 2011, I found myself above the clouds with a view I’ve only seen from an airplane.  The opportunity to walk through them was there, I just didn’t have the time that day.  Now that I know it’s possible, walking through the clouds is high on my list of experiences to seek out.

I now see the mountains and the clouds differently.  When I’m in the city, I look up to see how high the clouds are up the mountain.  Could there be an interesting opportunity to interact with them–walk into them, above them, or through them?