Between Two Layers Of Clouds

Last Wednesday I woke up to dark cloudy skies with no sunshine in sight.  Rain looked imminent.  The clouds were low and I couldn’t see the peak of Mt. Lukens behind my house.  The forecasted storm appeared to be arriving on schedule.  I checked the weather channel application on my phone and noticed an interesting change from the forecast of the night before.  The new weather prediction at my house (indicated with a cloudy icon with rain) was for a 50% chance of rain.  On the other hand, Mt. Wilson (a half hour away) showed a 10% chance of rain (indicated by a sunny icon with some clouds).  I contacted my friend Lorenzo who lives on the Mojave Desert side of the San Gabriel Mountains and learned that he was seeing sunny skies from his house.  Being on the front end of the incoming storm, it looked like a prime opportunity to do some cloud chasing.  Even if I didn’t find myself touching clouds, I imagined that the sky would be magnificent.

View from Eaton Saddle looking down Eaton Canyon.

View from Eaton Saddle looking down Eaton Canyon.

I decided to drive up to Eaton Saddle and hike up to San Gabriel Peak (next to Mt. Wilson).  San Gabriel Peak is only a little more that a mile from Eaton Saddle. Therefore, if the weather changed on me I wouldn’t be that far from my car.  The view from Eaton Saddle was promising.  Clouds were making their way up through Eaton Canyon below me and clouds were forming over a thousand feet above me.  It appeared the clouds from below would make it high enough up the mountains to cover some of the peaks.  I quickly hiked the short way up to San Gabriel Peak hoping to get there before it was covered in clouds. Once on the peak however, the clouds below started to look like they would burn off and they were closer to looking like a layer of smog as they formed a fairly uniform surface.  I couldn’t see the city below, but I could see the ocean off in the distance.  Initially I was disappointed.  While it was a great view, the promise of having an exciting day of clouds overtaking the peaks below like I experienced before was unlikely to be replicated.

View South from San Gabriel Peak at 10:22 am.

View South from San Gabriel Peak at 10:22 am.

San Gabriel Peak at 6,161 feet is the tallest peak in its immediate vicinity and it’s also small in area at the peak (about the size of a large living room).  I find the ability to stand in one spot and look down on the terrain far off into the distance in all directions makes it one of the forests best places to be.  So, I didn’t remain disappointed long.  I was unsure what to do however.  I didn’t have enough time to go on a much longer hike.  I couldn’t possibly get beyond where I had been a couple days earlier with family and friends and my preference for variety made me resistant to simply doing that again.

View north from San Gabriel Peak

View north from San Gabriel Peak at 10:21 am.

Normally I don’t stay in one spot longer than a half an hour, and staying that long usually involves eating lunch.  I’m usually trying to get my hike completed before I run out of daylight, or exploring new areas and want to see more, or I have somewhere else I need to be requiring me to get down the mountain.  As I was starting to get a little antsy walking around the summit, taking in the views, and trying to come up with a plan of what to do next; the phrase don’t just do something, sit there popped into my head.  So, I sat on the bench made from a steel c-section beam and enjoyed being on the summit.  By that time the clouds were starting to get a little more puffy below me and more clouds were starting to form above me.  I decided to stay a while and see if something interesting developed.

Steel C-section bench with journal and pen.

Steel C-section bench with journal and pen.

Fortunately, I remembered I had a small journal and pen in my backpack.  I realized I could invest some time jotting down ideas and working on clearing up my thinking on a number of things I’m trying to figure out.  Among the many things I worked on  was fine tuning my ideas to create two new weekly series of blog posts which I began a couple days later (Weekly Gallery Update and Weekly Nature Question). While jotting ideas down, the clouds slowly began getting more dominant in the sky.  The progression moving from mostly sunny skies to two layers of storm clouds was something I found exciting to behold.

View West from San Gabriel Peak at 12:26 pm with some clouds beginning to make it over Brown Mountain.

View west from San Gabriel Peak at 12:26 pm with some clouds beginning to make it over Brown Mountain.

View west from San Gabriel Peak at 1:33 pm with clouds starting to make it over Brown Mountain and Mt. Lukens from below as the clouds become more ominous from above.

View west from San Gabriel Peak at 1:33 pm with clouds starting to make it over Brown Mountain and Mt. Lukens from below as the clouds become more ominous from above.

View west from San Gabriel Peak at 2:00 pm with  the clouds having overtaken Brown Mountain and Mt. Lukens from below as the clouds from above make it over me on San Gabriel Peak and it begins to sprinkle shortly thereafter.

View west from San Gabriel Peak at 2:00 pm with the clouds having overtaken Brown Mountain and Mt. Lukens from below as the clouds from above make it over me on San Gabriel Peak and it begins to sprinkle shortly thereafter.

The timing of this progression was perfect.  It didn’t start to sprinkle on me until it was time for me to leave anyway.  It had turned out to be a gorgeous and unexpectedly productive day on the mountain.  As I turned to leave the peak, I admired the view of Mt. Wilson and the sunny skies beyond to the east.  A few minutes later I saw a rainbow looking north.  The rest of the way back to my car I thought about the fact that I was actually fairly productive while having this wonderful day on the mountain.  I could easily bring some reading and plan to write and think through ideas on future outings where the hike isn’t the central component–this one being just over two miles round trip.  While I will continue to mostly go on longer hikes where the focus is on either training or exploring new areas, I plan to try a couple days a month that are more like this experience and see if I’m as productive.

View east from San Gabriel Peak toward Mt. Wilson.

View east from San Gabriel Peak toward Mt. Wilson.

Looking North at Rainbow from the San Gabriel Peak trail.

Looking North at Rainbow from the Upper San Gabriel Peak trail.


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.

Spider Webs For Halloween

Thankfully, I don’t have any spooky Halloween hiking experiences to share.  However, Halloween decorations (especially ones including spiders and spider webs) inspired me to give an account of my day hiking among numerous unexpectedly visible spider webs.  It was on a gloomy June day in 2011 with heavy mist in the air and some brief periods of light rain.  I was hiking in an area I had hiked numerous times before and had never seen many webs.  Perhaps a few in a day at most.  However, the misty air brought dew onto the webs magnificently exposing them.  Over the course of the day I easily saw hundreds of webs, but only one spider.  It was another one of those times where weather dramatically alters the experience of the day and radically changes what I focus on.  In addition to how many webs there were, I found it surprising how many of the webs were right next to each other.  The forest was just teeming with them–which underscored their normal effectiveness at appearing invisible to their spider’s prey.  I remember my mind wandering at one point and thinking of the Invisible Man suddenly becoming seen in the rain.  Enjoy the gallery below of some of  those spider webs as this blog’s Halloween Treat and have a happy and safe Halloween.

Being Able To Decide What Weather I Want To Be In

Hiking has taught me to pay more attention to the weather.  As of last Sunday, I’ve now internalized the reality that there are numerous days in the year when I can decide what weather I want to be in.  Living within an hour of both the Pacific Ocean and trailheads leading to peaks as high as Mt. Baldy’s 10,064 foot elevation yields opportunities to take advantage of elevation differences.

Last Saturday, I went on a family and friends hike.  My wife and I left our house under cloudy and misty sky’s.  We didn’t see an blue skies or the sun until we were partway up Mt. Baldy road.  By the time we made it to Icehouse Canyon to start our hike, we were out of the clouds and into clear sunny skies.  Coming down the Chapman Trail allowed us to see out of the canyon and view the cloud cover that most people in the LA area remained below for the day.

View of cloud cover down Icehouse Canyon with Mt. Wilson and San Gabriel Peak off in the distance.

On Sunday, I woke up to the same weather.  The ground was wet and the air was misty with clouds as far as I could see.  Initially I was disappointed as I had planned to play paddle tennis with my cousin in Marina Del Rey.  The weather report showed 30% chance of rain and I decided it wasn’t worth the risk to drive out and have the courts become unplayable after a few minutes of rain.

At that moment I finally realized that staying below the cloud cover could be a choice instead of a situation I had no control over.  I walked to the end of my block and looked at Mt. Lukens.  The clouds were low enough covering half the height of the mountain that it looked possible that I could get above the clouds again as I did the day before.

So, I set out to go on a short hike to San Gabriel Peak where I had once unintentionally found myself above the clouds before and it was one of the peaks that were above the clouds the day before.  Driving up to Eaton Saddle, I found myself in the clouds and either in mist or light rain.  I drove higher up to Mt. Wilson only to find it was also still in the clouds.  Admittedly, this reality was humbling.  Perhaps I didn’t have a choice after all.  Fortunately, I continued up Angeles Crest Highway and by Newcomb’s Ranch I found myself in the sun.  Having only brought a small snack and water for a short hike, I settled on hiking the Mt. Waterman Trail.

At the trailhead, it was completely sunny and clear.  However, as I followed the trail heading east up the mountain toward the Kratka Ridge, I started seeing a light mist as the clouds were just making it over the Ridge.

A light mist of clouds making it’s way over the Kratka Ridge.

I thought that it was possible that I wasn’t so much above the clouds as I was in front of their path over the mountain range.  So, I picked up my pace trying to make it up to the summit before clouds had a chance to overtake it.  It didn’t take long after the trail changed direction and for me to reach high enough ground to find myself once again in the sun.

Back in the sun looking across the cloud cover toward Mt. Baldy.

With clear skies at the summit, I enjoyed the uncommon opportunity to stare both up at a cloudless sky and across the cloudscape.

View from Mt. Waterman toward the east and across the cloudscape toward Mt. Baden-Powell

Looking toward the west where nothing is tall enough to rise above the cloudscape as it makes it’s way over the mountains.

Making my way down toward my car found me inside the clouds as they made their way over the Kratka Ridge.  This suggested to me that earlier I was at times both over and in front of the clouds as they moved north.  Along the way down the mountain I felt a few drops, but mostly just some mist.

In the clouds only a couple hundred feet below the summit.

Once I got to the point in the trail that I started heading back west across the north face of Mt. Waterman, I found myself exiting the clouds.

Back in the sun and clear skies along the north face of Mt. Waterman.

On the ride home I thought about how liberating it felt to be able to decide what weather I wanted to be in for the day.  Playing around the edge of the clouds, being just above them, just in front of them, and at times inside them or under them (at home and on the way to and from the trail) made for a wonderfully dynamic day.

Hail Storm Provides Some Drama

Our early afternoon arrival at Trail Camp corresponded with the appearance of dark storm clouds.  The pattern the ranger and Scott spoke of for past days was holding true on this day too.  Fortunately, off in the distance were mostly blue skies, so the part about the storm being short was likely to hold true as well.  There were numerous shelters already set up (or in the process of being set up).  Since the terrain was largely granite, there weren’t many places to stake out a tent.  We had to take what we could get.  I had a bit more of a challenge finding a workable spot because I use a two person shaped tarp and inner bug tentwhich has a much larger footprint than two person tents.  I only had a problem setting up one stake that I could only get three quarters of the way into the ground.  After adding a seemingly heavy enough rock to hold down the stake and pulling fairly hard at the connection, it appeared to be solidly in place.  A light rain started soon after I was done setting up and I got under cover to wait out the storm.

Trail Camp

Fortunately, the larger footprint of my tarp system gave me ample room to get things set up inside.  By the time I got myself settled and was laying down to rest I was feeling pretty good about things.  This being only my fifth backpacking trip, I was now dealing with my shelter in the rain for the first time.  For a first rain experience, I was lucky to be able to set up my tarp while the ground was still dry with rain expected to last only an hour or two.  It had been raining for about twenty minutes and my shelter was showing no signs of stress.  Thinking about the amazing scenery on the way up to Trail Camp, I fell asleep.

Thunder and lightning woke me up.  It clearly had gotten colder while I was sleeping.  The light rain had turned into a heavy hail storm with very gusty winds.  Pondering whether or not my tarp would hold didn’t last long.  The wind soon blew on the side of my tarp so hard it pulled the stake support (with rock weight on it) out of the ground and my trekking pole support came down on me.  Water was now getting in through the mesh side of my bug tent.  I quickly held the trekking pole support up to significantly slow down the flow of water getting in.  I couldn’t stop it altogether as I would need to be able to stake the tarp out beyond the bug tent to accomplish that.  Instead, the wind kept the tarp pressed high enough up against the bug tent to allow water to blow in through the mesh near the bottom.  Since I had taken off my hiking shoes to nap, my socks were now wet as was my right leg.  Trying to keep my things dry, I pushed them to the other side of the bug tent.  Now off my air mattress, placing my hand on the solid silicon nylon floor of my bug tent felt like I was pushing down on the top of a very cold water bed.  Though still mostly dry inside, I had a pool of water forming under the bug tent floor and me.  While trying to figure out if I would be better off going outside and re-staking (or similar) my tarp, the hail stopped.  In a few minutes I heard Scott outside asking if I was all right.  Thankfully, he re-staked that side of my tarp (as best as it could be done under the circumstances) which allowed me to get out and keep my stuff on the other side as dry as possible.

Tim showed up within a couple minutes of my exit from my tarp.  It was clear to all of us that I couldn’t stay where I was because my shelter was in a pool of water.  My wet feet and right leg were cold enough to get that freezing sensation I find very uncomfortable.  By the time I got everything ready to move, pretty much everything was now wet.  This was by far the toughest moment of my trip.  Being this cold early in the afternoon, I didn’t know if I could handle being cold and wet at night.  Being above 12,000 feet, would I be at genuine risk of getting hypothermia?  I really didn’t know.  What I felt with almost equally intense feelings was I didn’t want to stay there as I was and I didn’t want to end my trip.  As I thought about it, I didn’t think I could stay there as I was.  My inexperience dealing with bad weather in the mountains was getting the best of me.  I began exploring ending my trip—but my heart wasn’t into it.  I had checked in advance and found out the permit didn’t tether us together in terms of when returned to the trailhead.  Thankfully, if I left early, nobody else needed to.  My friends were willing to make big sacrifices for me to stay.  With more thunderstorms a possibility, Tim’s proposed sacrifice was the most extreme as he offered to give me his spot in his tarp and spend the night cowboy camping in his poncho.  He rationalized that he’d done it in the past on the JMT, and besides he was from Oregon.  I just didn’t like any of my friends’ proposals.  However, I wasn’t ready to go and I didn’t need to leave for at least an hour to make it down the trail before dark.  I walked with Tim across Trail Camp to his tarp to sort things out.  Along the way I noticed a lot of people packing up to leave.  I later learned lots of backpackers had similar bad luck as I did finding themselves soaked in a pool of water.  Some of them had left their stuff at Trail Camp while summiting Mt. Whitney and were planning to leave anyway.  However, many others cut their trip short.

Rainbow above the White Mountains east of Trail Camp

The sun broke through the clouds soon after I arrived at Tim and David’s campsite.  My feet and leg were no longer freezing and the clothes I was wearing had started to dry.  It was also windy.  I remembered my son telling me about a backpacking trip he had once that was tainted a little when all his clothes got wet.  I finally recalled that with his reminder I had decided to pack a change of clothes in a dry bag.  Thus, it didn’t matter that my pack was wet, I could get myself dry.  With the sun out and the wind blowing it became clear I had time to get my tarp, air mattress, and sleeping bag dry.  Problem solved, I left my stuff spread out at Tim and David’s site to dry and went out in search of a site without a pool of water for me.  It took a while (largely because I went for some serious overkill on the weighing down of the tarp stakes with rocks etc) but I got myself set up.  Along the way I noticed that a nice rainbow had formed which felt like an exclamation point on my decision to stay.  I don’t think I would have enjoyed that rainbow much if I was hiking down to my car.  Leaving some things out to dry some more in the wind, I went down to the tarn to filter four liters of water with my Steripen.  At the tarn I met a couple who got caught near the summit when the storm hit.  Being at higher elevation they had to deal with a snow storm with really scary lightening strikes occurring throughout their trek back down to Trail Camp.  It was clearly terrifying and something they never wanted to experience again.

View of tarn in front of Wotans Throne at Trail Camp

I finally made my way to join the others and have dinner.  I was tired and wasn’t emotionally ready to hear that they thought it would be a great idea to wake up and get started by 2:30 am to reach the summit.  This would allow us to easily make it back down to Trail Camp before the next day’s possible storm if the weather continued following the pattern of the last few days.  I already felt that the 4:30 am agreed upon start time was going to be a toughie for me.  I imagined how cold it might be.  With snow on the mountain, there would be a good possibility the trail could be icy near the top.  On a couple training hikes earlier in the year I had slipped and fallen on icy terrain.  I found nothing about the potential of icy terrain in the dark to be appealing.  For some reason (I’m guessing because I had the permit), the guys left the decision of start time up to me.  Summoning up my inner Vulcan side of Mr. Spock, I started asking more questions—especially of Tim who was the only one who had hiked the trail before.  Tim’s description of the terrain from Trail Crest to the summit (which turned out to be accurate) was not a place I’d want to trek in the dark—especially if the trail was icy.  However, thinking about the experience of hikers who got caught in the storm it made sense to try to get to Trail Crest by sunrise.  Still not confident about the potential for icy conditions, I agreed to a 3:30 am start time as long as someone else led the way while it was dark.

Moments after we agreed on our start time it started to drizzle lightly.  We dispersed to our individual camp sites and by the time I made it to my tarp the rain stopped.  After finishing doing things like setting up my air mattress and changing into my dry clothes, I went outside my tarp and saw that the clouds had mostly gone.  I had a few things I left out hoping to dry in the night’s wind.  I got into my sleeping bag and thought about all the amazing things I saw that day, the drama I experienced due to the hail storm, the pending early morning start time, and then I fell asleep.  Soon I would learn that this kind of intensity is just a normal day in the Sierras—amazing!  To be continued …