Mt. Baldy – The Highest Peak in Los Angeles
Day 1 – Friday
Everyone arrived on time with their big packs and smiles to match. We loaded up our gear and said goodbye to our families. After sharing our names, pronouns, one thing we were feeling excited for, and the plan for the day, everyone quickly loaded up into our vehicles, and with the hum of the engine, we motored east to Azusa.
With the windows down and our masks up, we enjoyed the warm low-angle sun shining in our mirrors as we hummed along the 134 and 210 freeways. After about an hour and a half of drive time, we exited the freeway and were awestruck by the clouds looming over Mt. Baldy. Reminiscent of the Himalayas, the clouds obscured the view of our goal, only increasing the mystery and anticipation of our climb!
Since the Angeles National Forest fire ban was still in place, we needed to find somewhere to make food before ending our commute in the mountains. Marysia and her vehicle headed up to the campground to set up our tents, at the first come first serve campground. In the meantime, Benny and the van crew made their way to a nearby park where we could get our meals prepped for the next few days.
Our crew worked quickly to bring the cooking gear and food! An hour later the sun nearly set, and the tent-prep crew had returned for dinner. With a little light-up frisbee for dessert, we packed up and all headed up to our campsite.
With the night sky above us, we got our warm layers and headlamps. We then circled to chat about the plan for tomorrow, how to stay warm in our tents, and what to do if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night! We closed out with a group photo and a chorus of goodnights.
Day 2 – Saturday
Our sleeping biocitizens were awakened by the brisk mountain air, which filled our nostrils with the smell of incense cedar, manzanita, and black oak that make their home here. We packed up our tents, sleeping bags, pads, and made haste for the breakfast table spread. Soon after breakfast, our bellies were filled, and our gear was divided amongst the group. We reviewed everyone’s packs and removed any unnecessary items to trim down the weight.
We then made our way to our trailhead conveniently located just up the road. Finally, the part we had all been waiting for, the hike! What glorious weather we had – blue skies above us and the glory of the San Gabriel Mountains all around us. Within minutes we had already seen Western Gray Squirrel, a native mammal common in these parts, as well as San Antonio Falls, which miraculously was still flowing.
Western Gray Squirrel (Sciurus griseus)
San Antonio Falls
Chugging along the open fire road we reveled in the awe-inspiring views of the valley below us. The quiet chairlift buzzed above and pleasant hikers passed us along our ascent up the trail until we arrived at Baldy Notch. At 7,800’ we had climbed nearly 2000’ of elevation all before lunch. So when we stopped folks happily upped their calorie count, refilled waters, and gave their legs a rest from their heavy packs.
With the hard part still in front of us, we made sure to keep up our pace to ensure arrival as close to the summit as possible for the night. The next 2,300’ of elevation would surely test our endurance. Most of us didn’t know just how hard the test would be. Up and up we went, climbing higher, marching up steep sections of the Devil’s Backbone Trail. Along the way, we passed Red Fir, Sierra Lodgepole Pine, Sugar Pine, Jeffrey Pine, Bush Chinquapin, and Manzanita. Many of the plants were new to our group since our past outings in the San Gabriel’s have been to lower elevations. Nonetheless, we pushed on, climbing higher and higher.
Red Fir (Abies magnifica)
The trail tested us, but we had not yet reached the crux of our journey. Ahead of us was the ridge. Exposed on both sides, this narrow stretch of trail required focus and determination. We staged just before the start of this technical rocky section as day hikers passed through. With the group now gone, it was our turn to make our move. As we moved forward, Marysia led us up, the golden light of 4 PM illuminated the dust that kicked up from the east winds blowing across the trail.
Our hikers teetered along the Devil’s Backbone as if the devil himself was trying to blow us off the ridge. Soon we found shelter on the leeward side of the rock outcrop. Taking gulps from our water bottles we caught our breath. Had our leaders underestimated how long it would take us to cover this steep, and challenging terrain? Although we were tired, we had to keep pushing forward.
Jaw-dropping views continued to test our focus and inspire our will. By this time in the day, our group was wondering how much further we had to go. Even our more seasoned hikers were feeling fatigued from our journey. Encouraging words from our leader team pushed us on, as we neared the final half-mile of our trek. However, it wasn’t smooth sailing. The wind continued to rise, and the sun continued to drop lower and lower into the sky. Before us lay another very steep section of trail, the second to last section.
We persevered with slow, methodical steps up the nearly 45-degree slope. At our last rest break, a couple of members of our team expressed their nervousness, and that they were feeling a little weary. We supported them by taking some weight from their packs and staying by their sides the whole final stretch. In those moments, only true connection and relentless, compassionate support of the spirit can help a team push through the crux. We were more grateful for one another then than we had ever been.
Everyone had reached their physical limit at the second to last crest. The daunting winds were thwarted from our backs as huddled behind the only respite from the wind – the Sierra Lodgepole Pines. While the group imagined all sorts of things, Marysia and Benny checked the scene for suitable sites to set up camp.
We quickly found another patch of windswept pines with a few already flattened areas, just big enough for all of the tents. Exhausted, but excited that our days’ saga was almost complete, we raised ourselves from the ground and strapped on headlamps for the final task. We utilized heavy rocks to fasten the corners since our tent stakes would be of no use in this rocky terrain. The wind tested our fortitude in the final minutes as we secured our rain flies for extra insulation. After about 10 minutes came a chorus of swift final ZiiiiPPPS from shutting tent doors. Our little explorers huddled safely inside, warmed themselves with more layers, and had dinner in bed.
All night the wind howled, ripping at our thin shelter walls, like sailors caught in a storm. Would our tents hold against these 40-50mph winds? Before heading to sleep, we checked in with our crew to make sure everyone was okay and drinking water, eating food, and had appropriate layers on. They did, and they were EXHAUSTED! Rightfully so: we had climbed nearly 4,000’ feet in elevation in just under six miles.
As the gales continued to wail over the ridge, the dark night sky contrasted with the red and white steam of vehicle lights motoring along with the highway thousands of feet below. While we drifted to sleep, our last memories of the day were the twinkling stars and constellations looking down from lightyears away.
Day 3 – Sunday
It was now just before sunrise, and the sky was spectacular. Saturated with oranges and purples, the peaks and ridges around us were glowing with alpine magnificence. A new day was upon us, absent of any whipping tree branches and dust dancing in the air. It had stopped! The howling, indomitable wind had finally stopped.
One of the most stunning horizons we had seen in a long time, only a few of us were awake to see the glory. The photos we took of course only do partial justice to the feeling of still serenity and colorful splendor one receives from sunrise in the mountains.
With nearly ten hours of sleep to recharge our batteries, our group still struggled to shake off yesterday’s physical demands. The sleepy caterpillars slowly made their way out of their cocoons to greet the morning. We had not met the summit yet, but we did meet a hiker who had already made his way to our location by 7 AM… he sure got an early start!
After some hydration encouragement, everyone was out and bustling around – breaking down camp, sweeping for micro-trash. Everyone’s faces were at greater ease, enjoying what felt like a gourmet breakfast of granola and peanut butter while listening to light chirps of Juncos in the calm morning atmosphere. We gave thanks to the critical shelter of the Sierra Lodgepole Pine before making our final approach to the summit.
Having to only climb a couple more hundred feet in elevation, we now had accomplished what we set out to do – summit the highest peak in Los Angeles County! Mt. Baldy Peak, sitting at 10,066’ high, is a true alpine habitat. The summit features height-stunted trees, rocky talus, and few lifeforms aside from the dwarf buckwheat, lodgepole chipmunks, and the eager hikers who enjoy the unobscured 360˚ views.
We gave folks some time to hang out and explore the summit for themselves. We then circled up, passed out journals, and discussed our reflection prompt. We asked folks to do two things. Prompt one was to compare and contrast this challenge to the next most challenging thing in their life. Prompt two was to think about what non-physical thing you wanted to take home with you from the trip.
Everyone scattered to their own sit spot with twenty minutes to reflect and take some space for our thoughts and feelings to manifest on our paper. Afterward we formed a circle in one of the waist-high rock shelters constructed near the summit sign. Everyone opted in to share some amazing reflections. One in particular encapsulated the very essence of what our CLAWS program is all about. Take a look for yourself below:
‘This may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but after this adventure, I have learned a lot; I have learned how to set up a tent, how to enjoy hiking more, but most of all, I have gained respect for nature and in particular this mountain, and all it has taught me.
Looking back on this experience, I will never see nature the same way. I also have learned a lot about myself, and my boundaries. By pushing myself to my boundaries, my limits, I have learned that this is merely the beginning of my adventures … This adventure has truly given me love for nature. It has pushed me mentally and physically to my boundaries, and this has made me gain a new understanding of myself.’
This trip tested us to our core. But our group did not relent. We communicated our needs and felt safe to be ourselves.
While the hard part of our journey was over we still had the return trek ahead. Everyone snacked on a final allotment of sugary gummies to re-energize our spirits before beginning our five-mile descent. Dropping quickly down the Baldy bowl, we passed through different elevational communities. Soon, the dwarf planets of the alpine zone were replaced by similar species which grew uninhibited by the extreme environmental pressures of the higher elevations. We saw all kinds of coniferous birds like White-crowned Sparrows, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Western Bluebirds, Mountain Chickadees, and we even got to see Townsend’s Solitaire.
Lunch was a long-awaited stop signified by our arrival at the Ski Hut and we eagerly dropped our packs. Here the warmth of mid-day at lower elevation was a pleasant respite from the harsh conditions of alpine living. While we ate in the shade of Ponderosa Pine, we were graced with a visit from a Gray Fox. This medium-sized canine quietly appeared about 150 meters away from us across the ravine where we observed it munching on something in the sun – what a cool observation, and an uncommon sight!
We laughed and chatted as we continued downhill, greeted by familiar plants like Chaparral Yucca, Mountain Mahogany, California Fuschia, and Arroyo Willow in the drainages. Before we knew it, our trail met back up with the fire road we ascended the day before. This signaled that we were nearly done! With a burst of excitement, we made our way happily to our trailhead, where our exhausted, but accomplished bodies welcomed a lay down on the ground while our leader team retrieved the vehicles and whisked our group back to civilization.
Our celebratory meal included a stop at In-N-Out for a picnic meal in the grass and silly celebratory dancing before heading back only an hour to our pick-up spot. A brief closing circle and hugs were all that was left for our group. The weekend was a success, and everyone was tired, but a good tired. A happy tired, only gained from pushing yourself to your limits, only to realize that you have none. As many learned through profound feelings, physical and psychological, at different points of our journey – it is often only our mind that is imposing our limits.
Thank you to everyone for contributing to this supremely positive experience, and for kicking off the return of Biocitzen Los Angeles’s CLAWS trips! We are so grateful for all of the enthusiasm and reflections shared amongst our group during this unforgettable weekend.
With love and gratitude,
Benny, Marysia, and Dominic