Elevation: 10,064 feet, 4000 feet elevation gain, 13.6 miles (from Manker Flats to summit and back)
There was an unspoken agreement that my husband and I hike the six pack of peaks together and only together, but Sean never received that internal memo through the ether. He bagged Baldy — the tallest mountain in Los Angeles County—without me, a month prior to our scheduled trek. This was kind of like…adultery. The deal – albeit silent, I know – was me, Sean, mountain. Not me-mountain, Sean-mountain, but a happy threesome. Once you go one-on-one, deep, complex emotions are liable to be stirred up between man and mountain – or woman and mountain – that could threaten the very foundation of the husband/wife relationship. One private outing could lead to another, and so on, and before you know it, the clandestine jaunt could become an obsession, and what was once a joyous, frivolous adventure could become a back trail addiction leading to isolation, injury, and possibly even death.
He told me he was hiking Baldy the night before he left so there wasn’t much time for mulling or discussion. But because I refuse to be an old ball and chain, I gave him my blessing. Then, I just hung out on my own private island somewhere between pissed off and sad until he came home from the hike four hours later than his scheduled ETA. By this time, I was convinced that my fears had manifested, so I cursed the ether for being a completely unreliable platform.
After summiting, he had taken the wrong path, due to a lack of markers, in an attempt to go down Ski Hut Trail — apparently a common problem on the mountain as anyone in the town of Baldy Village will attest. In fact, the folks at Mt. Baldy Lodge see lost hikers practically every week, having made the same exact blunder. Now get this: Baldy’s official name, Mt. San Antonio, is named after Saint Anthony of Padua — the patron saint of finding lost things or lost people. Seems like a racket to me. No markers? Patron Saint of “finding lost people”? The mountain is aptly named, or perhaps ineptly named, depending on how you look at it: On one hand, there is a high record of hikers getting lost on Baldy but eventually finding their way down to the village. On the other hand, there is a high record of hikers getting lost on Baldy.
Anyway, Sean turned up sunburned, dehydrated, and disheveled, having taken the wrong trail down, and ended up in the aforementioned lodge, about 4 miles downhill from the trailhead’s parking lot. To get back to his truck, he eventually got a ride with a lady from an art co-op store who took him a mile before realizing she didn’t have enough gas to go all the way up and then back down the hill. A few thumbs later, he finally got picked up by a construction worker with another lost hiker in tow who had done the same exact thing. Clandestine jaunt not so funny anymore. But, thank you, Saint Anthony of Padua, for getting him home safely.
There have been countless lost souls on the mountain – and not just hikers. During Prohibition, well-to-do Lost Angelinos found themselves at Camp Baldy hitting the dance pavilion, skinny dipping in the pool, and taking their bets in the casino amidst free-flowing booze; Camp Baldy was a place the “in” club could get zozzled away from the coppers.
Others came to Baldy to find their souls starting in 1971 at the Zen center established by Joshu Sasaki Roshi, one of the country’s most influential and controversial Rinzai Zen teachers. Roshi had a multitude of followers, including songwriter Leonard Cohen who lived at Mt. Baldy in the 1990’s and served as his assistant for 5 years. No one has ever been more successful in leading people to Rinzai Zen teachings than Roshi. But sadly, somewhere along the trail to enlightenment, the zen master lost his bearings. It appears that he became entangled in a forest of lasciviousness, unable to see his way out of groping and harassing female students. Where was St. Tony in all of this? Ah yes, too busy helping out the hikers who missed the Ski Hut Trail marker.
Needless to say, before Sean and I had even set boot onto its well-trodden trail together, Mt. San Antonio was already on our bad side.
We set out on the ski lift maintenance road beyond Manker Flats Campground at about 5am. Not too far in, a sharp turn signaled the end of the pavement and provided a view of the rather uneventful San Antonio Falls. People seem to get very excited about it online, posting reviews of the hike and marveling at the water. But I think that’s just because it’s Southern California and other than the Pacific Ocean, there is no water. So when people do see this little cascade, it feels like it’s something to behold. But I have seen rivers and streams and waterfalls, my friends, and this… well, it was a trickle of water down a slab of granite.
Our footing was sure and swift, as it always is at the beginning of a hike, but not fast enough for the trio of young, strapping firemen tricked out with walkie talkies and GPS devices. They quickly gained on us, engaging in friendly bypass chatter. “You guys going up Ski Hut?” they asked.
“No, not today,” My husband said, with a hint of remorse. He had wanted to go that route but I rebuffed. A little over 4 miles with a 3900 foot elevation gain, Ski Hut may be the fastest way to the top but there was no way my ‘glutes and hamstrings could handle that incline with my training weight on. But I secretly wished I could. I didn’t like being physically one-upped, being a personal trainer and yoga instructor, after all.
As we exchanged wishes with the firemen for an enjoyable hike and successful summit, another pair of hikers – not young or strapping or with any GPS devices- headed up Ski Hut Trail right behind the firemen. I tried not to compare myself to them. But my ego got the best of me. Before I sunk into the funk of being a total buzzkill, however, my attention was drawn to several pairs of dangling legs parading above me like tarantulas on a dry cleaning conveyer belt. They were traveling up the ski lift to Baldy Notch.
In the winter, Baldy is a ski resort. In the late spring and summer, the lift stays open, enabling families and tender foots to bypass over 3 1/2 miles of uphill trail and 1500 vertical feet for a direct ascent to the Notch, where the Top of the Notch restaurant awaits anyone with an undiscriminating palate and carefree wallet. From there, it’s another 3 1/2 miles to the top with a gain of 2500 feet. The ski lift cuts off more than half the hike. Those hikers – if you can call them that– were cheating. I felt better already.
The hike on the long— but easy grade — fire road to the Notch was rather uneventful. Sean and I made idle married chatter (i.e. the social dynamics of the elementary school playground, why going out to eat isn’t interesting anymore, how the overuse of saxophones and harmonicas on XM chill songs is getting out of control, etc.) It was getting hot fast, though, so once we hit the restaurant, I made a b-line for the bathroom and changed into shorts. After the pit stop, that’s when the hike got interesting.
In a rookie move, at about 8800 feet elevation, I took off my long sleeved shirt and exposed my arms and shoulders. I didn’t have sunscreen. Didn’t even occur to me because normally I don’t burn. Normally. Like, when I’m not at 8800 feet or above. I would pay for this later.
We hit an area called Devil’s Backbone, which is a long strip of trail with drop offs on either side. It’s not as bad as it sounds. In the winter, however, I’m sure the ice and snow make traversing this trail a bit more taxing.
After the backbone, the trail is basically just exposed ridgeline making it monotonous, arduous, and a big pain in the butt, literally. And when you need to pee, you must brace yourself for the possibility of exposure for there are no trees or rocks to hide behind. I had Sean be my lookout while I pulled down my shorts right there on the trail, squatted, and let go of about half a liter of electrolytes. I tried to make it fast, but no matter how hard I squeezed, it just seemed to keep coming, like wringing a mop.
Finally, we continued plodding up towards the summit, bypassing an offshoot trail to Mt. Harwood that some say you can bag “with time permitting”. At this point, I couldn’t even imagine extending this trip an inch further. The uphill work was getting considerably more challenging with the weight on my back and the increasing altitude. This was the first time I had gone above 9000 feet. The sun was brutal. No matter how much I drank, it wasn’t enough. I slogged along like a drunk in the desert, sloppy and delirious.
The landscape became moonscape and the last hundred steps of the final ascent were by far, far worse than anything I had ever hiked. In my life. A vertical of 700’ strained every muscle in my body. I yelled to Sean – because of course he was several lengths ahead of me, “Where’s the summit? Is that it?” “Yes,” he would say. “It’s just up here.”
I kept asking, and he kept saying. The same thing. We must have repeated this 7, 8 times as we crisscrossed the endless serpentine switchbacks. Finally, in a fit of anger, I just stopped. I took off my pack and let it drop on the dirt.
“This is ridiculous!” I exclaimed, hands on hips. “I’m done!” Sean looked back at me. “But it’s right up here.” “You keep saying that!” I whined. Then, out of nowhere a flash flood of tears came. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I sobbed like a 6 year old girl. “C’mon,” he urged. It’s right up here. I promise.”
Now, before you think we’re totally crazy, you must know that once you reach this moonscape landscape toward the summit, the hills obscure the actual peak, so it looks like you’re at the top, and then you’re not. And then you are, and then you’re not. Mt. Baldy’s false summits are a pure act of evil. Add to it the scorching heat, and I swear to you I was in Hell. Now I get it, “Devil’s Backbone.” Where does it lead? Fie on you, Baldy.
Reluctantly, I grabbed my pack and strapped it to my back once again. I did my best to embrace the present, to open my heart to the experience, to use my yogic breath to get me to the top, but the discomfort took over the mindfulness and I became Mt. Baldy’s slave for that last five minutes to the top. Again I questioned, Why am I doing this? Only this time, it wasn’t a spiritual probing, no Joseph Campbell hero’s journey here, just plain and simple: Why the hell am I doing this? Climbing mountains is painful; it takes an entire day to do it, and I could be getting a massage at Burke Williams instead. My head-scratching inquiries carried me all the way to the top.
When I arrived, I saw at least a dozen or more people up there already sitting back, laughing, drinking beer, eating lunch. Like they hadn’t just hiked this mountain. Like they were just sitting at someone’s neighborhood barbecue. What the fuck?
There were two loud guys opening up beer cans. One of them couldn’t stop talking about his bad knee and the surgery he got, thought he’d never hike again. Now here he was, celebrating his summit by dehydrating himself with alcohol at 10,000 feet.
There was a group of three women in baseball caps perched on rocks. Smiling. Eating. Bitches. Each one of them.
Then there was Mt. Kilimanjaro, a heavily accented Austrian man in his mid 60s wearing one of those hiking shirts with lots of flaps and pockets. He was boasting about his previous summits to the guys with beer. “When I did Kilimanjaro, I did it in 6 hours, didn’t feel a thing.”
Where did these people come from? All of them from Ski Hut trail? Didn’t they feel the agony, and the existential pain? How could they mock us by opening up their Buds and chowing down Subway and talking about all the grand summits they conquered?
Sean offered me lunch. I took the sandwich, sat down on a rock, and stayed silent so that I could marinate in a pot of my own curmudgeoned goo.
Although we had made it to the top, I felt like a failure because I hadn’t enjoyed any of it. I still couldn’t enjoy it. I stewed in my pain instead of soaking in the view. What’s the point of doing anything, I wondered, if you don’t enjoy it? I didn’t want to hang out long, so we ate, took the obligatory picture, and left – just as the firemen came barreling up, beaming. I mustered a fake smile.
Going down wasn’t much easier than coming up. As I’ve said before, it never is. At one point my legs hurt so bad I wished I could slide down the side of the mountain on my belly like a penguin slipping its way into the water. To make this molehill even more of a mountain, we took a wrong trail somewhere and got lost on the way down. Hilarious, St. Anthony. Hilarious.
To get back to The Top Of the Notch, we had to glissade down the scree on our butts. By this time, I didn’t even have words. Oh, wait. Yes I did, but they’re rather unprintable. When we got there, I took a long, loving look at the ski lift as it glistened in the sunlight, continuing to parade passengers up and down the mountain. They looked so happy and serene. I looked at Sean. He shook his head “no”. I nodded “yes.” Oh yes we are. I had no shame. I left my ego on the trail with the electrolytes just shortly after Devil’s Backbone.
I hugged my backpack in my lap like a bed pillow. The path I had just trodden hours ago slithered beneath me like a rattlesnake. We rode down in silence. For a few brief moments I indulged in a smug satisfaction that I was taking the lift down, as if I were spiting the mountain and its trails, its scree, and puny waterfall. Take that, Baldy. You don’t deserve my poles, my Keens, or my selfies. You can have your GPS laden firemen, Mr. Mt. Kilimanjaro, the beer guys, the fit bitches. I’m going home. I’m calling it.
But I wasn’t calling it. Not really. As much as I hated it, Baldy humbled me and prepared me in ways I wouldn’t yet understand. That’s how it usually is, isn’t it? We become so immersed in something so completely that we are unable to witness the unfolding. It’s like becoming so emotionally enraptured in a movie, that we forget we’re just viewers watching a transitory story on a screen.
Yes, I got lost on Mt. Baldy, unable to find my way out of impatience, ego, and expectation. Before embarking on this mountain I had conquered a 5k, a 10k, a 1/2 marathon, deep sea diving, a triathlon in open water – each one of these self-imposed journeys pushing me to confront and tower above my shadows. But somehow, none of them were quite like Baldy. This adventure pushed me beyond my breaking point. It turned me inside out. But it had to. We only grow when pain takes a strong, unrelenting hold on our bones forcing the necessary change. And I wanted to change. I wanted to be stronger, better, to see with every one of my pores. We’re like seeds -each one of us – that in order to reach our fullest potential must bust open our skin and turn ourselves inside out.
With gratitude to St. Anthony of Padua: Thanks for not finding me on the mountain, kind sir. Allowing me to find myself was a greater gift, indeed.
I met the trailhead for our next journey to Mt. San Jacinto a much stronger hiker. I was better prepared to handle the physical and mental obstacle course that would come my way. What I wasn’t prepared for was the adverse reaction my body would have to only being 800 feet higher than Baldy. I never would have imagined there would be blood.
To be continued…
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