We were about to discover that you don’t have to climb Mount Everest to face danger in the mountains.
Near the end of the 20th century, two former U.S. Marines, Lloyd (me) and Marshall, decided to climb a mountain they’d conquered many times, but this climb was different, because they had no idea when they started up Mount San Antonio in Los Angeles County’s San Gabriel Mountains that they’d almost freeze, and the harsh wind would work hard to rip them from the mountainside, and Marshal would lose his footing on black ice and slide down a steep slope toward a two-thousand foot vertical drop and almost certain death.
Our goal that Saturday had been to climb to the top of the highest mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains that soared above Los Angeles to a dizzy height of 10,069’. As we climbed, the sky above the mountain was capped with dark gray clouds, and we were bundled in cold weather gear, but the wind cut through our clothing with icy razors. The trail we were on climbed past the Sierra Club’s ski hut, and the higher we climbed the more snow was stuck to the ground, until, above the ski hut and beyond a field of giant boulders, the thick white crusty powder obscured the trail that led to the top.
From where we had parked the car in Baldy Village, the elevation gain to the top was almost 6,000 feet covering a distance of 4.5 miles to the summit. The return trip was just as daunting.
There are three trails that I know of to the top of that peak, and I’ve used two of them several times. The other one I’ve climbed covers an 11.3 mile loop and crosses the Devil’s Backbone—a narrow ridge with sheer drops on both sides that fall several thousand feet. I’ve been told that on days like this one when the wind blows brutal, hikers have been known to crawl on all fours to cross that stretch.
On an average Saturday when there wasn’t a storm threatening, hundreds of hikers using all three trails would have been climbing to the top of Baldy, Mount San Antonio’s alias, but today, we saw no one.
Mount San Antonio – Skiing the North Face
To understand how treacherous and dangerous this mountain could be, I’m going to take you back to 1967 when I was still in the Marines and stationed at Camp Pendleton. Several Marines in my unit were from New York State, and they often criticized California for being too flat, hot and snowless. “You have no idea what the four seasons are like,” one of them kept telling me. “You live in a desert.”
Tired of their ribbing, I challenged the three New Yorkers with: “You want mountains and snow, pack up your gear and come home with me one weekend this winter and I’ll drop you off on a mountain where you’ll find plenty of both.” It’s worth mentioning that in New York State the highest summit is Mount Marcy at 5,343 feet, and the winters New York State experiences almost everywhere, California gets in its higher elevations.
I dropped the winter hardened New Yorkers off at Mount Baldy Village (elevation 4,193 feet) late Friday evening. Sunday morning at 3:00 AM, the phone in my parent’s house rang. It turned out that my fellow Marines had climbed halfway up the mountain beyond the village and pitched their shelters among the old growth trees and crawled inside their sleeping bags. Saturday morning they opened their eyes to a white out and a blizzard. To survive the freezing temperatures, they started a fire and sparks set their shelters on fire burning up their sleeping bags and backpacks with all their military issued gear. With no visibility because of the blizzard, they stumbled down the mountain bouncing off trees and tripping on boulders and were fortunate to reach the Mount Baldy Lodge without suffering any serious injuries or frostbite. After that weekend, they never complained to me about California again.
More than twenty years later, Marshall and I were climbing the same snow covered mountain with a threatening storm closing in, and the trail, a series of switchbacks that climbed the mountain through the old growth trees clinging to its steep slopes, was buried under thick, crusty, hard snow. “If we go this way,” I said, “we might get lost,” and thought that we could also end up on black ice and that could be the end of us. As steep as the slopes were on much of Baldy face, a fall might be lethal.
Marshall pointed up the steepest slope that we would have never considered climbing during the summer when there was no snow. “What about following whoever made that stairway in the snow to the top?” he asked.
He was right. Someone wearing ski boots had trekked straight up the steepest side of the mountain, where there were no trees—probably due to the annual avalanches—and had used their boots to stamp foot sized steps in the deep, crusty snow. Following those footsteps, we went straight up. Halfway to the top and hopefully the trail, if we could find it, I stopped and looked back. It was a dizzying drop to the bottom where the house sized boulders at the base now looked like peas. After that glance, I leaned a bit more into the mountain and carefully placed my booted feet in each imprint the skiers had left behind.
Skiers often climbed this mountain with their skis strapped to their backs and then ski that wide bowl shaped side of the mountain down to the Sierra Ski hut. If they started early, they might get in several runs before dark. There was no ski lift. To ski this mountain, you had to carry all your gear on foot to the top each time.
At the top of that slope, the wind was brutal and we still had about a half mile to go to reach the peak. The wind was so harsh that even the snow didn’t stick, and that allowed us to find the well-traveled trail that would take us to our destination—a barren wasteland that could be so brutal in harsh weather at almost two miles above sea level that over the decades hikers had scraped out what looked like foxholes and surrounded the shallow pits with walls of granite rock where it was possible to hunker down out of the wind and rest before the trek back. Even in the summer when the temperature in the valleys was blistering hot, the cold wind at this elevation could numb exposed skin.
On this day, the wind was swirling the gray clouds over our heads, and it was like looking up into a blender spinning at high speed. I worried that maybe a twister was going to touch down and expected a funnel to appear that might suck us up into that vortex. But if we looked out over the mountains toward the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles, we saw blue skies, and we knew that it was easily forty degrees warmer down there.
“We have to get out of this cold,” Marshal said, “and take a break where we can eat.”
I agreed. My gloves were lined with Thinsulate, but that high-tech insulation wasn’t helping. I’d lost all sensation in my hands and feet and my nose was numb.
Marshall pointed out some granite boulders beside the trail that were the size of two story buildings and we found shelter there from the frigid cutting wind, and ate the food we had carried in our backpacks.
Hiking Mount San Antonio without snow on the ground
Determined to reach the summit, we were back on the trail a half hour later. About a hundred yards from the top with visibility dropping drastically as the swirling clouds and brutal wind battered our bodies, we ran into a lone woman scurrying back from the peak.
“Don’t go up there,” she said. “The wind picked me up and threw me about a hundred feet before I landed. It tore off my cap and gloves too. I lost them. To escape, I had to crawl on all fours off the summit.”
Heeding her warning, we turned back but the stairway made in the snow by those skiers down the steepest part of the slope had vanished. Snow was falling and had filled in the footprints. The only way back was the traditional route even if we couldn’t see the trail. By then it was about three pm and we should’ve still had several hours of daylight left, but the storm was closing in on the mountain’s top and visibility was shrinking fast.
Away from the summit, the clouds were breaking up and some filtered sun light was reaching the snow sticking to the slope we were descending. “I think we should stay in the sun where the snow isn’t as crusty,” I said. “In the shade, we could run into black ice.”
“But it will take us longer to get off this mountain and back to the Sierra ski hut,” Marshall replied.
I glanced behind us. The top of the mountain was obscured by the swirling clouds and howling wind. Up here near the top the trees had been bent, twisted and sculpted by harsh weather. Marshall decided to take the shortest route down the slope that led mostly through shadows cast by the old growth trees, but I didn’t follow him. Instead, I took off at an angle and stayed in what sunlight there was and took care to make sure I had solid footing before taking each step and that meant slamming the heels of my boots into the snow to break the crusty surface and carve out a place to stand before taking the next step. It was slow going, and I started to lose sight of Marshall.
Every few steps, I’d stop, stabilize both feet in the snow and turn to search for him. The last time I spotted him, he was several hundred yards further down the slope from me moving at a fast clip in a straight line in heavily shaded terrain, and I saw when he fell on his back and become a toboggan headed for a cliff with a vertical drop of at least 2,000 feet to a field of granite boulders that littered the base.
My first thought was what I was going to tell his wife and two teenage children. My second thought was how I would reach his broken body at the base of that cliff. There was no trail to that area and the Sierra Ski hut was a long way from that location with some pretty rugged terrain in between.
“Use your hiking stick like a rudder.” I cupped my mouth with both hands and hollered as loud as I could. “Try to steer toward that brush to your left. Maybe it will stop you.” I don’t know if he heard me from that distance with that howling wind, but I saw him use his hiking stick to change course into that brush, and it saved his life.
The first thing he said when we met up at the Sierra Ski Hut was to never tell his wife and children what happened, because they would never let him hike in the local mountains again. Marshall died in 2007 from complications caused by the medication he was taking to combat leukemia, and that hike was not the toughest one we made together in those mountains, but that climb was probably the one that offered the most danger.
Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).
His fourth book is The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova, and Don wants to discover what it’s like to be loved by only one woman. His problem is that he was raised by his grandparents to become a Lothario, who loves and then leaves women for the next conquest, and as he approaches 40, he is facing a crisis.
His grandfather and then younger brother have been viciously murdered, and Don is the prime suspect. As he struggles to stay out of jail and end his life of serial seductions and find one woman to love, he’s discovering it isn’t easy to kick an old habit, and his mother isn’t helping by quoting scripture every chance she gets in an attempt to change her son’s lifestyle of sin for one of piety.
Lloyd Lofthouse also worked as a maître d’ in a nightclub called the Red Onion for a few years. A romantic at heart, in his award winning novels, he tests true love in difficult situations and the challenges of keeping that love alive. My Splendid Concubine, his first novel, is an epic love story that teaches acceptance and respect for other people and their cultures. Running with the Enemy, his second novel is a love story that will either cost the characters their lives or will complete each other’s hearts. Lloyd Lofthouse lives with his family in California’s San Francisco Bay area.
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