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As I looked down at my phone and read yet another article highlighting the successful rescue mission of more fallen hikers from the treacherous trails of Mt. Baldy, I no longer knew if the knot in my stomach was excitement or that ‘little voice’ that is supposed warn you when you are jumping into something that is way over your head.
According to the ranger station, conditions were clear and the main trail to the summit of Mt. Baldy was open. . . However, with 3 deaths and over two dozen rescues in the last month alone, all precautions were to be taken seriously.
A week prior, Brady Pesola, co-founder of San diego School of Survival , called and asked if I would like to be an extra set of watchful eyes (and possibly a second camera) for a project he was working on. Having hiked with Pesola before, I knew the survival skills gained would be invaluable and the view would be amazing. So when you mentioned the location, I was immediately intrigued. . .
Mount Baldy is the most common named used when describing Mount San Antonio, the tallest mountain in the San Gabriel Mountain range at 10,064 ft (3067.5 m) above sea level, located in the Angeles National Forest. So why did my senses perk when I heard this name come from the other end of the line? Not only is this one of the most spectacular day hikes known, but also home to some of the most stunning flora and fauna in SoCal.
An ecological community known as yellow pine forest: lodgepole pine, Jeffrey pine, white fir, and sugar pine blankets the lower elevation areas.
Meanwhile, limber pine is seen at higher elevations mingled with the shrublike chaparral and oak savannah. As you climb further, the yellow pine forest community gives way to a pure lodgepole forest looks like something derived from the Hansel and Gretel fairytale.
Although the flora is a beauty all on its own and I already have plans to return for Spring’s aromatic bouquet of wildflowers, one can’t enjoy Nature without being captivated by her creatures.
For me, Mount Baldy meant more than flexing my hiking skills. It meant gaining the opportunity to see a species so elusive and well adapted for inhospitable environments that it earned itself a notable place in the culture and mythology of Native Americans. . .
As an avid hiker, I feel like I am in fairly good shape. . . or at least I thought I was until I began this hike. The fun immediately starts with an almost 70% grade (house stairs are 60%, so add a little more steepness plus unstable footing and you have the ultimate stairmaster haha).
The crampons we brought were put to good use. Although the incline was much more tolerable when we reached the Devil’s Backbone, the 18 inch path and icy patches required precision stepping.
After such a hard climb, I could see where so many hikers could let down their guard on this dangerous, but beautiful, trail. It took constant mental reminders to maintain focus on my footing and not get distracted by the breathtaking view.
From the constant thawing and refreezing, the ice had become too thick and slick for our naked boots; however, once we secured our crampons, they bit in and gave us the traction we needed to continue.
My hope of seeing the elusive creature that I had packed my heavy, long lens for began to wane. As we descended from the peak, I knew it would require even more focus on my footwork than on the way up. The chances of spotting a big horn sheep would be slim.
Then, I saw it!! The perfectly sculpted body of an animal made for a terrain deemed too inhospitable for most. . .
The Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)
Bighorn sheep get their name from the large, beautiful curved horns of the males, known as rams. The females, known as ewes, have smaller horns which do not have as much curvature. Due to their unique concave elastic hooves, bighorn are able to climb the steep, rocky terrain of the desert mountains with speed and agility. They rely on their keen eyesight to detect potential predators, such as mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, and they use their climbing ability to escape.
The San Gabriel Mountains once held the largest desert bighorn sheep population in the state of California, with close to 800 individuals in good years. San Gabriel Mountain’s sheep numbers crashed during the 1980s due to disease from domestic livestock and habitat loss but have gained again in recent years with increased protection of the species and habitat, with an estimated 400 sheep now inhabiting the range.
If you are in the area and would like to work with these impressive animals, a sheep count is conducted every year by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. The count relies on volunteers to help biologists spot and record wild bighorns in one of America’s most heavily urbanized regions. The event takes place early March each year. Click here for more details.
With little time left to reach the summit, my photo op had to be brief. Sadly I was not able to witness a mature ram, but the ewes gave me enough to guarantee a return visit.
It was an eerie feeling as we reached 9,000 ft (2750 m) and the trees became krummholzed (German: krumm, “crooked, bent, twisted” and Holz, “wood”); their gnarled forms telling the tales of life on the merciless peak.
For some reason I am most comfortable and secure when surrounded by trees, much like a child with their favorite blanket. So it was quite the surreal moment when we lost the protection of our wooden shield and wind bit at our nose.
By 9,500 ft (2900 m), we reached the barren subalpine zone where only ice and stone kept you company.
We finally made it to the last stretch before we reached the peak. Whether the others felt as beat as I did, they did a much better job at hiding it.
My thighs and calves screamed from being overexerted, and my pack felt five times heavier than we started. With the ice getting thicker and the wind blowing harder, the fear of slipping became that much more of a reality.
I knew I was prepared, had the knowledge, and a great team alongside me; but I felt like I could not take another step. I was thoroughly exhausted and tried to think of every excuse why I shouldn’t take on this last challenge and complete the summit.
I had come this far. That stood for something, right?
It is okay to just sit out the rest and watch the others make it to the top. I will be here to support them when they come down.
I accomplished two of my goals: help take pictures for my friend’s project and see a bighorn. 2 out of 3 isn’t bad.
Granted, sometimes sitting out may be the best option, but it should never be because something is ‘too hard’ or inconvenient. As mentioned numerous times before, I had a great team and with a small rest and some words of encouragement we made our way up the last half mile along the ridge to the peak.
Even though I was the last to step onto the summit, I couldn’t have been more proud (and grateful going ‘up’ was finally over, haha). It was a great learning lesson that day.
Not only about preparing oneself for a potentially dangerous outing, but about the many components encountered when accomplishing a goal. The many challenges. The times when settling seems like the best route. The importance of a support system. The true definition of hard work. And most of all, patience, something I struggle with daily lol.
Today I am living my dream of sharing my passion for the outdoors,conservation, and learning new things; but it has taken me over a decade to get this far and it is still a daily struggle to move forward.
If you have a goal, dream, or aspiration . . don’t give up. Each day ask yourself what can you do to take one step closer to making it a reality. Whether your steps are big or small, as long as they are in the direction of making it to the top, you will get there one day.
What is your passion?
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Until next time, this is Ms. Mallory inviting you to . . .