Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stories of the Sawtooths

Back from another awesome outdoor adventure, this time to the Gem State of Idaho! This trip featured a visit to Boise and my friends Tim and Kimberly. While in town we enjoyed daily bike rides and leisurely floats down the Boise River, along with the company of Gus the dog and friends both new and old. We took a 4-day weekend trip to the Sawtooth Mountains, where we set up a lakeside base camp for swimming, storytelling, relaxing, and - my personal favorite - hiking adventures into the mountain wilderness. It was a great time, and definitely one that allowed me to push the envelope of my outdoor experience, learn and discover new things, and understand my limits and opportunities for growth. Here are some highlights.


My flight from LAX provided one of the coolest experiences of the trip, as our dual turboprop Bombardier Q400 buzzed the Sierra Nevada from a relatively low altitude of 22,000'. I was like a little kid for the first time on an airplane as I planted my face against the window to get a look at the Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, which are quite impressive from the air. I was struck by the incredibly smooth, glacier carved rock atop many of the ridges, as well as how relatively dry the Sierra looks from the air as compared to the Cascades of the Pacific NW. Out the other side was a sweet view of the eastern Sierra and Mono Lake. Later we passed right on top of a deep, blue Lake Tahoe and a much greener Pyramid Lake.

Lake Tahoe from the air

Day 1 - Welcome to the Sawtooths

We took a southerly approach on the way into the Sawtooths, which allowed us to stop at the SNRA Visitors' Center north of Ketchum for some intel. Excited about the wildlife of the region, I was particularly impressed by their taxidermy collection, which included a grey wolf, mountain goat, badger, and - my favorite - a wolverine! Gulo gulo! Everybody waited patiently in the car as I talked the ranger's ear off and got as much scoop as I could on the area (and wolverines).

Boulder Mountains, south of Galena Pass

Back on the road, we made our way past scenic views of the Boulder and Smoky Mountains, over Galena Pass, and into our campground at Pettit Lake. It didn't take long before I'd set up the tent and disappeared westward into the wilderness area.

Pettit Lake and McDonald Peak (El Capitan in the distance)

I found a cool waterfall about a mile-and-a-half in, nice easterly views over the lake toward the White Cloud Mountains, and some steep, rock and brush covered hillsides that I thought looked just perfect for a mountain goat. Despite scrambling around for a while and doing my best mountain goat call, I didn't spot any of the critters. I did - unfortunately - spot about 800 bazillion blood-sucking mosquitoes who relentlessly and maliciously attacked me. One day once I've tamed a squadron of dragonflies to accompany my hikes, those bastards are gonna pay!

Looking west over Pettit Lake to the White Cloud Mountains

Arriving back at camp after a quick, 5mi/800' roundtrip, I announced the score ("Team Mosquito 381, Shawn 84"), and proceeded to take some moonrise photos over the lake.

Day 2 - Adventures in Route Finding

After studying my topo map for a while, I decided to have a go at Imogene Peak (10,125'), which according to our friends at SummitPost is "one of the more accesible and easy summits to reach in the range and can easily be done in a half day." This involved a straightforward, 5mi/750' hike to Farley Lake, and a "route finding" Class 2/3 scramble to the top and back. I had a route description and topo map in hand (though not a route map), and a plan to "route find" my way up the southern slopes and back down the east ridge.

All was well as I cruised over a 500' ridge from Pettit to McDonald Lake and into the wilderness area.

Imogene Peak viewed from the east at McDonald Lake

On the way up to Farley, I was treated to incredible views back down the glacial valley to Yellow Belly Lake and the White Clouds:

Farley was an idyllic scene with blooming wildflowers and a towering, snow-dotted Parks Peak (10,208') looming over the south side of the lake.

Wildflowers near Farley Lake

Parks Peak above Farley Lake

I bumped into a really cute girl from Hailey and her dog, who unfortunately were headed back down the trail, but were nice enough to recommend a great lunch spot overlooking the lake.

Refreshed, refueled, and having refilled my water stores near this random, picturesque waterfall...

...I looked up toward Imogene, and tried to find my "route." It was not immediately apparent.

Big mountain of steep, loose rocks

This picture really fails to illustrate the steepness of the mountain. I stood in this spot, repeatedly looked at the mountain, looked at the map, scratched my head, and ultimately concluded that whoever recommended "route finding" their way up this slope either:

a) was a billy goat (improbable)
b) was out of their damn mind (eminently plausible)
c) was using a different map showing a clearer route (likely)
d) could fly (see a)

In any case, having neither hooves nor wings, and at least a convincing delusion of sanity, I route-found my happy ass down the trail to the west, where I thought I saw a more attainable route to the summit-ridge via this boulder field:

Deceptively friendly-looking boulder field

Wrong. After 40 minutes, I'd managed to drag myself about 0.8 miles and 600' up this scree- (small rocks) and talus- (bigger rocks) covered glacial moraine (field of rocks). While the larger rocks were generally more stable, and the smaller rocks less so, this was not always the case. This was exhausting climbing with frequent breaks, use of hands, and cursing of the stupid glacier (and its miserable mother). I remained determined and patient, however, working my way toward the ridgetop.

Then one of the rocks I was standing on (which I estimate was about the size of my torso and weighed around 300lb) cut loose from under my foot. Shifting weight to the other foot and hands, I watched this rock tumble about 500 vertical feet down the hill before smashing into a bigger rock and exploding into the trees.

Sign from the gods. "OK, I'm done now."

The view was nice, so I snapped a couple pictures and abandoned the summit attempt, content to live to climb another day.

Looking west from the south slopes of Imogene Peak, elevation 8600'

Looking east to Farley and Yellow Belly Lakes and the distant White Clouds

The experience was good for teaching me that:

a) I've got some more learning to do on this "route finding" thing
b) rock-scrambling is much more taxing than mileage and elevation change suggest
c) if this is the "accessible," "easy" summit, then serious Sawtooth mountaineers are seriously badass - seriously, and
d) coldhearted glaciers and the rocks they leave can never be trusted

Ok, so d) is a little strong, but you get the idea. After an hour-and-a-half back down the boulder field to the trail, and 5.5mi back to camp, I was certifiably pooped, and happy for a swim in the refreshingly cool waters of Pettit Lake.

Day 3 - Alice Lake

After the previous day's adventures, I took it pretty slow getting up and moving around, and spent some time learning the various trees of the Sawtooth forest, exploring the campground for examples. After last month's experience at Mt. Rainier, I'm really fascinated by how knowledge of the trees around you can enhance the outdoor experience. At 7000' elevation, the campground had mostly lodgepole pine, with a few douglas fir and an occasional subalpine spruce.

Distinctive, two-needle-bundled lodgepole pine

Later in the morning, our camping group (Tim, Kimberly, Justin, Bethany, and dogs Gus and Olive) trekked back up the trail to the waterfall I'd visited the first night. My plan was to continue another mile or so up the trail, then scamper up the NW slope of McDonald Peak into an area that through my research I'd identified as prime wolverine-scouting territory (shout out to The Wolverine Foundation, a collective of scientists and volunteers who work to better understand and educate people about this amazing creature). I figured I'd find a nice spot and spend a quiet afternoon seeing what wildlife I might find.

Along the way I ran into a backpacking couple who told me of the spectacular beauty of Alice Lake, and compelled me to consider the 13mi/1600' round-trip hike there instead. I'd gotten a late start for that long of a hike, but I decided to head to my planned spot, check it out, then make a call from there.

Enroute along Pettit Creek

The spot looked promising - steep, grassless, north-facing, above 8000' in an area where I'd started to see more and more whitebark pine (all of the above, according to this paper, improving one's odds of finding a central Idaho wolverine in the summer).

Prime wolverine territory?

However, I knew it would also require a 500-1000' vertical scramble up another loose, scree-covered slope to get to target elevation, and I knew any wolverines who might be in the area were likely to see me, laugh at my scree-climbing ineptitude, and run away anyhow. So I hiked on.

I still got my share of scree/talus climbing up the now-steeper, switchbacking trail, but I was also treated to great views back down the valley toward the White Clouds...

...and an ever-changing assortment of trees, including these quaking aspens that looked particularly cool blowing in the wind against the steep cliffs:

Quaking aspen, enroute to Alice Lake

I stopped often to examine needles and bark, seeing more and more subalpine fir, a few spruce, and whitebark pine with elevation. There were a number of fun little stream crossings, using fallen trees and boulder hopping. Around 8500' I crossed the stream for the last time and entered the flats to the east of Alice Lake. The mile across those flats and along the shore of the lake was one of the best miles of my life.

Walking along the trail, the lake progressively reveals itself - glimmering, clear water surrounded by pine forest...

...towering, snowcapped peaks to the west...

...and the imposing vertical monolith of El Capitan to the east.

In all of my years and all of my travels, I have never seen a place more beautiful than Alice Lake.

I lingered there nearly two hours - taking photos, smelling the fresh air, and enjoying a mesmerizing silence broken only by a gentle wind through distant trees, chirping of birds, and the occasional splash from a fish jumping out of the lake. More than once I caught myself holding my breath as to not disturb it, and it seemed the few lucky campers who'd backpacked in shared the same sensibility.

Then I screwed it all up with a suddenly imminent digestive distress that sent me running into the woods looking for a place to pop a squat. Apparently my peanut butter bagel had pushed me past critical capacity. I spooked some poor mule deer who was probably enjoying a nice afternoon nap in the bushes before I showed up, and subsequently managed to summon eighteen squadrons of horse flies from alert 5 ( day...dragonflies).

I reluctantly left the lake, promising to one day return to stay a while. Enroute back the rocky part of the trail was mercifully shaded, and near Pettit Lake I saw this baby wolverine:

Baby wolverine...or...maybe it's a chipmunk

After another refreshing swim in the lake, and a filling, warm meal that my compadres were nice enough to cook up while I was off hiking, I settled into a long, restful sleep that only a long day's hike, cool mountain air, and a cozy tent can provide.

Day 4 - Back to Boise

We drove out the north end of the valley through Stanley, and along the way got some spectacular views of that end of the range. This is definitely an area I'd like to return to on a future trip for more proper exploration:

Northern Sawtooth Mountains, near Stanley, ID

Route 21 back to Boise featured a nice drive along the Payette River, through a dense ponderosa pine forest. Coming down through Lowman, I completed the back end of a scenic loop I'd started up from Route 55 a year ago...bittersweet memories coming full circle.

August 2009


I managed to miss my flight out of Boise on Tuesday morning, and as a result got a "bonus day" with my friends, the chance to play in the river again, and go on a scenic bike ride on the east end of town. I really like this picture of "suburban" Boise:

Until next time...Aloha.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Off to Idaho...

I had a great trip last summer to Idaho for the wedding of my good friend and original SCCC founder Tim (a.k.a. T-Bagzz) and his fellow-outdoor-lover-wife Kimberly. I camped on the shores of Payette Lake near McCall (in a sweet thunderstorm), and along the way from Boise explored the beautiful and wild Payette River. Here's one of my favorite shots from that trip:

This year I'm headed back for a mountain adventure with the crew (plus new puppy Gus) to central Idaho, amidst the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. I'm particularly excited about the mammalian wildlife prospects, including bears, badgers, beavers, bighorn sheep, and bobcats...cougars, coyotes, elk, and foxes...moose, marmots, and mountain goats...squirrels, rabbits, wolves, and wolverines...and not a trace of p.o. or buffalo! I really hope I see a wolverine - check this guy out, he's rad:

ARKive video - North American wolverine chasing and catching snowshoe hare
Gear's all ready to go:

Checking in just under 40lb, but not yet loaded up with food

Back with a report in a week or so - assuming I come back...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Santa Susana Sunset

Moon Over Oats

I took a sunset hike this evening to the summit of Oat Mountain, which at 3747' is the highest peak in the Santa Susana Mountains, a transverse range running east-west to the north of "the valley," a place that's, OMG, like, totally famous, and for sure produces some of the finest cinema in the world. Yeah... ok.

So anyhow, this is not a well-known or used trail. That's not entirely surprising, considering that the whole thing goes up a patchy asphalt road that until recently snaked through a maze of private property with not-altogether-welcoming owners. Plus the peak is full of communications towers, which kind of cramps the whole wilderness vibe.

Anyway, it's all good now - all except the summit itself part of Michael D. Antonovich Regional Park at Joughin Ranch. And it's a great spot to get some beautiful mountain views across southern California, and with acres of wild oats across overlapping, rolling, hills, it's pretty darn scenic in the right light. The steepness of the hike (2000' of elevation gain in 2.8 miles) will also get your blood pumping.

My friend Michelle and I showed up around 6pm to hit the trail, and let me tell you, it was hotter than a cat's ass. I'm not kidding. It was 103 degrees (a cat's body temperature runs around 101-102). That'll keep the crowds down. With plenty of water in tow, we sweated our way up the hill, passing an LAPD SWAT facility, several chopper landing pads, and a whole bunch of bouncing grasshoppers (who apparently like the oat fields) enroute to the summit. We also took an accidental detour to this oil pumpjack (after coming home tonight, I read up on how pumpjacks work...fascinating).

Pumpjack near the summit

The summit itself isn't much to write home (or blog) about, but a little lower on the trail we were treated to great views south to the Santa Monicas, east toward the San Gabriels, and a beautiful sunset to the west.

Temperatures cooled (into the upper 80s to low 90s, decidedly cooler than a cat's ass, but still not nearly as cool as a cucumber), and there was even a pleasant, gentle breeze. On the way down we heard a bunch of coyotes yipping away, which Michelle tells me is an indication that they found something good to eat. Hopefully buffalo.

It was about 90 minutes up, and 60 minutes down, comfortably walking. We arrived back at the trailhead just before dark. After a quick cruise home, I'm pleasantly tired and ready for a good night's sleep. One of the best benefits of a good hike!

Off to an Idaho mountain adventure on Tuesday...aloha a hui hou.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rooftop Los Angeles

SCCC Adventurers atop Mt. San Antonio!

Today was a sweet, sunny day for outdoor adventuring, so I was up at the crack of dawn and headed to the San Gabriels for a climb to the top of Mt. San Antonio (a.k.a. Mt. Baldy), which at 10,064' is the highest point in Los Angeles county. I was stoked to be joined by original SCCC adventure-master Tad "Pole." We took a clockwise loop route from Manker Flats, up the Baldy Bowl ("ski hut") trail, across Devil's Backbone to Baldy Notch, and back down the chairlift. Total mileage was 9.3, including a summit side-trip to nearby West Baldy. Net elevation gain was 3900'.

Baldy is a well-visited and well-documented climb, so I won't detail that here. Fellow LA outdoor-blogger WWED? recently did a great writeup that proved very helpful in my preparations for the trip (shout out Shawnté - the water source worked out great!)

Arriving just before 8am, we were surprised (but not really) to find a packed trailhead, and realized we'd be sharing the trail with about 100 of our closest friends. Ah, Southern California. Fortunately this turned out just fine. We met some cool people along the way, and aside from a few poor choices of stopping points by fellow hikers along narrow, precarious sections of trail, it really wasn't a big deal.

Crowded Baldy summit

We cruised up the 4.3mi, 3900' ski hut trail in just under 2½ hours, taking a few breaks along the way. Much of the route was shade covered by a variety of pine, fir, and cedar trees that I'd love to learn to identify. Wildlife was sparse, though we saw some lizards, a few little chipmunks, and I heard a lot of insect activity in the bushes.

Tad enroute to the summit

The toughest part of the climb was the last 0.8mi, which climbs from 8800' to 10,064' (a 31% grade, or 17.4deg angle) along the southwesterly ridge of the mountain. Still this was decidedly easier than a more direct route straight up the Baldy Bowl, which I think is only possible (and certainly only advised) in winter with crampons and an ice axe.

Baldy Bowl, as viewed from the south

You definitely feel the altitude a bit, and Tad repeatedly cursed the "stupid trail designers" (deer?) who apparently were unaware of the concept we commonly refer to as the "switchback." But we made it up just fine, and the summit was a sight to behold!

Mandatory summit plaque photo

I was surprised to see so much green foliage, holding on for life amidst loose, steep granite. LA was enveloped (as usual) in a thick haze, but we still managed to spot:
  • The San Gabriels, Santa Monicas, and Topatopas to the west
  • The Saddleback to the south
  • The San Bernardinos (including Mt. San Gorgonio) to the east
  • Mt. San Jacinto to the southeast
  • The I-15 through Cajon Pass, up through Apple Valley and George AFB
  • The Mojave desert to the north
  • Just a few tiny, little patches of remaining snow
  • A bunch of cool butterflies

Summit view, looking east. Note the prominent rises of San Gorgonio (under the alien spacecraft), San Jacinto (to the right), and a cute little patch of stubborn snow

After having some lunch and enjoying the view with 50 of our closest friends atop the summit, we took a quick side trip to West Baldy (9988'), which is about a 1.5mi, 25min roundtrip. Nobody else was there. Go figure. There's a steep, wide chute along the NW face that we thought looked promising for winter sliding ("Hey fellow sledder!"). There was also a big area of fallen trees on Baldy's west face that we speculated came either from a large rockslide or avalanche.

Starting downhill, again looking east from the Baldy summit

The return route down to Baldy Notch was steep and loose in spots, but quick and straightforward (3.2mi, -2300', 1:10), and featured some beautiful sky and evergreen scenery along the way. The clouds were cooperating to make for great photos.

Enroute downhill from the Devil's Backbone

I want to make a special point to note that the much ballyhooed, ever-fearful "Devil's Backbone" stretch of the trail is nowhere near as scary as people make it sound. Yes, there are steep dropoffs on both sides, and yes this makes for spectacular views. But the trail is plenty wide, smooth, and relatively level. Unless one was running, hopping, or otherwise trying to throw themselves off the mountain, I think it'd be pretty tough to get hurt, at least in the absence of snow and ice. And I'm coming from a pretty conservative stance (see Wilderness Chronicles Part I). I definitely get acrophobic at times, and can tell you I felt *nothing* along this section of trail (the ski lift is scarier). It's trivial vs. this spot in Hawai`i or this spot at the Grand Canyon.

Now then, the section of trail below Mt. Harwood is something to pay attention to. Here there's a narrow trail and steep, loose rock going up to the north, and down to the south. With cross-traffic going by (and some jackhole deciding the narrowest spot of the trail is a perfect place to stop), you really need to be careful to avoid a precarious slide.

We finished off the trip by catching a ski lift down to Manker Flat, and having a hearty lunch at Farmer Boy's in Upland. Great stuff!

Looking back toward Mt. Baldy summit from the trail near Mt. Harwood

It's easy to knock the outdoor limitations of LA, and I'll be the first to admit that I prefer a more solitary wilderness experience. But the fact of the matter is I had breakfast, left my sea level apartment near downtown, and a few hours later after a gorgeous hike was sitting atop a 10,000' mountain having lunch. At dinnertime, instead of writing this, I could be on the beach or having a surf. In other words, we could do worse.