Of the things most people associate with Los Angeles, tall mountains are not among them. This is I’m sure in no small part due to the fact that it takes so long to get free of the city to get to them, they might as well be in another state. Not to mention that for a significant portion of the city’s history, the air was so bad you couldn’t see them if you were standing on them.
Among the tallest peaks is San Antonio, locally known as Mount Baldy, one of the few peaks tall enough to reach above the treeline. Baldy is something of a local test piece, the third highest peak in Southern California, and closest of the three to Los Angeles. From the trailhead, the direct route via the ski hut and Baldy Bowl climbs just around 4000′ in about 4.5 miles. While this makes it a serious lung burner starting the day at sea level, it makes the entire hike one long scenic viewpoint. Most people opt for a round trip via the Devil’s Backbone trail, but having done the loop last year I found I really didn’t care for the tedious hike along ski slopes and access roads, so I decided this time to take the ski hut trail both directions.
The day got off to a slow start, and I didn’t even get up to the trailhead until just after 11am. With clouds hanging low over the entire LA basin and backed up against the mountains, I’d actually somewhat hoped the mountain would be socked in by clouds and would thin the weekend crowds on the trail. That hope dried up with the clouds as I started to wind my way up into the mountains, and by the time I was parked the sky above was brilliantly blue, and the road lined with cars for a good quarter mile. I wouldn’t get a lot of alone time on this hike.
Having only just gotten off the couch a week or so ago following my wreck, I figured I might be a bit slower than the last time I did this hike, but I optimistically set out at my usual brisk pace. Unfortunately my body was not as optimistic and within the first mile I found myself sucking wind, hard. Thankfully for this trip I had brought along two new pieces of gear that I wanted to try putting fully to use: my trekking poles, and a new 3 liter water bladder in place of my usual Nalgene. I’ve always dismissed trekking poles as at best an old man’s accessory and at worse a hindrance equivalent to trying to hike while assembling your tent poles, but now as I wheezed my way up I was happy to have something to give my legs a little backup and to simply lean on whenever I had to stop long enough to put out the fire in my lungs. The water bladder I found to be a mixed blessing, as I’m notoriously bad at drinking enough water, however given it was buried in my backpack I had no concept of just how much water I had left and wound up drinking a fraction of it. Still, by the end of the day, I would be one of the only people who still had water.
Burning legs and lungs notwithstanding, I still made good time up the final ridge above the treeline where last year I had bonked hard. Swallowing my pride and not taking long, rangy strides in favor of short, rhythmic steps let me fight my body’s objection to oxygen deprivation up the last 1000′, and I finally crested the summit along with the steady stream of other groups. I immediately propped myself up against a rock, pulled out my meager dry lunch, and sat back to the sounds of the rush of the wind, the distand call of birds, and the endless chatter of people comparing selfies.
After an hour of resting up I decided to forego the longer Devil’s Backbone trail back, which eventually devolves into trudging along dirt access roads, and headed back via the ski hut. Only a dozen feet or so from leaving the summit I found myself followed by a trio of hikers who had no idea where they were going, and suddenly became an impromptu guide. The descent was fast and increasingly quiet as everyone’s energy and enthusiasm waned, and eventually the silence was only occasionally punctuated by grunts and groans of discomfort, including my own. The dirt road I had turned my nose up at from the summit was a welcome sight as we hit the home stretch, and we reached the parking lot tired but all in good spirits. Since my trail groupies had landed a little ways down the mountain from where they started I gave them a quick lift back in my car then headed home, stopping briefly for gas and grabbing coconut water and a protein shake in a desperate but futile attempt to placate my very, very upset leg muscles.