Monday, December 7, 2009

making the most of the wintery weather

For the second weekend in a row frigid weather had squashed my climbing plans. My choices were limited. The trail situation is still somewhat grim with the ongoing fire closures, and I had already done Mt Wilson after returning home early from T-day break on the E Side. I combed summitpost for something suitable punishing. My coworker, Dominic, who had recommended Cactus to Clouds, had also mentioned Iron Mountain. It had a respectable 7200 ft of elevation gain over 14 miles and was within an hour drive from home, so it seemed like a good option. Jascha was once again kind enough to let me talk him into going. The NOAA weather report predicted highs in the 40s at elevation with wind gusts up to 23 miles an hour. I figured we could turn around if it got too nasty.

We left my apartment just before 8 am with the objective of finishing the hike before the big storm rolled in. We set off from the Heaton Flats trailhead just after 9 am. My original plan was to do the SW Ridge from Allison Mine. There were two approaches to Allison Mine; I chose the one from Heaton Flats trail. The second option up Allison Gulch, the one with multiple river crossings, seemed a poor choice this time of year. The well maintained trail climbed gradually through a wooded canyon to a saddle just before the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Boundary before cresting the ridge it would follow for many miles. On the ridge we passed a rustic helicopter landing pad, a small clearing with 3 reflectors glued onto the bordering rocks. My topo map showed the trail ending at Heaton Saddle, the point at which we were supposed to catch the faint trail to Allison Mine.

By now Jascha's pants were soaked from the underbrush. I had managed to grab a pair of North Face soft shell pants that I happily discovered shed water. At Heaton Saddle I saw only the faint hint of a possible side trail on the slope to our left. The trail leading up the south ridge was well worn and seemed far more appealing that the bushwhack over to the mine. After the saddle the trail steepened significantly and was clearly "maintained" only by foot traffic. We stopped for a snack break and it rapidly became clear how cold it was. We saw the coniferous trees of the day and admired the droplets of ice hanging from the needles.

As we climbed higher, the grade became more relentless, similar to the trails in Glendale's Brand Park. The signs of high winds were evident in the horizontal ice crystals that formed on the pine trees. By now mist blanketed the surrounding hills and we crested each hill only to find ourselves at another false summit. As we neared the true summit we cleared the fog bank and found ourselves under lovely blue skies. Before long we reached the top, marked by a lone ammunition box. It had taken us ~4:10, not superb but not too shabby. As with every trip to the San Gabriels I felt fortunate to have this rugged terrain in my backyard.

With the predicted late afternoon rain/snow showers we did not linger long on the summit. The steep,
eroded trail made the going a tad slow on the upper section of the descent. The trail gains an additional 600 feet on the return, and it was nice to get an occasional uphill break. Finally back on the maintained trail we picked up the pace. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of a huge great horned owl perched atop a dead yucca flower stalk. The weather held out for the remainder of the hike and we clocked in at the trailhead for a total time of 7:30.