Mission creep isn't just for wars - I experienced my own personal version of it yesterday on a hike in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, with painful consequences. The day started out as a 7-mile round trip hike up a 5800-footer called Sunset Peak (not to be confused with the more famous mountain of that name in Hong Kong), along a very mild and pleasant trail. It ended as a 15-mile slog after having gone on to a second peak, going uphill for most of the return trip, having to stop every few steps to avoid collapsing, and shambling to my car like a Dawn of the Dead extra as dusk approached. I am moderately sunburnt and immoderately aching today, but I got awesome photos! Enjoy them - I paid for them in torture.
I had been up Sunset Peak before, but my camera had been in the shop, so as per the "pictures or it didn't happen" standard, I wanted to go back and capture the scenery. So that was the original plan, and I felt good as I set off early in the morning - SPF 70 sunblock liberally slathered on exposed skin, sunglasses, hat, and so much water in my pack that for the original plan I could have brought along two other people. This leg of the journey was more or less highly enjoyable, with the only irritant being the bugs that would occasionally get in my face because I'd forgotten the insect repellent.
It started from the West at a saddle, with views of some of the foothills over Claremont:
The trail continues Eastward facing North, alternating between semi-arid plants and areas with a lot of tall
pine trees conifers giving a nice, shaded, and sweet-smelling experience:
I caught a shaft of sunlight through the trees by accident, trying to get a shot of a squirrel - which I did, just a little hard to see:
You can see the
pines conifers coming up in the distance:
Once you get into the
pines conifers, the experience is very sweet - but again, don't forget the bug repellent like I did:
As the trail ascends, it comes back out of the
pines conifers into semi-arid flora with only an occasional pine conifer here or there:
The trail passes Sunset Peak for a ways and then switches back, giving tremendous views into the Baldy Bowl (the valley beneath Mt. Baldy) at the turn:
Zooming in, there's a ridgeline in the above images actually used by some people to reach Sunset Peak in a shorter distance with greater effort, but I am not such a person. A closer look at the ridgeline:
Looking into the canyon to the South of the Baldy Bowl:
Headed back East up the switched-back part of the trail (the mountains are to the North):
The top of the local part of the ridgeline Sunset Peak is part of becomes visible, although the
pines conifers stop well before (due to the microclimate, not altitude - it's not far to the summit from here):
A view of the peak from the base of the rugged path to the top:
There are actually two ways to the summit - the obvious one seen above, or slightly hidden to the left is a rocky, narrow path that loops around. I took the latter:
A view at the opposite mountains to the East, with either a trail or a road cutting into it:
At the final turn up to the summit, there's a projection of rock out into the canyon that gives some interesting views to the East and South, although it's a bit of a hassle to step around on because of all the loose boulders:
Final approach to the summit and the summit itself:
Returning to the base of the summit, I saw that the trail forked off to the South, and vaguely remembered from the satellite map that it led to a mountain with microwave antennas on it fronting the valley. So I peeked around the corner and got a view:
Maybe it was just the euphoria of having climbed Sunset Peak with tons of energy, water, and time to spare (it was only 11:30), but that distant mountain didn't look far at all - I felt like it would maybe take an hour to get there, and would have awesome views into the San Gabriel valley. In fact, there was another reason I wanted to go there - I had seen that mountain from below from the summit of the very first mountain I'd ever hiked to the top of, Potato Mountain (3422 ft), and now I wanted to see Potato Mountain from above.
So I set out in high spirits and rejuvenated energy, having eaten a lunch of trail mix and relaxed for fifteen minutes. There were tremendous views into the mouth of the canyon where Mt. Baldy Road begins, which I'd driven to get up to the trailhead:
From a distance, the path seemed more or less straightforward, with only a handful of dips and switchbacks along the way:
What I hadn't counted on was that many of these switchbacks were not immediately connected to each other, but meandered long distances out of view, and involved substantial descents and subsequent climbs. Every time I rounded a bend, an entirely new and unexpected vista of winding trail would unfold in front of me, and each time I rationalized that, okay, there's a little more to this than I'd expected, but once I'm through this part it's smooth sailing. I did this over and over, until it became kind of a mantra against realizing that I had badly blundered, and given the amount of descents I had already made, I figured the difficulty of going back made it worthwhile to continue.
I didn't take many pictures on the way to the second peak, because once I realized how badly I'd screwed up, I focused on getting there as quickly as possible to give myself maximum time on the return trip - I calculated that if things turned out as bad as I'd come to expect, I might not have enough daylight to get back to the car. A rational person might simply have turned around at that point, reasoning that maximum time would be afforded by not adding to it pushing forward.
But I'd already spent so much energy getting to this second peak, and had descended far enough that the return trip would be such a pain, that I figured I might as well get some more great pictures in return for my suffering. The two pictures I took over several hours - the first looking East, the second at the trail ahead cutting into the mountainside:
There was precious little shade on this part of the journey, because - despite the occasional pockets of
pines conifers - it was mostly semi-desert foliage. The Sun beat down, and the rocks reflected the heat at me, cooking me as I walked. I felt my sunblock wearing off, but hadn't brought the bottle with me because I'd expected to only be out a few hours. I was very thankful for the hat and sunglasses I'd worn, but even with them I found I had to take breaks in tiny patches of shade every ten or so minutes - and the weather wasn't even objectively that hot, like 75 or so. Not being a complete idiot, I was mindful of the warning signs of overheating, and would immediately stop, hide in shade, and guzzle water until it subsided. But, being an incomplete idiot, I continued nonetheless.
A truck passed on the way to the antenna installation, and the guy asked if I needed water - to which I foolishly said I had enough. It turns out I did have enough - just barely (I had maybe five sips left when I got back to the car) - but it would have been wiser to ask for a little extra just in case.
It was hard going, but eventually I came within sight of the antennas and the whole sweep of the valley opened up before me:
I got to see Potato Mountain, my first-ever summit, way below:
I didn't actually go to the summit of this second mountain - by that point it was out of the question, even though it was only like a 30 foot ascent - but I had gotten the views I came for, and headed back. Even at the beginning of the return trip, I was tired enough that I found excuses to take pictures so I could stop for a moment. Because the second mountain (whose name was on a sign, but I was too tired at the time to remember it) was several hundred feet lower than Sunset Peak, and was approached via a saddle that's even lower, most of the return trip was uphill - but still had some nice views, not that I could appreciate them at that point:
My exhaustion got so bad at one point that I had to institute what I thought of as the "100 step rule" - I would force myself to take 100 small, slow steps and would then allow myself 1 minute of rest. This worked for a while, and allowed me to make significant progress. Sometimes I would take more than 100 steps to make it to a spot of shade, and found I could still continue indefinitely in the short downhill parts of what was on average an uphill climb. There was, however, one part where things got really dicey.
This was where the trail went up the steepest of the entire trip, taking long meanders and switchbacks. I hadn't thought much about it on the way to the second peak because it had been downhill, but now it seemed insurmountable. Even the 100-step rule wasn't working. My heart was pounding after every few steps, the rock was cooking me from every direction, and my sunblock had completely worn off. At a few points, only my pride kept me from considering calling for help - not a full emergency rescue, but I flirted with the notion that someone could send another truck and just give me a lift back to the car. But again, pride - I had been stupid, and I would rather suffer physically to make up for it (within limits, obviously) than potentially make a spectacle of my incompetence.
Fortunately there was a tree at the crux of a switchback with a spot of deep shade, where I took a standing nap for a few minutes until my heart rate returned to normal and my spring-wound muscles could untense. I found out that untensing my muscles made continuing slightly easier, and I was able to do a 50-step rule for the remainder of this hardest part. I did get a couple of worthy images during this time:
The second one puzzled me, even in my exhaustion. What the hell was that random green patch in the middle of nowhere? It looks like a golf course, but it obviously isn't - and appears far too regular to just be a natural mountain meadow. Zooming in on it doesn't shed any light on the mystery. It seems to be a swath of regular, healthy lawn with a few trees sticking out of it in the middle of an otherwise dense mountainscape. No buildings are visible in or anywhere near it. I've occasionally seen similar things here and there, but I still don't know what they are.
I finally got back to the base of Sunset Peak, and was happy because the entirety of the remaining trip would be downhill. But even going downhill, I had to pause at times from feeling dizzy with exhaustion, and the afternoon bugs were a lot more numerous and annoying than the morning ones - annoyance being a serious energy-drain and morale-dampener. But most of the trail back to the car was now in shade, so I no longer had to worry about heat or sunburn (the latter had already occurred), and could walk for ten or more minutes at a time without stopping. I only took a handful of photographs on the direct descent back, this being the best:
The car came within view a full hour before I was able to reach it, even going downhill and temperatures now cool without being cold. My whole body ached, my stomach kept grumbling, and every once in a while I would have to stop and massage some muscle that would start spasming. By the time I got there, after hiking 15 miles round-trip and ascended a total of something like 2,300 feet during the journey, I was limping and kind of listing to the side because my shoulders were sore - like I said, I probably looked like a zombie. I thought I'd brought pain medication in my pack, but...no such luck. It's a miracle both my brain and my limbs worked well enough to drive home.
This wasn't something that would cause a real mountaineer any trouble - one of the more challenging hikeable summits in the Baldy area involves ascending 4,300 feet over 7 miles (14 mile roundtrip), which thousands of people do every year - but I'm just an occasional day-hiker who only first summitted a mountain by accident this January.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed these photographs as much as I enjoyed taking half of them. No need to tell me how foolish I was - my muscles are still reminding me of that today.