Thursday, April 23, 2009

San Gorgonio Peak (11,500 ft.) - 14 Hours of Gorgeous White Torture

3 am wakeup and drive to Temecula to pickup Alex Wood, a climber I met on, then head up into the San Bernardino mountains. We’re on the trail by 7 am and make quick time on our approach, the trail is clear with only patches of ice, I hike in sneakers up until the first snow chute up Alto Diablo peak. Along the way we meet a skier named David who grew up in these mountains, headed up to do a ski run through the trees. We also ran into two climbers coming down after spending the night and not finding the trail to the summit, the urge us emphatically, “Don’t follow our tracks!” Alex and I stop for lunch before heading up the snow chute to Charleton Peak, I discover that after you eat half a bag of yogurt covered raisins it has the same effect as sticking your finger down your throat.

Almost midday and late in the season, the snow in the middle of the chute is soft, and even the edges are very sugary and frustrating to trudge through. After eating up Charlton Peak we drop a little elevation and head backup again over Little Charlton Peak, my nausea is still running strong but I manage to bury it the rest of the climb, we give a big push up to Jepson Peak, and after the summit of Jepson we traverse the Ten Thousand Foot Ridge where the ice is melted enough that we can take our crampons off and hike over solid rock.

Over the ridge, after what seemed like dozens of false summits, (which was probably just the elevation beginning to affect me), we reach the summit of San Gorgonio. Big winds, a quick snack and some photos, then we do a quick scouting around to see if we should down climb one of the direct steeper sections down the face and back down into the valley instead of completely backtracking.

So, in fear of avalanche or other costly accident we ended up backtracking. Only half of what we’d done and trying to traverse the sides of the peaks so’sto not have to lose/gain all that elevation all over again. Still a horrible plan. Frustrating trudging through brush and scree with our crampons on because of intermitten patches of big ice, until we looped around entire ridge and wished by then that we’d risked the steep downclimb.

Hit a couple spots of solid ice and practiced self arrest. Then took a less steep downclimb into the valley, butt-sledding for as much as I could as a treat. Going back below the tree line as the alpenglow blessed our triumph the entire forest echoed in a silence broken only by our steady crunchy footsteps over the snow.

The hike back through the South Fork trail seemed twice as long as the approach, it got dark before we were halfway done. Stumbling back to the car, happy-fatigued and staring at Orion in the sky, counting up 14 hours of climbing, looking forward to a greasy cheeseburger and coffee and it was a good day.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Inner City Outings - Anza Borrego Volunteer Trip with Sherman Heights Community Center

Volunteered again with Inner City Outings, took a group of kids from the Sherman Heights Community Center out to Anza Borrego with perfect weather and the flowers in full bloom.

I caught a ride on a carpool with other volunteers, there was Katy driving, and Michelle, Kevin, Liz and Me all headed east on Hwy 8 to Ocotillo Wells then North into the hills and washes of the desert, and we rushed the entire way, our fear going back and forth between the highway patrol and being late to meet the kids, but in the end it turned out we were early.

We stretched our legs and smeared our faces with sunblock and met another volunteer Mike, the kids all arrived soon after and they leaped out of their bus and poured over the ditches in the sand, jumping over everything, trying to pick up boulders, soaking up the sun after a long drive. Their mothers called after them to look out for scorpions but I explained to them that the only poisonous ones to really worry about don't live in California, and they felt calmer.

Then, another group of kids came running up claiming to have found gold, and before I could say anything the kids and their moms were all picking the stuff up all over the ground, until I explained to them it was only mica, then they were disappointed, but in a moment they were appreciating it and talking about it being "just as pretty as gold anyways."

The first kids to discover the restrooms were amazed at the toilet, the simple deep hole in the ground, and I told them they had to climb all the way in to use it but not to worry, there was a rope ladder and if they got stuck on their way back up I would help them.

We started out on the rocky trail, following a moist stream bed, in search of an oasis. Some heavier moms and their kids started filtering towards the back, huffing and puffing, but they never complained. They smiled and grunted and when they had to sit for a rest they would apologize and say how beautiful it was.

A worried mother asked about some tracks in the mud, could they be a lion, a wolf? They were honest and earnest when they pointed out some shoeprints and discussed how you could tell it was a sheep’s. All the flowers and cactuses were in bloom, it was a gorgeous sight anywhere you looked. We stopped for lunch at an oasis and everybody got out their goodies to share. I told some kids asking me about some boulders, that inside they were made of pure silver and that people cut them open with lasers, that’s why there were a lot of smaller rocks laying around, they were the husks of this jewel fruit. They spent the rest of lunch trying to figure out a way to carry out a meteor-size boulder between the two of them but ended up leaving with only wild dreams of treasure.

Then a little girl found a crazy looking spider and nobody would pick it up until our trip leader Jim told us it was a striped species of daddy long legs and it was safe. I picked it up and passed it around the kids, when one of them passed it to Mike, he kept a straight face but got rid of it as soon as possible and whispered to Katy how much he hated spiders.

We continued on some Indian trails, zig zagging through the hills, and now the kids each took turns being the leader and trying to navigate through the rocky maze. The kids loved being in charge of the entire group and feeling like captains in the wilderness, watching them I thought about how important it is for kids to feel that sense of responsibility in a positive environment, for them to develop a sense of self-empowerment later in life. Exactly the reason why I'm climbing for Big City Mountaineers.

At the end of the hike, I walked and talked with a small little girl who had a tiny mumbly voice but would never stop talking, story after story. Finally understood that she wanted to race me and ran all the way back to the bus, so hopping over little boulders and dunes and cactuses, we took off, and of course she won.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Peak Bagging Ladybugs at Cuyamaca Peak (6,512 ft)

Work gave me the day off at the last minute so I decided to do some pack training with Ellie on a 5 mile roundtrip up Cuyamaca Peak. Loaded my pack up with 6 2L bottles of water and tested out my snowshoes for the first time, it turned out to be a perfect sunny day with views to the Salton Sea and Villager Peak to the East, to Point Loma and the Coronado Islands to the West.
On the steeper snow close to the summit I practiced throwing myself off the side of the mountain and tumbling for a ways then sliding forwards and upside-down and using my ice axe to self-arrest. When my arms felt like they'd been burnt off I switched to practicing various methods of chopping steps. At the peak Ellie and me found two ladybugs crawling around and we thought how it was weird to find them this high up in the snow, as if they were bagging peaks in the name of all insectdom. They did not carry a flag though.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Crocodile Hunting at Mildred Falls

Me Captain and Skelmo and my girlfriend Ellie headed out to Mildred Falls. All the chaparral was green and lush from the rains but the trails were dry, and the day was bright and sunny.

The way down is a long steep dirt trail with several ways to go, along the way Captain and Skelmo kept leaping across cracks eroded in the trail, pretending they were jumping over gaping cracks in the earth.

And we make stops to make ourselves completely silent and we can hear frogs off in the distant little canyons.

Ellie marches along barefoot finding different mushrooms and the first California poppies in bloom.

Captain practices his footwork on steeper tricky sections of the trail and he runs faster and faster and skips over large gaps and slides without losing his footing and screeches to a halt.

Skelmo prefers to go slow and pick up every single rock and stick he comes across, he carries something around for 10 ft until he spots something better and trades it out, a big improvement over how he used to just fill his arms with more and more things without leaving anything behind and he was like a snail carrying his shell in his hands.

We get to the first stream crossing and take our shoes off and wade, we can hear frogs all around us and the kids hunt for them in the cattails.

From here on it was flat easy ground. We crossed the creek two more times before the falls, and each time Captain and Skelmo stop and look for crocodiles before they go into the water. I let them ford it by themselves and standby a few feet away in case of anything but they’re solid, they watch the water get up to their bellies and they wade on forth and get to feel they are beating a river. The water’s cold enough to shock them and shiver but its sunny enough outside so that they warm up immediately after.

We get to the waterfall and its flowing gorgeous and we have it entirely to ourselves. Two hawks circle over us for a while, eyeing the kids for lunch, then move on to look for smaller prey.

The kids go fishing and we hop up boulders and try to slide back down without falling into the water.

Now the hike back out, long and heavy. Skelmo had used himself all up and Captain was fine the way back himself until we had to start up on the steep dirt trail again and he could go no further.

Much slower going, a never-ending silent trudge carrying those two sleepy sacks of potatoes, but good training.

Quiet, exhausted, happy, the way the human animal is supposed to feel at the end of the day. Captain and Skelmo picked some yellow flowers to take to their mother, then fell asleep until we reached the trailhead again, where they sprung back to life at the end of their free ride and spoke dearly of the magic waterfall they had discovered and I had to promise that we would come back to hunt crocodiles again very soon.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Full Moon Hike- Iron Mountain (2,700 ft.)

My friends Fahme, Kevin. Ellie and Me start our hike at 11 under a strong blue full moon, and the coyotes howled for us the entire night. The moon shone over us and in treasured little spots all along the trail it reflected itself in large puddles to give us its glow from below. If you move fast in close quarters under moonlight you succumb to a magical dizziness, your field of vision gets chopped during the bushy switchbacks as your brains tries to process the changes in the blue light, it feels like you’re your stumbling through a ghost world.

With leftovers of rainclouds the light was changing back and forth from humming electric blue to a black/white movie whenever the moon went behind clouds, partial eclipses close to blackness would happen every 10 minutes or so on the passing of more giant cloud masses and we would stop to listen to the brief deep darkness. 

Half of the hike up Iron Mountain is sheltered from the wind inside of little valleys and the 4 of us are warm the entire hike until the last ½ mile where the trail is exposed to huge gusts of wind from the West and it wakes us up. We resort to piggy back rides up the last steepest sections to try and keep warm, and at the summit we find a rock slab out of the wind where we rest and look at ourselves with the GPS on Fahme’s iphone.

Then… a bout of Freezeout Freezeout is an either glorious or stupid game of self-torture where the participants remove their clothes and see how long they can stand exposing themselves to the cold. For the numbing ½ mile descent back into the warmer valleys we got bare-chested and suffered a brutal bout of gusts and when finally put our shirts back on our hands had gone numb and it felt like we were getting stabbed on every square inch of our chests, it burned down our sides when we put our shirts back on, but our adrenaline and smiles were reward enough.

At the end of our hike, among the bushes in the little meadow next to Highway 67, the coyotes sounded like they were out in bigger numbers and by now they were howling like hyenas. I imitated them howl for howl and wondered whether I was a good enough counterfeit to confuse them, and if perhaps I had made some poor coyote ask himself "Who is this idiot repeating everything I’m saying?"

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Moon gives eyes and the Sea steals shoes - Torrey Pines Night Hike

Decided to make Saturday a double-header, so in the evening after my trip with Inner City Outings I made a miniature caravan expedition with my sons Captain and Skelmo, my brothers Andres and Alonso, and my girlfriend Ellie, to have a quick jaunt through Torrey Pines State Park. It was 2 days before the moon was completely full but the light was still magic enough. A couple days ago Alonso had proposed a theory about “rainbows occurring at night due to zero-gravity”, and now arriving at the beach the first thing we saw there above us was the moon with a round rainbow glowing around it. Alonso felt like some scientist whose theory everyone had thought preposterous, and who was suddenly enjoying being proved right.

The night was comfortable and cool, not a bit too cold, and all openness of the lagoon and the beach was drenched in blue silver, and we even enjoyed perfect timing having arrived right after the evening’s rain so the sky was framed with giant silver clouds and blue magic but it never rained another drop on us the rest of the night
From the start, Skelmo refused to walk but I didn’t mind and I saw it as a chance to pack train and goof with him on my shoulders. Hiking up the road to the cliff trails Captain found a tiny weed growing in a crack and he stopped us all to speak scientific gibberish about it for a couple minutes before stating very matter-of-factly that it was called a "Sloopy" and then moving on to greater discoveries. In the bushes the kids and me could see eyes looking back at us in the moonshine, and really it was only raindrops glistening but sometimes we'd see something looking back at us with distinct red eyes and it would hypnotize us, then Captain would name all the animals he thought could be hiding in there –wolves, coyotes, crocodiles, velociraptors, lions… a bird maybe?

We reached the top real quick and started on the trail down to the beach. My kids and my brothers were perfectly at home in the cinematic light and not at all afraid of the dark. Torrey Pines is beautiful in its openness, its chaparral vegetation leaves the sky open, and as you hike down its cliffs that slope down to the West you have the entire Sea laid out as if it were the Great Plains in electric blue.

So, we headed down the cliffs talking about Greek myths and Chinese myths and stories out of Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ and what lightning is, while flashes of lightning shot silently back and forth in between the clouds. The whole way down Captain does his best to walk around the puddles of water on the trail and he even ‘helps’ us cross them too, but every now and then when he thinks I’m not looking he dips his foot in for a taste of mischief. Ellie runs ahead of us to hide in the bushes and scare us with her goofy roars and one time it works so well that it gets Alonso to rip a fart in terror.

Coming down the last stairs at the bottom of the cliffs we found out that the tide is super high, its licking the cliffs and we won’t be able to head back along the beach, we'll have to hike all the way uphill back out the same way we came.

In the meantime we go down to the water’s edge anyways to watch the whitewater come in and foam back out and to listen to the gentle hum and thunder that are the only noises of the glowing tumble waves and all the Sea is a magic spread. We’re all perfectly quiet. I hear Skelmo’s little breathing in my ear as he sits up on my shoulders, rapt in the mellow light, the otherworldliness of the scene is not lost on him. Then a freak wave bites at us on the stairs and it sucks off Andres' right shoe. I run to look for it on the shore but it’s no use. Andres is a good sport about it though and he hobbles back all the way to the car with hardly a complaint.

On our way up, Captain and Skelmo are falling asleep and I have to carry them both, the ultimate dead arm challenge. Everyone is sleepy and speechless but happy about having come out into the magic. My own little personal dose of irony was that of course after being careful to stay dry-footed the entire trip, I stepped into an ankle-deep puddle of water and soaked my feet less than 20 yards away from reaching the car. It didn’t even come close to ruining the night.

Wilderness Gardens Preserve - Volunteering with Inner City Outings

Volunteered on my first trip with Inner City Outings today at Wilderness Gardens Preserve just outside of Temecula on the 76. I arrived a little early and met with all the other volunteers, Bill, Shannon, Sheena, Jeremy, Mike and Carrie, all of us first-timers except Bill. We briefly traded names and said our first hellos, then two vans full of kids ranging from 1st grade to Middle School drove into the parking lot along with Jim, our trip leader, and our little party was begun.

It was awkward beginnings, you could feel that minor shyness and tension between us and the kids, there a lot of silent smiling. But right at the start of the trail there was a little creek running stronger than usual because of the rains and the kids got their first jump into adventure when Bill ferried them over it in his SUV. It was a good way to stir up some communal excitement and blow off the static web that was keeping everyone to themselves. The whole group stood together now on the other side of the creek. Jim laid down some basic groundrules, then we played a quick name game to help break the ice and set off.

Tromping along the trail the kids mostly talked among themselves, but us volunteers began making our first attempts to talk with them, pointing out everything we could to try pique their interest –growths of lichen, different types of scat, dung beetles, Indian grinding stones, holes in tree branches made by beetle borers, poison oak, pincher bugs and ladybugs –and slowly we all started finding things in common.

We stopped at a pond and found coots and mallards floating among the cattails. Jim is an entomologist and he pointed out some water skimmers and a praying mantis’ egg case. Things were starting to go a lot smoother between the volunteers and the kids, and we began using each other’s first names.

Halfway through the hike was what Ivan, the youngest kid in the group, had been waiting all day for –it started to rain. He jumped up and down in excitement because he could finally put on his rain gear, inside his oversized poncho he looked like a tiny grinning gremlin. His happiness was contagious to everyone, and to me it would’ve been enough if the rest of the trip was a disaster so long as Ivan got his rain. It was that genuine childhood joy that comes from the simplest thing, that same kind of thing so many people lose in their adulthoods of complications and extravagances.

We had lunch at a little wet grove, the half of us on a big fallen log and the rest under some dripping trees. By now the volunteers and the kids had a good connection going and we were all sharing the goodies out of our lunches. After we ate we played a game where we got our hands all tangled up and then had to untangle ourselves like twister in reverse, and my group ended up making an impossible knot that made it impossible to get free without us letting go or using a chainsaw.

At the end of the hike I ended up talking to a group of middle schoolers about horror movies instead of nature, and I remembered how good it felt the few times growing up when someone much older than me would have a simple conversation with me and treat me like nothing more or less than an equal. I hoped that these kids would get that same sort of feeling out of our simple casual talking.

Coming back to the creek where we had started, a completely different dynamic had taken hold of the group and we were all much closer than we had been just a couple hours before. It was amazing how great an effect such a little bit of time had on two groups of people who had never met before. Nature is a gorgeous facilitator of human bonding.

Everyone took their socks and shoes off and the kids were allowed to cross the creek by themselves this time. I imagined myself at that age and I would have felt it like some great death-defying expedition, the fording of some wild and mighty river. Some of the smaller kids took piggy back rides from volunteers to the other side, but one little girl named Ashley made excuses to keep crossing and recrossing the water. It was an example of those times when the smallest kid in the group is the one hungriest for adventure. Ashley made me smile with pride and wonder again when she scooped up a giant Jerusalem cricket that Bill had found –without a moment’s hesitation or a trace of fear. I ended up giving her 50 cents on a dare to put the cricket in an older girl’s hair.

Our hike over, we said goodbye to the kids, then to each other, and then went home to get dry and warm and reflect upon the magic we had all experienced. I think Bill put it best when he said "Sometimes before I come out on these things I’m doubtful whether or not I’m going to have fun or if I should even come… and afterwards I’m always SO GLAD I DID COME!"