Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In the Dark

Mt. Burnham
8997' elevation (1500' elevation change each way)
~2 miles, and then some, roundtrip (avg 29% grade)

Part One: Friday, August 14

Okay, so THAT was a totally gonzo idea!

I've been going stir-crazy from having been so sick and having to give up my plans the past several weeks. I started my nebulizer treatments on Thursday. As my hiking buddy puts it, "On Wednesday night, you were feeling puny and didn't know about the weekend. On Thursday night, you want to go spend Friday night on a mountain top." So we think the nebulizer treatments wire me out a bit!

Mostly, I just wanted to get OUT, see the meteor shower, and get out of all the smoke beginning to blow in from the wildfires. And our Sierra backpacking trip is rapidly coming up, so I need to keep building back up, no matter how many times this enemy tries to knock me down.

Both my hiking buddy and DH had late appointments on Friday, but we agreed to meet around 6:30 p.m., which would put us up to the start of our hike around 7:30 p.m. That would give us a couple hours of sunset, twilight and early nightfall in which to climb this mass of mountain nearly 9,000' high.

Of course, the moon wouldn't be rising till very late; which was also part of my plan since I wanted to increase our chances of seeing multiple meteors. It doesn't bother me to hike in the dark; I used to climb the INSIDE of mountains (read: caves) which are as pitch black as can be (and I did it with a carbide lamp, too). Besides, we all carry headlamps. This would be a good trip to shake down some more equipment: headlamps and our JetBoil.

I packed up pretty much everything I will have on the Sierra backpack: 12 pounds (with full water) plus an additional 4 pounds on my body. DH gets to carry the weight I can't, including that "lead-lined" bear can. Not that we worry about bears in the dry San Gabriels; mostly there are just deer and coyote; sometimes bobcat and mountain lion; usually rattlesnakes and skunks; and always squirrels and lizards. But it's mandatory in the Eastern Sierras, and we are doing a dry run of all our gear for that trip. So the bear can goes, and DH's pack comes in at 40 pounds (he didn't pack extra clothes).

Click on any picture to see larger version.

Bear can on the bottom.

First step to gonzo: it was after 7 p.m. before all of us had even arrived at the rendezvous. It was 7:30 before we were finished packing and loading up. THEN we decided to stop at the store and get hot cocoa and soup---and snacks (junk food) to eat on the way, because not one of us had had time to eat. So here it is, already dark; none of us ate a decent meal; and we're just leaving the store at 7:45 pm and the mountains are still so far away...

Leaving the store. The mountains are dark against the fading light.

The last bit of light was leaving as we wound our way along Highway 2. "Wow, look at the red sky [to the west]. Wow, look at the smoke!" Even in the dark, the massive amount of wildfire smoke blowing into the valley from the west stood out blacker against the early night sky.

The stars were already out, and the wind was really starting to blow at a serious clip, by the time we made "the last pit stop" at Vincent Gap at 8:30 pm. A couple miles further; a U in the road; and we were parked at the trailhead at Milepost 71 for a climb up Mt. Burnham. I grabbed my jacket and put it on. In this wind, I needed it! We got out all our gear, strapped on our packs, and checked the time. It was 8:45 p.m. as we started out on the trail.

Step two to gonzo: trail---what trail? After climbing the first hill up from the road, there is no trail; there is only "moderate" navigation involved in climbing a ridge all the way up 1500'. None of us has ever climbed this peak before and therefore our only familiarity with it is my trusty topo maps and written descriptions. And of course, we went and handicapped ourselves by climbing in the dark (much later than our planned sunset and twilight hike).

But it's not like we were going to move quickly even if it were light; we were climbing on loose dirt, decomposing granite, slick piles of pine needles, deadfall and falldown. And the ridge was, as the Mantracker says, "steeper than a cow's face." (He certainly wouldn't have been able to follow us.) It was insane! There were plenty of times I had no real foothold; I was just hanging onto my trekking poles and pulling myself up with upper body strength.

And I guess that's why I like rebuilding this way; the gym not only bores me, I would give up much more easily in a gym. When I'm hanging off the side of a mountain by my trekking poles, I'm much more motivated to use every last bit of strength I can muster to keep myself from falling down the side of the mountain. It's an incredible workout; I'm always stronger for each time.

One of the first things we found out in shaking down our equipment is that my expensive Black Diamond headlamp has a short in it and kept going out --- but the cheap 5-LED backup one from Harbor Freight worked great and was quite bright!

It was slow going, as this was not hiking at all; this was climbing a mountain one foothold at a time and with some significant danger to it. But we were doing it, and nobody said anything about turning back. But I gotta tell ya, no way was that a mile! Especially with us losing the "trail" in the dark. We zigzagged all over that ridge, trying to use switchbacking technique on its steep face. But with all the deadfall and falldown and manzanita we had to skirt around, we got off to the sides many times. It was cr-a-zy!

When we would stop to catch our breath, I would check out the view and the stars. Both were getting even more dramatic as we went. Unfortunately, so was the wind. The jacket stayed zipped up. The black smoke to the north was mostly below us, but some was still as high as us. Would we ever get higher than it?

We were off to the side of the ridge again when all of a sudden we heard a loud thump, followed by the sound of tumbling. Oh @#$%--the bear can full of food had come off DH's pack! "Tree, tree!" I yelled. But the can did NOT aim for the tree, and the tree did not jump out to stop it. The can kept tumbling down the mountainside, quickly out of sight in the moonless night. We froze and listened, trying to hear how far it fell. We heard it come to a stop about 20 yards below us. Thank God it stopped!

You know, we've tried all different ways to deal with carrying the bear can, but there's no two ways about it -- that thing is a pain to deal with. We shone our lights about and spotted the bear can stopped by a fallen tree. DH climbed down the side of the ridge to get it while we took a break. Once the can was securely attached again, we started on our way again.

We continued our tedious slipping, sliding, and climbing over logs and around manzanita bushes.
We had to be near the intersection with the PCT; this climb was taking forever and it was getting late. It was like climbing an endless set of uneven stairs up and up and up. I wanted to climb into my bag and watch stars!

Steeper than a cow's face, no trail, slippery surface, and in the moonless dark. OK!

I was on a steep section of slippery blow dirt when I heard "Clunk"! I turned around; the bear can was lying on the ground again (but thankfully this time had not rolled away) behind DH. I went to step down the hill to help, and the instant I moved, my feet went right out from underneath me and I smacked down HARD. Really thankfully, I didn't roll away! Like times before, it was my hand and my bum that I mostly smacked. OUCH!

I decided just to sit still there while DH secured that blasted bear can AGAIN. The section was so steep and slippery that I had to slide on my feet down lower before I could once again stand up and get started climbing. We were on a really steep steep section now; I was glad it was dark and my hiking buddy could not see the amount of exposure around us.

By now, it was almost impossible to figure out any way up the ridge other than straight up its very steep, slippery edge; it was very narrow now. We had to be very near that intersection with the PCT! Why did it always seem like we had another mile to go? Wasn't this supposed to be just a one-mile hike?

Hmm...how come my trekking pole was suddenly getting so slippery? I trained my light on it. My hand and my pole grip had blood smeared all over it. I knew my hand stung when I fell, but I didn't realize I'd actually broke the skin in any way. I thought I'd just smacked it hard and bruised it. We had to stop and clean up my hand and see what I'd done to it.

I literally had to sit on the south side of a tree, braced against the roots, to keep from sliding down (or falling off) the mountain while we administered minor first aid. Turns out I had sliced the end of my finger on the log on which I'd smacked my hand when I had fallen. We got it cleaned up, put a bandage on to hold the flap of skin over it, and started back up again.

As we climbed and kept trying to find a "trail" up the ever narrowing ridge, I could tell there was a heckuva dropoff to the east side. Before too long, we finally reached the Pacific Crest Trail. And I gotta tell ya, that thing looked like a freeway after what we'd been trying to navigate! We sat down right there on the trail and took a break while I pulled out my directions and maps for us to decide which route to take now to the top of Burnham.

I checked the time: 11:45 p.m. That puts us on the summit at midnight. Cool! But boy, was that the longest mile ever, or what?!

We opted to continue bushwhacking our way to the summit from its north side instead of traveling east on the PCT to climb the east side. By now, the wind was gusting as much as 40 mph. The terrain was such that each step would cause me to slide almost half the distance back again before I could gain any purchase whatsoever. But before too long, I could see the summit backlit by the lights of the metropolis below it.

What relief to reach the round of the top! But the actual summit was covered in bushes; we circled around the summit and tried not to get blown off the mountain. Everywhere we found that got us somewhat out of the wind did not have flat or wide enough area for us to sleep. So we found a good flat spot on top, alongside the bushes; cleared it of rocks as best as we felt like doing; and started setting up our sleeping pads and bags.

The wind was howling, but we selected the JetBoil because its design can handle our local weather. DH got it fired up while we bundled up in more clothing. Sixty mph gusts are not uncommon at all out here. Tonight's gusts at the top were probably around 45 mph, and it was really making the 35-deg temperature feel even more icy. I pulled my sweatshirt out and put it over my clothes, then put my jacket back on. I got my knit scarf out and wrapped it around my head to keep my ears out of the wind. Much better!

Below us to the south and west, we could clearly see the amber lights along the streets of San Dimas and Pomona, with the long grids of light continuing on for at least 30 miles in each direction. The Chino Hills and the mountains of Orange County were black mounded patches amid the amber light. The coastline was obvious with the fog over the water lit pale blue by the reflected city light. It looked awesome!

To the north and east, we could see as far as the lights of Barstow. From Barstow to the Orange and LA Counties coast: that's a pretty good distance of view, don'tcha think?

We were sitting up on our beds, lower bodies in our bags, wind howling over the summit, drinking our cocoa, hiking buddy chatting away, when I distinctly heard it: a guttural grunt. An unmistakable, recognizable guttural grunt that I knew was a bear that had just smelled us and "made" us.

"Did you hear that?" DH nodded. No way could I talk myself into it being just my imagination now. I readied the bear-strength pepper spray clipped to my shirt. But this is the San Gabriels, not the Sierras; up here, the bears run away from humans. The bear never approached us, and we never heard him again. But you can bet we were a little less dis"grunt"led over carrying that darn bear can up the mountain!

We were sipping the last of our hot cocoa and still admiring the view when my hiking buddy asked, "What's that red light out there?" We looked. A red light, too large to be an aircraft warning light on a radio tower or anything like that, was visible wa-a-ay in the distance to the northeast. "What the heck is by Barstow that would have a light like that?" I asked DH. "Not the railroad." He looked. We both knew there weren't any tall buildings out there. "I don't know." We couldn't figure it out. Oh, well.

I scanned the skies for falling stars. DH had already seen the first one during one of our pauses during the climb up, and I was looking forward to seeing some myself.

"What the heck IS that?" my hiking buddy asked. "A fire?" We looked. The red light was gone; now there was an orange patch. "That must be what it is; a wildfire on the side of a butte," I agreed. After all, there were plenty of wildfires burning all about us. I scanned the skies again. When I glanced at the orange patch again, it was significantly larger, having nearly doubled in size.

"Okay, no fire can get that big that fast. What the heck is it?" I said.
"It looks like liquid lava," my hiking buddy said. But it couldn't be the flames from a rocket test; it was too far east of the rocket test site. But my hiking buddy was right; it looked like a mountainside had split open and was oozing a rectangle of liquid orange lava fire. "Maybe it's the end of the world," DH commented; an inside joke from when we were at Lone Pine Lake on the 4th of July 2008.

It's hard to get perspective when you're sitting on top of a mountain, but as I watched the liquid orange I suddenly realized what we were seeing. "It's the moonrise!" I laughed. The moon was emerging far below us from behind the thick black clouds of smoke. And it had literally started as one small circle of red light before morphing into a patch of orange and then a rectangle of fire...what a trip! Now THAT was a wicked moonrise! Laughing, my hiking buddy grabbed her camera and got a shot as the curve of the moon emerged from the smoke, making it obvious what we were seeing.

One memorable moonrise!

By now it was 1 a.m. and I knew the sun would be waking us up by 8 a.m., so it was time to lie down and get some sleep. As I lay on my back to stargaze, muscles in my back on the left side began pulling and spasming. And my hiking buddy was whimpering as the arches of her feet cramped and spasmed. The cold was not helping, either! I hoped warming up in my bag would stop the spasms, but no such luck. I had no choice but to turn on the side that was spasming and lie still.

Even on my side, I was treated to faint falling stars averaging at least one per minute, one very bright meteor flash over the Chino Hills, and one fireball that streaked all the way across the northern sky from west to east with a brilliant tail behind it. I love it! I fell asleep when my eyes could remain open no longer...

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