A long, tall hike down one of the most beautiful canyons in the Angeles National Forest. Probably the easiest way to reach Timber Mountain, the southernmost of the ‘Three Tees.’ Icehouse Saddle – just a short distance before Timber Mountain – is also a convenient gateway to several other peaks in the area.
My GPS went a little wonky at the start of the hike, but everything else is pretty accurate:
I opened the door to the Mount Baldy Visitor’s Center and walked inside. The warm, dark wood interior was a welcome respite from the howling winds outside. The rangers stood behind their desk – a bearded man and blond woman – smiling at me.
“Hi. I’d like a permit for the Cucamonga Wilderness.”
Still smiling, the woman said, “We are not recommending anyone go up there today.”
The man chimed in. “We’re measuring wind gusts at 60 miles an hour. I almost got knocked down today.”
“But of course, we can’t do anything to stop you,” said the woman. Still smiles, that one.
I reached for a ballpoint pen and started filling out our Wilderness Permit. “I’m going to try for Ontario Peak. Is it more windy in the canyons, or on the ridge?”
“It’s windy everywhere.” The man with the beard was not smiling. All gravitas, he.
“What about ice?”
“We’re not sure. We haven’t been up there.” Still no smiles. “And you’ve got to remember, most of those trails are pretty narrow. One good gust of wind, and you could get swept off the side like that.” He snapped.
The woman smiled and nodded. What was this? Some National Forest game of Good Cop-Bad Cop?
I thought back to my times on the Icehouse Canyon Trail. The trail I remembered was narrow, but not that narrow. And it didn’t have any particularly steep drop offs that were life-threatening. The Cucamonga Peak Trail, however, did.
“Well, I’ll fill this out and talk it over with the hiking partner. Thanks for the tips!”
As I turned to leave, the man called out one last scare – “and be sure to watch out for flying branches and rocks!”
I crossed the street to the Mount Baldy Lodge, where Will was sitting at the bar, waiting for a packable meal. I laid it out for him, mentioning that I’d also found a lower mountain further west in case Ontario was snowed-in. We thought about it for a while. The rangers had me worried it would be too dangerous to hike. Will got his food, turned to me and said, “Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
And with that, we drove to the Icehouse Canyon trailhead. We were going to have an adventure today.
As soon as I opened my car door at the trailhead, the wind shut it back on me. Oh, boy. Getting my bag and shoes out of the trunk was made significantly more interesting by the deafening roar of the wind whipping its way angrily through the Canyon. We tied our packs extra tight, pulled our hats down on our heads, and started toward the Canyon.
As we were walking, a nasty gust forced us to stop and wait. It also set off one of the parked cars’ alarms. This was going to be good.
Thankfully, the early part of the Icehouse Canyon trail was both ice-less and generally windless. It was still windy, don’t get me wrong, but there were none of the breath-knocking gusts that assaulted us in the parking lot. We got our first ice on a set of stairs, but since it was pretty well covered in dirt and mud, it was barely slippery at all.
Early on in the trail, we passed a young-looking group of hikers coming back down. We asked how the wind was at the saddle. One of the men got a worried look in his eye.”We didn’t make it up there,” he said. “We got close, but the wind – it’s blowing you right off the side. Too much for us.” They continued, slightly-panicked, to the trailhead. We pressed on.We made quick time up the trail to the Cucamonga Wilderness border, where we got a nice view of the now-almost-fully snowed-in north face of Ontario Peak.
The further north we went, the stronger the wind seemed to get. And as the trail was also more shaded, we were running into more and more patches of snow and packed-in ice in our path. Here, we quickly discovered that our hiking boots didn’t offer too much in the way of friction. Yeah, not so much.Taking these parts of the trail very, very slow, I looked at it as just another form of boulder-hopping. I’d try to find rocks, old footprints, or patches of dirt and pine-covered ice that could offer a quick foothold and slowly, carefully made my way up. There were several times we lost our footing, but neither of us fell on the ascent. Which, looking at pictures of the trail, is pretty incredible.
Looking off the side of one of these sections of ice, Will noticed an area that had amassed a healthy snowdrift. “Want to go down there and check it out?””Why the hell not? I still haven’t gotten my Winter Fix.” And with that, we were on our asses, sliding down a layer of ice to the drifts below.I dipped my hands into the snow and stopped to pose for a picture. My family in New England still hasn’t gotten any snow this season, and had a record high near 70 degrees on Saturday. I couldn’t resist rubbing it in.
Will’s dog, Dingo, also seemed like she couldn’t get enough of the snow. Born and raised in the Sunbelt, she’d never seen this stuff before, and had a great time discovering how she could dig in it, slide on it, and drink it.
Dogs are awesome.As we got close to Icehouse Saddle, the winds started picking up again. This, combined with the icy trail, made for some interesting hiking postures, that’s for sure. Lots of bowed legs and outstretched arms on my end, given just the right amount of silliness by the occasional flailing to keep balance.Eventually, we made it to Icehouse Saddle, and met up with a pair of Australian hikers decked out with trekking poles, crampons, and all other sorts of equipment that will probably end up on my credit card statement pretty soon. They were coming down from the Timber Mountain trail, and we asked them how the weather was.
They told us the weather was fine up on Timber, but they’d gotten the stuffing knocked out of them coming up Bear Canyon. We traded “Danger in the Wind” stories, but the Australians had us beat. The husband almost got himself blown down a ravine.
Like us, they had their sights set one of the bigger peaks, but opted for the calmer environs of Timber Mountain instead. Checking out the trails, we noticed the route to Ontario Peak was on the mountain’s north face for quite some distance. Generally, the north sides of the San Gabriels are the ones that keep colder longer, and this looked to be no different. We looked north toward Timber Mountain, its trail on the south face and completely free of snow. And thus, our plans were altered.
The winds started whipping around Icehouse Saddle, so we climbed up the Timber Mountain trail a bit, found a log to sit on, and ate our lunches. In clear view, of course, of our former destination.
Oh well. It’ll have to wait until the snow melts. Or until I buy crampons.Just under a mile of dry, easy-graded hiking and we were at the sign to Timber Mountain:
I’d forgotten that last .25 miles is a relentless, nearly-vertical slog up to the wooded summit, but was quickly reminded by my legs. They weren’t very happy about it.But soon, we were at the top, signing names and telling tales in the register, which still bears the mountain’s former name: Chapman Mountain.
From the summit, we took a short stroll over to the edge of the north face, where Dingo played in the snow some more, we got pelted by more winds, and we got a great view of the Baldy Bowl and Telegraph Peak.
After taking in all the scenery, and getting our lungs filled (sometimes without asking) with the mountain air, we turned and made our way back down into Icehouse Canyon. The icy sections of the trail were much more difficult going down than they were coming up, and coming up wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. There were a few times I just crouched down and slid on my heels, using my hands to steer myself. And there was one time – and only one time – when my feet, previously motionless, decided to both move forward quickly, suddenly, and without consulting the rest of my body.Luckily, my fall was broken by my elbow and ass.I honestly can’t believe that only happened once. There must have been at least a dozen close-calls, though.
On the way up, Icehouse Canyon was pretty much deserted. We only passed a small handful of hikers on this normally crowded trail. I figured the Severe Weather Alert kept the more sensible SoCal residents at home that morning. But on the way back down, there they were.
The first few we passed were polite, and looked prepared. We tried to focus on the bubbling white noise of the stream and the occasional roar of the wind, but were distracted several times by bottles, cans, food wrappers, and napkins lying alongside the trail.
Stopping briefly to pick up whatever trash we could carry, we came upon an exhausted looking family about half a mile from the trailhead. Seeing two bearded, windburned hikers coming down the mountain, they assumed we knew what we were doing. One of them ran up to us.
“Is it close?”
“Where are ya headed?” I replied.
He looked confused. “Um … up the hill?”
Oh, sweet Jesus. The hill?!? I didn’t mince words. “Then no, you have a long way left to go.”
Closer to the trailhead, after incredulously picking up two half-empty Bud Lite cans, a large family – some of whom were in short-sleeves – passed us. The mother, also noting our beards and swarthy appearances, asked if there was snow on the trail.
We gave them an enthusiastic ‘yes’ and said it was further up the trail.
“Like ten minutes?” asked the father.
“More like an hour … maybe and hour and a half.” Their faces soured considerably. “But it’s worth it!” we chimed.
And we continued back to the trailhead, knowing full well that family wasn’t seeing snow today.
He has also been featured on Good Morning America, NPR, and the Associated Press, as well as in documentaries for Columbia Sportswear and the OTIS College of Art and Design.
Casey was one of eight people chosen by the National Parks Foundation to participate in the 2015 Find Your Park Expedition. His first book "Day Hiking Los Angeles," will be published by Mountaineers Books in 2016.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on January 8, 2007