As you might be able to tell, I’ve been in love with hiking and backpacking all summer. In reality though, I’m not super athletic. I spend most days at sitting at a desk, letting my muscles atrophy. On our last few backpacking trips I’ve found myself rather exhausted when we arrive at camp. Hiking with a backpack is so much more difficult than just regular hiking. I’ve known for awhile that I need to start pushing myself if I want to go on longer expeditions.
A few weeks ago I got it stuck in my head that we should hike up Mt. Baldy, the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. It would be a long hike (the loop trail is just over 11 miles) and also one that would challenge my fears about elevations as the peak rises above 10,000 feet. Shawn was shocked that I wanted to do the hike, particularly because he has been asking me for years to go up to the ski hut in the winter. I always firmly decline. It always sounded terribly strenuous, even though he often assured me the hut wasn’t even at the top.
We started bright and early, trying to avoid hiking in the afternoon heat. Even at 7am there were numerous other hikers there, heading out onto the trail. I was nervous when we started but I psyched myself up for the day of hiking. As we started heading upward I saw the ski hut above us. I wasn’t totally sure If I could make it to the top but I made it a goal to at least make it that far. It wasn’t long before we had made it to the hut. There were lots of other hikers at this point. We stopped and had some snacks, then headed up the mountain. I still felt great and this propelled me forward up the mountain.
In the beginning of the hike, I had let others pass us since I am fairly slow. After leaving the hut, I felt energized and raced over the rocky path past groups. Though we were surrounded by people as we left the hut, everyone seemed to disperse as we made our way up. I kept repeating to myself onward and upward as a sort of incantation. We reached a section where people seemed to have cut trails in every direction. At one fork, we veered to the left and found ourselves curving around the side of the mountain. There was suddenly no one around.
We walked on but didn’t seem to be going any higher. So of course, I was convinced we had gone the wrong way, knowing there are other trails in the area. My legs were starting to get seriously tired and the elevation was beginning to have an effect on me. I ate a fruit snack but it was so intensely sweet I couldn’t eat more. It’s strange how elevation can make things taste different. After walking for awhile more, we came upon the remains of an airplane crash. Finally we caught a glimpse of some hikers on a ridge above us and we cut up to meet them on the main trail.
Then it was just up and up and up. The trail was steep and I slowed down to a turtle’s pace. Yet I pushed forward. At once point, we passed a few hikers coming down and a woman, I’m sure seeing how I was struggling, told me that we were only five minutes from the top. I couldn’t even imagine the top at this point. My muscles felt like jello and my head like mush. I figured it was probably another 15 minutes and sure enough, five minutes later, another hiker heading down told us ten minutes more. The last five minutes felt like forever.
At the point where I could finally see the top, I sincerely felt like I could not make it that far. I also knew I had no choice so I just kept shuffling forward. Onward and upward. I wanted to cry (I didn’t cry).
When we finally arrived at the peak I drifted around until I found a spot to sit. Everyone was relaxing, eating lunches, taking photos. I felt miserable. The elevation was hitting me hard. I wish I could say I felt triumphant at this point but I mostly felt like melting into the ground.
Not long after arriving we started our descent. I started to feel better as soon as we made it to a lower elevation. Unfortunately, the rocky trail down from the top was murder on my knee, particularly when my legs were already so exhausted. After awhile we stopped off to the side of the trail and ate burritos that we had brought with us. We were lucky in that the sky remained overcast so it was fairly cool for most of the day.
The descent over the devil’s backbone trail was a beautiful one. In one section we walked along the ridge with views down to either side of us. Though my knee hurt significantly on the way down, my enthusiasm rose as we walked downhill. At one point, we saw the ski lodge off in the distance and it seemed so far away. Eventually the trail led us straight to it. We wandered around for awhile and I thought about previous visits to the lodge. I’d only ever been when everything was covered in snow and it was curious to be there in the dry summer. The restaurant was still full and many people were riding the ski lifts.
From there, we still had about another three miles to go. Three miles is nothing on a normal day, particularly walking on the wide flat fire road. Space seemed to expand, drifting on and on, and still I was ecstatic to be nearing the end. We sang songs that I could not remember the words to (singing in front of anyone, even just Shawn, is not something I do often, which just shows how elated I must have been) and walked and walked and walked. Luckily the smooth road was much easier on my poor aching knee.
As we closed in the on the end of the trail, we came upon a few hikers coming down from the other side playing Kraftwerk from a tiny speaker. We picked up our pace to catch them and then in no time we were at the bottom, the whole hike completed. I ran the last hundred feet to make it back to the start in under 8 hours (so slow!).
Afterwards I was quite tired and my knee hurt like hell, but I was also super excited to have completed something I wasn’t sure I could finish. Despite being difficult and painful, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I know that besides the physical struggles, the hardest part for me is often in my own head. Knowing that I could accomplish something like this hike helps me combat some of the the things I often worry about. I did not feel well at the top, but I’ve certainly felt worse. I was able to climb nearly 4000′ in just 4.5 miles. I’m pretty happy with that alone.
I thought that after we finished the hike, we might relax for the rest of the weekend, lounge around and watch movies. Instead, we went on another, albeit much shorter and easier, hike the next day and it was great. If I could be hiking every day, I think that would be just fine with me.
photos by Shawn Bannon