For me, the best part of a big mountain hike has always been the anticipation. Leaving everything to chance was the fountain of youth that I discovered, as it kept everything fresh and exciting. But nowadays, once my foot hits the trail, my only goal is to get back safely. Am I any wiser for it? I really think it has a lot to do with getting older, as I’ve learned to enjoy cake without the icing. Taking unnecessary risk and making bad decisions have seen their fair share of success with me, as I have a knack for learning things the hard way. So it’s with much reverence that I have for the mountains as well as to whom it may concern, never take safety for granted. To know exactly what it is before you get yourself in it is half the battle, as anything outside of that is a real gamble. There is nothing exciting about working through pain, but remember, dues are earned when dues are paid, as you will feel richer for all your efforts.
YOSEMITE DECIMAL SYSTEM (YDS)
To better understand how trails are measured, you would only have to look to the Yosemite decimal system. It is used for rating the difficulty of walks, scrambles and climbs. Primarily used in mountaineering circles, it is the standard by which everyone should have familiarity with. Just remember, for every flat trail walked, it is 1.0, and for the climber going vertical, it is 5.0. In other words, between walking and climbing, everything’s a scramble. It really is. Anything above grade in elevation is climbing, and that is what differentiates this from a hike. Elevation, simply put, refers to the sum of every gain you take in the mountains. For example, if you were to start at an elevation of 6,000 ft, and your goal was to reach a summit of 10,000, just minus the starting elevation from the cumulative elevation, and it will give you a total of 4,000 ft. That number would represent your total effort needed to get to the top. That is why a five mile climb in the mountains will feel like ten, as the elevation you gain will always double all your efforts. On average, trails in the mountains are in the 3 to 4.0 range, with the exception being that of the least accessible ones in which rope and harness are required.
ON TO ONTARIO
With every peak comes a personality unique unto itself. Ontario is no exception, as it is just one in a lineage of many that dominate the San Gabriel mountain range. It is named after the city of Ontario which is located twelve miles due south from where it looms larger than life. Keep in mind that the prominence of a mountain doesn’t necessarily dictate its difficulty at climbing it. Apart from the route and terrain, it really comes down to the elevation you gain. No sooner then you start the hike through Icehouse Canyon, you’ll notice a gradual ascent. Talus and scree make for a more tiring jaunt, as you step up and over in what seems like an endless barrage of rock and debris. In contrast, within the first mile and a half, you will marvel under canopies of Alders, Pines, Maples and Oaks, providing you with a pleasant distraction away from the trail. It was in this very canyon where I came upon my first giant Incense-Cedar. With a diameter of 36 to 48 inches, they could easily be mistaken for giant Redwoods. Coupled with the fact that they can grow to a staggering height of 80 to 100 feet is intimidating to say the least.
Along the canyon floor you’ll find cabins among the ruins of a time gone by. Start early enough and you’ll catch a whiff of harvested oaks bellowing from their chimney stacks. Nothing else would seem better, but then you’ll come across that stretch of trail where Western Columbines immerse you with their brilliant colors of red and yellow flowers, further heightened during the summer months. The wonderful thing about this canyon trail is the fact that you could hike it everyday for a week and never experience the same thing twice. I’ve seen my share of wildlife here take to the streams at the break of dawn as well as in the cover of night. How about my first snake? You know the one that was caught and carried off by an owl. Unscripted and wild… the early bird does get the worm. Trudging along you’ll enter the Cucamonga Wilderness. Not so much as the posted sign would suggest, but a reminder that everything out here is totally wild. You have now reached the half way point of a 3.6 mile trek to Icehouse Saddle.
As you leave the confines of the canyon, you will come upon a dried out wash full of boulders and rocks, where you will follow the obvious, and eventually find your way back on a well maintained Icehouse trail. From here it’s a steady climb where switchbacks are used to get you higher up the mountain. Stands of Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines become more frequent, along with the ever present Spanish bayonets of yucca that are as much Southern Californian as Disneyland. What makes this section of trail very special is the fact that an active spring exist, and its water is safe to drink right from the tap. The flow passes from underneath, pressurized through tons of sand and debris that serve as a natural filtration system. It is aptly named Columbine Spring for the perennial flower that thrives there from the seepage running through its rocky soil.
Well known potable sources such as this are always to you benefit, as it is better than any water cache you could ever haul up yourself…
and it is always cold and ready to drink.
BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN
As you approach treeline, you will find yourself at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. You will come to a fork and at which point it is only 0.6 mi to the saddle. On a windy day, Jeffrey pine trees give off an aroma reminiscent of vanilla butterscotch that will heighten your senses even more. It is now four hundred feet of gain that separates you from the saddle. Kicking it in gear, you will reach the pass where fallen trees and fellow hikers give you a chance to catch your breath and take in some fuel and conversation. Icehouse Saddle for many, marks the destination for an out and back day hike, but for the rest of us, it is the entry point to various trails that will take you further along to where you need to go. The Three T’s to the north, Cucamonga Peak to the east, and on the agenda for today, Ontario Peak to the south.
If it were at all possible to enjoy the hardships of the mountains, it would come by way of panoramic visuals and the occasional inner voice of motivation. Experience has taught me how to walk and breathe properly above treeline, as it is necessary to continue with every gain. Headaches and cramps are the main culprits due to the thin air involved with elevation hiking. To help you along, take in fluids, such as Gatorade and other sports drinks, that are high in electrolytes and chlorides which are the primaries that are lost from the body through sweat. When it comes to food, high contents of sodium, protein and vitamin C, to name but a few, are the perfect fuel choices to have in that trail mix. Again, re-learning to breathe with every step is crucial. The idea here is to force oxygen in your lungs at such a rate, that it would match that under normal conditions. When it counts, I like to keep a rhythm going, breathing in and out through my nose, as I gain in elevation. With this simple method, it will help maintain oxygen in the blood and help regulate the build up of lactic acid in the muscles.
If there is one piece of gear I carry that is seldom used, that would be my sunglasses. For those who know me well, I’m never without my camera, and my glasses just get in the way of opportunities for a shot. What I found very useful whenever I’m out in exposure is the use of eye black. It allows me the freedom to see without hindrance. You can find this stuff just about anywhere in the mountains in the form of charcoal, courtesy of lightning strikes and campfires. Simply break a piece off in your hand, and using a rock, grind it down into a powder. By using spit in the mix, it will go on thicker and darker, giving you an anti-glare solution that really works.
You will soon reach Kelly Camp en route to Ontario ridge. This landmark once shared time as a trail resort, and now resides as a popular destination for backpackers and the like.
As you reach treeline, you will notice a change in elevation as your breathing gets heavier. The presence of Lodgepole pines will confirm that you are at 8,000 feet.
This evergreen conifer was known for its long straight lumber used in the building of cabins and structures in the past. Hence the name Lodgepole Pine.
After about a quarter of a mile from Kelly camp, you will reach Ontario ridge. It is here where you will get your first glimpse of the San Gabriel Valley as it opens up to the south. The plaque reads, ”Big Horn Peak Trail 7W08A,” Big Horn Peak 3/4, Ontario Peak 1.1.
You are actually standing on the mountain of Ontario itself. Totally exposed, you are now at the mercy of the sun and high winds, should they threaten. From here you are two false summits away of reaching your goal.
FAST FOOD… NOT SO FAST
Also known as the sugar ant, these carpenter’s get their name for what they do with the wood. Dead wood to be exact, as they use their large mandibles to tunnel, creating a series of nesting chambers in which to colonize. Contrary to popular belief, they do not eat the wood because of their inability to digest the cellulose.
As for myself, I have no problems with cellulose nor insects. So in keeping with the practice, I guess that would make me an entomophagist. For all intent and purposes, if alternative food sources present themselves, I’m an opportunist. My thing is to keep it going.
THE FINAL APPROACH
There’s nothing more exciting then an approach to a peak. Whether it be by the more difficult route of Falling Rock Canyon, or the classic Icehouse trail from which I came.
The feeling I get standing on a peak of 8,693 feet is no different then if I were at 3,000 or even 14,000 feet. Accomplishment comes to mind, along with, hard work, confidence and even risk. To say the rewards are worth it is an understatement. For me it runs deeper then that, as it’s more of a connection with spirits, kindred and creation alike, that keep me going.
What is a summit without a register? A summit without a register. All kidding aside. Ammo cans, tupperware, and even a plastic zip-lock bag have taken the place of the good ol’ coffee can. You would be fortunate to find a metal coffee can as it has its place in history. They don’t make them anymore. Ontario has one, and it’s the same one that I remembered it to be some seven years ago. They can usually be found hidden under rocks at obvious locations on the peak. Packed with pencils and notepads, they are there for you to leave paper trails for others to read. I usually leave items such as chapstick, rubber bands and snacks to serve as a cache. I’ve actually benefited from someone’s thoughtfulness and it’s only right to keep the tradition.
More times then not, it’s the daunting task of an out and back hike that can soon take over an otherwise euphoric state. What goes up, clearly must come down, and in the mountains, you’ll soon find out that it was easier going up then it was coming down. But sometimes fate, destiny if you will, interferes with your plans for pity, and clears a path for two spirits to engage at a chance meeting. I’m still not any wiser for it, just older and fortunate, because today was the day I had icing on the cake.