Of all people, it wasn’t suppose to happen to me. Am I not the experienced one? Don’t I practice what I preach? That morning started oddly enough, and to make matters worse, not much in way of preparation, as it was an outing I clearly wasn’t ready for. The decision to climb Rattlesnake Peak came in what I like to call a ”detour day.” That’s when a planned trip is foiled by circumstance and an alternate is born from sheer randomness. I was set for a trip through the Narrows of the East Fork River for some exploring, when an ongoing construction project changed everything. Still, the early morning hour was on my side, and all that was needed was to redirect my efforts elsewhere.
THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
I decided to keep the hike within the area of challenge, so pulling out my trusty map, I came upon Rattlesnake Peak. Just the thought of a new mountain to summit was well enough to set everything in motion. My memory of this particular jaunt puts it at a cross country, ridge climbing monster that only a masochist could love… and so I’ve heard. The trailhead can be found at the end of Shoemaker Road, located high above the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.
This place holds not only interesting exploring options, but historic events that date back to the cold war era of the late 1950’s. It was during that time that our government decided that the city of Los Angeles needed an escape route to the high desert in case of a nuclear attack. Well, the project was eventually abandoned with time as the threat waned, leaving behind a road that ventures two and a half miles through two man-made tunnels to nowhere.
Along the trail I found an empty water bottle beaded with condensation giving me the idea for a solar still. I’ve always wanted to try one and here was my opportunity, as there really is no time like the present. The idea here is to trap moisture in a confined area and to collect it in the form of a slow drip that will eventually produce water. It’s an extreme method used in survival situations that have produced results. This would be my first attempt at one in the wild.
I cut the bottle about a quarter from the top and dug a hole, where I placed it in the center to serve as a catch. Next, I arranged some local vegetation around the bottle and covered it with a plastic sheet. I then sealed it off with some dirt making it air tight, using rocks to keep it in place. This will help in the process as things start to heat up, as convection will force moisture onto the plastic from within. You will need to place some weight on top of the sheet to create a dip in the center. This will allow gravity to work the build up of condensation to travel down and drip into the catch. That’s the idea anyhow.
Sounds easy enough, but you will need to create a dozen or so of these just to make it worth your while. Unbeknownst to me, this particular still, if anything else, would come to symbolize my struggles for lack of water that day. It was also a reminder of how much stronger the mind is compared to the body. For me anyhow, cause and effect knows no ego, and so I was introduced. Out here the mountains are measured not in height, but rather in elevation gain. Coupled with the fact that a sudden change in the elements can be deadly through the likes of exposure, and will always be an added burden to you. To say I got away with this one is to humbly tell my story of how a mountain will always be bigger than any ego. You might get lucky sometimes, and this was one of those times.
ON THE HEELS OF A SNAKE
About a mile and a half of hiking Shoemaker road, you will want to look for mile marker 3.39. There will be a spur that scrambles up to a trail that officially starts the climb. This adventure is put at an 8.5 mile out and back, with an elevation gain of 3,526. That translates to 830 feet per mile, and it’s just over 4 mi to the summit. We’re talking steep, but it doesn’t account for the ridgeline you have to tackle. Among other things, there’s the terrain and overgrowth that’s synonymous with cross country hiking, as you’ll find yourself dodging yucca and going through thorny bushes of all sorts. The good news is that’s the least of your worries, as confrontation with wildlife is just that… wild.
NOT SO FAST
Such was the case for this striped racer that happen to cross my path. No sooner then I saw it, I stepped on it and killed it. By far the fastest of snakes in these parts, it just wasn’t fast enough to get out of harms way. In practice, it’s always good to pay attention on your lead foot forward. Snakes can be found absorbing heat from the sun baked ground, especially on trails much traveled. This was just a chance meeting with the unfortunate racer, but fortunately for me it wasn’t a rattler.
With good footing and no serious obstacles to speak of, in about half a mile or so, you will come to what seems like the end of a trail. To your left and sloping up is the start of the SW ridge that we will simply call, “Rattlesnake Ridge.” It starts off with what looks like a firebreak, but in actuality, it appears to be more like a spur trail that has been pounded down from casual usage. Remember, it doesn’t take much to void the ground of vegetation.
This line of visual will help give you a trail to follow, as everything else should be obvious. It is here where you start to feel the gain, and the higher you go, the more dense the brush will be. Living in SoCal has its privileges, as you can wear shorts anytime or anywhere throughout the year, even in the mountains. I always wear shorts, but in times like this, I have been known to zip on the trousers. You really don’t want to look worse for wear, as I’ve got the scars to prove it. From here on the gain becomes apparent, just like the ridge that outlines its way to the peak.
SO CLOSE, AND YET SO FAR AWAY
Closing in on two miles, I’m feeling the heat. The exposure came so early and often that I changed in favor of a long sleeve shirt to help regulate my body temperature through sweating. With minimal shade, I took refuge under a small mountain mahogany, and it’s then that I realize my canteen is half full. That’s half a quart, that’s a bottle of water.
PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
With no reserves to speak of, I knew to continue on would be risky. My lack of water can be traced back to the abundance the East Fork river would’ve provided, had I been able to follow through on my original plan earlier in the day. I shouldn’t even be up here, but the longer I sat, the more I convinced myself that I could do this. I know my body and my limits, but this would be pushing it. Up here in elevation country, it’s a totally different animal. With no known water sources, you would have to bring a lot of it. On long drawn out days in the mountains, I usually cache water within reachable vantage points. Without those targets, my situation was predictable. There’s no voice of reason when you hike alone.
With no foreseeable shade, countless obstacles, and a peak that seems to elude you with every step… it was a go. Ah, the dare of a challenge, I fall for it every time. Out here, for me anyhow, to experience the moment is to be in the moment. That’s what it’s all about, right? In hindsight, although I was committed, I always knew that I could turn back and call it a day. That was the problem. The more I thought about it, the further I went along. Now what could be worse then exposure from the sun, how about a variety of flying insects. You know the type, the ones that bug you to no end.
By my guesstimation, I’m standing at 4,000 feet. To the NE looming larger than life is Iron Mountain and Mount San Antonio, (Baldy) the tallest peak in L.A. county standing at 10,064 feet. As I stated earlier, it doesn’t have to be the tallest to be the most difficult. Like Iron Mountain, Rattlesnake Peak consist of several gains and losses that are typical of ridge climbs. A game of perspective can be cruel, as you climb only to find yourself on a false summit.
From this point on you’ll begin a series of what I like to call, “rollercoasters.” This particular one scrambles down to a saddle where it picks up on a climb that’s higher then the last one. Sometimes you can find yourself scrambling and even climbing over exposed rock that line the path. If there’s one thing that I’m still getting use to, it’s the sound of scurrying lizards, birds and small mammals that inhabit the area. Of interesting note, I’ve actually encountered a bee colony in and around an outcrop of rocks. With the exception of a few hovering about, I could hear the sound of a swarm the closer I got.
I know there are serveral hundred species of bees that are native to California, and the majority of them are solitary. But up here in the mountains they could end up restricted, as they survive on a variety of natives, such as Manzanita, California Buckwheat and Ceanothus, to name but just a few. So long as there are resources, they will never travel far and will call that outcrop home. In order to continue climbing, I had to get pass the bees. Ignoring a possible threat, I in turn made every effort to not be a threat by moving ahead as quickly as possible. Never looking back, I was well on my way.
Sometimes yucca can grow in the most unusual places. This particular one was right on the ridgeline I was following. It’s not rocket science… You just have to go around it.
Nothing that a death grip can’t handle. Just get good purchase and don’t fall.
As the heat intensified, so did my situation. I started getting real bad headaches. In my pack I went for the meds that didn’t exist, so in an attempt to take the edge off, I soaked my bandana with what water I had left in lieu of hydration. I just kept thinking heat stroke, really? The wetted down bandana made a big difference, as I felt the instant coolness off the top. This was the point where doubt set in, as I stood there looking at the peak. This was my moment and I was definitely living in it.
ARE WE THERE YET?
Feeling relieved, I was determined to summit. I thought to myself, I’ll just bag it, take a few shots and be on my way, leaving the worries of my descent for after the fact. Trudging along in what seemed like forever, there appeared to be another false summit. Could that be the actual peak? It had to be, because there was nothing else higher around it. The closer I got I could make out the marker that stood dead center, no doubt of the man-made variety. I had finally made it.
Instinctively I looked around for the summit register, as it serves as a sort of tangible way to be bonded with the mountain forever. If there happen to be one it can usually be found under a pile of rocks… such was the case. Due to the nature of this hike I wasn’t expecting too many entries, and I was right. I was hoping to find a bottle of water in that container, but all I found was a pen, rubber bands and a little cup… that was strange. The peak is small and void of shade, but offers an incredible 360 degree view of the San Gabriels.
I made good on my word and only stayed long enough for a little snooze. All but fifteen minutes. It was time to head back, but not before committing to a plan. By this time it was high noon, the worst place to be on a mountain top when it comes to exposure. It was already decided for me that I would descend 4 mi without water. Food wasn’t a problem, as I had an adequate supply. If you would consider trail bars for example, the longer you chew on them, the more you build up saliva that can hydrate you. If you run out of food, you can simply chew on leaves for the same results. Just don’t eat them.
No sooner then I started my descent, I started to cramp up. I did everything from massage to rapid intake breathing to curb the pain. I knew why I was cramping, it was because of my lack of fluids. I was overworked and exposed to extreme temperatures, furthering the process of dehydration to my muscles. Not to mention that the lack of water also dealt me a second blow. I had no way to cool down the recurring headaches I was experiencing.
When it rains it really pours, oh how I wish it were so. It got so bad that I had to find shade and seek cover several times. The combination of cramps and heat exhaustion is painfully unforgiving. I thought of hanging out till sunset and continue my efforts during cooler temps, but I didn’t feel I could sustain relief from the pounding headaches for that long. That’s when I had this crazy idea to wet down my bandana with urine. Desperate is what desperate does.
YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT UNTIL URINE IT
This visual of the ridge, (highlighted in orange) was more than enough motivation to utilize every drop on the way down. In total, I did it three times and I can tell you, in spite of the smell and the insects, it really worked for me. With every breeze came relief as the wet bandana cooled my head, neck and face. I even dabbed some on my lips
Looking more like a mountain in its own right, it is just a bump on a ridge. It was actually the last one in a series of “rollercoasters” before hitting the final leg of the descent.
Overall, nothing beats familiarity with a well known visual. Bearing down on one of the man-made tunnels built during the cold war era.
From time to time you’ll come across the little things in life just by observing. Silent and still, this young Horned Toad Lizard seems to be sharing the same thought.
I never miss an opportunity to get in touch with the little things in life. We both share a world of wonderment we do.
At long last, the view of Shoemaker Road was just as beautiful as the summit approach. By this time I was all out of fluids. There was nothing left in the tank. All that remained was the faint smell of urine. I must have smelled worse then I looked.
I eventually made my way up to what was left of the solar still. I don’t know why, but all I kept thinking about was how great that water was gonna taste. It felt like Christmas as I opened the hole to see what was inside. There at the bottom of the bottle was a larvae of some kind and a drop of water.
Not to be undone, I gave it a good swirl and chugged it down. Nothing like a drop of protein water to save the day.
If I learned anything, it was being humbled. Like I stated early on, I was in no way prepared for this trip. There’s a very fine line between risk and reward. Somewhere in the mix you would have to weigh out the differences, because all things have balance and have to equal out. I use to be of the mindset that life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. So if I may reiterate, life doesn’t have to be daring to be adventurous. It just has to be enjoyed. I thought I’d pass that on.