IN THE HEAT OF BATTLE… A MEMORANDUM
Rewind to August 26th of 2009 and you’ll read about the Station Fire. It was to go down as the largest and deadliest of wildfires to hit the San Gabriel Mountains ever. Wildfires that happen under natural causes, i.e. lightning strikes… I get that, but at the hands of an arsonist, I will never understand. When it was all said and done, the station fire claimed over 160,557 acres of Angeles National Forest.
After two long months, Hwy 2 reopened on October 16th of that year. It was a time of awakening, as my passion for hiking grew even stronger. There was so much to learn and I felt a real sense of obligation, not only to myself, but to others. In times of disaster, as in the case of the Station Fire, it can only be overshadowed by tragedy. During that time tragedy did strike as two firefighters ultimately lost their lives in the melee. In hindsight, we must view honor as more then remembrance. It is through your actions in everything you do that speaks louder then words. That is the way to always honor them. In keeping with their spirit, I dedicate this write up to their memory and to say thank you to all firefighters.
STRAWBERRY PEAK FOREVER
Fast forward to December 12, 2016. Seven years have passed and I find myself on the Colby Canyon Trail once again. This would make it my second time on Strawberry via the west face, also known as the mountaineer’s route. This second time, or should I say second chance, was to make good on my failure to complete the loop around the mountain the first time. The objective here was the same as before. To hike, climb, top out and loop back. This time in the direction of Strawberry Meadows, which would be the trail opposite the one I took that fateful day.
Early canyon hikes in the shade are extremely cold in winter, and by fall standards, 10 a.m. is late for a hike of this magnitude. It was still cold and considering the late start, I knew I would be coming back in the dark. This time around it felt more like a mission. You know, unfinished business. I was determined to summit and complete the loop back to Colby Canyon, with the chance of getting back in some daylight. The trail going in has definitely seen better days and evidence of the Station Fire, juxtapose with new life, peers at you like a ghost from the past.
The half way point to the saddle finds you out of the canyon and into exposure throughout the rest of the climb. This is where the view to Strawberry’s ridgeline becomes apparent and intimidating. I’ve spent some time studying photos and observing possible routes for a south face approach to the peak. Nothing that would warrant technical, but class 3 scrambling, with a bit of climbing would definitely be in order.
After a steady climb up a series of switchbacks, that landmark of a water tank comes into view letting you know that you have reached Josephine Saddle. This particular water tank is unique in that it has a recessed top with a hole in the middle. It would be safe to say that it works as a rain catch as well. Varying in design, you can find these water tanks throughout the front range near trails and firebreaks.
TRAIL TO RIDGE
Once on the saddle you’ll find two obvious trails. The one heading west will take you to Josephine Peak and the trail facing north is the way to Strawberry.
No sooner then you start the ascent, you will notice that bike tracks line the main trail forward, as this serves as a popular destination for mountain biking. Just as you round the corner facing north, you will find footprints heading up a spur trail to the right.
This is the start of Strawberry ridge.
Traversing the ridge at over a quarter mile, you will see an out crop of rocks in the distance. This will be the first of two class 3 scrambles you need to negotiate.
Along the way you’ll catch a glimpse of the incredible outline of Strawberry Peak.
The crest for the most part was carpeted with overgrowth, as dead fall hindered the trail, but it was the visuals through the dead standing trees that beckoned you forward.
UP AN OVER…
As in down climb, to cross a boulder field to get to the other side. This area alone holds many exploring opportunities. Where the boulder field bottoms out, you can actually see a way down the north face to the meadows below. It would make for an epic scramble and worth looking into one day.
STRAWBERRY ON THE ROCKS
It was unusually calm as I got to the shoulder, especially for an exposed mountain ridge such as Strawberry’s. I was just revisiting in thought the last time I was up here in all that wind. You couldn’t have asked for a better day in December, as I layered off and went right for the rock. On the way, I found myself on a different route then I last remembered. There was nothing that I haven’t seen before that would prevent me from climbing, it was just a matter of footing and holds. Whether on route or lead, you’re bound to top out sooner or later.
STRAWBERRY PEAK 6,164′
The west approach of Strawberry is very climatic due to the nature of the route taken to get there. Of the lower great peaks, this is by far one of the best hikes in the the San Gabriel Mountains.
WHAT’S IN A REGISTER?
Was there ever a time when things were respected? Before borders were fenced and rivers were tainted?
The simple function of a register is to log or memoir the event for others to experience and share. Just a year ago I was up here doing just that, but that would no longer be the case for the next person(s). The ammo can register was all that was left and if it weren’t for the chain that anchored it down, it too would be gone. I’m sure of it. To say vandalism belongs up there with arson, might be a stretch, but you could look at it as an example of the lesser evil that people do. It’s evil with intent. How then would you define character? Choose to be a person of character instead.
IN THE SPIRIT…
As in alcohol stove. That’s the spirit. The play on words are fun, but that’s the idea. From the time I first heard of them, I’ve always wanted to try it. So I made myself an alcohol stove. It started off easy enough till I ended up chasing several designs. The stove itself started life as an aluminum can. Varying in shape and style, it is the method in which you will use to burn your fuel. That fuel is denatured alcohol. Denatured alcohol is ethanol made poisonous by adding methanol, which is primarily used as a solvent for cleaning, as it evaporates quickly. In keeping with the theme, I made most of the components alcohol related. The stove, the beer can pot with lid, windscreen, a capped bottleneck jet burner and my favorite…a Crown Royal pouch to carry it all. Like everyone involved, I’m still experimenting and working very hard to find a home for it in my kit. No doubt a lot of fun for car camping, but as it stands, I’ll continue to use the fire box.
THE LONG AND WINDING TRAIL
A DATE WITH JOSEPHINE
This would be the section of trail where I covered a lot of ground. To traverse along a mountain is a stroll in the park, compared to ridge climbing and switchbacks. In what I like to call, “Double for the Trouble”, mountain miles can be simply put like this. Anytime you find yourself in elevation, a one mile of gain feels like two. In the mountains, a two mile an hour pace is really moving. With four hours till sunset, I had eight miles to cover just to get to Josephine Saddle, with another 2.2 miles to get off the mountain and down through Colby Canyon… in the dark.
A TALE OF TWO TRAILS (Revisited)
This is the first of two trail signs that threw me off that fateful day. I did recall thinking bridge trail as odd, as I needed to get on the Colby Canyon Trail.
As ornate as the signs were, it left much to be desired. What they overlooked was Josephine Saddle, which could’ve easily been added right below Strawberry Meadow on the posted sign. It even had an arrow pointing in the right direction. Like all things after the fact, the things I could’ve done, I didn’t do. So I took the wrong trail.
THE WIZARD OF LOST
I can officially say for the record, on that fateful day, I got lost. You know you are when you’re no longer in denial. The option to back track was always there, but because of the added miles, the time and the fact I didn’t have my torch, I could easily be spending the night out here. All things considered, that would be my plan.
After much bush whacking, I eventually caught a break. Through the dead standing forest of trees, I saw roads traversing mountainsides. There was this ridge that descended into what would be my way out. I then made the decision to get off the mountain with every attempt to hitch a ride back from wherever I was.
My travels took me through a deserted camp, which I found later to be a year-round facility run and owned by the United Methodist Church. Just north of the camp was Tujunga Canyon Road, which I’ve heard of but never been on, until now.
I took to the road and before long I saw the sign for Angeles Forest Hwy. I’ve been down that stretch before and knew my chances were greater on a major by-way. After a mile of trudging, to my relief, I saw what looked to be a ranger station in the distance. “That would be my way out”, I thought to myself. Well, that ranger station turned out to be the Monte Cristo Fire Station and to my surprise, nobody was home.
From the time I set foot on the wrong trail that fateful day, I traveled six miles off course to the fire station. It would take another 8.2 miles on Angeles Forest Hwy just to get back to the Colby Canyon trailhead off Hwy 2. With the sun setting overhead and no torch to light the way, a trek on a mountain by-way on an incline is tough, if not insane. My only other option, which I never condone, was to hitch a ride.
Fast forward to a year later and I find myself at the crossroads once again. This time on the right trail. My lasting impression of the meadows that day was how eerily similar Strawberry Peak was to Half Dome as viewed from the valley floor. It holds its own in many ways and would be a great destination for backpacking.
The deeper I ventured the colder it got. I was now without the company of the setting sun. By all guesstimation, it would be safe to say I had a solid hour of daylight to cover 3.0 miles just to get to Josephine Saddle.
Coined by the prospectors of the day, leaverite derives from the phrase, “Leave it right there”, in regards to minerals of no particular value. It has also been used to describe an unmovable object.
BACK ON TRACK
SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR
The most beautiful sight up to this point was Josephine. Always good to see a familiar face, right? I did have the advantage of elevation being that I was well above the horizon line. Although, once I start the descent into Colby Canyon, what’s left of the sun would be blocked out by the surrounding mountains.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
Once I got to the saddle, I layered on and grabbed my torch. At this point I was really tired and running on adrenaline. I did achieve my goal of getting there before sunset, but like a promise made to be kept, there was a dark and cold canyon waiting for me.
INTO THE ABYSS
What I lost in elevation, I gained in utmost darkness. Even with a torch, negotiating the uneven rocky terrain was challenging enough, as it brought me to a snails pace. Then looking down into the abyss, I saw lights fading in and out as if a search and rescue where in progress. Turns out that they were on the descent as well, as the torches followed their every turning head movement just to stay the course. After a while, I never saw them again.
I finally made it back to the Colby Canyon trailhead without incident or fanfare to speak of. Just my Subee, as in Crosstrek, waiting to take us home. More then a feeling of elation, but rather more of closure, as I came full circle, no pun intended, to realize the loop around Strawberry Peak. Success travels the trail of failure and always picks up where it left off. You just got to get back on it and move forward. That’s all I did. Which brings me back to that fateful day of November 17, 2015…
I just wanted to say thank you one last time to the gentleman who did stop to give me a ride back to the trailhead. On that eight mile drive we shared the very short condensed version of our lives, where at that moment we both came away feeling as if we’ve know each other for a long time. To call him a hero, he wanted nothing to do with that. He said it was the right thing to do for somebody in need, and I am willing to help. No, I’m no hero, he would say. Maybe not, but he is definitely a man of character.