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We were up before 6a, having spent the night in our cars on the side of Highway 138 at Lake View Point in the middle of the San Bernardino Mtns. We hadn't slept all that soundly due to the holiday traffic coursing back and forth along the highway and our own (ok, my) less-than-brilliant choice of a bivy spot. No matter, we had some climbing to do.
Today was a designated snowshoe affair after the silly hikes to a bunch of easy peaks the previous day. Crafts and Butler had been ground zero for a major fire two and a half years ago that swept over the area, dubbed the Butler Fire. On a previous visit the approach routes had been closed by the Forest Service and I had to skip these two peaks. Back for a second time, Tom and I planned to take the scenic route up from Lake View Point (named for the view of Big Bear Lake to the east).
Our snowshoes were strapped to our packs as we headed up the firebreak just before 6:30a. We were only hiking for about ten minutes before we ran out of dry ground and had to make our way over snow. It had gotten to just below freezing overnight, so the snow we found was hard with just enough traction to walk easily over with boots. Another ten or fifteen minutes later and we were starting to punch through occasionally and I quickly called a halt to pull out the snowshoes. Under the trees the snow had not been subjected to the same freeze-thaw cycles that the more exposed slopes had undergone, making it less consolidated - but decent for snowshoeing as we found out.
Once we had the snowshoes on, we spent the next hour motoring our way up to Crafts. It was a fine, sunny day with views to Butler as we gained altitude and better views once we reached Crafts. We signed into a register we found in a small cairn, taking in the views and a break at the same time. Ten minutes later we were heading down the east side of Crafts on our way to Butler a bit more than a mile further east. We dropped to a shallow saddle before starting our back up the north side of the ridge with the sun in our eyes. To our left swept out the dry northern peaks of the range and the far drier Mojave desert, in marked constrast to the ample snow we were treading. The HPS guide suggests this route can be quite brushy without adequate snow coverage, but the fire seems to have made the snow optional for the next few years.
The rocky summit of Butler is crowned with an old wooden lookout tower, saved from destruction in the fire by a few well-placed aerial drops, no doubt. This was made evident by noting the trees immediately around the tower were the only ones in the wide area that were untouched by the flames. We took off our snowshoes and climbed to the upper deck surrounding the cabin, with even better views in all directions than Crafts. We took a longer break on the south side of the cabin, using the tower to block the chilly wind blowing over the crest from the north. A nearby benchmark is labeled "CRAFTS NO.1". I spent some time trying to talk Tom into continuing east (solo) to pick up Grays Peak, the third of three HPS peaks along this crest. Since I had already climbed the peak previously, I offered to return to the car and pick him up at Big Bear Lake. Our maps did not quite cover the region around Grays, but we were able to guess fairly well which of several possible bumps was the summit. Tom gave it much consideration but decided against the venture as a bit too unsure.
After half an hour at the summit we beat a retreat via the same route. The only significant elevation gain was the climb back up to Crafts and we managed to get back to our vehicles within an hour and a half of leaving Butler. A USFS officer was busy writing tickets to nearby cars without Adventure Passes displayed on their windows. Another one was on the opposite side of the highway doing the same. Luckily, we had ours and he simply wished us a good day.
We drove on to Big Bear where we stopped in town to get some hot water for our shower later in the day. The holiday traffic was evident on the drive and the crush of folks milling about town doing those things one does before Christmas and while enjoying their holiday. I found it all rather stifling and was glad to get away from this favorite LA vacation spot. We headed east out of town and then south on SR38 on our way up to Onyx Summit. At over 8,400ft it is the highest paved through-road in Southern California. Our objective was on the east side of the road, Onyx Peak. There is a large turnout here, a popular stop for snow-play to and from Big Bear. We used this as our starting point for the 3/4 mile trek to the summit.
Using snowshoes from the start, we headed up the snow-packed road being used as a sled route by one enterprising family as we went by. Where the road turns sharply left we continued straight, past the PCT and climbing a gully leading up the southwest side of the peak. We began to run out of snow as we landed on the sun-exposed south slope and made our way up. I must have taken off and then put back on the snowshoes a half dozen times in the last two hundred yards to the summit. Tired of following my lead, Tom struck off in a slightly different route, less direct but fewer changes of foot gear. There was no real time savings for either approach to the problem.
The summit is large, somewhat flat, and peppered with trees to prevent views of more than about 120 degrees at any one point. There are several communication installations and we found the benchmark and an HPS register at the northernmost of these amid a small pile of rocks. Not an impressive peak, we decided. It had taken all of 40 minutes to reach the summit and about 25 minutes to get back down. We avoided the dry patches of ground by heading off the northwest side of the peak where the snow was more plentiful.
It was 1:30p when we returned to the parking lot at Onyx Summit and we spent the next hour driving to the trailhead for Contance Peak. It is located about 20mi further west down SR38 at the town of Angeles Oaks. We left the van in the post office parking lot and took Tom's car out on the dirt road leading to the peak, according to the HPS guide. There was some significant snow on the road making us surprised that it hadn't been gated shut, but Tom managed to negotiate the worst of it without mishap to reach the drier parts of the road immediately east and below the peak. It took us not quite 30 minutes to claw our way up the short but steep distance between our car and the summit. No trail, only a little snow on the side we climbed, and little bushwhacking thanks to the use trail we found once we reached the chaparral-covered southeast ridge. We found a register to sign and took in the sights - Keller, Crafts, & Butler to the north, East San Bernardino Peak to the east, the hazy LA Basin to the south. Another ho-hum peak, but better than Onyx.
Driving south from Angeles Oaks we stopped at the last bridge over Mill Creek, before the road straightens out and enters the more suburban landscape. The bridge was colorfully inscribed in classic LA graffiti, and it was under the bridge that we took our showers out of view of the passing motorists. We had a delicious Thai dinner in Mentone and made plans to visit the east side of the range the next day for another group of HPS peaks found there. After dinner we headed east to Beaumont on I-10 where we spent the night in a deserted dirt lot off SR78. It was not the quietiest choice (not far enough off the highway), but better than the roadside spot we'd spent the previous night, and I slept much better.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Crafts Peak - Butler Peak - Onyx Peak - Constance Peak
This page last updated: Tue Jan 12 09:07:21 2010
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