Smith Mountain P750 HPS
Jones Peak LPC
Hastings Peak LPC
Mt. Yale LPC

Wed, Dec 16, 2009
Smith Mountain
Mt. Yale
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

I would probably have driven to Southern California during the night in order to get an early start, but I had to take the family to the airport at 5a for their 6a flight to Tampa, FL where they were to spend the week with relatives. I had plans to head south during this time and spend it chasing HPS peaks in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mtns. So it was 5:30a before I was able to leave San Jose and almost 11:30a before I pulled up to the gate on Highway 39 along the San Gabriel River. The HPS website had marked Smith Mtn as "suspended" due to the fires that closed much of the western San Gabriels. I was hoping that Smith might be accessible still, though perhaps with a bit more mileage required in the effort to reach it. Happily, this turned out to be the case.

I watched a snowplow driver unlock the gate and drive up the highway (after re-locking it) while I pulled over in the wide turnout before the gate. Well before I was ready to go, a USFS truck came back down the road, the driver struggling to get the lock back off. The other driver soon came back down, and the two of them tried various methods to unjam the lock that the one had somehow managed to mangle. A sign just past the gate was very clear that no pedestrians or cyclists were welcome past that point, but neither driver seemed to care as I hiked past them after my stopping to give some measure of empathy and encouragement to their plight.

I began hiking up the road, knowing I had about four miles to go just to reach the normal HPS start for Smith. It didn't take long for me to note this was a rather circuitous route around to the north side of the peak which was staring down at me only a few miles away on the left. Might there not be a shorter way to reach the summit? I spied portions of a firebreak leading up to Pt. 3,732ft on its southeast side. When I reached the starting point for this at a bend in the road marked Bichota Mesa on the map, I paused to consider the wisdom of taking the unknown route. Another look at the road snaking its way for miles up the San Gabriel River was enough to convince me to give the alternate a try.

I wandered across the large flat area left of the road and started up the firebreak along the ridgeline on the opposite side. It led up to a telephone pole (where I was half-afraid the break would end), then happily further up to Pt. 3,732ft. It was necessary to drop down a short distance to a saddle, then up the brushy east ridge of Pt. 4,693ft. The firebreak had ended at the saddle, but a duck offered encouragement to continue. In climbing up the steep slope, some class 3 rock was preferrable to the brushy parts and I took this option whenever possible. Though I found no use trail up from the saddle, some semi-random ducks just below Pt. 4,693ft began to appear. They didn't seem of any value on the way up, but perhaps would be of benefit to someone trying to head down the right way along this ridge?

From Pt. 4,693ft the summit of Smith was now visible and only 20 minutes away, made easier by the wide firebreak that had been recently plowed up Smith's South Ridge. It took almost exactly two hours to reach the summit at 5,111ft. The register dated only to September, all the entries by personnel involved in fighting the Station Fire or "rehabbing", as it was termed. It did not appear that the fire had reached this far east, though evidence of past fires could be easily discerned. Along with the old register can, the benchmark labeled "HEADLEE" had survived the plowing that had cleared most of the summit.

I decided to take another unknown route, the South Ridge, down from the summit since it looked to have been recently reworked as a firebreak. The clearest section was that at the top from Pt. 4,693ft upwards, along with a similar distance below the point. Below that it was still relatively easy to hike along (compared to the brushier East Ridge), but in places it looked like the cut manzanita and other brush had been piled into the trail to discourage the use of it as a hiking path. Possibly the firebreak had been cut in case the Station Fire had moved several more miles to the east, but from all I could tell the firebreak was never tested. It took about an hour and a half to descend the long South Ridge which dropped me onto the highway about half a mile below the locked gate. I hiked back up to the van where I found the the gate once again locked and nobody else around.

Though it had taken less than four hours, the late start meant I didn't have enough time to do nearby Rattlesnake as well, with enough daylight, anyway. Certainly I could have finished by headlamp, but most of the route is on use trail and I didn't know enough about the conditions I might find to ensure I could find my way back in the dark. So I drove back out to Azusa where I found a Starbucks to get an online connection. Once that was established, I looked for a suitable nearby peak I could at climb at night. Jones Peak from the LPC list seemed to fit the bill nicely - about three miles one way with 3,000ft of gain. I restoked the furnace with a couple of burgers from Jack in the Box and headed north to Bailey Canyon Park.

It was almost 6p and quite dark when I pulled into the neighborhood. The gate to the park was open but I didn't dare leave my car inside with posted hours of Sunrise to Sunset - I'd had enough of getting my car locked behind gates for the year. I left the van in front of one of the nearby residences and set off through the park.

I had no map, only the recollection of what I saw posted online from Google maps and other sources, and almost immediately got disoriented. I looked around the kiosks near the entrance, but they were only of marginal help. Eventually I found a side gate leading out of the park and onto a service road heading north which turned out to be the correct move. I headed past a small, empty reservoir and then into the darkened recesses of Bailey Canyon and proceeded to get lost a second time. I found myself hiking up a rather steep use trail through reeds and across avalanching dirt hillsides and picking my way through poison oak, a tricky art at night. This last bit of trouble convinced me I must be off-route so I went back down a hundred yards and tried again. This time I found the real trail and had no more trouble with it afterwards.

The trail up to Jones Peak is really delightful, once one manages to find it. It offers fine views of the city lights for much of the way as it climbs deep into, and then out of Bailey Canyon on the right side. After many switchbacks and more than an hour's effort, I finally came to a small saddle on the north side of Jones. A short but steep route up a firebreak on that side led to the summit. I found a small cairn, but no register. The views were grand looking over the greater LA Basin to the south.

Originally I had planned to go only as far as Jones, but feeling revived with the half-digested burgers, I decided to continue on to Hastings, about a mile further and another 600ft of gain. The Jones Peak Trail forked north up the firebreak to a sign indicating the Wilson Peak Trail. I wasn't sure if this trail would go to Hastings, so I stuck to the obvious firebreak, wide and recently cleared, that I knew led to Hastings.

Within half an hour I had reached Hastings (another LPC peak), marked by a square steel pole and a benchmark labeled "SIERRA MADRE". The city lights looked a bit more remote than they had from Jones, about 600 feet-worth, to be exact. It was only 8p and the weather was perhaps 50F or slightly less with a modest breeze grazing over the ridgelines - quite pleasant for the evening hike, and I decided to continue on to the last LPC peak in this line, Mt. Yale. It was another mile and some 700ft more gain, but I figured it would take about as long as it had for Hastings.

It ended up taking almost twice that long. Partly because there was more loss enroute to Yale than I had figured on, and partly because the last part is a bit tricky. After following the firebreak to the old Mt. Wilson Rd that climbs up to Mt. Wilson from the south, I followed along the easy road for some time. Too much time, it turned out. I had eyeballed the location of Mt. Yale in the dark and looked for a side trail heading off the road when I was around to the east side of the peak. I must have gone half a mile further north without ever finding the trail I was looking for. Did it exist? I hadn't remembered the info I had read on SummitPost earlier because it was kind of a long shot that I would get to Yale. I walked back down the road paying even closer attention, looking for a tell-tale duck or a breach in the steep wall made when the road was cut across the slope.

When I was below the saddle north of Mt. Yale, still finding no marked route, I headed up the steep slope into the thick brush above the road cut. It was fairly ugly going, but I eventually managed the short distance to reach the ridgeline and easier going. As I walked towards the summit about a hundred yards further south, I spotted a pink flagging tied to a branch off to my left. I noted this spot for my return. It was just before 9p when I landed atop the smallish summit of Mt. Yale. I had expected something more, perhaps an antenna or two like nearby, but higher, Mts. Harvard and Wilson. There was a small USDA Forest Service benchmark, but nothing more to be found. More city lights as well, but by now I was somewhat less wowed by the nighttime view of the cityscape.

Returning to the flagged tree branch, I found a steep and narrow path marked by more ribbons heading down to the road - this was the trail I had been looking for earlier. Back on the road I noted the now-obvious cairn marking the junction that I had missed - much easier to be seen in daylight. I spent another hour and a half retracing my route back down past Hastings and Jones, to Bailey Canyon Park. The gate was now locked and it was necessary to find a suitable place to escape, which was not difficult. From the looks of the fence which had been bent heavily downwards, it was common for hikers to be trapped up here after sunset, or perhaps common for the local teens to find need to gain entrance after dark. Perhaps both.

I drove back to Highway 39 and up to the TH for Rattlesnake Mtn, overlooking Heaton Flat and the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. It was nearly midnight by this time and long past the hour I should be getting to bed. I slept in the van at the TH parked in the flatest location I could find about the weedy and neglected parking area. More hiking on tap for the morning...


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