Cracking the Devil's spine

That view from the summit of Mt. Baldy, the highest in the San Gabriels, keeps me coming back every year: deserts to the north, San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto to the east and the great megalopolis to the south and west. On a good day you can see all the way to the ocean and Catalina Island. If it isn't a good day, you're still above the clouds and breathing crisp mountain air. It's a great place to be.

My first year as a Hawthorne High teacher in 1968, I began this Walk to the Top to celebrate the end of the school year. In May, I led my 36th hike up 10,064-foot Mt. San Antonio, as it is formally known.

When I started, the average attendance was five or six; now 40 to 60 folks show up. The hike has become a tradition that includes family and friends bringing their friends. One year my brother met his wife-to-be on the hike. Our largest group to date was the following year when 96 hikers came to watch my brother propose. This year, he and his wife celebrated their 10th anniversary on the top.

The hike starts from Baldy Village, where we take the ski lift up to the Notch, the ski lodge at 7,800 feet. From the Notch it's about three tough miles to the top with more than 2,200 feet of gain. The average person trudges up about a mile an hour. Leaving the Notch at 9:30, we get to the summit in time for lunch, spend 45 minutes, then choose which way to descend.

Folks can go back down the way they came or follow my son, Patric, on a different route to see bits of two U.S. Marine Corps Grumman F6F fighter planes that crashed in 1949.

The hike from the Notch starts by following a wide dirt road that skirts the ski runs and winds through groves of Jeffrey and limber pines. After more than a mile, you come to the Devil's Backbone ridge, where the trail gets very narrow with steep drop-offs. In late May 1982 when there was deep snow, my brother-in-law slipped. He was carrying my ice ax, and it saved his life. By hanging on to that ax, he was able to pull himself up. Since he was determined to make it to the top, we continued on even though we were up to our armpits in snow. Some folks turn back at the backbone because that part of the trail has been in bad shape for the last two years. Beyond that stretch, you walk along the southern flank of Mt. Harwood past scrubby pines until you reach the rocky scree above tree line.

At this point, you can see the summit of Baldy ahead, sometimes wearing a mantle of late spring snow. The last 500 feet up is tough but worth the effort.

After lunch, our group poses for photos and often celebrates while sail planes sometimes circle the summit. Each year is different, with new people and variable weather. We have failed to reach the top only once: Lightning from an electrical storm drove us back.

After the hike, a big party follows in Baldy Village, with many of us spending the night. Because you can see Baldy from almost anywhere in the L.A. Basin, those who summit can look with pride to see where they have stood.

The particulars

Where: Mt. Baldy is the highest point in the San Gabriel Mountains. The hike starts at the ski lift in Mt. Baldy Village north of Claremont and Upland.

What: A daylong 6.4-mile round-trip hike that climbs 2,262 feet to the summit. The hike starts at Mt. Baldy Notch at the top of the ski lift, which costs $10 per person round-trip. The lift runs 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

How: From the 210 Freeway, take the Mountain Avenue exit and head north. Mountain Avenue turns into Mt. Baldy Road, which leads into Mt. Baldy Village and ends at the ski lift's parking lot.

Back story: In "Trails of the Angeles," John Robinson writes that the priests of Mission San Gabriel may have named the peak for St. Anthony of Padua in the 1790s. A century later miners dubbed it Old Baldy for its "barren, roundish summit."

The rudimentary Mt. Baldy Ski Tows, forerunner of a ski resort, started in 1944 with a used car engine and a bale of rope.

Aetherius Society members regularly trudged to the top believing that a flying saucer hovered there in 1959 to charge the mountain with spiritual energy through their leader.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday August 12, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction Mt. Baldy ski lift -- An article in Tuesday's Outdoors section said the Mt. Baldy ski lift is in Mt. Baldy Village. The ski lift is about three miles north of the village. For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 17, 2004 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Mt. Baldy ski lift -- A story in last week's Outdoors section said the Mt. Baldy ski lift is in Mt. Baldy Village. The ski lift is about three miles north of the village.
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