california, Hiking, holidays, outdoors, safety, Travel, Uncategorized, writing

Hiking in a Winter Wonderland

Can be dangerous if you’re not prepared.

On the Saturday of November, we headed up to Cucamonga Peak via Icehouse Canyon. This is a hike that I’ve done on many other occasions, and was to be the final hike of this year’s Six Pack of Peaks Challenge. That said, I have never hiked it in the fall, and was looking forward to seeing how the seasons would change the foliage of the canyon. I also picked this weekend in anticipation of the coming winter season. With snowfall, hiking peaks would carry an additional risk without proper preparation and gear.

I was not disappointed in the beauty of Icehouse Canyon. The autumn weather brought forth the vibrant colors of fall, which stood in stunning contrast to the greys of the canyon rocks. Add to that the cosy cabins with their string lights, and the babbling stream running through the canyon, and you had a holiday scene right out of a story book. Indeed, it was easy to forget that I was still in California.

We stopped at Icehouse Saddle for a short break. From there we would take the middle trail up to Cucamonga Peak. Even with the change in season, I thought the scenery at the saddle looked as it did in the summer when we hiked Ontario Peak, though it was less windy now and a little cooler. This changed however when we approached the Cucamonga Peak trail. We saw ice on the ground, and trekking a bit further up the trail, some isolated patches of snow, likely from the storm that passed through Southern California the Tuesday prior. It was a minor storm, or so it seemed from where I live in the San Gabriel Valley, and didn’t even cross my radar that the mountains would have been impacted. After all, Mt. Baldy was not capped in white as it would be during the California winter. Still, I was charmed, and pleasantly surprised. I love a hike with a bit of snow.

This delight soon turned to angst about a mile-and-a-half up the Cucamonga Trail. The isolated patches turned to stretches of snow-covered trail, and in the areas where the snow had melted and iced over, difficult to see patches of potentially dangerous ice. The fun of crunching snow under my hiking boots became fear after a misstep caused me to slide backwards a bit on the uphill. I grabbed a tree root and sat in a sort of snow-covered bowl created by the root, and had a momentary panic attack. Being unprepared for snow and ice was going to prove challenging, and as I sat in order to calm down, I considered whether it would be wise to continue on. We had less than a mile to go, and while we had trekking poles and boots with a good amount of traction, the icy spots would be difficult to navigate. Add to that Cucamonga Peak is considered a challenging hike on a good day without additional obstacles, and I did have some serious considerations.

It was tempting to turn around, however, I didn’t think that there would be another opportunity to finish the Six Peak Challenge before winter really hit. There would be another storm coming in, and with the possibility of snow at higher elevations, it would be likely that we either would not be able to hike a peak, or that we would have to purchase crampons or other technical gear. This thought alone though was only a minor consideration. The more crucial aspect in the decision to continue on- carefully- was that Nate was significantly further ahead. We would not be able to communicate with him the decision to turn around as there was no cell service on the mountain. So onward we trekked, this time being sure to take the time to find the spots that would offer more traction, and going slowly enough to spot the potentially icy spots but not so slow that we’d risk slipping.

It took some extra time to reach the peak. It was a challenge, but we did make it, and found Nate at the top. He had actually avoided much of the ice as he went with another hiking group and took the longer route up around Etiwanda Peak, which faces more of the sun. He said that while there was snow, it was the crunchy kind that was not as slippery as what we had experienced. After taking photos and taking a short break for lunch, we headed down, this time staying closer together to ensure safety.

The trek down was not as bad. By the early afternoon, the snow had mixed with a good amount of sediment so it wasn’t as slippery, and this time we knew the spots where extra caution was needed. I was better about utilizing my trekking poles and asking for help when needed. It did take a bit of extra time, but we did make it back to the saddle, and back through the canyon, safely.

This hike was indeed extremely challenging, but it was also extraordinarily beautiful. To walk through the vibrant oranges and reds of fall to the glistening snow-covered pine forests of winter on an afternoon that felt like spring that captured the idyll of summer was magical. It was a beautiful day as we experienced all four of the seasons in their way. But I did learn some valuable lessons about being prepared and understanding my own limitations, even as an experienced hiker.

Some things to consider:
Cucamonga Peak, as well as many in the San Gabriel Mountains, are considered challenging hikes by many hiking sites and blogs. Training hikes are recommended before scaling the higher peaks. I recommend such hikes as Echo Mountain, Henninger Flats, and others in order to get used to distance and elevation gain.

I learned the hard way that winter comes early to the higher elevations of Southern California. I figured that I was avoiding ice and snow by finishing my set of hikes in early November versus later on in the month, but this was not the case. I should have checked current conditions on hiking sites prior to heading out, rather than assuming I knew trail conditions just because I have hiked it many times prior. However as the storm that rolled through was literally this past Tuesday, this may or may not have helped. Soo…

For hikes where snow and ice may be an issue, microspikes are a good idea. While most of the hikers I saw on the trail were in the same boat we were, there were a couple groups who did have their microspikes. These can be found at REI, and range from about $45-$99. The hikers who had their microspikes told us they purchased theirs from Amazon, and only spent about $20. There are also traction systems- almost like snow chains for your shoes- that are compact and would work well on flatter snow hikes.

Proper hydration is still very important even on a cooler day. There have been studies that show that dehydration can be a serious issue, since we tend not to feel thirst as quickly in cooler weather. I ended this hike with a pretty bad headache, likely due to dehydration and the fact that I probably didn’t consume enough calories when we stopped for lunch. While I felt like I drank about as much water on this hike as I did prior, I know I was not paying as much attention to the frequency of my water breaks as I would over a warm weather hike. Regardless of weather, it is important to bring more water than you think you’ll need and be sure to drink it.

Dressing in layers is a good idea no matter what the weather. It was good to have my jacket while in the cool of the morning, but it was very helpful to be able to unzip and take it off as I and the day warmed up.

I love the hike through Icehouse Canyon and up to the peaks, even more so with the changing seasons. I am thankful that we had a lovely hike day with Nate, and that we finished our 2022 Six Pack of Peaks Challenge. That said, it would have been much more enjoyable with some additional preparation. I’ve learned that being prepared makes for happier trails.

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