November 25, 2013

Echo Mountain, The Hard Way

There are few trails that I'll do over and over again in LA, since there are always so many other new trails to be explored. (Or, at least, those that are new to me.)

But of the few hikes I will repeat, Echo Mountain is at the top of the list.

Situated at the top of the former Mt. Lowe Incline Railway, which took passengers from Rubio Canyon in Altadena up to a resort area once called "White City," where they could transfer to the railway that would take them around the mountain to the Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern, Echo Mountain offers amazing views of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena, and even the Downtown LA skyline, as well as a number of industrial relics (train tracks, machinery) and building foundations left over from White City, now a lost city.

The most common way to summit Echo Mountain is via the Sam Merrill Trail, which traverses the Altadena Crest Trail and zig-zags around Echo Mountain, two and a half miles up various dry and dusty switchbacks, without a lot of shade from the sun. It's a workout, but I've now done it twice: once in 2010 when still a novice hiker, and once with a group to celebrate New Year's Day.

In my two visits to the Cobb Estate (notable on its own merit as a likely haunted private estate in ruins at the bottom of the mountain), I'd noticed that there was another way up to Echo Mountain, that looked much harder. It piqued my curiosity, knowing that some hikers are even daring enough to hike the actual former path of the incline railway, straight up the mountain - the hardest way possible. But there was no question as to whether or not I would join when invited on a Sierra Club-led group hike up Echo Mountain "the hard way": I was in.

Meeting up in Altadena at 8 a.m. on a misty, foggy, downright rainy fall morning, I was excited. "You know when you're going up the regular trail and you look over and wonder who those crazy people are climbing up the ridge over there? Today, we're going to be those crazy people," our hike leader said.

"Yay!" I said.

The hike starts off the same, up the old paved access road inside the gate of the Cobb Estate, once a dwelling for the Marx Brothers until taken over by miscreants and ne'er-do-wells, prompting authorities to raze the property (though the land was still owned by the Marx estate until auctioned off in 1971).

At the turn-off for the Sam Merrill trail (which goes right), we kept up the trail going more-or-less straight until the old estate grounds gave way to wilderness, in an area often referred to as "The Haunted Forest."

We passed the Cobb Reservoir, owned by Las Flores Water Company which provides drinking water to the Altadena area. I'd seen this reservoir from above many times, and wondered where the hikers who passed it where going. Now, we were following in their footsteps.

After the reservoir, the trail gets serious. Our hike leader encouraged us to start removing layers and drinking water because, as he said, "It doesn't get any easier after this." He'd also encouraged us to put away our trekking poles because, he said, "You might want to use your hands."

Uh oh.

The first steep climb took us above the reservoir, where we could see the Sam Merrill trail zig-zagging up Echo Mountain across the way. After a brief rest, we started climbing again, each stretch steeper than the last. After all, we were going to hike an increase of 1500 feet in elevation over the course of the five mile hike, but really, all those 1500 feet would be climbed only on the way up, in just 2.5 short miles.

I quickly started lagging behind the group, not having gotten enough sleep or had any coffee for such an early morning excursion, getting wetter with rain the higher we went, already feeling the strain in my  lower body, wishing my hydration pack weren't so heavy with water.

My breathing was labored and my pace was slow, but I was OK. When the Sierra Club sweep behind me (since I was the last one in line) checked on me, I said, "I know I can do it, I just have to take my time."

This was a major accomplishment for me, having previously turned away from trails (granted, by myself) because I couldn't do them (though, in the case of Brand Park, later returning to conquer them successfully).

At the apex of the power lines, looking down at Lake Avenue which stretches from Altadena all the way down into Pasadena, I thought I'd conquered the hardest part.

I was wrong. It wasn't going to get an easier. Not yet.

This is not a camera trick or an optical illusion. I climbed up this thing in the rain, using my hands.

Looking down at the transmission towers, I marveled at how high we'd gotten in such a short period of time.

I sighed relief, taking in the view, all the while keeping my eyes on Lake Avenue to orient myself. I regulated my breathing, and tried to slow my heart rate to a more healthy cardio conditioning pace.

And then I turned around, and saw where the rest of my group was going.

"We're going there?!" I exclaimed, unable to even spot an official trail carved into the mountainside. "Where?!" But by now, there was no turning back. It had been too hard to climb up as high as we had, and I knew it would be a lot harder going down, feet first, vertigo kicking in, the certainty of falling sabotaging a safe return.

And this is where I started to cry. As I recall, I've only cried one other time on a hike: when I got left behind on the way back from the Bridge to Nowhere, a hike that exceeded my skill level and endurance, and ravaged my feet with injuries that persisted for nearly a year after. It was clear to me, looking at that next climb ahead, that this hike, too, was way beyond my skill level, and was putting my phobias and fears to the ultimate test. The stress on me emotionally and mentally was immense, and expressed itself through the tears that started to stream down my face.

Our hike lead advised us to space out, leaving lots of room so as not to get rocks kicked in the face by the hiker ahead. I waited in the back of the line as long as I could, until the sweep prodded me. "Gimme a minute," I said, "I'm just freaking out."

Still, in that moment, I knew I could physically do it. I was scared as hell, and I didn't necessarily want to do it, but with the help of those around me, I was pretty sure my body could make it.

But could my mind?

I trudged on, giving the hiker ahead of me an extra-long headstart, because I knew that once I started climbing, I wouldn't want to stop. But, given the difficulty of the scramble, it was inevitable that someone ahead would pause, get stuck, not know where to go, and hold up the line, forcing me to freeze in place, rendering me a cat caught in a tree, unable to figure out my next move, terrified to relinquish my foothold.

As I paused to collect myself, listening to the sweep behind me urge, "It's OK, take your time, there's no rush," I heard another, strange voice, calling out from down below, with intensifying urgency as it got closer.

"YOU'RE GOING TO FALL!" it said.

A local couple and their dog had come up the trail behind us and, not knowing we were the Sierra Club, must've identified us as a bunch of reckless novices, because the guy kept insisting, "You don't belong here! You don't know this trail! It's too difficult! You're going to fall! You've got no business being here!"

And, having already sniffled halfway up the cliff, I burst into tears.

Because if he said I was going to fall, wasn't I going to fall?

As he climbed closer to us, he shouted stories of other hikers who'd fallen into the canyon and languished down there for hours until being airlifted out, a certain fate, he said, unless we used his ropes.

I didn't know what to do, because I was there with the Sierra Club and wanted to follow the steps of the hikers before me, and the instructions of the sweep behind me, but the path of least resistance - as well as the path to safety - seemed to be to do as I was  told, by the guy that was yelling louder than anybody else. So, after he tied a nylon line around his waist and tossed the slack out to me, I grabbed it, wrapping it around each of my hands, and started climbing only with my feet, letting him pull me up.

I'd used ropes like this before for climbing down into and out of the grotto at Circle X Ranch, but the dirt and rocks were so loose here, it seemed like a bad idea to raise my center of gravity and just "walk" up the mountain. Besides, as scary as it was, I'd gotten into a bit of a rhythm of crawling on all fours, and every time my foot slid down the side of the cliff in a cascade of dirt and gravel, I instinctively attempted to save myself by grabbing any nearby boulder or sturdy rock. (The problem was, whenever I grabbed anything, it moved.)

By this point, I was sobbing, and my hike lead had heard the yelling and had come to investigate, climbing back down to position himself directly behind me. He patted my hiking pack, comforting me with, "I'm right here behind you. You're not going to fall." My feet kept slipping on the slick rocks and loose gravel on the way up, and I teetered and swung like a pendulum hanging off the line tied to the know-it-all hiker trying to help me.

But all the while, I didn't know what to listen to: the self-fulfilling prophecy of certain doom, or the reassuring comfort of possible delusion. The thing was, I was either going to fall or I wasn't. If I believed I was going to fall, I probably was going to fall. Although the climb was precarious, I didn't think I was actually going to fall. I was just scared. And I don't like being yelled at.

Once I hit the top of that last climb, I was fine, though still sniffling from the cold and rain, and embarrassed over the scene that this guy had made over my inexperience and low skill level.

Once we hit the fire road, thankfully there was no more climbing, and we hit what was, for me, the coolest part of the hike: the dirt path of the former Mt. Lowe Railway that I hadn't seen when we drove up and down the private, gated road to the top of Mt. Lowe two years ago.

Stay tuned for more photos from that (much easier) part of the hike.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Heartpounding Hike to a Lost City
Photo Essay: Mt. Lowe Railway's Rubio Canyon
Photo Essay: The Bridge to Nowhere, and Back
Photo Essay: On Shaky Legs Down to the Grotto
Photo Essay: Brand Park Trails

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