Mt. Waterman – The journey to the Summit – Part I
Today would be the first of another kind because today there was a lot of snow and heading up the summit, we would be presented with the first of many challenges...
Today, the group took on the Mt. Waterman trail. Excited at the prospect that El Nino had finally made an appearance -albeit brief- there was the promise of snow because of the recent cold snap. Even though the days prior to our hike had been WARM (as only in California in February can be) our hopes for a snow covered hiking trail would not be diminished. Snow meant water and that was a hot button topic for all Southern Californians.
I loved this trail. The first time I ventured on to this trail there were many thoughts that went through my head and most of them were of the unknown. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know whether I had the stamina to make it to the summit. I didn’t know if I would get tired and want to turn back, I didn’t know if the trail would narrow in places that would cause my anxiety about heights make me stop in my tracks and give me heart palpitations. I didn’t know if my slow pace would cause the rest of the group to wander so far ahead of me that I’d eventually have to pick up the pace. I just didn’t know. Then, I’d had to push all of those unknowns aside to make the most of the hike. Today, would be the first of another kind- a snow hike – literally.
Everything about the natural landscape evoked a sense peace in me and I felt like I could actually breathe. As the road wound around the mountain and upwards, the landscape changed from dry and somewhat nondescript to something lush and green under a brilliant blue sky sprinkled with bright white and widely scattered clouds. I felt the tension leave me. I took in longer, deeper breaths as all the muscles in my body relaxed and my mindset gradually became all about getting the right photo and finding the right light, the right angle, maybe even noticing something that I hadn't noticed before. Everywhere I looked life was flourishing. Although we rode up the highway to the trail-head in silence, it wasn’t the uncomfortable kind that was awkward and begged for small-talk to make the ride less awkward. We were content to keep our eyes locked on the road and the surrounding landscape.
We reached the trail-head and our group gathered for the traditional group photo. Donned in our cold-weather hiking gear, we started our hike. We realized almost instantly that today would be different. It was still cool enough that the snow was still soft -but had started to melt where the sun made its appearance - and warm enough for us to hike comfortably without too much layering. The only tracks on the fire road this early in the day were of the service vehicles. That would give us the traction we needed as we started our ascent, cautiously maneuvering around the slick patches. Only one member of our group decided against the hike altogether. No amount of assurance or cajoling was enough to change their mind. Some of the more experienced and adventurous (and I would even venture to say “daredevil”) members of the group decided to take the regular narrow trail. The ones that had shoe chains put them on while the others waited and tried to appear patient. Some seemed more prepared than others, but they all were willing to take on the challenge. I was thinking, okay, hike it at your own risk. Personally, the thrill of hiking in the snow did not outweigh the benefits of being more cautious. And - I don’t ski, so I opted to stick with the group who elected to take the fire road. The sun was out and that would turn the soft snow pack hard and ice-like and a little too slippery for my taste. (This year with so much snow in the area, the Waterman ski lifts had been opened and just as quickly shut down as a skier lost control on the slopes and met with an untimely accident.)
We headed up the fire road and my thoughts wandered without rhyme or reason. Things looked different when everything was covered by a blanket of snow. Beautiful. Where the sun had melted the snow, icicles had formed on the tiniest of branches. Everyone was enjoying the snow and stopped often to capture moments with their cell phone cameras. The views were amazing. Areas where the snow remained untouched around the trees and on the hillsides glistened in the sun. It soon occurred to me that my boots made the same sound they made on a trail covered in loose gravel, "crunch, crunch, crunch". Curious. Not long after we started, the sun had everyone removing layers of clothing. Our heart rates had kicked into full gear and jackets, gloves and scarves were quickly packed away or wrapped around waists. The weather didn't deter other hikers from visiting the area either as they were lured to see the snow covered area as well. Careful not to experience the snow-blindness I'd heard about, I kept my sunglasses on, taking them off only to capture a photo of the beautiful landscape. Who knows when the likelihood of snow on these mountains would appear again. We were all excited to see what the view on the summit would be like. Since some of the group had never seen the summit, the expectation was palpable. The ski lifts hung above our heads beneath a white slope that showed no evidence of having been walked on. We lingered for a moment to snap a few photos. The snow-capped peaks in the distance were enchanting. Other hikers heard us debating which route to take and appeared surprised that we would opt to follow the ski lift to the summit because although it was a shorter route, there was the risk that some of those smooth patches would be hard and slippery as opposed to powdery soft and easy to maneuver. If you miss-stepped, you’d likely end up on a downward spiral similar to that of a snowball getting larger and going faster until you reached something, anything that would stop you. We tested a few spots on the slope that our poles dug into easily. Seemed soft enough. We would just have to stay close to the edges where the sun hadn’t yet melted the snow into an “ice-slick” patch. That would make the trip up the slope much more treacherous. So, we dug in, and started our slow ascent, one cautious step at a time. I’d never done anything thing like this before. Heck, I’d never set my feet in a pair of skis let alone hiking in the snow below a ski lift, so this would definitely be one for the books. We continued in silence, completely focused on the task at hand which for me- was staying vertical. I stopped more than once to catch my breath and take in the view, but not for long because I wasn’t quite sure how long the spot beneath would remain - well – just remain. Losing my footing was not an option. I dug my poles in after taking a few pokes in some spots, making sure it was soft and continued my trek. Left pole, right pole, left foot, right foot, focus, and breath, concentrate, slow and steady. When we reached the plateau, a beautiful white landscape dotted with greenery, against a bright blue cloudless sky was not lost on us – the view was amazing, spectacular, stunning, and breathtaking. It was definitely worth the trip. The summit was less than a ½ mile away and since I’d seen the view before, I opted to stay where I was while others decided to continue to the summit to meet with the group that had taken the regular trail and should be there by now. I again wondered at how different everything looked under a blanket of white. The color contrasts of the natural landscape held me captive for a few moments as I found a solitary spot and enjoyed the view.
Once everyone was accounted for and had taken time to indulge in refueling their mind and bodies, we mapped our routes back down to the trail-head. We thought it was tough going up…it seemed that heading back down would prove to be just as challenging…