On December 12, 2012, I decided on a whim to hike up Mt. Baldy via Ski Hut Trail. It turned out to be my first camping trip in a blizzard.
Light rain was forecast and it was partly cloudy. I did not mind as I sometimes enjoy hiking in the rain. I intended to summit around nightfall, pitch the tent near the top, and trek down the next day. It hadn’t snowed yet in the winter season. But I prepared for the cold and possible snow by packing extra clothing, a gator, and face cover.
Although the sky was thick with clouds, it was still bright on the way up as there were good patches of blue in the sky. I met a few people coming down, which is the general direction of traffic in the late afternoon. One lady asked me why I’m going up when it looks like it may rain. I smiled and let her pass, telling her I didn’t mind a little rain.
Unfortunately, near the top, the weather deteriorated rapidly and the temperature dropped sharply. Pine leaves and the ground began turning frosty. As I progressed up, the wind also picked up. But I felt I had hiked too far up to turn back. Besides, it was getting dark. At one point, I lost track of the trail, but I backtracked and got back on course. By the time I neared the summit, it was dark and the wind was howling. No stars were visible. It felt like the temperature fell way below freezing.
Needless to say, I got a little worried. I had prepared for a cold rainy night or possibly light snow, but not a snowstorm. I didn’t bring crampons or snowshoe. Nor did I bring duck-down sleeping bags and thermal underwear. I didn’t bring hand warmers either.
After I summited the peak, I fumbled in the darkness and the cold and pitched a tent in one of the nearby artificial rock pits. My gloves blew away while I was connecting the tent poles.
At night, the wind picked up and began howling, shaking the canvas as if it were tissue paper. Lighting the stove in the very drafty tent was impossible, so I ended up snacking on a trail bar before getting into the sleeping bag. The continuing wind and cold made it a difficult night. One strategy I used to keep warm was to alternately flex and relax my muscles and keep on moving from side to side, taking only catnaps. I regretted not pitching the tent behind the hill or structure so the wind blew over it.
By daybreak, several inches of snow pushed against the walls of the tent. But it was a little quieter. I peeked outside, and it was all white with near zero visibility due to the abundance of falling snow. At least, the wind was a lot calmer than the night before. For breakfast, I snacked on beef jerky. But the water was completely frozen. I should have kept a water bottle in my sleeping bag.
At that point, I had to make a decision. I could try to wait out the snow, no longer a storm, or get out and try to make my way down. Considering that I was tired and hungry and things were a lot quieter, I decided to go down. I decided to abandon the tent since I did not have gloves to pack it. I packed everything up into the backpack and left a business card in the tent to identify the owner.
When I exited the tent and started moving, everything was white and quiet. That was good. But the trail was totally covered up by at least six inches of snow and it was still snowing. It continued to snow heavily through the morning.
Fortunately, I was familiar with the general layout of the mountain, as it is a favorite local hike. I knew that there was a cliff that I should not go over because it formed the lip of a steep and vast Baldy Bowl. I just had to come down zigzagging, sticking close to the cliff but not straying too far away, trying to figure out the trail. One time, I had to backtrack because I went down too far in one direction. If I had continued in that direction, I would have come to another cliff too steep to traverse. Backtracking was a pain because of the steepness and high altitude, but it was necessary. I was tired. In such situations, it is best to tell yourself, “Don’t panic. Take your time. Rest and plan your moves. It will be fine.”
After I backtracked up, I turned right through huge boulders and into a rock garden full of more large boulders. I wasn’t entirely sure about where I was but had an idea because I knew that the trail has a rocky area. I was right. After scrambling through around and over many rocks, I suddenly saw the sight of the green ski hut through the falling snow. It was so close, only about 20 yards from where I was standing.
In front of a familiar sight, a feeling of great relief came over me. I knew that from there, the trail was more defined and safer. A little past the ski hut, I even met a guy coming up. By that time, the wind had almost entirely died down, and snow was falling gently. I was so glad to make it down safely.
I will always remember this trip as the trip where I almost froze to death. At night, I imagined the newspapers reporting, “A middle-aged realtor was found frozen on top of Mt. Baldy.” I’m glad I did not die there because since then, I have enjoyed many more snow camping trips and have even taken up cross-country skiing, much better prepared. It taught me a lot of lessons on what to do and not to do, some of which I shared here.