The First Scheduled HPS Snowshoe Day Hike: Winston and Akawie
February 2, 2002 (Ground Hog Day)
Leaders: Sandy Sperling and Mars Bonfire
What? You mean there haven't been dozens of HPS snowshoe hikes? Actually, last year (2001) there were many snowshoe hikes by avid HPS hikers, but they were all private trips. Everyone had so much fun that it only seemed right to schedule some for 2002. For the most part, the weather hasn't cooperated this year, but it did on Ground Hog Day, February 2, for my I-provisional day hike.
Last summer, I had completed everything for my I-rating except the Wilderness First Aid Course, which I couldn't get into until the end of October 2001. That meant I had to schedule wintertime I-provisionals. (I-provisional trips require significant off-trail navigation.) I imposed the additional requirements of being able to scout the trip with my low clearance Mazda and I didn't want to have to drive "too far" away from home in Long Beach for the scouting and the trip. I managed to lead my I-provisional backpacking trip in Joshua Tree the first weekend in December. We had pretty short days, but otherwise the trip was wonderful!
Where could I do my I-provisional day trip? I discussed this with several leaders. It seemed like every suggestion was either way too far away, couldn't be reached with my car, or was navigationally too easy. Finally, while I was on a backpacking trip with Mars Bonfire, he suggested a snowshoe trip in the San Gabriels. Fantastic! That is, as long as it would be accepted. I called Don Creighton and he approved the trip as an I-provisional as long as I didn't follow any trails. Mars kindly agreed to be my evaluator and we decided on February 2 since there isn't always much snow in January, but there "always" is by February. Our planned destinations were Winston Peak and Winston Ridge, with the possibility of adding Mt Akawie depending on conditions (both the weather and the group).
The date was fast approaching but the mountains were bare. Contingency plans were developed, including going to the Mt Pinos area. But the Sunday prior to our Saturday trip we were blessed with a wonderful storm that dropped about a foot of snow in our targeted area! Then the weather warmed up. Would we be able to do it or not? I got several reports from Byron Prinzmetal who traveled up that way during the week. We should be able to do something, but it wouldn't be clear until we go there what route we would be able to take. I made about five contingency plans taking into account where the snow might be.
The day finally arrived. Ten eager snowshoers were anxious to follow me! We carpooled to Cloudburst Summit and parked on the north side of the highway. Coverage looked thin but adequate on the south ridge of Winston. I decided to go for it. A split break near the parking area revealed post-holing over the knee on north-facing slopes. If we stayed on ridges and slopes that received less sun exposure, we should do fine.
We were able to put our snowshoes on in the parking area. After introductions and instructions, we were off on our adventure. We had a nice variety of people, both regular and new HPSers, as well as differing snowshoe experience. Actually, it was only about my sixth time on snowshoes, and all of those had been in 2001 with WTC. Following me were George Wysup, Maura Raffensberger, David Beymer, Mars Bonfire (all HPS leaders and list finishers), Edith Liu (HPS List finisher), Michael Gosnell (PCT section hiker, new HPS member, and first-time snowshoer), Louie Rodriguez (Long Beach firefighter and new HPS member), Wendell Hall (HPS member), and Mike and Rumi Newton (new to HPS and first-time snowshoers).
We took the south ridge from the highway up to Winston Peak. The weather was sunny and comfortable. At the summit, we were unable to find a register can. While the group enjoyed the view, I scouted to the north, looking particularly at Winston Ridge: there was no snow on the very exposed south-facing slopes. However, there was ample snow on the north side of Winston Peak. I returned to the group and led them down to the saddle between Winston Peak and Winston Ridge. This is a junction with the PCT. It is quite steep here and the snow was powdery. A couple of participants with snowshoe rentals had some difficulty since their equipment didn't seem to provide as much traction in the deeper snow. We made it safely to the saddle.
This was a decision point. One participant wanted to bag Winston Ridge, although it would mean taking off snowshoes and hiking there. Everyone else was willing to go along, but had really come for the fun of snowshoeing. A closer look at the approach to Winston Ridge revealed treacherous ice on the use trail. I decided we would instead stay on snowshoes and climb Mt Akawie.
We contoured a short distance back toward the highway on the PCT, then descended to the Cooper Canyon Campground, crossed the creek, and started our ascent of Mt Akawie from the north-northwest. This is a fairly steep climb, and being the leader meant that I was breaking the entire trail. The snow was deep and powdery. I began to enlist strong participants to break trail for me, and I "steered from the back seat."
The qualities of the various snowshoes quickly became evident. Those with the MSR Denali Ascents were able to go more directly up the mountain since their "televators" (heel lift bars) allowed them more traction. Next best seemed to be the MSR Classics, which I had, and the traditional tube-and-webbing snowshoes. The participants with the poor rental equipment were having the most difficulty. I kept cutting to lower angles on our switchbacks, but we had to keep waiting for these folks to catch up. Finally, Mars offered to cut steps for them at low angles and allowed the rest of us to go at a steeper angle. We waited for them at the few flat places we came across.
Finally, we reached the summit of Akawie. The sun was shining brightly and the views were wonderful. We had a nice, well-deserved lunch break there, and then began our trek back to the cars. There were a couple of route options for this. We could go west and southwest down to the creek, cross it, and then ascend to the highway where the cars were parked. This would be pretty strenuous and the group was tiring. They asked me for an easier way, so we instead headed west, then contoured around Mt Akawie back to the highway on the south side of the mountain, staying on the north side of ridges as much as possible to maximize snow coverage. There was just enough snow to do this. The next day it wouldn't have been possible! We removed our snowshoes and walked a half mile back to the cars on the road.
Stats for the trip: 4.5 miles (lots of squiggle factor), 1700+' total gain, 5 hours.
I'm sure if El Niño presents next year as currently expected, we can look forward to many more HPS snowshoe hikes!