Monday, May 23, 2011

Echo mountain climb

As the term winds down (I hope!), I occasionally have evenings in which I'm not working. For instance, this Friday and Saturday night I sang in a concert with the glee club. A whole bunch of German, with some French, English, Tamil, and Latin thrown in for good measure. For two of the songs we joined forces with the Caltech/Occi orchestra and sang robustly. 

But that is the not the purpose of this blog post! After the Saturday night performance, I scampered off home, doffed my concert attire, and dressed in my usual adventure kit; jeans, teeshirt, jacket, and sandals. And set off.

I have climbed Echo mountain twice before (I think, maybe 3 times?), but only ever during boiling hot days, and I wanted to see how far it was. In summary, I walked up and back (16 miles/25km) in five and a half hours, with half an hour at the top staring at the view and taking photos.

The walk north from campus to the end of Lake St was uneventful, save the odd cat or crunchy leaf, but a good opportunity to think over in my mind the structure of two talks I'm giving this week! After about 90 minutes, I reached the trail head, and set off. I wasn't certain of the path, but found a few landmarks and was on my way. Of course, there were no lights and the moon had not yet risen, so I depended on light pollution from LA to guide my way. Very quickly the trail steepened and switched back up the side of the mountain. The trail is (fortunately) quite smooth and broad for the most part, so not falling into the void wasn't too difficult. On occasion the path ran through undergrowth and I had to look about a radian away from where I wanted to see, as the edges of ones vision are the most light sensitive. Wary of drop bears and mountain lions I had my blanket wrapped around my neck, which kept me nice and warm. As I climbed and the night deepened it became quite cold.

As I climbed I was alternately rewarded with views out over LA and lights, or deep into valleys, up the mountains, to the stars. I could see headlamps of other hikers on distant mountains, and quite often hear them as well. Every now and then an unseen animal would skitter in the undergrowth, but for the most part I existed in a world of silence and a grey scale. About half way up the moon began to rise above fog in the east, and for one switchback was just poking over the edge of the next ridge. With the moon up there was substantially more light, however as I rounded the first bend I saw the figure of a man rise up from the edge of the path, giving me a fright before I realised it was my shadow! A few minutes later I encountered some hikers coming down (also without flashlights) and returned the favour. At this point the moon was high enough to be quite glary and I had to put my hand up to avoid being dazzled and then blundering into stuff everywhere.

After about an hour of climbing I leveled out and reached Echo Mountain, a rocky outcrop with the ruins of a hotel, burnt down nearly 100 years ago. I reconfigured my blanket for warmth (except for my unlucky toes), and started taking photos, experimenting with long exposures and different ISO settings to achieve the effect I wanted. I tried a self portrait, but had to stand very still! I also managed to get a few good pictures of stars, despite the bright moon and light pollution.

After about half an hour I decided to head back down. The first switchback leads deep into the valley, and on my return to the crest of the ridge, I was stunned to see that LA had disappeared - a dense fog had rolled in. Before my eyes the bright light axis of Lake St dissolved into a warm diffuse glow, and I could see only a few lights on the tops of the Hollywood ridge winking across a sea of white with stars above. I continued my descent and before long the fog rose to meet me, turbulently rolling over the ground, and, with a quite pronounced edge, cutting off the moon, which developed a glowing aura. At its thickest I had a visibility of about 5m in any direction, there were no shadows, colour, or sound. Just depth perception, really. After walking for many hours one feels sensory isolation from ankles and feet, probably due to endorphins and a trancelike state in which distance flows imperceptibly. In addition to this it was not really possible to see the ground in a meaningful way, giving the impression of floating in space, with someone else's feet scraping along somewhere in the distance.

I had a similar experience climbing Mt Ossa in Tasmania a few years back, except this time it was dark and not rainy. The fog continued to rise as I fell and about an hour after starting back I reached the bottom of the trail head, emerging from the fog and again surprising a few other lightless hikers who had only heard my footsteps until I was about two feet from them. I could see them quite easily, but they had only just left the relatively bright street. I was wearing dark blue and black for the most part. I quite enjoy being invisible!

Back on the tarmac I realised I was only about an hour and a half from home, a snack, and sleep! I set off, this time walking down Catalina Ave (I walked up Wilson, for the most part), disturbing a few dogs, cats, and late night lawn waterers. By this point I'd been walking long enough that time and space seemed to decouple. This is a psychological phenomenon I think is useful for coping with long migrations, but it's almost like you blink and 3 hours pass and you've walked over the horizon. Not the sort of thing one experiences every day.

At about 4:25am I arrived at my front door, kicked off my shoes, hobbled to the kitchen to munch something, put some socks on and crawled into bed, falling instantly into a deep, dreamless sleep.

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