Switchbacks are Good

Twenty-four years ago I hiked with my sister Colleen and friend Bob up to the summit of Mt. Persis.  It was not a pleasant experience.  After climbing 2,700 feet almost straight up we found the summit so shrouded in thick fog that we could barely see each other, let alone the purportedly magnificent views.  Then the steep trail did a number on my knees on the way down.  The tendonitis got so severe that it felt like two pieces of rusty metal grinding against each other, and my knees have been touchy about long steep stretches ever since.


Colleen and Bob at the summit of Mt. Persis in 1986

So Persis has been in the back of my mind for 24 years. What fantastic views did I miss?  What if I went more slowly and carefully?  I consulted with Buck and he confirmed that we’ve been doing so well on our climbs lately that this would be a good time for a new assault.  In addition, it would be a great chance to try out my new Garmin 60Csx hand-held GPS.

The Garmin came in handy right away – at first I couldn’t find the trail because where the it leaves the parking area looks like a little avalanche area rather than a normal trail.  That should have clued me in as to what was coming.


The trailhead

I had read that the trail goes straight up without switchbacks, but what that actually meant didn’t really sink in.  Take a look at the slope on that “trail” in the picture.  It’s that way all the way up, steeper than stairs but paved with loose dirt and wet rocks and roots.

I figured, no sweat, we’ll just go slow and take it easy.  Even so it was work, and even Buck got tired – no excuse about being too hot for him this time, as it was only about 50 degrees.


Buck taking a rest.

That would have worked tolerably well except for an unexpected condition.  Clouds had been moving through the area and they left their calling card:  every leaf, every branch, every root and every rock were all coated with water.  Grab a branch or tree to help pull yourself up and you get a shower of water.  Make your way through the underbrush of an overgrown trail and you get all the water on your pants and your shoes and your pack and sometimes your face.


The overgrown trail with a gauntlet of wet brush to go through.

I was wearing jeans, and soon they were as soaked as if I’d been trudging into a driving rain.  Wet jeans complicates climbing a bit.  Because they stick to your skin, you often have to pull to unstick them when stepping up over a waist-high obstacle, which pretty much describes this whole trail.  I did have a plastic poncho in the pack for wet conditions, but no plastic rain pants.

Not wearing jeans, Buck was not quite as handicapped as I was and didn’t understand why I was lagging behind.


Buck waits patiently for me.

We climbed about 900 feet this way when we stopped to take stock of the situation.  Wet jeans.  Ridiculously steep trail.  Clouds disobeying the weather report that predicted they would pass on after early morning.  A voice in my head said “This isn’t fun.”  If not, why am I doing it?  Buck being his usual agreeable self didn’t complain when I told him plans had changed.  And thus I was defeated by a mountain once again.


The self-timer captures us at our turn-around spot.

Determined not to let the mountain get its revenge twice over by zapping my knees again, I lowered myself carefully and slowly down the slippery slope.  Not having any joint problems to worry about, Buck ran on ahead and once in a while waited for me to catch up.


Buck waits for me on the way down too.

This time the defeat is permanent, I think.  Mailbox Peak is similar and we had a similar experience there.  I never quite realized it before, but I really like switchbacks.  I like walking, not scrambling.  Scrambling a little ways at the top is one thing, scrambling for 3,000 feet of elevation gain is quite another.  No more mountain trails for us that have been blazed by people who think straight up is the way to go.

However, the Garmin GPS was a roaring success.  It helped me find the trailhead.  It got me back on the trail a couple of times.  There are a few side trails that go off to lookout points on the top of rock outcroppings.  You don’t realize you’re on the wrong trail until it ends on a narrow ledge and you’re staring down at an abyss hundreds of feet down on three sides.  After one or two of those it is reassuring to be able to look at a GPS screen and see that yes, you have strayed a quarter mile off course.  Without it you’d probably make your way back to where you took the wrong turn, but it’s still reassuring to see that little arrow moving inexorably back toward the little pink line that represents the trail.

Not our most fun outing, but we learned something:  switchbacks are good.


Back at the trailhead with wet pants, pack, and fur.


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