mt baldy

Charlie Havenick
7 min readDec 8, 2021


Sometimes I worry that most things will be better in my head. That one day, I will walk down the aisle with a pebble in my shoe or spend an entire winter in Manhattan only to learn that I hate cold weather. I fear that the scenario in my head is always better than the lived human experience. I’ve come to accept that the obsession with anything that might be really good is wasted energy. I accept that being a living being with joints and nerve receptors can change the way that I experience just about anything.

Hiking is one of the few things that confronts discomfort. It forces you to be present with every ache, pain, and bead of sweat speeding down your forehead. Hiking without time constraints (in which my body has some say in the pacing of things) is one of the easiest ways to quiet the world’s expectations of myself and hear my own instincts and inclinations. Hiking has a way of showing you what is uncomfortable and asking you when it’s too much.

There is liberation in making the decision to keep going, over and over, in each and every step.

Hiking does not only activate physical sensations, but the mix of environments, people, and sensations might be able to show you the full range of your emotions at once. If you take your woes to the mountain, you may come down with a little less to bear. If you bore in the dry, chaparral, the pine-covered parts of the mountain giving cold shoulder to the sun might just surprise you.

The further I go up the mountain, the more my emotions shift and eventually become cyclical. On this last hike with my friend Allyson, I tried to make note of when these shifts happened, either using elevation, vantage point, or landmarks. I kept a journal with me and wrote syllabically improper poems playing homage to Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed. I also took videos and recordings of some of our conversations (and exasperated, delusional singing) on the mountain. What follows is a meandering exhibition into the ways that elevation and distance can liberate our bodies and minds.

6000 FT: The first fifteen minutes of every hike feels like no hell no matter who you are. Pulling myself out of bed before the sun, tripping on a rock smaller than your toe. Do things that help us do the things we learned first, hiking, poles, gadgets, walkie talkies, make the hike any less real?

Mt Baldy reminds me that I am just a little bit afraid of heights. Not heights like a building, heights like hundreds of million year craggy basalt poking into the stratosphere up from nothing. The part of this hike where the mountain turns into a ridge always makes me nervous. Most people on Devil’s Backbone have hiking poles but we didn’t bring any. The objective of our hike was not to go to the summit, but we set out with the idea that we would do part of Devil’s Backbone without poles. It’s a skinny ridge, and scaling it without poles always makes me lose my sense of center of gravity.

A few days later, I had a flight that just so happened to show me the sheer drop-offs on each side of the ridge:

This part of the Angeles National Forest is far East into San Bernardino county, and while I spent much of high school exploring the western parts of our city’s mountain range, it is still bizarre to me to look down at the clear outline of Route 66, far enough enough to pretend it’s in its heyday.

The last time I did this hike, I slept in a tent and ate at a diner on Route 66 the following morning. It always astounds me that Southern California can feel so parched and smoggy and simultaneously be home to a tiny mountain community sitting in between ancient pine groves. From high up on the mountain, looking down the ravine, through suburbia, out through Claremont and just through the isthmus on Catalina makes whole place feel so permanent. It is so easy to see every ridge that designed the south half of Los Angeles where I grew up. It is crystal clear that what shapes the city is that it is really a tributary.

7500 FT: then there is the residue of suburbia that hangs over San Bernardino, an attempt at community and teal 50s dingbats…
7200 FT: Men with ten gallon hats drink ciders and cling tight to their ski poles in the wind. ‘Blue-tailed skink’ they call them, lizards that only appear during the summer with a bright pigment — Yves Klein reptile. Stopping for water is the greatest luxury on earth.

When we got to the ski hut, it felt like a party. It seems like hiking makes everybody happy. We passed a large group of hikers being lead by one guide and you could feel the adrenaline. The people coming down from the summit, who woke up well before dawn, take off their jackets and fold up their poles, telling everyone how much colder it is at the top.

The ski hut is often where I start to feel like hiking is counterintuitive to efforts against climate change. Everyone has a beer can and there’s hardly anybody on the ski lift that runs off of a power station at the base of the mountain.

I’m not sure entirely where to place this feeling but it comes and it goes. There is a lack of human accountability and responsibility that comes with enjoying something that is being destroyed. I feel reckless.

staring at yellowjackets and burrows. There’s not a single patch of snow in this dry november but the ski lifts remind me of falling forward, red-cheeked into snow. everyone at the ski hut has on bomber jackets and cargo pants, I’m going to wear shorts for the whole hike, I bet. Does that make me feel good?

We take a break and I recall that the next section of the hike is one of the most repetitive parts, but that it ends in some spectacular views that really put the whole mountain in perspective.

7200 FT: Freytag’s Hiking Pyramid

I drew out this little map of predictions from the ski hut onward, anticipating that the next part of the hike would be tedious but would end in something that would push us forward.

Onward we went from the ski hut:

Things start to get a little more interesting here. We are simultaneously more tired and comfortable.

It is hard for my legs to find a pace again. Allyson showed me some videos that she had taken of us and I had exaggerated my hike up the steep grate into somewhat of a waddle. It looked laborious. I have been told many times, however, that I have an intense and unwavering walk. Sometimes, it is so nice to just saunter. In this sense, I am giving my body permission to do exactly as it wants, as long as we keep moving.

A fire in lancaster, acknowledgement is still an act of ambiguity.

In this second section of switchbacks, I am reminded of all of the things that are completely under-stimulating. Here, I am forced to confront the dryness of the desert. This time, there was a dark stack of smoke coming from Victorville — I wrote Lancaster, but it was either Apple Valley or Victorville. It was almost December.

Again, there is this strange feeling of guilt and I feel uncomfortable amounts of power in my ability to turn a blind eye.

We keep going and reach the start of Devil’s Backbone, this is about 9000 ft.

my hands and knees numb to the wind, 48 degrees means something different to everyone. Joan Didion said this was the cool part of route 66. She implied it. I think she was in over her head.
once my legs figure out how to go, it’s so hard to stop, but never to climb a ski ladder. is making observations out of breath enough? how can i figure how out I feel about the hike when we’ve just begun?

What may sound like a dramatic interpretation of a popular Los Angeles county day hike is a fair point for people who grew up close to sea-level: it doesn’t feel good if you don’t acclimate a little bit. Every time I do this hike, I remember that my eyes get a little drier and my head feels a little heavier as the sides of the ridge start to drop into the ravine once. I always feel silly, taking a Tylenol and drinking more water than I should. This is just another moment where the hike is asking me to consider whether I belong and whether I should keep going.

We keep climbing and I rush through the beginning of Devil’s Backbone, trying not to look over the sides. I ended up on all-fours at some points where I couldn’t figure out my center of gravity. As the trails got smaller, hiking etiquette became a little more important, holding tight to the sides of rocks so other hikers in cold weather gear could squeeze past us.

Hiking allows people to be a little bit more honest about what they need. Everyone asked us questions: when does the sun set? are you planning on summiting? do you think we should turn around here?

We had two hours left before sunset which gave us just enough time to descend and not hike too far in the dark. After timing the descent down from the summit last winter, I was happy to turn around.

The Flowchart for Endorphins

Immediately upon deciding that the hike had ended for me and Allyson, I felt relief and happiness. I would have happily gone to the summit, but I felt the same warm feelings that I get after reaching the top.

There was a levity to our pace and our hike down from the backbone that we didn’t have before.

Our knees began to hurt going down the steep switchbacks and in those moments, I was telling my body to be quiet and go along with the program. Some of the best moments on hikes are the ones where you feel so positive and so lifted that you want to continue through whatever aches and pains are calling.

When we get back down, I will give my knees the attention that they deserve. We will drink lots of water and sit and take in the sunset. We will traverse a steep trail that we hadn’t taken on the way up and walk down backwards into the dark as the sun sets through the ravine.

The only thing worth stopping for is a pebble in my boot.