Friday, January 25, 2013

C50 Training: Upper Middle Fork and Chapman Trails

I arrived at the Icehouse Canyon trailhead around noon on November 21st, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Cars filled half of the large parking lot. The weather was clear, and not as chilly or windy as my trip two days prior on the 19th. Still I wore gloves and a beanie, and carried an extra shirt.

Cucamonga Wilderness trails map at Icehouse Saddle.
I started up the trail at 12:15 PM, feeling better than I did on the 19th, when I was weak from bronchitis. This time I reached Icehouse Saddle in 85 minutes, having stopped briefly only twice: once at Columbine Spring to refill water and once on the tough switchbacks.

At the saddle I met an Asian man waiting for his boys, whom I had passed along the trail. One boy, a giant, lumbered along slowly. The shorter ones moved a bit faster. The father explained that it was the boys' first trip to the saddle. He, however, frequently visited the area and had recently hiked to Cucamonga Peak in a storm that dumped inches of hail and snow on him. What a lucky fellow!

I disliked the cold shade of the saddle, so I found some sunlight on a slope below the Three Tee's Trail, cleared away pine needles, and sat down to eat lunch. One of the smaller boys finally arrived. He hid behind a large tree, wielded his walking stick like a rifle, and prepared to snipe the giant from a distance. Suddenly I realized that I too was on the verge of being attacked. A platoon of hornets had infiltrated my personal space and were crawling over the blanket of pine needles right beside me. I grabbed my Camelbak and quickly returned to the frigid saddle. While finishing lunch, a series of loud, somewhat concerning human cries sounded from the direction of Timber Mountain. However, they did not include pleas for help, so I gave them little thought.

My goal for the day was simple: tag Timber Mountain, then walk the Chapman Trail before sunset. Climbing Timber would provide additional exercise, but the C50-related objective was acquiring a needed GPS track of Chapman. I also wanted to finish before sunset in order to take pictures of the trail with my new camera.

The Middle Fork Trail at Icehouse Saddle descends to the left
while the Cucamonga Peak Trail goes straight.
Around 2:00 PM I was only a few steps up the Three Tee's, on my way to Timber, when three young hikers arrived with a story of being attacked by hornets along the trail--which explained the earlier screams. This news brought to mind my own unpleasant hornet encounters, one of which resulted in losing my old camera while fleeing wildly from the stinging bastards in Sharps Canyon. Deciding to avoid another painful (and potentially expensive) confrontation, I turned around and instead considered the Middle Fork Trail. Previously I had explored Middle Fork from the trailhead in Lytle Creek, but had turned around at Commanche campground due to time constraints. So this was a good opportunity to check out the unexplored section between Commanche and Icehouse Saddle.

A trailhead sign indicated the beginning of Middle Fork, located immediately to the left of the unsigned Cucamonga Peak Trail, which took off generally southward, contouring around Bighorn Peak. Middle Fork, however, invited me to descend a gully to the east via switchbacks.

A rock slide area along upper Middle Fork Trail.
This part of Middle Fork clearly suffered from abandonment issues. It tested my balance on narrow strips, made me prove my agility dodging brush, and attempted to twist my ankles with rock debris. Still, I found it quite alluring. The trail sent me weaving between clusters of old trees and passing through open vistas of the canyon below and Etiwanda Peak above. The combination of slightly rugged terrain and beautiful scenery thoroughly impressed me. Near the bottom of the gully there was even a little stream of water flowing beside the trail. It quickly merged with the drainage coming down from Cucamonga Peak's north face.

Etiwanda Peak from upper Middle Fork Trail.
At this water junction the path turned left, escorting me the remaining distance to delightful Commanche Camp, situated along the stream's tree-shaded west bank. I reached the camperless campground at 2:43 PM. According to my Tom Harrison map (and the Forest Service), from Icehouse Saddle to Commanche the distance is 1.7 miles, which I covered in a little less than forty minutes at a leisurely, picture-taking pace. After admiring the thick blanket of fallen leaves, the slowly tumbling creek, and the broken "Commanche" signpost kept upright by a pile of rocks, I flipped a quick u-turn. Those 1,660 feet of elevation that I lost since the saddle were not going to regain themselves.

Signpost at Commanche Camp.
By 3:42 PM I was back at Icehouse Saddle, taking a five-minute break to catch my breath and fantasize about future adventures. During the return climb, about halfway up the gully, a steep ridge had beckoned me to leave the trail and ascend northward, presumably to Timber Mountain. Thankfully I had summoned enough common sense to resist the call of an uncertain adventure less than two hours before dark. Thus I spent my rest break daydreaming of one day attempting that route with more time to spare.

Again, my primary goal for the day was to cover the Chapman Trail before sunset, which would occur, without any concern for my needs, in merely one hour at 4:44 PM. Returning to reality, I hustled down 0.6 miles of the Icehouse Canyon Trail to the upper Chapman junction.

Upper Chapman Trail minutes before sunset.
Chapman took me northwestbound, kindly surrendering 650 feet over 2.1 miles to Cedar Glen campground, while affectionately hugging the mammoth sides of Timber Mountain and Telegraph Peak. Despite the trail's feminine embrace, Timber and Telegraph treat her poorly, hurling annoying rocks upon her surface whenever and wherever possible. Slightly bruised and battered, she nevertheless remains positive, gifting travelers with breathtaking, panoramic views of Icehouse Canyon and beyond. After showing her a little appreciation, I was further rewarded with the sounds of vociferous hikers several hundred feet below in the canyon. Not only does Chapman deliver beauty and passion, she often provides conversation as well.

Entrance to Cedar Glen campground.
By the time I reached Cedar Glen at 4:51 PM, the sun was done setting, but there would be maybe another half hour of sufficient daylight. The empty campground seemed like an ideal place for a picnic or a nap. But I had failed to bring a basket full of food or a desire to sleep.

Without hesitation I continued out of the camp, crossed a small stream, and in the fading light entered the dark forest of lower Cedar Canyon. I mostly jogged the well-maintained 1.6 miles from Cedar Glen to the lower junction with Icehouse Canyon, thus completing the Chapman roundabout. Still there was the 0.9 miles through Icehouse Canyon back to the car, which I reached by flashlight at 5:32 PM.

Over the course of five and a quarter hours, I managed around 12.5 miles with about 4,140 feet of gain. The hike was more entertaining than most, and I had an unexpected adventure down to Commanche Camp. But still, two months after the fact, it bothers me that I did not achieve my goal of finishing Chapman before sunset. Although, running behind schedule did allow me to snap my favorite picture of upper Chapman Trail lit by the setting sun. So perhaps it was a stupid goal to begin with.

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