Sometimes when you wake up in the morning, you have no idea what you are getting yourself into; this was one of those days. I had been jonesing for a snow hike for a while now. Finally we got some good snow and I signed myself up to join US Hiking for a trip to Cucamonga & Etiwanda Peaks. I had been wanting to join this group for quite some time, but they have a very strict vetting procedure. You can’t go on their more interesting hikes if you haven’t hiked with them before, but that’s kind of a Catch 22 (much like the classic, you can’t get a job unless you have experience). I finally persuaded them that I was fit enough for them to give me a chance.
The hike began ordinarily enough when we met at Ice House Canyon Trailhead. I should have known something was up when I saw the rangers at the trailhead making sure everyone had permits. In light of the fact that a hiker died on nearby Devil’s Backbone earlier in the week and another suffered severe head injuries on Timber Mountain, they were taking precautions. Unfortunately, authorities didn’t decide to lock the barn door until after the horse was gone. The day was to end with one hiker dead and several others injured. We made our way to Icehouse Saddle after a steep climb. There were icy patches in parts, but I didn’t think much of them, since we did have micro spikes and also snow shoes.
The trail to our original destination was impassable due to snow and ice, so we made a snap decision to head up to Bighorn Peak and then on to Ontario Peak. This is where red lights should have gone off. There was no visible trail and we began to ascend the steep, icy mountainside. Much like the cat who climbs a tree and can’t get down, we were rapidly putting ourselves in a spot we couldn’t get out of. Because there were so many of us, people began to slide down and take others with them.
I quickly moved to the front of the pack to get away from the bedlam. I did have fleeting doubts as to how we were going to get back down, but I naively assumed someone had that figured out already. I later learned that two in the group were injured sliding down to the saddle. One had to be flown by helicopter to a trauma center to treat a leg injury. Another had her pants ripped off (literally)when she hit several trees and bushes on her way down. I had no idea about any of this as we climbed into the icy wonderland. Fortunately, the majority of the group turned back at this point and did not make the dangerous ascent. I was unaware that my group of five was all alone on the dangerous mountain.
Once we got to the top of Bighorn, we realized that it would be a wise idea not to attempt Ontario Peak that day, so we figured we could catch the trail back down the side of the mountain through Kelly Camp and on to the saddle again. The trail (there wasn’t one visible) was so steep and slippery, that our leader fell almost immediately. This was ice axe, crampon and helmet territory! According to the local fire captain, even crampons and ice axes are not sufficient for this slick terrain. When I say fell, I don’t mean just fell. I mean disappeared down the mountain to an uncertain fate. We quickly realized that the trail was impassable. Our leader Rick was stuck in a steep gully, so we carefully climbed down to join him.
We were hoping that we could just rock hop down the ravine back to the main canyon. Unfortunately, that dead-ended at a precipitous drop. I attempted to scout a way out, but ended up in a place where I thought I couldn’t even climb back up, but fortunately Brenda (an experienced trail runner) found a handhold for me and I was able to muster up the strength to pull myself out. She also used my knife to carve a handhold on an iced-over rock for another group member to pull himself out of a slippery spot. We then had to ascend the steep, icy gully back up the mountainside. When we reached a flat area near the top we thought our troubles were over, but no such luck. The trail out was just as steep as the one we couldn’t pass before. We tried to push through again , but Brenda went hurtling down straight into a tree with a loud crash! Fortunately she was not seriously injured.
We decided to stay put at that point. We quickly set to work digging a shelter to protect us from the ferocious winds at the top of the mountain. We gathered pine boughs to serve as an insulation bed and tried to break off whatever meager dry branches we could find at that altitude to light a fire. We pooled our food resources and were resigned to spending the night on the frigid mountain and hopefully avoiding getting frostbite by sharing body heat. I tried my best to contribute to the psychological well being of the group by cracking lots of gallows humor jokes. In a life or death situation, often having the right mindset can mean the difference between giving up hope and perseverance.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of our group leaders Nazario and Kim plus the club founder Mike, a helicopter finally made its way to us. Our crew could have easily been lost in the shuffle of numerous lost and injured hikers that day, but fortunately we had zealous advocates on the ground. The helicopter at first wanted to just show us the way to walk out of there, but there was simply no way for us to hike back -the route was just too treacherous. The pilot told us through his loudspeaker (barely audible over the rotor blades), that we would just have to wait for a search and rescue team (hours later or even the following morning). Just as it began to get dark, another helicopter appeared above us. It passed once and then circled back. A rescuer descended on a cable and planted his ice axe into the ground. We were headed home! He told the three lightest of our group of five to get ready to fly out. He quickly attached harnesses for us and told us to leave our gear behind. The cable pulled us high up into the hovering helicopter and we were flown to safety. What a relief! I was ecstatic as the cable hoisted me above the trees into the hovering helicopter!
When we finally reached safety, the rest of the group was waiting for us at the Mount Baldy Lodge, a one of a kind, folksy joint full of taxidermy and local flavor. They were having a Mardi Gras party at the lodge, so it was a little surreal to go from the rescue chopper to the honky tonk.
I realize the fact that we escaped this ordeal unscathed was largely a matter of dumb luck and having a guardian angel watching over us. It was clearly a mistake to ascend beyond the saddle without crampons and ice axe, but given that had already been done, what did we do right? Each member of the group worked together to extract us from a very dangerous situation. We made decisions as a team. We never split up and we let cooler heads prevail at all times. All of the people who were stranded with me were experienced, well-equipped, outdoor adventurers (with the exceptions already noted earlier).
Remember that when you set out into the mountains you may be building plenty of heat through exertion, but if you end up being stuck, immobile for a few hours or possibly over night, you are going to need many more layers of insulation. If you need to build a fire in a howling blizzard, matches alone won’t do the trick. You will probably need some basic tinder, an accelerant like petroleum jelly and also something to cut wood like a saw or fixed blade knife. Practice these skills before you are in an emergency situation. Have good comms. Fortunately our group leader was in contact with the rest of the group via FRS (Family Radio Service) walkie-talkie. Without radio contact, it would have taken much longer to find us and figure out what had happened to us.
Lastly, I would like to extend my profound gratitude to the volunteer heroes who rescued us and all of the members of US Hiking for making sure we returned to hike another day.
This is a first – I received a copy of this book to review from one of my readers, so here goes. “Dude Making a Difference” by Rob Greenfield is a different sort of adventure travel book. The author is a young man who set out to accomplish a challenging journey (a bike ride across the US), but with some very peculiar restrictions. All of the rules are there to prove a point and call attention to waste and environmental destruction. So instead of just a personal journey like most adventure travel books, this one is a sort of publicity stunt combined with environmental activism. All proceeds from the book go to One Percent for the Planet.
I’m not entirely a stranger to the world of the bicycle vagabond. Throughout my hometown of Los Angeles is a network of bicycle co-ops, places where you can fix or build your own bicycle with the help of volunteers. These places are often hubs of bicycle activism and bike tourers like Greenfield can find hospitable folks who will help them keep their wheels rolling and their spirits high. Bicycle co-ops are likewise dedicated to a sustainable, earth-friendly lifestyle.
Okay, so here are the basics: Greenfield takes sustainability and thrift to the absolute extreme on this journey. He has a hybrid system of supply. He lives on either off-grid resources or he relies on products wasted by others. He refuses to use any on-grid electricity or water. Electricity he gets from solar panels on his bicycle trailer. Water he gets from streams, rivers and water either thrown out by others or leaking from pipes, faucets, hydrants etc. For food, he will only eat organic, locally sourced products, unless he is dumpster diving. He won’t even use toilets. This is pretty easy when he’s in the middle of nowhere, but even in cities he won’t use the sewage system. He carries a small portable toilet with him and buries the contents once he’s in a safe place.
He adds other bits of asceticism to his adventure: no sex, no alcohol, no drugs etc. From time to time he’ll ad dd a random challenge like pedaling through an entire state without a seat or riding barefoot. This seem absurd, but he’ll justify them by adding the stunts to online fundraising goals.
Does the book work? yes! While it begins with a long list of all of the earth conscious restrictions Greenfield will be burdened with, it soon becomes clear he has a system. By living “off the grid” he can actually enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom most of the time. Thanks to internet technology like Warm Showers, a website where people can offer free hospitality to touring cyclists, Greenfield is never without a place to stay. He can avoid spending a dime even when visiting expensive urban areas.
His statement simple: We live in a land of overabundance. Despite our massive surplus of food and other resources, many people do without. Not only are milions of tons of food thrown away, but the industry that creates, transports, packages and sells the food is incredibly harmful to the environment. Fossil fuels are used to transport food across the globe. Packaging is thrown into landfills. People live in food deserts and don’t get the nutrients they need to eat a healthy diet. People burn fossil fuels to commute short distances, all the while endangering others and getting fat and sick.
His own resourcefulness and flexibility gets him through the rest of the journey. He camps in wild places, sneaks into churches and gets invited home to farms and homes across the country. By relying on dumpster diving, he is never far away from his next meal. Greenfield has an outrageously positive attitude, so every time he digs something out of a dumpster, he’s thrilled instead of disgusted. He weathers setbacks that might cause others to give up with ease. One time he buys the wrong kind of tubes for his tires (Schrader instead of Presta). Instead of giving up like a normal person, he enlarges the hole in his rim with his pocketknife in order to make the larger valve fit.
Even when dealing with people who aren’t initially very supportive of his mission, Rob is able to turn them around with his enthusiasm. He frequently encounters cops who are called to respond to him either trespassing somewhere or dumpster diving. Instead of getting confrontational with them (never a winning strategy), he is usually able to befriend them by telling them all about his journey and directing them to his website. After getting out of one of these situations, one of the police officers even “friends” him on Facebook.
At times he does run into inevitable human conflicts. He has an invisible companion for most of the book who serves as his photographer. This friend isn’t bound by the same strictures as Greenfield, but he does have to endure the same hardships and gets none of the credit. This silent partner eventually parts ways with Greenfield near the end of the book. At other times he runs into conflicts with his hosts. These kind strangers make home cooked meals for him and often he won’t eat them because they aren’t organic or locally sourced. He won’t even turn on their light switches or use their showers. Of course Rob is committed to his trip’s core principles of sustainability, but I can see how these folks might have been a little irritated.
It’s easy to be dismissive about Rob Greenfield, but the more you read the more realize that there is a method to his madness. His journey is inspiring. Who wouldn’t want the freedom to detach from routine and go wherever the wind takes them. Because of his courage he is welcomed with open arms across the land. In addition, he is doing it all the to educate and inspire others. Live simply. If it doesn’t serve you or the earth let it go.
This Sunday I had a chance to visit the Shalom Institute in the hills of Malibu for Hannukah Family Fun Day with my kids. So what does a Hannukah festival have to do with nature? A lot when you hold the festival on an organic farm in a bucolic hillside setting. Hidden away in the Santa Monica Mountains, up the road from the Circle X Ranch is nestled a Jewish retreat and summer camp. The Shalom Institute is a place where humans and their natural environment meld together seemlessly.
The program listed no fewer than 14 separate activities, so we decided to just try whatever we saw first. After menorah making at the arts and crafts table, we did some human-powered apple sauce making, riding the “Jamba Jews” Bike Blender. This gizmo connects the rear wheel of a bicycle to a blender. It’s a very rudimentary setup, using a gear mounted perpendicular to the bicycle wheel to spin the blender blade. There is no electricity at all involved. Bicycle power can be used to generate electricity and power all types of devices. In fact during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, volunteers from South Africa and the US created a radar dish that was rotated by pedal power in lieu of a generator! Now there’s no point making apple sauce without something to put it on.
I had never had the pleasure of frying latkes al fresco before. Camp counselors manned a giant pan set up over a makeshift cinder block stove over a bed of hot charcoal. Children enjoyed getting messy, scooping up the batter of potatoes, egg, flour and salt water then shaping it by hand into round patties. We fried the irresistible potato pancakes in olive oil and enjoyed them hot with apple sauce.
Next we made our way to the Shemesh Organic Farm , to learn about the “connection between Judaism, Israel, nature, and agriculture through hands-on organic farming, gardening, harvesting, and composting. The farm is also model for Jewish social and environmental responsibility – the harvested fruits and vegetables are used in outdoor cooking workshops, as ingredients in meals in the dining hall, and donated to SOVA, the kosher food pantry.”
Davis Watson, the farm director coached the children as they dug holes and carefully planted winter vegetables grown from seed.The farm is in operation year round with seasonally rotated crops and drought-sensitive drip irrigation. Today the kids planted beets and cabbage in beds with hooped shelters to keep pests from eating the crops. The little ones were delighted to feed Rocky, the 30 year old African tortoise who guards the veggies. His favorite snack is grape leaves.
Organic Farming and Permaculture
The organic farm is located next to the Marla Bennett Israel Discovery Garden, named for a young UC Berkeley student killed in a Hamas bombing at the Cafeteria of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2002. In her memorial garden, visitors can see the seven significant species (olives, barley, pomegranates, wheat, vines and figs) found in the Bible. The olive trees stand out among the plants in the garden, a reminder of how elusive peace in the Holy Land remains.
The folks at Shalom pulled out all the stops. Kids could jump into adventure with a ropes course, a giant swing, rock climbing wall and a zip line. There were thrills for all ages. Oddly enough, the youngest kids (preschool age) were the most fearless zip liners, while some of the grade school kids took a bit more coaxing to take a leap off the tall, old oak tree that held the launching platform.
In line with the warrior story of Hannukah, there were some more martial activities to participate in. Kids got to try traditional archery. Novices were able to shoot arrows from traditional bows into hay bales. While more a part of the American West than the Middle East, kids had fun hurling tomahawks at a tree stump. It took a bit of practice, but even your correspondent was able to drive his hatchet into the stump on the 97th attempt!
We ended our visit with some time at the Pinat Chai Animal Center, a horseback riding and animal center. Children were able to feed and play with cows, goats, sheep, horses, donkeys, alpacas as well as various types of birds. Children were learning hands about “animal husbandry, the relationship animals have with kashrut, general animal care, and about animal connections in the Torah.” Maybe they didn’t master all of that in one day, but they did get to hug Norman the steer.
I had been wanting to attend one of these basically forever. While I had dabbled in primitive skills walkabouts with Jim Robertson and Nhan-Esteban Khuong Esteban of Earth Sky People before, what I really wanted was this – an opportunity to practice the skills in a remote location while on a backpacking trip. The classes I had attended in the past have been excellent, but generally confined to local parks or limited to shorter nature walks. I always enjoy the classes, but I truly crave the adventure! All of the instruction just falls into place in the wild setting. It’s what Jim Robertson calls “really living the life.”
Our group of five was a mixed bunch: Jim, one of our leaders is 76 years old and guides groups into the wilderness like a man half his age. Nhan the co-instructor is easily identifiable by his long hair and the fact that he almost never wears any shoes. We were joined by Nhan’s wife Victoria, who is the co-founder of an intentional community called Earth-Sky People. In addition to myself, we had Dave, a lifelong adventure guide from New Zealand who leads groups on various kinds of nature excursions, particularly adaptive encounters.
While billed as a cold weather survival class, the weather didn’t quite cooperate with us. None the less it was chilly by Southern California standards and we did practice the necessary skills. The primary component that dealt with adverse conditions was sleeping out in the cold without a sleeping bag or modern shelter. Jim and Nhan’s classes are not governed by any rigid structure. When we reached our destination, Nhan asked us how we wished to stay warm for the night. One option was to build a primitive shelter. I opted to pass on that, because I prefer not to have a roof over my head if it’s not raining to enjoy the stars and fresh air. Primitive shelters can be quite claustrophobic, but definitely useful in a survival setting. They are also a lot of work to build.
Jim and Nhan often point out that they don’t generally refer to outdoor living as survival, but rather living in harmony with our natural surroundings. Rather than thinking of “man vs. wild”, we are just cultivating “the wild human within and connecting with the plants, animals, and landscape at a deeper more primal level. In this way, we transform the experience of “surviving” in a hostile environment to one of “connecting” with and enjoying our extended home and family in the wild.”
My group decided on the ancient, native method of sleeping over a pit of hot rocks. We dug pits about a foot deep, the size of our torsos. We lined the perimeter of the pits with rocks and lit fires. Once the logs had burned down to coals, we placed the rocks on top of the coals and filled in about 6 inches of sand. Soon the rocks absorbed the heat of the coals and provided abundant warmth throughout the night. Some of the others complained that their hot rock beds were too hot. Mine just felt just right, like a heating pad.
In addition, we employed the “long fire” to keep warm throughout the night. We probably didn’t really need it since the temperatures never dipped that low, but it was good practice. The long fire involves placing two long logs parallel to the sleeping camper. In between the two logs, you light a fire. The two long logs burn through the night but don’t quite burn through, protecting the sleeper. Still we had to sleep with one eye open in case the fire spread or the wind picked up. We kept a large trash bag full of water in case we needed to put out the fire.
The topics we touched on were familiar, however this was a chance to apply the lessons we learned in the wild. In the past I had learned about friction fire and how to make one with a hand drill or bow drill, but had only started the fires with fire kits that others had assembled. On this trip, we were able to harvest our own fire kits and whittle them into spindles, hearths and bearing blocks. Friction fire requires a subtle combination of ingredients. Each time I delve into the practice, I learn something. Our fire drills came from dried stalks of the mulefat plant. The primary requirement of the drill is that it be straight. Otherwise it is difficult to spin properly. My fire board was made from a split branch of alder wood. The fire board needs to be made of a wood that is not too soft and not too hard. When you spin the drill on the board, the friction causes the bits of sawdust that are ground off to ignite into a tiny ember. Once you have an ember you need to gently transfer it to a tinder bundle and blow it into a flame. The tinder bundle (in my case mugwort) looks like a bird’s nest and is made of bits of dried grass and other dry, thin plant material that will catch fire easily. Once the bundle is burning, you can place it into your kindling and you have a fire!
Another first for me was weaving a basket from materials harvested in the field. We plucked long vines of periwinkle, an invasive species. We had to be careful to avoid stalks that were near poison oak, which is very tricky to spot in winter. In winter the poison oak sheds its tell-tale leaves of three. All that is left is the branches, which still contain the rash-causing oil. While my basket came out looking a bit more like a plate, I was amazed how quickly the the weaving took shape. We didn’t spend much time on the baskets because we had to make camp before nightfall. This is something I would definitely be happy to try again. All of the skills Jim and Nhan teach can be practiced on your own.
As a side note, the instructors always try be mindful: Don’t take more than you need. Don’t damage plants. Don’t leave obvious signs of human intervention. Jim and Nhan call it positive impact camping – “doing something beneficial for the place you are camping at; for example taking out prior campers’ trash, litter, etc., grinding up some charcoal from the campfire and giving it to some plants for nitrogen nutrition, removing some invasive plants so the natives can grow, infusing good energy from your heart to the land...”
Jim and Nhan are open to suggestions if students have something they want to work on. One of my greatest areas of interest is indigenous cooking techniques. Due to last minute packing laziness, I didn’t have too much to work with, but we did make an impromptu grill made of green willow branches for a delicious grass fed steak. We also boiled toyon berries that we harvested on the hike in. Wild foods were available in abundance on our hike: plantain (a green, not the cooking banana) , watercress, coffee berry, bay nut, yucca.
My wild education had been on hold as I immersed myself in the business of my urban life. Signing up for this two day immersion on a whim, I returned recommitted to my wilderness obsession. There are now so many more layers of the onion to peel back. Stay tuned for more deep wilderness experiences.