The Happy Hill

Mt. Williamson, peak

Pleasant View Ridge, Mt. Williamson.

The Happy Hill.

Halfway down Mt. Williamson I passed a little kid hiking up with his family.

“Is the hill happy or painful?” asked the little kid as I ran by.

“Happy!” I told him.

Thank you, little kid, for making my day, a day that was already feeling pretty made. No one has ever phrased a question better.

South Fork Trail

South Fork Trail

Nobody Goes Down.

Whenever we set out in the mountains, we only go up. Nobody, it seems, ever goes down.

From Islip Saddle there are two choices for up, both along the PCT: Mt. Williamson in one direction (the Canada direction), and up towards Little Jimmy, Windy Gap, and on, ultimately to Baden Powell before heading back down to the 2 and Vincent Gap (the Mexico direction).

There’s also a route down, on a trail that I’ve never even really noticed, because we’re only going up, it seems. This trail, which starts right next to the PCT heading up Williamson, heads down 5.1 miles to South Fork Campground, named after the south fork of Big Rock Creek, which soon after disappears into the Mohave Desert. This is the South Fork Trail, and Sunday was my first time on it.

Like most of the trails heading down, it’s scarcely travelled and not very maintained. It’s a rocky trail, sometimes so narrow it disappears from view. The exposure can be a bit severe if exposure frightens you the way it does me, and the footing is not always sure on loose rock.

Two and a half miles was enough for me on my own. The exposure got a little more than I was comfortable with – I have a genuine fear of heights, which means it’s more of a phobia than a legitimate, safety-first fear. Some trails that are really not safe at all don’t frighten me in the least, but exposure can terrify me. I turned around and headed back up, figuring I’d cross over Williamson and then run it back.

Pleasant View Ridge

Pleasant View Ridge

Up on the Ridge

The PCT heads up Mt. Williamson from Islip going mostly west, on a rocky, steep, south facing slope. The trail is wide and well travelled. The PCT stops short of the summit at a saddle, and continues down on the north side, heading back towards the highway. It’s a short 1.75 mile climb, but during AC100 most runners tackle this in the middle of the day, under a hot sun, and the top of the climb and the saddle is where I see the race’s first carnage – runners resting in the shade where they can find it, look badly beaten with another 70 miles still to go.

Although the switch from ascent to descent is on the PCT, it’s hard to spot. There are usually markings, but they change and can be deceptive. Today, the PCT was “closed” by a line of branches, directing hikers to continue to the summit, another half mile on a narrow use trail. Had I not known that the PCT continue past the line of branches I would have surely missed it.

First, though, I decided I’d try the summit. The trail heads more or less straight up along the narrowing ridge, reaches a false summit (this is actually Pallett Mountain) where it takes a hard left turn onto the Pleasant View Ridge, a stretch that resembles a narrower Devil’s Backbone of Baldy. The rocks are loose and the exposure is, well, clear down to the Mohave Desert miles below. First you will hit Will Thrall peak, and beyond it Williamson Peak. You used to be able to continue beyond on narrow, tight switchbacks that would take you to Buckhorn Campground and the Burkhardt Trail via the Rattlesnake Trail (also part of the PCT, but this is the area now closed due to the endangered Mountain Yellow Legged Frog).

Scenic Mound

Scenic Mound, Krakta Ridge


The Pleasant View Ridge was a bit too much for me. I don’t do well with exposure, and this has exposure clear down to the Mohave Desert, a mile or more below. It’s a long fall, or maybe slide, down to Palmdale.

My anxiety was already a little high. The day before, I’d made a completely failed attempt on the North Backbone Trail from Wright Mountain to Baldy. I got about 50 yards before turning back. A second try got me about 51 yards.

“You’ll be fine with those trekking poles”, friends say. I’m sure they’re right. It doesn’t really matter.

A fear of heights isn’t really a fear, which the American Psychiatric Organization describes as a “normal response to a genuine danger” but a phobia, which is an “abnormally fearful response to a danger that is imagined or is irrationally exaggerated”. Here’s this thing about my fear of heights: I don’t really have a fear of falling. What I have, instead, is a fear of jumping. I fight this terrible and sometimes crippling urge to get just to the edge and then jump.

My fear of heights is, specifically, Aeroacrophobia, which is an irrational fear of open high places. This is why the switchbacks at the top of Mt. Baden Powell freaked me out so badly I could not get across until I had hypnotherapy the weeks leading up to AC100 in 2012. It’s also why the exposure at the top of Pleasant View Ridge was so difficult. Had I succumbed to the terrifying urge to jump on Baden Powell or Pleasant Valley Ridge, I would have slid a few feet on scree, scraped up my ass a little, and then climbed back up, thoroughly unnerved but otherwise mostly okay.

Mt. Williamson

North Slope of Mt. Williamson

Pleasant View Ridge, Mt. Williamson

Pleasant View Ridge, Mt. Williamson

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