My trip to the United States of America was always going to be full of new experiences. So having absorbed a lot of Los Angeles since landing, I decided to explore what some Angelenos never experience, “summiting”. I found an outdoor adventure group at UCLA, and I quickly booked into the “Idyllwild Camp and Explore” activity. Idyllwild is around 2.5 hours outside of LA, a rocky mountain range full of pine trees and boulders.
Twelve others and myself met at 7pm at UCLA and board our mini busses and depart in the dark of night towards a destination, the furtherest east I’ve ever been in the USA. It was a fantastic drive, the 405 had a clear run and for the most part so did the 10, once we were outside of LA city limits the roads become steeper and we gradually began our ascent into the mountains skirting the city. As the city lights fade, so to does our conversations and we were left in our own thoughts, pondering the weekend ahead.
We arrive! Idyllwild is like a small country town with log cabins lining the streets and many pickups parked outside the various buildings and stores. The camp ground has a few piles of residual ice from the previous snowfall. We set up camp discuss the following days proceedings and wrap up in our 0 degree rated sleeping bags tired from a long journey. A few of us including myself decided to sleep on the ground without a tent under what can only be described as a sky full of alien stars, with patterns and constellations I’ve heard about, but never witnessed. Slowly one by one the conversations become a whisper and eventually the silence and cold dark night settle in around us.
Morning and we are awoken by our camp coordinators to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and quesadilla. I quickly pack my CamelBack with the necessary items for the day, pull on my snow pants and UCLA sweater, tie the laces of my new hiking boots and pull my beanie over my head - we are ready. While our guides prepare, I quickly run through a few sun salutations and yoga poses with the group to warm us up. We pile into the vans and depart for Black Mountain summit trail. Arriving at the trail we check we are all present set up point and look at the trail, we are already at 4480 ft altitude and our hike will take us to 7772 ft. There is a feeling that I cannot describe, perhaps if I was a child it would be easy as children show enthusiasm with ease, in my head I knew that I was about to see and feel for the first time that beautiful crystalline water - snow!
Our group consists of two Japanese, four chinese, four Americans (two sorority girls who were just adorable), our three American guides and one solitary Aussie (me). We begin our trek, there are patches of ice scattered along the side of the trail, the dirt is grey and full of fine pebbles, the trees are all pine and the smaller bushes display a stunning iron coloured bark. Very quickly people begin to form groups based on ethnicity and ability, I pair up with a young American guy named Sloan who is majoring in Biology with an interest in fitness. We got along really well and spent the remainder of the weekend together.
After about 45 mins we take a small break, which gives the group a chance to look up and around instead of down at our feet. It is breathtaking, a mountain terrain covered with pine and boulders, snow still covers the peaks of many mountains and there is a fine mist in the air which blurs the distant mountain slopes out of view. We resume our climb and within 10 minutes we see a large patch of snow, still fluffy. We stop and begin to throw snowballs at each other. Paul our guide, decides to strip down to just his pants and shoes and jump belly first into the snow, sliding down 10 minutes to the path. I decide to give it a go, after of course making my snow angel imprint in the snow, I jump head first into the freezing snow and slide on my hands and belly finishing in the dirt, hands covered in grit, bleeding, my belly crazed cold and wet, but full of such excitement that all I notice is the cheers of the group.
After another hour of walking, people are fatiguing, we stop for lunch and set up a tarp nestled amongst some large boulders. A lunch of turkey and cheese sandwiches and people are resting, but my excitement takes me away from the group to scale a nearby boulder (almost stacking it on more than one occasion) to the top. I am rewarded with the most stunning panoramic view of the mountain range. Above me an eagle gracefully soars, woodpeckers can be heard digging out grubs from the trees and all around me there is a stillness that absorbs thought leaving me feeling humble and full of awe.
So close to the summit, the snow has increased so much so that now we are walking through it, the crunching sound the occasional loss of leg deep into a patch of dense snow laughing as we are pulled free, it is like nothing I could have prepared myself for, no matter how much you see things on a small screen, the reality is always different. The summit is in sight, exhausted we fumble forward, turning a corner to see it, the summit of Black Mountain! One more effort, one more breath and we arrive cheering and taking in a view 7772 ft above the roaring oceans. After taking photos and describing what each of us see and feel when we look out from the top of a mountain, we leave. The journey back is much easier for the body, but much harder on the feet and toes, I feel as if my big toe has been squished into jelly by the time we reach the starting point.
Back at camp, we light a fire, warm up and talk about the day. Some people had never camped before, let alone summited, there is a real sense of camaraderie and accomplishment. The night progresses and the Milky Way reveals itself again, this time unobscured by the light of the Moon. I point out some of the constellations draw peoples eyes to the numerous satellites and we count the shooting stars. After a while it’s dinner time and yet again we are treated to tantalising food. Dessert does not disappoint with a peach cobbler (I was quickly corrected when I asked with surprise “we are having fish for dessert?!”), a delicious bread and crumble dish from the mid west followed by smores! A smore is chocolate and melted marshmallow sandwiched between two Graham crackers (taste like milk arrowroot biscuits) and is an American camping tradition. We talk long into the night, mostly with Sloan, the other two American girls and Atsuko, a Japanese girl whose smile is contagious, before exhaustion finally leads us to our slumber under the stars.
Sunday morning and the sound of a woodpecker’s rapid tapping from the tree above wakes me from my sleep. We take our fill on french toast and coffee and start the day with a gentle hike through a nearby trail before spending the afternoon eating pizza bagels alongside a small lake brimming with trout. Most decide to nap, our guides decide to take a dive into the icey waters, much to the dismay of the locals attempting fishing. I take a walk around the lake and spend some time looking at the little things like the reeds along the lakeside with the puffy tops seen in every single cartoon depiction of a lake. I decide to nap the remainder of the afternoon away (people who know me well, know I don’t nap)… it lasted 10 minutes before boredom took me and I got up to explored the lakeside some more.
Heading home we exchange stories about were we come from and recite the new words that we’ve learned. My new American friends love “heaps”, “stacked it” and “bugger”, all said with, what I would describe as, a terrible british accent, never mind an Australian one. My attempts at an American accent attracted many giggles as I clumsily claim “this weekend was super dope”.
I’m sitting now in the lounge room of my LA apartment, reflecting on the opportunity afforded me by studying at UCLA. Coming from a small city and moving to such a fast past, colourful and vibrant city, surrounded by stunning mountains, amazing weather and beaches that welcome you with warm sand and a gentle breeze, I find myself captivated. I want to learn more to explore more and to appreciate the chance I have been given to be part of life here and to be part of a scientific team surrounded by bright minds and that enthusiasm America is famous for.