What “Difficulty 4+” Means to the Sierra Club

Some friends invited me to go on an evening hike with the Sierra Club last week. It sounded like a nice way to get some exercise and get to catch up socially. Accordingly, I presented myself at the Griffith Park Merry-go-round parking lot at 6:45 for the 7 p.m. hike and waited for my friends to show up. At first, there were only a few people standing around, but gradually the influx increased until a sizable crowd of over 50 people had gathered. My friends arrived in the middle of the announcements by the local park rangers who warned us about (driving) speed limits and the presence of rattlesnakes. I was wondering what it would be like to go on a hike with nearly 100 people, when the local organizer (who noted that usually the attendance was 3-4 times larger, but the Lakers game had reduced it) began the number countdown.

“Hikes are rated in difficulty from 1 to 6, with 6 being the most strenuous. But don’t get us wrong, even a 1 is not a stroll in the park! If this is your first hike, do not attempt anything higher than a 3.”

My friends whispered, “We usually go on a 4 or 5. The 6 is usually a full-out run up and down the trails, often with rock climbing and bushwhacking involved. What would you feel comfortable with?”

This was a hike? I agreed to try the 4. The organizer was already shouting out numbers. “Here is So-n-so, and he will be leading the 6. Head out!”

Mr. 6 jogged away from the group, followed by a single person.

“Here is So-n-so-two, and he will be leading the 5. Head out!” A larger group of about 10 people peeled off to follow Mr. 5. It made sense, to have the faster groups start out first. Griffith Park contains a large network of (often steep) trails, and I would guess that the groups were picking different trails to attempt, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be the one accidentally holding up Mr. 6.

“Now, we have two leaders for the 4-hike… wait… this is a 4+! We don’t have a 4-hike tonight. And I see that it’s marked “4+, adventure!” You guys will all have a great time.” I was sucked away with the group of about 20 individuals willing to attempt the 4+. We were notified that two of the hikers were designated as “sweepers”; they were meant to stay at the back of the group and ensure that no one was left behind or collapsed or eaten by a mountain lion. The leaders: “If you find yourself getting behind the sweepers, this is not the hike for you!”

I think if I’d been there alone, I’d have been terrified.

Luckily, I had friends. As we started up the hill (not walking, no, we were marching up that hill), they wanted to hear about my recent trip to Japan. But pretty soon the pace was affecting our breathing and we settled into silence, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, as we climbed a trail that the leaders called “Cardiac”. We reached the top (the faster hikers in our group were already there, doing push-ups) and had a short pause before ascending on “Carwash.”

“Why is it called Carwash?” I asked. My friends laughed. “I asked that, too, but I don’t want to spoil it for you,” one said. We turned off the level area and started up a slippery steep trail, where the name was quickly illustrated: it’s entirely overgrown with long bladed grass on each side, so as you clamber up, you get a continual brushing just like a carwash with spinning brushes. The grass often reaches above your head, so you end up climbing blindly upwards, fending off the grass with your arms, with the rattlesnake warnings resonating through your head.

We reached the top of one of the lower ridges and headed down the other side on “Toboggan Hill”, which was a trail deeply covered in powdery sand that was actually easier to slide down than to walk down. (Several of us ended up sliding whether we wanted to or not.)

Covered in dirt, we emerged onto a paved road and followed it for a quarter-mile. Except that the sweepers were catching up, so we ended up jogging down the road until the group stopped, searching for a trail with the somewhat alarming name of “Trapeze.” They couldn’t find it (there were mixed reactions to that), so we headed down a different trail, “Cactus.” Like everything else in this park, it was steep, and the sun was starting to set. We all kept an eye out for any cacti, but didn’t find any until the very bottom of the hill, where there was a huge parking-lot-sized patch of cacti on one side of the trail. “Good thing we didn’t hit this point after dark!” chuckled one hiker.

We ended up on a dirt road, and the leaders continued their search for “Trapeze”, which they thought might lead us back up and towards our starting point. It was 8:30 p.m. by then, and dusk was settling in. A trail was found, although no one strongly recognized it. We started up it, and it was a good thing that some generous and strong tree had decided to grow right on this trail, because its support for hand gripping was really the only way to get up the 60-degree slope. There was even one branch that went right across the trail, at head-height, which I thought could reasonably be labeled a trapeze, but the other hikers insisted that this was not The Trapeze, in a vaguely disappointed way. We got halfway up the hill when the trail dead-ended. After a few minutes of crackling and bushwhacking with their feet, the leaders gave up and directed us to head back down. There was a fork in the trail, but both sides went back down, so we opted to take the one we’d already come up. I could only see the barest outlines of dirt beneath my feet, and often went on all fours to scramble down the steep trail. Three of the group, including one leader, took the other fork and then regretted it: they ended up sliding out of control down the final 40 feet to the road, picking up scrapes and bruises. Not that we could see their injuries, as the only light at that point was a bit of city glow and the illumination of the half-moon.

The group decided to trek back on the dirt road, which at least could sort of be seen and trusted to be reasonably level. Except that the pace they set required jogging, not walking. By the time we got to the final trail back down to our cars (which was named “Anklebreaker”), I was getting a little disenchanted with the idea of this kind of hike. We didn’t reach the parking lot until about 9:40 (the hikes usually aim for two hours max), and while the leaders did wait at the bottom, the sweepers had given up their jobs about halfway through the hike, meandering wherever they liked through the group. It wasn’t clear what would be done if not all hikers made it back in the same group; would the leaders really have gone up the hill in the dark and tried to find them?

I also found the attitude towards light to be a bit odd. The regular hikers seemed almost proud of the hiking in the dark bit–they deliberately choose not to bring lights. While there was (sort of) enough light to follow the road, it struck me as excessively unsafe when climbing through the brush, especially for the leaders to not even have basic lights to check injuries.

Then again, I was warned not to try anything higher than a 3. :) Overall, it was in fact good exercise (I’m still feeling it in my legs, 2 days later), and I was glad that I’d managed to keep up and not keel over. I’m not sure I could really say that I enjoyed it, though. Maybe I should stick with Hike The Geek!

4 of 6 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Eric Jensen said,

    June 15, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    How funny! To me hiking is an inclusive, relaxing activity usually designed to go somewhere and see something interesting. Occaisionally to reach a specific goal such as the top of a mountain, a pass, or a vista, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it as a competitive thing. I mean, if I want to go out and suck wind for two hours, I’ll go bicycling. If I want near-cardiac-arrest-almost-puking-gut-wrenching-lactic-acid-anaerobic-threshhold-death I will race a triathlon or a 10k or something. Hiking for me has always represented a different kind of fun. More mellow, more of a taking photographs, moseying, identifying plants sort of experience.

    I’m with you — not using lights is cool if you have them and you decide not to. But not having them is bad form.

    Glad you made it back all right. Going to try a 4+ again?

    — Eric

  2. Elizabeth said,

    June 17, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Wow. I didn’t realize that the Sierra Club’s motto was “we suck the fun out of hiking.” Contrary to popular belief, the words “nature” and “torture” do not share a root. :)

    I second Eric’s assessment — bad form! Glad you’re safe!

  3. Echo said,

    June 18, 2008 at 8:39 am

    (Learned something new!)


    I tend to enjoy steep hikes that make me suck wind. There’s a kind of zone the mind reaches with any kind of hard exercise. But I don’t think I would have liked that either, especially the pace that requires jogging. That’s the opposite of the kind of rhythm I associate with hiking.

  4. David said,

    June 19, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    Oops … sorry to have subjected you to this hike. I hope the sore legs will heal soon. Next time (if you do decide to come for a next time), maybe a 2 or 3 instead?

    I’m a little surprised by Eric and Elizabeth’s comments. As far as I know, we did see some things, and part of the reason we got to the cactus patch and other places is because we walked fast, and took steep trails. Personally, I think the adventure hikes are a lot of fun.

  5. wkiri said,

    June 19, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    No problem, David! It was an interesting new experience. My legs were just fine. All I was conveying here was that it wasn’t at all what I expected, not that it was bad. And of course, *you* were the only person there who did have a light! (I admire your preparedness. :) )

  6. Tim said,

    July 7, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I am very surprised that these folks were with the Sierra Club. They must be part of a non-overlapping set with the WTC (Wilderness Travel Course) folks that Em and I took a class with… Those folks don’t walk around the block without the 10-essentials. They must have taught me well, because I won’t take a hike without at least a head-lamp and sunscreen (2 of the 10). I’ll often have 9 out of 10 since I seldom take a map on short hikes.


  7. What I Learned Today » Blog Archive » What “Difficulty 3+” Means to the Sierra Club said,

    August 1, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    […] I recently described a Difficulty 4+ hike with the Sierra Club, which was a bit more than I bargained for. This week, I went back and tackled a 3+ instead. The difference was like night and day! We hiked some of the same trail sections, but there were frequent stops that provided ample time to survey the darkening valleys, the rosy sunset, and the haze and fog flowing in. We weren’t constantly out of breath, so I actually got to catch up with my friends chatting. We did end up hiking the end part in deep dusk, but I’d brought a small LED light, and the leader actually switched on his headlamp to help guide the hikers past tricky bits. […]

  8. Colleen S said,

    June 15, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    I used to hike there every Tues/Thurs religiously til I moved away. Now that I am back, I want to start again. Different leaders have different hiking styles as well as the difficulty level. I hiked the advanced hikes, but wouldn’t hike with one leader cuz he liked to bushwack too much. But whichever hike you choose & hiking style you prefer…these are CONDITIONING hikes. They are primarily for maintaining/improving your condition for other advanced, less frequent hiking adventures. To make it for leisure, hike below your ability. Like the 3 or less like they recommended. That way there is something for everyone. ;)

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