Monday, November 23, 2009

Somewhere in The Sespe

Waking suddenly from a bad dream, my heart is hammering in my chest. Peering at the luminous dial of the clock, I see the time: 4:10 a.m. For a few minutes I consider 'calling in sick' to the hike - spending the day curled up under a quilt, completely disengaged from the world.

But by the time we set out from the trail head in the crystalline light of early morning, the usual anticipation lightens my step. The trail winds for miles through golden grass and lichen stained rocks; ancient, ageless.

The view to the West is vast, expansive, with fold upon fold of jagged rock stretching as far as the eye can see. It seems exactly the right home for the primordial Condor.

We begin the very steep descent into the gorge, past stands of big leaf maple blazing gold against the brilliant sky. The canyon is narrow, deep - framed by towering rock formations it is cool and damp even at noon.

In search of a cave purported to hold Chumash cave paintings, we scramble far up the creek, crossing and recrossing the water. Brambles rake exposed skin, bear scat is evident all along the banks.

At last the cave is located, high above the creek. Wind and rain have sculpted the sandstone in dramatic and sensuous curves, but nothing prepares me for the art work painstakingly worked into the walls and ceiling of the cave.

Mysterious, magical - is this the work of the Ventureno Chumash - or more ancient tribes? Are these runes part of a vision quest, sacred rituals of initiation?

Voices hushed, taking great care not to kick up the sand and dust on the floor of the cave, we spend some time examining the fading symbols, the pictographs worn almost smooth by the slow passage of time.

As we climb out of the gorge in the late afternoon, the fading sunlight gilds the mountains to the East, a blue smudge stretches across the horizon to the West. Remote, wild, utterly mysterious - I think I understand now the pull this region exerted on my father; why he spent so many summers exploring here.

Darkness falls long before we reach the cars, above us Venus and a new moon kiss gently in the indigo skies.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Adventures at The Hotel "W"

After a very long day, we arrive at the "W" just at dusk. A thunderstorm is brewing; dark clouds obscure the setting sun and a chill wind rattles through the dry shrubs along the side of the building. The hotel is old - it's very bones seem tired.

Inside, the lobby is shadowy and empty. We appear to be the only guests......

Lugging duffel bag, day pack and cooler up a very steep, dark staircase, we see the upper hallway is lit only by a single bulb. The silence is complete, the scent of dust and mildew heavy in the air. Our rooms are at the very end of that long, dim hallway - right next the the back door with a jimmied lock and splintered frame. The desk clerk (the owner, actually) is completely agreeable to a change however, and we finally decide on two rooms, directly across the hall from each other.

It is now completely dark and silent outside: no streetlights, no traffic - the town seems utterly deserted. But hunger drives us forth and we brave the elements in search of a restaurant. Hurrying along the broken, rutted sidewalk in the dark, we pass an abandoned building, almost entirely hidden behind a wall of tangled shrubs. Something on the porch creaks slowly back and forth in the autumnal wind and suddenly it is all too reminiscent of that scene from "To Kill A Mockingbird" and with slightly nervous, self-conscious laughter we hasten onward.

Later, we 'borrow' a heavy table from the hallway and Z helps to wedge it between the bathtub and the door that opens into the dark, empty room next door - in order to prevent something like this:

Despite exhaustion, sleep is a long time coming. There appears to be a 2 x 4 running length-wise under the thin mattress and if we are not careful, the slope on either side of that propels us toward the floor.

But in the morning, the sun is shining - and best of all Frank (the owner) is in the kitchen, whipping up some strong coffee, blueberry pancakes and the biggest frying pan of bacon we have ever seen.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mt. Langley

All pictures by D:

We first become aware of Mt. Langley on the way back from climbing Cirque Peak. Far distant, it's snowy flanks catch the sunlight. We must go there.

Weeks later, the 21 mile hike begins in the chilly pre-dawn after an almost sleepless night. (Below freezing temperatures and anticipation have made sleep difficult.)

The rising sun warms Cirque Peak, barely visible across the tree tops. The trail winds gently alongside stream and meadow for 5 or 6 miles, gaining little elevation, and then seems to dead end at a sheer granite face on the north end of the last Cottonwood Lakes. We retrace our steps, thinking we have missed the turnoff to Old Army Pass, but indeed the trail does climb the almost vertical granite wall in front of us.

D leads the way, I focus on his feet in front of me, and try not to look at the abyss below. But near the top we are forced to negotiate a snowbank that stretches across the trail, by climbing down off the trail, clinging to rocks that hang 1,000 feet above the lake. A cold sweat breaks out, fingers scrabble, then clench on the chilly granite slabs but at last we are safe at the top of the pass.

A cool wind blows steadily across the top of the pass, to the North the Whitney Range is visible. We turn into the large, sculpted bowl that lies on the approach to the summit. It is all sand and gravel; two steps forward, one step back.

Then on to the class 2/3 rock scrambling all the way to the summit. Shasta is courageous and obedient; D lifts her patiently over the worst of it.

The summit is finally gained, bringing enormous smiles of relief and joy. We linger for some time, enjoying the near perfect weather. Brilliant blue skies, views of Mt. Whitney to the North, White Mountain to the East, Black Kaweah to the West.... we reluctantly start the trek down.

Somewhere on the vast talus slopes my camera falls from my pack - I retrace my steps but it is impossible to find. Then Old Army Pass again: going up was difficult, going down is terrifying. Tired feet slip and skid on loose gravel, hands grip Shasta's collar. Solid ground is reached, tears of relief flow.

The last 5 miles back to camp seem to stretch endlessly as the afternoon light fades. Hot tea, an excited recounting of our adventure to a neighboring camper - then blessedly home.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

16th Annual Mt. Waterman Rendezvous

We begin our hike to the 16th annual Mt. Waterman picnic with a scramble up the rocky ridge behind Camp Valcrest, intending to tag the top of 7 or 8 rock formations along Valcrest Ridge before crossing back over Highway 2 for the hike up Mt. Waterman.

It is extraordinarily hot, even this early in the morning and there is a slight sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I hustle up the steep, sandy wash behind the others. There are 16 of us and the hike leaders encourage us to stay in tight formation, pausing frequently to count heads. This is a new experience for me and I fight a growing sense of irritation at being so closely watched.

However, the view across to the western edge of the Mojave is spectacular, and the scent of sun warmed granite and dry pine needles is a soothing and familiar one.

But as we foregather at the bottom of the steep, sun baked trail up the side of Mt. Waterman, the sinking feeling increases to full blown nausea. I realize that I don't want to hike that trail - I want to go home. But before I can act on that thought the other hikers begin to sprint effortlessly up the trail, chatting all the while. To my shame the group is eventually split into two: "Fast" and "Slow." The very nice woman sweeping the "Slow" group encourages me to "take your time, hike at your own pace" which is a good thing because there is absolutely no way to force myself to go any faster than I am going.

Eventually the Hike from Hell does reach the top of the mountain. There are maybe 75 or 80 other hikers there - enjoying the lovely picnic lunch spread out under the pines. The heat is unbelievable, so we retreat to a thin band of shade along the base of some boulders. Sweet Shasta, panting heavily, presses close against me - adding the heat of her body to mine - and cold water is poured for her to drink.

After a delicious homemade hummus and some cool (and heady!) orange wine we are ready for a group shot:

and then the long, steep descent back to the cars. The hike back is punctuated with much laughter and a wonderful feeling of camaraderie.

Would I do another hike with the HPS? The jury is still out on that.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cirque Peak

Alone in my car on the way to Horseshoe Meadows the next morning, I play an Egyptian techno/disco cd at top volume. It seems oddly fitting for our early morning caravan across the rain-washed desert. With cries of "Inshalla" ringing in our ears, we ascend to the trail head at 10,000 ft.

The trail to Cirque Peak meanders for five or six miles along lush, green meadows where deer gaze at us calmly, unafraid.

A first glimpse of barren, rocky Cirque Peak - rising with startling abruptness from the surrounding alpine meadows.

My heart thumping with anxiety, I follow D up the first steep, talus strewn slope. There is no trail; we go straight up the side of the mountain to the first ridge.

The summit is finally in view when, with remarkable speed, thunderclouds gather overhead. The clouds seem to be darkest over Mt. Langley, to the Northeast of us, so we push onward. At 12,500 the altitude saps our energy, every step an effort.

The final approach to the summit (13,000 ft) is a class 2/3 scramble over enormous boulders. As we are pulling ourselves up, fingers and toes, it begins to rain. Thunder is rumbling loudly over Mt. Langley, lightning flickers along surrounding peaks.

But we are so close - I plead to continue to the summit, despite the danger. It is hailing now, D is ahead of me. I hear the tension in his voice as he calls out that he's reached the peak and found the register. He brings it down, I sign hastily for both of us with cold, trembling fingers as he tells me we must go down NOW, but I have the insane thought that this peak will not 'count' unless I actually reach the top. Still clutching the metal canister I am just twenty feet below the summit when there is a blinding flash of lighting so close, so intense that I am momentarily stunned, the image burned into my retinas.

With a shriek I fling the register toward the summit - a clap of thunder so unbelievably loud that I drop to my knees, arms protectively over my head, and then I am scrambling, sliding, down, down as fast as I can over the rain slick rocks. Pea sized hail hammers down, stinging face and hands. I see D and Shasta - he calls out to me, gesturing, but there is no way to understand what he is saying.

I finally catch up to them on the ridge line 1,000 feet below. The weather subsides, adrenaline drains away and exultant, relieved laughter wells up.

Meysan Lake and Lone Pine Campground

After an early morning meet up in Lone Pine with D and Ms Shasta, we head over to the Espresso Parlor. I have not seen D in over a year; there is much to catch up on.

As a warm up for Cirque Peak the following day, D suggests Meysan Lakes. (4.7 miles, 3,000 + elevation gain.)

In the gathering mid day heat we head up the steep, switch-backing trail. The view down to the Owens Valley is spectacular - to the East thunderheads are piling up over the Inyo Mountains.

I can feel my face redden with heat and exertion; below the first lake I request a break. Shasta presses close as thunder rumbles menacingly in the distance - a few warm, fat drops spatter on the trail.

The lakes (11,000 ft) are incredibly beautiful, cupped in sheer granite cirques. Mt. Mallory, Mt. LeConte and Mt. Irvine tower in the distance.

As we head back down the trail, the rain (mixed with hail) begins in earnest. We have no ponchos or other waterproof clothing and are soon completely soaked. But oddly, not cold!

As the sun sets over Mt. Whitney, pink clouds bloom against a turquoise sky. The air is warm, sweet with the scent of rain washed sage. Much later, we see mysterious lights descending from high up on the Mountaineers Route - it seems unbelievable that anyone would attempt that formidable descent in the dark.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Buckeye Camp via Soda Springs Trail

After our wild ride to nowhere, we retreat down Highway 1 to Buckeye Camp via Soda Springs Trail.

The trail is extremely steep, and the afternoon sun is hot as we switchback up the dry, chapparal covered slopes. Far below, the pale ribbon of Highway 1 loops endlessly south.

A hot wind rises upslope, the shrill rasping of cicadas sounds from the edge of the trail.

By the time B and I have gained the final ridge, I feel sick from the heat, blood pounding in my ears.

Then on through a small, shady copse of oaks, and down into the golden bowl that is Buckeye Camp.

The Buckeyes are in full bloom, the intoxicating scent reminiscent of gardenia or magnolia.

I feel like this sign looks - all done in.

But oh joy - the spring is still running and after splashing the icy water over us we are revived enough to enjoy our lunch.

Then back to the car and on to a much anticipated coffee at Rainbow Coffee in Cambria. But Rainbow Coffee has changed hands since our last visit, and the rather puffy looking man behind the counter has no coffee! He then bushes us off by saying it is too late in the day for coffee anyway. I supress the urge to reach across the counter and shake him, and settle for a syrupy chai.

Big Sur: Mill Creek and Buckeye Camp

Torn out of slumber by the chirping of my alarm, for a few minutes I am completely disoriented. Hastily packing whatever I can find in my cupboards I am still a few minutes late to meet M and B.

We head north to Mill Creek in the pearly light of dawn. As we descend to the creek side trail, the first rays of sun illuminate the far golden hills.

Towering redwoods, mossy, fallen logs, lush green ferns. Mill Creek is Big Sur at it's most magical. Or The Shire, as B suggests. We wander for some time, crossing and re-crossing the stream.

After several miles, we climb out of the verdant stream side - up the steep, tawny hillsides. The heat is already oppressive.

Stepping carefully, concerned about snakes, my eye falls on this delicate Mariposa lily. It seems unbelievable that it could flourish in such stony, inhospitable soil.

Back at the car and uncertain of our next destination (the best hikes are usually fairly unstructured) we head up Nacimiento - Fergusson Road, intending to climb Cone Peak. A wrong turn and miles and miles of rough, rocky, dirt road later, we are truly at the end of nowhere. A very long way off, Cone Peak shimmers in the heat. It will have to wait for another day.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Montecito Peak - Solstice Celebration

Setting out for our Solstice celebration atop Montecito Peak, the evening is warm and slightly humid. As the sun sinks toward the west, a smudge of lavender washes across the pale sky.

As always, the pace is rapid, and by the time we reach the upper trail my breathing is slightly ragged.

This section of the trail is desert-like; rocky and dry. The scent of chamise and dust hangs heavy in the still air; it is almost completely silent except for the scrape and rattle of my shoes on the trail.

Around the high shoulder below the peak, the soft, rumpled hillsides beckon us onward in the fading light.

Not quite fast enough to gain the summit before the sun sets, I am climbing the last, extremely steep section as darkness falls.

Rounding the corner, the sweet, plaintive notes from a harmonica float across on the warm breeze. My heart contracts for a moment with a combination of joy and pain - and then it's laughter, champagne toasts, and an enormous, sherry soaked trifle that has been carried all the way up the mountain in a glass bowl.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gaviota Peak at Dusk

The trail to Gaviota Peak begins in a thickly wooded area - ancient sycamores overhang the cool, dim trail. It soon opens up into fields of golden grass, shimmering in the evening light.

Half of our group splits off on a shortcut, long legs and heavy boots slashing through the grass. Within moments they are gone, up and over the ridge.

The tawny hills stretch almost as far as the eye can see - a faint shadowy line of fog creeping up behind them from the coastline.

The trail climbs more steeply now, through thickets of Toyon and scrub oak. 'Traveler's Joy' (wild clematis) with it's dry, fluffy seed heads flourishes along the side of the trail.  As the sun sinks lower in the west, the encroaching fog bank moves up the valley.

Alone now on the trail in the luminous dusk, the lyrics to an old "Traveling Wilburys" song surface in my mind.

"Well it's all right...... I'm just glad to be here, happy to be alive, at the end of the line. And it don't matter if you're by my side, at the end of the line, I'm satisfied, and it's all right....."

The final ridgeline is reached just after the sun slips over the horizon, and the view opens up to the Pacific Ocean. A cool wind is sweeping strongly across the peak; we retreat down the trail a bit and enjoy biscotti and poetry.

Then down we go, back to the cars. The trail ends too soon - we are dumped abruptly back into the parking lot and the incongruous sight of these signs, freeway traffic roaring by.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Five Fingers - or - The Darwin Awards

Guest Post by M:

After a 3 day weekend of superb hikes in the spring snow and clear air of the Eastern Sierras friend T and I headed home south from Lone Pine hoping to bag another peak on the way through the desert.

We had been fumbling for some time among dirt road exits looking for the one that leads to the trailhead when I picked one at random and suggested we try it. We soon realized that this route was suitable only for off road vehicles and camels and in the gathering unease why we kept going I don’t know other than wishful thinking. But when the track suddenly got even worse we had to face reality and plan an exit strategy for this desert detour. I got out to guide the car back and was thinking this would be a terrific spot to get stuck when indeed the front wheels squealed in alarm, each imprisoned in a rapidly deepening sand trap.

Looming over us the peaks wavered in the dry desert heat, taunting us with their apparent nearness, illusory I’m sure.

After waiting more than an hour the tow truck finally rumbled into view, turned around and started reversing up the sandy slope. The moment when its wheels started spinning was disturbing yet soaked in comedy; I immediately had visions of a second truck sent to rescue the first and the car left as a warning monument to out of towners pushing their luck. Such a rusting testament really would not look out of place amidst all the other debris on the 395 roadside; perhaps it would become a faded landmark in itself. These thoughts were interrupted as the truck went back down and tried again, this time getting close enough to extend a cable and reach the car. Our two tattooed rescuers – a tow truck tag team – soon got the job done; the car weirdly lurching by external force as if by telekinesis back across the road. We got in and surfed a wave of relief all the way to the coast.