Big Pine Mountain P2K HPS

Sat, Nov 8, 2003
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Mon, Dec 20, 2004


There was very little rain during the night, which meant I had only the usual wetness from condensation outside the bivy sack. That was good. There were also patches of clear sky through which I could see the stars shining, so that too, was a good thing. In fact, aside from the darkness that pervaded the place at 5a when the alarm went off, it was portending of a very pleasant day indeed. Still, I would bring my rain gear since the forcast was for intermittent showers through the day (or at least that's how I interpretted 50% chance of rain). I tossed the sleeping gear in the backseat of the car without packing it. There was no need to dry the bag off since I wouldn't need it - I was scheduled to be at my inlaw's place in San Diego this evening, a good four hour plus drive from this remote location. The hike was 31 miles roundtrip, which I hoped to complete in about 10hrs, assuming nothing serious went wrong.

Big Pine Mtn sits in the middle of the San Rafael Wilderness, a vast stretch of steep and rugged mountains and canyons covered in pines at the higher, mostly north-facing slopes, chaparral elsewhere. As the highpoint of Santa Barbara county it is popular amongst peak baggers, but its remoteness draws the attention of few others. My route today would follow Gary Suttle's directions, climbing a graded dirt road to the summit, taking the alternative Santa Barbara Trail on the return. After breakfast, packing the daypack, and donning the still-wet trail shoes (now cold as well), I was off shortly before 6a.

There had been some rain the day before, but not much, and though the road was yet, it was not muddy. I used my headlamp for only about 15 minutes or so before I was able to switch it off and navigate by the growing light of the new day. The road follows Alamo Canyon upstream, crossing the dry creekbed after a mile, then climbing in grand curves up the hillside. The gradient was surprisingly gentle, a superbly engineered road that could probably be used for the transport of heavy equipment (I think they bring cattle in and out by truck along this route - and they're pretty heavy). 3.5 miles from the TH I reached the top of the canyon walls to the west and the first of several trail junctions. I turned left and followed the road south towards the higher mountains that were lost in the clouds off some seven or eight miles. The only decent views were back to the north west into Cuyama Valley. I could even make out the snow-capped peaks of the High Sierra further back, though the definition was lost in the photo I took of the scene. In other directions the weather was more threatening, dark clouds and mist swirling about the higher peaks and ridges to the south and west - and this was the direction the weather was coming from. I was hoping it might hold out until I could get up to the summit. Not that I would have turned back if the rain had started from the beginning, but it gave me something positive to hope for. It was too much really to hope the rain might hold out the entire day.

As I climbed higher, I came around a bend in the road that brought me to the first pine trees that I had encountered since starting out. I was amazed at the steepness of the canyon walls in the area, and even more that the trees could cling to them so well. The south-facing slopes were covered in chaparral, but on the north-facing slope I was looking at, it was only the one species of pine that grew at all - virtually nothing but bare soil and rock. Whether other flora could not grow due to poor soil, little rain, little sunshine, or some combination of the three, these pines seemed to have no trouble at all. In several places they grew alongside the road in what looked like nothing but rock, clinging to vertical walls and puncturing every crack and crevice they could find in the rock. The rock seems a combination of shale and sandstone, layer upon layer of sedimentary rocks that had been on the bottom of the ocean at some time in the past, now lifted up over 6000ft. And these pines just seemed to thrive in it.

There were several downhill sections along the ridge leading to a saddle before continuing up, but eventually it does climb continuously upward. At mile 9 from the trailhead I came across Chokecherry Spring, complete with a water trough, a large water tank mounted in the hillside above it, but no water. I had started with a quart of water at the beginning and this was the best bet for finding some along the way. It looked like a quart would have to do. I had reached the cloud level now, and the few hazy views remaining were completely gone. Like yesterday, it was now a hike in the fog. Further up the road I passed under an oak forest which blanketed the road in fine autumn colors. In other places around the state oaks grow at the lower elevations, but here they seemed to grow only in the upper reaches. In fact there would be oak trees all the way to the summit at 8,600ft though the pines still dominated. I also started to pass a few scattered patches of snow, left over from a cold storm a week earlier. At mile 11 I reached the top of the side ridge I'd been hiking, leading to the main east-west ridge that the summit lies along. Here was the junction with the Madulce Trail, Suttle's alternative route to the summit - more on this later. The road now turned west and I continued on without resting. Less than five miles to go. I'd been jogging the few downhills along the way, and now jogged the next one-mile section that drops 500ft to a saddle along the ridge. This saddle is a junction for several trails, and a camp called Alamar Station is found nearby. But no water. There is also a sign showing the boundary of the San Rafael Wilderness. The area to the west and northwest where I'd been hiking were actually part of the Dick Smith Wilderness. Together they make a pretty large Wilderness area. Another sign found here shows 25 miles east to Cuyama Valley and 35 miles west to Los Prietos Ranger Station. That's a lot of hiking one way. There was a trailhead register next to the sign and I looked at a number of the entries. Many of the visitors come on mountain bikes, and in hindsight I'd have to say that'd probably be the best way to visit here. The road was well-graded the whole way so far, and it would make for a really great descent after riding to the summit.

Past Alamar Station it was uphill again. There was more snow along the road, but it offered no obstacle to hiking. It had been warmer recently and I never found any of the snow solid or icy. And so far the rain had held off though it was rather threatening. I found the turnoff from the main road and followed the jeep track up a series of short switchbacks. Downed trees made it evident that this route is no longer maintained for vehicle travel. In fact it's not maintained at all, and only a series of ducks and a faint use trail would let you know it gets visited at all. Finally, after 15+ miles, I reached the summit cairn that guards the HPS summit register. It was only 10:30a, having taken but 4h45m to reach the summit, better than 3mph. It was looking like a pretty fast day - travel in the mountains is quite a bit easier when one has a good trail and does it at relatively low altitude.

I read through the summit register and noted a few names I recognized. Dingus Milktoast from SummitPost, and two entries from Doug Mantle, one of the more prolific Sierra peakbaggers. I walked around the summit area, noting the several other similar-height boulders that Suttle suggests climbing "to be sure you've tagged the highpoint." As I was about to climb up on one of them I felt very silly - what could it possible matter? - and I stopped and returned to the summit cairns. I collected the stuff I'd left there, had a granola bar, and headed down.

I jogged on and off back to Alamar Station. As I started to walk the uphill section here, the rain started. Ah well - it had held off better than I'd hoped. I stopped briefly to put on rain pants and jacket. The wind and rain blew in from the the ocean side to the the south, and while the road stayed on this side of the ridge I was likely to get a bit of a pelting - and did. When I came to the Madulce Trail junction, I noticed that the trail had been recently groomed, the manzanita cut back within the year. That was all it took to entice me down. I found the trail delightful as it followed first on the south side of the ridge (facing into the drizzle) then back and forth along the thin ridge top. After a mile I came to another trail junction. The right fork led to Madulce Peak, another HPS peak a mile and a half further on. That seemed inviting, but I expected that after 31 miles I shouldn't be adding more to the hike with the uncertain weather and minimal water supply I was carrying. I took the left fork down towards Madulce Station and Santa Barbara Canyon.

The trail followed along a ridge before dropping down into a dry creekbed. Though dry, it was under a delightful forest canopy, mainly oaks, with fairly lush grasses and ferns growing underneath despite the current lack of water. It was an absolutely delightful trail, far better than the graded road I had taken on the way up. Suttle had discouraged using this route for the climb due to its steepness, but I thought nothing of that in comparison to the other delights this route offered. I would highly recommend it to anyone for both the ascent and descent over the road. Two miles from the last junction I came to Madulce Station, a ranger habitat complete with flagpole, campstove (literally an old cast-iron stove), corral, and maintainence shed. Suttle describes the shed as a "Ranger Cabin complete with bunks and kitchen stove," but it was hardly habitable. The "stove" was stuffed with small kindling (probably used to aid in starting a fire in wet conditions, and the bunks were filled with old, empty fuel and other types of containers. There was nothing in the way of supplies, fuel, or anything of value. Rat feces littered the place along with lots of other junk. Not much of interest here, to be sure.

After taking a picture I continued on my way, coming immediately to a trail junction with a confusing sign. The sign wasn't oriented in the proper direction and I wasn't sure which way was which. Adding to the confusion was a myriad of use trails laid down in the tall grass criss-crossing back and forth over several acres. I decided to follow the most prominent trail downstream, figuring if I'm going down Santa Barbara Canyon I better continue downstream, right? After half a mile I came to another junction with a more disturbing sign. It indicated I was travelling down the Don Victor Trail, and another trail headed off to the right. The Don Victor Trail continued downstream, but to where? I consulted my compass and it indicated I was heading about 120 degrees in the wrong direction. Unlike the day before, this time I trusted my compass and it warned me I was going the wrong way. Time to consult the map. This was a big problem. The only map I had with me was the one in Gary Suttle's book. Normally these are sufficient for climbing the peak, but this one was a very large scale (about 1/2" per mile) in order to fit the whole route on a single page. It didn't show much detail, and none of the camps that the signs referred to other than Madulce Station. On the right side of the map I could just make out a "Don V.." before it trailed off the margin. I guessed (correctly) that that was Don Victor Canyon, and definitely not the way I wanted to go. The drizzle made the pages of my book wet, and I feared with enough water the map might become unreadable altogether. I headed back to Madulce Station. Once there I went back to the shed to inspect the map further. It didn't get more water, but I couldn't read much out of it.

I took a compass heading and went off north along the trail I originally took into camp. In fifty yards I came to a use trail that seemed well-used and I followed this another fifty yards to ... an outhouse. Crap. No pun intended. I wandered around but found no trail continuing north. Back to Madulce Camp. Then I went to the trail junction just outside that I had been confused about earlier. I had rejected it because it seemed to go uphill where Suttle had said, "Pass a trail camp, a spring, and the Madulce Ranger Cabin, complete with bunkbeds and a kitchen stove. Take the Santa Barbara Trail down a relentlessly steep grade for over 1/2 mile, then enjoy a gradual descent along a creek bed for about 6 miles to the access road. Where was this relentlessly steep grade? After about half a mile I found the trail had continued flat or uphill, and ahead I could see it rising further up a ridge with no downhill in sight - and it was heading west instead of north. I was below the cloud layer and could see to the north maybe ten miles now, but did not see the huge Santa Barbara Canyon I expected to see to the north - just ridges all running the wrong direction. Was this just a use trail used by the rangers when stationed nearby? It was all very confusing, but it seemed certain I wasn't on the right trail. Further, the poor trail was muddy and huge clumps were sticking to my shoes making walking difficult. I'd had it. I was about 7 miles from the trailhead, but I couldn't find my way back. I swore at the top of my lungs for anybody and everything around to hear me. Nothing did of course. Not a single bird was startled out from the underbrush. Just the continuing patter of the drizzle coming down. As I was to find out later, I was on the right trail at this point, and not two hundred yards further I would have come to the steep downhill that Suttle decribes. But I wonder if he ever actually travelled down this route or rather took this information from someone at the ranger station back in civilization. As I found out later, Madulce Station isn't in Santa Barbara Canyon, but rather Don Victor Canyon. The Santa Barbara Canyon Trail only follows the canyon for that lower six and half miles. Above that it is either in the Don Victor drainage, or following a ridge between it and Santa Barbara Canyon. It was frustrating and I was hating both Suttle for his poor map and description, and myself for relying on them alone.

I felt it dangerous to continue along one of the uncertain paths I tried. Another hour or two more of being lost and I might not make it back out without a bivy. The only way I knew to go for certain was back out the way I came, but it would add another eight miles and almost 2000ft of elevation. A fine, 31 mile outing that I was going to do with little trouble was going to become an epic. Instead of finishing around 2:30p as it had seemed likely a short time ago, might take until several hours past dark. I had a headlamp with me at least. It was a painful decision, but I judged that I would be able to make the walk back to the car without having to bivy. That was somewhat comforting though still had me irritated. I turned around and started back. I took off the rain jacket to keep me from overheating on the way back uphill. This worked out well enough that I kept it off the rest of the day.

I had expected to find my energies nearly sapped, but found I made the three miles back to the junction with the main road in an hour. I think my irritated mood was what kept me moving at such a quick pace up 1500ft. Only 11 miles to go. I jogged for a few miles back to Chokecherry spring, but found myself quite winded after that - exhaustion was catching up. I tried more jogging after walking a ways, but I couldn't sustain it for very long. I found myself looking forward to the uphill sections along this stretch so that I wouldn't feel guilty for not jogging the downhills. As the light began to fade around 4p in the late afternoon I could see Alamo Canyon far, far below me. I had quite a ways to go still. Worse, the road was no longer as easy to travel as it had been. The surface had reached that perfect Play-Doh consistency that made for excellent stickage to the boot soles. The layer of mud would build up on my heel until I had a good two inches of the stuff underfoot, then suddenly come off in a single clump. Then the process would repeat every 15 to 30 seconds. It was like walking in high-heeled shoes on first one foot, then the other, sometimes both together. How could women even walk in such shoes? It was quite frustrating. I tried scuffling along as I went and other tricks to keep the mud from building, all to no avail. I even found that jogging kept the mud stickage down, but I couldn't sustain the energy for more than 50 yards at a time, and then only so often. This went on for over four miles before the road relented and the mud stopped sticking to my shoes. Blisters had developed under both heals and along the sides of my toes that received the most pressure from the miserable conditions. I had long reached the point of wishing this hike was over.

As I walked the last mile along the canyon bottom, the light had grown to near total darkness. I could still tell some light and dark shapes in the road but little else. I made it back to the car at 5:30p, just short of 12hrs of nearly continuous hiking. The mileage (39mi) was a new personal record though neither the elevation gain nor time on the trail were. I was fairly well exhausted and my body hurt. My clothes were almost completely soaked, but I wasn't too cold yet. I changed into dry clothes, tossing the sopping mess I'd been wearing in the trunk - I'd sort it out later. Inside the heater and some liquid refreshments helped put me in a much calmer mood. I'd run out of water about a mile from the end, but I was never really hurting for water - under the cold and rainy conditions the single quart of water had been sufficient. I polished off the rest of the candy from the plastic pumpkin as I drove. A stop along US101 for dinner netted me a wholely unsatifying sandwhich that I picked up at a grocery store (next time I won't pass up the Burger King). The drive down to San Diego took much longer than I'd expected, and it wasn't until 11:30p that I got to my inlaw's. Ah... A warm greeting (my wife had stayed up waiting for me after I'd phoned from Ojai that I'd be quite late) followed by a hot shower - that was about all I needed before a restful night's sleep...

Anonymous comments on 10/20/16:
Bob.... what is your beef with summit rock shelters??
Simple - they look like shit and ruin the aesthetics of the summit.
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