Big Pine Mountain P2K HPS

Thu, Nov 16, 2006
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
previously climbed Mon, Dec 20, 2004
later climbed Fri, May 4, 2007

I had grand plans for the day, but alas, too many little things went wrong. Rick Kent had recently done the HPS Big Four (Salmon, Madulce, Big Pine, West Big Pine) on foot in 19hrs. Matthew Holliman had done it a few years back in something closer to 16hrs. I had spent 13.5 hours two years earlier attempting the same with a mountain bike, but ran up against nausea and exhaustion, missing the last peak, West Big Pine. I hoped to come back without a bike and complete the 46mi, 8,000ft+ effort on foot. No such luck.

My first and biggest mistake was not realizing I had left all my maps at home until I was 2hrs out of San Jose. I wasn't unduly concerned, figuring I had been up most of the trail twice before, climbing all the peaks except West Big Pine which is supposed to be the easiest of the bunch - how hard could it be? A second, smaller mistake was in starting at 5:30a. I had left San Jose shortly after midnight, figuring it would take 5hrs to reach the trailhead. That really isn't an early enough start for this time of year, and would mean doing some of the faint trail portions in the dark.

The road into the TH was in good shape. I took the easier/shorter route described on the HPS site rather than the roundabout route described by Suttle in his book, Califonia County Highpoints. There was a large "Road Closed" sign across the pavement where the wash overflow runs across it. But there was no water, the dirt/sand portion in excellent condition, and it was easy to drive around the signs (there was another sign in the opposite direction a quarter mile further on). I'm not sure if they were left over from the flood season or were meant to be taken seriously. The several creek crossings in the last five miles were easy to negotiate in my 2WD van, and I had no trouble reaching the TH.

The temperature was 30F when I started out with fleece, balaclava, gloves. I had a headlamp on at the start, using it for all of about 5 minutes before I realized the thin crescent moon provided adequate light in the predawn hours. My warm clothes came off in the first hour as I warmed up and climbed out of the chilled air that had sunk to the valley's bottom. The sun was up around 7a as I reached Santa Barbara Potrero. By 8a I was noticing my toes were none too comfortable in my boots. Strange, as I'd used these boots on a dozen outings already and had found them some of the more comfortable I'd had in recent years. As I approached the turnoff to Samon Mtn, I had already begun debating with myself whether I would do all four peaks that day. It would certainly make for a good accomplishment, but it would likely leave me useless for the following day when I hoped to climb some other peaks. To put off the decision to a later time, I decided to pass on Samon and climb it on the way back, if at all.

On my way up to the main east-west crest, I passed by Chokeberry Springs, noting it still had running water in November. At the trail junction for Madulce Peak, I left a cache of water bottles along with my extra clothing I wouldn't need for the next few hours to Big Pine and West Big Pine. My toes were hurting ever more and it was looking less and less likely that I would try to do all four peaks, but I was still keeping the option open. I turned west and headed for West Big Pine. It was before 10a when I passed by Big Pine and went on to the junction for West Big Pine. Here's where my map would have saved me a crucial misstep. West Big Pine is not at all obvious from any vantage point, either on the road, atop nearby Big Pine, or any of the intervening bumps. I made the assumption that it ought to be the highest bump west of Big Pine (which is the highest point in the county), and dutifully found my way there. I found a cairn alongside the trail where I left it, and found lots of footprints and a fire ring near the summit area. But I found no summit register which was disturbing. I recalled that the map showed a lookout tower at the summit and found only a few scraps of timber. I figured since the peak now fell within the San Rafael Wilderness, the tower must have been removed. I hadn't read any trip reports indicating there was one there. Of course I found no concrete pad either as can be found on Madulce. I looked around from the summit and saw no obvious alternatives. I noted the elevation on the USGS marker I found (6589ft) and hoped that would match up with the listed elevation for the summit when I got back to civilization and checked. Three days later I would find that I had not climbed West Big Pine, which was another mile to the NW. Rats. I even climbed the next highest bump between this highpoint and Big Pine, but found nothing there after a bit of bushwhacking.

I made another mistake in attempting to climb Big Pine along the SW Ridge. While it was the shortest route, it was far from the easiest. I recalled the HPS map marking this route as "possible." What I found was some tough bushwhacking that took me almost an hour to negotiate. I would not recommend this route for others! For those that insist, the left (west) side seemed easier to negotiate than the right side due to less chaparral and more trees. Lots of scrunching down and scrambling through the dusty understory. It was 11:45p when I topped out at Big Pine. The views are mostly obstructed by large trees, but I managed to get a view to the west through an opening. West Big Pine was not at all apparent from this vantage. My feet were not getting any better and my mental calculations told me the remaining hours to climb the other two peaks would be tantamount to torture. I would be lucky to get back to the car and still be able to hike the next day at this point. By 1p I had returned to the Madulce Trail junction where I picked up my gear and continued down. There would be no attempt at Madulce or Samon today.

Down past Chokeberry Springs I was trudging down the road when I was startled by an animal crossing the road 50 feet ahead of me. A teenage mountain lion jumped out of the brush on the uphill side and just as quickly disappeared through the brush on the downhill side without ever glancing at me. I saw it for less than a second, but it was the first time I had ever seen a mountain lion in the wild. I had no chance with the camera, and as I passed the spot on the road where it disappeared again, there was no sign or sound of it. For a few minutes I was uneasy, wondering if it were possible it might choose to stalk me. I wondered how many other mountain lions I had passed by in my travels unaware that I was noticed or even watched. It was a bit of an eerie feeling. But it soon passed as my toes regained my attention as a more immediate and pressing problem.

The sun was setting as I limped down the final few miles into Santa Barbara Canyon and back to the trailhead around 4:30p. Upon further examination I found that the problem with my toes was due to toenails that should have been clipped before I started. A few of them had cut into their neighbors which was the source of most of my pain throughout the day. I had messed this one up but good, and the only remedy would be to come back again for another try. Twice now I had failed at West Big Pine, something that has happened only rarely in the past. Hopefully, the third time will be the charm!

Continued...


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