Cats Eye Peak P1K

Tue, May 22, 2018
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Peak 3,891ft is a P1K in the heart of the Ventana Wilderness that I've had my eye on for a number of years now. The closest access is along the Marble Peak Trail which comes within about a mile and a half of the summit, but heavy chaparral normally makes it virtually inaccessible. The 2016 Soberanes Fire burned over most of the southern half of the ridge, making it possible to reach the summit from where the ridge intersects the Marble Peak Trail at a saddle, a distance of about 2mi. Unfortunately, it would take two years before the Forest Service would open the area to the public, during which time the brush has already made great strides in revegetating the slopes. Waiting any longer would only make the effort that much harder, so I figured I better give it a try this season. The entire outing is 20mi roundtrip with more than 6,000ft of gain, no casual trip, even if the cross-country had turned out to be easy. I knew that portions of the south slopes had not burned up to the ridgeline which meant I would have some significant descents to get around these areas, adding to the elevation gain and overall difficulties. On top of that, I found the Marble Peak Trail had an abundance of both poison oak and ticks. The cross-country portion had little of these, but instead introduced me to the annoyance of biting flies that could bite through the tshirt I wore. To be honest, it was a brutal affair, not the relaxing peakbagging trip I might have hoped for. The unofficial name 'Cats Eye' I came up with is a play on the Marble Peak Trail theme, in case you were wondering.

I arrived at the Arroyo Seco Campground around 8a, paid my $10 day use fee (Federal Lands Pass no good here), and parked in the uppermost lot for the Arroyo Seco TH. Most visitors to the area are here to visit the gorge section of Arroyo Seco, with inviting pools and an enjoyable river descent that can be navigated for about three miles from where Willow Creek joins Arroyo Seco to the campground. I followed Arroyo Seco Rd (nice and wide, recently graded, but not open to public vehicles) for about 2mi to reach the start of the Marble Peak Trail that crosses Arroyo Seco on a sturdy bridge before heading west to follow Willow Creek upstream. Expecting ticks, I tucked my pants into my socks and headed up the trail, finding poison oak regularly along the trail for the next 5+ miles as I made my way up-canyon. There are two trail junctions, two main campsites (Willow Creek and Tassajara) and 14 creek crossings (none difficult). The hike up to the saddle was really quite pleasant, despite the constant high-stepping and dancing around the poison oak. It was early in the day, I was limber and fresh and it bothered me only marginally. The ticks were a bigger concern, but the dozen or so I flicked off seemed par for the course. Shortly before reaching the saddle, I found the first evidence of the Soberanes Fire, hillsides that had been burned back but were displaying a profusion of wildflowers. It was nearly 11:30a by the time I reached the saddle, a three hour effort. Now the real fun begins.

I turned left and started into the brush. Along with the charred branches one expects after a fire, there was quite a bit of new growth, too. It was a bit heavy and discouraging to start, but by staying to the right of the crest I soon found easier travel. It started off well enough that I thought I might reach the summit in two hours, but it would end up taking three. Most of the extra time was due to the need to follow the fire line which took me off the main ridge in two significant drops. These went down to side canyons with modest creeks flowing. Poison oak reappeared in these wetter locations and combined with the steepness of the slopes, made for some tricky navigation. The summit of Cats Eye itself had not burned, making the last quarter mile something of a moderate bushwhack (some well-placed breaks in the brush made it not too bad). It appears there is an old roadbed (or firebreak), not shown on any maps I could find, that once went along the ridge. Portions of it can be seen in the satellite views, but for the most part, nature has reclaimed her land and trying to follow it was of little help. It was 2:15p by the time I reached the summit with sprawling views of rugged, chaparral-covered hills in all directions - rough country, indeed. Medium-sized, brown flies turned out to be nasty little things, biting me several times while I was trying to rest at the summit. This new distraction had me waving my hands constantly to ward them off my skin and shirt. Better to keep moving, I figured in the end.

The return became an entirely different experience. The day had started out overcast and quite pleasant for hiking, but the sun came out to warm the landscape by the time I had reached the saddle before noon. The two quarts of Gatorade that I carried were looking inadequate as I started back from the summit, slowing from dehydration, the warm sun and then something completely unexpected - cramping. My legs were beginning to protest, at first just mildly, but eventually with enough rigor to force me to take breaks, regularly and sometimes extended, waiting for the pains to subside. The flies would gather, like vultures knowing the end is near, attacking at any opportunity. It didn't take long for the pain to return once I started moving again. What was this about? Clearly I'm not in the same shape I was even a few years back, and I think this is my body's way of reminding me that these tough outings may not the smartest thing to be doing at 57yrs of age. The two climbs up out of those side canyons to get around the ridge portion that hadn't burned were the hardest parts of the day, but the cramping didn't reside after I'd finished with them. With the trail in sight, I had to still stop several times over the easier terrain. I wondered if someone walking the trail spotted me lying there, what they might make of it? That was unlikely to happen however, as this is a little-used trail, especially mid-week. I would see no evidence that anyone else had been on any portion of it all day.

It was after 5:30p by the time I returned to the saddle and the trail. I was hoping it would go more smoothly now, and it did, but the cramping never really went away. Any time I had to high-step over the poison oak, my feet or legs would cramp immediately. I took to ignoring the minor bit of PO and would save the extra leg motions for the more serious encroachments. I got water out of Willow Creek, a welcome respite after depleting my Gatorade resources. I gave up worrying about the ticks and stopped checking my clothing for them - just bending down to do so would cause more cramps. I would pay for this later when I picked a few ticks out of the back of my neck and another on my adam's apple. Stopping to empty debris out of my boots was impossible since I couldn't reach them without severe cramping. On the scale of things, this was a minor inconvenience, though. It was 7:30p by the time I reached the bridge over Arroyo Seco marking the end of the poison oak and tick dangers. It had grown colder with the setting sun, not unwelcome, and I was happy to find sufficient light to get me back to the parking lot by 8:30p. I stripped off my clothes and checked for ticks in the headlamps of the Jeep, showered and put on some fresh clothes, no easy feats with the cramping. Getting into the car, applying brakes and gas, brought new experiences in pain.

This was supposed to be the first of a seven-day roadtrip, but I decided I was in no condition to sleep in the Jeep - who knows how many ticks lay lurking in the clothes I had stripped off, or if there were any still on me undetected. I figured driving two hours to home and getting my wife to help with a more thorough check was the better option. Thank God she loves me. I slept terribly that night as the cramps were a recurring issue most of the night. All this for chasing obscure, unnamed P1K. You'd think I could find better uses of my time...


dean gaudet comments on 05/23/18:
sounds horrible! but congrats on a P1k first ascent. i had spied this one while inspecting the 2016 burn boundaries (now a feature in andrew's app) and wondered if it would be achievable... but yeesh, it sounds like they left it closed for just long enough for it to be no fun.
Scott H comments on 05/24/18:
"these tough outings may not be the smartest thing to be doing at 57yrs of age" As I zero in on my 69th birthday (in 3 months) your above phrase has special meaning to me. I have not experienced this level of cramping, but the stiffness in by legs has added a restrictive element in my ability to leap over a once manageable log or hopping up on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Do I need more stretching or should I enroll in a yoga class? I plan to hide during the SC when Grundy or Ma invite folks to join in on yoga maneuvers!
Andrew comments on 05/25/18:
Bob, as a long time reader I must say that your trip reports that involve suffering, fear, and distress of any sort are the most enjoyable to peruse so thank you for both your narrative and your suffering. Also, as a long time distance runner it sounds like you may have been severely dehydrated as cramping is often indicative of that. Thanks again Bob, your trip reports are gems!
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