Machete Ridge

Wed, Feb 13, 2013

With: Adam Jantz

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I was looking for a way to get to Loma Atravesada and Wright Mountain in San Benito County. On the CC-list, they were two of five peaks on the list I still had to do south of the SF Bay Area. I had been in the area two years earlier with David Alexander and Steve Sywyk to tag Joaquin Rocks, but we didn't have enough time for these other two. The problem I had was in getting to the TH. It requires 4WD and high clearance at this time of year when portions of the road are mud holes. It occurred to me that Adam might be talked into this since he enjoys a sporting bit of four-wheeling and has the vehicle to provide the enjoyment. He's not so hot on the adventure-bushwhack outings to peaks of questionable worthiness, however, and this became a minor sticking point when I brought the idea to his attention. He would need further incentive for me to get him to commit to the idea. Adam has been working on his rock climbing skills and since it's not all that far away, I got the idea that we might combine it with a day of rock climbing in Pinnacles. He considered this further. "You'd have to let me lead," was his reply in the next email. The hook was set. I didn't give a hoot about leading.

The primary objective for the day was going to be Machete Ridge. Adam and I had tried Old Original on Machete Ridge almost a year earlier and failed miserably, not even finding the start of the route though we could see the huge formation almost from the parking lot. We had trivialized the route-finding required and paid the price. This time we did a little more research and were rewarded by not having a repeat performance.

I met adam in Paicines, at the junction of SR25 and Panoche Rd around 9:15a. An early start wasn't really necessary since the route wouldn't take all day. We left his 4Runner at the junction and took my van to Pinnacles, some miles south on SR25. We noted the National Monument sign hasn't been changed to reflect the new designation as a National Park, but since the park's budget wasn't increased with the name change, I really didn't expect them to run out and install new signs right away. We were the only ones at the East Side Visitor Center where I bought a new Federal Lands Pass before driving to the Chalone Creek Trailhead a few more miles up the road. Starting out at 10:15a, we spent 45 minutes hiking the Old Pinnacles Trail to the entrance of the Balconies Caves. It's an easy, scenic hike that follows Chalone Creek with a few crossings before the Balconies and Machete Ridge come into view just before the caves. The caves aren't as impressive as the ones in Bear Gulch, but they do require headlamps or flashlights for a good segment that would be quite challenging with high water (thus the lockable gates on either end).

Just outside the west entrance of the caves is found a sign at the junction for the climbers' trail to Machete Ridge. We followed this up and around the formation for 20 minutes, finding several threads and a number of side trails leading to other routes on Machete Ridge. Parts of the trail were non-obvious and lightly traveled, but if one simply keeps the main wall to the immediate left, it would be hard not to find the start where the use trail tops out at a notch between two pine trees. Adam carried a well-written description of the route he'd picked up online at Mountain Project which we consulted regularly to make sure we didn't go astray this time. Once properly convinced we'd found the correct start, we scrambled up 30ft to a sloping, grassy ledge where the rope work would begin.

True to my word, I let Adam lead every pitch - at least those going up. Most of the rappels I went first to get photographs which tend to look better from below rather than above. Adam took the rope and climbed up to a small, 25ft up, found the first bolt to clip into, then turned the corner and disappeared briefly before finding his way another 30ft or so up to the first belay station with a couple of bolts. It hardly seemed we'd gone through much of Adam's 60m rope. Quickly joining him once the belay had been set up, we coiled the rope and carried it between us as we scrambled the class 3 section for a few minutes to the next bolted location. This was a combo rap station (for exiting off the south side) and belay point for the second rope pitch of Old Original. This is an awkward horizontal pitch that one must crouch down to get around a bulge before it opens back onto the main ridge. A bolt is found at the crouch point, giving Adam some trouble as he struggled moderately to lean down without getting pulled over by his pack weight. The exposure off the south side is a bit disconcerting. Since it gets easier past this point, Adam simply belayed me from just past this spot, after which we did the rope carry-thing along the ridge again. It's very scenic and cool, but not as hard or knife-edgy as some had reported. At the end of this walk is another rap station. This one is very long, dropping far off the north side of the ridge. There are two more intermediate belay stations going down the moderately sloped rock face (we guessed it would be a class 3-4 downclimb, but since we had the rope we simply rappeled). Our rope just made it to the lower intermediate station with maybe 10-20ft to spare. From there the rap goes down another 100ft before dropping off an edge for a free rappel of maybe 25ft.

At the end of this rappel series, we were once again back on the ridge. I had been exploring around while Adam was taking his time on the rappel, giving me time to find the continuation of the route up a short class 3 scramble followed by a short class 3-4 downclimb. There's a bolt that can be used to rap this section if the downclimb looks a bit spicy. In fact there are two ways to downclimb, one via the rap route (which I thought a bit too spicy, the other about 15ft to the west where I found the holds sufficient to solo. Adam came down the same way. More third class downclimbing led to the final rap station and exit off Machete Ridge. We decided to climb the optional Middle Tower (class 5.6 or thereabouts), Adam again taking the lead on this. There were two bolts for clipping into on the way up. After joining Adam, I wandered down a bit more of the ridge to the northeast to get some pictures and take in the view looking down to Chalone Creek. There was nowhere else to go but down at this point. Adam rigged the rappel off the Middle Tower, letting me go first for photo purposes. He then came down and we set up for the rap into the descent gulley on the southeast side.

Adam rapped first into the descent gully, followed by myself. While Adam coiled the rope I wandered down the gully some to check the descent for more raps. It's a pretty cool gully, heavily shaded from the sun and full of ferns and other shade-loving plants. We found a rap sling lower down around a tree but bypassed it with a somewhat exposed traverse that led further down the gully. Eventually we found ourselves above the caves looking down through several openings, but no obvious way to the trail below. Some backtracking and traversing further east brought us to a second rap sling around a tree. We used this one to rap down to the trail right at the east entrance to the caves. It was just before 2:45p and we were done with the adventure part of the route. A few other hikers were out visiting the caves as we were packing up our gear. Shouldering our loads once again, we hiked back out to the trailhead, finishing not long after 3:30p.

At this point I would have been happy to call it a day and drive back to Paicines or Hollister for dinner. Adam had hoped to have more time for some rock climbing on shorter routes and I really couldn't argue that we didn't have enough daylight. So we drove over to the Bear Creek Gulch TH, Adam consulting the guidebook while I drove. He picked out a route called Swallow Crack, one of the easier routes on Discovery Wall at class 5.6, but garnering three stars in David Rubine's book. I not only let him lead, I let Adam find the start of the route which he did in fine style. He was getting good at this rock climbing thing. I half hoped I could just be the belay slave and let him either rap off the top or downclimb to clean it, but the single pitch route is somewhat awkward for a downclimb and in the end I was glad to climb it too. A bit afraid of decking without adequate protection lower down, Adam placed three pieces of gear in the first 15 feet of the route. I was beginning to think we might be doing this into the dark at the rate we were going, but Adam picked up the pace after satisfying himself that those three pieces would hold him. I watched him from various angles as he climbed higher, moving left onto the sloping dihedral and using a combination of cams and fixed protection to protect it. He moved around a corner out of sight briefly before popping up at the top about 70ft up. The only mistake he made was in using the rappel anchor to belay me from, rather than the better-positioned bolts found further west where the route tops out. After following, I had to acknowledge a good lead - I would have been nervous as hell myself on that one - I was happy to have a top rope for the climb. We rapped off the summit in turns, taking just over an hour on the route. The sun was only ten minutes from setting by the time we had pulled the rope down, packed up our gear and started back to the trailhead.

We spent the next several hour driving back out to Paicines, picking up Adam's truck, and driving to the BLM trailhead for Griswold Hills along New Idria Road. I had been to this TH a few times in the past for nearby summits, figuring we'd be off the road and left undisturbed to spend the night here. We ate dinner and watched The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean on the van's DVD player. Not bad for vintage 1972 with Paul Newman...

Continued...


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