Peak 5,243ft SDC
Bell Bluff SDC
Peak 3,769ft
Pleasants Peak P500 LPC

Thu, Apr 21, 2011

With: Evan Rasmussen

Etymology
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3

Continued...

Day four of our roadtrip chasing SDC peaks saw us driving north on SR79 in the early morning hour. I had been to this same trailhead and used much of the same route a few years earlier to climb Oakzanita Peak, an HPS-listed summit. The SDC had somehow chosen this obscure, unnamed peak for their list, located between Manza BM and Oakzanita. It is the highpoint of the broad East Mesa, though it has barely 300ft of prominence due to the higher terrain connected to the northeast end of the "mesa". The term is used loosely here as East Mesa is not particularly flat. It is shaped by rounded hills and grassy gullies around the 5,000-foot level. The peak is another of the "brushy" SDC peaks, having a healthy mantle of chaparral without any maintained trail to the summit. I had no beta that it had a use trail, so we made plans based on Google satellite images that provided some clues on how best to minimize the brush. Some of the trails shown on the topo map no longer exist, old 4x4 ranch roads that have all but returned to nature.

I started out alone from SR79 at 6:30a, following the good East Mesa Fire Road up several miles to the east side of Oakzanita. Evan followed a bit later atop his mountain bike, his preferred mode of locomotion. The fire road follows the north side of Descanso Creek Canyon as it gains elevation steadily. Before the first hour was up Evan passed me by, only a few minutes from the Oakzanita Trail junction where I found him waiting. We turned onto the Oakzanita Trail, following it southwest for about a quarter mile in search of the other roads shown on the topo. These lost roads also appeared on my GPSr, but they were no longer viable routes as we found ourselves in the tall, damp grass of a meadow west of our goal. The way ahead looked far too brushy and we decided this was not going to work out.

Plan B took us back to the original junction and the start of the Oakzanita Trail. We then followed the fire road about a quarter mile to where it turns to the northeast, stopping here. Half a mile was as close as we could get to our summit, and it was now time to stash the bike, don gloves and get on with the bushwhacking portion of the program. The location was chosen as much for its proximity to the summit as for the more open terrain indicated on the satellite view. After an initial bit of getting through some dense downfall, we found ourselves in more open grass areas. This led across a barbed-wire fence marking the boundary between the State Park and the adjacent National Forest. Our peak lies not far outside the park boundary where contemporary grazing is quite evident (lots of cow pies) though there were no cattle to be seen while we were there.

The grassy slopes ended just past the fence, but we aimed for a large area of rocky slabs that served better for making progress than the surrounding scrub. There was a minor creek to cross and a non-trivial amount of poison oak to evade. Luckily the brush wasn't that thick since we needed to find our way through some of it on the final push, and by 8:30a we had reached the summit. A pair of red nested tins was sitting next the benchmark. There were no useful markings on the benchmark, but the register placed in 1999 indicated "Sugg Peak" which although not a very interesting name in itself, is certainly better than the more boring "Peak 5,243ft". The summit provides views of Pine Valley to the southeast, Gutay Mtn and Bell Bluff to the south, Oakzanita to the west, Cuyamaca and Stonewall Peaks to the northwest and as far as the Santa Rosas well to the north. The view east is taken up by the higher terrain of the Laguna Mtns, a wide swath of chaparral-covered terrain mixed with pine trees in a number of places.

Fnding some ducks leading west from the summit, we followed these as the likely use trail we had hoped to find earlier. The trail led a short distance west, then down the west side of a northward draining gully between Peak 5,243ft and the lower summit to the west. We were unable to follow it all the way back to the dirt road, losing it about 1/2 of the way down. We used the same slabs to reach the base of the peak, then found more open terrain back to the road that avoided the downfall we had scampered over at the beginning. Evan jumped back on his bike while I jogged the downhill portions, trying in vain to keep him in sight. He was well-rested and looking somewhat smug when I got back 40 minutes later, around 9:45a. No doubt this bike thing had benefits.

We spent the next hour and a half driving to the town of Alpine along Interstate 8 and the trailhead for Bell Bluff, the last SDC peak on the trip's agenda. This summit, too, had a reputation for heavy brush and the requisite bushwhacking. The "trailhead" is hardly that, barely an opening in a fence between two suburban homes in the rolling hills found here. It marks the start of one segment of the California Hiking and Riding Trail. I haven't been able to actually find a map showing what the entire route looks like, but I've stumbled across various sections in Cuyamaca State Park and in Joshua Tree National Park. Whether it is a continuous trail planned across the southern part of the state or just the reuse of a common name is unclear to me. In any event, it seems that this one is not really advertised at all. There is no parking nearby, no trail maintainence, and almost no signage of any type - one would think they were trespassing upon first encountering it. I was fortunate to have gotten some beta from others who had been to Bell Bluff. My first effort to approach it from the east during the winter was a bust when I encountered gated private property. This approach appears to be all on public lands within the Cleveland National Forest.

Having left the van back in downtown Alpine, Evan parked his camper half on, half off the road on the north side about 50 yards northwest of the trailhead. I started off first as Evan planned to use his mountain bike once again. An unexpected difficulty was encountered immediately as I found the trail blocked by the Sweetwater River less than 100yds from the start. I pulled off my boots and socks, carried them across the knee-deep water, thinking to myself, "This ought to slow Evan down a bit." A faint trail led up through the grass on the opposite side, soon emerging on a wider cut in the hillside, and more what I expected from the map that shows a dirt road. This is the Bell Bluff Truck Trail, though no trucks have been on it in years from what I could tell.

The sky was heavily overcast, the same coastal clouds that I had seen encroaching on Cuyamaca State Park the previous evening. I had hoped it might clear today, but no such luck. The road soon rounds a bend and starts heading east toward Bell Bluff, still a long ways off. I hiked for another half hour before getting a view of the summit, only to find its top shrouded in clouds. So much for the views. It took more than an hour from the trailhead to reach the start of the cross-country, a brushy-looking half mile effort on the northwest side of the summit. I was waiting around perhaps ten minutes before Evan finally arrived. At least he wasn't looking relaxed and smug, his khaki shirt wet with sweat. After changing his shoes we started off.

The summit looked as daunting as the reports I had been given on it. A thick carpet of brush envelopes the summit, punctuated by large granite blocks that pockmark the northwest side. The initial going went relatively well, giving us premature, hopeful expectations that were soon strangled among the brush that surrounded us over head level. Evan would try one way then another, I would try my own ways through the thickets before getting stymied. This diffuse strategy led to us getting separated more and more as we went on exploratory tangents that were eventually out of earshot from each other. I was further east, aiming for the large blocks that I hoped would offer a way out of the mess. My troubles were only beginning I found. First off, the blocks were far bigger up close than they had seemed from afar. Most of them were simply too big to climb. Secondly, the wetter slope on this side of the mountain was decidedly more to the liking of poison oak which now popped up in abundance. I high-stepped over the stuff, watching every placement of foot and hand, and started scratching my way up the slots between boulders and making slow progress that I expected would lead to open slopes above or just as likely, a dead end. At one point I found myself squeezing through a narrow hole, head first and facing upwards, most uncomfortably. What the heck was I doing? This wasn't supposed to be this hard. Off-route for some twenty minutes or so, I eventually moved further west and found some ducks marking the use trail we had been looking for. No sign of Evan, but I guessed he'd done a better job and found it much sooner. Another ten minutes of following the narrow path through the brush, well-marked now, brought me to the summit where Evan was waiting, smiling of course.

The summit is a jumble of rocks interspersed with less dense scrub, with three possible blocks vying for the highest point. The summit register was located in a cairn next to the benchmark on the lowest of the three blocks. The block that looked highest was on the north side, an intimidating class 5 affair that I had been adequately warned about. I sent Evan halfway up to get a picture of the block with him for perspective. Where he stopped was as high as he planned to go. I did a check on the other sides to see if there were alternatives to the serious class 5 crack on the SW side. It might work on the east side I decided, but not easily, and I moved around to join Evan on the southwest side. The crack that had been described to me looked very hard, more than 15 feet high. The crack itself was off-width in an open book, about 6-7 inches wide and vertical, actually slightly overhanging. I really didn't think I could get up without the help of a rope. I stepped back to examine the rock better. I climbed onto the side block that Evan was occupying, eyeing the south side of the summit block closely. Though certainly more exposed, it looked like it might have better holds and be easier than the crack option. I handed Evan my camera and decided to give it a try.

I had already made the delicate move onto the south face of the block when Evan announced he couldn't get the camera to work. It was a very simple point and shoot and I couldn't understand what the problem was he was trying to convey. After all, Evan is an accomplished photographer and should be generally familiar with almost any camera, I expected. It was tough trying to concentrate on what he was saying while balancing on a thin hold with 25 feet of air underneath me. It turned out the main dial was not locked on a particular mode and it was this problem the camera was reporting (Mode Dial not in proper position). He figured it out soon enough, snapped a photo, and up I went to finish the block atop. I sat there somewhat uncomfortably, knowing I had to reverse the delicate move back to the subsidiary block. It was easy enough to get back to the thin ledge, but getting down to the subsidiary block took some finger strength as I let my body slide down the rough rock and within reach of my toe. All of this unroped climbing was finished in less than two minutes, but of course it seemed a lot longer. It was with a good deal of relief that I felt the safety of the lower block under my left foot.

After picking my things back up and shouldering my pack, we went back to the use trail and started down. We expected our travails to be over by this time, as surely the trail would lead back to the truck trail. We got halfway down before losing the trail in the steep, blocky section on the northwest side. More recent downfall may have obliterated part of the trail, or perhaps it never went all the way, but in any case we found ourselves climbing under and through heavy brush surrounding the blocks in a gully we were trying to descend. Poison oak appeared again, making things a bit trickier. Luckily we were looking for it and did not absentmindedly plow into the stuff. With perhaps 75 yards of difficulty in the worst of the brush, we eventually emerged onto the easier slopes with thinner chaparral and got back to Evan's bike and the road at 2:10p. Naturally the summit was clear of clouds now that we'd left it.

I jogged ahead while Evan changed his shoes. I was more than halfway back when he caught up to me, surprised I had managed to get as far as I had. I found an old daypack loaded with trash that I asked Evan to shoulder the rest of the way back. Really it was just an excuse to slow him down a little. Up to this point the road was not in very good shape for biking, with deep ruts, loose rocks and encroaching brush that were easier for bipeds than for two wheels. The rest of the road from here, perhaps another mile, was a cinch. It was almost 3p by the time I returned to the trailhead and found him barefooted on the back step of the camper. We'd pretty much cleaned out all the SDC peaks I had come prepared for, so we decided to call the trip a success and drive back to San Diego. Evan would head for home in nearby Solano Beach while I had more than eight hours to San Jose. As I still had another day available, I decided to stop in Mission Viejo and consider my options at a Starbucks there.

On the two hour plus drive from Alpine a number of options went through my head. I wanted very much to visit Pleasants Peak, the only LPC peak that I had missed on a previous visit to the Santa Ana Mtns in Orange County. At that time I had been stopped by the California Forestry doing a controlled burn on the way to the peak and they wouldn't let me pass. My first thought was to sleep at the trailhead in Silverado Canyon and hike the peak in the morning. This would mean driving north through the LA area afterwards, a bit of a traffic headache that I wasn't keen on. Then it occurred to me that I could probably do the hike today, though certainly it would be well into night before I finished. Researching the route more thoroughly during my stop for gas, I came to be reminded that it was a 16 mile trek round trip - no easy hike. After much deliberation, I decided I needed something tough to motivate me - the last three days had been fun, but by no means strenuous. Starting a 6hr hike just before sundown seemed a good way to shake things up a bit. I found both a Starbucks (for caffeine & sugar) and a Del Taco (high calories on the cheap) near each other at my exit off Interstate 5 in Lake Forest. I ate and drank my fill on the drive to Silverado Canyon where I arrived at 6:30p. I had only an hour until sunset, so I wasted no time in setting off.

The trail climbs steadily for 3 miles, gaining almost 2,000ft from the canyon to Bedford Peak. Unlike the San Diego area that was socked in, there was a good deal more clearing here though clouds lingered as both low fog and higher stratus. Sunset came around 7:30p while I was still making my way up to Bedford and I stopped often to take pictures of the orange sky that developed as the sun sank lower in the sky. I had my first view of Pleasants Peak I reached the upper portion of Bedford's SE Ridge along which the trail meandered. Pleasants looked a long way off still, with clouds wisping up from the intervening canyon between Pleasants and Bedford.

I reached Main Divide Road just after sunset. The well-graded dirt road runs north-south along the divide of the Santa Ana Mtns, often open to 4WD vehicles. A gate at Bedford Peak was closed, however, so I don't know the current status for access. I would see no one anywhere on the trail or road all evening. The route to Pleasants follows a large arc counter-clockwise, up and over several intermediate points along the way. I would jog the downhills and hike the uphills and flats. There was a cold onshore wind blowing over the divide forcing me to don fleece and balaclava to keep reasonably warm. Clouds were swept slowly over the divide at the low places, reducing visibility as I dropped through the saddles along the way. There was a faint glow from the setting sun to the west where otherwise all was mostly dark, but to the east were an array of city lights from the urban sprawl of El Cerito and Riverside. As the road turned more northwest, there were even more lights to be seen to the north where the Inland Empire spills out from the LA Basin.

Shortly before 9p I reached the gate on the northwest side of Pleasants Peak. The road had taken me around to the backside, making for an even longer journey than it had appeared when I was near Bedford. The gate marks the junction here, a maintainence road leading to the radio facilities on the lower SW summit. I had my GPSr loaded with the USGS coordinates for the summit, but these took me to the heliport located west of the SW summit which was obviously not the highpoint. I passed through a second gate on the way up to the SW summit, then went on to the highpoint at the NE summit after dropping a bit through a saddle, climbing steeply up an old fire road. Oddly, there were no facilities on the higher summit and it offered a fine 360 degree view, though at night most of the visible action takes place to the north and northeast. The outline of the towers on the SW summit was just visible in a nighttime shot. There was no benchmark nor register that I could located.

I headed off the NE side of the summit, following the old fire road that continued over the summit and thinking myself pretty clever for finding a shortcut back to the main road. I only got about 100ft below the summit when the fire road ended abruptly in a wall of brush where the bulldozers had evidently stopped. Rats. Back up I went, and then back along the same route I had taken to get there. There would be no big shortcut tonight. There were however, smaller ones that I utilized on the return. In several places there were paths open to foot traffic that bypassed some of the longer curves where the road goes around one of the intermediate summits.

The return was by no means humdrum. For one, there was some unusual activity from the animal kingdom to entertain me. Nighttime seemed to draw out an unusual number of large, spindly-legged spiders that I found frequently walking across the road. Perhaps they had shunned the daytime hours to avoid predators. Periodically I would find tiny, beady eyes staring back at me from the ground ahead. These turned out to be small birds that would fly off as I approached. Whether they were napping on the road or were looking for late-night spider snacks, I couldn't tell. But if the early bird gets the worm, around here the late bird could have all the spiders he wanted. The chilly air kept me awake and city lights provided some visual entertainment. The fog level had dropped and was no longer swept over the low saddles.

It was 11:30p before I finally returned to the van. The first order of business was a rinse. Having no warm water on tap, I drove the van to the creek crossing near the trailhead where I took a midnight dunking in the very cold waters of Silverado Creek. This both cleaned and perked me up, helping to keep me going for the next hour. In order to avoid the morning traffic I drove north across the Inland Empire late at night. I planned to hike a few LPC peaks in the San Gabriel foothills in the morning and found a suitably flat place to park in suburban Monrovia, at the mouth of Santa Anita Canyon. It was after 1a before I bedded down in the back of the van - it had been a full day, and the soreness I felt was not unwelcome as I drifted off...

Continued...


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