Santa Ana Mountain P500 CC

Sun, Sep 6, 2009

With: Steve Sywyk

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previously attempted Wed, Jul 29, 2009

Not to be dissuaded after our first failed attempt, Steve and I went back to tackle the Diablo Range's mighty Santa Ana Peak near Hollister. Ok, "mighty" is probably a bit much, but the peak is of interest. It is easily visible for many miles while driving south on US101 from San Jose. It has a steep, pointy summit, unusual for the coast ranges and particularly the Diablo Range which is commonly a collection of rolling terrain and large tracts of ranch lands. I had been observing this peak for a number of years and more intently after our first try at it several months earlier. We had been repelled by fog which made the idea of a moonlight hike unworkable and it wasn't much fun having to navigate soley by GPS.

Tonight the moon was just past full, rising about an hour after sunset. We were somewhat late getting started and didn't make it to Lone Tree Rd until after 8:30p. The moon was just above the hills to the east, brightly illuminating the two major peaks, San Joaquin on the left and Santa Ana on the right. We had intended to use the same parking spot we'd used on our first visit, but a slight mix-up had us parking about a three quarters of a mile west of the correct location and we didn't recognize this difference until we were returning (and got lost).

With no turnouts in the area, we parked askew off to the side of the pavement, hopped the dilapidated fence along the road, and headed down the steep grass slope to the creek below. There was water flowing in the creek, but much less than we had encountered previously, and the crossing was a cinch. We even managed to avoid the poison oak we had found in crossing that first time.

We found a dirt ranch road on the south side of the creek and followed this east for half a mile or so until it started to head down. We then started off cross-country under the oak trees, aiming for the more open grasslands further up, away from the creek. Despite the available moonlight, we needed to use our headlamps for most of the hike, partly to keep from stumbling over the many rocks that lie loose on the hillsides, but also to avoid bumping into the poison oak that was for more prevalent than we had imagined.

Our plan was to reach the south side of the SW Ridge of Santa Ana that we knew from Google Earth was relatively free of the heavy brush that lay on the north side of the ridge and the peak. Reaching the ridge was somewhat problematic as we encountered walls of poison oak that repeatedly rebuffed our attempts to climb out of the shady valley we were ascending. Most of the leaves had fallen from the poison oak plants, so it was difficult at times to determine which plants and vines were dangerous, and which were not. As far as we could tell, most of the medium-sized bushes we encountered were poison oak.

We eventually managed our way to the ridge where we found more open going and a very nice breeze to help cool us off. Just in time too, because the last two-thirds of a mile to the summit climbs more than 1,400ft. Steve started lagging at this point, his legs not appreciating the vigorous workout they were getting on the steep slope. I would pause to wait on a rock when he got more than about 50 yards behind, giving me time to rest and take in the sublime moonlit view that lay below us. The lights of hollister spread out in the distance, surrounded by more isolated lights from ranches and other homes, and waves of hills faintly illuminated by the moon made for a picturesque scene.

As we neared the summit, still about 200ft below the top, the peak took on dark and ominous shades. I couldn't tell if it was dark rock or heavy brush, but neither one was going to be easy to navigate and it was with some trepidation that we approached it. Coming nearer, I could see that the darker areas were near-vertical rock shaded from the moonlight, rising high into the sky. This was not a good sign. There was no chance of climbing the rock directly, probably not even if we had rope gear and daylight, and we had to choose between going around to the north or south side of the peak. As our slope angled to the left, I followed it as it moved around to the left or north side of the peak.

We found our way to a small alcove where we were walled in by rock on all sides. I was beginning to think we might fail at this peak a second time. We climbed back down a short distance and moved further left through trees and scrambling over easier rock to gain another alcove. This one was larger and we climbed higher for several minutes before once again finding our way blocked. I could sense that the summit was only 50ft or so above us, but again we were stopped. The volcanic rock was surprisingly stable and I was happy to find it did not crumble as we grabbed onto it. Much of the north side we were now on was steeped in shade both night and day, and the rock was covered in lichen and mosses (though mostly dormant in the summer months) that I was also happy to find provided decent purchase and didn't scrape off as we clambored over it. But this didn't help keep us from getting walled in.

If the near-vertical walls weren't problematic enough, we once again found stringy vines of leafless poison oak interspersed with the rocky buttresses. I was ready to give up on this second dead end when Steve suggested a line up to my left. I had initially rejected it because I didn't think Steve would be able to follow on what I judged was probably class 4 scrambling. But since it didn't seem impossible to his eye, I started up to give it a look. Steep and narrow with a slippery leaf and needle-strewn ledge, it was going to be a painful fall should something give way. But the line had the fortunate attribute of a shelf just within reach above. There were a pair of bushes with wrist-sized trunks that could be used to hold on to and help us mantle our way up the vertical part of the wall. It was a difficult, dust-in-the-eyes-and-lungs sort of struggle, but we both managed to surmount it in turn. Undoubtedly the hardest scrambling I'd yet encountered in the entire range.

Our troubles were not over, but the worst of it was, and over the next ten minutes we wound our way further through the rock and trees and poison oak to find our way to the summit at last. The greatest disappointment was finding no clear, obvious highpoint at the summit. The tree and brush covered summit area was broad and mostly viewless. We scrambled around looking at various points to see if anything was obviously higher, but in the darkness by headlamp and moon it was an impossible task to discern the highest clump of rock. We gave that effort up after a few minutes and found our way to the edge of the largest cliff on the west side of the peak with a fine overlook. Here we sat for a break to take in the views and give our racing hearts a chance to recover.

We did not relish the idea of returning via the same difficult route we had ascended, so I was determined to find an easier way down. I figured the south-facing slopes should be drier and hopefully less brushy and less steep. Our initial effort in descending off the south side was frustrated by even heavier brush than we had encountered on the north side (so much for my thinking on that score), and unavoidable overgrowths of poison oak. By now we had been encountering the stuff so often that it was no longer a matter of if we had touched it, but rather which parts of our clothing were still safe to wipe the sweat from our brow. After dropping down maybe 50ft we encountered more cliff on the south side that looked to have so much brush that we resolved to climb back up to the top and return via the difficult route on the north side.

We caught a break just as we were about to give up when I discovered a chute on on the SW side of the peak that we had missed earlier. This steeply sloping chute led down around the westside cliffs, allowing us to traverse the base of the same cliffs and return to the route we had taken up before encountering the vertical walls of rock. Now bathed in moonlight, the cliffs on the west side were impressive. I looked for hangers or other evidence of rock climbing on this face, but found none. I wonder if anyone has tried to climb here.

Our return from that point was of course much easier since it was mostly downhill. We investigated an alternate route that we eventually concluded led to a deep canyon NW of the peak with too many unknowns to risk descent. Our route was mostly down the SW Ridge followed by the descent through the poison oak into the more open valley below. It was 1:15a before we managed our way back up from the creek and approached Lone Tree Rd. To our surprise, a truck came driving by as we lay in the grass below the road to avoid detection. What could he be doing out at this time when all normal folks are fast asleep? Once on the road we took some time to realize we were a bit lost. We had first started walking west about a quarter mil, but then turned to walk east thinking we were parked somewhere else. After half a mile we reached the driveway of the home we knew to be nearby, where we thought we'd parked the car. Had it been towed? Turning west again, it was another 3/4 of a mile before we found our car and figured out we had parked further west than we had planned. It cost us more than half an hour in wandering the road, but at least the car hadn't been towed.

In all we spent about five hours hiking little more than five miles. Much of that time was spent on the steep approach to the cliffs and then finding our way to the summit. Santa Ana turned out to be a surprisingly difficult little peak, and fairly enjoyable despite the obstacles. I took a shower and lathered on some Technu when I got home at 3a, and two days later I still haven't seen any signs of a rash developing. And that makes the outing even more enjoyable...


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cc comments on 09/12/09:
Went out during broad daylight-beautiful-nice class 4 scrambles on the top!
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