Mt. Umunhum P500 CC
Bald Mountain

Tue, Nov 7, 2017

With: Steve Sywyk

Etymology
Bald Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profiles: 1 2
Mt. Umunhum previously climbed Tue, Dec 6, 2005
Bald Mountain previously climbed Wed, Mar 11, 2009

Mt. Umunhum, one of the highest summits in the Santa Cruz Mtns, was the site of Almaden Air Force Station, a Cold War SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) installation that operated from the 1950s until it was decommissioned in the early 1980s (check out this vintage IBM film about SAGE). The large antenna that use to rotate about the top of the huge concrete structure known as Building 102 was removed and the station abandoned. For years it lay dormant, its true purpose slowly forgotten until all that remained were rumors of Cold War intrigue and the huge, 70-foot concrete box that can be seen from everywhere in San Jose and the surrounding communities. I paid it a visit in 2005 and found it eerie, the base like a modern ghost town. Eventually the property was acquired by the Mid-Pennisula Open Space Authority with millions of dollars used to remove all the old Air Force buildings and reconstruct the peak from the inglorious bulldozing it had received decades earlier. Recently opened to the public, one can now hike or drive (or bike) to the summit where the concrete box was left intact, a "summit" recreated along with a "Ceremony Circle" at the behest of the Ohlone people who had lived in the Santa Clara Valley sometime before the Cold War.

Friday's effort was during the first Pacific storm of the season with a 50% chance of rain. Steve and I had driven to the trailhead near Bald Mtn, starting up the 3.7mi trail around noon (after he had first used the facilities there). Light rain had fallen in the morning hours, wetting the trail and vegetation, bringing the soft, dormant ferns alive with a vivid green. The weather held all the while we hiked the nicely graded trail, much of it lined with oaks and madrones to offer a surprising amount of shade. We stopped at the Guadalupe Creek Overlook along the way, a small turnout in the trail over a rock outcrop that offers views of the Santa Clara Valley to the north. We were just under the cloud layer at this point but would soon hike up into the clouds, with any chance of views completely lost. There is some excellent stonework on the trail just before it tops out on Mt. Umunhum. The large concrete block looms like a ghostly Soviet-era building, abandoned and forlorn. Despite the poor weather, we shared the trail with several other parties, finding yet more walking about the summit area when we arrived. It was cold and breezy and we sought shelter in the roofed, open-air kiosk with various placards describing the ecology and history of the summit. Many tons of rocks and earth have been moved to erase the bulldozed look the summit had had for more than 50yrs, returning it to a more peak-like feel. As yet there is nothing growing over several acres of the summit, looking more like something found at the top of a much higher mountain than the 3,500-foot summit it is. Rain began to fall as we picnicked on the stone benches under the shelter, a bit more drab than we might have hoped. The rain began to come down more earnestly and Steve began to have second and third thoughts about returning back down the trail. "You know, I'm Ok if we ask someone for a ride," he mused. I let him know I was Ok either way, knowing full well that he really, really didn't want to do the hike back any more. We both had rain jackets we'd brought with us, but Steve seems more suseptible to illness in such weather. After several more attempts to get me to show a preference, he finally asked more bluntly, "Are you Ok if I ask someone for a ride?" Of course I was. We found a party of three in a large white pickup truck to give us a lift back to our vehicle. The elderly gentleman was a decent driver but showed a proclivity for being confused about which direction to drive. This led to some amusing backseat driving by both his wife and daughter and by his reactions Steve and I could tell that he was well used to it.

It wasn't the outing we'd hoped for and over the weekend I gave it more thought, eventually deciding I'd ride my bike up there with better weather for both the challenge and the views we had hoped for. Riding south through San Jose towards the Santa Cruz Mtns, the summit is clearly visible for much of the ride as the large box is unmistakable. Traffic congestion caused by an accident provided something out of the ordinary, but otherwise it was a very ordinary ride through the city with dozens of lights that always seem timed for missing them. Once on Hicks Road the ride becomes more rural as it follows Guadalupe Creek up through the foothills, not really starting to climb until it rises to the dam on Guadalupe Reservoir. After cruising around the reservoir the road begins climbing in earnest, becoming quite steep in places, so much so that I spent much of it weaving back and forth across both sides of the road because I couldn't ride it in a straight line up the difficult grade. After turning onto Mt. Umunhum Road, the gradient doesn't improve but the pavement is fresh and new, making for a very smooth ride. I stopped at the trailhead for the Mt. Umunhum Trail, the same one Steve and I had used four days earlier, locking my bike here and paying a visit to nearby Bald Mtn on foot. It was mostly to give my back and hands a chance to rest after some two hours of riding. The peak is little more than a grassy knoll with little prominence, but it offers fine, unobstructed views of South San Jose to the north and the Diablo Range around Mt. Hamilton to the east. Back on the bike after the 30min diversion, I continued the ride up Mt. Umunhum Road for another 40min. The gradient finally relaxes in the last mile as the road meets the crest of the range and opens up to a nice view of the Pacific Ocean stretching out beyond Santa Cruz and across Monterey Bay, the Santa Lucia Range visible far to the south. Mt. Thayer lies close-by to the west but access is still closed to the public. There are numerous telecom towers located there and for now only technicians and such are allowed on that stretch of road.

Upon reaching the summit, I was finally treated to the views I had been hoping for. The concrete box had been cleaned up better than I had found it on that first visit 12yrs earlier, the peeling paint removed along with railings and vents that had festooned it from an earlier time. All the buildings around it have been removed, many hundreds of truckloads hauling the debris back down the mountain to a landfill. Despite the stark look of the freshly piled up rock and earth, it looks pretty good and will undoubtedly come to life within a few seasons as rain and time do their work to revegetate the area. There are two highpoints that have been created here, both with stone steps leading to the top. The one to the east that is nearest the trail and the concrete box is slightly lower than the western one located adjacent to the ceremony circle. The circle is intended for Ohlone rituals and gatherings as depicted on the adjacent placard describing it. One would get the impression that the Ohlone peoples used to come here regularly for spiritual guidance and renewal. Knowing how thick the chaparral grows on these mountains and the difficultly of thrashing through it, I have my doubts, but I'm happy to have the natives get more say in how we treat such places. Certainly, Western Civilization and the Cold War didn't do it any favors.

The ride back down wasn't as enjoyable as I might have liked. Unlike the Mt. Hamilton Road with its easier gradient and long, winding descents, the Mt. Umunhum road is too steep to enjoy and I found my hands cramping from the constant application of the brakes. Oh well, can't have everything. On my way back around Guadalupe Reservoir I heard a loud voice and what might pass for singing and stopped to investigate. On the far side of the reservoir across Hicks Rd was a lone figure standing barefoot on a rockout crop overlooking the water. He was dressed in only a single garment - whether a euro swim suit or women's underwear I couldn't tell, but he was dancing and doing a striptease of sorts. I was curious if drugs might be involved or perhaps he was just a free spirit out expressing himself in nature. Perhaps he will be invited to the Ceremony Circle some day...


Gordon Jacobs comments on 11/08/17:
I'm really embarrassed. I didn't know I was that visible... ;-)
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This page last updated: Wed Nov 8 20:40:00 2017
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