Sat, Jan 17, 2004
Just as we had done almost a year to the day ago, Matthew and I were planning to attempt what we've dubbed the "Ventana Triple Crown", a difficult 23 mile, 10,000ft hike climbing South Ventana Cone, Ventana Cone, and Ventana Double Cone in a single day from the China Camp TH. The previous year we had reached Ventana Cone, halfway through the crux 4 mile bushwhack before turning back due to exhaustion and lack of water. Though better prepared and in better shape, we wouldn't do a whole lot better on this second venture.
Matthew and I got up at 4a from our roadside bivy in Carmel Valley, then drove the long Tassajara Road to China Camp. We arrived right at 5a, with John and Michael in a separate car arriving just behind us. While I wolfed a quick breakfast down, Matthew packed up his things, and the four of us set out about 5:20a under headlamps. The trail was fairly overgrown with brush in many places, almost from the start. We spaced ourselves out to keep from thwacking each other as we mowed through the bushes that grew 7ft high and crowded in from both sides. We'd often be walking with both hands in front of our faces, pushing the bushes back while we focused on the trail below us, barely visible through the overhanging brush. We reached Church Creek Divide at 6:45a where we took a break and turned off our headlamps, the dawn finally arriving. Half an hour past Church Creek Divide we came to the only water source we'd find all day. Knowing this beforehand, we filled up all our water bottles here before continuing on. John and Michael kept the lead for most of the way to our Pine Ridge turnoff, Matthew and I still dragging from our stint on the Little Sur River the day before. We enjoyed the sunrise on VDC and nearby Uncle Sam Mtn. Our intended route would go through the saddle between them, Puerto Suello Gap, and it looked so very far away.
We were on the trail three hours when it was time to head cross-country to South Ventana Cone. The brush is growing back strongly where it was burned out on the northwest side three or four years ago. I remembered my first visit to this peak was an easy walk through the burned out remains of the chaparral. But the stuff grows back quickly, and now there was more bushwhacking. We angled to the right on the west side where the hillside is drier and the brush doesn't grow very thick nor more than about waist high. It took about 30 minutes to reach the summit. John was about five minutes behind at this point, less used to the chaparral, and possibly starting to get tired. The last entry in the register was from John himself, who had last visited this summit little more than a month earlier, back in November. The peak receives visits from about a dozen parties each year, so we weren't too surprised by this. We took a break and enjoyed the sunshine and nice views, having some snacks as well. It took us another half hour to get back down to the trail again.
Now for the two mile cross-country stretch to Ventana Cone, peak #2. From here on out I lead the way. Having already completed two trips to Ventana Cone in the last two years, I was very familiar with the route, remembering many of the places where a wrong turn could lead to excessive, time-wasting bushwhacking. John let us know that he probably wouldn't hike past Ventana Cone - he was visibly growing more tired and didn't want to slow us down. So he fell behind while the three of us pressed on. Peak 4455ft lies roughly halfway between the trail and Ventana Cone, and we reached this notable milestone in about an hour where we regrouped and took a break. After we'd taken our rest we resumed, and we soon got spread out on the next long section involving three or four up and downs along the ridge to Ventana Cone. This stretch is deceivingly long, and each year the chaparral grows ever thicker. It is beginning to wipe out some of the firecuts that were made a number of years ago, and it didn't look like there had been any new visitors along this route since the previous year.
I reached the summit of Ventana Cone just after 11a. I found the summit register where we'd left it the previous year, looking undisturbed. In trying to verify this by checking the entries, I couldn't get the lid off. I bashed on it with rocks and tried all manners of hammering at it, all to no avail. The rubber seal seemed to have been melted tight during the heat of the previous summer. Michael and Matthew came up to join me and we took a long rest. I continued pounding and prying at the ammo box, but I couldn't open it. Michael took a look at it, then walked around until he located what he thought was a suitable prying bar. I ridiculed his puny stick and said it would crumble into matchsticks. As he placed it under the latch to pry, I pointed out that his leveraging technique was working against the lid in the wrong direction of force. Michael just kinda looked at me in disbelief, he would at least have to try for himself. With a couple of stiff yanks the lid popped right off. "OK, I'm a freakin' idiot." I admitted.
Inside we found pretty much what we expected - no visitors since the previous year. We made a new entry and sealed it back up for the next year. I was eager to get going on to VDC, but the others wanted to rest longer, a reasonable request. Still, I grew antsy that time would slip out of our hands as we wiled away some of the best hours there on the summit. It was a really fine day, unusual it would seem for a mid-January day. The temperature was almost too warm - in fact it was we agreed, for about two hours in midday. But this was far better than a sea of fog that could make route-finding not just difficult, but dangerous. There would be no such problem today. When I asked the question, "Who's up for going on?" I got no immediate response. I wanted at least one person to continue on with me, but I didn't want to force a response. After some time and a bit of discussion we all decided to go on. We spent some time observing that portion of the route we could see. This was primarily the south-facing slopes of the ridgeline with three or four saddles at intervals. We could see some sections that would be easier, some harder. But the north-faciing slopes were complete unknowns except what we could decipher from our topos. It was shortly before noon when we set out again.
We climbed down on the east side of the ridge for about a hundred yards to where the slope steepened appreciably. We then angled back left to the ridgeline where we came upon some rocks. This was a bit more rock than we had seen previously, and it looked none too easy. I peered through a notch on the ridge to the west side and found a sloping ledge we could follow to get around the rocks immediately on the ridge. This got us another 50 yards or so until we came to a small overlook where we could get a much better picture of what we were in for. From the topo we knew we had to drop 800 feet to the next saddle along the ridge, but hidden from view on Ventana Cone was just how steep that 800-foot drop would be. We found ways down for several hundred feet, but the climbing was getting in the class 4 range. It might have been more enjoyable if the rock quality wasn't so suspect and our location wasn't so remote. Matthew in particular was struggling on the rock and our progress slowed nearly to a crawl. We had initially estimated three hours to get to VDC, but so far we had taken more than 30 minutes to go a few hundred yards. Little warning flags went up in my head and I openly questioned whether we should continue. No one seemed to have a strong opinion, or any opinion for that matter. Even if we made it to VDC before dark, there was no guarantee we'd find our way back up to Pine Valley from Hiding Camp if we had to negotiate the dozen or so river crossings by headlamp. None of us had been up that route to know anything about it, and I wanted to avoid an unplanned bivy at all costs. I finally suggested we should turn around, a tough decision after so much work to get here.
Another half hour and we were back on the summit of Ventana Cone. Matthew was a bit cantankerous, swearing off not only any future attempts at the Triple Crown, but the whole of Ventana for the rest of the year - and it was only January. He seemed pretty determined on this resolution, but I suspected he would soften after the hike was over and the painful parts start to fade from memory. After a short break we continued back. Retracing our steps, I found the return easier than on the way to VC, and I forged ahead as Michael and Matthew followed at slower rates behind. When I reached Peak 4455ft at 2:15p I looked back and spied Michael taking a short breather on the ridge a short ways back. Matthew I could see nowhere. Michael joined me 15 minutes later, and together we lazed on the summit while we waited for Matthew and enjoyed the delightful views in the warm sun. Michael showed me a pair of gloves he found lying on a rock back along the ridge. Not mine, but we both agreed they were probably John's. I wondered if he missed them. Without my gloves I was pretty sure my hands would have taken a beating on all the brush, so I know I would have missed them.
After about 20 minutes we spied him not far from the spot I had seen Michael earlier, but another length of time went by and we saw no more of him. After we'd been on the summit for 45 minutes, Michael heeded my suggestion and headed back - John would be waiting back at the car for him, and there was no need for two of us to wait for Matthew. After Michael took off I went looking for Matthew more determinedly. I shouted his name, but got no response. I started hiking back along the ridge, wondering if he'd gotten hurt. Did I send Michael away too early? After hiking down a few hundred yards and calling his name again, I finally got a response. If he wasn't napping, he was taking rest. When we finally met up again, he explained he had seen the two of us taking a break on the summit, so he took one on the ridge. This strategy probably evolved from finally catching up to us previously and having me anxious to get going before he could catch his breath. Not a bad strategy really, except it had started to get me worried.
I lead the way back to the summit and asked if he needed a break, but Matthew was still fairly rested and replied in the negative. I worried that if we made similar progress on our way back to the trail it would be 6p and dark before we got there, so I decided to try a new strategy. Rather than going at my own pace and then waiting ahead, I planned to go slower, stay just ahead and help with the route-finding through the brush. Though Matthew had hiked the same route the year before, he seemed to have some trouble finding his way through the chaparral maze. This plan worked quite well. We made excellent time. So good in fact that we actually closed the distance to Michael who we could periodically see ahead of us on the ridge. We got back to the trail junction shortly after 4p, and my worries evaporated. I knew once we were back on the trail Matthew would pick up the pace. In fact, after our short break I had a hard time keeping up with him as we motored back. We caught up to Michael after an hour, as he was taking a break at the watering creek. From there the three of us continued on to Church Creek (I had fallen behind the other two at this point) where we took the last break. A lone backpacker had set up camp here with a small fire going, reading by the last of the fading daylight. The trail sign indicated we had 3.5 miles to go to China Camp, but all four of us agreed that the sign was at least a half mile short of the true distance.
As we continued we enjoyed the hiking in the twilight hours after sunset and the hillsides took on a softer tone. Though tired, I found it very peaceful, and Michael and I both commented to each other how much the early and late hours of the day were often the best. As usual I tried to go as long as I could without my headlamp, this lasting until I smacked my shin on a rock protruding into the trail, hidden by the brush. This brought a yelp from my lips and blood from my leg, and as I limped along it seemed like a good sign to put on my headlamp. More bushwhacking, more climbining under and over fallen trees, and it was 7p when we arrived back at the China Camp TH, a bit more than 13.5 hours. John had been back several hours already. He was surprised that Michael had found his gloves as he related how he had spent a good deal of time retracing his steps looking for the rocks he had left them on earlier in the day. John had made it a short distance past Peak 4455ft where he took a long rest (and left his gloves) and watched us all the way to Ventana Cone. He'd had plenty of time for napping out on the ridge and also back at the car. Thus ended our second try for the triple crown, and we drove on back to the Bay Area. Will the third time be the charm, or the third strike? Only time will tell...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Ventana Cone - South Ventana Cone
This page last updated: Tue Sep 2 22:00:52 2008
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