Ventana Double Cone
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Ventana Double Cone later climbed Mon, May 29, 2006|
Devils Peak later climbed Fri, Oct 30, 2009
I originally planned to sleep overnight at Bottchers Gap before heading out in the morning, but decided I'd sleep better at home in a warm, cozy bed. So I woke up at 3:30a (after going to bed at 8p), ate a quick breakfast, and left shortly before 4a. I had a small cooler filled with caffeine-laden soft drinks and headed out. The few times I'm on the freeway at this time of night, I've always been amazed how many other drivers are out on the road at this ungodly time. Fortunately, not so many to slow me down, and I was able to zip along at about 75 mph nearly the whole way to Carmel. It was pitch dark outside, and the normally gorgeous scenery found along Highway 1 was completely lost on me as I sped along my way.
Just past the Rocky Point Restaurant I kept an eye out for my turn off on Palo Colorado, nearly missing it. The narrow, one-lane road winds for several miles through a small community of homes, typically individualistic in the Big Sur tradition. The road continues to wind up out of this canyon, into and out of another creek drainage before ending at Bottchers Gap, a campground and trailhead on the northwestern edge of the Ventana Wilderness, about 10 miles from the coast. I arrived in the parking lot at 5:40a (pretty good time from San Jose), where it was still rather dark, no hint of daylight yet. The air was surprisingly warm, probably in the upper 50s, in contrast to San Jose where it was in the low 40s at the same time. I was surprised to be greeted as I opened my car door, a friendly voice asking me if I was here to shoot pigeons.
"No," I explained, "I'm, just going for a hike."
Larry was the Forest Service ranger whose job it was as campground manager to police the visitors to this remote post. Apparently some hunters have gotten the mistaken impression that they can hunt from this trailhead during the season, and Larry has to politely tell them they are on the wrong side of the Wilderness for such activities. We talked briefly as I asked Larry about trail conditions to Double Cone. He explained that the trail is overgrown in many places, but clear in others due to the fire breaks that were cleared during the fires a couple summers ago. He was a bit surprised by my inquiry, explaining that he knew of only a handful of dayhikes made to Double Cone in the seventeen years (!) he'd been stationed here. Then, as if egging me on, he declared that all the previous efforts were in the summer with extra daylight, and that it was impossible to do as a dayhike this time of year. I was quiet for a moment, and it was then I believe, that Larry realized my intentions and probably regretted saying that. Kind of sheepishly I finally replied, "Well, I'll let you know how I do."
I paid my $5 day use fee, packed up my things, and left shortly before 6a. In my fanny packs I had a jacket, wool mittens, rain poncho, toilet kit, three Luna Bars (more on those later), a map, sun screen, bug repellent, and a quart and a half of water. Much of this stuff was unnecessary at it turned out, and like the Duke of York's men, were marched up the hill, then back down again. I wore a heavy pair of hiking boots, double socks, hiking pants, a hat, and a long-sleeve T-shirt.
My flashlight was necessary as I started, to keep me from tripping and wandering into the brush (at one point, a well-placed sign was helpful in this regard). The sky was beginning to pale, but it was still much too dark on the trail to navigate without it. The trail rises continuously for almost 1500 feet, bringing me from the gap up to the ridge proper. The entire route circles along the ridge that marks the boundary for the Little Sur River drainage, covering a bit more than half of the total circumference. Wandering along the trail in the dark, I was startled several times by birds flying out from the trees above me. Pigeons, possibly? It was impossible for me to tell where precisely the birds took off from or in what direction they were headed, and I imagine there is a bit of skill involved hunting these things under such conditions. Still, I was glad to not have to hear the report of shotguns as I marched along. My thoughts turned to cougars and how this might be perfect ambush conditions for the ambitious of the bunch. Were my chances of being attacked lessened or heightened by the use of my flashlight? Would I be able to fend one off knowing the sharpest thing in my possession were my car keys? This seemed an unpromising line of thought, so I dismissed it with some statistical hand-waving that made me believe I had a better chance of winning the lottery. One thing I've noticed about hiking in the dark is that my mind wanders less to other topics (like work), and focuses rather pointedly on the present, with all the dangers (real and imagined) that comes with it. This in itself seems a good thing, and lets me enjoy the Wilderness that much fuller. Be Here Now (a hippie slogan from the 60's), has a richer meaning out here at night.
After a little more than half an hour, it was sufficiently light enough to put the flashlight away and enjoy the coming dawn. I was on the ridge proper now, heading towards Devils Peak, one of the high points along the way. There are sections of the trail that pass through the wide fire breaks that were bulldozed two summers ago along this ridgeline during the devastating fires. Interestingly, there was no evidence of fire damage anywhere in the Little Sur drainage. Pico Blanco is a prominent peak at the foot of the Little Sur, and in the predawn light it stands out nicely against the backdrop of the Pacific. This peak is almost always in view along the trail to Double Cone, always at a right angle off to the right, acting as a radial point for the semi-circular route.
The coming of dawn was heralded by a stunning display of colors splashed upon the high clouds hanging over the horizon. The sun came up from behind Double Cone, which looked to be many miles distance still. It was a glorious time of day and I had the trail and all these views to myself. After climbing steeply most of the way since the beginning, the trail heads downward to a gap where it meets the first trail junction along the way. The left trail goes off to Apple Tree Camp while the right heads down towards Skinner Creek. It was now just after 7a, and I resumed the climb to Devils Peak, which sits at one of the apexes along the ridgeline.
Near the summit, an unmarked trail junction heads to the very top and continues on to Mt Carmel. I bypassed the summit trail, continuing east. Past this point the trail is less well maintained. Some places have a lot of overgrowth, in other places the leaves on the forest floor mask the trail location. At one point I walked off the trail for a few yards before I realized I missed a switchback. In this section of the trail, one gets glimpses of the Monterrey-Salinas area, including a view of the entire Monterrey Bay (even if far to the distance). I suspect that Mt. Hamilton near San Jose is also visible from here, but I could not determine which of the myriad of brown bumps far in the distance it might be.
There is another trail junction at Comings Camp, located at one of the low gaps along the ridge. A bit further on another junction is encountered in the vicinity of Spaghetti Camp. There are several signs near this junction, some old, one new. One sign indicates seven miles back to Bottchers Gap, another right next to it eight miles. This was a good indication of the reliability of most of the signs I found along the way, whose indicated distances were always suspect. The trail to the left followed the Blue Rock Ridge down to the Los Padres Dam on the Carmel River. I continued to the right, to Pat Springs. Located just about the halfway point to Double Cone, it is the only source of water than can be found along this trail at this time of year. I had not yet consumed much water, less than half of one of my two water bottles. But I drank a good deal here and refilled the bottles, knowing that I would become much thirstier in the coming hours before I would return to this spring. The spring has a rock cistern built around it, and provides a good flow of water that was refreshingly good. It is easy to get lost at this point, so some directions might be helpful: The spring is not located along the main trail, but on a side trail to the right (south). This side trail continues past the spring, but peters out, going nowhere. I thrashed around on this for half an hour on a previous trip here. The correct trail is about 50 yards before the spring, and goes to the left (east), and uphill. There is no marker here to let you know that this is a junction of sorts, and the path to the spring is more worn than the trail continuing to Double Cone. I suspect this may be because Pat Springs is as far as most parties go. A little bit of time for route finding in this area can save a good deal of wasted effort (in both directions, I was to find out later).
Somewhere around this juncture I began to get a slight burning sensation on the smallest toe of my left foot, signaling the first of a number of blisters I would get on this hike. This particular toe tends to cram in this pair of boots so it hardly surprised me, but I had only gone about a quarter of the total distance. My feet would not be appreciating me by the time they had a chance to rest at the end of the day.
The trail before and past Pat Springs passes through some pine forests, which include some surprisingly large specimens of Ponderosa Pines. They aren't really large compared to Ponderosas found in the Sierra, but they do seem out of place in this largely dry part of the wilderness, normally the province of the numerous oak varieties that do much better in this climate. Other varieties of pines including Jeffrey Pines can be found in this area as well.
The weather was fantastic for any time of year, let alone for the end of December. The temperature was probably 65 degrees, excellent hiking conditions. To the southeast I caught glimpes of the Puerto Suello Gap ahead of me, still a few miles off. It is one of the lowest points on the trail between Devils Peak and Ventana Double Cone. You won't find the name on a map as I made it up (the Puerta Suello Trail junction is met at this gap), but it is a prominent location along the route. The trail here follows mainly on the left side (east) of the ridge, affording nice views of the Carmel River drainage and beyond. Far across the river I could see portions of the Tassajara Road that winds south on a high ridge marking the eastern boundary of the Wilderness. The road provides access to a number of trailheads on the east side, as well as to the hermitage at the end of the road near Tassajara Hot Springs. The road is a graded dirt road that can be used by all vehicles, but caution should be used during the rainy season which can render the road impassable at times. A few more ups and downs were dealt with before I reached the gap at 9:40a. I was making excellent time and was beginning to think I'd be back to the car long before dark.
On my last trip to Ventana, I had followed this trail to this junction, then taken the Puerta Suello Trail down to the Los Padres Dam (Michael had arranged a trip in the opposite direction to allow us to hike one-way in opposite directions). I remembered this junction well, and the dilapidated trail sign that I had found on the ground (someone had reattached it to a post this time around). It was at this point during the pervious trip that I had seriously considered a Double Cone dayhike, but I did not have the energy or daylight to do it at that time. Four and a half miles to go!
The trail beyond Puerta Suello was easy enough to follow although it is overgrown in many places. As long as I could still follow the trail, I didn't mind the whacking around and through the brush, although had I been wearing shorts or a shortsleeve shirt I might have thought otherwise. I decided to have a snack finally, figuring I'd earned it after three and half hours, and dug out one of the Luna Bars I had with me. The night before I was scrounging around for some trail food, and this was the only thing either my wife or I could find. Now, I don't want to be labeled a sexist, but I found the idea of a nutrition bar specifically designed for women (it says so, right on the label) to be rather amusing. What might happen if men eat these? A serious health risk, or merely sub-optimal nutritional intake? Or would it make no difference and this is just clever marketing to create a product niche where one doesn't really to exist? A bold experiment on my part, to be sure, and I enthusiastically consumed it. A lemony taste, different for energy bars, but good. Pulse, temperature, heart-rate: all normal so far.
The trail moves back to the right side of the ridge, offering ever-changing views of the Little Sur drainage to the west, and to the south and southwest is a closeup view of the Double Cone ridgeline that marks the boundary between the Big and Little Sur drainages. I got a bit discouraged looking at what I thought was Double Cone since it was still a good distance off. It turns out this is an unnamed peak further west on the ridge, and is just a bit lower in elevation than Double Cone itself (which is hidden from view as it is approached). A few switchbacks on the trail were put in to avoid a steep cliff area on the northwest side of Double Cone, and the trail wanders back to the left side of the ridge. It is a remote area that can be seen from here, comprising the southern most part of the Carmel drainage, and the first time today that I was able to observe scars from the recent fires. It was encouraging to see how the scrub was already making a good comeback, evidence that the plants in this environment are well adapted to fires. Fortunately the pines (which would not recover so quickly) further to the northwest were spared the destruction.
My feet were beginning to complain a bit more, as I felt blisters forming on the sides of two other toes. I began to question the wisdom of using heavy boots for long distance hiking. If I was going to be able to do these long dayhikes over multiple days as I planned to do this coming summer, I would either need tougher feet or better shoes. Tennis shoes were beginning to sound quite comfortable, and the only question there was how they'd hold up on the cross-country portions of the hikes. Something to investigate in the coming months...
Shortly before 11a I realized I had been looking at the wrong summit, and Double Cone was just in front of me. The last quarter mile involved no steep climbs and was a pleasant walk along the sunny ridgeline. When I arrived at the summit at 11:10a, it felt almost too warm as there were no trees to provide any amount of shade (it was probably 70 degrees, the warmest it got all day). There are remnants of a fire lookout that used to be here, a few posts and blocks from the foundation are all that remain. A plastic box under some rocks contained a summit register that had been placed only 11 days earlier. A note inside indicated that the previous one had disappeared sometime in the past, and included several warnings about weighing the register box down with rocks to keep from being blown off the mountain. Only a slight breeze today, but I imagine this peak can be considerably less hospitible at other times. Only one other party had made an entry in the register since it was placed, not bad really for eleven days and this time of year. I made my entry, replaced the box, and took some photographs in all directions. Ventana Double Cone marks the triple point between the Big Sur, Little Sur, and Carmel River drainages, something that had not been evident to me until I stood here and looked about. A few miles to the southeast was another peak even more remote, Ventana Cone. It sits at the midpoint along the ridge separating the Carmel and Big Sur drainages, some 3 miles from the nearest trail. That would be some bushwhack (and a mental note for a future excursion). I can't imagine that it has ever been climbed more than a handful of times. An equal distance behind Ventana Cone is an even higher peak (than Double Cone) near the Pine Ridge Trail called South Ventana Cone. One begins to think that the peak namers in this area had feeble imaginations. Far behind both of these is the highest peak in the Ventana range, Junipero Serra Peak, some 5,800ft+ high. And speaking of names, doesn't this Subjugator of Indians have enough things named after him? Isn't a freeway going through San Mateo County enough? Sorry, I'm wandering again. To the southwest could be seen Big Sur and the ocean behind it, but from this distance, none of the development in the area could be detected and it looked as wild as any other part of Ventana. I had a snack, the second of my Luna Bars. Vital signs still normal. These things were pretty good, really.
From the US Forest Service map (which is the best I've found for this region, but left at home since I didn't want to mess it up), is this etymology for the name "Ventana":
"The Ventana owes its name to Ventana Double Cone (4853 feet). Legend relates that the unique notch at the mountain's top was roofed over by a rock bridge, hence the early Spanish inhabitants named the outcrop 'Ventana' meaning 'window.'"
So I was curious to see this "unique notch," but was disappointed to find nothing resembling a notch between the two summits. Here's a photo looking north to the north summit, and you can see there is nothing terribly interesting about the terrain between the two and it is unlikely that there was ever a bridge between them. It's possible that the Forest Service got the story slightly wrong, and it might be the notch on the way to the "false summit" I identified earlier that the Spanish had referred to (Pico Blanco is behind the notch in the photo). But even in a closeup view of the notch, it seems unlikely that it had a bridge across in modern times (geologically), as there was no evidence of the rubble one might expect from the collapsed bridge on either side of the ridge from what I could see. This notch is visible from near Bottchers Gap, and more prominent than the gap between the Double Cone summits, so I suspect it may be the source of the name rather than the Double Cone summits. But what do I know...
At 11:30a I headed down, my rest not really sufficient, but I had lots of ground to cover still. I was hoping four and half hours would see me to the end, but that was a bit optimistic as it turned out. I made my way back to Puerta Suello by 12:45p, about the same time it had taken going up. I had tried jogging a bit, but the overgrowth made that a bit tough since I didn't have enough time to see where my feet were being planted before they touched down. It was also a bit tough because, well, jogging is just plain tough when you've already covered 15 miles. So I quickly went back to walking, and my feet thanked me as well. They were beginning to get that warm feeling on the heel that foretold of blisters to come. I followed the ups and downs, retracing my path. I had forgotten just how far it was to Pat Springs, but I wouldn't have minded if it came sooner rather than later as I was down to about ten ounces of water (it's not a good sign when you're measuring your remaining water supply in ounces). There was little choice but that it would have to last me, and I found myself playing the game: making the water last to the very last moment so as to minimize the discomforture of being thirsty. Drink it too quickly, and you may suffer before refilling, drink it too slowly, and you may suffer unnecessarily.
I misjudged the spring by about half an hour (I really wanted to believe I was making better progress than I was), but fortunately had erred on the side of keeping a small reserve, so I still had a swig or two left when I headed down the slope I recognized as within spitting distance (even if I couldn't spit had my life depended on it at this point). As I approached the junction, there was a young guy there, holding an empty water bottle, the first person I had seen since the ranger in the parking lot early in the morning. His first words were,
"Excuse me, do you know where the spring is?"
"As a matter of fact I do!" was my reply, as I guided him and his companion down the side trail to the spring. We chatted a bit and I learned they had camped the night before at Apple Tree Camp, not far from Devils Peak.
"Is this safe to drink?" came a cautious inquiry.
"I sure hope so, because I don't have much choice," was all I could reply. I couldn't vouch for the quality of the water, but it was coming from a couple of pipes thrust into the hillside, and it certainly looked safe enough. I drank about half a quart and then filled my bottles full. It was probably more than I'd need, but I didn't feel like playing the Thirsty Game again. Jesse and 'Becca filled their bottles as well, I got a picture of the happy couple, and we discussed the route a bit. They didn't have a map with them (rather bold, I thought), but had simply taken oral directions from Jesse's older brother. They got somewhat lost following the directions, but had managed to find Pat Springs, their destination. We pulled out my somewhat lame but useable map (the one I didn't mind getting damaged) to discuss the various points.
Now, somewhere in the discussion that followed I got things twisted up in my head, and I had myself and the other two convinced there were two routes back from Pat Springs to Bottchers Gap, when in fact there is only one. Convinced they had taken the long way, they resolved to follow my "shorter" route back, and I confidently took off on the trail. This trail I took off on wasn't the main trail, but more a use trail that is probably used to find alternative campsites in the vicinity of the spring. It began to peter out after a hundred yards, and I assumed I had wandered off it briefly. I continued to follow the ridge, using what remnants of animal tracks I could find, all the while looking left and right for signs of the trail. After a quarter mile I was bushwacking through the heavy underbrush, climbing over fallen trees, incredulous that I had not stumbled upon the trail as yet. It began to dawn on me the mistake I had made, and I stopped to consult the map and confirm my stupidity. Unfortunately, the map has insufficient detail to tell me if the trail is to the left or right of the ridge, and I was loathe to commit one way or the other since I didn't want to lose a good deal of elevation only to find I'd chosen the wrong direction. So I continued to follow the ridge for better or worse (and it's mostly worse), since I knew the trail would eventually come back to the center point of the ridge. I felt particularly bad for the two I'd left behind with bad information, as they knew this area even less than I. Their best hope would be to display less obstinance than I had in abandoning the use trail and returning to find the proper one. With two of them there was likely to be at least one rational head between them. Or so I hoped. At least I didn't hear about lost hikers in the papers the following week.
I was getting slightly panicky, even more tired, and hungry to boot. I went to retrieve my last Luna Bar, but could find it nowhere, even after checking every pocket multiple times. Apparently it had fallen out of my pocket sometime during the thrash, and I was highly disappointed. No longer did I find the Luna Bars amusing, but more a vital part of my sustenance needed to get me back to the trailhead. It was sorely missed...
I thrashed about on the ridge for about 40 minutes before I finally stumbled upon the trail again (it was to the right (north) of the ridge). Looking back, I could see that I had followed the "Lost Ridge", along the true crest of the ridge, but not where the trail actually followed in this section. I finished mentally punishing myself and continued on. I came shortly upon the Comings Camp junction (this was the junction we had misread to be nearby Pat Springs), and then began the long climb up to Devils Peak again. Ugh. At least it wasn't as high a climb as coming from the other direction in the morning. Shortly before the top, I came across another dayhiker going in the opposite direction. I had been looking at the trail until I was upon him, so I almost bumped into him. I quickly muttered some sort of greeting that I can't remember, but I thought it odd that the guy more or less mumbled something unintelligible and continued on without stopping. Possibly he had headphones on and didn't want to be bothered, although I can't recall that he had anything in his ear. Maybe I just looked funny or smelled bad? Who knows...
Up to Devils Peak and down the other side. I picked up my pace some and started jogging a bit since I knew there were long stretches of downhill from here (my feet at this point were complaining whether I walked or jogged, so they didn't get to be part of the decision process on this one). I passed a group of four dayhikers who were a much more cheerful bunch than the fellow I had met earlier. They were going the same direction as myself, but not hurrying along in the same fashion. We exchanged greeting, they happily let me pass them, and I was on my way. A short uphill halfway down from Devils Peak, and then downhill the rest of the way. I passed all the sections I had missed in the morning due to the darkness, but I didn't seem to miss much - few views, and mostly ducking overgrowth from above. The water tank that supplies the campground was a welcomed sight that signalled I had was nearly home. I returned to Bottchers Gap at 4:30p, half an hour before sunset, and ten and half hours since I started. I think I would have been able to average 3 miles an hour if it hadn't been for getting lost on the way out of Pat Springs, but not bad overall. I was very happy to get off my feet finally, as by now I had blisters on both of my heels as well as at least five toes. I don't think the leather hiking boots are a good match for these long hikes. Next time I resolved to try lighter boots or possibly just tennis shoes.
I left a note for Larry (who wasn't around when I returned) to let him know how I fared, changed into some clean clothes, and headed out. It was fairly pleasant drive down to Highway 1 where I was greeted by some wonderful sunset views over the pacific. It is not often I get such great sunrise and sunset views on the same hike, and these were very much appreciated! A fun day, indeed...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Ventana Double Cone
This page last updated: Sun Apr 10 19:39:50 2011
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