Fri, Nov 29, 2002
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A minimum of two full days is needed, with the first night's camp on or near Villager Peak.
That sentence alone was somewhat of a challenge, and it gently haunted me for some time. Rabbit Peak is barely outside of San Diego County, or it would have qualified as the county's highest point. Unfortunately that distinction instead goes to Hot Springs Mtn, located on a reservation with an abandoned lookout tower on top, in a much less interesting part of the county. The total hike is 20mi, with 8300ft of elevation gain. I had dismissed it as too difficult for a dayhike several years earlier, but now that I've pushed the limits of what I could do in a day, this fell into the practical range of possibilities.
Rabbit and Villager Peaks like in the southern part of the Santa Rosa Range, a mostly desert range that runs from San Jacinto Peak to the Salton Sea, occupying a rather remote part of the state. It is very dry here, often hot, and though the elevation exceeds 6,000ft, there is only a smattering of pines that manage to survive in the southern part of the range. There is rarely any water obtainable along the route, and in November it was as dry as a bone. I would have to carry whatever water I might need with me from the start. The weather report wasn't encouraging. It had rained some the day before, and there were two more days of showers from a subtropical system forcasted for the area. I didn't have the luxury of delaying the hike, so I decided to go with whatever weather I might get, for good or bad.
The drive to the trailhead is about as far as possible from the city of San Diego without leaving the county. Figuring I would need all the daylight I could get in late November, I wanted to start before sunrise. That means I had to leave San Diego at 3a to get to the trailhead before 6a. It was a long and groggy drive, wholely uninteresting in the dead of night, but probably of great scenic interest in daylight hours. For the last hour of the drive I must have seen a grand total of two or three other cars. I found the dirt parking area off to the side of the road exactly where my guidebook indicated it should be. Besides a few boulders to mark the parking boundary and a single sign letting visitors know there's no garbage collection, there was nothing else save the desert and the road cutting through it.
It was 5:30a when I started out, my headlamp lighting the way. There were no stars visible and it was quite dark. Overcast skies stretched from one horizon to the next, but no rain save a few drops during the drive. From the start I can't find a trail. Is there one I wonder? I wander across the sandy desert floor, scattered boulders, rock, and cactus strewn about the floodplain here. I was heading for a very faint outline of the range to the north, what I guessed (correctly) was the ridge I was supposed to climb. There were a number of undulations in the desert floor, clearly the mark of some impressive flash floods that have carved out various paths through the desert over untold ages. The rocks and sand get pushed around and rearranged, the cactus and other desert scrub probably get wiped out, but grow back over time. They seem to have gotten used to their temporal existence here.
I have forgotten to bring any gloves with me, generally a serious mistake given I have poor circulation in my fingers. But I figure it's a tropical storm up from Mexico, not a cold one from the north, so how cold could it get? By 6a it was light enough to turn off the headlamp, and soon thereafter I stumbled upon a use trail. It led me through the more jumbled parts of the floodplain, and onto the ridge and the start of the climbing. From this point on it was a steady upward climb, 1,000ft/mi over the next five miles to Villager Peak. The use trail is decent, but not wholely necessary. At this point one simply follows the ridge north to the summit. It doesn't fork, there's little chance of losing the way, but the trail at least offers a more compact surface to tread. The sun rose around 6:30a, and there were brief moments when it appeared as a fiery orange streak in the eastern sky, peeking through some open layers in the clouds. Maybe there would be no rain, I began to hope.
As I reached 3,800ft, I had a view of a distant peak to the northwest along the same range (the Santa Rosa Range is almost entirely one main ridge running roughly northwest-southeast). It had a dusting of snow in the upper elevations and looked ridiculously far. For a short while I feared it was Rabbit Peak and there was no way I would get there in a day. Later I realized it was in fact Toro Peak, a higher point in the Santa Rosa, and a fine objective in its own right. By 8a I was above 4,800ft and I could see that my ridge was soon to join the main ridge of the range. I could now see over the main ridge to the east, and view into the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea. I have previously only seen the Salton Sea from an airplane, and this distant view wasn't much different.
I was a short distance from Villager Peak now, and behind me I could see rain falling darkly from the sky, perhaps five miles off but moving quickly in my direction. How much might fall, or how long it might last was anybody's guess. I had put on my jacket at 7:30a as the wind on the ridge picked up and I found it cold. I kept my glove-less hands in my pockets as much as I could - they grew numb if I kept them exposed for more than a few minutes at a time. I reached a false summit at 8:30a and found the true summit of Villager Peak fifteen minutes later. It had taken 3hr15m from the trailhead to cover 6.5mi and 5,000ft. Not bad, but the weather seemed to be getting worse. The wind was blowing about 25mph, the rain getting closer now, less than a mile distant I estimated. In trying to stay warm, it didn't help that I was wearing shorts. I could see Rabbit Peak off to the north. It looked far, but much of that was due to the hazy view which made it appear further than the 3.5mi indicated on my map. I could also see down to the desert floor to the west and the Anza-Borrego State Park, but there was general haze obstructing a clear view. It was decision time. Do I head to Rabbit Peak and risk an epic? I hesitated a good while before deciding to go on.
The rain started not five minutes later, very light at first, as if to lure me on. Before I got very wet at all I pulled out my stupid poncho and put it on. Many things were to be labeled "stupid" from this point on. The so-called poncho is extremely compact, light-weight, and costs but a dollar. I haven't had great luck with them in the past, but they're better than nothing at all. As the time passed, the rain grew steadily heavier. My fingers started to get numb, but I was mostly dry, except for my legs which were exposed and the lower part of my shorts. Once I was half-way to Rabbit, I resigned myself to an epic, expecting I would be frozen stiff when I got back. I knew if I turned back then I would have regrets. I wondered how long my fingers could be white, without apparent blood flow in them. My poncho was slowly punctured and sliced by stiff branches closing in on the trail. Some of the sharp points sliced the 4mils of mylar like it's butter.
Up and down I travelled over the many bumps in the ridgeline, closing in on Rabbit Peak. By the time I neared the summit area of Rabbit Peak it was raining hard. My poncho was leaking and my jacket and underlying cotton T-shirt were starting to get damp. My tennis shoes were soaked and my hands were cold, fingers stiff. The summit area is a rounded hilltop with pines and other trees blocking what little was left of a view, and I had a hard time navigating as I climbed the last couple hundred feet. I started to leave ducks to mark the return route as I had forgotten to bring a compass and feared I might head down the wrong way upon my return. I was in the clouds and visibility wasn't more than about 150ft. Once on top I struggled to find the summit. I wandered from one outcrop to another, then around the other side of some trees, and after about ten minutes, I eventually found the summit register. It was now 10:45a.
I couldn't open the register in the pouring rain without soaking the contents, so I huddled with it under my poncho as I struggled to open it with numb fingers. The wind and rain lashed at my poncho making an awful racket, and I was struck by the ridiculousness of my plight. I could see the headlines, "Man Dies on Summit of Desert Peak, Still Clutching Empty Ammo Box." I scrawled an entry with my stumps, and it looks no better than the average first grader might do. I was beginning to think I might be more than just frozen by the time I got back, possibly hypothermic. It had been raining now for two hours, and I wondered, "Just how long do these "showers" last?"
I wasted little time getting off the summit and starting down. Not five minutes later the sky lightened and the rain stopped. This was a most fortunate thing indeed. I took off my poncho and let the wind start to dry my clothes. Once my hands were dry they began to warm up though I still kept them tucked inside my jacket pockets. The views turned wonderful, mist and clouds drifting over the ridges, and I could see all of the Salton Sea and far down to the deserts around Anza-Borrego SP. Suddenly, my epic was becoming a rather pleasant outing. The wind was still chilly, but as the moisture dried from my clothes it was appreciably better. Water glistening on the cactus and other plants caught my attention as the water seemed to present them with new life. The water didn't do everything good - my map was completely washed out in a pyschedelic blur that made it useless if not colorful. A good reason to carry waterproof maps.
I returned to Villager Peak at 1p where I took a short break to eat a few granola bars. I continued down, photographing the views and plantlife that caught my fancy. Only my shoes and socks were wet still, but since I was moving they stayed warm. I found a few late season flowers, in fiery reds that contrasted sharply with the drab colors of the cactus they grew from. I made it all the way back to the car without any additional rain falling, arriving at 3:45p. It had been a full day at 10hr15m. It wasn't the hardest hike I'd done, but it was up there in top ten, to be sure.
Later I found that both of these peaks appear on the HPS peak list, and Rabbit Peak appears on the DPS peak list as one of the seven Emblem peaks on that list. Because of their inclusion on these lists, they are climbed quite regularly. My next visit to this range will probably be further north to Santa Rosa Mtn, Toro Peak, or Peak 6582. A few hardy souls have made a very long trek from Santa Rosa to Rabbit Peak, over untrailed, extremely remote country. That looks like it could make for a fine adventure indeed...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Villager Peak - Rabbit Peak
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