Little Pines
Uncle Sam Mountain P1K CC
Mt. Carmel P900 CC
Devils Peak 2x

Fri, Oct 30, 2009
Devils Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
Devils Peak previously climbed Fri, Dec 29, 2000

Fresh off two recent trips to Ventana, I went back for a third visit only a few days later. This time I was heading to Uncle Sam Mtn, one of the higher peaks in the Santa Lucia Range, a few miles north of Ventana Double Cone. After reading his discouraging report earlier, John Fedak explained by email that it "wasn't that bad really." Ok, good enough, I figured. John had used the TH out of Los Padres Dam but I prefer to use Bottchers Gap for a starting point since the ridgline trails offer more scenic vistas. These would not disappoint although the summits I visited did.

Following the 2hr drive from San Jose, I was at Bottchers Gap at 4:45a. Aside from the resident ranger, Larry, there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot on this Friday morning in fall. I half expected Larry to come out and greet me as he had on my previous visit some nine years earlier, but I suspect I was a bit too early even for him. Unlike the signs I had seen recently in El Dorado Forest, it was not clear if my Inter-Agency Pass would suffice in place of the $5 use fee, but I left the pass on my dash before I headed out, figuring Ranger Larry would set me straight upon my return if I was in error.

I was expecting cold temperatures, but it turned out to be quite pleasant, around 50F when I started out. It would grow windier and a bit colder as I climbed higher along the ridgelines, but not cold enough to require a fleece or jacket - a long sleeve tshirt sufficed for the whole day. The stars stood out intensely overhead, as good a celestial display as one can get in California. I used Orion's Belt to orient myself as I zigzagged up the trail, climbing out of Bottchers Gap. The only other lights I saw for a few hours were from the occasional coastal lighthouse that could be seen down through the canyons, albeit briefly. Later, as I passed by Devils Peak and headed east, I could see the lights of Monterey Bay off to the north.

The 2008 fires had not touched Bottchers Gap nor any of the route up to Devils Peak and Mt. Carmel. But not long after reaching the saddle southeast of Devils Peak along the Big Pines Trail the fire damage was quite evident, even in the dark. Around 7a the eastern sky began to glow orange as the new day came on. The trails were in good shape and I was able to negotiate them without much trouble. Flagging had been put up earlier in the year to help with re-establishing the trails. Various colors were used to no particular master plan, it would seem. All that I could tell from them was that I was on an established trail, but which one exactly was left as an exercise for the user. By 7:30a I had reached Pat Springs and was able to find the correct trail despite the lack of flagging on this critical section where the more established trail leads to the springs and a dead end.

I followed the Ventana Trail for another 3/4hr until I was in the vicinity of Little Pines, a non-descript bump along the ridge. Here the trail seems to have suffered at the hands of the fire due to all the falldown that obliterates it in places. I followed a wayward flag up to the summit of Little Pines (nothing more than a pile of rocks in the understory without views) and another one led me along the ridgeline heading towards Uncle Sam. After this I lost all signs of trail and flagging. Later on the return I would find the trail, thin and hard to follow, along the north side of the ridgeline. In my wanderings in search of it I crossed the trail twice before finally finding it again more than half a mile from where I'd last found it. Once again it was easy to follow, all the way to the saddle west of Uncle Sam's West Ridge.

Much of Uncle Sam Mtn appears to have been swept over by the fire, but along the West Ridge it was not very thorough and the way looked difficult. I followed the Ventana Trail further southeast from the saddle as it begins to traverse the mountain on the southwest side, shortly choosing to leave it when I could see a way up for maybe a hundred feet or so. Better than nothing, I thought.

By making my way cautiously through the brush and chaparral I was able to avoid much of the thrashing I would have been subjected to with a more bull-headed approach. I wound my way in a circuitous manner along the ridge, never afraid to back down and try a different avenue when things started to look torturous. In this way I spent well more than an hour going little more than a mile in search of the summit. Along the way I found several false summits before eventually finding my way to the top. The south slopes near the top were grassy and allowed easy manuevering whereas the ridgeline and north slopes were choked and nearly impassable.

I found two summits, neither of them particularly interesting. Both east and west summits were composed of similar piles of modest rocks buried under trees and offering no views at all. No registers were to be found and no signs of others though I know it receives occasional visitors. Just below the summits, on the grassy south-facing slopes one is treated to fine views looking southeast through southwest, a sweep of the northern Ventana region running from Chews Ridge to the southeast to the three Ventana Cone peaks (SVC, VC, DVC) and Kandlbinder to the south, Mt. Manuel and Pico Blanco to the southwest. In viewing this sweeping vista of rugged terrain, the regrowth from the fire in only a year's time was amazing to behold. It makes me laugh when I hear on the news about the "devastating fires" and other overstated descriptions. The fact is, this place was made to burn and the flora does just fine with it.

It was just past 10a, and time to consider my return. The upper portion of the South Ridge down to Puerto Suello Gap looked mostly clear and somewhat easy, but the steeper lower portion was out of view and could be problematic as I could see an unburned portion where the ridge drops out of view. I could have gone back via the same route I had taken up, but the idea of going back down a different way held sway even though I knew it might get me into trouble. Fortunately, it didn't. I followed the South Ridge down to where the unburned portion was found, then jogged right (west) down the steeper slopes away from Puerto Suello. All of this slope had burned and the going was pretty straightforward despite the steepness and the regrowth. It had be down to the trail in only 20 minutes, less than a third of the time it had taken for the ascent. This was a much better route up and down Uncle Sam, I decided.

I did a much better job on the way back in following the Ventana Trail in those places where it is hard to do so. I also spent more time studying the burn victims along the way. Seems the tall ponderosas weren't the only ones that managed to survive the blaze. In a forest of madrone, most of the trees were burned up though new branches were quick to sprout up from the bases where the roots were still alive. Yet some of the more mature trees managed to survive although badly singed. It would seem that they had less accumulated fuel underneath and the fire coming through burnt too fast to kill them entirely. There were even some manzanita bushes that had been attacked by flames but somehow managed to survive on one side or another. On north-facing slopes, ferns could be found growing in abundance, along with blackberries and other thorny ground shrubs. Poison oak of course was equally adaptive and sprouting in many, many places. Though not large in numbers at this time of year, a surprising variety of flowers were also to be found.

After reaching the turnoff for Mt. Carmel, I followed the 3/4 mile side trail north to its summit. None of the terrain between Devils Peak and Mt. Carmel had burned and the chaparral was well over head level most of the way, making for a claustraphobic hike. I had to keep a hand in front of my face to take out the numerous spider webs that were strung from one side of the narrow track to the other. Someone had recently come by to clip the encroaching manzanita, but it was still very close and I was glad to have long pants and tshirt.

The summit of Mt. Carmel was rather blase. It comprised a small cluster of rocks that once surmounted allowed a view over the tops of the chaparral. Even so, the mountain is flattish and views of any note are distant. There was a benchmark at the base of the rocks and a small glass jar with a register dating only to the start of summer - I suspect they don't last long on this summit. On the way back to the trail junction I stopped off at the highpoint of Devils Peak which was another pile of rocks buried under the trees. Pretty much 0/4 on summit views for the day.

I spent just over an hour jogging much of the downhill return to Bottchers Gap where I arrived not long after 2:30p. There was no note on the car and no activity about the place. Larry's campsite was there as always, but no other cars remained. I guess my Inter-Agency Pass was good after all. The drive back included an enjoyable stretch along the incredibly scenic Big Sur coastline with the top down. Life is good, indeed....

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