Sun, Nov 19, 2006
It was 7a when brother Ron and I pulled up at the Agua Caliente TH. Based on the HPS website, the place has a reputation for partying and noisy crowds, but all was calm and quiet in the early morning hour. It had taken almost two hours to drive what might be ten air miles from downtown Santa Barbara to the trailhead. Most of the way was along windy mountain roads, and half of these were unpaved. The torturous driving seems to keep people away for the most part. But the hot springs seems to draw people to the area, and the nearby campground had a handful of visitors when we arrived Sunday morning. Two of them, Alex and Mike, were enjoying the hot springs at the TH. A good-sized concrete enclosure, about 4 feet deep and 8 feet on a side held a pool of hot spa water, piped in from the spring outcropping somewhere on a nearby hillside. This looked to be an inviting treat at the end of the day. We left Alex and Mike and after a few minutes headed upstream for our hike to Hildreth.
The hike follows up Agua Caliente Canyon, northward past an old dam (now completely filled in) and along a trail that grows fainter the further along we went. The creek still had flowing water, though not much given the late season. Some glistening pools looked almost inviting, but the water was very cold and there would be no splashing about the creek. Ron is in fairly good shape, though not so much for these long hikes with lots of elevation gain. He joins me once every 3-4 years at intervals closely correlated to the time it takes to forget the parts that aren't so fun. He recalls enough that it is going to be a tough workout, but only vaguely recalls the bits of suffering until he vividly relives it again. Today started off nicely enough, a mild walk for miles up the shady canyon. The burrs from the mature grasses poked at his ankles which became an annoyance. A tick on his pants made him a little worried.
"A good reason for gaiters," I commented, not without a smirk.
"If you'd told me ahead of time, I would have," he countered.
Ron's a year older than I, so I had no guilt over not being more motherly - he should know by now. At least he remembered to wear long pants which took care of most of the burrs and ticks. In following the HPS directions, we dutifully counted the number of stream crossings and looked for the campground and picnic table after the 10th crossing. No such luck, not after the tenth, eleventh, or twelfth. Maybe the campground and table had been recovered by nature?
Alex and Mike had finished with their soak in the hot tub and returned to the campground. It was cold out, around 30F in the shade of the canyon, and they built a fire to keep themselves warm. Not long after a ranger stopped by to tell them to put the fire out. The fire danger was considered "high" or "extreme" until the rainy season started, and posted signs were everywhere to tell people open fires were not permitted.
About a mile after Hildreth had come into view it was time to leave the canyon and start up the ridge. We had given up counting the proper number of stream crossings to tell us where to turn, relying instead on our map and what seemed like the most probable choice. The route was not well-marked as is usual for HPS peaks, and we had a bit of difficulty finding an exit point. Eventually we found a faint use trail heading up and we followed this with only mild bushwhacking. We climbed 400 feet until we reached an area of greenish rock that had been pushed around by a bulldozer sometime in the past. The dark green color looked like that one gets around copper ore. Maybe someone was sort of prospecting at one time? The same bulldozer had also pushed a road or firebreak along the steeply rising ridge, but most of it is slowly being reclaimed by the chaparral. We followed the old road up until it gave out at the manzanita. From here, the use trail continued through the thick shrub. Well over our heads, we had to crouch and wend our way about the manzanita, trusting to the continuity of the trail. We missed a number of turns, but the dead ends were abrupt and it was not possible to miss the trail for more than a short distance.
Alex and Mike, two UC Santa Barbara students, were having a weekend in the backcountry to relax from the stress of school. In addition to their camping gear, they had brought two rifles and several hundred rounds of ammunition to practice some shooting on the National Forest lands. They had driven out to a more remote site and started blasting away at random targets, but it wasn't long before the ranger showed up. He informed them that they were in a special recreational use area, and the only form of shooting allowed was hunting. They had no hunting licence, so there would be no more shooting. Rats.
Eventually the trail dumped us out on a fire road coursing one of the main ridges. There was still several thousand feet of gain to go and the road appeared to do its best to climb this in as direct a manner as possible. The day had warmed considerably, and without any shade for cover I was surprised how warm we got. The hike went on relentlessly and Ron began to comment that he wasn't "feelin' the love" anymore. He wasn't exactly whining or complaining, but he wanted to let me know that the fun part was coming to an end for him. As his brother I naturally gave him a hard time about this, letting him know he just didn't know what love meant.
"Oh no," I countered, "this will be one of your fondest memories, and in time you're going to beg me to take you on another one just like it."
"No, I'm pretty sure the love is gone."
Alex and Mike were not alone on their Jeep trip, but had another couple of friends in their own 4x4 that had joined them. Together, the two high-clearance vehicles kicked up a huge volume of dust as they tore down the main road, demonstrating what these SUVs do best. It was not long before they were flagged down by the very same ranger. The ranger had jumped on his motorcycle when the two SUVs had zipped past the ranger station, and pulled them over. There seemed to be little that they could do in the way of fun that was considered legal here. They got no ticket, but were warned to drive slower and take it easy. But that was just it, they could take it easy back in Santa Barbara - they had come here to have a little fun, not sit back and relax. They decided to head home.
When the road finally topped out, we were at the top of a lower western summit about half a mile from the true summit. We still had to drop down a ways to a saddle and climb the higher point, but the grade was no longer so brutal. I waited atop the west summit about ten minutes for Ron to catch up. By that time I had stopped sweating and was enjoying the soft breeze and sweeping views in all directions. Trudging up the remaining distance, Ron could only comment about the disappointing loss of love. "I'm just not feeling it, sorry."
Once out of the ranger's vicinity, Alex and friends kicked it up a little for one last bit of fun on their way back home. With all their gear packed up they took off on the long, winding road back up over the hill. Alex and Mike were the second vehicle, following their friends up the road, choking on the cloud of dust the frontrunners kicked up. They came around a turn through the fog of dust only to find the road turned more sharply than they had expected. Alex hit the brakes and for a moment they teetered on the edge. At this point the reader may have an opionion on whether karma should dictate they are miraculously saved or go plunging into the abyss. There could be debates and discussions for hours on the Internet without ever reaching a just conclusion. They were two college kids out to have a bit of harmless fun, got into a bit of trouble, and were suddenly at a decisive moment in their lives. But it was only a moment, a very brief time for which the Jeep hung on the edge, and in the very next moment it went plunging over the side. It took only seconds for the Jeep to plow a path through the chaparral down an embankment exceeding 45 degrees. They plummeted some 100ft before some trees and a break in the slope stopped the vehicles downward progress. Had their path taken them 20 yards to the left or right the vehicle would have in all liklihood continued rocketing down for over 1,000ft. The Jeep came to rest upsidedown with the engine running and the wheels still spinning. Dazed, but mostly unhurt, Alex and Mike scrambled to get out through the passenger window (the driver's side was smashed and inaccessible). As smoke began to rise from the engine compartment, the two had visions of explosions, fireballs, and sheet metal shrapnel, and literally flew up the slope in seconds. There was no explosion, but it took only minutes for the vehicle to erupt in flames.
We left the road when we were around to the east side of the summit and followed a ducked and trimmed route through the brush and up the summit rocks. A short bit of class 3 added some interest in the final push and shortly after 11a we were on top. We didn't stay long, only long enough to take in the views, a bit of a snack and a short rest. I noticed smoke far to the south and pointed it out to Ron. From the location, it looked to be on or near the road we had taken to the trailhead. That could become a problem for us since the dirt road was the only way in or out. We'd have to keep our fingers crossed that it would be under control in the next 6 hours or so that it would take for us to get back there. We tried to use Ron's cell phone to call 911 and report the fire, but even though we got bars indicating a signal, the call would not go through. Oh well, someone will report it, we figured.
Alex and Mike decided to hike up the road to the top of the ridge to call for help. When they got there ten minutes later, they realized their cell phone was back in the car along with everything else - their camping gear, their guns, two hundred rounds of ammunition, i-pods, and their wallets. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Meanwhile, the Jeep continued to burn. Their friends in the other SUV hadn't come back yet to see what happened to them. There was little they could do but sit and watch the conflagration run its course.
Ron and I returned by nearly the same route we had taken up. We made an unintentional deviation as we descended down into the canyon, taking a slightly different ridge that was navigable enough, though not with as good a use trail as the ascent route. The second deviation was intentional, as I wanted to see if we could still find the picnic table. Where trails diverged along the stream not long after we had returned to the canyon, we took one on the west side of the stream and shortly came upon the picnic table and camp. That mystery was solved. We continued downstream following rather thin trails which took us past a tricky constriction in the stream before it met back up with the main trail we had taken on the way out. From there, the return was mostly uneventful as we managed to not lose the trail and found our way back easily enough.
The Jeep had half a tank of gas when it went over the edge, and unlike what you see in the movies, it doesn't go up in an explosive ball of flames. The gas tank acted like a lantern's oil reserve, dribbling out liquid and gaseous fumes that lit up the Jeep like a wick. For an hour and a half the vehicle burned, along with everything made of rubber or plastic and all the contents. The first person on the scene was the same ranger that had been harrassing them all day. He was not happy at all, practically screaming at them, "I told you to stop burning the forest!!" Fortunately the fire did not spread beyond the immediate surroundings of the stricken vehicle. Thankfully there was no wind.
Ron and I had the trailhead to ourselves and the first thing we did after returning was strip down and slide into the hot springs. The temperature must have been about 104F. It was amazingly clear and had no sulfer smell at all to it. It was just what a couple of tired bodies wanted. Ron asked if I had brought any beer in the cooler, and was mildly disappointed when I told him I hadn't. An older couple drove up and asked if they could share the tub with us. We were so relaxed we'd have let anyone share the joy at that point. Better, the gentleman gave us one of his precious beers to split between us. Life had suddenly gotten as good as it could get.
Several Forest Service trucks eventually made their way to the scene of the fire and got things under control. Tow trucks were called to extract the wreckage from the hillside. While everyone waited for the tow trucks to arrive, the firefighters combed the hillside looking for hotspots and making sure nothing was left burning.
After our half hour in the hot tub we dressed, packed up the van, and headed out, keeping our fingers crossed that the road would be open, and hoping the fire had been put out. It was a very long drive out, seemingly longer than the drive coming in earlier in the day. As we neared the top of the incline, we came around a corner to find the road blocked by another vehicle and a huge Forest Service truck. Getting out, we walked past the two vehicles to see what was going on. We quickly realized a vehicle had gone over as two tow trucks were struggling to extract what remained of it. Seeing the crushed hull of the Jeep, I blurted out, "Oh my God, I hope no one was killed!" Alex and Mike were standing just behind us (we hadn't recognized them from the hot springs in the morning), to which Alex commented that it was his Jeep.
It took another 45 minutes to get the Jeep out and loaded on a flatbed, during which time we had a lively conversation with Alex and Mike, the tow truck drivers, and a couple of the firemen. Everyone agreed it was lucky no one was seriously hurt and there was no forest fire. The Jeep, only 3 years old, looked like it could have been more than 50 by the looks of it. Everything that could have burned, did. There was nothing left of the steering column, the interior, the wiring harnesses - all the plastic had burned. The tires were completely consumed, leaving a bunch of thin metal rings around the cracked rims - all that was left of the steel belted radials. All the aluminum and thin metal pieces (like the copper wiring) had been melted in the blaze. There were a handful of irregularly-shaped pieces of slag that were hauled out with the Jeep, where the melted metals had puddled on the ground underneath.
Ron and I watched the two tow trucks hauling the vehicle up the steep slope. Working together, they each had a line attached to it, hauling up in concert. Before they could get it to the road however, the angle of the two tow lines began to oppose each other, multiplying the strain on the cables and digging the Jeep into the hillside instead of onto the road. We walked over and offered them a short lesson in load vectors and mechanical strains, advice not altogether welcomed. One of them sort of smiled at us like parents do to small children and commented that, "We do this all the time." Realizing immediately that we had breached towing etiquette, Ron and I quickly apologized and stepped away. Ron whispered to me, "Do you think we should tell them how many engineering degrees we have between us?" I chucked and whispered back, "Watch, they're going to do exactly what we told them to do anyway."
And of course they did. They unhooked one of the cables and let the stronger of the two haul it alone. They raised the level of the tow arm in order to increase the angle of pull and get the hulk over the road's edge. We had a good laugh and the good-spirited tow guys didn't seem to hold it against us.
There was much jest in the conversations we had, and it seemed to lighten the sober mood we had found Alex and Mike in. They recounted the day's events to us which were retold above (with much detail forgotten and certain events no doubt inaccurately recorded). They were certainly lucky, but weren't feeling all that happy about it at the time.
After the wreckage was hauled out the firemen did a last sweep with infrared scanners to detect any remaining hotspots. The spare rim and a few warm pieces of metal were hauled out at the end. The sun was setting just as we got over the ridge, treating us to a fine view at the end of the day. We were in no hurry driving on the winding road, thankful that it hadn't been us that had gone over the edge - it would certainly have ruined an otherwise enjoyable day.
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