Island Mountain P500

Mon, Oct 19, 2009
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An unusually heavy snowstorm had made visits to the High Sierra a much more difficult prospect in mid-Fall this year, so I turned my attention to the Big Sur coastline and the Ventana Wilderness. Widespread fires in 2008 had left much of the area burned, clearing out or at least curtailing the heavy growth of chaparral that covers much of the steep slopes in this rugged area of Central California. It might be a good time to try some cross-country routes that otherwise would be impossible, or nearly so. My first thought was to pay a visit to Uncle Sam Mtn, one of the higher named peaks in the range. It would be a long hike out of Bottchers Gap with the last mile or so cross-country up a 700-foot ridgeline. In reading John Fedak's account of this effort (done from the TH at Los Padres Dam) it didn't sound all that fun. Then it occurred to me to try Island Mtn, an even more obscure peak. Somewhat isolated as the name implies, it lies between the Big Sur River and Ventana Creek with a short 5 mile approach from the USFS Ranger Station on Highway 1. Trailless, this peak rises 2,500ft above the Big Sur River and was reported to have burned almost completely. It was with this peak in mind that I set out from San Jose in the early morning hours under a starry sky.

I had reached the TH along SR1 by 5:30a and was ready to head out fifteen minutes later. High clouds had replaced the starlit night sky and under the immense redwood forest through which the trail starts off it was quite dark, even by headlight. I caught glimpses of small lights off to the left, a hundred feet below, near the river. At first I thought these were remnants of unattended campfires in the Big Sur Campground situated down there, but soon realized they were too steady and figured they must be lights from the restrooms instead.

As the trail climbs higher above the campground and river, it opens up briefly before starting the traverse along the south bank of the Big Sur River, some 700-800ft above the water. Poison oak is abundant alongside the trail and painted a brilliant red in the brisk fall air. This makes it quite easy to spot and avoid, although I was to find out that a few of the plants remained stubbornly green as a way to keep me wary and on my toes.

By 7a I had reached the turnoff for Ventana Camp and it was now plenty light out. There was much evidence of the fire on the slopes about me, but the tenacity of the flora here was plain to see. Amidst the charred remains of trees that had succumbed in the blaze, new growth had swept in with surprising rapidity to begin the cycle anew. Many of the plants and trees appear to be well adapted to fire, using it as an opportunity for a growth spurt. New redwood seedlings were in greater abundance than I'd ever seen before, for example. Too bad the poison oak wasn't taken out down to the roots!

I started off down the side trail to Ventana Camp, only to be stopped about 50yds at a clearing where I found a fire ring. There appeared to be no trail going further down the hillside towards the river as I expected. I walked around the fire ring looking for a continuation of the trail, then hiked back up to the main Pine Ridge Trail. Hmmm. I looked at my map, the surrounding terrain, and decided this had to be the turnoff for Ventana Camp even though there was no sign to indicate it. Back down I went to the fire ring.

This second time I took a much closer look and found some trampled grass and a thin trail leading off into the brush. It was clear that it sees little traffic and I suspect that the Forest Service has stopped maintaining this trail, perhaps even before the fire. With careful route-finding and frequent retracing of my steps, I managed to follow this decrepid trail as it switchbacked down to the river. There was a good deal of downed wood, almost all of it fire-related, and it was a high-stepping dance to get around the plentiful poison oak that had regrown as strongly any of the other plant species. It took almost an hour to descend a distance of only a mile - a rather slow pace, but it got me there in one piece.

I half expected to find that Ventana Camp had been swept away during a high water event, but it was still evident at a U-shaped bend in the river about a quarter mile from the confluence of the Big Sur and Ventana Creek. There were several fire rings on the south bank, along with wooden signs imploring the use of the Wilderness toilet to preserve the water quality of the stream (the toilet was intact and usable nearby). No picnic benches or tent pads were found and it looked like no one had been around in some time.

All of this was only a sideshow as my real goal was to cross the river and start up Island Peak on the opposite bank. Unfortunately things did not bode well. I got a good look at the SW Ridge during my descent to Ventana Camp and it was clear that not all of it had burned. Perhaps a quarter to a third of the ridgeline looked untouched and horrendously brushy. Those parts that had burned looked to be growing back vigorously. Was I too late? The water flowing in the Big Sur River was swift and running strong, evidently still draining the strong Pacific storm that had dumped some 8-10 inches of rain in these hills two weeks earlier. My resolve weakened and I began to consider my alternatives. Not least of all was whether I could get home to San Jose in time to have lunch with my wife. In a bit of a funk I spent about 20 minutes trying to make a fire in one of the firepits. Maybe a warm fire would help my spirits, I thought. I had toilet paper and a lighter, but the grasses and sticks I found were all too damp to get a fire going, at least with my meager skills. I gave up and started back.

It was after 9a before I had climbed back out along the lost Ventana Camp Trail and reached the main trail again. Realistically I couldn't get back to San Jose before 1p and after lunchtime. And it would have felt like I was running away. True, the sky was growing more clouded and the ceiling was lowering, but it was a beautiful setting and I wanted to take as much advantage of this opportunity as I could. It had been several years since my last visit and I had missed it a great deal. I decided to continue east on the trail to Sykes Camp where there is a delightful hot springs located along the riverbank. I had visited it some years before on a backpacking trip and enjoyed the relaxing soak. Though the camp is 11 miles from the trailhead and would make for a long day, I thought it would still give me several hours to devote to the spa treatment before it was time to head back. And with this renewed resolve, I headed off.

Over the next hour I made my way to Terrace Creek Camp and then to Barlow Flat. The route follows east, high above the river, with diversions in and around several side streams and canyons. It affords a fine view of Island Mtn rising high to the north across the canyon and along the way I was able to study the SE Ridge of Island Mountain more closely. Unlike the SW Ridge, the SE Ridge appeared to have burned more completely and with less regrowth. I had not considered this alternative beforehand because of the extra mileage involved, but as time went on my thoughts began to focus once again on Island Mtn.

Three miles from Sykes Camp, Barlow Flat Camp lies at the base of the SE Ridge and I decided to "give it a look" with a short diversion on the side trail down to Barlow Flat. Campsites (and toilets) were available on both sides of the river, and the river crossing here was no more than knee deep. In taking off my boots to cross the river I admitted to myself that I was committing to the climb of Island Mtn and I was re-energized with the thought of not having to write this outing off as a failure. Not just yet, anyway.

After crossing the river and putting my boots back on I explored the campsites on the north side of the creek briefly before starting up. The toilet here had burned in the fire, evidence the conflagration had reached down to the river. None of the large redwood trees had been destroyed though there were burn scars on their trunks. But madrones and other smaller species had been consumed in waves though not in their entirety. Starting up the slopes I found the going steep and loose. The earth was still somewhat saturated from the rains and there was plenty of duff and debris on the forest floor. It did not take more than about ten minutes to climb above the level of the redwoods which naturally prefer the wetter and foggier bottoms of the canyons. A light rain began to fall around the same time and I had to laugh at the prospect of getting rained out. The forecast had called for a 20% chance of rain, so I expected it to remain light and continued on.

There was no evidence that anyone had been on the ridge at all. No old firebreak cuts, no ribbons, no old ducks, nothing I could find. Though the fire had swept over the slopes and burned most everything, it was not thorough in its work. The various chaparral species including scottish broom and manzanita had been badly worked over, but not killed, and were growing back at a healthy clip from the undamaged roots. The older branches, now charred, stuck out from the centers to varying lengths. Most were still strong enough to use for aid in pulling myself up, a good thing, but that also meant they were strong enough to get in the way. The shorter ones that had burned to within a foot of the ground were often hidden behind the new growth and would attack my shins with surprising vigor and occassionally trip me up altogether. Most of it wasn't too bad and I made steady progress following the ridgeline, covering about 2/3 of the 1.5mi distance in about an hour.

The first serious obstacle came in the form of a steep rocky section at the 2/3 point. Only the rock wasn't the kind one could climb, but a loose conglomeration of rock and sand that was badly decomposing. What would otherwise have been a short class 2-3 scramble turned out to be a bit more treacherous as I found the earth slipping away beneath me and the steepness of the terrain scaring me enough to back off one line of attack before taking a breather and trying a second. It was unnerving with the thought of no one having any idea where to find me should I fall and become disabled or worse. Above this short 30-foot section things got easier, but soon deteriorated again with a few sections of unburned chaparral. It was amazing what defenses a 20yd section of mature manzanita could put up. My pants and cotton shirt, now almost completely soaked, were beginning to get shredded. Black streaks of carbon were raked across my clothing from head to foot. The leather gloves I was using were colored a fusion of black and dark browns. I was a mess.

To add to the picture, the clouds had begun to lower and it did not take long to become enveloped in them. The route going up was easy to follow as one subsidiary ridge melded with another, all leading to the top. But the way down would be a bit trickier since I needed to know which forks to take to get me back down to Barlow Flat. I had been using the canyon folds and mountain tops across the river as landmarks for which to aim, but these were no longer visible. The map in my pocket was a damp mess of inkjet colors that all ran together and made it useless. Hmmm... would I remember which turns I had taken? I had made a few small ducks on my way up and began to break the charred branches more obviously to facilitate my return. But I was too close to turn back and pressed eagerly on.

Almost two hours after crossing the river, I found my way to the SE summit, enveloped in trees and cloud. There were no views to be had due to either of these elements independently, and the combination meant I could see almost nothing. Another summit to the NW was visible and not obviously lower, so I spent 20 minutes thrashing through the brush there and back, just to be sure I'd found the highpoint. There was no sign of a register or cairn on either summit, and it wasn't at all obvious just where that might be on their rounded tops. I'd been worried about my camera getting wet and hadn't taken any photos in more than an hour, so I took one shot there at the summit before hiding it in my pack in an effort to keep it dry.

I managed the descent in an hour and a half, taking all the necessary forks for the proper return. My footprints in the damp earth were my best indicators that I was on track and I only started down a few wrong branches for less than a minute before suspecting my mistakes and correcting them. Back at the river I didn't even bother to take my boots off, soaked as I was, which made the crossing rather trivial. I walked into camp at Barlow Flat where I found two guys had set up camp and had a roaring fire going. They had hiked in from Sykes Camp where they reported some 25 folks (!) had camped over the weekend. Most had left, but more than half a dozen remained. I was kinda glad I hadn't gone to the hot springs. They were trying to dry themselves out with modest success, certainly looking a lot better than I did myself. They invited me to share their fire and some food but I politely declined with thoughts of getting back to the trailhead now running through my mind.

After leaving the two to their camp, I paused to take off my wet shirt and put on my light jacket that was still dry. I put on a fleece balaclava and wool gloves. That was all I had in way of a change of clothes. The continuing drizzle would probably eventually soak that as well, but I figured I might get a good hour of dryness out of it. I was chilled, but not dangerously so, thanks to temperatures that were probably in the low 60s. Good thing I wasn't at altitude...

I regained the Pine Ridge Trail and headed west. The drizzle petered out and stopped within half an hour. The trees and bushes were still dripping which meant my pants would stay wet the whole way as I brushed across the heavily laden branches and leaves. The fog began to lift from the canyon though not high enough to clear the ridgetops. There would be no more views of Island Mtn today. The effect of the rising fog was enchanting, giving the area the feel of the Pacific Northwest or Southeast Alaska and it brought to mind many pleasant experiences in those damp environments. Everything was wet which made it look more alive, more natural in this setting, the flowers (few as there were), the ground cover, the trees. The banana slugs looked happier, too.

Along the way I came across three or four small parties of backpackers going in one direction or the other. None of them seem too bothered by the rain and dampness. One fellow hiking in shorts and shirtless was in marked contrast to myself with long pants, jacket, balaclava, and gloves. He seemed to find me as oddly dressed as I found him.

It was 4p before I found my way back to the trailhead and a set of dry clothes I had waiting for me in the car. The luxury of a fresh shirt against my skin was wonderful to behold. Dry socks and pants and shoes, too. Ahh... the Life!

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