Mt. Johnson P2K CC

Thu, Oct 16, 2008

With: Steve Sywyk

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile

Until about six months ago I had never heard of Mt. Johnson. It is a very unassuming peak in the dry, parched mountains of Central California located between SR25 to the east and US101 to the west. But it has the distinction of being the highpoint of the Gabilan Range as well as on the list of CA peaks with greater than 2,000ft of prominence. All of the land around the peak for many miles is in private hands, with the closest public access about five air miles away. At least two routes have been used to reach the summit. The eastern approach starts at the pavement on SR25, follows dirt roads all the way to the summit, taking about 18mi RT with 3,000ft of gain. The shorter southern route, used by Andy Martin in 2007, shaves about 2mi and 1,000ft of gain off the effort. But this second route requires more driving and some miles on the dirt road going through Bickmore Canyon, so I chose to concentrate on the first choice.

My first effort to reach Johnson ended in dismal failure a few months earlier. By myself, I started from SR25 around 10p and hoped to quietly bypass the occupied home near the highway in the dark. This was easily done, but car headlights and the sounds of barking, loose dogs a half mile further in had me spooked and I high-tailed it out of there. My paranoid guess was that someone is running a meth lab back there, but I wasn't going to be verifying that anytime soon.

This second effort went much better. Having lunch with my friends Ray and Steve one day, I sprung upon them the idea of heading to Johnson that same evening. The raised eyebrows and laughs that resulted were not unexpected, but it was not hard to quickly ensure them of my seriousness and then garner some interest. Ray had guests in town that would not let him get away, but Steve said he would check with the family in the afternoon to see if he could manage it. I really didn't expect that he'd get an ok, and had no interest in going back by myself again. So I made no plans, took no nap, and was eating dinner with my own family around 6p when the phone rang. Steve had the green light to go. Suddenly it was time to rally myself to the cause.

I went back to the dinner table and explained the phone call and our plans for the evening. My wife and children are far beyond being surprised by my crazy ideas and hardly batted an eye. Ryan was in fact somewhat disappointed that he couldn't join me: "But I love private property!". He had gotten a taste a few years ago on Palomar Mtn, thoroughly enjoying stealth hiking. When I told him it was 18mi his disappointment subsided, and we finished dinner with an explanation of the general plan. The bottom line was I'd be back before they woke up in the morning and so it shouldn't interfer with our generally busy plans in the Burd household the next day.

Steve arrived shortly after 8:30p to pick me up. Stopping at Starbucks to first caffeinate ourselves, we left San Jose heading south on US101, passing through Gilroy and Hollister in succession. We continued south on SR25, a very lonely road as it makes its way through the rural backwaters of the state enroute to Pinnacles National Monument. It was 9:45p before we pulled off the pavement about 200yds beyond where I had stopped for my first attempt. Steve was a bit slow in getting ready, leaving me to nervously anticipate what we might say to a highway patrolman that might stop by to see what we were up to. Luckily no cars came by in the 20 minutes it took us to lock up and get off the road.

There is a house on 108 acres for sale south of the occupied house we had passed before pulling over to park. We started up the gravel road to this dark and empty house, shortly hopping a fence and scrambling cross-country up a steep hillside to intersect a dirt road shown on the map several hundred feet above us. This bit of cross-country scramble was entirely unnecessary as we found upon returning - the gravel road we started on forked within a hundred yards with the left fork heading uphill and back tracking to where we intercepted it about 5 minutes into our cross-country effort. Scant portions of this gravel road are shown on the 7.5' topo, evidently it has been greatly improved since the map was drawn up. And a very fortuitous find indeed. The gravel road forked again higher up, the right fork taking us to the junction with the lower road I had tried to negotiate on my first effort. We were now above all the occupied houses and out of earshot, and there was no real danger of being spotted for the rest of the hike. We breathed easier.

The moon had risen about an hour before we started, only a few days past the full. The illumination provided on the grassy hillsides and surrounding area was startling. The only time we would need to use our headlamps was for consulting the map or GPS we carried with us. Both of these proved indispensible. Another key item turned out to be a pair of reading glasses. In low light conditions, neither of us could read the map or GPS by headlamp without the aid of the glasses, rather amusing aside from the helplessness we felt. If we'd forgotten the glasses or somehow lost them, we'd have never made it to the summit.

We were spooked briefly upon approaching the aforementioned junction, eerie lights upon some structure baffling us for a short time. They turned out to be solar-powered lights upon posts at the four corners of a small, fenced enclosure located right at the junction. Here we headed uphill, following the road as it wound up the hillside, passing by an overlook area with a firepit and several picnic tables arrayed to one side. The road passes by a rectangular transport container, several unoccupied buildings (barns, from the look of it), and a parking area with several trailers and assorted items left for storage. Eventually the road topped out along a lower ridgeline. By moonlight we could easily make out the higher mountains further west, though our route was far from obvious. The road we were on headed over and down the west side of the ridgeline which I knew wasn't correct. I hopped a fence and looked around a bit before seeing the continuation of the ridgeline that was hidden from view by a large bush. Steve climbed over in turn and we continued on.

Trespassing provides another aspect to peakbagging not normally encountered, and not entirely unwelcome. Part of you feels like a kid doing something you're not supposed to do, and it makes you far more alert to sounds and lights than you would otherwise be. We talked in soft voices even when several miles from the road "just in case." Doing this at night both adds an element of fear since we can't see that well, in addition to an element of safety since neither can anyone else. For the most part we kept our headlamps in our hands when we used them in order to avoid being accidently spotted by someone at a distance. We both agreed than our sons would love this.

The map for this area showed the road to be discontinuous for more than a mile, but happily that turned out to not be the case. There seems to be plenty more roads than those shown on the map, and almost all of them are wide, in good shape, and easy to follow. For landmarks we found some old tires and an old Highway 1 sign. I looked back at each junction to help remember it later on our return. After some short undulations we dropped down to the saddle with the higher terrain to the west, then started up the long road to the main crest of the Gabilan Range. We hiked up to a east-west trending ridgeline which can be followed to Mt. Johnson. We took a wrong fork at a junction that had us contouring the south side of the ridge for a short distance before we could see it starting to drop down into the canyon to the south. With the help of the GPS we recognized the mistake before long and with a bit of cross-country travel, we worked our way back up to the ridgeline and were soon back on the correct road.

Where the map showed the road detouring to the north less than a mile from the summit we again went cross-country for a short distance to cut off a few tenths of a mile from the road. At the saddle just NE of the summit we left the main road and followed a jeep track up the ridge to the antenna crowning the rounded summit of Mt. Johnson. It had taken about 3hr45min even with numerous delays to consult the map and GPS, a few minor route-finding errors, and a potty break.

Along with the antenna, we found a USGS benchmark and a register tucked in the rocks nearby. There were only four entries since it was placed in 2000. We felt somewhat special adding our names to the roll. Looking around, we were treated to the city lights along the coast off to the west. Watsonville, Santa Cruz and other beach communities were lit up near the horizon. Salinas was out of view behind another ridgeline to the west, but we could still see the lights of Gilroy and Hollister to the north. There were no lights to be seen to the east or south.

Our return route for the most part followed our ascent route, minus the short sections where we had gotten off-route. We again lost the route for a minute at one point on the way down, but the GPS got us back on track easily enough. Atop the lower ridgeline on our way back, Steve stopped for a moment, thinking he'd seen rabbits hopping in the grass. I saw nothing. We continued on a few steps and again with the rabbit story. I looked around, closely, saw nothing. I was going to start telling Steve the story about the big white Sierra rabbits that have been hallucinated by more than one fatigued climber, when we both unmistakably saw three or four rabbits take two our three leaps out of the grass. They would run only far enough to stay ahead of us, then do it again as we got closer. It was so comical I got out my camera to take a picture of them, but as luck would have it this was the signal for them to all clear out.

Making it back without further incident, we were happy to hear no barking dogs, no cars, no sounds at all. That it was five in the morning had much to do with it, I'm sure. By the time I got home it was 6:15a and my family was just waking up. I had breakfast with the kids, made lunches, took them to school, then crawled into bed when I got back home at 8:30a. Slept like a baby until 2p. Pure luxury...

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