Thu, Feb 10, 2011
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I had learned a few things since that first effort that were most helpful. First is to give up the idea of keeping your feet dry as you follow the Little Sur River upstream. Matthew and I had wasted maybe an hour in this effort, searching for fallen logs or building an unstable set of rocks in the creek on which to hop over on. Your feet will undoubtedly be wet by the 10th crossing, so why waste time trying to stay dry on the first couple? Secondly, I had learned to identify poison oak in winter time when there are no leaves to make it easy to spot. Because it is a perennial shrub, the branches are not dead in winter and remain pliable and brownish-colored. There are only a few such plants in Ventana that meet this description so I simply avoided anything that looked plausibly like poison oak. Everything else I would plow through, over, or around, as the situation dictated. Lastly, I had a very good idea how to find the route this time. Jack Glendening had forwarded me a map from a friend of his a few days before that had coordinates along the route leading up to the Window. Though I didn't have a GPSr, I noted that the route matched exactly with that I had drawn on my map which I had gotten from another source.
I arrived at Bottchers Gap shortly before 5a after a 2hr drive from San Jose. Larry (the campground caretraker) did not come out to greet me as he has on several previous visits, but I had come prepared with exact change ($5) for the day-use fee that I deposited as requested before starting out. I had heard a rumor that the Boy Scouts would allow you to park in their camp along the Little Sur River for $8, which for only $3 more than Bottchers Gap can save some extra miles. But alas the gate was locked and I suspect this rumor is just that. Maybe it works in the summertime when the place is staffed 24hrs/day, but I'm unlikely to come back in summer to find out. It took about an hour and twenty minutes to hike the 3.5mi down the road to the Little Sur River. Along the way one enters the Scout reservation with signs from the Scout Law (A Scout is: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent) to help one gauge the remaining distance to the camp.
It was just after 6a when I reached the Little Sur River. To my surprise I found the river running several inches deep across the road. My recollection was that Matthew and I had crossed on a bridge that first visit. Was my memory faulty? I decided to hunt around some, walking along the north side of the river, wandering through empty group campsites, wondering where the bridge might be. I further recall the mess building was on the south side of the river and there's no way they'd make the Scout's ford the river for their food at each meal. I had no luck finding a bridge in the dark and eventually went back to the road. I took off my boots and socks, walked across, then put my boots back on, this time with neoprene socks in preparation for the many river crossings ahead. Helpful signs guided me to the start of the Pico Blanco Trail which five minutes later lead to the junction with the Jackson Trail. It was growing light out now and I could dispense with the headlamp.
The Jackson Trail is short, 1.5 miles, traversing high on the south side of the canyon to a large camp area that is easily mistaken for Jackson Camp. There are no signs indicating a name, but Jackson Camp is the only one shown on the 7.5' topo, right at the end of the trail where this camp is located. Perhaps this is the new Jackson Camp. I followed a ribbon to the river's edge and crossed to the north side where I could see another ribbon beckoning me onto the continuation of the route, now a thin use trail. I made no effort to stay dry, wading across in my boots, knowing there was no way to keep them out of the water with so many crossings ahead. A second crossing a few minutes later lead to a second camp, this one with an old "Jackson Camp" sign. Now for the fun part.
What came next were no less than twelve river crossings over the next 40 minutes. I counted them. The water averaged just over my knees at the deepest parts, so the bottom of my pants were pretty soaked along with my boots. The pants would dry easily enough, but the boots would remain wet the entire day. At the eleventh crossing from old Jackson Camp I came across a third campsite, Fox Camp. The twelfth crossing was back to the south side of the creek where the other half of Fox Camp is located. This is also the junction with Ventana Creek, where I needed to turn south.
Matthew and I had missed this junction on that first visit, thinking the water volume in Ventana Creek too low and that this was a minor, unnamed creek. I started up a faint trail on the east side of Ventana Creek, with a tricky bit of sidehilling on unstable ground to bypass an initial waterfall section. I was told there is an easier shortcut of this section somewhere between the 10th and 11th creek crossings, but though I kept my eye out I never saw anything resembling a trail and the cross-country options seemed to be riddled with poison oak. It turned out to be not so bad, taking the long way. I spent the next hour and twenty minutes making my way up several miles of Ventana Creek (some maps label this as Jackson Creek) to Happy Flats Camp. A series of yellow, pink, and orange ribbons helped guide my way along the path of least resistance. There was a great deal of downfall obliterating what was once a very good use trail, but the ribbons help connect the various sections that are still quite usable. Periodically, ancient-looking cairns are found along the way that feel more natural in this old redwood forest than do the bright ribbons. Though most of the trail is found on the east side of the creek, there are a number of excursions to the west side, following whichever side offers the easier travel. In fact I lost the ribbons in several areas, but by following along where I thought most made sense, I was always sure to shortly reconnect with the marked route.
Happy Flats is a small campsite located on the northeast bank just above the major fork of Ventana Creek. If you follow the ribbons you'll actually miss seeing the junction as it is a bit south of the camp and hard to spot. More ribbons lead east, then southeast out of Happy Flats, following the east fork of the creek, crossing several times from one side to the other as the route leads upstream. About 40 minutes out of Happy Flats, a series of obvious cairns mark the route as it leaves the creek and begins to climb the grassy, oak-studded slopes on the northeast side of the creek to a saddle between Ventana Creek and the headwaters of the Little Sur River, located just south of Pt. 3,437ft. This climb is steep, but free of bushwhacking thanks to the grassy nature of the slopes here. The trail is more obvious here, pounded into the slopes through usage. There is some poison oak to be avoided, more so here than I had found so far in the creek drainages. During the climb out one can get a good view of the Ventana Creek drainage and Pico Blanco to the west. Kandlbinder looms high to the south, though the summit is not obvious. La Ventana, or The Window, for which the Wilderness is named, can also be seen quite prominently to the southeast.
The saddle was notable for a good deal of brush above head level, but a fortuitous route has been clipped through it, making it a breeze to get down to the dry creekbed on the east side. From there, more ribbons and ducks can be found leading directly up the drainage to La Ventana. It took about half an hour to get between the saddle and La Ventana with no significant difficulties. Though the entire area falls within the boundary of the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, there was little that was burned along the creeks. But once out of the creeks the fire damage was more obvious. Still, in only two and half years the chaparral is making a vigorous comeback. Whether the fire made things easier or harder at this point in 2011 is hard to tell.
To my surprise, there was a regular campsite established at La Ventana with several small sleeping pads and even a wood stove. This must have been established decades ago as the stove is now thoroughly rusted and unusable. Inside the stove I found half a dozen plastic bottles of soap bubbles along with an array of bubble-making instruments. Naturally I took a few minutes to blow bubbles in celebration of reaching The Window. The views are somewhat cramped by the east and west walls defining the feature, but one can see well to the south as far as Cone Peak and north to Mt. Carmel and the Pacific. There is also a fine view of Ventana Double Cone and its impressively steep West Face. The east wall of The Window is very cliffy and not safely climbable without a rope. To reach this point from Ventana Double Cone will require one to scramble around either the north or south side of this cliff. A trail of sorts appears to leave the window to skirt the south side, but I did not explore this at all to verify if this is the case. A picture of The Window from VDC that I reviewed recently shows that one would have to drop down at least 100ft to skirt around the cliffs on the south side. My money on the easiest route would be to go around from the north side. The west wall is steep but not cliffy and it was in this direction I soon headed in search of Kandlbinder.
The summit of Kandlbinder is not visible from La Ventana, but after climbing up to a rocky point just above it, the summit can just be seen off in the distance through a dense forest of trees, mostly dead, that line much of the ridgeline. Following the ridge is certainly not the best way to reach Kandlbinder as I came to find out. I wasted far too much time in this effort thinking there might be portions of the old trail that were still usable. This lead to some serious whacking, crawling on my stomach and other unpleasantries. The far better option is to drop down on the north side of the ridge and follow the Northeast Face of Kandlbinder to the summit. This face has far less brush, with great swaths of softball-sized talus making convenient paths to the top. In fact this can be used to reach Kandlbinder directly from the dry creekbed of the Little Sur River well below The Window with far less effort. Of course then you would miss a visit to The Window itself which has far too much charm to miss out on.
It was 11:40a when I finally reached the summit of Kandlbinder, just under 7hrs after starting out. As one might expect, the views were sweeping in all directions (E - S - SW - W - NW - N). A summit cairn held a register that had been placed by Jon Doelman only a few months earlier. Apparently the older one had been destroyed in the fire. Incredibly, this was Jon's fourth visit to the summit of Kandlbinder by various routes. That's one dedicated Ventanaphile. I spent more than half an hour at the summit, the weather phenomenal, eating a lunch I'd brought, somewhat of a rarity for me (that shows I was more than a little intimidated by this peak in thinking I'd need the extra energy boost). I delighted in recognizing more than a dozen named summits in all directions, all of which I had climbed at one time or another. This felt like the culmination of a decade of exploration in the area. Of course there's plenty more to visit, especially in the southern part of the range, and I hope to come back plenty more.
I took the direct descent down the NE Face, happy to find it almost entirely brush-free, though some caution was needed to keep from twisting an ankle on the unstable talus slopes. The return trip, essentially via the same route once I had picked up the ribbons again in the dry creekbed, went remarkably fast, some two hours quicker than the ascent route. Half of this was due to bypassing La Ventana on the descent, but I was surprised to pick up another hour on the return down Ventana Creek. I paused to photograph some of the flowers starting to bloom, some of the rich green flora, a banana slug and an old skull that someone had attached to a tree branch, but was still significantly faster returning. I spent a few minutes back in the BSA camp to find the bridge I had missed in the morning, and to explore the swimming area of the camp. I couldn't figure out initially how they managed to do rowing and canoeing on the Little Sur, eventually discovering a concrete dam that was used to hold back a small lake of water during the summertime.
When I got back to Bottchers Gap at 4:45p, I was greeted by Larry who had come out to chat. Apparently he was as eager to meet with me as I with him. He had remembered our several brief encounters over the past decade and was quite curious to see how my outing to Kandlbinder had gone. He remarked that several others had done the Ventana Double Cone dayhike since my effort in 2000, but as far as he knew my time of just over 10hrs was still the fastest (a speedy trail runner ought to be able to take several hours off that one, I figure). I had only seen Larry in the dark previously, so was happy to actually see him in the daytime. When I asked if I could take a picture with him he hesitated, asking "Are you going to post it on the Internet?" I replied that yes, normally I would, but before I could say anything else to assuage him he commented further, "Actually I'm a little funny about having my picture taken." I immediately withdrew my request to keep from having him uncomfortable, alas leaving me without a photographic record of the legendary Larry of Bottchers Gap. 28 years now he's been the caretaker of the campground there, and from what I could tell he was some years younger than myself. Much as I find the place magical, I don't think I could dedicate my adult life to a single place. My hat's off to Larry's dedication.
Unlike almost all my previous visits to Ventana, incredibly this one served up no poison oak rashes for me to suffer through in the days following. That there were no nagging flies and no mosquitoes was an added bonus and why I love Ventana at this time of year when the weather is pleasant. Along with the fantastic scenery and adventure travel both along the creeks and above them, this turned out to my most enjoyable outing in Ventana, ever.
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