Masters Hill
Rattlesnake Butte

Sat, Feb 27, 2010

With: Steve Sywyk

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
Masters Hill later climbed Thu, Mar 20, 2014

It had been some months since our last moonlight hike, the weather having done a poor job of cooperating during the winter season. The forcast for today was no better, 40% chance of thunderstorms and overcast. But on the way home from dinner with the family around 7:30p, we noted a bright moon lighting up the sky and not so many clouds as had been expected. I called up Steve when I got home to see if he might be game for a last minute effort. He was just sitting down to dinner with his own family and didn't want to spoil the mood, so he said he'd get back to me, though doubtful. Our wives were far more receptive to the idea of us taking off on a lark than we had given them credit for, and by 9p we were out the door and on our way.

While Steve had been on his way over to pick me up, I'd made a quick online search for suitable subjects of interest, settling on some local Santa Clara County summits. The two peaks I had in mind were both easy hikes on private property in the Diablo Range east of San Jose. With so much recent rain, I expected the hills to be wet and muddy and we'd probably end up with wet boots and socks in a very short time. A short hike would keep our discomfort to a minimum. Besides, we both agreed it was nice just getting out under the moon after so many months of letting it slip by.

Masters Hill is located just north of Quimby Rd near its apex where it drops down to Joseph Grant Park. The map shows the peak located on the boundary of the park lying to the east, but we found no public access to the park anywhere in this area. In fact it looked to all be private property, judging by the number of fences we had to breach.

We found a small, muddy turnout on the north side of the road a few hundred yards east of the road's apex. There was a gate located here, but it didn't look to have been opened in some time. Almost immediately after going over the barbed-wire fence along the road, we encountered an electric fence for someone's large cattle yard. Thin metal wire strands were entertwined in what looked like a nylon or cotton rope strung in two lines along the fence, separated from the metal poles by insulating plastic spacers. I was wondering aloud about how much voltage an electric fence carries, when Steve walked up to it and tested it with the back of his hand, in a far braver fashion than I was willing to display. He reported that it was turned off. We slipped easily through the fence, traversed across the grassy slope to the other side, and slipped through the electric fence a second time.

From there we followed up the steep southeast slope to the top of Masters Hill with a bit more than 200ft of elevation gain. We noted a residence to our left and moved up on an ascending traverse to the right to give it a wide berth in case there were dogs about the property. The moon shone brightly on the grassy slope so there was no need for headlamps. As expected, the ground was saturated with rainwater, pooling in the deeper impressions made by the cow hooves. Steve reported his feet wet almost immediately. I got lucky in having grabbed a pair of boots that I had water-proofed some months earlier but had then not used. They would keep me remarkably dry for most of the evening.

We crossed another barbed-wire fence just below the summit, then topped out on the grassy, oak-studded top to fine views of the San Jose city lights to the west. Though chilly, it was a gloriously clear night with fine views even to the east where the moon did a remarkable job of illuminating the green, green hills of the range. The rains over two months had done their magic and turned it into a vast swath of velvet green. Though boggy, wet, and uneven close up, from a distance these hills offer a wonderful springtime background for the many residents around the East Bay.

We did not stay longer than a minute or two at the summit as it was a bit too chilly for that. Retracing our steps back down the hillside and over or through the various fences, we got back to car around 10:15p. From there we continued east on Quimby to its end at Mt. Hamilton Rd, then followed the windy county road further east into the hills for our second peak, Rattlesnake Butte.

Rattlesnake Butte is located near the end of paved Kincaid Rd, a long, odd side road off the Mt. Hamilton Rd about one and a half miles west of Mt. Hamilton's observatories as the crow flies. There are only a handful of residences and ranches out on this long, lonely road, but it sports a surprisingly fine pavement that suggests the residents have good friends in city hall. Some months ago I had ridden my bike out along this road, but turned back at the bridge over Isabel Creek because the road grew rougher (and steeper) beyond that point. I hadn't planned on climbing the peak at that time, simply reconnoitering the road to see what it was like back there.

It was nearly 11p when we found ourselves at the end of the driveable portion of the road. I had expected we could drive another mile further up the road, but a gate (not visible on Google Maps) blocked the road. The GPS showed we were only 1.2mi from the summit, so this seemed a decent place to start. We moved the car to the side of the road, posed in front of a For Sale sign next to the gate, hopped said gate, and started hiking up the road.

I had no map with me for the evening, relying on the GPS and my memory of the maps I perused online earlier. With only minor inconveniences, it was sufficient for these short outings. We hiked up the road about a quarter of a mile before the GPS indicated we should leave the pavement and start up the slope to our right. Problem was, a rather swift-moving creek was blocking our way. Later I found this is called Bonita Creek and near where we wanted to cross, two forks came together before flowing south through a break in the hills. Finding no logs to aid us in getting across, our best bet seemed to be a flimsy barbed-wire fence that crossed one fork at a right angle. Could we balance ourselves on the lower wire with our feet and walk across, holding the upper wire for support? While I hesitated, Steve did not, and was quickly in the process of stepping gingerly along the wire. There was one vertical steel support on either side of the creek with a span of perhaps 15 feet between them. Steve was halfway across the creek, his feet just at the level of the water's surface, when we quite suddenly realized how a wire strung between two posts becomes most unstable towards the middle of the span. He jiggled about on the wire and then was quickly flung backwards, his back up against the racing waters and holding onto the top wire with his gloved hands for dear life. He couldn't pull himself back up from his awkward position and appealed to me for help. "What can I do?" I called out. It wasn't exactly a life-threatening position as the creek, though wide, was no more than about four inches deep. But Steve's jacket was hung up on the barbs and his feet seemed entangled on the lower wire - it certainly didn't look pretty. At Steve's urging I started applying pressure to the post on near me, leaning it in the opposite direction of that to which Steve was twisted. He muscled his way back to a standing position, nearly flipping himself headlong over the top as the counter-rotation gained momentum, then checked himself. After a brief pause to rest, he managed to unhook his jacket from the barbs and regain control of the upper wire with his gloved hands. I suggested that we give up this attempt (I certainly had no intention of going though the same circus act) and Steve traversed back to the near side of the creek.

Whew - that nearly ended our outing. We decided to try hiking up the road a bit more and see if there wasn't a bridge or some other means of crossing the creek in that direction. Not 50 yards from our near-disaster we found the creek flowing smoothly over the road, no more than two inches deep. This seemed a much better deal, and we wasted little time removing our boots and walking easily across to the other side. Once we had our boots back on, we found the road began a series of switchbacks up the very slope we had intended to climb anyway. A map might have helped save us the troubles we'd found, but we got through them. We followed up another mile along the road as it wound its way up about 400ft of gain, bringing us out of the canyon and offering views across to the neighboring hillsides.

The night was far from quiet with well-running streams noisily making their way down the gullies we found around every bend in the road. A great number of frogs could be heard from the unseen thickets crowded around the streambeds. In all my visits to the Diablo Range, I have never seen as much water everywhere as I did this night. As we rounded a bend in the road I could see the outline of our peak up ahead in the moonlight, its shape matching nicely with the contours I had recalled from the map. We were getting close.

As we approached nearer, still walking the road, I thought I heard the faint sound of a dog barking in the distance ahead. We stopped talking and paused in silence long enough to hear a second round of barking. I knew from the satellite views of the area that there were at least two residences up ahead and had no interest for inciting their dogs to betray our presence. It seemed unlikely that they could have heard us from such a distance and over the noise of the streams, but there was no need to test them and this was as good as any place to leave the road.

We were less than half a mile from the summit and made easy progress up the wet, grassy slopes. Under oaks we traveled, careful to avoid stepping on and breaking the many fallen branches that had dropped in the rain storms. Tall stems sticking out up from the grass held small flowers that looked white in the moonlight. Though I had just noticed them, they seemed to be covering the slopes. I turned on my headlamp to confirm they were shooting stars, common in these hills. They were the first sign of an abundant wildflower season I had seen in California this year. We took a few photographs of them to unsatisfactory results before continuing up the slope.

We scrambled over a few slippery rock outcrops on our way up, slick with lichen and mosses fattened in the rains. Only upon scaling over these did we find that they could have been avoided by an easy traverse around to the right. Though from a distance the top half of the summit looked to be choked with brush or possibly a good deal of rock (hard to tell in the moonlight from afar), we found the going fairly easy. Where the brush encroached on one side or both, we followed cow paths through grass stretches skirting the bush. The last 50ft or so of the summit was crowned in more of the lichen-laden rock, but we found a class 2 route up the west side of this to the highpoint of our peak.

The view looking north was immediately blocked by a tight bunch of oaks on that side, but on the other three sides were nice views overlooking the surrounding hills. We were not high enough to see west to the city lights, not even high enough to see over the higher Packard Ridge to see to Mt. Hamilton to the south. But a fine perch nonetheless with a nice mix of easy hiking and cross-country travel with a bit of fun stream crossing in the beginning and some rock scrambling to finish - one of the little hidden gems we had found on our moonlight outings.

Our return was via the same route, peacefully executed without further barking from the dogs or visits by passing cars or other sign of human activity. We were only 50 minutes in returning to the car, taking the same route down and the same creek crossing. By now it was nearly 1a and we were both fairly tired. I did the honors of the hour-long drive back home, Steve sleeping for about half that time. The family was sound asleep and never woke though I took a shower and did some other rustling about before plopping to bed myself at 2:15a. It was a good outing, particularly given the last minute arrangement, and I drifted off to sleep in very short order, tired and content.

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