Miller Mountain P300
Black Butte P500
Chews Ridge P2K

Sat, Nov 14, 2009

With: Michael Golden

Black Butte
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
Black Butte later climbed Sun, Nov 15, 2009

I had climbed with Michael only once in the last four years so it was somewhat of a surprise that he emailed me with an upcoming free weekend. It was even more of a surprise that I could arrange my schedule to coincide to join him. He wanted to do some rock climbing in Yosemite Valley but that struck me as too cold for mid-November. I suggested a ridiculously long drive to the boondocks of Nevada to climb Mt. Jefferson and Arc Dome. In the end we compromised on a day of peakbagging in Ventana Wilderness, followed by a day of rock climbing in Pinnacles National Monument.

The targets for the day in Ventana were a trio of summits off the Tassajara Rd on the east end of the Wilderness. The only peak of any consequence was Miller Mtn that had some 12-13 total miles and nearly 4,000ft of gain from the starting point at the Pine Ridge TH. Chews Ridge was a trivial hike of a few hundred yards and Black Butte a few miles at most but possibly some non-trivial brush to contend with. My hope was that the 2008 Basin Complex fire had burned much of the brush off Miller and Black Butte to make them easier than suggested by Fedak's trip reports. Nicely, this turned out to be the case.

Though we left San Jose at the dark hour of 5a, we did not get an early start by any means thanks to the nearly three hours of driving it took to reach the trailhead. But even with an 8am start we would have enough daylight to complete our visits to the three peaks. After signing in at the TH register, we started up the Pine Ridge Trail under mostly clear skies and brisk temperatures in the 40s. We spent about an hour and a quarter to cover the 3.5mi to Church Creek Divide along this very scenic portion of the trail. There were some lingering clouds around Ventana Cone and Double Ventana Cone, but mostly very clear, blue skies.

We took a short snack break at Church Creek Divide before turning north and starting down the Pine Valley Trail. There wasn't much water in the creek, but enough to get water if we needed to. As it was, we carried enough water and Gatorade with us to suffice for the outing. We came across a handful of campers hanging out in Pine Valley before and after the wooden gate marking the trail junction. As we hiked by Jack English's cabin just past the gate, Jack and another man, perhaps a son, were working in the shed out back. We gave them a friendly wave as we went by.

We followed the trail out of Pine Valley to a saddle on the south side of Miller Mtn, just before the trail drops into Hiding Canyon. This was as close as we could get to the summit via trail. During our hike through Pine Valley we had occasional views of the South Ridge that looked favorable. Though the entire mountain had not been burned over, it looked like most or all of the South Ridge had, which could make things considerably easier. Fedak had reported heavy brush and crawling on his belly in places a few years earlier and we were none too keen on repeating that experience. We would still have to contend with a sea of charcoal sticks, the unburnt remnant branches of the chaparral, but without the crawling and lung-choking dust. Our first view of the cross-country route from the saddle was a bit disturbing, a dense wall of 10-foot high detritus left standing from the fire. But a minute of closer study showed it wasn't very deep and in fact could be skirted by walking around to the right a short distance.

The mile-long ridge turned out to be as good as we could have hoped. The whole ridge had indeed burned on one side or the other and we were able to make a fairly direct ascent up the 1,000 feet of gain in only 45 minutes. To be sure, our clothes were zebra-striped by the burned branches that formed the gauntlet we had to pass through, but compared to an unburned chaparral slope it was a delight.

Aside from the birds, there was little wildlife to be found throughout the day. No squirrels, no deer (hunting season was still in progress), even better - no ticks. Perhaps they had been consumed in the flames? We did run across a lone tarantula on the South Ridge and stopped to marvel at it and take it's picture. Even hiding underground it was hard to imagine it surviving the heat and smoke that must have made things quite difficult. And it not only survived, but had the wherewithall to find food in that tough environment that initially followed the fire.

The views from fine views afforded by the ridgeline. To the west and south was a sweeping view of the rugged eight-mile ridgeline from South Ventana Cone to VC to DVC to Uncle Sam Mtn. To the north was the Carmel River drainage and Carmel Valley, and further was the Salinas Valley. We could even see the tiny white dot of the telescope atop Mt. Hamilton some 30 miles away. The air seemed exceptionally clear despite the variable cloudiness that resulted from the onshore marine layer.

There was a modestly-sized cairn at the summit but no register that we could locate. We had neglected to bring one ourselves, so in the end we had to leave the summit as we found it. We spent probably 20 minutes at the summit eating lunch and taking in the views. There was not a breeze and the warm sunshine made the 50-degree temperature at the summit quite comfortable. Very nice, indeed!

Our descent followed the same route down the South Ridge, for the most part following the distinct footprints we'd left in the soft earth mixed with ash. The heavy rain of a month earlier was still holding in the soil and was bringing some of the grasses to life far earlier than usual. Poppies in particular were growing all over the hillside, though as yet no flowers had bloomed. It took little more than 30 minutes to descend the ridge and shortly after noon we were back on the trail.

There were several more campers found in Pine Valley when we passed through for the second time. One lone hiker was sporting a rifle which clued us in that hunting season wasn't quite over. We made good time hiking back out to Church Creek Divide after which Michael began to tire as we made our way up that 1,000-foot climb out of the divide to the highpoint along the Pine Ridge Trail. It was a beautiful afternoon and there seemed to be no good reason to rush things along. I found a few poppies in bloom and stopped to take a picture of them and other flowers, as well as views to Black Butte and a burnt tree that had caught my eye. It was probably the nicest weather I'd encountered in half a dozen trips along this trail.

It was 2:45p when I returned to the TH at Tassajara Rd, Michael only a few minutes behind. The outing had gone faster than I had expected and there seemed ample time for the two bonus peaks I had hoped to include in the outing. Michael was fairly tired by this time and had no desire to partake in even a short outing, but he was gracious enough to let me run off to tag Black Butte while he waited patiently in van. Without knowing the condition of the trailless portion of the route, I conservatively estimated it would take two hours to cover the roughly two miles out and back. Thanks to the fire, things went considerably faster.

The first quarter mile to a small hilltop is wide and easy to follow, much as had been reported by Fedak a few years earlier. From that point on the going was only a little bit slower. A use trail had been clipped along the ridgeline some time in the past, obscured somewhat by the fire. But the fire simply provided more options to choose from and I found myself reconnecting with the use trail regularly as I made my way throught the scorched chaparral portions of the hike. Halfway along the ridge the burnt brush gives way (mostly) to an interesting rocky ridgeline. "Interesting" in the sense that there is very little rock scrambling in Ventana and this was a bit of a bonus. True, the rock quality was crappy, but it was real granite and the scrambling was rather fun up and over little pinnacles and around larger ones. Along the way was evidence of overnight visits, grooming of sorts for trail and sleeping pads, even some rock art, a curious mix.

It took about 35 minutes to reach the summit. I found a plastic register container among the summit rocks. Though more than a yard from any flammable material, the container had been heated and partially melted as the fire burnt slopes on either side of the summit. The book inside was singed on the edges and wet - it had faired poorly in the aftermath of the fire. Still, it was somewhat readable, having been placed in 2003. The pen had been made unworkable by the fire, but with the handy Sharpie I carried in my pack I added my name to one of the pages.

It seemed silly, knowing the register would continue to deteriorate, but I did the best I could to wrap it back up and build a better shelter to keep the sun and rain from hastening its demise.

I was back at the van by 4:15p much to Michael's surprise. I found him reading his book inside the cozy van, having changed into a fresh set of clothes and looking far more presentable than myself. As we started back north along the Tassajara Rd it was not hard to talk Michael into joining me for the last easy hike (all of a couple hundred yards) to the top of Chews Ridge, a 2,000-foot prominence point. It was made even easier when we arrived at the junction to find the gate wide open. We looked at each other with a smile and drove on in and up to the highpoint and the lookout tower crowning the summit. The sun was just setting behind a sea of fog growing thicker to the west, viewed from the walkway around the lookout tower. It was quickly growing colder and we did not spend more than five minutes in all at the summit.

Having reached all three summits in far easier fashion than we had expected, it seemed like the perfect end to a day that had gone exceedingly smoothly. We joked about how our fortunes would change suddenly if we got down to the gate and found it locked. And so it was with some great amount of disbelief that we found ourselves in just that predicament. It had not been ten minutes since we'd first driven through the gate, and someone had managed to come by and lock it without our noticing them or they noticing us. Egads! Our day had just taken an ugly turn.

We got out to examine the gate, knowing that sometimes they only appear to be locked. Not the case here. It was one of these fortressed USFS arrangements that disallow the use of boltcutters to reach the locks (not that we had any with us), and though rather old, the gate was quite solidly constructed. We walked around to the right side of the gate to examine the terrain to see if we could drive the van around somehow. All we found there was a dropoff down to the road that would surely wreck the vehicle. Immediately adjacent to the gate was some heavy duty iron bars blocking vehicular access. A weld had broken holding the horizontal bar to one of the uprights so we got the idea that we could bend the bar to the side to allow us to drive through. But our strength proved to be far less than would be required to bend it in any of several manners that we attempted. We were stymied.

Who could have locked the gate? Either the Forest Service or MIRA (Monterey Institute of Research in Astronomy) that had a facility off a side road away from the lookout. We drove back to the MIRA facility to see if there was someone there that had locked the gate on their way in. We found several cars, but they appeared to have been there for some time. Our knocks and shouts at the steel doors went unanswered and we eventually drove back to the gate. Someone from MIRA must have left while we were at the lookout and there was no telling when someone might come back to the remote site. Michael walked down to the China Camp Ranger Station a quarter mile back on the road as indicated on our topo map. Only there was no ranger station there any more, just a picnic site and horse staging corral. We had planned to camp somewhere that evening, so we were prepared with sleeping bags and pads, but there seemed to be no guarantee that we'd be able to get out the next day at all. And of course there was no cell phone coverage.

As darkness drew on Michael managed to flag down a couple of vehicles on their way out. Lucky break. One of them offered to give us a ride down to Carmel Valley where we could then call for someone to pick us up. This was even luckier than we'd hoped as he was heading back to Gilroy and graciously gave us a lift in the cramped quarters of his pickup all the way there. Along the way we made phone calls back to San Jose and arranged for another friend to pick us up at the Gilroy In-N-Out. In this manner we managed to get dinner and a ride back to San Jose all well before 9pm, though minus our van and lots of gear. We made a few phone calls to MIRA, the USFS, and the Monterey County Sheriff's office, reaching only the latter but getting nowhere in finding out how to retrieve the van. We would leave it to the next day to work on that problem.


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