Pico Blanco 2x P1K CC

Fri, Jan 16, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

We didn't start out with a plan to climb Pico Blanco. We were on a mission to climb a more remote mountain in the Ventana Wilderness unofficially called Kandlbinder, and located a short distance from Ventana Double Cone (VDC). Matthew and I had both done dayhikes to VDC previously, and made an earlier attempt to reach Kandlbinder via Mt. Manuel and the ridge connecting it to Kandlbinder. Heavy brush cover prevented us from even leaving the trail on that first attempt. This second attempt was to take a little-known route out of Jackson Camp along the Little Sur River. We would follow it upstream to Ventana Creek (also called Jackson Creek) and take that tributary to the The Window (La Ventana), a notable slot on the ridge between VDC and Kandlbinder. Our limited beta suggested at least several parties have followed this route to reach The Window, one taking 15-17hrs for the roundtrip from Bottchers Gap. We expected we could beat that time considerably, but our route-finding would have to be without error (it wasn't).

Matthew picked me up at my home in SJ at 4a, and we spent the next several hours driving to Monterey, SR1, Palo Colorado Rd, and arriving at Bottchers Gap shortly before 6a. As we were preparing our packs and putting our boots on, a fellow came out of the darkness to join us. Larry is the caretaker of the camp at Bottchers Gap, and it was in this same fashion (no flashlight, friendly greeting) that I had met him some three years earlier on my VDC dayhike. He didn't remember my name (not surprising), but he did recall the early morning I drove up in my Miata for the VDC dayhike. He didn't have any additional beta to offer us about the hike out of Jackson Camp since he hadn't hiked it himself, but he did express the usual concerns for route-finding in the maze of canyons one finds along the river. Armed with a handful of topos, we were confident in our abilities as we headed out just after 6a, headlamps beaming in the darkness.

We headed down the graded dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp located at the end of the 3.6 mile road on the Little Sur River. We started out with a quarter moon and the stars in an inky sky, but not long afterwards the sky to the east grew progressively lighter, ushering in a fine, new day. We paused a few times to take pictures along the road, then again when we reached the BSA camp at 7a, crossed the bridge, and continued on the trail to Jackson Camp. So far, all we'd done is go downhill or flat, which makes for pretty good time. We found the trail to Jackson Camp in excellent shape with almost no new downed trees along the way. There was very little sun in the canyon (and wouldn't be for most of the day), and the ground along with most of the plants along the trail were wet with dew. Every now and then we could glimpse the high ridgetops that encircled us, but the views were few and far between.

It was 7:40a when we arrived at the end of the trail in Jackson Camp, and here we took our first real break to have a snack, take some photos, and fill our water bottles. Water would not be a problem today with so much of the route following the creeks. Jackson Camp is a fine campsite, on a large raised area about 6 feet above the Little Sur River that was meandering by. It hadn't rained in four or five days, so the water levels were pretty tame. The camp had a large fire-ring in the middle, pads for 5 or 6 tents, and a couple of rusting old stoves. Now that we were at the end of the regular trail, the adventure was about to begin.

The Little Sur River has cut deep canyons in the Ventana hillsides, and the plants grow among the trees that inhabit the canyon bottom. The trees are mostly redwoods, some very ancient, towering majestically up from the canyon floor. Ferns and other rainforest flora bring color to the forest floors. The soil is rich and thick with decomposing leaves and other organic matter, and one can smell the vitality of the place. Little light penetrates this far, blocked by both the canopy and the canyon walls on the south side, but everything feels very alive - so different from the drier chaparral covering most of the Santa Lucia Range.

We found a use trail heading out of camp about 50 yards until it came to the water's edge. Across the river we could see a use path continuing, and a pink ribbon tied to a tree branch. We had heard that the route had been tagged with ribbons, but this was the only one we saw all day. We took our shoes and socks off and rolled up our pant legs to cross the river. On the other side, I rolled down my pant legs, dried my feet on them, and then put my shoes and socks back on. This would slow us down, but it seemed better than walking in wet shoes. I would repeat this procedure more than a dozen times before the day was out, and we would conclude that this hike could be done more quickly with lower water levels found in the fall. We were happy to see that the use trail continued quite nicely until the next creek crossing. Here I built a small pile of large rocks to help cross the creek which I just managed to do. Matthew had poorer luck, and fell into the creek soaking both feet. At least he got that out of the way earlier. I was afraid I would do the shoes on and off a dozen times and then fall into the creek making it a wasted effort.

We found another camp after a few crossings with a sign indication Jackson Camp. Huh? Maybe this was Jackson Camp II. It had a camp area on both sides of the river, more campstoves, and rusting coffee cans filled with water. I began to suspect that the Boy Scouts sent many parties up this river to camp during the summer months, and it's probably thanks to them that the use trail is so well defined. Beyond this second camp we continued following the trail, first on one side, then on another, sometimes crossing on boulders, sometimes on fallen logs. It was a fairly predictable pattern that the trail would end when the creek came up against cliffs, but the other side always presented a non-cliff route through which the trail would take. After another mile or so we came across a third camp area, this one unsigned and not marked on the maps. Matthew commented that it might be Fox Camp which he'd heard about on the message boards. A small side stream came in from the south at this juncture, but we guessed it was too small to be the Ventana Creek we were looking for. This turned out to be the crucial route-finding error of the day, as this was in fact Ventana Creek. Besides the creek being smaller than we expected, we had been making much better progress than we'd thought we could do beforehand (it was only 8:30a), and it seemed we needed to go much further before our turnoff. Ooops.

We continued up the main creek, the use trail continuing even past Fox Camp. Over the next hour and a half we made a dozen crossings, never having to climb more than 10 or 20 feet above the creek. It was really great fun, much like hiking along the Ho Rain Forest in Olympia National Park with a temperate rain forest atmosphere. An unusually load roar ahead on the river suggested we were coming up on a waterfall or cascade. I came around the corner to find myself at the base of a beautiful pool, a waterfall at the far end, and the entire pool (except for the outlet) encased in a wall of rock. Matthew crossed the creek in his usual manner and came over to examine the pool and the setting. It was really quite a peaceful looking spot, and we would probably have enjoyed it more if we didn't spend our time there wondering how to get around it.

We found a way on the north side, first backtracking 50 yards, then climbing a steep, loose pile of talus and organic matter to a small saddle on a ridge about 100 feet above the creek. The other side offered a pleasant view upstream from the vantage of our high perch. The most striking feature was a redwood that had fallen across the creek at an angle ages ago, but didn't die. From it's trunk several branches grew upright towards the sky becoming trunks of free-standing trees suspended across the creek. Redwoods are certainly tenacious. We climbed down to the creek level again and continued upstream for another 45 minutes. We had come to the conclusion by now that we had missed our turnoff long ago, and we were just continuing with our exploration of the Little Sur. We then came to a second impasse, another waterfall with cliffs on both sides. There seemed now way around them.

We started climing up the north side of the canyon, up a steep gully. When we could make no further progress up the gully without it becoming class 5, we moved to the left and climbed the grassy embankment. I climbed maybe 150 feet up before I could get a good view around us and decided the route was taking us nowhere. That wasn't exactly true - we could continue to climb up out of the canyon into the chaparral, but it would not lead us any further upstream. Rather than continue our dicey climbing manuevers, we retreated. Back at the creek I took a break while waiting for Matthew to finish the downclimbing. Looking around, I noticed a rope hanging over the edge on the right side of the waterfall that we hadn't seen before. This was the ticket. The nylon rope looked to be less than a year old, but it could have been older. What it was tied to we had no clue, but someone had installed it as a means to surmount the waterfall. I bounced up and down on the rope a few times to give it a good test before using it to climb the 15-foot rocky embankment barring our progress. With the help of loops that had been tied in the rope, this little bit of awkward aid climbing was overcome. After a little more sidehilling we were back down to the creek again. The good use trail was greatly diminished, and it was clear that fewer folks make progress beyond that second waterfall. We continued upstream for only another couple hundred yards. Here we came to the confluence of Little Sur and Puerto Suello Creeks. It was 11:15a.

What to do? It looked like the route would continue indefinitely upstream, but we knew it would soon start getting tougher. In another three miles or so we would meet up with the Double Cone Trail, but it would likely be a difficult climb to get out of the canyon continuing this way. Matthew suggested he would be happy to turn around and go climb Pico Blanco instead. That seemed like a fine idea, and so with this new plan in mind we turned around and went back. Going back was easier and faster (except for the downclimb of the rope which Matthew didn't really like and I mercilessly photographed) than on the way upstream since there was no route-finding to do. I had taken my socks off and worn just my shoes in the event I should slip in the stream I would keep my socks dry. This made me bolder in crossing the streams, and I rather enjoyed the gymnastics required to jump three of four feet onto boulders midstream, often having to complete a series of two or three steps in a row to keep the momentum from pulling me into the water. Matthew suggested I may have missed a career in ballet. All the while he just walked across the streambed in his saturated footwear, like he hadn't a care in the world. Surprisingly, I never did miss a jump that day and kept my feet pretty dry.

Back at Fox Camp we turned and hiked up the side creek about a hundred yards to see if it was marked or had a trail. We found no ribbons, but we did find another use trail heading up that way which we followed for a hundred yards or so. It looked like an equally interesting hike, but as it was already 12:30p, we had taken a four hour detour and no longer had enough time or energy to complete the original plan. We would have to come back and try again in the future. We continued back downstream, reaching Jackson Camps I and II, then back on the trail. We took another short break when we reached the trail junction with the Pico Blanco Trail. It was 1:45p, and I optimistically estimated an hour up and another hour down to tag Pico Blanco. It was less than three miles on the map, and having climbed it some years ago from the same route, I couldn't recall anything particularly difficult about it.

Well, we didn't quite notice just how much elevation gain there was (almost 3,000ft), and after climbing half of it on a very steep trail in 40 minutes, it was clear it would take us longer. We stopped where the trail reaches a highpoint before heading down out of the Little Sur drainage. Matthew had lunch while I attended to other pressing business. A faint use trail left the regular trail here, heading up an arcing ridge that connected to Pico Blanco going northwest, then gradually turning to the southwest towards the peak. We followed the trail until it petered out, then instead of crossing a shallow gully to the grassy slopes to our left, we made the mistake of following the ridge too religiously. This took us on a more indirect course, with more bushwhacking and more rock scrambling than this peak really calls for.

Once about halfway up from the trail I began to smell the blood of the summit (though I was further away than I initially thought) and left Matthew as I doggedly made my way up. It was 3:30p when I reached the summit. The sun was hidden behind patterned layers of clouds that graced the skies far overhead, creating a hazy, but alluring scene in the late afternoon. One could see parts of the Santa Cruz mountains far to the north; The Little Sur River, Uncle Sam Mtn and VDC to the east; Cone Peak and Mt. Manuel to the south - remarkable views all around. I played around on the summit, perusing the summit register, making an entry, and trying to start a small fire on the summit with some dried wood off to one side. I probably spent 30 minutes trying to start the fire, which was pretty lame considering I was using a butane lighter. Matthew showed up around 4:15p (right when my little fire got going), and we hung out another 20 minutes or so to give Matthew a break.

On the way down we took a more direct descent to the east, angling to the left as we went down. The sun came out from behind the clouds shortly before it would set, and it make wonderful shadows on the chaparral covered hills that surrounded us on three sides. Matthew went very slowly on the descent and I began to think he must have hurt himself to be going so slow. I shouted back to him while I waited, asking him directly if he was ok. "Yeah" was the only reply. He didn't seem to be limping or anything, he just didn't like the steep cross-country descent. He probably thought I was as impatient as hell. We hiked though a pretty madrone grove before dropping into the shallow gully we had avoided on the way up. The bottom was some foot or more thick in leaves, but easy crossing, and we were soon back to the regular trail where we'd left it some hours earlier. The return route was much shorter than our ascent one. Once back at the trail, Matthew picked up his pace, and in fact was in front for the rest of the way.

We jogged back down the trail to the Boy Scout camp, then walked back out the remaining 3.5 miles. Aside from a few stops to take photographs of the day's end, we took no more breaks and kept up a pretty good pace. We put off donning our headlamps as long as possible, in fact we made it all the way back to Bottchers Gap without them. Had we been on one of the Ventana trails and not on a wide, graded dirt road, we'd have killed ourselves falling off the trail for that last half hour. It was after 6:30p when we got back to the car, both of us happy to be done. There were two other cars in the lot, but nobody around, not even Larry. After changing into some more comfortable clothes, we drove off down the road, back to SR1 and Carmel.

We had originally planned to get a motel room to spend the night, but that wasn't too well thought out. Even moderately priced rooms are not to be found in this resort community, so we decided to camp. We had dinner at the Black Bear Cafe, a fine dining establishment that grabbed our attention primarily due to the large portions they are noted for. After gorging ourselves on a selection of fried, fatty foods, we drove up Carmel Valley Road heading for China Camp. We never made it to Tassajara Road. Some miles past Carmel Valley Village (or whatever that boutique-y town is called) I was getting too sleepy to drive. I found a turnoff on the side of the road and drove us into the grassy spot not 20 feet from the road. It would be home for the night. While Matthew slept inside, I spread out my ground roll under the stars, dead tired and hoping to God that nobody harassed us during the night for illegally camping.


Cachagua Keith comments on 07/02/04:
A day trip to the Window or on to the top of Kandlbinder from Bottchers Gap isn't all that tough. Even in the Winter there's plenty of light for someone, like yourself, who's in reasonable shape. I did it in February some years ago and Ranger Larry informed me as I left that many had tried to make it to the Window and back in a day and all had failed etc. etc. The same line he gave you when you walked to the Double Cone. The pools you found upstream from Fox Camp are known locally as the Circular Pools (even though only the first one really fits the name). There used to be an excellent campsite at the Second Circular Pool, but high water wiped it out years ago.

As far as your Ventana Triple Crown goes .... well I have walked all of it, but certainly not in a single day. While there's nothing to stop you from doing it all in a single push (just keep putting one foot in front of the other) I'd definitely suggest extra batteries for the headlamp if you don't like walking in the dark. The nearly impenetrable (unless it burned in the last fire) cyanothus in "Heartbreak Pass" (the last saddle before you get to the Double Cone when approaching from Ventana Cone) can bring progress to a virtual standstill and demoralize even the toughest contenders.

You should give walking in the dark more of a try, though (in spite of your bruised leg). Lights tend to totally blind you to anything that isn't being fully illuminated (i.e. about 95% of what's around you). I think this often makes finding your way harder (and certainly makes the trip less pleasant).

I day tripped to the summit of the Double Cone from Los Padres Dam on a short Winter day last year by way of Rattlesnake, returning by Pat Springs and Blue Rock Ridge. Not getting an early start, we got to watch a fantastic sunset from Pat Springs. Without a moon or stars it was soon almost totally dark. Nevertheless, we had no difficulty following the trail (the trail feels harder underfoot than the surrounding ground). I've seen so many reports of people saying they couldn't follow that trail in the day that I'm starting to wonder whether the kind of senses that come into play in the dark don't make it easier!

Another great feature of hiking in the Ventana at night without lights is the glow worms. Every once in a while you'll come around a bend (Devil's Peak is a good place to see this) and the ground will be covered with their little lights as if it were a reflection of the stars overhead.

To be sure, one must travel at a leisurely pace without lights (to avoid injury if you do run into something), but that is always a good idea if you want to enjoy the country you're traveling through.
Alex Surber comments on 07/08/08:
The first camp you came to is known as Fish Camp. The second one is in fact, Jackson Camp. The third camp you came to is Fox camp, and that's where the ventana and little sur rivers split. To the left, the little sur river continues up to the circular pools. To the right is ventana creek, which leads up to the bathtub, and eventually, upper esselen. This is the creek you follow up to the window. As of May 2008, I have been to the window three times, and it is now very well marked, but still a hard hike.

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