Mon, Dec 20, 2004
The Big Four is a group of HPS peaks located roughly on the border between The Dick Smith and San Rafael Wildernesses in Santa Barbara County. The stats for all four peaks are 45mi and almost 8,000ft of gain, quite imposing for a single day outing. The HPS advertises this as a 3-day backpacking effort, very strenuous. I had done much of this route a year earlier when I was out Highpointing, as Big Pine Mtn is the Santa Barbara County highpoint. It had been an exhausting effort I recalled, and to pile on more miles and elevation would border on stupidity. Much of the route follows Santa Barbara Canyon Rd, a dirt road that acts as the dividing line between the two Wildernesses, itself not part of either Wilderness. This provides another possibility - mountain biking. It would do nothing for the elevation gain, but it ought to make the miles easier to complete in a single day. Of course I had to grapple with the question, "Is it cheating?" When playing a game it is usually best to play by the house rules, in this case the HPS. They have no trouble recording an ascent for a number of peaks that can be driven to the summit (such as nearby Cuyama and McPherson Peaks), so a mountain bike seemed fair game by this standard, certainly more sporting than driving a car. Thus, Glenn and I made plans to use the bikes to our advantage in attempting the Big Four dayhike.
It was 3:30a when I awoke to the alarm. Snug inside my sleeping bag on the floor of the van, it was toasty enough inside the vehicle. Outside was another story. The air was a frigid 28F under a clear, starlit night. Over my regular day clothes I put on a sweatshirt and sweatpants along with a lightweight jacket, my thick down mittens and balaclava, then ventured outside to wake Glenn up. Asleep on his cot, he mumbled only a bit before waking up and emerging from his cocoon. It was too cold to do anything sane like eat breakfast so we got our act together in a hurry so we could get moving as soon as possible. I had two additional water bottles supplementing my usual two, about three quarts total and more than I've carried as long as I can recall. There was only one possible water source at Chokeberry Springs, and it might be dry when we got there. And so at 4a we set out, riding our bikes on the relatively flat road at the start, with headlamps and bikelamps lighting the way. Right away I found the headlamp was pretty useless for riding a bike - fortunately our bike lamps were far more powerful.
Like the day before, we didn't ride far before we were off and pushing them along, maybe a half mile from the start. The only good thing about this was that it helped warm us up fairly quickly, and soon the sweats came off as did the heavy mittens. I still wore the light jacket and wool mittens, but I was much more comfortable now that we were moving. As we began the steeper uphill portion climbing out of the canyon we grew warmer still, not just because we were exerting ourselves more. We were climbing up through an inversion layer where the coldest air had sunk to the lowest elevations during the night, and after climbing 1,000ft it had warmed by about 10 degrees or so. It was still cold, but not so bad as it had been at the start. For two hours we pushed our bikes steadily uphill, not talking, each buried in his own world of thought and suffering. It would get better as the day went on I told myself, pretty much the only rationalization that could make sense of what we were doing.
And so it did. We finally topped out on the first hill above Santa Barbara Potrero, and enjoyed a chilling, but enjoyable ride downhill, losing about 500ft over the next mile to a saddle. We were now on the boundary between the two Wildernesses, still before sunrise but plenty of light to go without lamps now. We took a short break here and ditched my backpack with our extra clothes in it off in the bushes. I had just a long-sleeve shirt on now and would come to regret later that I'd left my jacket in the backpack. After our break we continued on, more uphill, another short downhill, followed by more uphill. The sun was up though not yet shining on us when we reached the Samon Peak TH just before 7a. About a quarter mile before Chokeberry Spring, we spotted the ducks on either side of the road marking the trailhead heading west up the steep gully. We locked our bikes to a tree alongside the road and started up the gully.
From the HPS trip reports, we were expecting this to be a tough bushwhack up an overgrown ridgeline, fighting brush, thistle, yucca, and all manner of shrubbery. To our delight it was a well groomed and marked route the whole three mile to the summit. Once we climbed out of the gully and onto the ridge, the sun was upon us and we soaked it up greedily. After a short while along the ridge the use trail led down a short ways onto the north side of the ridge and across a sloping meadow. The meadow was mostly shaded and mostly brown with last season's grass, with tiny patches of snow remaining in a few isolated pockets. Back up on the ridge, we got our first view of Samon Peak. The trail led across an enjoyable series of three bumps before the summit, following around the right of the first bump, left around the second bump, then over the top of the third bump. From the last saddle we climbed a few more hundred feet to the top of Samon Peak where we arrived just before 8:30a. Such an enjoyable climb! And the views were equally fine, Wilderness surrounding us on all sides. Big Pine Mtn was only about 5 miles due south (though many more miles via our road), and we could see most of the major canyons and peaks in the San Rafael Wilderness including McPherson and San Rafael peaks. To the northwest we could view across Cuyama Valley to Caliente Mtn (San Luis Obispo Co. HP), to the east Mt. Pinos (Ventura Co. HP), and far to the northeast we could see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada.
After enjoying our summit visit and signing into the register, we headed back via the
same route (any other route would have been nearly impossible in the thick chaparral
surrounding us). It took about an hour to retrace our steps back to the road and our
bikes, arriving just before 10a. Glenn commented that he didn't think he was up to
the full day's worth of peaks, feeling a bit tired still from the previous day. I
suggested he might forgo Madulce or Big Pine/West Big Pine, depending on whether he
felt more like hiking or riding. I then went over the map with him, showing where the
three remaining peaks were, how far, etc. After a few minutes of this, with Glenn not
at all ready to commit one way or the other, it finally dawned on me what he had meant.
"Oh, you want to head back now, don't you?"
"Why didn't you just say so?"
Once this was cleared up, I extended my hand to wish him luck, and he did likewise. I was a bit sad to see Glenn leave, but I was feeling far too good now to stop myself. Glenn gave me one of his unused water bottles which I stashed at roadside for my return. I still had three bottles left myself, so it didn't seem I would need to carry it with me for now. While Glenn hopped on his bike and headed downhill, I resumed the uphill push. At Chokeberry Spring about half a mile up the road, I found a trickle of water coming out from the pipe there, but seeing I had plenty with me, didn't bother to test it out. It took about 40 minutes to reach Madulce Saddle where the road topped out. I had a fine view looking south now to the Pacific Ocean, several of the islands in the Santa Barbara Channel visible in the distance. A short way down the other side of the saddle was the trailhead for Madulce, and once again I left the bike and headed off on foot. Just past the start is a FS register, and perusing it I noticed the last visitor was John Fedak who'd been by earlier in the month. I'd met John just five months earlier on the Sierra Challenge, so it was a bit of a surprise to see a familiar name.
I had expected the trip out to Madulce to be relatively easy, about 5 miles RT along a ridgeline. It turned out to be closer to 7 miles and involved a surprising 1,600ft of gain (I hadn't looked too closely at my beta obviously). The trail is pretty good until the Madulce Station junction, then grows pretty thin for the remaining 2.5 miles to the summit (don't believe the FS sign that says 2 miles from the junction). Much of trail follows on the NE side of the ridge, shaded and quite cool, almost cold. Leaves cover the ground in a thick padding, and this is what makes the trail hard to follow at times. Pink ribbons have been tied to trees in the thinnest locations, providing some measure of helpful guidance. Though few were really necessary, they seemed somewhat reassuring. I reached the summit at noon, finding the register among the remains of a lookout tower that once crowned the summit. Now only the concrete pad remained and a few odd bits of the structure. Views were obscured by trees and bush to the west and north, but to the south was a fine view of the canyons and hillsides out to the ocean and beyond. Upon returning, I started to feel the effects of the long day for the first time, and was surprised at how much elevation gain there was on the return from the summit. It seemed like a very long way back to the bike.
Once back at Madulce Saddle, I hopped on my bike and headed downhill for a mile to the saddle just before Alamar Station. It was a nice ride down, but would require 600 feet of climbing on the way back. From the saddle it was about 800 feet up over 3 miles out to Big Pine Junction. Most of this I had to walk, and by the time I got to the base of Big Pine I was pretty tired. But the worst seemed over. I left the bike at the road and started the last 500 feet up to the summit. I stopped taking pictures almost an hour earlier, a sure sign I wasn't having as much fun anymore. I was a little surprised I was finding this last bit to Big Pine as hard as it was. I kept my head down and kept a slow, steady pace to the top. Having been there once before, I didn't worry about where the exact highpoint was in the large, flat summit area. I gravitated to the large pile of rocks I knew held the HPS summit register, and took a break on the boulders there. Three down, one to go. Though tired, I figured I had it in the bag. West Big Pine was only another mile, and hardly any gain - I couldn't miss.
As I started back down, I began to feel a bit queasy in my stomach. I'd just started my last water bottle only to find it was the one I had drained from the bottom of my ice chest the night before. It tasted pretty rank, about what you might expect from the water taken from an ice chest that hadn't been cleaned out in more than a few months. I didn't know if it was the water or exhaustion that was making me feel queasy, but about halfway down the hill I decided to rest on a log to let it settle. It didn't seem wise to have a barfing session in such a state, God knows how awful I might feel afterwards. Sitting there, I noticed my fingers and arms were tingling. No, not tingling, rather buzzing. I'd had this sensation before when exhausted so it didn't alarm me, but it was stronger than before and made for a strange sensation. It was almost as if my arms were shivering on their own in an attempt to keep warm. Indeed, it had started to cool considerably due to the higher elevation (6,800ft) and the lateness of the day (3p). Since Madulce I'd kept my gloves on to keep my fingers as warm as I could, but it may not have been enough - it was about this time I was wishing I hadn't left my jacket 10 miles back down the road. After a few minutes I got back up to continue on, but only went about 50 feet before feeling sick again. I sat back down. My plight seemed almost humorous to me, even at the time. I didn't feel I was in great danger thanks to the bike which could carry me most of the way home, but I was feeling rather helpless in my pathetic state. After a few more minutes I decided sitting wasn't helping me enough, so I laid down on the ground amongst the dirt and pine needles in a fetal position and rested. It felt really nice lying on the ground there. I didn't care what manner of insect or worm might crawl through my hair or clothing while I was there, and I could easily have taken a nap if I didn't concentrate hard on not doing so. I didn't think I could afford to lose an hour of my dwindling daylight.
After about ten minutes I got up and walked the rest of the way back to the bike. The rest had been helpful, but I wasn't feeling so good yet. Every taste of the water would start out as refreshing, but the aftertaste seemed to kill my desire to sample it further. I got out my map and for the first time took a look at the mileage carefully. I didn't have a mile to go, but two and a half. Though only 200 feet of gain remained, I still had five miles roundtrip from where I stood. That would take me an hour if I was lucky enough to be able to ride most of the way, and that was dubious. It was 3:30p and I had little more than an hour before sunset, then another half hour after that until it grew dark. There seemed so little daylight today, and I recalled how cold it would grow once the sun went down. It was possible, I reasoned, that if I continued on it might become an epic of, well, epic proportions. If I stopped, it would probably just be a hard day. Of course the peak I had left was the one furthest from the trailhead, so I would have to come all the way back up here even if it was just for this one peak. It occurred to me while I stood there deliberating that Matthew would probably be happy to hear I was going to come back again. He'd hoped I would save this trip for a spring outing so he could join me. Looks like he might get his chance. I decided to cut my losses - the combination of late hour, no jacket, terrible water, and obvious exhaustion was too much to ignore. West Big Pine would have to wait for another day.
Though the decision was hard, I was glad I was able to tear myself away from what could have been an ugly situation. The ride back down to Alamar Station was chilly, as most of it was on the shady north side of the ridge. But it was fun too, and I was sorry to see the ride end with the next uphill section. At least most of the push up to Madulce Station was in the sun, what little was left of it. And though tiring as expected, I was no longer feeling chilled when I got to the top. I had a good five miles now downhill to the saddle where I'd left my pack. I stopped at Chokeberry Spring to sample the water there - a much better taste than the ice chest tasting stuff I'd been forcing down. Further down I picked up the water Glenn had given me and I'd left by the roadside. Even the good water held little appear now. What I really needed was food, I think, but of course I didn't have any of that with me as usual. I reached the saddle below around 4:30p, and the first thing I did was put on the jacket that was tucked away in the pack. As I was getting ready to leave I started feeling nauseous again. This time I couldn't quell it, and I leaned over and wretched. Several times. It was a bit dizzing and I sat down to regain my composure. There was no food in my stomach of course, but there was a surprising amount of water that I delivered up to the dirt roadbed. I didn't even realize I had drank that much in the last half hour since I was at Chokeberry Springs. My fall into ruin seemed nearly complete, and I recall chuckling at myself for considering all this such good fun. Happily, I felt much better after wretching. I suspect my stomach was relieved to get the tainted water out of it, and afterwards it gave me no trouble at all. My jacket and balaclava were starting to warm me now, and I was feeling pretty good again. Not enough to ride back up to West Big Pine of course.
I had a few more uphills to go, about 500 feet in all to get me back up to Santa Barbara Potrero, but the gradients were gentler and I had little trouble pushing my bike up them. At the top of the hill I paused just before 5p to take in the sun setting off to the west, and the purple shades of sunset on the Ventura Mtns to the east. It was a very calming scene. From there I had five more downhill miles to get me back to the trailhead, and I covered these in about 25 minutes, getting me back safely by 5:30p. It was a fairly long day at 13.5hrs, though not the longest by any stretch. Still, it had been one of the more exhausting I could recall, more reminiscent of a 16hr outing. I would definitely have to come back and do it again - I would be sure to tag West Big Pine first to make sure I don't miss it if I don't have the energy to make all four peaks.
After re-racking the bike and changing clothes, I drove back over to the Cuyama trailhead we'd parked at the day before. I decided I could only let one peak go unclimbed this trip, so I would head up to Cuyama in the morning (I had turned around after starting up to it the day before). I consumed about 600 calories in various liquid beverages that evening, but I had no appetite for anything solid. I wondered if that would affect me again the next day, but cared little at the time - sleep was more wanting than anything else, so I quickly readied my bed inside the van and drifted off...
Glenn wrote later: I had a really good time hiking, just was not really in the mood to go on, and it sounds like a good thing since if you were so worn out that you started shaking, that would have been bad news for me. I made it back to the car about 11:15 and was feeling pretty good, so on the way out I saw some nice little rock peaks (more of a ridge) just south of that Santa Barbara Ranch. I scrambled up them with my climbing shoes, there were a couple class 4-5 moves that probably should have had a rope. The view was nice and the rock was relatively solid, so I tried to shimmy down the front. I was one move from a chute I wanted to down climb when I stupidly grabbed a currant bush as a hold. Like a cartoon the bush pulled out of the rock and I slid down a flat face (~45-50% incline, and only slid because of the moss and lichens) for almost fifty feet. I crashed into the dirt at the bottom and rolled for a while until a small juniper stopped my roll. I came to a stop and patted myself down with my heart racing, and was pleased to find no broken bones, only a slightly bloody side and ankle. Moral of the story: never trust a currant bush, and I suppose don't be young and overly cocksure. I would have taken pictures of the place I climbed, but as you remember I was missing batteries.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Samon Peak - Big Pine Mountain
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:06 2007
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