Sewart Mountain P300 HPS
Snowy Peak P500 HPS
Black Mountain P500 HPS
White Mountain P750 HPS
Cobblestone Mountain P1K HPS

Sun, Jun 8, 2008

With: Tom Becht

Sewart Mountain
Snowy Peak
Black Mountain
White Mountain
Cobblestone Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


I slept the night in the back of the van in the Sizzler parking lot in Gorman. Sounds of the nearby Interstate 5 mingled with strong, gusty winds and various cars and trucks coming and going at all hours. The outside sounds melded with my subconcious throughout the night, resulting in strange, senseless dreams that I was happy to be rid of when my alarm went off shortly before 5a. As I arose I glanced out towards the freeway to see Tom's orange Element just cruising down the off-ramp for our rendevous. Tom has excellent timing.

Today's hike was an ambitious outing to the five most remote HPS peaks in Ventura County. The drive to reach the trailhead at Buck Creek took well more than an hour, but the roads were in fairly good condition and we had no trouble at all negotiating them in Tom's SUV. By 6:20a we were packed up and headed out.

The first peak, Sewart Mtn, was fairly trivial, about a mile from the trailhead with little gain. It was the sucker peak to get us committed to the tougher ones beyond. Fires from the summer of 2006 had swept through large parts of this rugged region, closing it off for more than a year to visitors. The summit of Sewart had been burned over as we found when we reached the summit rocks. We continued on the dirt road heading down the east side of Sewart. Knowing we would have to come back up this way later in the day for Cobblestone and White, we cached about half our water under a bush alongside the road. Further down at a saddle, the road just seemed to melt into the brush. We looked around for a short while, searching for a route through the wall of brush before us, finally spying a worn, but sometimes hard to follow HPS trail. With two of us diligently looking out for ducks and signs of the trail, we did a good job most of the day to keep to the trodden paths.

It took about an hour to make it from Sewart to Snowy Peak. We found the register in a cairn at the top. Green plants sprouted from around the base of the cairn, but the register bore evidence of the fire that had swept over this peak as well. The pages of the register inside had been singed by the fire, notably just the tops of the pages - the part touching the top lid of the cans that must have grown very hot for a short time.

Next up was Black Mtn, another hour east along the undulating ridgeline. These were not the wimpy peaks with trivial prominence that I had found in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mtns the last few days, but rugged, He-Man ones with a thousand feet of gain between peaks, and they were giving us a workout. The summit register on Black was not burned, tucked in a cairn with considerably less fuel around it to keep the heat away. It was only 8:40a in the morning and we had already reached three of the peaks and we felt pretty good. Seemed like we were cruising through them like nobody's business. Of course as Tom reminded me, we had merely done the three easiest ones. It would be hours before we got to the next one at White Mtn.

The reason for the long interval can be seen most easily by looking at the map. Though White Mtn is only a few air miles from Black Mtn, Buck Creek has carved a canyon 2,000ft deep between them. That we would have to climb well more than 2,000ft to follow the route around the Buck Creek drainage on the crest did not escape us, and we did consider finding a more direct route between the peaks. The main obstacle is the horrendous brush that can be encountered in cross-country travel in this area, and we'd already gotten short tastes of it when we had managed to lose the use trail. Surveying the canyon while we were traversing between Snowy and Black, we could make out large sections that might not be too bad either because of rocky soil or burnt areas. But there were not enough large burn areas through the canyon to piece together a more certain route, and in the end we had to concede that the known difficulties along the crest were doable and the difficulties in crossing Buck Creek were at best unknown, at worst - impossible. So we headed back to Snowy.

Another hour got us to Snowy for our second visit, and another hour past that got us nearly back to the summit of Sewart before taking a fork in the road to the left. We picked up the water we'd stashed on the way up Sewart's east side, caching a smaller amount for the way back at the saddle on Sewart's south side. By now it was 10:30a and the day was growing warmer, while the two of us were getting thirstier. We both had started with what we thought was a huge amount of water. I carried almost four liters, more than I ever recall on a hike before, knowing that the all-ridgeline route would have no water or snow along the way. Tom had started with a liter more. But now were doing mental calculations about how many miles and how many liters we had remaining, and we had to start being more careful about how quickly we were drinking what remained.

Tom asked which of the two remaining peaks we should do first, but I was indifferent and left it to him. He decided it would be better to get the toughest one, Cobblestone, out of the way first, but somehow we ended up heading to White Mtn instead. I think it was apathy by that point, because by the time we reached the junction in the route between the two peaks, we weren't talking much at all anymore, unlike our chattier discussions on the way to Snowy and Black. The use trail for last mile to White Mtn was the weakest link in the day's route. We followed a bad fork into the brush, sidehilled across a steep, dirty slope, and wandered through foxtail hell in search of the summit. It was 12:40p when we finally stumbled upon the highpoint of White Mtn, a cramped bit of rocky ground amidst the brush. It was almost exactly four hours since we'd left Black Mtn on the north side of Buck Creek.

I was starting to run low on energy and was dismayed to see Cobblestone to the southwest looking so far away and a good deal higher. If Tom had suggested we pass on the last peak I'm pretty sure I would have readily agreed. But he said no such thing, and after a short break we continued our march. Back at the junction, there was no obvious trail heading down the steep south slope off the crest of White Mtn to the saddle with Cobblestone. I started down a bit too early, requiring some traversing as I slid and skirted my way through the rocky ground and around the mix of burnt and unburnt brush. Tom took a slightly different path, more direct but not any faster. From the saddle we picked up a decent use trail again, and with plenty of ducks to keep us on track we stayed with it for that final grueling climb, almost 1,400ft in less than a mile to the summit of Cobblestone.

By now it was 2:20p and we took a longer than usual break. We were pretty beat. Knowing we had more than 2,000ft of climbing remaining did nothing to brighten our spirits. We thought a lot about what motivates us to do things we often regret when we do them. However, we'd finally gotten to the top of the last peak, and all we had to do now was get back to the car. In compensation for the effort to reach it, Cobblestone's summit was the finest of the five. It had the best views, a USGS benchmark, and a bonifide register that went back more than a few years. The very cool aluminum register box had been placed in 1960 by the Sierra Club and looked every bit as good as it probably did 48 years earlier. It was dedicated to a John A. Cross, and inside the register was a very touching composition written in 1981:

June 11, 1981 4:PM
Jim & Sue Higman
Los Padres Chapter
Sierra Club

Came up via Buck Creek - It's gratifying to see the S.C. register is still in good shape. We placed it here 21 years ago. Brought up a hammer, star drill, lead bushings, and lag bolts at that time. Drilled the holes in the rocks to secure the register. We were a group from Santa Barbara -
Jim & Sue Higman
John Leonard
Kai Ostage
Annie Schipper
Harold Vind
(Perhaps one or two others whom I've forgotten).
Jim & Sue Higman still live in Santa Barbara.
John Leonard is now a math professor at Univ. of Wisconsin.
Kai Ostage teaches cooking at SBC College in Santa Barbara.
Annie Schipper lives at San Marcos Pass, but doesn't hike very much anymore.
Harold Vind, poor man is dead.

The widow of John Cross, our good hiking friend of long ago (he is the man to whom the register is dedicated) is alive and well - as is also John Cross's now grown daughter Megan.

During the intervening years since 1960 the Los Padres Chapter, S.C. scheduled many trips here, always up from Borracho Springs on the Agua Blanca Creek until that trail became too overgrown. From then on the route followed was up from Buck Creek. Even that trail is now becoming so overgrown and brushy that it is difficult to follow.

My first hiking trip with the Sierra Club (Angeles Chapter) was in 1925 - up Santiago Peak. My grandmother took me along with a group of about a dozen people. She was in her early seventies then, but still a good hiker. In fact, I remember her telling me all about her old friend John Muir himself. She had known him some twenty odd years earlier before that time - during those years when the Sierra Club was getting started.

Long live the Sierra Club and all it stands for!
Blah, blah, blah! Jim Higman

In a few short paragraphs Jim had driven me back more than 100 years in history. It was amazing to find it here on this forlorn summit, rather than tucked away in a museum somewhere.

As we headed off Cobblestone, we discussed our water situation. I had about six ounces remaining in my pack, and another 16 ounces in the cache near Sewart. I would have to be very careful not to run out before getting there. Tom wasn't too sure just how much he had left in his Camelback, but he said it was sure starting to feel light. Halfway down to the saddle he commented that it seemed I was in better shape - he'd just run out of water. The next hour and half that it took to get back to our water stash was some of the thirstiest moments I can remember, ever. I had a hard time getting Tom to share my remaining water, he seemed resigned to suffer for his own water mismanagement. He took a few sips along the way to help with the pasty dry feeling in the mouth, but only reluctantly. The water was all gone when we still had twenty minutes to go. It was almost funny how I was focused on reaching that stash, like the world would be right once more, only after securing more water. It was quite warm in the afternoon sun and the up and down nature of the crest was trying on our legs.

Tom had actually stashed his water, a full liter, about a quarter mile up from the saddle. So when we reached the pint-sized bottle I had left in the bushes, I told him to take half of it until we got to his supply. I'd done a poor job of stashing it, for though it had been in the shade when I left it, it had now been in the sun the last few hours and quite warm. That seemed to matter little. Tom took the bottle and downed half of it in a few seconds. He was clearly thirsty. I chose to take mine in small gulps, making it last until we reached the higher stash. When we got to the last stash Tom refilled my bottle and it seemed like we'd now have enough to get back to the car (where there was another three liters waiting for us). I started up the road for Sewart while Tom was still taking a break. With sufficient water now and the end of the trail getting closer, I started to feel better even though I was quite tired. Separated by about five minutes we made our way up and over Sewart and back to the car in another half hour or so. It was after 5:30p when we finally got back, exhausted, salty, and weak. It had been a long, tough day.

The best part of the day came a half hour later after we'd driven back down to the Piru Creek crossing. We parked off the road, stripped, and drowned ourselves luxuriantly in the creek. The cold water cooled our skin, washed off the salt, and proved to be as rejuvenating as anything we could have imagined. It was a little bit of heaven for fifteen minutes. We got back out to Gorman shortly before sunset, saying goodbye before Tom headed back to LA and I headed north to San Jose. I was glad to have saved this day for the last one because I don't think I could have hiked again the next day if I'd wanted too...

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