Ventana Cone P500
South Ventana Cone P1K CC

Tue, Apr 16, 2002

With: Mark Connell

Ventana Cone
South Ventana Cone
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
Ventana Cone later climbed Sat, Jan 18, 2003
South Ventana Cone later climbed Sat, Jan 18, 2003

Ventana Cone is a remote peak in the Ventana Wilderness which encompasses most of the rugged terrain of California's Big Sur. Even on trails, hiking in Ventana can be difficult, due to the infrequency of trail maintainance. Ventana Cone is that much tougher as it lies two miles from the nearest trail. Bushwhacking in Ventana can be some of the toughest cross-country travel anywhere in the state due to the unforgiving nature of the chaparral that covers much of the terrain.

There were two events that sparked a quest to Ventana Cone. The first was a previous trip to Ventana Double Cone, another remote peak fifteen miles from the easiest trailhead at Bottchers Gap. On that trip, which had a decent trail the whole way, I spotted Ventana Cone from the summit. The ridgeline connecting the two was about two miles, and looked difficult, to be sure. It seemed to be an even more remote peak than Ventana Double Cone, and I made a mental note to return someday. A little more a year later, John posted to SummitPost's message board about peakbagging in Big Sur, and Ventana Cone came up 11th on his list of peaks from the region. This got me thinking about a trip there again, and with a little coaxing I was able to convince Mark to join me for what I agreed was a crazy idea. A good perusing of the maps showed the closest trailhead to be at China Camp on the east side. Six miles on trail, followed by two miles of cross-country along a ridge we knew nothing about. Those that have hiked in the region know how dense the chaparral can be, and my only hope was that it might be less dense along the ridge. To truly make this a challenging undertaking, I wanted to do it as a dayhike - 16 total miles, 6000ft of elevation gain, including four miles of cross-country travel.

To ensure as much daylight for our hike as possible, I wanted to get to the trailhead near sunrise. While trying to sell Mark on the idea, I optimistically estimated 10 hours for the hike, but I suspected it might take more like 15 hours if the cross-country travel was difficult. Because it is over two hours drive time to the trailhead, it meant getting up rather early. As a result, I was up at 4a and at Mark's house in Scotts Valley at 5a. We took Mark's car from there (much better on the dirt road than mine), and headed south in the dark. Through Santa Cruz, past the PGE smokestacks at Moss Landing, through Monterey and Carmel. We turned off Highway 1 at Carmel Valley and drove inland up this picturesque valley for about 15 miles. We weren't terribly sure where the junction with Tassajara Road was, so after ten miles or so we kept a close watch at all the side roads. Fortunately it was starting to get light out and we could read the signs without much trouble. Finding our turnoff, we headed south again, for another ten miles. As we crested Chews Ridge we were greeted by a fine scene to the west. The sun had risen about 20 minutes ago and was shining on the higher peaks to the west that poked up from the fog. It was easy for us to identify both Ventana Cone and Ventana Double Cone, looking like lush tropical islands among the clouds. Driving down from Chews ridge, we reached the trailhead in another couple miles and found ourselves right at the elevation of the fog's ceiling.

We parked the car and prepared our gear, dressing warmly to start. The thermometer read 33F outside, a bit nippier than we had expected. The trail starts with a modest climb up the ridge that roughly runs east to west, separating the Carmel River drainage to the north, from the Arroyo Seco drainage to the south. We found patches of snow along the trail, and guessed that it had been colder than we'd thought here recently. The tinkling sound of ice falling made it soon clear that it wasn't snow on the ground, but ice. During the night, the wind and fog combine to freeze water on the upper branches of the pine trees that grow along the ridge tops. As the sun comes up in the morning, the ice falls off, littering the ground around the pines. The ice then melts throughout the day, providing a good deal of moisture to the trees. In this way, the pines are able to "mine" the water from the fog, and grow in regions that would normally be too dry for them. Interestingly, we never saw this curiosity with the oak trees that also grow along the ridge. It seems likely that the pine needles play an important role in coaxing the water from the fog.

As we hiked along the south side of the ridge, we noticed that there was no fog in the Arroyo Seco drainage, but only in the Carmel River drainage to the north. Ahead of us we could see two low spots along the ridge through which the fog would flow from the north to south. Pouring down the warmer south side, the fog would soon dissipate, but it made for a pretty scene. There is much grass and bountiful flowers along sections of the ridge's south side, and the combination of lupines, green grasses, and the sun shining through the fog as it rolled through the pass at the Miller Creek Divide made us both stop to admire and take photographs.

While we hiked along, Mark began to think about ticks, having forgotten that they are known to inhabit these parts. In my long pants I was less concerned, but Mark was wearing shorts and consequently less cavalier about it. I knew if I stopped to check often, I'd probably find several ticks on my pants through the day. I also knew that if I didn't look, they'd probably get brushed off without me ever knowing about them. With shorts you have to worry that the ticks would have time to make themselves comfortable under your skin, and so checking often is more prudent. To save himself the worry, Mark finally opted for the long pants he was carrying with him.

As we approached the second low spot at Church Creek Divide, we could see that the height of the fog was rising, and was now obscuring the top of Ventana Cone. The higher level also increased the amount of fog spilling through the pass, and as we got nearer it looked liked the floodgates had been opened. Climbing down to Church Creek Divide, we soon found ourselves immersed in the heavy fog and noticeably colder. For several miles the fog continued thickly even though we were climbing higher. We began to worry that we might be in the fog much longer than we had thought. We hadn't considered the fog at all beforehand, as neither of had brought a compass along. I expressed doubts that we could navigate along the twisty ridgeline in the fog, and it might be very easy to get ourselves turned around and lost in such conditions. This might end our little adventure faster than the bushwhacking that we had expected to be our greatest obstacle.

Shortly before reaching Pine Ridge, we once again climbed above the fog, which lifted our spirits a good deal. We could now just see the top of Ventana Cone, which suggested the fog was now getting lower after reaching its early morning zenith. This was good news indeed. We reached the trail junction that we expected to mark the beginning of the cross-country travel. However, instead of a single trail leading north (to Pine Valley) that showed on our map, we found ourselves at a four-way junction with an unexpected trail heading south. There were no signs indicating directions save for a small metal sign about the size of a postcard that was nailed to a burned tree that indicated Black Cone Trail with an arrow pointing south. There were a few pieces of orange tape marking the various trails in the area, presumeably to help hikers make their way through this burned area, but they did little to help in identifying where we were. After perusing our map and and the area carefully, we guess that the Black Cone Trail was relatively new, and simply not yet on the USGS map we had. Later we found that we were partially right. The trail was an old one that had been abandoned, but had been recently cleared and made negotiable.

It was 10:10a when we struck off north along the trail in that direction, but followed it only a short distance until it crested the Pine Ridge which we planned to follow to Ventana Cone. From a small knoll, we were happy to find that the fog had all but dissipated, and the route ahead was completely clear. Fog would not be our curse today! Now that we had left the trail, the real adventure had begun.

The first quarter mile was pretty easy travel over dry, grassy terrain, with some downed trees as our only obstacle. The east side of Pine Ridge, part of the upper drainage of the Carmel River, had been burned a few years earlier, and there was still much evidence of the damage it wrought. On the bright side, it seemed to have cleared much of the old brush and we began to think the travel here would be much easier than we'd expected. We followed the ridgeline downhill, staying close to the ridge as much as possible. Soon the easy travel gave way to a more tangled landscape, old brush having been burned but the dead branches still firmly attached to their roots. We followed a faint trail as best we could, but soon lost the last vestiges of it. To avoid the thick, unburned chaparral on the ridge, we climbed lower into the canyon where progress was slow, but still possible. For twenty minutes we thrashed about, weaving our way through the underbrush, running into dead ends, retracing our steps, and trying different avenues to make forward progress. We would take separate tacks, the one making the best progress calling the other to join him. What looked like it might be a cake walk had become our feared nightmare, and it was clear that we couldn't go on like this all the way to Ventana Cone. Somewhere things would have to get easier if we were going to have any chance to make it. Soon the hillside became steep in addition to the heavy brush, and we found ourselves climbing over all manners of shrubbery, clinging to dead branches for support, many of which broke off under force. The blackened branches rubbed off on our clothes and it looked like we'd been fighting forest fires most of the morning. Despite the recent burn, much had grown back in two seasons, a testament to the hardiness of the chaparral and it's adaption to fires in the ecosystem. Fortunately the green parts were mostly 2-3 feet tall, with the mature burned stuff towering to about 15 feet. Had it not been burned, it didn't seem possible to make one's way through here at all. My greatest hope (aside for bushwhack hell to end) was that the fires had burned out all the poison oak along this hillside, because if there was any growing among the tangles, we'd probably not notice until it was too late. On one of our separate explorations, I climbed through some especially thick, young green oaks to climb back onto the ridge proper while Mark took a horizontal tack through more of the burned brush. I found that I was once again on what seemed a faint use trail. Looking back up the ridge, I could see that it continued in that direction, and we probably missed it when we began our heavy bushwhacking detour. I called to Mark, but he couldn't hear me well, and he felt he was making decent progress on his own. I sauntered down the ridge, continuing to call to Mark to come join me. Finally, coming out of the ugly mess he'd been climbing through, Mark caught up to me and could see for himself what I'd been jabbering about.

Immediately, things got easier. We noticed that there were footprints along here, some looking quite recent. There did indeed seem to be a use trail, though as these things tend to be, it broke off in variations, ended in places, and took careful watching to keep to the easiest route. The brush had been cut in places, evidently before the fires had burned through here. It was cut too narrowly to have been done as a firebreak - was there possibly an abandoned trail here? Whenever it had been cut, it seemed to have been some time ago. Still, those cuts were useful for marking the easiest route and thereafter kept us to a minimum of bushwacking. In fact it became rather pleasant hiking the rest of the day.

We climbed up to Peak 4445 which marks the halfway point between South Ventana Cone and Ventana Cone. There is a USGS survey marker here, along with swell views, and I stopped here for a break while I waited for Mark to catch up, who was ready for a break as well. Continuing on, we found that there was indeed some poison oak to be found, and for the rest of the day I looked that much more carefully where I walked. There is also yucca to be found here, and lots of it. Not so much that it couldn't be avoided, but enough that one caught Mark unaware. It pierced his pants and his skin underneath, and he gave out a sharp yelp as it went it. It left no lasting pain, but the blood dripped down his leg to his sock, and made a small mess of the inside of his pants. We also found a few short sections with what could be considered rock climbing, and I found myself taking the more difficult routes on these when I could, savoring the feel of the rock on my hands and under my boots.

Much of the hiking was easier now, and it we thoroughly enjoyed the views both east and west along the ridge. With the disappearance of the fog, the air had warmed quite a bit, but not enough to consider it hot. A slight breeze came close to making it ideal, and there were even some flowers to brighten the ground. Smelling the summit, I left Mark with a quarter mile to go and high-tailed it up the remaining ridgeline to the summit of Ventana Cone. Success! I had given us less than a 50% chance to actually make it, and this made the accomplishment that much sweeter. We had done the cross-country portion in a little more than two hours, arriving at 12:20p.

The views were quite fine, and I could pick out most of the major peaks in Ventana without a map, as I found myself becoming quite familiar with the terrain in the northern half of Ventana (Views: north, southeast, south, southwest) . I particularly enjoyed the "backside" view of Ventana Double Cone, now but two miles to the northwest. After the hiking had become easier I had begun talking to Mark about a dayhike across Ventana that would follow this route, going from China Camp to Bottchers Gap. The only unknown was this additional two miles between Ventana Cone and Ventana Double Cone. I studied this route as Mark came up to join me, but we both had to conclude that it looked exceedingly difficult. The ridge was twisted, sharp in places, and looked to be a difficult bushwhack. Unless there was some "hidden" trail like the one we'd just followed, it would be unwise to commit to a 25 mile one-way trip with such an unknown at the very middle of it. Still, I imagine this adventure will fester in my head for a while before I'll try it anyway.

There were two USGS survey markers on Ventana Cone, one dated 1955, the other undated. I imagined that would have been a substantially more remote adventure back in 1955. What surprised me the most were the number of trails that were visible from the summit. We could see portions of the Ventana, Puerto Suello, Carmel River, and Pine Ridge Trails, all about equidistant from our vantage point. My friend Michael had declined to join Mark and I on the hike, but in discussing it he was convinced there would be summit register. "Not likely," I contended, resulting in a friendly bet for lunch. As I got to the summit I had looked around, and lo and behold there was a small film canister under a small pile of rocks. Inside was a single sheet of paper with a short note from two hikers who had just visited three days earlier. Not only did I lose the bet, but we were beaten to the summit but a few days ago. This took a bit of the wind out of our sails as we realized our great adventure wasn't all that "out there" as we'd thought.

We stayed on the summit until 1p before deciding to head back. We did a much better job retracing our steps and making the route even easier, now that we knew to look for the cut manzanita stubble and the previously traveled route. Still, it was not a simple task, and there were several places where we got off-route for a short while. I was now noticing that my shins were taking a beating as I contantly banged them against many of the burned shrubs that lay in wait for us. These sticks, about 6 to 12 inches long and about the diameter of a quarter, were hidden under the new chaparral that had begun to grow up around them. After dozens of such ambushes, repeatedly poked in the same place on the legs, the muscles were bruising, the skin was getting roughed up despite the long pants, and my legs were beginning to cry uncle. I hadn't considered shin guards beforehand, but it seemed they might have come in pretty handy here. Still, we made better progress on the way out than on the way in, and were back at the Pine Ridge Trail at 2:50p.

As we started heading back along the trail, I was looking for the best place to leave it to climb up to South Ventana Cone, the extra credit peak for our hike today. When Mark realized what I was doing he began to express doubts about wanting to climb any further. Less than half a mile from the trail, I could hardly pass up the peak while we were here, and I planned to go whether Mark joined me or not. Mark was definitely torn, tired on one hand, but realizing it wasn't a tough climb to South Ventana Cone either. Hemming and hawwing, he finally decided to forgo the climb, to which I said I'd catch up with him on the way back, and headed up. The deciding factor for him seemed to be the beer which was waiting for us back at the car in a cooler. It would be ice-cold when we got to it, and I had to admit it was sounding rather tempting. Mark even threatened to have the beer consumed before I got back, but I didn't really expect he could get back before me even with that incentive.

It was a much easier climb than the one we'd just finished, as the northwest side of the summit had been pretty much burned out. The shrubs that were growing back were not yet sufficient to slow progress, and I was able to climb the several hundred feet in only 15 minutes. The summit of South Ventana Cone is higher than Ventana Cone, though not as high as Ventana Double Cone. The views were equally expansive, though not as good in the afternoon due to haze that was developing over the area. There was an ammo box holding a couple registers, both of them placed in 1998. From the entries I could see that the peak is climbed quite frequently, most recently only two days ago. The register author had commented that the trail to the summit was called something in Spanish meaning "pathway to the sky." Poetic as that had sounded, I hadn't seen any trail on my way up, and noted several register entries wondering the same thing. Heading back, I decided I'd look for the trail, trying to be a good enviro-citizen and not cause unnecessary erosion on a popular summit. I found a narrow windy path heading directly north from the summit, but could only follow it for about 30 yards or so before it was completely overgrown or I'd lost it. I back-tracked several times before giving up in frustration. It was a clear example that unmaintained trails do not last long in Ventana.

I was back down at the trail at 3:20p, but not before my shins and legs had taken more beatings from the short, dead sticks that didn't know enough to quit when the fires raged through here. Stubborn to the end, they would seek their vengeance on unsuspecting trespassers, even with the life already sucked out of them. I had had enough of the bushwhacking, and was happy to be done with it for the day, and head back on the trail. I started off making pretty good time, briskly walking the flats and uphills, jogging the downhill sections. But after about 45 minutes I had to admit I was pretty tired and returned to a more sustainable pace that is best described as "plodding." I had thought I might catch up to Mark by now, but he was making better progress than I'd expected. That beer was pulling him closer to the car, no doubt.

Shortly before reaching Church Creek Divide, I came across a small stream trickling down from above. There had been only one such water source on our hike in, so I took the opportunity to fill my water bottles which were close to empty. Shortly thereafter I came across another stream, then another, and a fourth. I began to have doubts I was on the right trail, and did a mental rewind to see if I missed a turnoff somewhere. Every indication I had said I was on the right trail - I was heading east, the trail was fairly level (the alternative trails would have to take me downhill a considerable distance). Still, I began to have nagging doubts. Should I be going the wrong way, it would be painful to retrace the last half hour's path. I pulled out the map and convinced myself I was on the right route. Church Creek Divide should be coming up shortly which would offer positive proof. Continuing on I came across three more streamlets cascading down across the trail. We would definitely have remembered crossing that much water. My only conclusion I could draw to make sense of it was that 6 of the stream sources were frozen in the early morning and had started flowing only with the rising sun. This seemed very strange for Ventana, but could not come up with any alternatives.

As expected I came to Church Creek. I wondered if Mark had been equally baffled (later he told me had had doubts as well due to the extra streams, and he wasn't carrying a map to help convince himself). I started the long climb out of the pass, and still I had not caught up to Mark. He might beat me back to the car after all, I thought. At about 4:45p I heard a voice from above call out, "It's about time." Though he was only about 50 yards ahead of me on one of the switchbacks, it took me another 20 minutes before I caught up to him. My plodding was only slightly faster than Mark's. It took another hour to reach the trailhead, and at 6p we staggered the last few yards to the car. I can't remember my body giving up so quickly after finishing a hike. I'm sure if we'd had another 3 miles to go I would have made it easily enough, but now that we stopped my legs decided to stiffen and the rest of my body just sort of coagulated to a thick molasses blob. We groaned as we took off our boots and changed our clothes. It's hell getting old, we mused. That beer made up for it though, and already we were feeling much better... ahhhhh!

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For more information see these SummitPost pages: Ventana Cone - South Ventana Cone

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