Mon, May 29, 2006
Four years previously I had conceived the idea of dayhiking a rugged, four mile-long ridgeline between South Ventana Cone (SVC) and Ventana Double Cone (VDC) in the very heart of this wilderness. The whole route from the China Camp TH is something like 32mi with 10,000ft of gain, an outing of fairly ambitious proportions. In three previous attempts our party had managed to reach the midway point along the ridge to the summit of Ventana Cone (VC), but had been stymied by exhaustion, lack of water, lack of time, or the ruggedness of the terrain. With two years having elapsed since the last attempt, I contacted Michael Graupe to see if he might be interested in joining me for a repeat visit. He was. I had almost wished he'd turned me down as my alternative plan was going to be a lot easier and far more pleasant. But the die was cast and the sufferfest was scheduled. Memorial Day of 2006 would indeed be memorable.
We left San Jose at 2a in order to get an earlier start than we had ever had before. Being near to the summer solstice, there would be plenty of daylight to complete the cross-country portions of our adventure. We arrived at China Camp a few hours later, and by headlamp we set out shortly at 4:20a. There were more than a dozen cars at the trailhead, not surprising for a holiday weekend, but we would see no one for most of the day. The temperature was about 40F at the start, cold for this time of year but not so bad when we were moving. By the time we'd reached Church Creek Divide an hour later we could turn off our headlamps, and it began to slowly warm as we made our way along the Pine Ridge Trail in the early morning hours. Shortly after the second hour we reached Pine Ridge. Here we left the trail to head cross-country for the summit of SVC. Though only about half a mile away, the chaparral had grown noticeably thicker in the intervening time since our last visit, and it was much more of a struggle to get through the thick brush particularly abundant on the lower slopes. Long pants, long sleeve shirt, and leather gloves made the bushwhack less painful, and by 7a we were at the first summit.
It was shaping up to be a glorious day. The sun was up and there was no wind. Not a cloud in the sky to threaten with weather or obscure our view. We could see west to the Pacific Ocean and north to our elusive goal at the summit of VDC. There had been only about a half dozen register entries since our last visit to SVC. Though it was the highest of the three we planned to visit, it sees few visitors. We signed our names in again (fourth time for me), and were soon on our way back down.
The previous two efforts had taken 3hrs to cross between SVC and VC. Without reviewing this beforehand, I got it into my head that it would take only half that time, 2hrs at the most, to reach VC. It would take almost exactly 3hrs. Along the way I enjoyed the wildflowers that were in bloom wherever the chaparral would relent and allow grass to grow and flowers to bloom. The brush was indeed growing back thicker in all places along the route, so I suppose making it to VC in the same time was actually an improvement over previous years when the route was easier. It was 10a when we were both taking a break at Ventana Cone's summit. The register had had only one additional entry since our previous visit, that of John Fedak. John had been along on the 2004 effort but turned around before reaching VC. In 2005 he had come back to make good on the peak. Despite taking longer than expected to reach VC, we were doing quite well by this point. It was still well before noon, we had plenty of water, the weather was cooperating nicely, and we were feeling great. Well, more accurately, I was feeling great. Michael would agree that by this time he was starting to feel the toll of the workout, but he had no plans to turn around this time. He would make this work one way or another.
The next two miles between VC and VDC were as expected the crux of the entire day. There are three intermediate summits between the two, with 400-500ft of drop between them. Our initial drop from VC would be 800ft, and the last climb up to VDC would total 600ft - it would make for a lot of up and down along the way. I figured 4hrs was a generous allotment of time for this portion, allowing 5hrs at the most. I would be wrong yet again. As we dropped off the north side of VC, we stayed well to the right of the ridgeline to avoid the rocky cliffs which had slowed us down in 2004 (we had turned around while still trying to negotiate the cliffs). This bit of learning helped us avoid the cliffs almost entirely, though the process of losing 800ft of elevation was still discouraging. After we had skirted the cliffs, but before we had reached the saddle, we began to encounter the first section of nasty brush. It caught us a bit by surprise, finding it much worse than any of the brush we had encounted between SVC and VC. It was vile stuff. Most of it was 10-12ft in height forcing us to crouch and crawl under it. The understory of the brush was all dead branches, hard and scratchy, and we had to bust through much of it to make progress. The dust kicked up as we trampled through it clogged our lungs and the flies now came out to pester us. Anytime we stopped to rest for a moment the flies would collect and buzz around us, driving us to distraction and pressing us to move on. I've always said I enjoyed a good bushwhack, but this was not the case now.
After an hour and forty minutes, I had battled my way up to the 1st intermediate summit, only a third of the way along the route. While I sat at the rocky outcrop waiting about 20 minutes for Michael to catch up, I found a tiny register in an old metal film canister among the rocks. Inside were two damp sheets of paper with a tiny bit of pencil. There were only two entries, one from the first ascentionists (or so they claimed) in 1969, and another at some later date that was unreadable. Seems we weren't the only crazy folks thrashing through the brush. I dried the paper some before adding a third entry, then tucked the paper back in the canister. By the time he arrived, Michael was looking visibly tired, but with a short rest was ready to press on. A short stretch of rocky ground leading off the north side gave us hope for easier progress along the ridge. Our hopes were quickly dashed by the worst section of brush I've ever encountered in my life.
I should probably take back that last statement. I have seen stuff far more impenetrable than the section we encountered between the 1st and 2nd intermediate summits. But then I had never tried to go through them either. This would be the worst bushwhacking of my life. The dust, the flies, the crawling on our bellies and crab-walking under all this stuff was getting to us. I found myself swearing as sticks repeatedly poked at the same wounds on my shins. Our route-finding skills seemed outmatched by the ever-thickening chaparral that enveloped us. We would alternatively try the east side of the ridge (taller brush, much dust and dead branches), the west side (lower brush, but more difficult to push through), or even the crest (thick trees, flies, barely penetrable). It was simply horrific. Michael and I switched leads trying to push a path through the stuff, the leader taking more of a beating and finding the dead ends. My swearing flowed more freely as my frustration mounted. Our brains became addled and we began to wonder whether we'd ever get through. In a more lucid moment we could tell the odds were still well in our favor that we'd reach VDC before dark, but for stretches at a time we had serious doubts. A small gift from heaven came in the form of a grassy stretch along the ridge that made short work of the final climb to the 2nd intermediate summit.
It was 2:30p when we stood upon that 2nd summit. The second third of the VC-VDC section had taken two and half hours. My time estimates weren't just looking rosy, they were looking ridiculous now. I had held out faint hope that we might get back to the TH before dark, but that had long been dashed. I wondered if we would be able to negotiate the Carmel River Trail in the dark, a route neither of us had yet navigated. The route north from this point was starting to look better. In fact, it looked a great deal better. There was still a lot of up and down to manage, but the brush seemed much less serious. As we headed off the 2nd intermediate summit, we stayed left of the ridge where we found some seriously steep slopes, but far less brush thanks to the presence of oaks and pines to shade the hillside. We slid down gravelly slopes under the trees, going one at a time to lessen the threat of the rockfall we were creating. As we neared the last low saddle before the climb up to the 3rd intermediate summit and VDC, we discussed a strategy for avoiding the cliffs along the ridge in front of us and minimizing the bushwhacking. As I began to smell the end of the cross-country, I became reenergized and began once again charging up the hill. Some class 3 rock climbing was a happy surprise as I made my way left of the ridge. There was again some horrendous bushwhacking to found before reaching the 3rd intermediate summit, but it was short enough to avoid demoralizing me as I fought my way through this last defense. The 3rd intermediate highpoint actually sits to the east of the ridgeline and it was nice to not have to climb it at all. Instead I was able to climb directly to the slopes leading 600ft up to the summit of VDC. Again I stayed to the left where the brush was thinnest, and I slowly made my way up to Ventana Double Cone. It was after 4p when I hauled my sorry butt up to the broad summit area and threw off my pack.
It had taken over six hours to cover two miles, a most exhausting effort. I had a pint of water left out of six that I had started with. There was still about five miles of trail before we would reach water along the Puerto Suello. I settled down to wait for Michael, figuring he'd be about 20 minutes judging by the last few hours effort. I stretched out on the ground with my pack for a pillow, but I couldn't nap. Flies buzzing were annoying, but something crawling up my leg had me unzip the leg to find a tick that was looking for a softer piece of skin to sink his teeth into. The bastard. At least he hadn't gotten his hooks in me yet. I brushed him off but that pretty much ruined any chance of napping. I spent some time perusing the summit register. The peak sees many visitors, and there were probably a hundred entries since I was first there in 2000. The plastic bin had been replaced by a more sturdy ammo box, a good thing because the plastic one had started to deteriorate almost as soon as it was placed. I wandered over to the edge facing Ventana Cone and scanned the hillsides for signs of Michael to no avail. 30 minutes came and went. I wandered back to lie down, checking for ticks again. I listened to flies, fewer now, buzz past my head as if in a great hurry to get from one side of the summit to another. I walked around some more, wondering what my plan would be if Michael didn't show up. Do I go back into the bush looking for him? I think I would rather have had sharp sticks poked in my eyes. Wandering about the summit some more, I finally heard some noises down in the scrub, and found Michael making his way slowly up. I had been on the summit an hour now, and was glad to see there would be no sharp sticks in the eye.
Michael was understandably beat. But he also understood that time was slipping away, so he asked only for 5 minutes to rest before we continued on. The hard part was behind us, but the grind was still ahead. We'd covered but 11 miles and had 14 more to go, thankfully all on trail. It was a relief to be back on a trail and heading downhill. The trail was heavily overgrown in this section to Puerto Suello Gap, but compared to what we'd just been through it was a deluxe highway. It was 6:40p when we reached the gap and the start of the Puerto Suello Trail. I recalled on another hike some five years earlier I had found the trail junction sign in three or four pieces scattered about. I had collected them, reassembled the pieces and left it lying on the ground next to a large tree. The sign was in the same exact location when we arrived, looking no worse for an additional 5 years of weathering.
A trail report we'd read the day before had indicated the Puerto Suello was unpassable when someone had tried to come through in March. We knew better that almost nothing is truly impassable, and the warning didn't faze us much. We found the water levels much lower than had been reported several months earlier, and the trail was in fairly good shape. In two places where blowdown had covered the trail, pink ribbons had been placed to nicely lead one around the mess and easily regain the trail. We were both out of water by this time, and the emergence of a creek as we dropped lower towards Hiding Camp was a welcome relief. It was 7p now, leaving us about an hour and a half of daylight, and I was anxious to make it to Pine Valley before darkness set in. Michael was anxious as well, but he was more interested in taking a longer break now that we had found water. He suggested I go ahead and we'd meet up back at the car.
Off I went. Moving fairly quickly, jogging where the trail was clear enough, I made my way down to Hiding Camp and the Carmel River shortly after 7:30p. This was the elevation lowpoint for the entire day - there was still near 4,000ft of gain remaining. After wondering what happened to the trail, I spotted it across the river. I took off my boots and waded across. After drying my feet and putting my boots back on, I built a small cairn that might aid Michael should he reach this point by headlamp. Now began the long climb up. Fortunately the grade was gentle enough that it wasn't a struggle - more of a trudge. It is a beautiful setting in a scenic canyon and would no doubt have been far more appreciated if it hadn't come towards the end of the hike. I missed a turn at a trail junction I hadn't noticed on the map, and found myself following a trail to the edge of the Carmel River. The trail continued on the other side, something I hadn't expected as I thought I was through with river crossings. I was too lazy to pull out my map and too lazy to take my boots off again, so I just ran across the creek as quick as possible hoping somehow the waters would part and keep me dry. Of course they didn't. The cold shock of the waters flooding my boots must have jarred my brain to action, because it was only after I was on the other side of the river that I pulled out my map thinking I might be off route. I found I was heading to Round Rock Camp, not up Hiding Canyon as I was supposed to be. Drats. Back across the river I went, then back up the trail where I found the junction. I used some sticks to block the trail to Round Rock, hoping to let Michael escape the same mistake. The bigger mistake was letting my feet get soaked and I would pay for that later with blisters, but at the time I didn't care - I just wanted to get back.
Somewhere before Pine Valley it grew too dark to navigate and I pulled out my headlamp. There were a dozen creek crossings up Hiding Canyon, but the creek here was small and easily crossed. I reached Pine Valley under a starlit sky around 9p. After all the brush, oak, and pine, I was surprised to find a huge valley that had acres upon acres of grass. The valley is some 2 miles in length and very picturesque, even at night. I lost the trail several times as it made its way faintly through some of the grassy fields. At one such mishap I stumbled upon the cabin of the 80yr-old gentleman who still has a homestead here. The cabin was made of wood and stone, and appeared to be of remarkable craftsmenship - rustic, yet elegant looking. Without electricity or a generator, it was completely dark inside and it was impossible to tell if it was occupied or not without knocking. I kept my headlamp off as I wandered about it, admiring its construction before returning to the trail. Shortly thereafter I came across the only two persons I saw all day besides Michael. They were huddled around a campfire (it had grown quite cold now, probably less than 40F). I was too tired to converse, and as they were some 100ft off the trail I didn't bother to go over and talk with them. Terribly unsociable of me. I wondered if my headlamp bobbing along the trail would bemuse them. When Michael came by about an hour later he saw no signs of the campers or their fire.
Before 11p I finally topped out at Church Creek Divide. I still had 1,000ft of gain back to China Camp, but the toughest part of the climb was behind me. I wanted very much to get back before midnight - after all this was a dayhike - but I didn't want it bad enough to jog any of the downhills. I was just trying to keep the blisters now developing on my feet from causing me further pain. As it turned out, my watch recorded 11:59p when I reached the Tassajara Rd and Michael's truck. What a relief. Nearly 20hrs on the trail, and of that about 18hrs was on the go. That was more hours than I'd ever been out before, and I was surprised I didn't have the nausea that I usually experience after such an exhausting day. Perhaps the fact that none of it was at high elevations helped. In any event, I stripped out of my toxic clothing (the poison oak would start itching even before we had finished driving home) and put on some clean ones, including to my great comfort - a dry pair of socks. I started the truck to warm up the interior (and me) as it was now 35F outside. After it warmed up I turned off the engine and slept soundly until Michael arrived about an hour later. He looked no worse for the wear, and better than I had expected. I drove us back nearly to Salinas before pulling over and begging Michael to take over the driving - my eyes could no longer keep open. It was 4a before we arrived back in San Jose, and I was dead tired. I felt sorry for Michael who still had an hour to drive back to Pacifica. It would have to wait until the next day before I could better appreciate the day's "fun," but the Ventana Triple Crown had finally been done and that monkey would no longer taunt me in the future...
Eric Su writes in February 2015: We started around 4:20 Saturday morning intending to make this a dayhike. Mason bailed shortly before Ventana Cone due to ankle problems and I kept going. One thing of note is that since there have not been fires in that area for a while, the brush has come back with a vengeance in the 9 years between youre FA and my SA. The part on the map that you labeled as "mostly clear" is now just as bad if not worse than the other sections between VC and VDC (shoulder high manzanita and 10 ft high scrub oak, ugh...). The Puerto Suello Trail between Puerto Suello Gap and Hiding camp is pretty much completely gone. There are trees down on just about every inch of that canyon (almost all of them from that windstorm in December, judging by the fact that the leaves on all those downed trees were still green). It took me several hours to bushwhack down that 2 mile section and the trail afterward was also seemingly gone (at the same time, my headlamp decided to suddenly stop working). There was an entire 1.5 mile section where I did not see the ground. Eventually the trail totally vanished and I decided to climb up onto an immensely bushwhacky ridge (shortly after Hiding Camp) to get a visual. Of course with no headlamp and the moon behind clouds, I could not get a visual, and decided to sleep there in a "nest" of grass and leaves I had made for insulation. The next morning I gained a visual and determined that I was somehow above the Carmel River. Seeing on the map that the Carmel River eventually intersected Pine Valley, I spent several hours rock hopping and bushwhacking up the nasty thing and eventually reached Pine Valley. Got back to the trailhead Sunday before noon totally exhausted. Bottom line, this route is getting to be impossible until the next fire comes through. Glad I did it, but theres no way in hell Im going back!
Undoubtedly prompted by Eric's posting of his own effort, Leor Pantilat went out and did the Triple Crown on Apr 4, 2015 in just over 14hrs, an amazing time. Two weeks later, Toshi Hosaka and James Bueno made the third successful finish in a somewhat longer time. Toshi reported that volunteers had reestablished the Puerto Suello Trail in the time since Eric's visit and had no trouble following it down to the Carmel River.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: South Ventana Cone - Ventana Cone - Ventana Double Cone
This page last updated: Mon May 7 21:03:46 2018
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