Leader: John Linden
Asst.: Anne-Marie Murray
This hike was to provide an easy route to a different peak. A long downhill route out was planned to permit a maximum exposure to the area with a minimum of effort. That was the plan; now here is what happened.
The Williams Canyon route had been scouted on April 23. The trail is very faint, overgrown, and completely eroded away in some areas. It joins the Cow Canyon firebreak, and continues northwest to the summit. This route was too much for an August hike because of its approximately 4,600 foot elevation gain. I looked for an approach through Bichota Canyon, and found a fire road that climbed to about 4,800 foot elevation and to within three miles of Rattlesnake Peak. The Forest Service assured me that this road was open to the public all summer, but we were prevented from scouting this route by the slide closure of the main road. After the slide had been cleared and the road opened, we were blocked from Bichota Canyon because the Highway Department was rerouting the main road and had clobbered the Bichota Canyon entrance. The road was chained shut. The District Manager offered to let us in, but warned me about the poor condition of the road. He advised me to wait till the road was repaired, but not to worry because the route to the peak was a good one. He also suggested that we take the firebreak along the ridge instead of Williams Canyon to avoid brush and snakes. When I reminded him that this would be in a fire closure, he indicated that he could get us a special permit. It sounded like a clean operation, so I submitted my write-up. We did make one more attempt to scout on August 5th before I went on vacation, but in spite of everything we were unable to find a passable route for cars through the river at that time.
So-o-o-o-o, on to the hike! After arranging the car shuttle between Cow Canyon and Bichota Canyon, we got the ranger to unlock the chain and we were on our way. After fording the stream we continued up a very smoothly graded dirt road for about 4.7 miles to a heliport at the 4,800 foot level. Then we first saw our route. The hill was indented with gullies which were filled with dense brush. To avoid them we had to go much higher than we had intended. The steep climb through brush in the intense heat took its toll early. We reached the firebreak at the time I had hoped to be on the summit. The firebreak is pure fiction. It is complete overgrown, and it was an almost continuous bushwhack to the summit. And from the summit down to Cow Canyon! The stragglers reached the summit at 4:15 p.m. About a quarter mile south of the summit, one hiker finally gave up completely. We had been making many stops for her because of leg cramps and general exhaustion. Her husband agreed that she couldn't keep up with us and that they would drop out of the group and wait for help. We left them at 4:45 p.m. with some of our precious water and salt tablets.
The firebreak route out proved to be no bargain. There were a number of hills to climb over which we could have avoided by going down Williams Canyon. The brush on the firebreak was as bad as in the canyon. The final descent toward the river was made by climbing and sliding down a steep slope by flashlight. It was about 10:30 p.m. when we waded across the river toward the rangers who had been waiting for us. The rather obvious conclusion is that there is still no easy way to bag Rattlesnake Peak. And even downhill hiking through brush and heat can be very rough. Spring is definitely the time for hiking this area, even in a foot or two of snow.
I reported the two hikers we had left near the summit to the East Fork Ranger Station and pinpointed their location on the topo. They decided to initiate rescue operations immediately. Ken Ferrell then drove all the drivers back up Bichota Canyon in Fred Bode's VW bus to complete the shuttle. Shortly after midnight we were merrily on our way down when the lead car found the only mud hole on the mountain and dropped the right front wheel in over the hub! We couldn't get past him, so attempted a lot of digging, pushing, towing, and general wheel spinning before we gave up and the driver went to get help. The rest of us tried for some sleep, but he returned very quickly with a Sheriff's and a Forest Service truck. They had been on their way up to see why we were delayed. After they towed out the stuck car, we drove down to pick up the passengers who were waiting at Rincon Station. But we had one more appointment at East Fork Station. At 4:30 a.m. we finally left for home after being informed by the Sheriff's Department that rescue teams had reached the hikers and that they would wait till morning to fly them out. It had been a long day!
Anne and I would like to express our appreciation for the assistance given by Sam Fink and Ken Ferrell in route finding and in helping and encouraging other hikers. Our appreciation is also extended to a terrific group whose good spirits, determination, and cooperation in the face of some difficult conditions typify the best Sierra Club traditions. We are proud to be associated with such a group.