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Chief Peak, Ortega Peak, Hildreth Peak

18 June 1995

By: Mark Adrian

Arriving at Terry's office in Anaheim Friday afternoon, I was discouraged to hear from him that "our" snow climbing trip to the Sierra had been canceled due to bad weather. So, we decided to try several nearby HPS peaks based on a good weekend weather forecast, despite the pouring rain Friday afternoon.

Saturday morning found us basking under the clear skies of Ojai and we had an easy climb of Chief in the morning, while Ortega Peak confronted us with a moderate brush whack, but, nothing like what we encountered on Sunday when we did a 16.5 hour death march in relentless, thick, hideous brush up HPS's Hildreth near Santa Barbara.

We started at 7:45 AM from Caliente Hot Springs hiking N up Agua Caliente Canyon, a beautiful riparian setting akin to the Upper San Diego River. Unfortunately, we took a wrong (less than perfect) brush smothered ridgeline, rather than the recommended HPS route. We had concluded we were at the right ridgeline based on the HPS's guide directive "go NW up the ridge after 14 stream crossings". Since we had done numerous crossings by then, this seemed reasonable. After several hours of intense neck deep bush whacking, I decided this was futile. So, we reevaluated our route as we could then see the "right" (less brushy) ridgeline to the NE. We dropped off the (wrong) ridge via some class three cliffs/slabs into the "wet" canyon between the two ridgelines, and up through more brush to another (cleaner looking) ridge that led to a fire road, where we picked up the "normal" HPS route. We arrived at the top, hacking through more summit brush, out of water, near 5 PM, with 4+ hours of daylight left. We signed in expressing our thoughts on paper and hacked back through the brush to the fire road.

We hiked back down the undulating fire road to the brush covered ridge where Terry pondered taking an "easier looking" drainage back to Agua Caliente Canyon. This was actually the same drainage we had dropped into on the ascent, so we knew it had (much needed) water and would eventually drop us back into Agua Caliente Canyon. From the fire road, we hacked through more moderate brush into the creek bed, following the water course and fresh bear paw tracks downstream. About 8 PM I thought we were almost out of it all only to discover we had come upon a 200+ foot vertical waterfall. I had been wondering why my altimeter was reading high. This explained it. So, we had to up climb out of the drainage/creek to its NE ridgeline and follow it down, paralleling the waterfall's course down loose-dirt slopes. We finally arrived into Agua Caliente Canyon about 9 PM, totally in the dark, no moon and no trail. From here, the map revealed it was about 2.5 miles and -500' back to the TH. Normally, this would have taken about an hour. However, it took us just over three hours using all our map, compass and altimeter skills (note that Terry had left his brand new GPS at home) combined with level-headed deliberations and terrain analysis to find our way back through the sometimes jungle-like terrain. There were so many stream crossings, we gave up trying to stay dry since it was easier just to walk in the knee-deep water. Although we were tired, our senses seemed acute, since at one point we "discovered" we were walking upstream since the water was flowing "the wrong way". Then, as we picked up bits and pieces of use trails, we heard an audible "landmark" made by a 100' high 1939 CCC diversion dam that we had ogled on the ascent and knew nothing else could have made that much noise. This, fortunately, led us to a good trail 0.5 miles from the car and we knew we were nearly back.

It was an arduous day. We were both exhausted and frustrated from all the brush whacking and incessant stabbing from overwhelming nolina/bayonet cactus. Back at the trailhead about 12:15 AM Monday morning, we soaked in the well-maintained hot tub there, savoring a beer given to us by sympathetic campers. We departed the TH about 1:00 AM, stopped at Denny's in Ventura, and arrived back in Anaheim at 5:30 AM where we caught an hour's sleep at Terry's office. I got back to San Diego about 9 AM, and poor Terry put in a full day's work. Don't ever underestimate an HPS peak or an HPS list finisher. These seemingly "innocent" peaks can be death defying.

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