Sonia Arancibia Gets 200th Peak on the Big Four
Part I (Tom Hill)
Vultures and buzzards have their moments in film and literature, but this was real life. Shortly into the backpack we six (Sonia Arancibia, Peter Doggett, Ray Wolfe, Janet Yang, George Wysup, and Tom Hill) were alerted by shouts and excited skyward pointings to two huge birds circling the group. Hungry perhaps? Then another avian swooped in, followed incredibly by a more cautious fourth in the near distance.
It was an auspicious omen. Four condors at the four-mile point for the Big Four. Ray swore that he saw the number "8" on a condorian red halter. Nowhere did the number "6" appear and we six took this as lucky. We were setting forth on one of those HPS mega-adventures known as the Big Four (Samon Peak, Big Pine Mtn, West Big Pine, and Madulce Peak in the northeast corner of Santa Barbara County).
Humor us now as we lay out an analogy for those readers who have not actually experienced this hike:
Assemble in the Sport Chalet parking lot in La Cañada (end of Sta Barbara Canyon Rd in Sta Barbara County). Grab your pack and walk over to Hwy 2 Angeles Crest Highway, then uphill to the Fire Station (where we saw the condors). Continue 5-1/2 more miles to Clear Creek Station at the junction with Angeles Forest Highway (Chokecherry Spring). Lay down your backpack and fill water bottles from the faucet (spring, flowing 35 seconds to fill a quart). You now contemplate ascending Josephine Pk. (Samon Pk), but there is no nice fire road access. Instead you scramble steeply up a boulder strewn-gully to access Josephine's West Ridge (ascend the infamous Samon gully, worn threadbare by countless hikers). You struggle through fast growing, thick undergrowth along the boulder strewn path to Josephine (Samon). Now whack back and pick up your pack, for it's already 3 p.m. and you are doing this thing as a single overnighter. Roller-coaster smartly up the Angeles Crest Hwy for 6 more miles to Shortcut Picnic Area (where the jeep "road" comes down from the summit of Big Pine) and make camp. Before the sun goes down, engage a short dayhike to the summit of Mt Sally nearby (Big Pine Mtn) and return to camp, falling deeply asleep immediately. You have completed day one.
Arise on Sunday before dawn and hike up the Highway to the top of Mt Mooney near Charlton Flat (West Big Pine). Contemplate your situation countless miles from your cars, not counting side trips. As HPS-remote as you can find. Thank you, wilderness regulations. With this renewal of sunrise strength march back to camp, haul backpack onto shoulders, and steamroll back to Red Box (Alamar Saddle). Grab daypack and take a side trip to Strawberry Pk (which has grown a pine forest: Madulce Pk). Reload pack and proceed to Clear Creek, replace water, and continue the 9-1/2 miles back to your never-before-so-appreciated vehicles.
This analogy comes close in mileage and gain. Of course I believe the Angeles Crest backpack is easier than the Big 4. You would still need to remove all pavement, prohibit vehicles, abandon all hope (of rescue), and ignore the perils and folly implicit in the "Samon experience."
Concerning our own trip, the forecast had called for low water levels, midday Saturday rockfall, and afternoon breezes giving way to bears in the late evening and early morning hours. Water levels were actually higher than my hot 1997 Carleton Shay backpack, where springwater flow had been a creepy 80 seconds per quart And the anticipated rockfall was avoided handily due to the crew's previous experience. (Sonia was the only gully trainee. She did a superb job on the ascent, where I tutored her, and on the descent under Peter's guidance. We shall ignore the occasional tendency to scream and shout.) Breezes were tiny but welcome under clear, 70-ish skies, at least on Saturday when we needed some comfort. Sunday saw the beginning of high-pressure heat that has stayed around for the last few weeks.
The burning question remained: Where were the bears? Remember that we had 36 hours to ponder this weighty question. Peter, for example, considered that Big Pine could be renamed Bear City or Ursine Assembly Zone. These forethoughts were rendered moot when tracks were so scarce we oohed and aahed over each rare print.
In any event, going in, we realized that Sonia was scheduled to reach her 200th if she got four. She did! But I missed her celebration on Madulce, perhaps too concerned as I was with continual movement rather than stopping to nurse a yucca-punctured ankle received on the return from Samon. As is often the case, the care taken on the known threat (grimy gulch) was compensated for by an unforeseen threat. Later, in an attempt to avoid slowing the group, I left at 3:45 a.m. Sunday, leaving an undoubtedly pleasant early-morning message to a soundly sleeping George. I ran into the group at various times on Sunday and barely got back to the cars at 5:30 p.m. before three of the hikers showed up. One was ecstatic (Sonia), one hard-charging (George), and one (Peter) looked fresh and ready to do it over again. Amazing. Congratulations, Sonia! And special mention to the determination of all members of the group.
Part II (George Wysup)
George and Janet had an interesting 30 minute delay driving up Santa Barbara Canyon Road. A pickup, drawing a large horse trailer, was stopped in the middle of the road with doors open and lights on. George went to see if they needed assistance. George quickly noticed that a pair of, apparently drunken, cowboys were playing with a revolver. George hastily retreated to the car and waited patently until they got under way again.
Waking at dawn on Saturday found that our group at the locked gate consisted of Tom Hill, Peter Doggett, Sonia Arancibia, Ray Wolfe, Janet Yang, et moi, and the two sobered-up cowboys with 4 horses and no 6-gun in sight.
A 6:15 start got us to Chokecherry Spring at 10:00. We gaped for several minutes at a flight of 4 condors while breaking at the 4 mile road junction. These huge birds appeared to believe that we were soon-to-be carrion. They were close enough for us to see their tags. En route we searched fruitlessly for a better alternative to the notorious Chokecherry gully as an approach to Samon. One gully down the road may provide safer access to the ridge, but an Herculean brushing session would be required to clear passage at the top of the ridge.
We tanked up at the spring (which was running about as usual). We pondered the gully, took a collective deep breath, then carefully ascended. We got up to the ridge in good time with nary an injury. The route to Samon summit was as usual, that is, slow and painstaking with brush bites and yucca stabs. We made few errant turns, which is better than par for this peak. We required 4.5 hours for the round trip. Tom Hill, wearing running shoes as is his accustomed style, managed to get a foot impaled on a vicious yucca barb. We learned of Tom's mishap the next morning, and this explained Tom's unusually relaxed pace.
That evening we eschewed Madulce, though we probably had time before darkness hit, and marched with packs the 6 or so miles to the Big Pine road junction, dropped the packs and bagged the peak.
Sleep came quickly, despite the relentless hazing by a variety of fly-like insects and the toasty nighttime temperature, incompatible with the sleeping bags. Sometime in the wee hours, while I was in a state of semi-consciousness, Tom Hill stopped by my sack. He whispered something to the effect that he had been nailed by a particularly vicious yucca the day before and was concerned that he may be mortally wounded, and wanted to gaze once more upon West Big Pine and Madulce before the grim one took him. To that end he wanted to get an early start (possibly because the pain was bearable if he walked slowly).
The rest of us arose at dawn, primarily because dawn brought the bugs back. It's difficult to sleep with a constant buzzing in the ears and little fellows trying to take a drink from one's nose and eyes. There was no evidence of nocturnal visits from bears, or any other critters desirous of a free feed.
At this time of the day the 5 of us were full of enthusiasm. This was to change some time later in the day. We made the easy 2-mile jaunt, happy to be lugging negligible weight, to West Big Pine summit, and breakfasted while marveling at the vista. This may be the finest viewpoint on the HPS list. We picked up the packs and made the trudge back to Madulce saddle, where we encountered Tom's pack as well as a small group of Boy Scouts and leaders who had come up the guard station trail and were heading for Bear cg.
The scout leaders recommended that we go out from Madulce Peak the way they came in. The trail from guard station to Madulce saddle has been nicely brushed (on May 19) by the Forest Service, and the Scouts reported ample water in the creek below. A check of the map indicates less than 2 miles from the Madulce Peak trail junction to the Madulce guard station, then about 7 miles (said to be 3.5 hours) down Santa Barbara canyon to the road. This suggests that from Madulce Peak out to the cars is 12 miles via the guard station, with little uphill except for the 1/2 mile pull back up to the cars, or 14.5 miles via Chokecherry with over 1000' elevation gain. We elected to go out the traditional way, via the road and Chokecherry spring, based on the familiarity principle.
We reached Madulce summit in 1-3/4 hours, aided by a nice clip job (by Mars Bonfire on May 19) on the brush near the top. We celebrated Sonia's 200th peak. Sonia was so elated that she stated an intention to finish her list before the HPS banquet. Peter groaned and gave her 73 reasons why she couldn't do it (weather, work, possible illness, etc.). It seems that the prospect of adding more peaks to the list in the December election appears to motivate almost-list-finishers to hurry.
We tanked up at Chokecherry, then hit the road at 2: 10 p.m., following Tom's footprints. It was about here that Ray mentioned in passing something about the bottoms of his feet being reminiscent of raw hamburger. This explained the unusual gait that he had developed during the last few miles. Fortunately, we had only 9.5 miles to go. Janet, never complaining and always smiling, stayed with Ray. This could be because she was a bit weary of wearing a pack weighing at least 35% of her body weight for 32 of the 46+ miles. We were all back at the vehicles well before 6 p.m. 22 miles in 13 hours on Saturday, then 24 miles in 12 hours on Sunday - in short, a perfect weekend.
We immediately forgot the tribulations of this 2-day ordeal and rejoiced in the successful furthering of our obsessive-compulsive goals in true HPS style. A fait accompli. The only remaining task: drive home without falling asleep. Caffeine can be wonderful stuff.