How to Not Climb the Big Three
My son's first college spring break was the second week in April. I saw an opportunity to spend a few days with my son and bag three difficult peaks on the list. I had checked the archives on the web site and April was a popular month for making the trip.
A few days before, a heavy rain drenched Southern California. I worried that the road might be closed. The Los Padres National Forest Service clerk assured me Happy Canyon Road was open, but said she could see snow in the mountains. I convinced myself that the snow would not be a problem. Since I could not reschedule the trip (I talked with the President Maxson, but he was unwilling to reschedule CSULB's spring break), it had to be okay.
We spent the night at the trallhead, but college students being how they are, we did not leave camp until 8:15. The temperature in the 40's and 50's felt good as we trudged the seven-plus miles to McKinley Springs. As we neared our campsite, the patches of snow covering the road that started around 5000', became patches of road appearing through the snow. Matthew wondered if we would have a snow-free clearing to set up the tent. I expressed confidence we would. We pitched our tent on nearly a foot of hard-packed snow.
Traditionally, McKinley and San Rafael are completed the first day and Santa Cruz is summitted on day two. My son thought we might get home sooner if we reversed the sequence. He wanted to have Friday to go out with his friends.
Eight miles on road did not sound onerous, even if it was 2:15. A more careful reading of the write-up might have alerted us to the poor quality of the road. And downloading the most recent trip description from the web would have told us it was 11 miles, not 8, to Santa Cruz.
We could not find the trail shown on the HPS map leading from the saddle between McKinley to San Rafael along the eastern flank of San Rafael to Santa Cruz. After much lost time, and fighting dense brush, we discovered the road following the west flank of McKinley did eventually lead us to the ridge running south from San Rafael to Santa Cruz. We made an attempt to find a path up bump 5484'. My son gave up after the first try. I persevered despite numerous scratches and cuts from the gentle mountain lilacs. I did reached the overgrown jeep trail that circled Santa Cruz, but the deep snow on the north side made it impossible for me to proceed with adequate progress for my effort. After struggling for twenty minutes, feeling battered and bruised, I surrendered.
Racing against the setting sun, we slogged our way back to camp. Just as we reached the old road angling up McKinley's west flank, the need for headlamps was upon us. Without any more false steps or wrong turns, we reached camp after 9. I fixed dinner for the both of us and within ten minutes of crawling into the tent, we both abandoned the notion of reading and fell asleep. Fortunately, the wind was nil and our bags kept us toasty through the night.
I woke at 7, ready to bag the other two peaks, but could not rouse Matthew from his slumber. He felt too fatigued. He pleaded for more sleep. I joined him. By 8, I could not sleep any longer, but Matthew refused to rise. I sat in the tent and read Nabokov. Unable to simultaneously cover everything with my sleeping bag while sitting/reclining, I alternately warmed and chilled various body parts. After an hour, I became more insistent with Matthew that he awaken. He responded, "Why don't you go without me." It would have been better if he had told me earlier, but... Within 10 minutes, I was making new tracks in the snow to the saddle. The trail to San Rafael was clear near the saddle, but that soon changed. After hiking a mile in waterlogged boots (I had not planned for snow), I finally decided that it was too dangerous to continue. The pitch and compression of the snow made a confident foot placement impossible. To finish the list, I needed to return another day for Santa Cruz. I could always do San Rafael at the same time. Not wanting to return empty-handed, I made a quick hop to the top of McKinley. There were thin patches of snow, but nothing of any consequence.
We ate lunch and packed our site upon my return. While we were eating lunch, one of us bumped the two sleeping bags that were setting on the picnic table. (Picnic tables in the snow - what an image!) The bags, in their stuff sacks, bounded down the hill and across the snow-covered clearing. One came to rest against the horse trough. The other shot through a gap in the brush that ringed the clearing and disappeared over the edge. We ran to the edge and looked down the steep hillside. The bag could not be seen. Worried it was lost, but not wishing to spend $200 to replace it, I trudged down the hill. I found the bag where it had come to rest, 150 yards from where it had started. The excitement over, we finished packing and hiked down the mountain.
My feet never did dry. But thanks to good shoes and good socks, I did not have any blisters, just very wrinkled soles. We reached the car at 4. As I pulled on dry socks, I knew I would come back, but next time I will wait until the snow is gone (or bring crampons and waterproof boots).