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Santa Cruz Peak

16 December 2001

By: Karen Isaacson Leverich, Mars Bonfire

Barbara Guerin Finishes the List -- Santa Cruz Peak
Led by Mars Bonfire
16 December 2001 (and a bit of 17 December)
by Karen Isaacson Leverich

Our November backpack to the Big Three had ended on a soggy note -- we'd only managed two of the three peaks (McKinley and San Rafael) before the weather turned uncooperative and we'd ended up trudging out, defeated, in the mud. So after the backpack the following weekend to Rabbit and Villager, the only peak separating Barbara Guerin from her list finish was that nasty orphan we had left over from the Big Three -- Santa Cruz Peak.

What to do, what to do?!? The storms kept arriving, would that muddy road every dry out? Here at the house (many miles away but at a similar elevation - 5600'), it was one snow storm after another -- if the road to McKinley Saddle wasn't a muddy bog, would it instead require snowshoes? Meanwhile, Byron Prinzmetal has been researching the possibility of getting a key to the gate so we could drive at least as far as the saddle, but but but ... that might not be doable until spring.

Barbara got tired of waiting, for the key, for perfect weather, for whatever, and decided for us: she wanted to go for it. If George Wysup and Laura Joseph could do all three as a dayhike, surely we could manage that one peak. 27 miles, 7,100' gain (4,800' on the way to the peak, 2,300' on return) -- what a way to end the list! Mars Bonfire would be our leader, and Dorothy Danziger, Edith Liu, Brian Leverich and myself would provide moral support. I'd incidentally tidy up that nasty orphan, but of course that happy potential result never crossed my mind. Of course not!

The plan was to car camp at Cachuma Saddle the night before, then start hiking shortly before light, at 5AM. Brian and I have a teensy RV we seldom use, but intended to take it out for this figuring hot coffee (before) and cold champagne (after) would be welcomed by our hiking partners. But then Brian saw the Weather Statement the National Weather Service had issued for the Santa Barbara County Mountains: cold temperatures, high winds, a wind chill of 0°? He balked. Byron and the gate key sounded better and better. So instead of the RV, I loaded up the Jeep and (our roads in Pine Mountain Club being covered with snow and ice) headed out the back way towards Santa Maria -- if I'm going to drive on bad roads, I'd rather do so without company, and there's very seldom any traffic on the road westbound out of Pine Mountain Club.

The back way meant I hit Los Olivos and Figueroa Mountain Road before the standard driving route of Armour Ranch Road. On a whim (it's supposed to be longer but paved) I headed up that way. It's a good route in, although narrow and winding. Up through the forest, presumably over Figueroa Mountain (not on our list, so I didn't explore) and down to Cachuma Saddle at 4PM, about when I'd hoped to arrive. And there was Barbara's car, set up to be slept in, and Dorothy and Edith, encouraging her to load up and head down to the campground. Less wind, a picnic table, fire ring, outhouse -- very uptown, who could resist?

But Mars would be looking for us at the saddle, not the campground -- would he think we'd stood him up, that Barbara had given up on finishing the list? Dither dither -- we decided he'd figure it out, maybe he'd even meant the campground. And surely if she were careful, Barbara could drive her car without dismantling all the work she'd done to make it night-ready -- down we went. We set up fully visible from the road, figuring Mars would spot us as he drove by.

So we had a nice fire, and Edith and Dorothy set up a stove and plied me with hot beverages, rather than the other way around. It was warmer, less windy, nicer than up at the saddle. And of course Mars buzzed by at dusk without spotting us. My car, even when set up for camping, is still drivable, so I shortly followed him, and found him camped at the saddle -- he decided to stay put rather than break camp to join us below -- and confirmed that yes, there were hikers wanting Santa Cruz and we'd join him at the saddle, ready to hike, at 5AM.

Well, not quite. Somehow, breakfast, morning ablutions, breaking camp, navigating the dirt road in the dark, and getting ready to hike all took longer than anticipated. We weren't ready to set out until 5:30AM. It was cold, but in the middle of the night, the wind had died. We bundled up in coats and long underwear, and were comfortably warm as we commenced the 7.5 mile road walk towards McKinley Saddle.

27 miles! Other than Mars, none of us had ever done such a long hike. Barbara found it less intimidating to think of it as three hikes -- to McKinley Saddle, to Santa Cruz Peak, and back to the saddle, and then back to the cars. I liked this so well, I decided to think of it as four hikes -- to McKinley Saddle, to Santa Cruz, back to the saddle, back to the cars. If three hikes are good, four must be better?

Because of all the recent weather, we were concerned we'd soon be slogging up through mud, that miserable mud that had annoyed us so on our retreat down this road mere weeks before. And I think there may have been enough moisture for some really good mud, industrial strength stuff, but it was sufficiently cold that the ground was frozen. Cool temperatures, no wind, firm footing, and we were carrying day packs (although heavy ones with lots of extra clothing -- that predicted wind chill factor of 0° had caught our attention, too) rather than backpacks -- the hike to McKinley Spring seemed a lot easier under these conditions. Though given our late start and moderate pace, not to mention the road being covered with ice and snow on the north side of McKinley, and a delay while we rescued a bear canister and other gear Barbara lost during a fall on the earlier backpack, we didn't reach the spring until 10AM or so. The plan had been to be there at 9AM and rest up for an hour before proceeding. Being late and cold, though, we only lingered for half an hour, filling our water bottle at the spring, before heading on up to the saddle.

Aside to those waiting for a key -- if you end up being the first vehicle through on this road, be sure to bring a chain saw. There's at least one large tree blocking the road, and some large boulders you'll need to shift. Not a problem for those of us on foot, of course.

Standing in the saddle, Mars pointed out the rest of our route -- down slope to an old road that then headed back up the face of San Raphael, crossing a rough looking wash before heading south along ridges towards Santa Cruz. The road ducked behind a bump just short of Santa Cruz, another (unconnected?) road could be seen cutting across the north face of the peak. This is the traditional route, but rumor has it the road is too encumbered with brush to be useful. Then up somehow to the summit, and Barbara's list finish. It looked to be an awful long ways away.

To accumulate that much gain, there are a lot of ups and downs on this route, some of them seemingly gratuitous. Still, it's easier sticking with the road/firebreak than to go straight through the brush. Absolutely a no brainer! Because Mars figured dark would fall near McKinley Saddle on our return, he started hanging bright reflectorized ribbons periodically along the route. He followed at the read, Dorothy and I each took a turn leading. Most of the way (to the penultimate bump, that is) the route was relatively clear, and the brush not (yet) too troublesome, though in places the way was vague, and we left a lot of stick marks. In places, I think the brush is going to totally reclaim the trail in the next year or two. And remembering how difficult it was to see our stick marks after dark on Delamar, I made discouraging (and ultimately incorrect) noises about their probably ineffectiveness here. The difference seems to be the amount of moisture -- this ground was damp and even after dark the contrast was very clear.

But finding stick marks in the dark was an exercise for later. We had a different challenge at mid-afternoon: at the bump before Santa Cruz, the trail we were following wrapped around its east side (our peak was to the west) and apparently headed off to some other destination entirely. We needed to get over or around the bump to the saddle between it and Santa Cruz, then figure out what to do -- follow the ridge like George and Laura had done, attempt to follow the road, or invent some totally new approach.

This happens to me too often on HPS hikes -- I'm expecting a problem later, something hard, something scary (Falling Rock Canyon, the brush on Santa Cruz) only to be surprised by a tougher problem closer at hand (the ridge between Ontario and Sugarloaf, the brush on the bump before Santa Cruz). Sigh. We thrashed through the brush this way and that, finding hints (clipped branches) of earlier use trails that went a little ways before seemingly evaporating or heading us in some direction orthogonal to our goal. We were attempting to sidehill, but somehow ended up on top of the ridge. It took a discouragingly long time, but eventually our luck turned and a good avenue opened up, leading us off the bump and to the saddle.

The road had looked sufficiently distinct from a distance, we decided to check it out. Mars sawed a few troublesome branches, but for most of the traverse of the north face of Santa Cruz, we were able to pick our way through. Somewhere toward the west end of the mountain, the road disappeared in brush. "The old peak guides," said Mars, "say at this point to head up the 'inviting slope' wherever you want." We looked up at a wall of brush. Uh huh. We took a break while Mars explored back along the road, looking for some not too uninviting spot to ascend. Several yards back, he found a somewhat promising path of boulders -- we scrambled up these, finding occasional passages through brush from rock to rock, eventually arriving on the ridge top. Ducks! The old route! A mild scramble through brush and over rock, and we were at the summit! Barbara had at last finished the list.

Had I mentioned the views? No, I've not. As soon as we had light, wherever we could see to the southwards, wow! There was no layer of mist over the ocean, instead it gleamed in the sunlight, the Channel Islands looking almost close enough to touch.

Meanwhile, back on the peak, we were doing our mental arithmetic. If it took well over an hour to battle through the brush on the intervening bump and find our way to the summit, then it probably would take a similar amount of time to get back, and it was sufficiently late in the afternoon, we risked still being in brush as darkness fell. A very brief celebration, then it was time to go. And the Ping Pace? Forget that, we can scurry if we have to... The good news is it was, most of the way, easier on the return. We made it nearly all the way back to the saddle where we had left the trail, nearly all the way over that intervening bump, before our easy passage through the brush disappeared. The last several yards, we simply crashed through.

Back to terrain we figured we could navigate in the dark, we took a longer break, admiring an exquisite sunset over the ocean, wondering at the sheer number of lights that twinkled on, one by one, in the valleys below. All those people, snug in their houses -- were they the lucky ones, or were we, sitting on top of the world on this beautiful evening, Santa Cruz Peak behind us, Barbara the 228th person to have finished the list? And the better part of thirteen miles to hike out in the freezing darkness. Um.

Somehow, it took us until 3:30AM to get out. We didn't get lost, we didn't even have trouble finding our way -- the ribbons showed at key points, the stick marks were easy to spot, the mud (if there had been any) was refrozen by the time we got to that part of the road.

But as it got later and later, we somehow moved slower and slower, took more and longer breaks. I suspect that, if it had been somewhat warmer, we'd've called it a night and bivouacked. Instead, everytime we stopped, we eventually got cold and moved on.

It was a still, beautiful night. But a long one. Barbara's headlamp didn't work, so I lent her the extra one that I carry instead of extra batteries. As the night went on, our lamps grew dimmer and dimmer -- the last fraction of a mile, it was almost the blind leading the blind, as Edith and I pooled our very dim lights to try to follow the road. I think Mars was aware of our struggle, as he'd often flash his more powerful light ahead of us, revealing another segment of the seemingly never ending road.

But at last, the gate, and the cars. And sleep! Barbara, Dorothy, Edith and I drove back to the campground and slept for several hours, too tired to crack open Barbara's champagne. Mars headed for home, but stopped and rested along the way, in order to drive safely. For all of us, this was a record for hike duration, one I suspect none of us will be breaking anytime soon.

Fifty-seven year old accounting technician from
Poway, California, day hikes Santa Cruz and
becomes the 228th person and around the 70th
woman to finish THE LIST!
Santa Cruz Pk (5570')
December 16, 2001
A hikers' choice custom hike with Barbara -
THE LIST FINISHER - Guerin, Dorothy Danziger,
Karen Isaacson, Edith Liu, and Mars Bonfire
by Mars Bonfire

What does it mean to day hike Santa Cruz? According to our latest peak guide it means 27 miles round trip, 7,100 feet of gain, dense brush near the summit, difficult navigation, is extremely strenuous, and requires 16-18 hours. We won't argue with that! In fact we'll add to it. We leaft at 5:30am and returned at 3:30am the next morning, encountering areas of hard snow and ice near McKinley Spring, lots of the promised dense brush, and low temperatures on the way out. Imagine stopping by the local gathering spot on your way home from work and announcing: "Hey gang I've got a great idea. Instead of sitting around here in this warm and cozy watering hole, watching wrestling matches and sitcoms, downing beers and munching chicken wings, why don't we go on a 27 mile, 7,100' high, 22 hour walk through snow, ice, and dense brush in near freezing temperatures?" First there would be a stunned silence, followed by looks of total discombobulation, and then exclamations of "you're * * * * * * * * out of your mind! Are you trying to kill us?", and finally and relievedly a return to normality: "Here, sit down. Have a drink. You were just kidding, right?"

But Barbara wasn't kidding. I left a message with her on Thursday the 13th letting her know the expected conditions - the road could still be wet and sticky from recent rain, there could be snow at higher elevations, it could be windy and cold - and asking if the adventure was still acceptable. Her response came back unambiguous in purity of purpose: "It's time to finish THE LIST!"

What then does it mean to finish THE LIST? As Martin Parsons calculated for Ping's finish the mile and elevation numbers are so high as to be beyond human scale. So let's forget the numbers and focus instead on purity of purpose. The journey to 275 or so peaks begins with one peak, and then another, and another without ever losing the sense of adventure, elation, and accomplishment that coursed through us on that first summit. For Barbara that complex of emotions came December 15, 1997 on a private trip to Garnet Pk. It continued through my first hike with her - a September 11, 1999 HPS trip to 10K, Lake, and Grinnell with Diane Dunbar. It propelled her to tackl San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, and Villager on her own. And four years and one day after it began, purity of purpose carried her to victory on Santa Cruz, putting her in a rarefied group - an explorer, an enjoyer, and a protector of the Southern California Mountains - an HPS LIST FINISHER!

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