Chokecherry Spring, Key to the Big Four
Choke-cher-ry n: 1. A North American shrub or tree, prunus virginiana, having long clusters of white flowers and very astringent dark-red or blackish fruit.
As the six hikers, burdened by bulky backpacks, approached Chokecherry spring after 9.5 miles and 2400 feet elevation gain on a fire road, no plants resembling the definition above were in evidence. This begged the question, "whence this name?" The spring water dribbled copiously from a pipe into an overflowing tank of water containing several green mops of algae and flavored by tannin from the many acorns lying at the bottom. The hikers doffed their packs, wiped their sweaty brows, and collected their empty containers to stoke up for the trek ahead.
The Forest Service has, presumably, constructed this apparatus (pre-adventure pass) in order to make the water more available to the local wildlife, domestic horses, and humans. The water that oozes from an aquifer in Chokecherry gully is somehow collected by a system of pipes so that it flows into a large, enclosed tank, which then distributes the water at an even rate into the open tank.
Why then, did the flow stop completely just before we attempted to fill the first water bottle? We pondered this. Was it because the Christian God was displeased that we would hike on Good Friday? John Meehan offered that there was perhaps a float-controlled valve inside the closed tank. Would we need to draw our supply from the unappetizing solution in the tank?
Pat Brea jumped with all her meager weight on some rocks near the outlet pipe. Despite the fact that her jumping did not move anything, the water began to drip from the pipe, then picked up volume, and soon was pouring at the rate of about a liter per minute. I put my water filter away, since the flowing water was obviously quite pure; nary a bear (Gladdley, the cross-eyed bear?) had an opportunity to pass the dreaded giardia into the supply. Terrorists were unlikely to be injecting anthrax spores. And fine tasting water it was.
We returned to the spring on day 2 to find that the pipe was again delivering no water. We waited a few minutes and it began to drip, then picked up again to a decent flow. Pat is convinced that it is her jumping that induced the flow. Well, it happened twice in succession...
Consider the importance of this spring to the process of bagging the Big Four (Samon, Madulce, Big Pine, and West Big Pine). The process of summiting these peaks requires considerable energy expenditure and generally results in large quantities of water loss from the human body, which must be replenished. After all, this trip involves some 48 miles with some 9000 feet of elevation gain, much of it while lugging overnight equipment. Without this spring the average peakbagger, on an average April day, would need to tote some 2 to 3 gallons of water (16 to 24 lbs), instead of 2 to 3 quarts, up to the spring and beyond.
Our intermittent water flow situation occurred in early Spring. One might worry that the flow in late Autumn might decrease to zero, and a hiker would need to resort to drinking the awful soup that might linger in the bottom of the tank after cooking over the Summer. Warning enough.
The six hikers included also (HPS membership and social chair) Laura Joseph, Zobeida Molina, and (Bill T. Russell trophy winner for 2000) Maggie Wilson. Our plan was to conquer the Big 4 in 2 days, rather than the more usual 3 days. I planned to camp overnight at Madulce saddle or Alamar station after bagging the Big Pines, then climb Madulce and Samon the next day and hike back to the cars that evening. This we proceeded to do, without serious problems.
There was one problem. Maggie the Merciless managed, by the end of day 1, to turn the bottoms of her feet into a mass of blisters. "But I've never had a problem with these boots," she muttered as she applied, belatedly, massive quantities of moleskin. The boots appeared to my examination to be in fine condition, leading me to suspect that it was the fast hiking, some with heavy loads, that caused the problem. Despite the extreme discomfort, masked somewhat by a liberal intake of Ibuprofen, Maggie the Determined refused to leave "orphans" and got all four summits.
Oh yes, there was another small problem. Mighty George Wysup, some might say carrying an excess of avoirdupois, was transformed into the limping, pitiful group slug by the end of day 1. He was feeling much better after a night of rest and was strong enough for Madulce on the morning of day 2, but was almost conquered by Samon in the afternoon heat. Only sheer will power got him back down the road to the cars -- last of the group to return.
Speaking of Samon: This peak, difficult enough at best, has transformed itself into a monster. On my first ascent, in April of '99, the climb was not really all that difficult because the path was easy enough to follow (thanks to Mars Bonfire's route finding). Last May the route had become hideously brushy. This trip was even worse; the most brushy part was the last half since most hikers who intend to do some maintenance run out of time and inclination halfway to the summit, drop their tools, and just go for it. The (6?) miles from Chokecherry spring took us just shy of 6 hours to complete.
Consider the current peak guide for Samon. It states a round trip mileage of 23 miles with a round trip gain of 3400 feet, all in a time of 10 hours. No way! First of all the round trip to Chokecherry is 19 miles. Add 6 round trip miles to Samon and we have 25 miles, not 23. Worse, consider that the round trip elevation gain to Chokecherry is about 2700 feet (including undulations). Following the ridge to Samon and return is (at least) a quite difficult 1700 feet gain. The result is 4400, not 3400, feet.
The time for a conditioned hiker with day pack to hike the 9.5 miles to Chokecherry and return would be about 8 hours. The same hiker might take an additional 6 hours to summit Samon and return. The total is 14 hours, not 10. Consider that peak guides should be intended for the first time hiker. Route finding errors are a certainty, and might add at least another hour. The hiker must take extreme care NOT to be on Samon after dark. Such a situation could be life threatening. Warning enough.
We took the new route not yet mentioned in the guide. This ascends from the road at an obvious gully that starts about 1/4 mile north (back toward the gate) of Chokecherry. This gully is not nearly so steep as the old route and is much safer. At a point where this gully gets tricky, turn left and zig zag up the slope to the ridge line. Be sure to mark this location with a cairn or tape (removing the tape on the return, of course). Continue about 200 yards to the top of the old route gully. Continue to the summit (see peak guide description) and return the same way.
In case you would like our statistics for future trip planning,
Day 1 statistics
Start hiking 6:00 a.m.
Arrive Chokecherry 11:15 a.m.
Madulce saddle (camp) 12:00 n
Depart for Big Pine 12:30 p.m.
Big Pine Mtn 2:30 p.m.
Arrive West Big Pine 4:00 p.m.
Return to camp 7:00 p.m.
Total time, miles, elev gain: 13.0 hrs, about 25 mi., 5300' gain
Day 2 statistics
Start hiking 6:30 a.m.
Arrive Madulce 8:15 a.m.
Return to camp 10:15 a.m.
Arrive Chokecherry 11:00 a.m.
Depart for Samon 11:40 a.m.
Arrive Samon summit 2:00 p.m.
Return to Chokecherry 5:40 p.m.
Return to vehicles 10:15 p.m.
Total time, miles, elev gain: 17.7 hrs, about 23 mil, 3600' gain.
Note: the times include resting, eating, and changing packs.