The Big Four
Privately led by Mars Bonfire
The happening place in Santa Barbara County this past extended weekend seems to have been Chokecherry Spring. Besides the HPS scheduled hike to the Big Four with leaders Byron Prinzmetal, Howard Eyerly, Sandy Burnside, Sandy Sperling, and Patty Rambert, there were also two other groups of hikers. Mei Kwan and Don Tidwell backpacked on past Chokecherry to stay at the Alamar campsite. Ingeborg Prochazka and Janet Howell in Mars Bonfire's group also (inadvertently) hiked past Chokecherry, but realized the error of their ways and rejoined the rest of us (me, Brian, our dog Eve, Joanne Griego, Kathy Cheever, and Winnette Butler).
The hike to Chokecherry Spring, nine miles or so on a dirt road, wouldn't normally appeal to me. In fact, I think I whined to Mars during the first few miles about its lack of appeal. Those of you who have yet to do these peaks, though, shouldn't despair: once you have done the first few miles and are up a few thousand feet in elevation, there are those wonderful views I associate with the Dick Smith Wilderness -- sweeping vistas, sandstone cliffs, and always the possibility of a condor sighting. By the time you get to Chokecherry Spring, the chaparral has been replaced by an inviting oak forest.
Not that Chokecherry Spring itself is an especially inviting place to stay. I understand why Mei and Don left us to fend for themselves further down the road. But we weren't out for a quality camping experience, so setting up our tents on a dirt road hanging on a steep hillside didn't daunt us. We're peak baggers! The tents were just a place to sleep.
So even though it was past 4PM on Thursday by the time we'd set up camp, Mars had no difficulty convincing us we had time to do Madulce Peak. I mean, it would be light until 8PM, and Madulce is all on trail, right? Though by the time we'd hiked the 1.7 miles, 700' gain, to Madulce Saddle, Brian had come to his senses: he and Eve turned back, getting back to Chokecherry in time to meet Byron and Howard, who had overachieved on their backpack in (they'd intended to dry camp several miles closer to the cars).
The trail to Madulce Peak is a little distressing, in that it goes downhill for so much of the time. We've learned that that means we'll have to be hiking uphill later, when we're tired, and out of the mood. One wishes trailbuilders would keep that sort of detail in mind!
Eventually, we arrived at the base of the 23 switchbacks advertised in the peak guide. After completing three of them, we were at a semi-inviting place for a break. "Half way there!" Mars told us cheerily. Twenty switchbacks later, he was developing a serious credibility problem, let me tell you!
Meanwhile, the clear sunny day we'd started hiking in had somehow gone astray. The clouds had rolled in, so instead of hiking along a wonderful ridge with sweeping views, we were instead in a misty forest. The trail is beautiful, if a bit long, and by the time we stumbled back into camp (almost tripping over Byron and Howard, who we certainly hadn't expected to find camping in the middle of the road), we were pretty tired. Hot food and especially our sleeping bags sounded like heaven!
I was up at 4AM to, you know, well, never mind. But anyway, nothing seemed unusual in the world just then, it was simply dark. A little later, I might have heard rain. And later still, what sounded like sand or pine needles or something pattered against the tent. I was too tired to engage my brain to analyze the sound, or I wouldn't have been as surprised as I was when Mars stopped by at 7:30AM or so to tell us it was SNOWING. Say what? The forecast had had a 30% chance of rain for the prior afternoon, and a snow level of 8000'. By Friday morning, it was merely supposed to be cloudy.
But of course mountain weather is always crazier than city weather. Now what? We'd intended to hike to Big Pine and West Big Pine, but they would take us more than eight miles from camp. Was that smart, with snow falling? Byron and Howard were packing up and turning back. Mars suggested we do Samon, then hike out ourselves before the road turned into an endless stretch of sticky mud -- he wasn't up for a reprise of our awful experience last year, hiking out from the Big Three through that dreadful gumbo.
Mars' problem here is that he was out with a group of list finisher wannabes. Common sense is often lacking. We huddled then approached him with a counter-proposal. Yes, let's do Samon, but then, well, we have a camp set up, we came supplied for four days, couldn't we just return to our tents and wait overnight and see if things didn't get better? We'd rather give the weather a chance to clear than give up and hike out.
Mars, it turned out, didn't require much convincing. In fact, he called our bluff and raised it -- rather than doing Samon and returning to camp, how about instead sticking with the original plan and doing Big Pine and West Big Pine? None of us were inexperienced hikers, we had good gear, the weather was supposed to clear (shoot, it wasn't supposed to be weather at all!).
So around 9AM, we were hiking back to Madulce Saddle. It was snowing harder. Mars suggested we were maybe insane. But on we went.
The original plan had been to leave earlier and reach Alamar around 8AM, then maybe hike on with Don and Mei. We obviously weren't going to make it in time, so we were startled to see them still at Alamar, eating their breakfast, as we passed by. They weren't quite ready to go, but we had a nice visit, admiring all the mod cons (a picnic table, a fire ring, a place to park our horses), before we sauntered onwards.
This was a beautiful hike, along a gently climbing road up through a fog enshrouded forest. The light dusting of snow only added to the natural beauty. The fact that it had stopped precipitating made us hopeful the day would turn out OK. Maybe we were inspired instead of insane? In fact, the sun had briefly emerged during our visit at Alamar, and Kathy and I attempted to guide it in to a permanent residence. No such luck, but maybe it would come back?
At the turn off for Big Pine, we left a big water stash. The ladies had barely finished their comfort break in the Alamar direction when, whoops!, here came Mei and Don. We hiked towards West Big Pine together for a spell (figuring to get generic Big Pine on our return), before Don spotted a mud puddle near a culvert, and dashed off, pump in hand, to stock up on water. Alamar, although incredibly beautiful, does lack one key attribute of a perfect camping spot: there's no water.
West Big Pine is wonderful. Even in the fog, the cliffs glimpsed through the mist, the pine forest, everything was exquisite. But it got better. As we sat on the summit enjoying the day, someone spotted a bit of blue sky. And almost before we were aware of it, the clouds had cleared and we were sitting in the sun. Bliss! Layers disappeared back into packs. We felt extremely self-congratulatory for our brilliant decision to ignore the snow and go for the peaks.
Heading back towards Big Pine, we put Janet and Ingeborg in front. Since they'd sailed on past Chokecherry the previous day without seeing it, we were curious if they'd similarly manage to miss the water stash at the turn off for Big Pine. The teasing was taken with good cheer, and they found our pile of water bottles without difficulty. We hiked on up to the peak, signed in, and enjoyed the victory cookies Ingeborg had brought.
Glancing at our watches, we realized we'd be back at camp well before the predicted time. Would we surprise Brian (who was still feeling a bit under the weather) and Eve (who had stayed with him)? We'd been so late getting back the earlier evening, wouldn't they be surprised to see the Mars team return without needing headlamps!
We'd expected to find the rest of Byron's group (the Sandies Burnside and Sperling, the Rons Hudson and Zappen, and the Pats Arredondo and Rambert), or at least their gear, waiting for us at Chokecherry, so were disappointed that most of them had decided not to come, but were delighted to find Patty and Ron. Now those two camp in style! They had a tent big enough to sleep eight, and invited us to join them that evening for a big campfire. Rather than doing Madulce that day, they were thinking of doing it the next, plus Big Pine and West Big Pine.
After a fine supper of instant oatmeal (somehow, dehydrated beef stroganoff just didn't sound all that appetizing), we fell asleep, dreading the much feared Samon, worrying the snow would return. But the next day dawned sunny and cold (we had frost all over our tent). There was no escape -- the famous brush monster of HPS beckoned. Spending as long as we possibly could dismantling camp, it was almost 9:30AM when we dropped our packs near the foot of the gully just north of Chokecherry, allegedly a kinder gentler approach to the mountain than the old approach up Chokecherry. Never having done the old route, I have no basis for comparison, but if this new one is kinder and gentler, ouch! It reminded me briefly of Galena, and if Janet hadn't hauled me up over an early sticking point, I was on the verge of giving up and going back before I was even out of sight of the road.
It got better. The grade gentled, and soon we were hiking along a ridge through a not-so-brushy oak forest. However, we were dreading the sea of brush we knew awaited us, somewhere ahead.
Eventually we gained the main ridge. From time to time, our way was blocked by the infamous brush. Mars would park us, and scout briefly. Inevitably, he found a simple passage through, sometimes marked by a duck, sometimes not. Sometimes there were ducks, the infamous "siren ducks", in misleading places, not on our relatively brushless route. Beware, oh hikers brave and bold, the lure of the siren ducks! Following them may lead to passageless brush or Class 5 rock problems!
One bump led to another, to another. Eventually we topped a pile of rocks, and ahead of us, across a saddle (why is there always an annoying saddle at these moments?) was our peak. Were we really going to gain Samon without a pitched battle with brush? Seemingly so, though Kathy had bled a copious amount of blood from a nasty yucca stab. Apparently that was to be an adequate sacrifice to the Brush Gods, because almost before we knew it, we were there. Winnette's lemon bars, somewhere along the way, had been transmogrified from bars to pudding, but she'd apparently anticipated this metamorphosis, since she came equipped not only with a spoon to divvy them up, but with towelettes so we could tidy up afterwards. "But they're not warm!" whined Kathy, too used perhaps to trendy westside restaurants.
It was sometime after 5PM (time does fly when you're having fun) when we were again on the ridge above Chokecherry. Looking down, Winnette and I spotted Ron and Patty near their tent. "Hello!!!!" we shouted and waved. Hey, they heard us! "Did you do three peaks?" we queried. "Two!" they responded. "We only did one!" we shouted back. OK, so it wasn't profound. It's hard to get a good conversation going when the other parties are so far away you can barely see each other!
Back at the road, we spent some time reorganizing our gear. We weren't particularly looking forward to that long hike out, but we knew that after that long initial ramp we'd seen from Samon, it would be mainly downhill. And we had our peaks! Another big milestone on the march to finishing the list was out of the way.
By 10PM or so, we were back at the trailhead, organizing ourselves into the various cars. Way too late for that steak dinner we'd been looking forward to all weekend. But never mind! Home and showers and bed beckoned. We were out a day early, we'd seen sun and rain and hail and snow, we'd hiked in fog, we'd triumphed over brush, we were the few, the proud, the peakbaggers!
Now, mark July 13th on those calendars. Maybe I really WILL finish this list!