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McKinley Mountain, Santa Cruz Peak, San Rafael Mountain

2 February 2003

By: George Wysup

The BIG 3 in a (Long) Day

Zobeida Molina mentioned that she had an "orphan" in her quest for HPS immortality (finishing The List). This is a serious orphan - Santa Cruz Peak. Well, hey! I "need" the BIG 3 (Santa Cruz, San Rafael Mtn, and McKinley Mtn) before I can finish list #5. The weather has been weirdly hot and dry. Let's for for them!

It turns out that Zobeida was not alone in this orphan problem. It seems that the Sespe Group, unlike HPS, is not fodder for a psychiatrist; they couldn't care less about any lists. Can you imagine? So, they schedule hikes like McKinley Mountain -- without regard for the other parts of the BIG 3. We added Tom Connery, John Meehan, and Pat Brea to make a strong enough Gang of Five.

The forecast was for sunny skies and pleasant temperatures. So it was almost a foregone conclusion; the peaks were in the bag. The "sunny skies" turned out to be correct. The "pleasant temperatures" finally arrived at noon. Well, here's the story.

We arrived at the trailhead at Cachuma Saddle early Saturday evening, meeting cool temperatures and a rather stiff breeze. Since we were to arise at 0230 we dosed up with our favorite sleep-inducing drugs (beer and melatonin for me, benadryl for others, perhaps something else which I choose not to be aware of) and retired early for sweet dreams of conquered peaks and finished lists.

Meanwhile the wind picked up velocity and, by wending its way through tree limbs, it created a notable howl. Another effect is that the stiff breeze interacted with the walls of a tent, inducing an undamped vibration mode in the agitated cloth that generated notable sound waves. In short, this hullabaloo interrupted any sleep that may have been forthcoming.

Sleep or no sleep, at least we got some rest. We arose to find that the wind was strong and chilling, but not so stiff that we couldn't stand and walk. Off we went, initiating the big adventure at 0311.

Except for being pummeled by a few gusts at some unsheltered saddles, the winds were not a deterrent. I convinced myself and the others that the breezes would soon abate. I considered the chance that the opposite could happen, and that we could all be blown down to Lake Cachuma. Not wanting to appear the wimps, we pushed up the road in the moonless night, guided by a few milliAmps of electric current forcing a dim white light from tiny diodes focused into a beam by a metallic parabolic reflector. The stars were spectacular. John pointed out a bright Jupiter at its closest approach to Earth. Venus rose on the horizon.

We reached Cold Spring at about 7 a.m. after 8.2 boring miles (the peak guide says 7.5 miles) on the fire road. The spring lived up to its name. Our fingers were freezing in the ultra cold air draining into that gully as we clumsily pumped water from the covered tank. We trusted the reservoir's cover to keep critters from falling in and contaminating the water.

The normal flow into the tank had diminished to a slow drip-drip-drip, barely compensating for evaporation. This could be a sad sign for Spring at the spring. In the shade of McKinley's north side were sparse patches of old snow, frozen solid.

Onward to Santa Cruz! We ascended the 0.7 miles to McKinley Saddle and cached some unneeded weight. I became the bellwether since I (presumably) knew the route; or perhaps this had to do with the tick I flicked from my pants leg. We were sheltered from the wind by San Rafael's bulk until we reached the ridge at 5800', where the wind buffeted us again. At least the sun was up and its rays warmed us. Our attitudes improved and we could see our destination.

From a distance I pointed out our route to the cherished summit; follow the road around the east side of penultimate bump 5484, then turn back westward, over the top of 5484 to saddle 5240+ below the east ridge of Santa Cruz. Then, rather than follow the original route westward along the old (now horribly overgrown) road to the west ridge, we would make a direct assault up the east ridge through the scrub oak forest, climb the class 2 sandstone outcrops, and bushwhack the final 100 meters to the summit.

When we arrived at saddle 5160+ just northwest of bump 5484, we noted that a primrose path through the brush barrier had magically transpired, seeming to lead directly to saddle 5240+, bypassing 5484. We took it; it went just fine! This little shortcut eliminates about 3/4 mile and 500 feet gain from the round trip. Naturally, this path will become overgrown without persistent grooming, but this is also true of the longer route around 5484. I should say at this juncture that (as an experiment) we returned via the older route, and it has become severely overgrown in the (dry) year since I last visited. This suggests a principle: If all paths need grooming, groom the shortest one.

We then found, in clambering up the east ridge toward the summit from saddle 5240+ that someone (I know who) had done considerable route-building, pretty much following the path that I took a year ago. A passage through the scrub oak was open and a plethora of ducks guided the way through the rocks. This route now is, without a doubt, the route of choice to the summit. It is both easier and more interesting than the old route.

The rest of this saga is anticlimactic. The snow that often blocks the trail to San Rafael was trivial after the many days of winter warmth. The northeasterly winds blew away all traces of atmospheric contaminants and blessed us with a rare combination view of the Channel Islands and the snow capped Sierra Nevada.

All 5 of us bagged all three summits, needed or not, in order to experience the true BIG 3 day hike adventure. We returned to the trailhead at about 8:40 p.m., hiking more slowly than when we started. Tom was actually falling asleep on his feet, due more to lack of caffeine than energy depletion. After all, it was at least 30 miles and 7300' elevation gain that we old folks did in a single day.

Note: Zobeida tells me that her Sespe Group leaders on her 2 previous hikes to McKinley saddle shortcut the road (1/2 mile vs 2 miles) by going up and down an old firebreak whose bottom is at 3350', about 3/4 mile from the trailhead. It leads directly to the same road at about 4100'. We opted not to do this in the dark.

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