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West Big Pine, Big Pine Mountain, Madulce Peak, Samon Peak

28 July-1 August 2003

By: Wolf Leverich

Mud Wrestling the Big 4

The first foreshadowing of what was to come happened as I hauled my gear out of the Jeep. It was Monday evening 28 July, and Karen Isaacson Leverich and I were at the trailhead for the Big 4.

"Ugggh. My gear's all wet."

One of my liter-and-a-half water bottles had sprung a leak and soaked my pack, including the map. But who needs a map? (Luckily, I'd printed up a spare and had it packed elsewhere.) Sogginess notwithstanding, we pulled on our gear and started walking the road towards Chokecherry Spring.

Three hours later we were almost there, and found a nice pad off the road for a campsite. Setting up camp took about 5 minutes, because we'd gone in ultralite with no tent, just Z-Rests and lightweight down bags. We then settled in for a good night's sleep.

Nature had other plans.

At about 1 a.m., the rain began. The rain wasn't very hard, but it was clear that the down bags were going to get soaked and useless so we stuffed them into garbage bags. We thought about hiking out in the dark and the rain, but lethargy got the better of us and we laid back down and slept in our rain gear on the Z-Rests. Sleeping bags in wet garbage bags make lousy pillows. The side of your face on the plastic gets all sweaty and stuck to the garbage bag in a most disagreeable fashion.

Tuesday dawned clear, so we hiked on and arrived at Chokecherry at about 8 a.m. The well system is blocked and the horse trough is almost empty, with just a shallow pool of stagnant water and tadpoles. We cleaned out a basin uphill and pumped water from the surface flow.

After a brief conference concerning rather to do something easy like Madulce or go ahead and get the Pines done, we opted for pain and started out for the Pines. The weather was cool for July and in all regards perfect.

As we passed Alamar, we noticed clouds were beginning to form. But we plodded bravely along, bagging West Big Pine at 2:35 p.m. We lounged a bit on the summit and enjoyed the view, then turned back towards Chokecherry with the intent of bagging Big Pine on the way out.

Nature decided we needed a shower.

Before making it back to the road, the skies opened wide and let loose with a tremendous deluge. We huddled miserably under a shrub, trying to stay dry and hoping it didn't hail.

Then the downpour ended as quickly as it started, we got moving again, bagged Big Pine, and ambled back to Chokecherry. It was clear that Chokecherry hadn't gotten socked as hard as the Pines, but our garbage bags were wet and muddy and making camp was an ugly chore.

As the sun set, its last rays illuminated yet another thunderstorm moving towards us. Philosophically accepting our fate, we packed away our nice down bags, put on our raingear, and sacked out on the Z-Rests.

Sleeping bags in wet garbage bags seem to make better pillows when you are dog-tired.

Wednesday dawned clear, we bagged Madulce, and had a nice long evening in which to pump water, cook, and clean our gear (and our muddy selves). It looked like it might rain again, but since we thought it was our last night we figured it didn't matter if the bags got wet. So we actually enjoyed the luxury of curling up in down sleeping bags.

It rained that night, but not enough to wet the down. At this point rain at night was becoming ordinary, and it hardly disturbed our sleep.

Thursday again dawned clear, and we moved fast to break camp and scamper up Samon. We bagged the peak a bit before noon and, as we lazed there, Karen looked north and brightly observed:

"The Jeep's getting washed!"

Sure enough, there was a truly impressive looking cloudburst going on not far to the north. We trotted down Samon, picked up our gear, and started out.

As we hiked north, the road went from dry to damp to muddy. We reached the Jeep as the sun set, grateful that the road never got too soft for walking. Karen and I were fantasizing in some considerable detail about taking hot showers and eating hot pizza. (Not to mention sleeping under a roof and not getting rained on while we slept.)

Driving out, the road was initially in fine shape and we rattled right along. But as we drove north down the canyon, the road obviously got muddier and washouts were starting to appear. The washouts got progressively deeper and gnarlier, until finally we came to a truly impressive one that made me glad I was driving a Wrangler.

We plunged down one side, climbed up out of the other side, and then bogged in mud. Mud with light reflectors some distance off.

This sorely perplexed me. Ordinarily, you bog in mud down in the low spots, not after you've driven back up. So, in a true Jeeper fashion, I opened the door and stepped out to get a close look at what was going on.

And sank calf-deep in mud.

Trying to figure out what was going on, I sloshed forwards through the deepening mud slide until I could see that "the light on the other side" was actually a bunch of wet stones that had slid off Fox Mountain with the mudslide. Knowing that we weren't going to make it out of the canyon that night, I turned back towards the Jeep.

And my sandals stuck. In cartoon-fashion, I went face-down in the mud.

Extricating myself, I dripped slime like some science fiction horror and staggered back to the Jeep. Flipping off what mud I could, I sat down in the driver's seat, coaxed the thing into 4WD low, and backed my way out of the mud, down into The Washout From Hell, and back out of the washout.

Too bad the Jeep marketeers weren't there. They undoubtably could have sold another 10,000 units if they'd captured on film what the Jeep managed to do getting out of there.

We drove back to the turnoff for Lizard Head and Cuyama Lookout, and Karen made camp while I tried to get the mud off of me. Making camp was a little strange. Huge beetles we'd never seen before scurried around. Drowned mice lay around on the ground. There were no mosquitos that night. It was as if all the local ecology was upset.

We slept there by the road.

And it didn't rain. It just dewed more heavily than I had ever seen before. We woke Friday morning with everything around us soggy and cold. Since we obviously weren't going to drive out, we started preparing to hike out.

I contemplated my clothes, especially my only pair of pants, with poorly masked horror. The mud had set like plaster, and the pants were heavy and stiff. Karen came to the rescue, loaning me her "Samon pants" which were a pair of old, trashed trousers she had brought along just for the Samon climb.

I put them on, we prepped our gear, drove back down canyon, parked just before The Washout From Hell, and started hiking out. The mud flow and the terrain pretty well channelized our route, and we wound up exiting through Fred Reyes' horse pasture. (Fred owns Santa Barbara Ranch, and that's Reyes as in "Reyes Peak" and "Reyes Creek".)

As we walked through Fred's front yard, he road up on a Cat he'd been using to clear the road further down canyon. I apologized for being on his land, and asked if he knew any local kids who'd like to make some money running a couple of stranded hikers back up to our home in Pine Mountain Club.

He said he'd call around, and we wandered off to look at the mud flow from the other side. It looked pretty bad and we clearly weren't driving out that day, but could have been worse: let the mud dry for a few days and we'd be able to get the Jeep out. Walking back into his yard, Fred greeted us with the happy news that nobody was available. We thanked him, and started to hike out to the highway.

Fred thought that might be quite a walk, especially since it wasn't clear that the Cuyama could be forded as they'd had 3 inches of rain in an hour the day before. So he offered us a ride and, as things happened, wound up taking us clear up to our house.

We went back with our other Jeep and got the Wrangler out a few days later.

(If you're intending heading up Santa Barbara Canyon, Mars Bonfire was there a few weeks later and reports that the road has been informally graded and vehicles other than Jeeps can probably pass.)

Lessons learned:

  • Stagnant water infested with tadpoles smells bad.
  • Sleeping on a Z-Rest in your raingear during cold downpours starts to feel normal after doing it enough nights in a row.
  • People who voluntarily take mud baths are nuts.
  • Ultralite backpacking has minor drawbacks that are seldom discussed in the guide books.

But nobody died, so it must have been a good hike! - Wolf

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