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San Rafael Mountain, McKinley Mountain

10-11 November 2001

By: Karen Isaacson Leverich

The Big Three, er, The Big Two?

Leaders: Byron Prinzmetal and Mars Bonfire

And then there had been our earlier backpack, not nearly as magical, not as successful, but strangely satisfying in its own way: the weekend before Villager and Rabbit Peaks, we had tried and failed to do the Big Three. It went kind of like this...

Brian and I had no clue how long it would take to drive to Cachuma Saddle, but did know Mars Bonfire was collecting several hikers at Sylmar at 7:30AM, so timed our departure so we'd be roughly synchronous. En route, we received a series of calls from Byron Prinzmetal on our spiffy new cell phone, hinting (I think!) that he wanted us to talk him out of the trip entirely: "Rain! Rain! Rain! It's going to rain all weekend! Are you sure you want to go through with this?"

Well, I'm a bit of a Pollyanna, and had already crawled all over the Web, trying to make sense of the various weather forecasts. The problem is, forecasts tend to be tied to cities -- Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Fresno. You get the drift. =Not= to Cachuma Saddle or McKinley Springs Campground or Santa Cruz Peak. Plus, I'm not sure the meteorologists really have much of a handle on the microclimates of our mountains, anyhow. But I'd attempted to interpolate and extrapolate and rationalize, and really did think (from personal experience with the forecasts for my local mountains here in Pine Mountain Club) that there was a good chance the first storm would be a no show, or, even if it did happen, it wouldn't be too nasty. The one on Monday sounded bad, though. So Byron's proposed revision -- hike in and get the two easy peaks on the first day, get the third peak on the second day and scurry out -- sounded like a winner. We could sit out the first storm overnight (if it happened at all) and be gone before the second, doing all our hiking in good weather.

Yeah, sure, right.

But the plan did work out for awhile. Led by Byron, swept by Mars, our group (Pat Arredondo, Winnette Butler, Joanne Griego, Barbara Guerin, Brian and Karen Leverich, and Roy Randall) headed up the recently graded road. The temperature was pleasant, the views lovely (though the clouds creeping over the seaside foothills seemed a tad ominous), the route definitely easy to follow if a bit serpentine at times.

Brian pointed at a road in the distance steeply cutting across the face of a mountain, and wondered if that was our road. It looked a long climb to get there, and sure enough, that was our road. The good news is that by the time we got there, we were basically all the way up. The road wraps around the shoulder of the mountain and undulates gently for, oh, maybe another mile through a skeletal forest of dead trees, reaching whitely up through the chaparral, and suddenly ... the campsite. The bad news was ... it was a long climb to get there.

Because we'd all been aware of the probability of wet weather, we'd come fully accoutered. Most of us had tents, including Mars. Mars, Brian and I set up our tents in an open area, everyone else up under the trees. (I can't speak for Mars, but I wanted to be in the open because storms made me real nervous of deadfall.)

It was getting late, so we didn't know if there'd be time or energy for two peaks, but certainly enough for one. Byron and Mars conferred, and all of us except Brian (the trip up had taken more out of him than expected) headed up the road to McKinley Saddle, then left up an easy trail towards San Rafael Mountain.

It was getting towards dusk when we were startled to meet not one, but two hikers descending from the peak. No, not Ron Zappen, but the nearly as ubiquitous George Wysup and Laura Joseph. Wisely eschewing a probable campout in the rain, they had opted to power through all three peaks as a day hike. This had been their third peak -- success! Impressive! They still looked strong, which was a Good Thing, as several miles still separated them from their cars, and it was going to be a bit of a race to beat the rain. (See George's write up of their trip -- they made it out in time, although just barely.)

When we got back to the saddle, I lobbied for doing McKinley Mountain, too ("I'd rather do it in the dark than in the rain!") but I think I was a minority of one. Everyone else yearned for dinner and warm sleeping bags.

By 8:30 or so, we were all snug in our beds, our food safely stashed in bear canisters. As if the bears would be out in the weather that was about to hit us -- I'm sure they had way too much sense and stayed in to watch TV that evening. Because, seemingly mere minutes after we crawled into our tent, here it came: at first, just a few sprinkles, but eventually it was as if someone were spraying our tent with a hose. In the distance, we could hear the wind gathering, then closer and closer, and wham! We peeked into our vestibule and found a river running through it, so hauled everything into the tent, and settled in for a long night.

Good news -- our tent didn't leak. Silly news -- the floor got wet anyhow, because one of the water bottles in my pack leaked. Annoying news -- condensation can drip onto your face and make you paranoid your tent is leaking even when it is not.

6:30AM or so. The wind seemed quieter if not completely gone. Water still spattered against the tent, but maybe not as energetically as before. A beautiful tune was whistled nearby, "Oh what a beautiful morning! Oh what a beautiful day!" I couldn't help it, I had to laugh out loud. Mars (who else could it have been but Mars?) wished us a good morning and reported that the rain had pretty much stopped, we were just sitting around in a fog bank.

Hmmmm, so maybe Byron's Plan B was still a go? That is, bag the two last peaks in this window between storms, and then hike out. Though sunshine would have been a more auspicious sign than drippy fog, for sure.

Plan C evolved -- we would go do McKinley, even if it were raining, but only do Santa Cruz if the sun came out or at least if things cleared up a bit. We left our stuff set up (so we'd have a place to warm up and dry out, if necessary) and headed back up towards the saddle.

A problem with saddles is that they funnel the wind. A problem with funneled wind and soggy fog is, well, you can guess: it's wet and cold and nasty. I'd been right the night before, even if no on had listened to me: climbing McKinley in the dark would have been oh so much more pleasant than doing so in the rain. Yuck!

But we did it! Two down, one very difficult orphan to go. But the weather was sufficiently uncomfortable that we all concurred with Byron and Mars' decision to call it done and hike out. Some other day, some other way, we would tackle Santa Cruz. When and how remains to be seen. (Byron may be able to get a key and we can drive up to McKinley Springs, in exchange for some volunteer pruning. Sounds good to me. Fingers crossed!)

Having decided to go, it was important we do so quickly. "Half an hour!" insisted Byron. But Brian and I were totally new to our gear. Putting each item back was a puzzle -- did it fold this way or that? How could we squeeze out the water? Etc. etc. I think it took us an hour to get everything dismantled and packed away. Mars waited patiently, but how mortifying! Oh well, maybe with practice we'll meet Byron's standards. One disappointment, though: everything was sopping wet, so our packs weighed more rather than less than they had on the way in. Boo!

At first, I found the hike out to be quite enchanting. The wind had died down, as had the rain, and we strolled through a misty forest. Where the dead forest had been skeletal the day before, white branches against blue sky eerily reaching through the chaparral, today they were dark with moisture against white fog. Eerier still.

We were only a few miles on our way, though, when we made an unhappy discovery. Take one dirt road, add liberal quantities of rain, and what do you get? Sigh... Mud. Sticky, slippery, gloppy, annoying mud.

Joanne, Winnette, Brian and I were hiking roughly grouped together when we found the stuff, and marvelled at how quickly it could build up on our boots, and how difficult it was to remove. There had to be a better way, we were sure. So imagine our disappointment when Mars joined us and we discovered there was no Martian magic for dealing with mud -- he was stuck slogging through it just like the rest of us. Actually, he had it worse: those size 13 shoes of his have more surface area so can carry even more mud. Lucky Mars!

Barbara had been one of the few who had successfully met Byron's 30 minute packing deadline, so was somewhat ahead of us. But we knew she was in some kind of trouble -- we found a tent stake here, a tent pole there, her poncho in a bush further down the trail. We assumed a zipper on her pack was open, nothing worse, so were dismayed to find her sitting on the road bank, covered in mud, her pack a shambles. Here we were, being grumpy about mud sticking to our boots, when in Barbara's case, it had made her totally lose her footing and take a nasty fall.

Mars helped her get reorganized, then we walked out with her as a group for that last seemingly endless mile or two. Who says the weather has no sense of humor, though? By the time we reached the cars, the sun had come out, the skies had cleared, the views were lovely. (Still, it's good we were out -- the storm that slammed in the next day really was a doozy.)

Byron proposed we celebrate our successful escape with some good seafood -- he knew a place in Ventura that turned out to be delicious albeit hard to find (at least if you take the wrong exit.) Pat, Joanne and Barbara all had delicious looking fish and chips. Byron, Mars and I opted for halibut, salmon, and catfish, while Brian had an interesting chowder in a loaf of sourdough. I wish I knew what the place was called or where to find it, because I'd sure as heck like to eat there again sometime.

Such as ... after we (someday) successfully return and deal with that orphan we all have. Santa Cruz Peak, here we come??? (Hey, and we can all celebrate Barbara's list finish while we're there. I can't wait!)

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