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Santa Cruz Peak, McKinley Mountain, San Rafael Mountain

10 November 2001

By: George Wysup

Mystery of the Dead Mice On San Rafael Mtn

Laura Joseph opened the register can at the summit of San Rafael Mountain while I admired the cloud formations. I heard her yell, "What's this in the can?" Curious, I glanced over. There was a gray, furry little object in the can. I flicked it out. Lying on the ground now was a tiny, large-eared rodent, a California Mouse, obviously dead. It had not been dead very long, judging by the lack of odor.

We examined the nesting cans. The cover can was much larger than its associate, barely offering passage inside the can to a small mouse. Getting back out of the can was not such a simple matter. The Ziploc bag inside the can was in tatters. We reasoned that the mouse had eaten part of the bag. Either that, or Roy Randall had eaten it a week earlier when he signed in. Why was the mouse inside the can? Was it particularly fond of plastic? Escaping its natural enemies? Likely the plastic was the most nourishing food inside the mousetrap (which the can had unwittingly become) and the mouse was doing its best to survive -- to no avail.

It was 4:40 p.m. now and darkness was not far off. The sky was an artist's dream after starting the day so benign and clear. Fluffy marine clouds enshrouded Santa Barbara and Lake Cachuma. The higher sky was filled with spectacular lenticular clouds formed by the brisk wind. The sun tried to peek through, but was less and less successful as dark clouds built. We had been hiking since 3:45 a.m. at Cachuma Saddle and had covered some 22 miles by now, having Santa Cruz and McKinley in the bag. Energy reserves were dwindling.

We departed this, our third summit of the day, and headed for McKinley Springs. Hiking down the well maintained trail Laura spotted another mouse, seemingly a twin of the register mouse. It, too, was dead and intact, right in the middle of the trail. Curiouser and curiouser. We had never before seen even a single California mouse. Now we see two, separated by not more than half a mile. Why had something not eaten this dead mouse? How did it meet is demise? Death by natural causes? Massive coronary? Perhaps renal failure. Not having access to a mouse pathologist, we declined to speculate further on this mystery. We were getting anxious to get out before the weather hit.

A bit further down the trail -- people! It turned out to be the scheduled HPS outing led by Byron Prinzmetal, going for their first peak of the trip. I recognized Roy Randall on his way to his second conquest of San Rafael Mtn in a week. There was also a clutch of females: Pat Arredondo, Joanne Griego, Winnette Butler, Karen Leverich, and Barbara Guerin. Sweeping about 100 yards down the trail was Mars Bonfire, obviously hard pressed to keep pace with the others. We learned that a slightly ailing Brian Leverich was back at the springs, guarding the camp. We noted that these two small parties included 5 of the 8 candidates for the 2002 HPS MComm!

We reached the camp at the springs with the last vestiges of twilight. We watered up as we chatted with Brian, then bolted down some cold dinner. The spring was flowing fast enough to fill a liter bottle in about 2 minutes. Not bad for November in a dry year. I reloaded my headlamp with fresh alkalines and we were off for the car at 6 p.m.

Laura and I were fortunate that we didn't have to live with a scheduled hike. Our plans were flexible so that we were able to tackle the Big 3 a day ahead to avoid a threat of rain. The day hike was an ordeal (about 32 miles and almost 8000' elevation gain, a single day record for both of us), but we did not need to carry overnight gear so could travel lighter and hike faster. This was also much easier on Laura's uncooperative cervical spine. I learned later from Byron that their party was unable to get Santa Cruz because of the weather, leaving the future list finishers with a formidable orphan. Ah, the perils of November in Santa Barbara County.

We hiked easily down the freshly graded road for the first 5 miles before we were enveloped by a pea soup fog. Had this been daylight it would be called a whiteout. We actually had a problem following the road and we had to slow our pace. Then my headlamp went out. Aggravating. The light went instantly from bright to nothing, so it was not simply weakening batteries. I warmed the lamp in my pocket for a few minutes, then tried it again -- it worked! But only for a minute. Some experimentation suggested that the batteries had reached some threshold temperature and stopped functioning. Warming the batteries got them over that temperature and there was light again, but just briefly.

Then I discovered another effect. Illuminating the road from hip level instead of head level results in much improved vision in heavy fog. This compares with fog lights in an auto. Remember this the next time you hike at night in thick fog.

We reached the vehicle at about 8:45 p.m., before the rain hit. 17 hours of hiking, no rain gear required.

A note for those who contemplate climbing Santa Cruz. The usual route takes the climber along an old road that traverses Santa Cruz' north side to the west ridge, then up a ducked route to the summit. This route is now horribly overgrown. The old road becomes virtually impassable and the ducks up the west ridge are hidden by brush. Laura and I tried going directly up the east ridge (principle: if all routes are equal in difficulty, go the shortest way). We discovered this to be quite brushy, but no worse than the road. We were able to avoid much brush by clambering some class 2 sandstone along the ridge. About 50' below the false summit, go around to the right (north) side to the minor saddle and continue to the real summit. There is no good way. On the descent we went to the saddle, then directly north down to the old road. This went relatively well, though the route along the road was hellish.

The road is now more difficult to hike than the hillside. I believe the reason to be as follows: The road is relatively flat, hence it tends to hold water and nutrients that course down the mountain. This nourishes the brush on the road, which responds with rapid growth. My last visit was about 6 months ago, and the interim growth of the brush is notable. Joe Young reports that, several years ago, the road was perfectly clear. Santa Cruz was a walk in the park.

During the long walk down the road, Laura must have been contemplating the mouse puzzle, and she divined this plausible theory. The mice were bagging the peak. The stronger one got to the summit, attempted to sign in, and got stuck. The other, trying to keep up, developed sever hypothermia, ran out of water, and passed away.

Epilog: I finally broke down and purchased lithium cells for my headlamp. I have had too many problems with alkaline cells in cool weather. It occurs to me that almost every time I have used my headlamp the temperature was low.

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