Friday, July 25, 2014

A Day at the Spa: Matilija Canyon

Summertime, and the living's easy...
as long as you stay at the beach.

It's official, the year to date has been California's hottest on record, and this summer has been scalding, simmering, and scorching for those moving around the backcountry. I know I've gotten nuked pretty much every time I've been out since early June. Those that follow this page may have noted a distinct drop in activity this July. I do apologize, but frankly I'm a little tired of getting boiled every time I go out.

To this end I remembered that there is this place I used to visit too frequently, a place with tall waterfalls and deep pools, an eden of sorts. I needed the sound of running water, the splash of small falls, and a good dunking in cool, clear fresh water. Jack Elliott joined up for an easy day of R&R up Matilija way.

Matilija is proving to be surprisingly drought resistant. We hit all the spots. We charged to the falls at the top of the canyon and took our time coming out, dunking liberally in the cool creek. We both pondered this notion that it had been too long since we'd heard water, and that it seemed we were both out beating ourselves to a pulp so frequently that this gentle day of creekside refreshment seemed a gift from the creator, like a day at the spa. Since I'm not inclined to get all rhapsodic about the natural wonder that is Matilija, I'll let my photos do the talking. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Temblor Range and Elkhorn Plain

A lone tree at Beam Flat, Elkhorn Plain

With temperatures soaring to the triple digits, yet needing to get out and see something new, I decided on a driving tour of the Elkhorn Plain and Temblor Hills on the eastern border of the Carrizo Plain. The Elkhorn is very similar in nature to the Carrizo but somewhat smaller in terms of acreage, though this region feels even more desolate and remote. It is a moon-like environment right now, parched and empty.  Various routes climb up to the Temblor Ridge, most of which are narrow canyon trails twisting east from Elkhorn Road. Driving through the Elkhorn Plain with a 2-wheel drive vehicle can be done without difficulty but driving up to the Temblors and along the ridge almost certainly asks for 4-wheel. 

The Temblor Ridge drive offers spectacular views of both the Carrizo and the Elkhorn Plains and long views into the oil fields of Taft. The north part of the ridge can be confusing due to the numerous ranch roads which criss-cross the ridge. Finding Hurricane Road will return travelers to Elkhorn Road and the Carrizo. I enjoyed my driving excursion and pulled off frequently when new sights and views of note required a photo. Sometimes it's fun to explore from behind the wheel, and this route was a great example of that. Enjoy the photos.

The Elkhorn Plain and Temblor Range from atop the Elkhorn Hills.
Elkhorn Plain.

Elkhorn Road
One way to dispose of a vehicle, Temblor Range.
View from atop Temblor Ridge.
Panorama Hills and the Carrizo Plain, from Temblor Ridge Road.
Temblor Ridge.
Another view of the Temblor Range.
Deep canyons beneath the Temblor Range.
A view from the Temblors looking east toward Taft.
The Temblors.
Descending Hurricane Road into the Carrizo.
Soda Lake.
Soda Lake.
Soda Lake.

The Trans-Desert Express.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Exploration of Lower Lion Canyon

Lower Lion Canyon from the crest separating Branch Canyon and Lion Canyon.
Another day in the Los Padres furnace, this time on the north (Cuyama) side of the Sierra Madre Ridge. For those who've correlated the presence of large rock formations and nearby water sources with the presence of rock art, the formations tumbling out of Lion Canyon might stimulate some speculatory salivation. This is how Jack Elliott and I came to find ourselves melting in the glare of a desert sun, trudging up, down, over, and under glaring white sandstone slabs in a seldom visited corner of our forest.
The yellow track describes this day's perambulations.
Somehow we were able to thread our way into Branch Canyon without encountering a "No Trespassing" sign. This involved some zig-zagging shenanigans but we just kept getting lucky. We encountered several gates which were chained but not pad-locked. Not seeing the expected signs prohibiting entry we remarked on our fortune and took this as an invitation to scooch on through with both a clear-ish conscience and no one the wiser. With lady luck on our side we drove well into Branch Canyon and began our rambling day at advantageous vantage.

An overhead view of the Lower Search Area.

With an unexpectedly good head start on the day we set out, headed further up Branch Canyon for a ways before climbing cross-country over a ridge which separates Branch from Lion Canyon. At the crest of the ridge we had a great view up and down the lower half of Lion. Well down canyon from where we stood were several collections of large white sandstone formations. Looking diagonally up canyon was another low bluff of sandstone with a nearby butte. We continued southeast across a large slope of low brush, dipping into and out of several arroyos along our way to this upper set of formations. 

The butte mentioned above.
A deep slot, cut by run-off, in the upper part of our search area.

We reached the butte with relative ease and ascended a sloping apron of rock beneath it. Nearby was a deep water worn cleft, and beyond that were long aprons of decaying white sandstone. I climbed east out of the canyon to a small rise and got my first good look at the rock jumbles spilling out of Upper Lion Canyon. From the top of Sierra Madre Ridge looking down this upper part of the canyon one gets a sense that some adventurous country lies below. Looking up from below was no less interesting. For those with an affinity for rocky canyons and slots, this looks like an exciting sort of place. Unfortunately, an exploration of this upper part of the canyon would probably be best attempted from above, descending through the canyon. Still, I'd always wanted a close look at this part of the forest. It's an impressive piece of terrain.

The formations of Upper Lion Canyon.
This is not rock art. This particular boulder was tiered with thin strata of a more iron-rich rock. As various lumps on the boulder eroded with wind and rain these strata were exposed, leaving the spectacular whorls seen above.

Returning to the canyon bottom we turned downstream. I was only late morning but the day was already viscously hot. There was little shade to be had in this upper part of our morning but as we descended toward Lower Lion Spring we encountered several large and lush cottonwoods. Lounging in the shade of these beauties we let the sweat evaporate and watched heat shimmer off the surrounding canyon. The day was stifling, quiet, devoid of movement. We moved from tree to tree until the trees ran out. Given the choice of following a cow path another .25 miles down to more cottonwoods and the spring we decided it was just too cookin' hot to move further from the exits. Sometimes you just have to think in terms of self interest. It was one of those little "I want to but I don't want to." decisions.  A factor in this choice was that neither of us had read anything which indicated anything of interest at this lower spring.

Instead, we turned uphill and west, headed for a large assortment of rock formations which had looked intriguing on the satellite. This was a somewhat remarkable pile, consisting of hollowed run-offs, shaded alcoves, steep slippery slabs, jagged towers and misshapen hoodoos, pockmarked owl cliffs and shallow caves. If it hadn't been so dang hot I would have enjoyed this acreage more. As it was we were forced to repeatedly move from shade to shade, retreating from the blinding sun like some vagrant species of vampire cavemen. We did our best to poke around but our search wasn't thorough. I found evidence of a spring which had dried out, just a hollow under some scrub oak. A blue jay and some type of magpie fluttered off as I approached, and a jack rabbit bounded away from beneath the trees. The place smelled like water and I bet if I'd dug deep enough I could have produced a trickle of moisture. Still, I'm glad that wasn't even remotely in the cards. We had cold drinks on ice waiting at the truck, so we crawled out of the shade, traversed over a low ridge and completed the loop by turning a short distance back up Branch Canyon. We arrived somewhat nuked but no worse for wear.

Jack bearing the weight of the sun.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hildreth Peak from Hwy 33 via Potrero Seco [29.6mi]

I'll concede up front that this wasn't necessarily the smartest thing I've ever done. Taking "the long way" to Hildreth Peak has been on my mind for over a year. I guess I thought it would be a pretty gnarly challenge. I was right about that. 

Detail of the day's route.
What's so special about Hildreth Peak? Nothing, except that it's way the hell out in the middle of the Dick Smith Wilderness. It's also a Sierra Club Peak, and when done as they suggest, starts from the Agua Caliente trailhead behind Santa Barbara, going as a 16 mile round trip hike with 4,700ft of elevation gain. Frankly, that sounded pretty reasonable. In other words, I wasn't interested.

By contrast, this thing I'd been planning to do came in at 29.6 miles with 8,100ft of elevation gain on the day.

Elevation profile for the round trip.

I started the day a bit concerned about the heat index. I thought, "Please just let them be wrong." I took off from Hwy 33 weighed down by 7.5 liters of water and very little else. The first four miles were generally downhill into Potrero Seco. There's a hidden ranch back here, a small, family owned operation. They aren't running any cattle this year, probably on account of the drought. I think there are only two wells on the entire place. One neat fun fact about this ranch is that, on wet years the water flowing down from these meadows becomes Sespe Creek. This is where it all starts.

I did some mental gambling and left 1.5 liters near the ranch and kept on truckin'.
Madulce Peak from somewhere west of the 3 Sisters
The road down to the ranch continues south for the next 4 miles, generally climbing toward a jagged ridge called the 3 Sisters. There are some elevation losses in this stretch, part of the cumulative ups and down that were going to become the theme of the day. The road crests at a pile of weathered sandstone boulders where the junction for the jeep trail to Hildreth Peak departs Potrero Seco Rd. Here I took a couple minutes to cool down. The day was getting hot and it hadn't even gotten hard yet. I'd done 8 miles and had 6+ to go to reach the summit. I put 500ccs of water in me, left a liter in the shade of the rocks, and got back in it. Headin' west.  

Hildreth Peak is way out in the distance and a little left.
A little closer in this shot.
And again...

The jeep track heads pretty much due west, riding the crest of an arid ridge for 6.+ miles to the summit. This ridge...well, it sucks. It goes up and down an awful lot. For more than an hour I got to watch the peak get incrementally closer. I'd crest another rise on the ridge and there it would be, seemingly no closer. This up/down stuff just went on and on. Eventually I rounded the summit of another high point and before me lay an unobstructed view to the peak. Oddly, I wasn't just looking across a huge gap at it, but was actually looking down on it to a degree. Getting there looked awful, but first I'd have to lose a 1,000ft just to get under it. Why the hell had I done this to myself? Best to leave that one alone as I wasn't even halfway through the day yet. I shrugged and started downhill.

On the way down I made a mental note that parts of this descent were the steepest angle I'd been on all day, and that I'd have to somehow get back up all this. Also, the day was starting to feel wickedly hot by this time. Having bottomed out below the summit I proceeded to climb the peak. The road twisted steeply, very steeply in places. I was pouring sweat, tachycardic, and only about half way up this last push to the summit when I felt myself getting overheated. Raw heat radiated off my face and body. I crawled under a manzanita and let my heart rate come down. This was no good. One thing I did while in the shade was strip off my underwear, giving myself better venting through my shorts. Going commando has helped me dump heat before. Grim news, my gauge showed the temp in the low 90's. I needed to slow things down. Knowing that the hardest and hottest part of the day would be the return trip, I checked on my water situation. It could have been better. 

Here's where the mental aspects of this game took on a new color. I'd have to find a way to keep on the move but not push so hard that I ran too hot, which would increase my water needs. While parked in the shade I made some disciplined choices about water rationing, a big part of which was to deny myself what I and and my body most craved.  I made a decision to be the cruelest quartermaster, also denying myself food for the next several hours (digestion requires water, water I didn't have to spare). I made a deal with myself, 5 sips through the tube every 15 minutes, 8 sips on a strictly as needed basis. I'd have to work this out, but first, the summit.

I trucked up the rest of the peak at a slower speed than usual, controlling my heart rate and respiratory pattern. I rejoiced in any transient breath of a breeze. At last I was only a couple hundred feet away from the summit, with a short brush climb from the road to go. On top I opened my shirt to the breeze and took what help I could. In the summit log I saw the usual suspects, names I should have expected based on experience. It's not a lovely place, this summit. It reminded me somewhat of the top of Chief Peak above Ojai, except that from here Madulce loomed large in the north. Big Pine, Little Pine, and Alexander Peak rose in the west, and to the south I could see Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands over the crest of the Santa Ynez range. I did my thing and got out of there, not without a little apprehension for what my future held.  

View north
View west
Looking down Potrero Seco Road, Mt Reyes in the distance.

I reached the bottom of the peak and began the brutish 2.5 mile climb back up to the ridge. This climb, challenging in it's own right, was complicated by the heat. I did not have fun. I spent the entire climb walking a fine tightrope between running hot and overheating. I dreamt of anything shady but had to accept that there'd be none until I was back at the rocks at 3 Sisters. The sun bore down like an anvil, and the heat just reflected off the track beneath me. My feet felt ablaze. I held my emotions in a crushing grip. I couldn't afford self pity, nor could I cave into the insatiable urge to drink what I needed. I developed a new mantra, one which looped in my heat addled brain, "I will not stop. I will not fail. I will not stop. I will not fail". At times I felt my pace slip away from me, my soul reduced to one heavy step at a time. This ridge was trying to kill me. And it went on without end. 

Finally I hit a downhill that dropped me into the rocks at 3 Sisters. There I grabbed my liter of life and collapsed in the cool shade of a huge boulder. I lay with my back on the cool stone, completely wrecked. I put down half my water and lay back, sipping the rest of it down while my temperature normalized. At last I opened my pack to judge how well I'd managed my water on the trip out and back. I was literally down to 2 ounces of warm water. And the disciplinarian seized hold of the day again. There'd be no joy until I made it back to the ranch. I was freshly recharged, but in no way was I fluid resuscitated. I was still dehydrated, and had 4 miles to travel before reaching my next water. I forced myself to my feet and made myself do it.

Miles to go...
That water had been enough to keep me in the game. The next hour was unpleasant but I pulled it out. I made my way back to cache #1 and bolted down a liter, saving the other 500cc for the final four miles. I don't remember those miles very well, just a seemingly endless trudgery of pain, heat, and the same all consuming thirst that had been the hallmark of this hike. I was alive and moving in the right direction. I staggered up to the truck, yanked open the door and pulled an ice cold gallon of life from the cooler. Somehow I got my shoes off and turned the ignition. I'd left here 11:05 hours ago. I was only half dead by the time I got home. Want some advice? Don't do this to yourself.