Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Land of the Lost

One of my favorite day hikes in the Los Padres Nat'l Forest starts above Fillmore and descends into a small watershed called Tar Creek. I hiked down there today just to relax in the sun and be by myself.

The hike isn't all that difficult and the scenery isn't very spectacular, at least not until you get to the area I call the "Land of the Lost". This stretch of canyon is unique in my So. Cal. wanderings and I've gone there at least twenty-five times.

The main highlight of Tar Creek is the four-tiered swimming holes that remain cold and clear through early summer. Some of these holes are deep enough to dive into head first from 20 ft up. The first hole has it's own 8 ft waterslide. The second hole has a waterfall that doubles as a shiatsu massager. The third is actually several small tubs and the bottom pool is a 80x30 ft swimming pool.

In the spring, especially, one can catch water-snakes and turtles. Other wildlife I have spotted from the trail include deer, snakes, swallows, wrens, ravens, hawks, a fox, a bobcat, a coyote, an owl, California condors, and even a ringtail cat. He was a cute little guy with huge eyes and ears, and a tail that was longer than his body. One time I was filling up on some water and a couple of seconds went by before I realized I'd parked within an arm length of a healthy pacific diamond-back. You want to see a man jump...

The trail is all uphill on the way out, and after leaving the creek, is waterless chapparel. There are very few trees and little shade. Spring and summer temps routinely surpass 100 degrees. I look at that hill as a kind of time-trial, to gauge my fitness. About halfway back to the trail-head lives an otherwise uninteresting scrub-oak tree that I've pruned over the years in order to cultivate one last shady stop for those really hot days. I've trimmed away all the branches up to head height on the NNW side of the tree. The results are quite satisfactory. I think I'll build a stone bench there.

Numerous other and greater discoveries abound in Tar Creek Canyon and I think I know most of them, but I won't share unless you go with me. Sometimes the inquisitive mind reaps the greatest rewards.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lost Arrow Spire, Yosemite, 1994

There are climbing routes in Yosemite that are unique, their like not to be found anywhere else. From the massive monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome to the desperate overhangs of the Rostrum and Astroman, climbing in Yosemite is adventurous, scary, and big. By 1994 I had done a number of routes in Yos, but there was one climb that I had always wanted, Lost Arrow Spire. The Lost Arrow isn't technically that difficult or long, it's the novelty of it that got to me.

Lost Arrow Spire is a pinacle of rock that stands alone, detached by 70 feet from the Yosemite Falls headwall, it's pointed summit looking down almost 2,000 vertical feet to the valley floor. Standing on it's summit is as airy a place as any in the U.S., but that's only the halfway point, you still have to get back to the headwall and terra firma. Enter the Tyrolian Traverse. Named for the pinnacles of rock in Italy where alpinists first devised it, this is an ingenious technique for getting from one hard place to another. The Tyrolian involves lots of rope and is only possible when another peak of equal or greater elevation is in relatively close proximity.

For the Lost Arrow, the climbers must rappel over 200 feet from a tree on the Yosemite Falls headwall down to a notch that connects the headwall to the Lost Arrow Spire. From there, the climbers have to ascend the Spire while dragging the rope still attached to the tree. Once on the summit, the rope from the tree is pulled tight and fixed to the summit of the Spire, connecting the headwall to the summit. Then the less intelligent of the climbers traverses that rope across almost 2,000 feet of air to the headwall while draging a second length of rope, which is then tied to the first, creating a loop, which can then be pulled from the headwall to retrieve all the rope. The second climber to cross the Tyrolian invariably feels a bit more secure because he is attached to two ropes instead of just one, though the difference is mostly psychological. It is advisable to do the Traverse in sunny and mild conditions, which is, of course, not the way we chose to do it.

The day we climbed Lost Arrow, we got a late start and didn't rapell to the notch until late afternoon, and the climb to the summit took us longer that the guidbook implied it would. The wind got worse through the evening. The sun set and the temperature plunged. We were in shorts, and I was the only one with a headlamp. We were hungry and cold, and the wind was so loud that we could barely hear each other. Naturally, we didn't reach the summit until the night was pitch black.

One of the guys I was with suggested we rapell back the way we had come and ascennd the ropes back up to the tree. Between the cold and the wind I had gotten pretty frustrated, and that just pissed me off. All I knew was that my last cigarette was in my pack at the base of that damn tree just 70 feet away, and I tied into the rope, left the only headlamp with those two, and stepped into space. By the time my weight had really settled onto the rope I was bouncing around in the wind, working my ass off to get across in a hurry. No sir, I was was pissed off, cold and scared. I felt like I was tied to the mast of a little boat being bounced around in a sea of blackness. My only points of reference were the lights of Curry Village in the valley below and the headlamp on the summit behind me. I felt really alone and struggled to overcome my fear and keep going across. Sometimes I closed my eyes, and when I did I imagined sitting under that nice old tree happily smoking my last coffin-nail. And before too long that's exactly where I was.

The other two guys had left a whole rack of gear on top of the Spire and in the morning somebody had to go across to the summit, get the gear, and come back. Those two guys displayed a distinct lack of interest so it fell to me, again. I thought, "Hell if I'm going to go through what I did last night without pictures to prove I was there!". I handed the other guys the camera. The Tyrolian was actually fun in daylight. I kind of enjoyed myself.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving memory

Today is Thanksgiving 2008, well, not for millions of turkeys, but that's beside the point. Turkeys taste good and are not intelligent enough to organize a revolt against tradition.

I have a favorite Thanksgiving memory. For several consecutive years I spent Thanksgiving at Joshua Tree National Monument, usually taking a friend along for the weekend. In 1993, Scott Cattanach and I arrived at Hidden Valley late wednesday night and planted our tent in the brush behind some guys' suburban. We took a midnight jaunt in the desert, marveling at the night sky, the crisp air, and our high-grade smoke.

The next day, Thanksgiving, we climbed a little. It turned out that Scott didn't seem to think that clinging to a cliff by his fingernails wasall that much fun. I did not know this about him. Got to hand it to him though, not only was he open-minded enough to try, but he knew how to assert himself. So we hiked about and saw lots of cool desert stuff. I don't recall what we made for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it had mushrooms in it. I don't know. It was crystal clear and frosty when we sacked out.

I woke up slowly, warmly. I gradually became aware that the morning was absolutely silent. Scott was stirring next to me when I noticed that the roof of the tent was more dark than usual, and that it sagged a bit, as if weighted down. A little confused, I unzipped the tent, rolled onto my belly and, looking outside, saw almost a foot of gorgeous champagne powder blanketing everything. I was stunned. I had seen snow in the desert, but this took my breath away. I know Scott felt the same.

Well we got up. Neither of us had brought real cold weather clothes, but that didn't keep us from sliding around in the snow like little kids. The rock formations of Hidden Valley look even more surreal under a blanket of white. Under grey skies, with snow still falling, the joshua trees and chollas looked like spiky snow puffs protruding from a white plane.

We couldn't resist the urge to drive around and see more of the park. We piled into my little crap car and went slipping and sliding out to Barker Dam. The sight of all that snow on the desert blew me away. We pulled a couple of donuts in the Barker parking lot, in front of a ranger, before zipping over to Real Hidden Valley for more fun.

That was a really special memory, never mind that it happened to be Thanksgiving. Maybe at Christmas I'll describe the moose-meat spagetti that was the yule supper of 2004, dished up in the Life Is Good Camp.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The American Southwest in 1997

The American Southwest has always been a playground for rock climbers. I spent much of the 1990s tramping around the deserts of southern California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and even spent two seasons climbing outside of El Paso. The allure of desert climbing isn't just in the many types of stone, nor is it entirely explained by the fantastic formations to be found there. I think it's about space, mystery, and the absence of distraction. Those elements were the real reasons I, and people like me, went to the deserts to climb instead of somewhere else.
The desert uncomplicates a complicated existence. The clear skies with miles of unobstructed views, the inky-black night skies, the silence of morning, the capricious winds scouring jagged sandstone monoliths in an ageless desert force one to contemplate something bigger than themselves. I treasure those times. They got me through the turmoil of my twenties and clarified my priorities.
Most of those adventures I shared with a true friend-for-life, Robert Hamilton. I should also mention his dog, Buddy, who I hold in higher regard than many of the people I know. Now, I could launch into some hilarious and alarming stories about guns, strippers and alcohol-feuled misogeny but I don't think either of our wives would appreciate that. Suffice it to say that we didn't just climb. But mostly that's all we did.
We had numerous adventures in so many places, but one location stands out. Hueco Tanks in the great nation of Texas. 1997 was the last year that Hueco Pete still personally ran his shabby store. It was the year that the Texas Parks law-enforcement started to drop the nightstick on climbers, and the showers in the park failed. I recall being irritated because for several days I could barely climb the silly boulder problems I attempted, being so unfamiliar with the gymnastic style of bouldering required for even modest success at Hueco. But I learned.
Before a couple of weeks had passed, we were climbing stuff that neither of us had considered to be in our range. Hell, we got ambitious! We could scarcely abide the boredom of rest days, but they were a neccessary evil to prevent injury. I got my first tattoo at a shop outside the army base on one such day. I look back on that season with absolutely first-rate fondness. Rob, Buddy, and I made a hell of a team.
Rob, if you think I should write about the drive-in theater, or the Las Vegas incident, or the Kingman detour or other acts of mischief let me know.
The above Hueco Tanks photos in order:
Robert on "Creamy"
Dave on "Hobbit in a Blender"
Robert exiting "Beer, Pizza,..."
Dave on "Starpower"
Dave on "The Norwegian Wall"

Monday, November 24, 2008

The CMH Miltia

There exists, at a hospital in a modest seaside town, a group of individuals known collectively as the CMH Militia. Several times a year, these unasuming drones of the medical field shed their scrubs and take up arms (lots of big guns) simply for the benefit of stress reduction. Creating atrocious amounts of noise has little to do with this exercise, nor does blowing stuff up in spectacular fashion. No, it's really about the destruction. Arbitrarily destroying whatever is designated a target provides some relief from the pressures of working in medicine, especially if the object has some emotional or sentimental value (eg: custody lawyers, exes pets, tax collectors). These normally steady, patient men, burn through hundreds of clips, thousands of rounds in a brief flury (orgy?) of masculine self-expression. Call it "Weaponized Healthcare".

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Palisade Excursion

In 2006 I went up the East Side Sierras to the Palisade Glacier. As always, Dave Rivas was equal partner in the venture. The goal was simple: climb four 14,000' peaks in 5 days. The execution was more complicated, and had the weather cooperated, we would have succeeded. We gave it more than just the "college try".

Things went well the first two days, which were spent backpacking and snow-slogging up to the glacier. I'll never forget coming over this ridge and seeing this most incredible cirque of magnificent peaks: Mt. Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight Peak and Thunderbolt Peak. Four of those come in at over 14,000'. That night we found a sweet spot on some rocks above the glacier. We set about preparing ouselves for the glacier traverse and subsequent climb up a 45-50 degree chute called the U-Notch. From the notch we would have a couple hundred more feet of technical rock to climb up to achieve summit ridge of North Pal. Looking intently at the route we would take, it occured to me that there was nobody within miles of us. I started wondering if we were tackling this a bit early in the climbing season, but remained undeterred.

Crossing the glacier and the bergshrund was uneventful, and we started up the notch, cramponing on clean, hard snow with the sun rising at our backs. That was just a beautiful climb, but I did notice the wind picking up, gusts flying down in our teeth. The weather deteriorated rapidly. With the temperature plunging, the wind gusting strong enough to be a real hazard, and a gritty kind of sleet blowing straight into us, we paused for a quick consideration of our options. We had summitted the U-Notch and the weather had become so dangerous that descending would be hazardous, even though we had the gear and rope to rapell the 800' to the glacier. Also, neither of us were ready to concede the idea of at least climbing a couple of these summits. What if we descended back to base camp and the weather was fine the next day? What if we bivouacked on the U-Notch and the weather was good enough to keep climbing in the morning?

Given that neither of us were showing any signs of quit, we hunkered down for a thoroughly miserable night. We had chopped some body sized-ledges into a patch of snow that clung to the north wall of the notch. Dave and I crawled into our bivy-sacks as the weather went from bad to hideous. We spent that night at nearly 14,000' kicking each other, trying not to slip off our ledge, and trying not to think about sunshine and cold Coronas. All night the wind just ripped down on us and over a foot of snow blew into the little crevices around us. It was a long, bleak night.

Dawn was hazy and cold. the wind seemed worse that ever and fresh ice and snow had blown into any available surface. There was no way we could climb in these conditions. Time to call it a trip and descend. The trip down went pretty smoothly for a while until it became obvious that we had best be on a rope. On the third rappel, nearing the gaping bergshrund, the old fixed pitons we had anchored to just blew out. I didn't know what had happened until I was falling. As I was throwing all my weight onto my ice-axe I saw a big cube of granite go sailing past me and screamed out a warning to Rivas, who was below me. Looking back on it, I don't remember even giving that fall much thought. The rules were simple: warn your climbing partner, self-arrest your fall, untangle yourself from the rope, and keep going down.

When we got to the bergshrund, we were able to get out of the wind, and the schrund protected us from falling rock. I don't think Dave believed it when I fired up the stove and set to making coffee. We were reasonably safe now, so it was time for coffee and a joint. I think we handled ourselves with considerable skill on that peak. We didn't quit. We had to be kicked off it.

We spent that night drying out on the moraine below the glacier. We drank all the vodka and smoked lots of cigarettes and pot. We ate like refugees. The following morning we were hiking down the forest when we ran across some folks who had gotten stopped by the storm. They looked at us with incredulity, and something like respect, written all over their faces. That scene was replayed all the way down that trail. Apperantly the storm had been the real deal. Folks were talking about it in Bishop. And there we were, chin up, glued to that icy mountain at 14,000 feet. It was time to hit the Keohe Hot Springs.

Spring of 2005 waterfall blitz

The winter and spring of 2005 was a banner rainfall season in southern California. Creeks were flowing at biblical-flood levels and Dave Rivas and myself got a notion to hike into the 15 major waterfalls in our neck of the Los Padres National Forest. It was a hiking blitz we have not replicated since, but the memories are fantastic.

We hit (in no particular order): East, West and Middle Lyons falls; Tar Creek's two big falls; Matillaja's big falls; Rose Valley falls; White Ledge falls; San Ysidro falls; the Sespe through Piedra Blanca; and the three biggies up Santa Paula Canyon.

There were two huge events that season. Tar Creek used to have a fabulous creek-bed bouldering field full of bus-sized boulders. That place was kbnown as a destination spot for highball bouldering and it got completely wiped off the map by the floods that came down that canyon. Huge, monolithic stones were smashed to bits. We found a boulder were there was never one before, perched ten feet above the usual waterline. See picture above. The amount of energy that came down that canyon was simply astonishing.

The second big event was the complete destruction of the Ferndale trail in Santa Paula canyon. Imagine a gentle, tree-shaded trail meandering for miles up a valley. That same trail was reduced to a pulverized mess of rock that bore no resemblance to the place we knew. Rivas and I scrambled up that canyon two days after the big storm and before long our tracks were the only tracks to be found. We were the first up that canyon and, believe me, every step was a struggle. We were climbing and traversing above fast, deep and cold water. Mistakes would have likely been fatal but, my god, the devastation was an awesome thing to behold.

What I remember most fondly, though, was the pretty little waterfalls up in the Lyons Basin. They just overflowed with crystal turquoise water. Gorgeous.