I have a new standard by which all of the Los Padres' evils may be measured. The seven miles from Hines Peak to Topatopa Peak are, and I've thought about the right words here, a cast iron bitch. I think I need an intervention. I keep doing things that people don't do, and getting away with it. Twenty miles round-trip, 14 of it cross-country. Fourteen hours. Solo. Deep into the blackest heart of the coastal backcountry.
Before we get any further with this I need to admit to you readers that I don't want you to do this hike. I don't ever really exaggerate or embellish when I describe the difficulties of any given hike, and I will not do so now. This ridge is bad news. It is really and truly Egypt. A bad day here could have very serious consequences. I just don't think that anybody else should do this route in a day. It's too long and way too far out there. It's a scary place, one not meant for human beings. Should somebody one day try to repeat this route, I would advise you bring an over-dose of masochism and more water than you've ever carried. And bring some Kleenex because you will want to cry. It's that hard.
|Here's the route starting from the eastern end of Nordoff Ridge Rd.|
|Ojai and Lake casitas from atop the Nordoff Fire Tower.|
I started this trek by swinging by the USFS office in Ojai to pick up a permit and the gate combo to Nordoff Ridge Rd. Papers in order it was time to drop into 4-wheel and head up the mountain. The little campsite on the ridge with the bench and fire pit was occupied by a pair of trucks so I continued up a bit further to the take-off of the Last Chance trail up to Topatopa Bluffs. I parked it here for the night, made a little fire and enjoyed the evening before crawling into the bed of the truck for some shuteye. I woke refreshed at 03:30, pounded some coffee, strapped in and got going on a day that I already knew was going to be a true test of my capabilities. I was right about that last part.
|Moonrise over Topatopa Bluff.|
|Hines Peak summit, in the dark.|
Atop Hines I decided on a little break, not so much because I needed one but because I needed the sunrise to help me continue east. Fifty feet off the east side of Hines all real trail disappears and I just didn't feel like wandering around in the brush in the dark. I relaxed a bit in the cool predawn, had some breakfast, signed the book and kept watching for some sign of the coming sun. A half hour of sitting on Hines brought me enough light that I got going again. I left a liter of water on Hines and within minutes I was busting brush.
|Hines Peak and the moon, from the east.|
With the rising sun I was able to truly comprehend what I was getting myself into. My eyes automatically tracked far to the east. That first glimpse of Topatopa inspired a moment of self-doubt. The numerous smaller peaks along the ridge reinforced those small but vocal doubts. I recall standing about 200 feet below Hines, staring east, playing out the mental math. It was not a good feeling. I reset the "doubt button" and refocused on the simple fact that getting there requires a step, followed by another one, and so on. I continued down the eastern slope of Hines, picking through the brush, not finding any animal trails that headed my way, making my own route.
|A heartbreaking view east, from 500 feet below the east side of Hines Peak.|
|Hines Peak from the east.|
After descending Hines I got in touch with my inner bear, by which I mean that I started having some success locating the more or less contiguous animal track that follows the ridge. This "trail" left a lot to be desired. None of the charred manzanita at chest and head height had been cleared. It seems that bears and deer only do what works for them. Like I say, this track never ever became a real trail.
On the way out I stuck almost exclusively to the ridge. It's difficult to get lost on a ridge, but when battling overhead manzanita it's a good idea to stay on route. After I'd lost 500 feet coming off Hines I was subjected to a series of smaller peaks, each brushy and rocky, each peak steep and rough. I just hammered through them in what became a predictable routine, climb through brush to the top of some small peak, descend through brush to the next little saddle, repeat process. It was frustrating and difficult work, time consuming, and rough. This treatment went on for hours without much variation. It was exhausting.
|Looking back west at Hines Peak.|
|A view into the Sespe backcountry.|
The morning ground on. I eventually got through the portion of the ridge that is dotted with minor upthrust peaks and things started getting a bit easier. Much of the ridge had burned in the day fire and the truly southern face of this rocky ridge hadn't really grown back the way other parts of the ridge had. This was great! The manzanita and sage were only about waist high through the drier portions of the route. Still, this was cross-country work, and tiring. I startled a few deer in the brush and watched them move down the slope toward the West Fork of the Sespe and Bear Haven.
|Bear Haven and the West Fork Sespe. Impregnable.|
After five hours of persistent effort I was closing in on Topa. I crunched across an open slope of yucca and grasses before tackling the last miserable brush pile leading to the large, rounded summit. I was pretty blasted by the time I made it to the fire tower, covered in dirt, soot, sweat and sticks. I had been unable to completely silence the voices of self-doubt. It had taken me seven hours of constant effort to reach the tower/summit. That was not good. I assessed my water situation and wasn't immediately concerned, but that nagging part of my mind had decided that I should be concerned. It was 11:30 when I reached the summit leaving another 7 hours of max effort to return during the heat of the day. I decided it was time to pay heed to the voices of self-preservation. I put myself on a water ration before I even dropped pack.
|Still endless miles to the summit of Topa.|
|A first glimpse of the Topatopa Fire Lookout.|
As you can see, there ain't much left of the old tower on Topa. Amid the debris under the tower I was able to find the old radio and some ancient fuses, but anything flammable has long since been burned. The ground under the tower is a mosaic of broken, melted glass and old nails, hinges, bolts and wires. I bent an old folding chair back into shape and sat my ass down for a bit. There is a summit register here, placed after the '06 fire. Only 5 people had summited since then, all of them using the old route up from the Sespe to get to there. Mine was the sixth signature, the first since 10/2008. I guess nobody gets to Topa the way I did.
I gave myself a half hour in the partial shade of the steel framed tower. I was really paying attention now, to how I felt and how much water I needed. I had no illusions about making my water last all the way back to Hines. I just had to make it last until I was within range of that liter I'd left up there. With all the calculating done it was time to act. I got off my ass and started trucking out of there. The funny thing about hiking ridges is that they are almost always equally hard whichever way you are traveling and this ridge is no different. Unlike while traveling on a trail or road, I could not afford to let my mind drift. Unstable footing, brush, randomly terminating animal trails, all of these had the potential to waste my time and energy, neither of which I could afford to lose. I paid attention to everything. I walked point.
|One of the many small but exhausting peaks cresting this ridge.|
As the hours passed I fell deeper and deeper into a miasma of pain and heat. I took control of my body, wresting the reins away from my more rational and pragmatic self. I drove my body to the edge. Pain, sweat, heat, and tachycardia were overridden by perseverance. I dug deep into myself, pulling stamina out of my body, offering up everything I had to that water bottle on Hines. As planned, I ran out of water under Hines. I shrugged, nothing else to do but keep going, right? So that's what I did. It was enough. I got my water, guzzled half, dumped an Emergen-C in the bottle and finished it even as I skied down Hines. I hit the trail around the time the water started kicking in. Back on a trail, happy. I floored it the remaining 2.5 miles to my truck.
|Long lost plane, crashed on Topatopa Ridge. I didn't spot the crashed helicopter that lies somewhere on the ridge.|
I need to say (again) that this is just a stupidly hard day. To put it in context, there have only been 2 times that I've started an IV on myself after a brutal day, and this was one of them. I gave myself 2 liters of IV fluid (LR) as soon as I got home.
Some of you will undoubtedly question the wisdom of tackling such a big day solo, and I appreciate that, but let me start by saying that I didn't want a partner for this. I'm very good on my own, I move fast, and I just didn't want to be responsible for anybody else. I don't see how I could have succeeded with a partner on this one. It was a cast iron bitch.
|I started in the dark, and nearly ended it that way.|